(Written by Jack Rhodes)
Continuing our rather bizarre start to the new year here on Motown Junkies: we’ve already seen one abortive comeback, as the Downbeats unexpectedly re-emerge after three years of silence, and now here’s… another abortive comeback, as Hattie Littles unexpectedly re-emerges after, well, three years of silence.
Sadly, just like the Downbeats single, it’s probably putting it a bit too strongly to say Hattie “re-emerged” here. This never saw the inside of any record store, and never found itself considered for any radio playlist; it’s a record that only exists on paper, scheduled, cancelled and soon forgotten.
For poor Hattie Littles, herself largely forgotten too, this was something of a final straw. One of Motown’s best early solo acts, as well as a vital part of the heart and soul of the fledgling label, she’d helped out doing chores around Hitsville, cooking, cleaning and looking after other people’s kids at a time when Motown was struggling to pay its bills. Now that Motown was a multi-million dollar music empire, Hattie could consider herself treated shabbily; she came into 1965 with just one underpromoted 45 (the fantastic Your Love Is Wonderful) to show for almost five years of sporadic recording sessions, and she was already drifting away from Motown by the time this was finally slated to come out. (Whenever that was – see below.)
Poor show, Motown; if failing to prevent Mary Wells’ walkout was a mistake, then allowing an artist of the calibre of Hattie Littles to wither on the vine and then disappear from history was bordering on idiotic. Singers like this just don’t come along every day, and to first overlook and then neglect someone as talented as Hattie having already got them on your books should be regarded as a scandal, one of the all-time howlers among Motown’s many errors of judgement.
Oh, yes, and this record is rather good, obviously.
It’s easy enough to see why Motown might have balked at releasing it, mind you. Conscience I’m Guilty, a blues-jazz flavoured R&B ballad cover of a country standard, is as incongruous in the middle of the mid-Sixties Motown Golden Age as that Downbeats single, and just as badly dated in its way; it wants so badly to be an Etta James album cut, and it’s appearing several years too late.
Plus, of course, Hattie’s face (or rather her voice) hadn’t fit back in 1962, and Motown hadn’t been getting any more accommodating to their bluesier acts in the interim, not with the pop charts and TV Guide beckoning. Having Hattie suddenly reappear on the release schedules three years later is a jarring experience; by now, she was a blast from Motown’s past, in every possible sense.
THIS JUST IN: CONFUSED BLOGGER’S CONFUSION LEADS TO SLIGHTLY CONFUSING DIGRESSION
I say “by now”, but it’s not clear when “now” is supposed to be in this case.
A large proportion of you are likely now asking what on earth I’m talking about. Right. Well. As with all of the unreleased singles on this blog, I don’t actually know exactly when this was supposed to be released. Usual practice here on Motown Junkies would be to put them wherever the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles box sets put them, and so that’s the approach we’ve been following for three years, and it’s served us well enough.
However, rather confusingly, although this appears on The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 box set right at the start of the year, sandwiched between other singles that were actually released in January, and although we know Hattie had laid down her vocals for this one a year and a half earlier in the summer of 1963, I don’t know that it was meant to be released in January at all; the band track wasn’t completed with its various string overdubs until March, meaning, like the Downbeats “single”, I’m quite possibly putting it in the wrong place. But, as also happened with the Downbeats single, I don’t have any better ideas on where to put it instead; any guess is bound to be wrong, so rather than risk inconsistency and the possibility of a never-ending series of corrections, well, I’ve opted instead to go with TCMS 5 and keep it here anyway, which seemed the least confusing option. Just bear in mind that this single doesn’t actually exist as a discrete physical release, and therefore where it fits into the Motown Story is hypothetical at best.
…AND BACK TO THE REVIEW
But anyone reading this site for in-depth discographical information is probably in the wrong place anyway. We’re here to talk about what’s actually on these records – and what’s on this (hypothetical) record is Hattie Littles, so let’s talk about her. Hattie Littles! She was great, was Hattie. I love her voice, a rich, deep, textured contralto with shades of Mary Wells, Kim Weston and any number of down-and-dirty male blues singers – check out her belting version of Love, Trouble, Heartache and Misery from the excellent A Cellarful of Motown series. She was completely wasted at Motown.
At least her last bow at Hitsville shows her in a good light. This is a drastic, radical reworking of an older country number (it had been a substantial hit for Hank Snow in 1956). It’s a song about infidelity, unusually sung from the perspective of the repentant, guilt-filled cheater rather than the cuckolded cheatee; most of the original lyrics are still in here, and as with so many country songs, they’re brutal if you listen closely, the narrator living in constant fear of discovery (even terrified to go to bed because they might talk in their sleep), and absolutely riven with self-loathing.
