b/w All For Someone
(Written by Robert Dobyne, Charles Jones and Robert Staunton)
The start of Say You, the first single released by the Monitors (formerly Majestics) under their new name, is a blast of fresh air whenever you hear it – but here on Motown Junkies, coming as it does on the heels of a somewhat underwhelming October 1965, it’s as invigorating as a new beginning can be. From November until the spring of ’66, barring the occasional outlying hiccup, Motown’s run of A-sides (perhaps the best sequence in the label’s history) are truly deserving of the Golden Age tag. And this is the first of them.
This is always faster and harder and more dynamic in my head than it is on the actual record, which turns out to be a slinky, chugging soul piece; the blazing horn-powered intro gives it the initial push, and then the song just cruises up the hill. If it’s slightly thinner and less ballsy than I’d remembered, it’s also prettier, the sort of thing that would have absolutely lit up Philadelphia ten years down the line. The Monitors had arrived, and with them came the Motown sound for the second half of the Sixties; the sound of young America, but unmistakeably growing up.
I love the Monitors. Although we’ve already met their previous incarnation, the Majestics, here on Motown Junkies – they’d had an unreleased single just over a year previously, the frustratingly close-to-great but also honkingly-flawed Hello Love, this feels like their real introduction to the Motown story. Lead singer and driving force Richard Street, one of the great, underrated Motown voices, has sadly passed away since we last wrote about him and his quietly excellent group, but thankfully the Monitors were well-served with a superb Ace/Kent CD compilation before his passing, giving modern listeners the chance to reappreciate an unfairly overlooked body of work. The title given to the compilation? Say You.
It was a title well chosen; as mission statements go, Say You is a declaration of intent. Perhaps for the first time, a Motown act stakes a claim in the exact musical territory already mined by another Motown artist, in this case the Four Tops and their magnificent vocal partnership with the female Andantes. It’s no surprise to read in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 that the song was originally recorded with the Tops in mind, the Spinners and Temptations both having a crack at it before the exasperated producers asked Richard Street and the Majestics/Monitors were asked – as a matter of convenience rather than artistic nous – to lay down a demo vocal, which ended with them being asked to do a proper full recording. But this isn’t “Four Tops lite” as might be feared; Richard’s (beautiful0 voice is nothing like that of Levi Stubbs, but otherwise this is the sound of the Tops/Andantes concept being dialled up to 11, producers Staunton and Walker (only one of whom cops a writing credit here, surprisingly, along with the enigmatic sometime Motown singer-songwriter Robert Dobyne) stretching the idea almost to breaking point. A Tops version might have laboured that point; the Monitors’ take is surprisingly fresh and punchy.
But it works, and it works really well, all based around a crazy off-beat hook, a soaring operatic football chant of a chorus – Say YOU-U! belted out at the top of everyone’s range and voice – contrasted with Richard’s ruminative, pleading verses, like an alternate-universe Marvin Gaye with the diction of Smokey Robinson, the phrasing of Eddie Kendricks. He rambles through his thoughts, sometimes addressing them second-person directly to the woman (the “you” of the title), other times sounding like he’s talking to himself, trying these thoughts out loud to see what he really thinks. It’s striking, and it’s almost impossible not to like.
Usually, I’d be finding fault with the song for its lack of direction, but I think the confusion in Say You is in its way quite magnificent, that enormous chorus-hook crashing back in whenever Richard runs out of things to say and needs to underline his point, then shrinking away again to put him back in the centre-stage spotlight. It really works, and what’s more, it works in a way that we’ve not really heard before.
It’s full of little moments, touches that raise smiles – drum fills, string stings, spit and polish to something approaching a Philly sheen rather than the blood and sweat and fire of the Funk Brothers which have underpinned even the most serenely lovely Motown tracks to date. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but in essence, it sounds modern; really, only the style of the backing vocals gives it away as a mid- rather than late-Sixties Motown piece. And Richard Street sounds like he was born to do this – the Temptations had no need for a fourth great lead singer just yet, but their not bringing one-time Distants bandmate Street across when the group came together with the Primes in 1961 looks an increasingly strange decision the more you listen to this.
The song can’t really keep it up – it’s still 1965, and nobody involved with this has ever heard a smooth soul record circa 1971, and so we end up getting scruffier and looser as we go on, that four-storey hook becoming more and more insistent as the writers (like the narrator) keep reaching for it to bolster the song in its less certain moments. Luckily, it’s a strong enough melody to carry the song, which in turn ends up sturdy enough to shoulder the weight of its own defining moment – a great Motown earworm, a snatch of tune which you’ll come away whistling at the expense of the verse stretches.
It’s also strong enough to shrug off the inevitable comparison to the Four Tops, the Monitors somehow managing to sound like they’re doing what the Tops are doing without really actually sounding much like the Tops themselves. What they do sound like is yet another great act to roll off the Motown production line; unlike so many of the one-and-done wannabes, the wrecks of whose Motown careers litter the catalogue of the underfunded fifth-string VIP Records label, these guys are absolutely keepers.
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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|R. Dean Taylor
“Let’s Go Somewhere”
“All For Someone”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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