(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
It’s doubtful whether Motown bandleader Earl Van Dyke had ever even heard of Blackpool, Lancashire, and its Tower Ballroom; if he had, it might have given him and his fellow musicians some idea as to what’s wrong with records like How Sweet It Is. Take a good backing track, scrub off the vocals, add three minutes of jaunty organ trilling; this is only a recipe for success if you were hoping to call to mind windswept seaside holidays, donkey rides and Come Dancing.
(I don’t know what the American equivalent would be – someone in an earlier comments thread talked about a small-town skating rink – but suffice to say, it’s the complete antithesis of cool.)
My conclusion is simple enough: I just don’t like organ music. Or, more accurately, I don’t like lightweight pop music played on an organ.
It’s something of a sobering experience, really; Earl Van Dyke seems to have been an all-round great guy, a gentle giant, the glue in the Motown band as well as an absolute demon on the keys. But whichever bright spark decided that the best way to show off his unique talent was to greenlight what effectively amounts to a series of solo organ covers of pop hits, flirting dangerously (and what’s worse, obliviously) with easy listening territory?
Perhaps it’s just another cultural thing; maybe American listeners don’t have the same kind of reaction to this kind of melodic, parping pap. It’s interesting to note that while the British Tamla Motown label had shown real faith in Earl and the Funk (Soul) Brothers’ previous single, All For You even though the parent company had cancelled the original US release (and thus creating the first British-only Motown 45), no more of the band’s singles as a headline act would ever get a contemporary release in Britain. This one, for instance, didn’t appear on UK shores until 1972 – that’s not a typo up there. I can’t help but wonder if the reason was the same thing that turns me right off this: it’s just too damned cheesy.
Long-time readers will remember that I found Marvin Gaye’s original version of How Sweet… to be rather too cheesy, too close to the MOR bone for comfort, in the first place – and so replacing Marvin with that echoey, rollicking organ doesn’t help matters at all. (In fact, and I’ve only just noticed this, to add insult to injury, the blues piano part from the original – a blues piano part probably played by Earl himself, I’m guessing? – has been excised here as well, which is fairly unforgiveable.)
Now, things aren’t as horrific as they might have been, and we don’t end up in the same sort of ghastly territory as Earl saw fit to take us with his cover of the Marvelettes’ Too Many Fish In The Sea; contrary to the impression I’ve probably given so far, there are actually a few things to like about this version. Most noticeably, there’s a twangy, squalling new guitar part here which would actually have been an improvement on the original cut (and which seems to be unique to this version, among the many, many different Motown variations of How Sweet It Is that exist – the Isley Brothers’ version is very similar to this one, possibly even being sung over an alternate take of the Earl Van Dyke version, but the guitar part is missing there, replaced by a vocal riff instead.)
The guitar part is by far the best thing about this, and it sounds great, enough to give this a nudge away from the middle of the road and towards the swinging section. Not a massive nudge, but a nudge nonetheless. The whole thing still adds up to a bit of a mess, but when Earl himself gets into the spirit, spending more time at the top of his instrument’s register (or, even better, when he’s entirely absent from the track – sorry, Earl!), it gets better.
Still, though, the question that keeps coming up every time we meet one of these things remains the same: why? Who is this for? Who is it meant to satisfy? It’s neither pop nor jazz; it’s not edgy enough to please either the musicians or their intended audience of hardened hep cats, it’s not fluffy enough to please pop-loving tweens or their parents, and it’s not got Marvin Gaye on it, which was the only thing that kept the corny song afloat the first time round. It’s not a disaster, but – as appealing as that guitar is – I can’t really imagine myself ever going back to play this again.
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:
- Marvin Gaye (November 1964)
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