(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
I’VE GOT SUNSHINE
If it’s strange to be reaching December ’64 on Motown Junkies whilst we’re actually in August – and what’s laughably called “summer” here in Wales, meaning “the two weeks of the year when it rains slightly less than the other fifty weeks” – then it’s doubly strange to be rummaging around Motown’s end-of-year clearance sale and suddenly find My Girl, which has always felt to me like the sound of spring becoming summer. Or the sound of the month of May, if you like.
Coming across My Girl here, in the middle of a fairly ropey run of Motown sides shoved out at the end of the year when nobody was looking, it shines brighter than ever. That first bass pulse, as familiar and comforting as a heartbeat, heralds our return to home ground, a first sighting of land after what feels like months at sea.
It’s a strangely minimalist start, quiet and repetitive; as well as providing stressed-out radio listeners with a little bit of clear air and thinking space after the detergent ads have finished, its sheer familiarity now gives it the same kind of feel as the reverent hush that falls over a congregation before dearly beloved. But then that beautiful, beautiful Robert White guitar loop kicks in, climbing the scale two steps at a time like a ladder of sunlight stretching up to heaven, and you realise that this is just a great song no matter what surrounds it. And we’re only eight seconds in.
WHAT CAN MAKE ME FEEL THIS WAY?
I could write a whole book just filled with the things I love about My Girl, and still be thinking about what was left over to put in Volume 2. Just those opening few seconds are full of things that drive me to ever more stretched similes: the tiny, tiny hint of echoing reverb on those bass strings that sound like brushed drums coming from down the hall, the finger snaps that let us know we’re among friends while still making it impossible to tell just how many people’s fingers are being clicked even after two hundred listens, the benign hiss in the air that seems to swell and breathe between each pluck of the bass. But it’s almost pointless to go through the song highlighting these things, because the beauty of My Girl is that it’s a song made of highlights.
It can be difficult trying to find new things to say about these Motown “monuments”, the iconic (in every sense) songs that everyone’s already heard so many times that they blend into the background. Doubly so with My Girl, which is perhaps the Motown song that more than any other has become part of the trans-Atlantic cultural fabric; more overplayed than even Baby Love, it’s the one song where you could play pretty much any ten-second stretch and still get people singing along.
But with My Girl, that’s kind of the point. Which is why I started this review with the question: what’s the best thing about it? And the answer is, everything. If there’s no obvious high point, no moment where you, the listener, is moved to sit down and say oh, wow, it’s because the entire song is made out of them, and limiting yourself to just one favourite bit is a pointless waste.
Plus, every great moment somehow makes every other great moment stronger. Even the one relative moment of weakness – the last ascent, the final push to the summit, as we hear the I guess you’ll say… bit for the valedictory last time, being underscored by a string section that has got ever so slightly out of hand and briefly tries in vain to compete with our boys’ vocals – feels like a deliberate mistake, like a beautiful Islamic carpet made almost imperceptibly imperfect so as not to offend those heavens we’re now gatecrashing.
And still, that’s not why I love My Girl so much. No, I love this because it doubles down on its emotional impact, perhaps Motown’s best example of dovetailing form and function to emphasise both.
What am I talking about? It’s a feeling, simple to appreciate but hard to explain. The lyrics (which I’m not going to quote, but for anyone just joining us from Mars, they make up the sub headings sprinkled throughout this page) feature David Ruffin’s narrator celebrating the feelings of sheer joy that come from being head-over-heels in love, making devastatingly effective use of deceptively simple lyrical imagery. Not only do David and his fellow Temptations make us feel it too (it’s almost impossible not to smile along with his good fortune when this is playing), the song itself inspires the same kind of feeling in me: it’s exactly as cheering and warming as the feelings David’s describing, so you get a two-for-one double hit. Sunshine on a cloudy day, indeed; no Motown record has ever felt more like the perfect tool for parting those clouds.
Reading about this cold, without it playing in the background, I imagine there’s the tiniest hint of an iconoclastic rejection, an involuntary turning away from the obviousness of it all, kind of like the reaction to other ultra-overplayed Motown monoliths (as with Mary Wells’ My Guy, for instance, or the aforementioned Baby Love). But listening to this when you’re not expecting it, it’s just wonderful, something like those beautiful moments when you can actually feel the summer in the air after a rainstorm, shielding your eyes from the dazzling flashes on the wet ground even as you taste the warmth on your neck.
That’s why I love My Girl.
ALL THE RICHES ONE MAN CAN CLAIM
Poor old Ronnie White has often been airbrushed out of the history of My Girl, Midge Ure style, and so it’s worth noting Smokey was often better when he had a trusted partner, someone to mix his palette; Robinson himself has credited Ronnie with stopping him from getting too rote and cheesy when writing this song. But really, it stands as Smokey’s masterpiece to date, empirically the best song he’d yet put his name to (already a pretty hotly-contested title).
Less than a year had elapsed since the Funk Brothers had cut another majestic Smokey Robinson number, My Guy, similarly themed and similarly titled. Less than a year had elapsed since the Temptations had put months of endless, thankless, hitless toil behind them, bounding out of obscurity with another fine Smokey Robinson number, The Way You Do The Things You Do. But to listen to either of those next to My Girl, the difference is nothing short of remarkable, the band and the group both great, giant, seven-league strides ahead of where they’d been before. So it’s a foolish task to try and take any of the credit for this amazing record away from either the Brothers or the Tempts, all of whom are on the form of their lives here (not least David Ruffin, for whom this was a first single lead vocal with the group – talk about making a winning start). But if any one person deserves to be singled out, it’s Smokey Robinson.
It was Smokey who realised the mileage in writing a male “answer” to My Guy, Smokey who singled out the previously-unheralded David Ruffin as the group’s secret killer weapon, Smokey who wrote this song especially for Ruffin’s voice, riding the very edge of sweetness and sandpaper, Smokey who spent hours in the cramped, low-tech conditions of the cobbled-together Hitsville studio endlessly mixing vocal tracks down on a 3-track tape machine to make room for more ingredients, Smokey who wrote what must be the first pop hit with a string break as an instantly memorable hook – and, of course, Smokey who’d solved the problem of getting the five Temptations to sing together in the first place. To see Robinson still singing this in his live shows 50 years later, or to see him taking up half the cover of the Temptations’ second LP, the modestly-titled The Temptations Sing Smokey (above), you can’t begrudge him taking some of the glory; he earned it.
THE BEES ENVY ME
I haven’t done a full and complete count, weeding out all the doubles and re-issues, but my current estimate is that we’ll finally be done here on Motown Junkies when we reach something like review number 4150, which means we’re only one eighth of the way in. Regular readers will know that I’ll be giving just fifty of these sides top marks, ten out of ten, marking them out as my fifty personal favourites, my own highly subjective Motown 50, and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. So some people may be rolling their eyes at me wasting another precious ten on such an obvious pick. (Oh, this is getting ten, if you hadn’t guessed already. Sorry to ruin the suspense.)
But sometimes there’s just nothing else to be done. And if My Girl isn’t in your fifty top Motown tunes, I fear nothing can be done for you.
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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“(Talking ’Bout) Nobody But My Baby”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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