b/w Cleo’s Back
(Written by Autry DeWalt Jr., Willie Woods and Lawrence T. Horn)
b/w Cleo’s Back
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Over the course of the last year or so, Junior Walker has been helping me overcome my old saxophobia, for which I’m grateful; but if the instrument no longer sends me running for the hills, well, vestiges still remain.
Perhaps because Junior Walker was mainly marketed as an instrumentalist (and not only that, but one whose speciality was an instrument of which I was deeply suspicious), the differences between his Golden Age records aren’t maybe as pronounced for me as they might have been if he were better-known as a vocalist; before doing this blog, hand on heart, I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you which of the ten (!) single sides lifted from Junior’s Shotgun LP we were listening to. Littered around the track listing of The Complete Motown Singles series, All Stars singles stick out like a sore thumb, never really in step with what was happening elsewhere at Hitsville as the label went supernova.
There’s a plus side to that too, though – Junior’s post-fame career path is less familiar as a narrative than many of Motown’s mid-Sixties top acts, not least because he seems to have delighted in marching to the beat of his own drum. Motown, of course, were happy to sanction this unprecedented level of artistic freedom because he kept on landing hits – this was Walker’s third R&B Top Ten single in a row.
Having had their big breakthrough with the rousing Shotgun, the All Stars had followed it up with the looser, heavier and equally awesome Do The Boomerang. I was excited to see where they went next; Shake And Fingerpop turns out to be rather closer to the former than the latter, in spirit and in sound, such that it might have made a more obvious follow-up single to Shotgun in terms of its slicker execution and its continuation of the same themes.
Unlike some other Motown attempts to recapture lightning (e.g. the Contours trying endless remakes of Do You Love Me), Junior’s retreads so far have been a gas, and this one’s no exception; it never sounds forced, the All Stars sound as though they’re having a blast. Plus, Junior drops in lyrical references to the previous two singles (as well as hip references to the Jerk and Twine a la Jackie Ross), something which always makes me smile when it’s done well.
But it’s a jarring surprise to realise (obviously, in hindsight) that of course Junior Walker, however much he might have trod his own path at Motown, was still subject to the exact same rules and expectations as everyone else who’d landed a big hit, the pressure to turn in more of the same – and, it pains me to say it, the diminishing returns that inevitably come with such an approach.
This is still excellent, mind. Again, Junior opens the track with a terrifying altissimo sax squall; again, just like Do The Boomerang, the sax is just one facet of this, rather than the overwhelming focus of the record. Plus, Junior’s gruff lead vocal toasting is as endearing and as electrifying as ever (he appears to be morphing into James Brown before our very eyes). Things have been toned down a bit from Do The Boomerang, resulting in the All Stars’ most conventionally-structured single to date, even if – with full-on sax solos taking the place of a melodic chorus – it’s actually just as confrontational as Shotgun.
It’s also slightly less catchy: the call-and-response shout/organ hook from Shotgun is sorely missed, and the “chorus” solo rather seems to disappear as a result. Where the chorus would be expected, we get a continued beat serving as a bed for Walker to deliver essentially freestyled horn riffs over the top (slightly different every time it comes around); it’s exhilarating while it’s playing, but it sacrifices long-term posterity and radio whistleability for dancefloor thrusting.
Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and indeed you get the feeling it was a trade-off Walker was more than happy to make, but the result is a kind of record that doesn’t quite live up to the All Stars’ previous outings for me. It’s neater and slicker than the last two singles have been, Walker inching towards more conventional song structure as he becomes a genuine pop star, and yet paradoxically that missing chorus and Junior’s increasingly urgent exhortations mean it’s set up to be more at home on a sweaty nightclub dancefloor than belting out of a car radio, which leaves it slightly short of the mark for both sets of audiences.
But, again, Walker is irresistible; he’s not only brilliant, but for the third A-side in a row, he tosses in quotable non-sequiturs like ad-libs (which they may well have been, for all I know); he has complete control here, he knows how good he is. There’s no way Motown had any idea what they were getting when they signed him up, but little by little he’s becoming one of the great Motown frontmen.
It’s a splendid little record, and I can readily understand how it’s so many people’s favourite mid-Sixties Walker cut. Still, for me, this is very much the All Stars’ Wild One compared to Shotgun‘s Dancing In The Street, for good and ill. I like it a lot, but I like their previous two singles even more.
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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