(Written by Berry Gordy)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Look who’s back. Marv Johnson had cut the very first (official) Motown record, Come To Me, all the way back in January 1959. His success in getting that record into the upper reaches of the charts, and getting his and Eddie Holland’s contracts bought out by United Artists, had bankrolled Motown’s shaky early days, in many ways laying the foundation stone for everything that had come after. Now, six and a half years (and 584 reviews) later, he returns.
The world was a very different place, and Marv Johnson hadn’t changed with it. His UA career had started out great guns, a string of Top Ten singles (Motown records in all but name, written, produced and recorded at Hitsville, so much so that I was tempted to include them here on Motown Junkies) briefly making him a star at the beginning of the Sixties – but when Motown had gotten too busy to waste the time (or need the money!) to work with him for another label’s benefit, the hits had dried up, Marv’s big-shot attitude had made him few friends, and by 1964 UA had had enough and kicked him to the kerb.
He returned, naturally enough, to Motown, where he had hopes of being received as a prodigal son; he was popular around the corridors of Hitsville among some of the staff who’d been there from the start, as back when things were going swell at UA, he’d returned frequently to his old stomping grounds (both to cut new material for UA and for social visits), celebrating his newfound fame and wealth by indulging in ostentatious generosity and flirting. Now, though, he was no longer a big deal; Motown had younger, richer, more famous, more handsome and more talented guys than him traipsing through the building every day. The problem, if you believe the stories, was that in Johnson’s head, he was still cock of the walk; one astonishing anecdote, related in Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go?, has Berry Gordy visiting him in his hotel, only to be turned away by a flunky because he didn’t have an appointment.
Compounding all of this was the fact that Marv was a voice from the past in more than one sense. It’s surprising to find that the unrestrained, unschooled falsetto tenor that had lent itself well to the sort of Jackie Wilson pastiches Berry Gordy and co. had written for him at the start of the decade – effective enough, but propelled more by charisma than technique – hasn’t developed with age. Here in 1965, he still sounds like the slightly uncontrolled, slightly thin, high-voiced fellow we heard all those years ago on Come To Me and its B-side Whisper; a far cry from the maturing sounds of his one-time peers, the former high-pitched teenagers like Eddie Kendricks or even Smokey Robinson who’d grown into exceptional singers as they’d become young men. For Marv, it would always be 1960.
His first “new” Motown record was this, a cover of one of Eddie Holland’s old United Artists non-hits from 1961 – and not one of his best, at that (as perhaps evinced by the lack of a Youtube clip for Eddie’s original!) Eddie had left UA with his tail between his legs shortly after cutting Why Do You Want To Let Me Go – unlike Johnson, Holland had racked up nothing but flops at UA. Eddie had carved out a respectable recording career after returning to Motown, leading to a stellar second life as a legendary songwriter, and Marv could well have done the same – he was no slouch with a pen, with an ear for a tune that outstripped his vocal ability to hold one, and it would have been interesting to see him join the full-time writing corps at Hitsville. The key difference, though, was the four years of trailblazing success that Motown had enjoyed since Eddie had made the walk of shame back to Hitsville; by this point, quite simply, Marv Johnson needed Motown much more than Motown needed Marv Johnson.
It can’t have been easy for a notorious ego like Marv – who, after all, could quite legitimately claim that Motown wouldn’t even exist without him – to accept his new role as a supplicant at the bottom of the Hitsville food chain, a charity case, a re-signing motivated by sentiment and gratitude rather than commercial excitement. Nonetheless, it’s inescapable that his return saw him starting again in an entry-level position. The lack of support within the company for what should have been a triumphant homecoming is well illustrated not only by the choice of dated, second-hand material here, but by the fact that Marv made that homecoming not in May 1965 (when this was released), but rather in May 1964 (when this was recorded).
That’s right – even with the boss of the company helming the session, Motown placed so little stock in the return of their prodigal son that his would-be comeback single sat in the can for an entire year while Johnson twiddled his thumbs. That this was left on the shelf, while scores of other long-forgotten recordings and obscure curios were dusted off to jump the release queue must have hurt – but Marv was in absolutely no position to demand anything, and Berry Gordy could now afford to flex his muscles and remind people who was boss. What’s that, Marv? You want to discuss when your record’s coming out? Do you have an appointment?
But finally, after a year of waiting, and six and a half years after we last met him, at long last Marv Johnson had a new Motown record in the shops. The comeback starts here! And…
…And it’s not very good.
Damn it. I was rooting for Marv here, hoping he’d step up and deliver the goods, but no. His piping, reedy voice is almost comically unsuited to the material, the Funk Brothers turning in a muscular backing track full of physical stomp and jangle and clatter – it’s loud and it lacks direction, but it’s undeniably tough – only for Marv to spend the entire duration warbling and wailing ineffectively over the top.
The middle eight is vastly better than the verses or the weedy chorus – I was running around, well I was running around, Marv barks, in a lower register amplified by an echo-heavy backing vocal chanting in the distance, and for a brief moment it all suddenly comes together, perking up the listener’s ears – and there are some dazzling moments of invention here that weren’t in the Eddie Holland original, suggesting that Gordy had a better idea of what worked and what didn’t than Marv himself – just off the top of my head, besides that excellent repetitive chant section, there’s a striking new two-chord bridge, a series of heavy-booted foot stomps matching the more shuffling, grizzled feel of the backing track, and a beautifully-tailored squalling sax break that accounts for most of the extra thirty seconds here compared to the original, not to mention this version dropping the ill-fitting key changes that marred the closing stages of Eddie’s version.
(Man, it would really have been useful to link to the original here. Thanks for nothing, Youtube.)
But every time this threatens to get good, Marv comes back to serve up more barely-controlled strained falsetto yelping, reaching for notes he can’t make, stretching himself over notes he can’t sustain, and boom, my interest dissipates again. If anything, his voice actually gets weaker as the record goes on, apparently becoming less and less able to hold the tune – the final moments are almost painfully underpowered, so obvious is it that he’s got nothing left in the tank – until he eventually winds up sounding like a bad impression of Eddie Kendricks circa 1961. And that’s not meant as a compliment.
Sure, it’s intriguing to have him back, and there are certainly much better records to come from Marv’s Motown return (which is a relief, albeit a relief only granted by hindsight – listeners at the time wouldn’t have had such reassurance). But this one is a chaotic, messy shambles which really isn’t Johnson’s song. Had this been his Motown début proper – if he’d had no place in Motown history, if his turn-of-the-decade United Artists triumphs had been registered without Gordy’s involvement, if he was just another washed-up star of 1960 à la Sammy Turner – then I sincerely doubt there’d ever have been a follow-up.
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 Marv Johnson? Click for more.)
|The Lewis Sisters
“By Some Chance”
“I’m Not A Plaything”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.