B-side of Operator
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
B-side of Operator
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
A double-sided tribute to Mary Wells, as Brenda Holloway inherits two of Mary’s old songs (and two of my least favourite ones, to boot) and is tasked with making something out of them. As with the A-side, Operator, a creditable and mature cover of a tatty throwaway Mary Wells B-side from the ancient past, here Brenda is handed a sow’s ear and manages to make, if not a silk purse exactly, then some sort of acceptable coin bag or something.
The unreleased original version of I’ll Be Available was the last time we met Mary Wells here on Motown Junkies, and it was a singularly inappropriate way to say goodbye, an exceedingly goofy little song based almost entirely on Smokey Robinson making enormous stretches out of unlikely rhymes (When the U.S. Mail has become un-mailable… I’ll be available!).
It wasn’t great, and any success it had rested solely on Miss Wells’ shoulders, her engaging personality ultimately carrying the daffy material with a smile. So at first blush it seems an unusual pick for Motown’s current project of apparently having Brenda Holloway work her way through the entire Mary Wells catalogue; the risks of an embarrassing mis-step are high.
Instead, as with the A-side, Brenda and Smokey tease out the pain in the song. Suddenly, and most unexpectedly (given that, again, the lyrics haven’t changed one syllable), this isn’t funny any more.
The narrator is a woman who’s willing to sacrifice her dignity and happiness for a one-night stand with some guy we never even get to meet. Whatever I’m doing, she sings (…and whoever you’re screwing, she doesn’t add, but it’s strongly implied), I’ll be available. If you want me, I’m yours, just pick up the phone. The silly rhymes are still silly, but the effect is darkly humorous rather than throwaway slapstick; she’s the poster child for low self-esteem, and she’s desperate.
Brenda doesn’t fit the rigid confines of Mary’s old pre-recorded band track as well as she had on the custom-altered, newly-cut A-side, her voice really much too big for such small and intricate spaces, too strong to be hidden under a bushel by following the blueprint of Mary’s rather more low-key original talk-whisper contralto. But the different approach, which involves taking the song entirely seriously (something you could never have said of the original), works despite itself, and the result, somewhat unexpectedly, is another somewhat sub-par Mary Wells cut transformed into something new, something different but undeniably engaging.
I still wouldn’t go so far as to say I really liked it, but this is another definite improvement on the original, and if these Mary Wells covers were proving to be chart poison for Brenda, well, on this evidence she was at least getting rather better at doing them.
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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Mary Wells (September 1964)
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