b/w A Need For Love
b/w A Need For Love
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
The thing about Motown’s mid-Sixties “Golden Age” is that it creeps up on you. There wasn’t a big fanfare to mark the start, and different people put that marker in different places, but there’s no denying we’re in it now.
Regular readers will have noticed the average marks for A-sides slowly going up as the quality threshold gets higher and higher; the unfortunate Headliners aside, we haven’t had any real duffers for quite some time now, even despite a relative lack of 45s by big-ticket, marquee artists. But with this, the Marvelettes’ eleventh single, Motown begins a remarkable late-year surge, with hit after hit from the company’s top-drawer acts. Barring an upcoming run of bum sides in November (which, as we’ll see, is more a case of the label shoving out a bunch of unwanted material in one lump, rather than any kind of real trend), Motown closed out 1964 with a flourish.
Where do the Marvelettes figure in all of this? Their place as the company’s top girl group was long gone, with first the Vandellas and then the Supremes waving as they climbed past them on the Motown ladder. The hits had started to dry up, too, each new Marvelettes release greeted with muted enthusiasm, the girls clocking up worthy but hardly spectacular chart performances. And to top it all off, this song remains most famous because the group chose to record it rather than Where Did Our Love Go, thus inadvertently handing the Supremes their big break.
All was not well behind the scenes, either, Wyanetta (Juanita) Cowart having already left, Georgeanna Tillman about to follow suit, reducing a one-time six-piece behemoth to a stripped-down trio. Gladys Horton, the group’s founder and lead singer from day one, here provides the last lead vocal she’ll ever contribute to a Marvelettes A-side; from now on, the lead voice on Marvelettes singles will be the ever-improving Wanda Young.
Did the company care about any of this? The Marvelettes didn’t have a studio album release between 1963’s The Marvelous Marvelettes and 1967’s The Marvelettes, universally known as the “Pink Album” due to its vividly-coloured cover. Sessions for a mooted LP in 1964 – which is where this recording comes from – eventually came to nothing on the album front. Between that and the general lack of enthusiasm Motown now showed for its first great group, this means that their material cut from 1964 to 1966 (which wasn’t really collected anywhere until the two box set volumes of their complete albums, Forever and Forever More) ends up in a kind of no man’s land, even when there were more than enough great cuts in the vault to issue a killer album somewhere in there.
Yet through it all, damn it, these are the Marvelettes, and from here on in, in the face of near-indifference from Motown – but buoyed by the support of Smokey Robinson, who’d go on to become their champion and strongest writer – they’d spend the rest of the Sixties quietly churning out great material. Of the fourteen* Marvelettes singles left to be covered here on Motown Junkies, there’s not a bad one in the bunch, and some of them are considerably better than that. They were never forgotten, people still knew their names, but they should have been superstars. Well, if that recognition has to come in hindsight, so be it: let the drive to reappreciate the mid- and late-career Marvelettes begin right here.
* (Fourteen, because us lucky Brits got an extra one in 1969 that never appeared as a 7″ in America – for a fun bit of trivia, can you name it before we get to the end of the review?)
This absolutely isn’t the sound of a defeated group. Indeed, it’s arugably the most confident thing they’ve given us yet. A kind of muscular sass pervades this, helped by the barrelling backing track, which we haven’t really seen on Marvelettes records in the past; they’d done plenty of feisty, forceful numbers, but this is a different kind of thing, tempering anger with defiant foot-stamping. Confident is the word.
It’s a song of confidence, of course. The lyric cleverly turns the old maxim for the recently-dumped (“don’t worry, there’s plenty of fish in the sea”) into a defiant kiss-off (“There’s too many fish in the sea to waste time on losers like him“), and it’s internalised, Gladys’ narrator moving almost imperceptibly from dishing out advice to reaffirming her own independence, implying she too has just been screwed over.
But it’s not just lyrical: this is a different confidence. The Supremes cultivated a kind of vulnerability, even as they rode HDH’s bulletproof 4/4 backing tracks; the Vandellas were loud and proud, hard-edged in places, sure, but also dignified, and even at their most defiant (Come And Get These Memories) Martha Reeves’ narrator still sounded like she needed to draw confidence from the song and the listeners, not the other way around. This, though, is a complete wake-up call, the Marvelettes still approachable, game for a laugh, treating teenage romance as a throwaway fling rather than a big drama, certainly not a matter of life and death. Hey, you, snap out of it! Put down your tissues, stop cradling your diary, and go out and dance!
That it ends up the best Motown wash-that-man-right-outta-my-hair anthem since Come And Get These Memories is kind of a title won by default, but it does illustrate a new role for the Marvelettes, a space they could have occupied as part of an all-conquering triumvirate of exceptional Motown girl groups. In fact, they’d soon move in an altogether different direction than sassy, finger-snapping R&B-pop, best encapuslated by both the contents and title of their 1968 album Sophisticated Soul, but it’s interesting to see them try this out here all the same.
It’s a good song, and whilst it’s clearly not as good a song as Where Did Our Love Go, it’s almost certainly a better fit for the Marvelettes. They’d almost certainly not have had as much fun, or success, with that one, even if it did end up handing a rival group the initiative forever. (Check out Katherine Anderson Schaffner’s quote in that review as to why the group chose this song instead – they make for interesting reading.)
But this is a whole different kettle of, well, fish. There are some great moments to be treasured here, not least that intro, a descending blast of horns leading to bongos and bass behind Gladys’ spoken mission statement:
Look here girls, take this advice, and remember ALWAYS in life…
…feeding into a super verse melody, capped by the repetition of We’ve all got to cry sometime / I said, sigh sometime / Pull yourself together / No use cryin’ forever. Gladys and the girls have never sounded as good as they do here; they’re growing up, and given that this is an advice song aimed at teenage relationships (even quoting the narrator’s mother at one point!) I can’t decide whether that’s especially appropriate or especially ironic. There’s even a great classic girl group rundown with each Marvelette getting their own moment solo on the mic –
I said there’s short ones…
– which doesn’t exactly work, or make the record better or anything, but which is fun and humanises the girls so that this male listener isn’t unduly offended when Gladys throws out lines like If the fish isn’t on your line / Bait your hook and keep on tryin’.
The biggest surprise about this, though, is that the band track is so dynamic. A super performance, illuminated by growling, angry horns culminating in another splendid solo Motown sax break, it’s the sort of thing that, in years past, might have threatened to overwhelm the Marvelettes on their own record – it’s no surprise it was later prepped as an instrumental single credited to the band, with the girls’ vocals scraped off – but instead Gladys more than holds her own. All of which means we should appreciate this for what it is, rather than the lost opportunity it supposedly represents; a Supremes’ version of this would probably have been terrible.
I don’t like the tune as well as some of the other Marvelettes tracks we’ve seen, or many of the ones we’ve yet to see, which is the only reason this isn’t going any higher: there’s really nothing wrong with it at all. Probably the best-sounding Marvelettes single to date, certainly the most “grown up”, and – again – excellent.
(And the answer to the trivia question is “Reachin’ For Something I Can’t Have”. So, er, well done if you got that.)
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers (January 1965)
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“You’re Bad News”
“A Need For Love”
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