(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
It’s almost exactly one hundred reviews since we last met Motown bandleader Earl Van Dyke as a headline act (back in January 1965, with All For You), and many, many things have changed at Hitsville since then. In January, it had been merely unlikely that Earl and his studio bandmates the Funk Brothers would make a name for themselves as artists; by September, with Motown having since racked up five more Number One singles, it was now inconceivable that that could ever happen.
I’ve talked on this blog before about how the Funks’ story has become distorted over time; in particular, about how it makes me uncomfortable to see people talk about the greatest studio band in American history as if they were somehow being held back, as if we never got to see their true genius. Not only does that casually dismiss the brilliance of the actual, magical Motown records we got to hear, it’s just flat out wrong to say they were never given a chance.
Equally, though, and rather confusingly, it’s also wrong to infer from the existence of singles like this one – taken from the sessions which produced Earl and the Funk (“Soul”) Brothers’ very own studio album, That Motown Sound (pictured further down) – that the musicians got to play off the leash and do their own thing, and that what we’re hearing here is the band let loose. No. That Motown Sound – the sessions for which this version of I Can’t Help Myself was taken – was emphatically not the sound of the Funk Brothers doing what they wanted. We’ll get to hear that soon enough – trust me, we will – but for now, this is something else: a compromise that likely pleased nobody, not the musicians, not the bean counters, not the hardcore muso jazz-heads, and certainly not the fans.
Specifically, what we have here is the sound of a makeshift deal aimed at keeping the musicians sweet, the Motown top brass throwing the band a bone by agreeing to give them their own releases while simultaneously making sure that what was in those actual grooves hewed as closely as possible to the company’s R&B-pop blueprint. To that end, the greatest studio band in America is given a stack of their own backing tapes – material they’d cut for other Motown artists to sing over – and told to chug through a series of ropey overdubs, replacing the vocals with lengthy jazz-muzak instrumental passages.
I Can’t Help Myself, repurposed from the Four Tops’ chart-topping mega-hit, wasn’t actually featured on the LP – but it would have been one of the better cuts on the album, an LP chock full of hastily-rearranged resprays Earl and the Funks were somehow persuaded to work on. Perhaps mercifully, there’s no extra organ on this to replace the Four Tops and Andantes’ heavenly vocals from the original; rather, it’s fist-bashing piano and rippling ivories all the way, which comes as a relief. Earl’s deranged fingerwork over the intro effectively re-times the start of the song, briefly disguising its origins for theoretical radio listeners, and from then on he attacks the rest of the song with glee, gussying-up an instrumental bed that was only ever intended as a vehicle for a great lead singer and six lovely backing voices.
But there’s the rub: you can’t simply replace Levi Stubbs with a bar-room piano. It’s still the same old song (ha ha) playing underneath, and what we’re left with is unmistakeably a very familiar backing track that’s been shorn of its best features. It’s not even karaoke, because the decision to have Earl’s lengthy piano solo run pretty much the entire length of the record turns it into a meandering jazz-out, an instrumental jam that surely nobody in America was asking for.
This is good-time music alright – the lack of organ is a blessing, and it’s fun to hear Earl going nuts on the piano. Unlike some of the Brothers’ other cuts, he sounds like he’s having plenty of fun with this himself, which makes a difference. But what does that leave us with at the end of the day? A harmless curio, something to play once for its novelty value and then go back to the original. Completely pointless, and almost defiantly inessential.
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:
- The Four Tops (April 1965)
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