b/w Our Rhapsody
(Written by Billy Page)
b/w Our Rhapsody
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Amos Milburn. Bobby Breen. Bunny Paul. Sammy Turner. And now, Alvin Morris Sr., better known as legendary crooner Tony Martin. Yep, Motown boss Berry Gordy sure loved to give recording contracts to washed-up singers alright. Especially singers with strong MOR credentials.
No credible explanation has ever really been put forward for this rather noticeable trend. My own pet theory is that these bizarre signings (and there are more of them still to come) allowed Gordy – by now one of America’s most successful black business owners, never mind one of its leading music industry moguls – to live out a fantasy.
Partly, that’s to do with there being no real model for him to follow; in the past, the men who’d gotten really rich from the music industry had been loud, gregarious, cutthroat white guys, with expensive suits, big cigars, burly goons and a portfolio full of crooners, and so that’s what Berry aimed for too. But there’s another element to it.
A wealthy, accomplished black man in a palpably racist trade (and indeed a palpably racist society), not to mention the personal awkwardness that came from being a great songwriter and negotiator but also a high school dropout ex-boxer who found reading a chore… it’s possible, even tempting, to read the entire Motown story as Berry Gordy’s own personal quest for acceptance from his newly-acquired peers, many of them born rich, most of them older, most of them white. After all, in 1964, there were still places where, thanks to the colour of his skin, he’d have been turned away from clubs and ballrooms which he could afford to buy and raze to the ground if he so chose. I can’t even begin to imagine.
In that context, it’s moot whether or not Gordy ever believed any of these records could make him a dime (although Motown was never shy or self-conscious about chasing that dime before it rolled into the gutter); rather, I see this as part of a drive for “respectability”, a gesture of both defiance and pleading aimed at the kind of old-line snobbery that had kept the Gordy family, and black America, down for all these years.
Put simply, a million dollars opened a lot of doors; being able to boast you had signed Tony Martin, that might open a couple more, score you a couple more introductions, a couple more invitations. If the record sold nothing, who cares? It shows you’ve got money to throw away (almost literally) while playing the game. Act like it’s nothing, like you’ve never been hungry, like you’ve never had to watch the bailiffs lock up your little jazz record store, taking all your savings down with it.
And if one of these records from an “establishment” reject struck it big, well, what better way to cock a snook at that establishment? If it was 2004, you’d drive by with your gold chains and your gaggle of girls and your fur coat and your great big shiny car, playing your stereo loud, flipping them off, living it up at their expense; in 1964, you’d settle for a wry smile, the tacit acknowledgement that you’d got it right after they’d got it wrong. Very hip hop, that.
Which is ironic, because most of these Motown “over-the-hill crooner” records are so very un-cool, almost defiantly so. There’s a certain quality to their naffness in some cases; Bobby Breen bounding around like an over-excited puppy, Bobby Darin full of earnest conviction, Pat Boone pretending he’s twenty years younger. Other times, the results are just an excruciating soup of turgid, overblown slop. Have a guess which pile this one falls into.
A million-selling star of stage and screen in the 40s and 50s, Tony Martin was perhaps fifteen years past his prime – and almost nine years removed from his last big hit single – when Motown brought him back into the studio. Like Bobby Breen before him, he stuck out like a sore thumb in the Motown catalogue. Albeit an impeccably-dressed Caucasian thumb.
Out in California, the 50-year-old Martin worked with Motown’s LA office and its star producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, along with soon-to-be legendary soul writer Billy Page. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 note the team’s attempts to update Martin’s sound with a pop-country vibe to match Dean Martin’s contemporary Sixties efforts, which had found commercial and critical favour. But the results might as well have been cut in New York in the early Fifties, because what’s on the record just doesn’t match up to that story at all.
Instead, this is the sound of an ageing vocalist slogging through a third-rate pseudo-show tune, delivering a strained, struggling lead vocal that manages to be syrupy and bombastic rather than vulnerable or toughened – don’t think Nineties Johnny Cash, think the last days of Elvis, only without the tragic subtext, and played on 33 by mistake.
If Martin sounds tired (in every sense), he’s not helped by the material. The song is a dud, and a creepy dud at that; it bears some lyrical similarities to Marvin and Tammi’s Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, but this version makes the narrator sound like a potential serial killer rather than a lovestruck romantic.
You won’t accept my phone calls
My notes to you come back unread
I want to make you mine again
But you make me spend my time a different way instead…
Plus, it doesn’t even scan. The bit at the end of the first couplet in the chorus (“…begging you to come! back! / And be-my-wife”) is staggeringly amateurish; if this was a show tune, it’d be written out after the opening night.
The tune isn’t much better, either – there are a few pretty chord changes to momentarily break the torpor, but on the whole it’s decidedly lightweight piffle dressed up as deeply-felt gravitas, similar to the aforementioned Sammy Turner’s Right Now in that it’s all blaring bombast and choral overdubs and emotional cues without earning any of them, going straight for a big finish but not bothering with any of that tedious build-up nonsense.
As well as being a resounding flop artistically, this was also a resounding flop commercially, meaning Tony Martin’s Motown career should by rights have been quietly given up as a bad job. Instead, all parties carried on regardless, ploughing grimly ahead with more singles on both sides of the Atlantic. Berry Gordy wasn’t about to give up his status symbol.
Whatever the motivation, it’s a dud from start to finish. One of my least favourite Motown A-sides so far (which, given that we’ve had more than 250 of them, is quite the accomplishment), this is an embarrassing mis-step for both singer and label. Unfortunately, there’s rather more where this came from.
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!)
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