(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Not for the first time, the Velvelettes appear on Motown Junkies straight after a clunker from Howard Crockett. Back in December 1964, the girls had been called in to take away the unpleasant aftertaste of Crockett’s Put Me In Your Pocket, and responded with their best record yet, the thumping He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’. Now, after the borderline-unlistenable excesses of Crockett’s godawful All The Good Times Are Gone – a record so bad, it ended Motown’s involvement in the country market for a decade – it’s the Velvelettes to the rescue again.
Crockett’s new record had been worse than his last one. In order to balance out the forces of the Motown universe, the Velvelettes would have to up the ante too; their new single, therefore, needed to be even better than their previous, magnificent effort.
And, somewhat unbelievably, against all odds, it is.
If I sometimes seem, on this blog, to be pushing a one-man effort for the re-evaluation of the Velvelettes, then you’ll have to forgive me. They were – are – magnificent. Rarely included in the conversation when people discuss Motown’s greatest groups, seldom even recognised as a Motown group at all, the Velvelettes disappeared from view in the mid-Sixties a quickly-forgotten footnote in the Motown story. But this oversight is a problem on the part of the world, rather than anything the Velvelettes did wrong; at their best, they could take on all comers.
(That’s not just a figure of speech. In February 1964, they and the then-similiarly-unknown Supremes took to the stage at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom in what’s subsequently been called a “battle of the bands”, and the audience that day – so the story goes – preferred the Velvelettes. Of course, this was before the Supremes had any of their biggest hits in their repertoire – but then, the Velvelettes didn’t have their best material yet either.)
It’s history’s loss, really, that Norman Whitfield and the Velvelettes – whose partnership ended all too soon after the hits weren’t forthcoming and the group melted away – didn’t get the chance to work together for a few more years. Even in the short time that the maverick young producer and the maverick young group were paired together, they made such giant strides that it’s hard to imagine what might have happened had they remained a joint creative force.
Whitfield, a wisecracking loudmouth perfectionist, had rubbed a few people up the wrong way in his initial efforts to climb the Hitsville food chain, and he was assigned to the similarly misfit Velvelettes – something approaching Motown purgatory, as the group were not just unknowns but also frequently absent – in part as a way to keep him quiet. Perhaps liberated by the lack of profile on both sides of the glass, Whitfield started with a blank slate. He would quickly have realised that he’d hit the jackpot; the Velvelettes were educated middle-class girls who could not only follow direction but were smart enough to come up with their own good ideas, they were willing to “buy in” to what he was trying to do, and their harmonies were fantastic. When Whitfield then began working closely with the Funk Brothers rhythm section, sharing his cigarettes and booze – and royalties! – with the studio players, while explaining in painstaking detail not what he wanted them to do, but rather what he was trying to get them to do, the template was set, and just like that, the Motown Sound took another great leap forward.
The kind of muscular dynamism that propels so many great mid-Sixties Motown records, the physical thump and clatter of the backing tracks, the intricate weave of backing vocals trading places with lead parts, the blaring horns and sweeping flurries of strings that would soon come to define Motown every bit as much as the 4/4 beat and crotchet pulse that had stormed the charts in 1964… there’s an argument all of them can be traced back to the Velvelettes. And the Velvelettes didn’t benefit from being given great ideas; rather, those great ideas were recognised as great ideas because the Velvelettes had shown how incredible they could sound. All it took was a producer who knew what he wanted, and a group who could make it reality.
The magic of Lonely Lonely Girl Am I –
– I love that title, as though rather than call it “I’m A Lonely, Lonely Girl”, Whitfield and his co-writers (Edward Holland Jr. and, somewhat unexpectedly, the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks) decided to favour killer scansion over more fiddly natural speech, gambling – correctly – that after you’ve heard the record even once, it’s done with so much confidence that you don’t even notice the odd title. But anyway –
– the magic of Lonely Lonely Girl Am I is in its immaculate construction. I know I’ve talked about Motown and magic before, and probably sounded just as crazy as I do now, but there’s something about a great Motown track, a quality in the air when it all hooks up, where complicated feats of musicianship and singing, and astounding jumps of imagination and melody, just feel absolutely effortless, so that you’re at once in awe of the genius it took to make this work and, simultaneously, carried along for the ride by the apparent ease with which it’s done.
If ever you wanted an example of this alchemy in action, look no further than this; the Velvelettes put on the greatest magic show we’ve ever seen.
NOT SO LONG AGO, I FELT COMPLETE
I like to think of Lonely Lonely Girl Am I as being like a fractal, one of those weird mathematical drawings where no matter how closely you zoom in, all the way down, thousands and thousands of times, you still see the same pattern. This record is made up of a whole load of different elements, put together very carefully in an intricate jigsaw puzzle (and not just any jigsaw; this one is on a par with a 20,000 piece job). Yet never do you get the sense that they’re anything other than parts of a whole, each of them expertly crafted with the finished product in mind. Every person does the best possible job they can do, but it’s all with one goal in mind, a cast of however many all at the peak of their game, directed by a man with a perfectly conceived master plan on a grand scale. This isn’t pop music, it’s architecture.
The dovetailing of all the ingredients that make up this record is a joy, both in its staggering effect and when you get it under the microscope to admire the workmanship. Using a string and bass refrain as half of a call-and-response in the verses, or having the Velvelettes send the chorus soaring up to the sky with a wordless vocal refrain requiring absolutely incredible timing to work, or – at the end – having Cal herself take over the vocal refrain instead? These are choices which feel both inspired and obvious.
Plus, everyone on this knows how good they are. The drums and tambourine are just out of this world. The Velvelettes have never sounded better, their harmonies like multi-coloured ribbons streaming through the sky, wrapping into spirals and loops and complex shapes and then gracefully unravelling like silk on silk. And Cal, who manages to best her incredible lead vocal performance from He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’, is mesmerising as she rolls the words around her mouth, sounding like a veteran singer twice her age as she purrs and growls her way through what might just be the best lead vocal we’ve yet encountered on any Motown record. The lyrics, full of wordplay designed for Cal’s tongue to pick through – “Sly but tender, you deceivingly surrendered your love to me” – exactly fill the allocated space in the track, with not a millimetre’s room for manoeuvre if you miss a cue. Faced with a challenge like that, Cal, of course, doesn’t even blink.
The end result? An absolutely killer tune, that Oh oh oh oh, doo-bee-doo hook guaranteed to stay in your head for weeks, performed in such a way that the bar is now set impossibly high for any female group to even think about covering this. What would be the point? It can’t get any better. The only Motown cover versions of this song are sung by men.
Unsurprisingly, despite receiving little push at the time, this has gone on to be an anthem on the Northern Soul scene, and the Velvelettes themselves speak fondly of it as the closest they ever got to making the record they wanted to make. As well they should: He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ is a wonderful, wonderful record, well deserving of a place in anyone’s desert island collection – but with all due respect, this is their masterpiece.
There’s literally not one second, not one single second, of this record I’d ever change; it is, as far as I can tell, perfect.
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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“The Great Titanic”
“I’m The Exception To The Rule”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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