(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
(Actually, it’s only the rather artificial nature of the way we do things here on Motown Junkies which make this and My Girl seem like oases of brilliance in a sea of mediocre (or worse) releases. In fact, Motown’s late-year splurge of sub-par singles, closing out 1964 by clearing a load of clutter out of its cupboards, happened over the course of a couple of weeks, and so this and My Girl really came hot on the heels of a run of fantastic 45s. Talk about your “Golden Age” right here. But I digress.)
I love the Velvelettes. Really, I do.
For weeks now, I’ve had to look at my review of Needle In A Haystack, the girls’ Motown début proper, and bite my lip (and my tongue) because that piece only really tells half the story: the first half. By talking about that one without talking about this one, it’s like me going to a show and then walking out during the intermission. The missing half, the one where the audience gets all the answers and things finally start to make sense, is here.
In a nutshell, Needle In A Haystack is the prequel, the overture, the appetiser. He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ is the main course. It’s also magnificent.
A MATCH MADE IN KALAMAZOO (VIA HARLEM)
The Velvelettes, the least heralded and least recognised of Motown’s truly great groups, were different from their labelmates and stablemates in a number of ways. Where the Supremes and Stevie Wonder were rough-edged city kids, teens from the Detroit projects, where Martha Reeves and the Temptations were tough-skinned Southerners with chips on their shoulders, where the Marvelettes were callow suburban schoolgirls, where the Four Tops were showbiz veterans… well, the Velvelettes were college girls, smart and sophisticated characters from middle-class family backgrounds, hailing from Flint and Kalamazoo, far enough away from Motown to be classed as outsiders to begin with; their labelmates didn’t need much encouragement to view them with some suspicion.
Some of that was their own fault, too; even after their big break, signing to the label just as things went stratospheric, they refused to compromise on their educational commitments and spent most of their time away from Hitsville, travelling to Detroit for recording dates only when absolutely (contractually!) necessary, unable to tour or to join package shows. In hindsight, this lost time would prove to be gone forever, the gap to their peers which opened up in their absence ultimately unbridgeable. The Velvelettes never had a US Top 40 hit, never had an album, never really “broke” in the way their talent and repertoire deserved.
But it’s no surprise to hear that the music industry is a tough and fickle place, demanding absolute commitment and then laughing in your face even when you provide it. (And the Velvelettes themselves, still friends and still touring together today, don’t seem to bear any grudges about never having become superstars.)
No, the surprise is that the Velvelettes’ outsider status ended up playing in their favour, or rather in ours. Because they were unknown – and, let’s face it, unwanted – at Motown, where the head of A&R (their one-time advocate Mickey Stevenson) was unable or unwilling to look after them on their rare visits to the studio, they ended up being shunted to a similarly lesser-known writer-producer, a stroppy New York City loudmouth who’d been annoying the top brass with his consistently strongly-worded demands he be allowed to take over the Temptations. (The same Temptations who were currently racking up unprecedented hits under the aegis of Motown vice-president Smokey Robinson, one of Motown owner Berry Gordy’s closest friends. Dream on, mate.)
Norman Whitfield would go on to be one of the all-time greats, but at the time, he was without a project, and Motown probably figured they could shut him up for a bit if they handed him creative control of that misfit out-of-town girl group, ostensibly giving both parties an opportunity to prove themselves before moving on up the Hitsville food chain, but more likely in reality just keeping them all out of the way.
If it’s doubtful Whitfield was particularly thrilled at the idea of being told to bugger off and hone his craft on a bunch of unknowns, it’s equally doubtful the girls (who had probably never even heard of him) were impressed at their being assigned to a moody, intense guy with few hits under his belt but a growing reputation as an impatient perfectionist. And yet from such unpromising beginnings was born a partnership of real, actual musical genius.
Motown’s best writer-producers at the time put most of their focus on the first half of that equation. Norman Whitfield was really the label’s first producer-writer, a man more interested in the sonic possibilities of the studio environment than sitting up all night thinking of chord progressions. Oh, he was a quite brilliant tunesmith too, no doubt about that, just as Smokey or Holland and Dozier were excellent producers. But Whitfield’s passion for studio experimentation, making sure he knew exactly what every single button, knob and slider did on every single piece of equipment available, timing things to the microsecond, demanding intangible things like more funk and harder soul and make it warmer from his vocalists and musicians, running everyone through take after take after take after take after take in pursuit of the sound he wanted…? That was new.
So it’s understandable, in a way, that Whit would use the unknown Velvelettes as a kind of test bed, a laboratory for his ideas on where pop music was going as 1964 drew to a close. He’d do the same with the similarly-unknown Undisputed Truth seven years later, and indeed when he finally got his hands on the Temptations gig he’d do it with them too, to the point where both the group and their fans (not to mention critics) balked at him turning them into his personal plaything. But with the Velvelettes, he struck gold in a way he couldn’t have imagined.
The Velvelettes were clever enough to see what he was trying to do, and to help him make his half-formed ideas reality on tape. That much was clear right from the start. Their first 7″ collaboration, Needle In A Haystack, is a better concept on paper than it is on vinyl, where it struggles under the weight of its own ambition, Whitfield and the Velvelettes attempting to assimilate the best bits of twenty different records into one hyper-compressed whole. The idea, and this is obvious to everyone who’s ever listened to Needle In A Haystack, was to marry the driving rhythms of Motown’s 4/4 R&B-pop sound with the insouciant, sassy singalong feel of a New York girl group stomper. Doo-lang, sha-la-la-la.
