B-side of Do You Know What I’m Talkin’ About
(Written by Clarence Paul and Robert Fleming)
Another fascinating little snapshot of what’s been going on in the world of the Downbeats, the proto-Elgins, while we’ve been away following other people here on Motown Junkies.
After a long apprenticeship with no hits throughout the Fifties (shades of the Four Tops!) in various line-ups and different incarnations, most notably as the Five Emeralds/Five Sensations, the Downbeats had finally signed to Motown back in 1961 – but this was their first single in three years. Also, it’s debatable how close this one ever came to actually being released, given that it appears in no discographies, and that no promos were ever pressed up for radio. Both proposed sides here were old, archive cuts by the time of the (supposed) planned release date, but at least that means we get to hear what the guys – and at this stage, they were all guys – had been up to while the rest of Motown went supernova around them.
The answer appears to be “not all that much”. On the evidence of these two selections, apparently the Downbeats were like the early Majestics/Monitors without the catchy songs: effectively, they were a poor man’s Temptations. The A-side, Do You Know What I’m Talkin’ About, had been very much like an early, throwaway Tempts cut, the sort of thing they’d have used as a B-side, or shoved on Side 2 of their début LP as filler to bulk out the running order (or both, I suppose, knowing how the early Temptations worked). It was nice enough, quite good fun as it happens, but very much out of step with what all their labelmates were doing; if you’d had to guess, knowing it was a Motown track, you’d have said it was from 1962, maybe early 1963… certainly not 1965. Which may explain why it didn’t get as far as the shops.
Turn the imaginary record over, and the proposed B-side’s even older. This side actually predates Do You Know What I’m Talkin’ About by nearly a year, and as such it’s got more in common with the Temptations of 1961/2, all weird, unearthly chords and doo-wop harmonies and oddball, choppy tempo changes, than the Motown of 1965. In fact, it’s VERY similar to the Tempts’ long-forgotten second single, Check Yourself – but that was November 1961. Three years is a long time in pop music ANYWHERE; in the context of Motown’s burgeoning mid-Sixties Golden Age, it’s a lifetime.
I’ve been accused of “recentism” here on Motown Junkies in the past, of giving undue weight to hindsight and failing to take into account what something sounded like when it was first made. Which is fair enough – I was born in 1978, and I make no bones about not having “been there” first time around. Much as I’d love to, I can’t transport myself 25 years back in time, “un-hear” all the records I know came later, and listen to this stuff afresh. But historical context does rear its head from time to time, and that’s when – while plugging my way through the entire catalogue, in strict date order, record by record – I come across something which is so obviously out of date compared to the stuff around it. Again, I freely admit it makes no sense for me to be bothered by such things – when we’re talking about such old music, several more pop lifetimes having elapsed since all these singles were brand new, then surely it makes little difference whether something is 52 years old, or 48, or 46 – it’s still old, right?
And yet I find it does matter. Probably because I’m having to listen to everything Motown put out, in order (and it’s actually going more slowly than it did in real life!), and so when something like You Say You Love Me lurches unexpectedly out of the trembling speakers, out of sync with what’s around it, out of place in time… well, it’s especially noticeable. A song like this, which sounds like it’s been lashed together from a number of different sources and then served up with no great care taken over the vocals, sticks out like a sore thumb.
But this sound, this weird, alien sound – a sound I dubbed “space age doo-wop” when the Temptations were doing it, and which surely applies just as much here – is something I like, and so in this case, the record’s almost aggressively dated nature might work in its favour. The Downbeats as presented here, an all-male vocal five-piece featuring two guys who wouldn’t make it to the group’s impending rebirth as the Elgins (Thomas Salisbury (also spelled “Saulsberry”), and the group’s sometime guitarist Robert Fleming, who didn’t sing at all according to some sources, and who co-wrote this song with Motown writer/producer Clarence Paul) are undeniably a group with potential, though that potential wouldn’t be comprehensively unlocked until the mix was stirred up with the later addition of new lead singer Saundra Mallett Edwards. Like the Temptations before the arrival of David Ruffin, these Downbeats are the pupa of a great group, patiently waiting for their shot at greatness while providing plenty of good tunes in their own right.
Things start out in slightly ropey fashion, a big Fifties intro (Hey-hey-hey-yeah!) leads to the other Downbeats chanting/barking Say! You! Love! Me! over and over again; it’s not a great blend, but as soon as the lead singer’s engaging tenor starts drifting over the top of it all, it’s a pleasing sound that demands attention. As usual on these old Downbeats cuts, it’s long been believed that Johnny Dawson handles the lead (he’s credited as such in the liner notes to the above Motown Anthology CD, though according to a recent interview article, Norman McLean lays claim to all the male Downbeats/Elgins lead vocals); whoever it is, he does a nice job with it, coping admirably with the strange, syncopated stop-start rhythm, not to mention the frequent bits that sound like interpolations from other songs altogether.
This isn’t a great record – in fact, boiled down to its core ingredients, it’s probably quite a bad record – but it’s experimentally bad rather than lazily bad, and I have a real soft spot for this kind of over-ambitious structure. It’s not enough for me to overlook its many flaws, nor the fact it’s at least two and a half years out of date, but it’s not horrendous. It’s actually quite a challenge to follow it all the way through (goodness knows what radio might have made of it, had any promos actually been sent out), but I commend it for its awkwardness.
Still, this is very much an appetiser, a curtain-raiser for the entrance of the Elgins proper which is coming up in a few months’ time; beyond that, it’s an interesting listen, but ultimately little more than that. Perhaps appropriately for such a dated record, the group who made it were already being consigned to history.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in the Elgins? Click for more.)
“Do You Know What I’m Talkin’ About”
“Conscience I’m Guilty”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.