b/w Happy Ghoul Tide
(Written by “Ray Oddis”)
Towards the end of 1964, Motown embarked upon another concerted exercise in cupboard-clearing, resulting in a slew of dismal A-sides that were either rush-released (like the two Jerk records we’ve just seen), or things which had been sitting around for ages, or things which were only put out as favours.
All of these “problem” Motown 45s came out in one big concentrated burst, over something like a two-week span at the end of November ’64, shoved out and quickly forgotten – but that means here on Motown Junkies we get to wade through them all in order, one shoddy record after another, side after side. Lucky us.
Every source I’ve ever seen states that “Ray Oddis” didn’t exist; The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 state that between them, comedians Bert Haney and Brice Armstrong were responsible for the two sides of this record – apparently, this one’s Brice, the B-side’s Bert – and that story was backed up by Mr Haney himself here on Motown Junkies a little while ago. But Al Abrams (see comments!) has confirmed that there really was a Ray Oddis, a pseudonym for DJ Ray Otis, and their voices are identical – it’s clearly the same person.
So, that’s that mystery finally cleared up, then. But Ray shouldn’t be too proud; the result is this, commonly quoted as the worst single Motown ever released.
A vanity novelty designed to win over a DJ to the Motown cause by pandering to his ego and allowing the frustrated artist within a big break… Berry Gordy had done this before, as with Joel Sebastian’s long-forgotten Angel in Blue, or the pre-Motown efforts to woo Tom Clay. But this one is, unbelievably, even worse.
This is a Christmas novelty record; it’s meant to be a re-telling of the story of Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, relocated to “Bigtown, USA”, though what it actually reminds me of is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s also terrible.
Ray Otis has an excellent voice, probably the strongest narrator we’ve yet met among Motown’s small collection of curious spoken-word oddities – but the material is not only hammy and schlocky (obviously), it’s also really poorly written. The lines are clunky – at various points, the listener is asked to imagine what it would be like to be a wall, or a closet, or a fireplace, and there’s a startling moment where “Oddis” tells us what might have happened if you had followed (that little boy) home on Christmas Eve once the last paper was sold… You’d be arrested, I’m guessing?
It’s not just clunky literary devices that mar this, though, it’s the whole structure, the basic idea behind the record. It’s probably supposed to be a warm and uplifting tale, but it over-eggs the pudding, laying it on so thick you can’t really get involved – the music is very pretty, but unmistakeably doleful, and Ray’s dolorous monologue stops just short of asking “Are you crying yet? You’re meant to be crying”. It’s unremittingly bleak throughout, as we see dirt-poor orphan Randy in his tattered clothes trudging tearfully home from work to his tenement in the snow to look after his bed-ridden grandfather, filled with “a sad awareness that Christmas morning would be, in reality, just another morning… the crushing blow that Santa was a myth”.
Merry Christmas, listeners!
There’s a happy ending, though (I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but a load of presents mysteriously appear in Randy’s house on Christmas morning. Oh, bother, I’ve spoiled the surprise.) It’s not very important as to how those toys got into the living room – let’s just say that, maybe, there IS a Santy Claus!” Too late, guys; not only have you spent the whole song explaining how there isn’t, and how his bedridden grandad couldn’t give Randy the magic of Santa because of his disability, but if 95% of the song is unrelenting in its misery, you can’t undo it at a stroke, throwing in a sudden deus ex machina resolution whipped up out of nowhere to finish on a high note.
But its heart’s in the right place. Manipulative and mawkishly sentimental though it all is, at least it’s trying to do something nice, something in the spirit of the holiday. It’s awful, and artistically indefensible – let’s be clear on that point, this is a terrible record – and yet I can’t quite bring myself to hate it enough to mark it down as the very worst record of all time. High praise indeed.
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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“Baby Don’t You Go”
“Happy Ghoul Tide”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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