Hattie teases out the pain in the song quite brilliantly; as with all the best interpreters of other people’s material, she finds things in the song that the writers didn’t know they’d put there.
I don’t know why more country songs don’t make it into the blues canon, as the genre seems ripe for exploitation, and there’s no shortage of troubled, wits’ end narrators served poorly by bland, unskilled singers. This is a great example; a quite brilliant choice of material for Hattie, who handles the song with genuine aplomb; she approaches this not only as an actress, where she’s in the Mary Wells class, but also as a vocal exercise in its own right – you can imagine her tearing at her clothes when she gets right into the song:
Between right and wrong
Oh, love and desire
Well, this game that I’m playing
Is more dangerous
More dangerous than fire
Her delivery of that Oh! in the second line is quite remarkable, as she turns it into a guttural, pitiful moan of pure pain, leading to a primal bark of Love!… It’s just a great performance, there’s no getting away from it.
But the song can’t keep up with its singer. The string overdubs, while they’re rather pretty and everything, actually end up detracting a little from both the dirty, sexy rasp in Hattie’s voice and the gritty confessional tone of the lyrics (watering down the blues, if you will). Plus, the arrangement’s all wrong; the backing vocals are softer and more buttery than Hattie’s impassioned reading of the song is calling for, betraying the material’s origins in rural white radioland.
Worse still, you get the feeling this was intentionally sanded down, that the song’s ready adaptability into a gentler kind of record probably explains why – all of a sudden – Hattie, who was still semi-regularly recording new stuff, instead saw an eighteen month old outtake being dusted off and prepared for release with the expensive strings treatment.
This is undeniably a Fifties number at its heart, which Hattie has practically single-handedly repurposed into something between a heartfelt blues and a storming R&B torch song, her incredible voice doing all the heavy lifting to effect the transformation. But the arrangement feels like it’s pulling everything back to where it came from, and you get the feeling it was done on purpose.
Those strings are obviously an afterthought, a late addition to the mix, but it’s not just a shoddy attempt at increasing commercial appeal, or vandalism for its own sake; it’s an attempt to repackage the whole song and rebrand the record for a different audience. Hattie was never going to be Diana Ross or Martha Reeves, but maybe, at a pinch, Motown felt she could have a go at Brenda Holloway’s turf, or even fulfil Berry Gordy’s long-cherished ambition to break a star on the MOR circuit. So this is an attempt to make Hattie sound a bit more like an R&B pop artiste, someone who could score crossover hits with R&B reinterpretations of country standards (like some softer-edged, female version of Ray Charles)… but apparently without telling her first.
And then, to add insult to injury, the whole thing was spiked by Quality Control anyway. You can already guess how delighted she wasn’t.
Miss Littles didn’t officially leave Motown until later in the year, fitting in a couple of sessions in early ’65 before realising the company she’d helped build in her own small but significant way no longer gave a shit what happened to her, and declaring she was done – “I eventually just stopped going”, as she later put it, rather diplomatically – promptly disappearing from the music industry together.
The loss was Motown’s – or rather, the loss was ours, deprived of the wonderful records she’d no doubt have gone on to make. Dark rumours have swirled around her since her walkout, with allegations that she fell into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse, reaching a nadir with a spell in prison for killing an abusive spouse, before finding religion in the Seventies and straightening life out. All of these stories appear to have originated with Ian Levine, the producer who rediscovered her in the late 1980s and got her back to the studio to take part in his Motorcity project, who states he heard them first-hand from Hattie herself – but it’s worth noting here that a couple of members of Miss Littles’ family have gotten wind of these allegations and dismissed them as pure bollocks, strenuously denying anything of the sort ever happened to Hattie.
I’d like to think that’s true, that Levine just got his wires crossed, but sadly we’ll never know for sure. Hattie Littles, the most unjustly forgotten of all Motown’s early heroines, died in the summer of 2000. She still doesn’t have a proper anthology CD collecting together the reams of material she apparently cut at Motown; on the off chance anyone at Ace/Kent is reading, we can but hope such a project emerges soon.
In the meantime, all we have to remember her by are a grand total of eight songs, this last pair of them lost among the raucous, thundering din of cash registers in Motown’s greatest year to date. A shame, but she has nothing to be ashamed of; as legacies go, things could have been far worse.
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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