B-side of Shotgun
(Written by Willie Woods)
B-side of Shotgun
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
After the riveting, sweaty workout of the impossibly cool A-side, Shotgun, there now follows a perfect illustration of why Junior Walker and the All Stars were among Motown’s most frustrating artists. For every Shotgun, they give you a Hot Cha, and you never know which one to expect before you hit “play”.
In the years since these sides were recorded, many of them years which elapsed before I was even born, a series of greedy schlock merchants have given me what a therapist might call “Saxophone Issues”. As with everything that’s cool and powerful about Sixties soul music (see also: loud, melismatic vocals, syncopated grooves, wandering bass), the saxophone has been co-opted by those who would use its power for evil, lavishing its sound onto their bloated, meandering productions to provide instant jazz or blues “cred”, the dollar signs in their eyes gleaming bigger than their talents. So intertwined is this sort of queasy Kenny G, Lily Was Here kind of guff with the sound of the sax for me that even a super-cool record like Shotgun has to work extra hard to win me over, to defeat a lifetime of cultural signifiers that set off alarm bells in my head.
It’s no fun, then, to encounter a record like Hot Cha, which lives up to every lazy pre-conceived stereotype I had about saxophone solos. It’s the theme music to the Devil’s own dinner party, and I hate it.
This is a buttery, boring midtempo instrumental, based around a short verse/chorus loop played over and over again, which gets very repetitive very fast, and Junior’s sax (he doesn’t sing on this one) extemporising as much as he can within that structure. He doesn’t exactly struggle against the tight straps, though – you can tell it’s hard work, the All Stars perspiring through their shiny suits and satin bow ties under the hot stage lights, but they’re happy enough to be doing this, which sounds like the background music for a supper club slow dance.
Some of that isn’t Junior Walker’s fault – he’s very good at what he does with the sax here, getting all around his range, and there are a couple of surprising, freewheeling moments (in the second half especially) where he pushes it all the way to the squealing top or growling bottom of the register which grab the attention. (Attention which should have started to wander, if you’re anything like me, which suggests Junior knew he was making a boring record and needed to liven up proceedings.)
But that somehow makes it worse, because now it isn’t even useful as dinner party music – which makes you wonder who Hot Cha was meant to please at all. And then you remember, of course, it was made to please Junior Walker, and nobody else, and the great man had a quite breathtaking lack of quality control.
Motown had precious few virtuoso musicians who were also “name” recording artists as opposed to studio players, and so it’s not a problem that they often encountered, but I think the root of the issue is that because Junior was such a great sax player (and he was, let’s be absolutely clear on that point), and because the sax is a difficult instrument to master, it became all too easy to confuse the buzz of accomplishment of having done something really well, and the buzz of accomplishment of having made a good record. Not being a musician myself, I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d guess the wailing, wandering sax part on Hot Cha is almost as difficult, maybe as difficult, to pull off as the sax solo on Shotgun, which may have tricked everyone involved into thinking it was also just as worthwhile.
That Motown could so readily pair one of Junior Walker’s best records with one of his worst makes me wonder if it’s just me, whether I’m just out of touch; I can’t imagine what fans at the time would have thought, flipping over Shotgun and wiping the sweat from their brows only to find this sorry excuse for hotel lobby muzak (or at least that’s the way it starts. Actually, the way it really starts is another kick in the teeth: for the briefest time, the intro sounds just like the Temptations’ Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, and so I dislike this even more for cruelly raising my hopes like that. But I digress.) By the time Junior livens things up in the second half, I’d have expected most people to have pulled it off and put Shotgun back on again.
But maybe it’s just me. For me, and I appreciate this might not apply for everyone, there are major differences between this and the topisde, a vast, yawning ocean-sized gap that makes one super-cool and one super-lame, and the obvious skill and proficiency with which Hot Cha has been assembled doesn’t make me like it any more. Less Hitsville or Soulsville, this is more like Dullsville USA. Please don’t do this again, Junior.
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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