B-side of Why Do You Want To Let Me Go
B-side of Why Do You Want To Let Me Go
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
The excitement of having Marv Johnson, one of Motown’s long-absent founding fathers, suddenly return to the Hitsville ranks after six years away was dampened by the shoddy, dated A-side, Why Do You Want To Let Me Go, which showed Marv’s voice had barely developed at all from the shaky teenage falsetto we saw back when he cut the official first ever Motown single all the way back in 1959.
But this flip is a whole different kettle of fish. For a start, Marv wrote it himself, together with long-time friend Janie “Money” Bradford, which means that unlike the A-side – a ropey reworking of an old Eddie Holland single from which Motown boss Berry Gordy had somehow hoped to squeeze more life five years later – I’m Not A Plaything is much better suited to the stresses and contours (and, let’s be honest, weaknesses) of Marv’s distinctive voice. Secondly, it’s a more relaxed affair than the topside, quieter and less brash, but no less intense or powerful for it; not exactly quiet storm territory, but not a million miles away either. And thirdly, it’s just a vastly better song.
I love this. Oh, Marv is still the weak link on his own records, again, lacking both wattage and control, but as I said, this song – which makes room for him to bounce, clumsily, right up the register in a squeaky falsetto leap at the start of each line – suits him much better. In fact, this is just about as perfect a Smokey pastiche as you could ever hope to find, and – like the Marvelettes’ similarly out-of-leftfield You’re My Remedy – it builds on a slow start and then just keeps getting better as it goes on, adding layers and ideas until we end up in a totally different place to where we started out.
We started out with a noisy, jarring horn blast-cum-fanfare – shades of the Lewis Sisters’ recent (horrible) By Some Chance – and lots of dead air stops, overlaid by some nimble-fingered blues guitar. But then the horns suddenly pick up their assignments, and lock into a rolling riff with a very pretty tune, augmented by the Andantes’ lovely backing vocals (not featured on the A-side, which had used some shouty echoey men as background singers instead, drowning in echo), and making an atmosphere where Marv is required to do no heavy lifting whatsoever.
All Marv’s best UA records had this in common; if Johnson had to carry the tune in order to sell it, then you were in for a rough ride, but when he could just go with the flow and bring his own personality to bear on a record, the result was often surprisingly affecting. His original version of Don’t Leave Me, later re-done at Motown by Henry Lumpkin, is an excellent showcase for what made Marv special, what made his best records work. And I’m Not A Plaything absolutely works.
I especially like the way this song changes mood between that start and the anthemic ending. This one starts off as if it’s an embittered kiss-off, a diatribe to a would-be girlfriend who’s toying with his emotions (in the style of Mary Wells’ splendid Your Old Stand By), Marv’s naturally avuncular voice and the sweet music drawing some of the sting out of his demand she stop messing him around and take him more seriously, and the delicious, Robinson-esque scansion of the lyrics doing the rest:
You tell my friends I’m crazy
Got the nerve to think it’s smart
To disregard the damage
That you do to my poor heart…
It’s a great tune, and when we get to the quasi-chorus in the middle of the record, it takes everything up a notch, insanely catchy without pushing Marv out of his comfort zone:
Oh, why must you abuse me?
Guess you do because you can
You never make an effort
To try and understand…
…and you think he’s going to sing “I’m not a plaything!” in a reprise of the refrain that ends each verse. But instead, as the strings swell and Marv sort-of-holds the long note at the end of “understand…” (yeah, I know), he suddenly cracks a kindly smile and, softly, perhaps with a shrug:
…that I love you!
And with that, the whole mood of the song changes – we’ve gone from bitterness, to a full-on declaration of love, the strings and the choir and the guitars all now allied with Marv as he makes his case, in something approaching an echo of the Four Tops’ majestic Baby I Need Your Loving, the narrator calling on unearthly powers to help him win the lady’s heart once and for all.
Most importantly, and perhaps most unexpectedly, he becomes likeable – I wasn’t against him at the start of the record, I’m rather partial to a bit of scorned scorn in love songs, but as this goes on I was rather surprised to find myself actually start rooting for him.
Each additional element, as things layer on top of other things and the whole record starts to sound like an offer you could never refuse, just adds to the sense of confidence that almost (but never quite) overwhelms the whole second half of the song. By the time Marv and the Andantes start trading lines, call-and-response style, to itemise the failings of some other guy who might once have been in the picture –
He’ll deceive you!
(He’ll deceive you!)
Then he’ll leave you!
(Then he’ll leave you!)
– well, if you’re not singing along by then, I’m not sure what more Marv could be doing to win you over. It certainly worked on me, at any rate.
I don’t know if this is Marv Johnson’s best Motown single side – there are a few more to come yet, not to mention a highly unlikely late-career revival, which are ripe for rediscovery – but I do know I really, really like it. Good show.
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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“Why Do You Want To Let Me Go”
“The Only Time I’m Happy”
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