Opinion seems to be strongly divided on whether they managed to pull it off. For me, it doesn’t quite work; the splicing isn’t quite right, so it remains the sound of two different songs grafted on to each other in a slightly clumsy fashion. They’re two splendid pop songs, of course, but each element of super-cool R&B-power pop ends up sucking energy away from the other, and the feeling I’m left with at the end of Needle In A Haystack is that the operation to add girl group smiles and sneers to Motown’s rapidly-forming rhythm template wasn’t a success; the transplant was rejected by the host.
THE (TWISTED) WHEEL KEEPS ON TURNING
But that’s where this record comes in. As it turns out, Needle In A Haystack was a first experiment, a tentative step, a proof of concept before the real work begins. People have taken those initial signs of success, the trappings of a great record, and so taken Needle In A Haystack to their hearts, and more power to them. But both the Velvelettes and Norman Whitfield recognised there was more work to be done, and they both set about knuckling down to do it again, and do it better. And that’s how He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ was made. And it’s brilliant.
This is an immaculately constructed record. There’s perhaps no better possible illustration of the Velvelettes’ unknown greatness than this one, not just because they’re so good here (and they are) but because they make it sound so easy.
But it’s not just the girls that make this. The rhythm bed, underpinned with a shaken tambourine that’s almost metronomic in its precision and yet at the same time filled with chitlin-circuit menace and guts, has the kind of perfection that only comes with both total genius and a lot of effort. The best horn arrangements yet seen on a Motown single (and you know there weren’t dozens of takes available to get this right – demanding taskmaster or not, Whitfield was still a second-tier producer running a session cutting a throwaway single on an unknown no-hit group), used so very judiciously, from that opening punch in the face to the blaring ship’s horn that keeps the chorus afloat to the closing rollercoaster-on-rails growl to take us out of the song, and weighed out parcel-perfect in a way Holland-Dozier-Holland could only dream of. It’s perfect, and it sounds effortless – but in a bizarre way that also lets you know it didn’t come easy, and now it’s basking in the satisfied glow of a job well done.
Whitfield also managed to bring in Eddie Holland, who he’d palled around with for a bit during his earliest days at Motown, as his lyricist, writing partner and sounding board. It’s endlessly tempting to wonder how many of Whitfield’s ideas were absorbed, consciously or otherwise, by Holland during these sessions before he went back to his “day job” with the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio, but what’s more certain is that in 1965 the rhythm tracks on a whole lot more Motown hits would start sounding like Whitfield and the Velvelettes. But there’s an argument that however excellent the songwriters and producers, however talented the magical drummers, tambourine-bashers, maraca-shakers and hand-clappers in the Snakepit, nobody ever got them to sound quite as good as Norman and the girls from Kalamazoo.
Now, this would probably still sound good without such a great band track, because the song’s a strong one, full of hooks and with an excellently whistle-able tune. (Indeed, in 1982, Bananarama proved that with a perfectly acceptable rendition.) But even though the song is good and the Velvelettes’ vocals here are superb (of which more in a moment), the true greatness of He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’…
(that punctuation is a bit annoying, though not as annoying as the spelling mistake on the label – but I digress again)
…the true greatness of this record is that all the pieces are fitted together so beautifully, it’s like a sculpture, or an intricate wood carving slotted together from many separate pieces, but so neatly and so tightly that you can’t see the joins, can’t even feel them if you run your finger over the seams you know must be there. That’s craftsmaship. That’s genius.
AND SPEAKING OF GENIUS
The vocals here are the piece de resistance. The backing voices are great, providing the exact perfect mix of streetwise sass and prim prissiness not only to carry off the Motown-meets-girl-group role perfectly this time out (complete with absolute killer gibberish scat hook, Bop bop suki doo wah da, bop bop suki doo wah, as found in all the best girl group records, which (as the girls’ last outing had shown) requires that precise mix to work), but also to sell the unique atmosphere of the song, which puts an awful lot of weight on the shoulders of lead singer Cal Gill. Luckily, she can take it, not just because she’s a good frontwoman, but because she’s smart.
The song is a story of a young woman who’s palpably not an idiot, but nonetheless falls for the charms of some wisecracking charmer who won’t leave her alone (essentially, he is Shorty Long). Cal Gill is SO GOOD at this. Her delivery is something special indeed, bringing the best of Martha Reeves and Mary Wells to the table, lapsing between singing and talking so smoothly you don’t even notice she’s been doing it – there are masterclasses to be taught just purely on the way she bridges the verse and chorus with a leap-the-stave exclamation of “Girls!” which carries the weight of the entire song – but as it happens, her acting is the real treat.
As Cal addresses her friends to tell them all about what’s happened – probably the same friends from Needle In A Haystack – we’re invited to share this story as she both justifies herself and then proceeds to make them jealous, all over a guy we never get to meet. Her knowing, arched eyebrow right at the end, the deliciously scandalous way she pronounces her words – “Ladylike it may not be / But he moved me tremendously“ – pushes this right on into my all-time top Motown records. I’m willing to bet that wasn’t even in the script to begin with. Close your eyes, you can SEE Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland cracking up in the booth as she does that. Now see if you can imagine the amount of coaching it would take Diana Ross to pull off the same kind of trick, and how wooden it would end up sounding.
Like I said: genius.
There’s nothing I’d change about this, not one single second. In this glorious year of amazing records, the very last Motown single of 1964 turns out to be quite possibly the best one yet. And I’m not actually sure it’s even my favourite Velvelettes record. Yeah, they’re that good.
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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