(Written by Dorsey Burnette)
Motown’s first foray into the world of country music, via the little-loved, little-bought Mel-o-dy Records imprint, was over. But one of the project’s most high-profile signings, rockabilly legend Dorsey Burnette, wasn’t quite done with the company yet; although nothing ultimately came of it, for a time Burnette was absorbed into Motown’s main artist roster, and a new single was scheduled for the California-based VIP subsidiary instead – making Dorsey the only one of Motown’s ill-fated first wave of country acts to cross over to one of the “real” Motown labels.
For whatever reason, it didn’t happen – no stock or promo copies were ever manufactured, and Dorsey ended up leaving the company shortly afterwards. (Motown wouldn’t return to the country market for another ten years – but when they did, Dorsey would be there, one of the first names on the new team sheet.)
Dorsey’s Motown back catalogue so far has been a slightly bumpy ride, never plumbing the depths as with some of the other Motown country acts (most notably his labelmate, friend and sometime songwriter Howard Crockett) but equally never really reaching for the stars, never doing anything spectacular. It’s a surprise, perhaps, to be meeting him again – the rumours are that his contract with Motown was structured differently to those of his Mel-o-dy labelmates, ensuring he stuck around if the label closed down – but that surprise is as nothing compared to the first minute of this record, which starts out as easily the strongest thing Dorsey ever cut for Motown.
This isn’t really country so much as string-laden, AOR guitar pop, Dorsey’s southern drawl the only clue that we’re dealing with a Mel-o-dy refugee – but it’s masterfully done, to begin with at least. Burnette recorded this in a Los Angeles studio, under the watchful eyes of the Motown LA office’s top writer-producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, and consequently it has a whole different sound to any of the preceding country cuts: lush strings and thudding bass drums alongside some neat, understated pedal steel work.
The shifting up a gear to a more professional setting is obvious right from the start; a couple of bars of almost empty air, punctuated only by a slow, ominous, thumping drum, while a steel guitar tunes up on the four beat, before the band strikes up a tight groove based around a relentless rhythm guitar strum, looping throughout the whole record and punctuated by a high steel twang at the end of each line. Dorsey himself steps up vocally, stretching (and holding) the fourth note of each line while pitching a melody that’s both catchy and well-sung, and I’m sitting down in awe, because there was nothing in his previous output that hinted this was around the corner.
Just left our FAV-ourite spot downtown!
[twang twang twang!]
I searched the SIDE-walks up and down!
[twang twang twang!]
Friends say you left / With someone else
Ohh, that hurts me / Deep inside
Why break my heart, just to run around?
And the strings swell, and the backing singers coo, and this is amazing. Absolutely, astonishingly terrific. Are you listening, Tony Martin? THIS is how you do it. This is how you sell big, self-absorbed bombast and make it stick. Magnificent.
A pity, then, that Dorsey can’t keep it up, that it ends up being him who spoils things, losing his grip on the song and veering badly out of control (as both writer and vocalist).
The chorus isn’t as strong as it needs to be to keep the run going, either melodically or lyrically, needing a bad and tortured twist of scansion to stay afloat:
No-one could EV-er break your heart!
To you, no-ONE could be that smart!
… and the middle eight is not only completely lacking in hooks, but Dorsey forgets himself and starts hollering in a most tuneless semi-sung, semi-shouted fashion:
You lived today
Like it would be, be your last one
Never, never carin’ who you huuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-URT!
I was to blame for lovin’ you too much
Under your feet, you think I’m di-irt!
By the time we’re approaching the end, the whole thing is in danger of collapse – even that relentless, pounding, metronomic rhythm drops a beat during the last verse, which (given it’s the only thing keeping Dorsey’s increasingly freeform vocals anchored to anything) is a nasty and disorienting experience for the listener.
It’s especially infuriating, because this had the potential to be fantastic. As it stands, you can understand how Motown lost interest and pulled not just the single, but Dorsey’s whole career; it’s a record which starts out great, but which I like less and less the more it goes on.
Luckily, it ends before it’s had a chance to completely lose me – and it’s a measure of the excellent first minute or so of this single that it still ends up being far and away Dorsey Burnette’s best Motown cut. After tomorrow, there won’t be another one until 1975.
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 Dorsey Burnette? Click for more.)
“Please Don’t Turn The Lights Out”
“They’re Only Words”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.