B-side of Pretty Little Angel
(Written by Clarence Paul)
B-side of Kiss Me Baby
(Reissued as B-side for different single)
B-side of Kiss Me Baby
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Clarence Paul, appointed to be Stevie’s first regular writer, producer and general all-round “handler” at Motown, would find himself becoming less and less important as Stevie’s career developed. As Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age got into full flow, Wonder would increasingly be recording other people’s songs (and, of course, his own songs), and Paul found that his opportunities to sit in the producer’s chair began to dry up, Henry Cosby picking up the lion’s share of late-Sixties producer credits on Stevie’s records.
It’s kind of a shame, because while you wouldn’t really want to swap Stevie’s later output for any kind of alternate-universe discography of songs we’ve never heard, well, Paul was a great writer in his own right, a vital staffer in those uncertain early days while Motown struggled to keep the lights on, and his “reward” – being assigned to, and kept in charge of, one of the label’s major acts – didn’t really work out; Stevie was in many ways the “wrong” project, as when the boy Wonder grew up, he grew in a different musical direction, eventually becoming probably Motown’s best writer-producer of the Seventies in his own right.
But don’t feel too bad for Clarence – he’d had other opportunities to work with different Motown stars, opportunities he didn’t take. The most glaring of these was when he was given the Supremes (then a floundering girl group, little-known and little-respected even in the corridors of Hitsville), and took them in a bizarre new direction which resulted in the girls spending much of 1963 recording cuts for what eventually became the unloved 1965 LP The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, and which ultimately led to this, yet another weird entry in Stevie Wonder’s early catalogue.
Other than the execrable (The Man With The) Rock ‘n’ Roll Banjo Band, which must never be spoken of again, the most noticeable track on the album was Paul’s one and only Supremes single, My Heart Can’t Take It No More. The LP also contained another mopey doo-wop blues number, a loose variation on that song: Tears In Vain.
At some point in late 1963 or early 1964, Clarence decided to dust off the song for Stevie Wonder, which isn’t the worst idea in the world – Betty(e) LaVette ended up cutting an excellent version for Big Wheel Records shortly thereafter, so the song clearly had legs – but for reasons best known to himself, Paul decided to turn this into an uncredited duet, effectively sidelining Stevie and taking on many of the lead vocal duties himself.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this. The obvious, if uncharitable, conclusion is that (like so many other Motown producers who got bored behind the glass) Clarence Paul had ambitions to be a performer himself; he’d not only cut a (credited) duet single with Stevie, the horrible Little Water Boy, back in 1962, he’d also recorded a few very fine solo demos that went nowhere but Wigan (e.g. You Stay On My Mind).
But however well-intentioned, his power grab on this song is a mistake; whether he wanted to try and get some exposure, or whether he just felt the difficult-to-sing material needed something to bolster Stevie’s voice, Paul’s high baritone ends up dominating the midrange here, inadvertently casting the adolescent, high-voiced Stevie in the role of a female duet partner, pushing him into the midst of the cooing Andantes’ background vocals and making him sound like a girl. (They actually sound more like Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells than Stevie Wonder and a supposedly uncredited, unobtrusive background vocalist; I mean, sure, you can recognise him, but I’ve got to be honest and say that hearing this cold, without being prewarned, I’d never have tabbed this as a Stevie Wonder track.)
Perhaps the song just isn’t made for Stevie, which then prompts the question as to why it was given to him in the first place. Maybe someone else could have done something better with it, or maybe it would have worked if credited to Clarence Paul instead. It’s a stronger recording than the Supremes’ version, bluesier and harder, the percussion not as forceful as it would become on LaVette’s even better take but nonetheless it’s moving in the right direction. It ends up as a single-scoop serving of pleasing low-key balladry, and it’s obviously a decent song, but it’s got less to do with Stevie Wonder than anything since he dropped the “Little” from his name, and as such it needs to be seen as a step backwards, nice enough though it is.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Pretty Little Angel”
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