(Written by Barbara McNair, Ron Miller and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
From a standing start, in under seven years Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. had gone from penniless ex-boxer to successful impresario, head of the year’s biggest-selling record label in America. But Gordy was now caught in a strange and unfamiliar position; unimaginably rich, critically acclaimed, and now widely credited as a civil rights torch-bearer to boot, there was no template for him to follow. As a successful black man in Sixties America – indeed, already one of the most successful African-American businessmen who ever lived – his peers, be it in the realm of financial or musical success, were overwhelmingly a bunch of old white guys. Motown might be the most successful label in America, and yet Gordy would never quite belong to the “old line” musical establishment.
The people who did belong – the ones who’d made their mega-money from records, before the days of rock & roll and the British Invasion at least – had done so with standards, old and new, sung by crooners and served up onto the gentle airwaves of white radio. Their artists weren’t necessarily white, but the material unfailingly was, or at least it sounded that way; a musical cycle system, feeding from Tin Pan Alley, looking to Broadway, looking to the Copa, looking to Vegas. Gordy had always wanted a piece of that action, and Motown had aimed for it right from the start, releasing their first servings of MOR material almost as soon as finances allowed.
As the money kept coming in, and as the “Hitsville USA” sign above Motown’s modest townhouse HQ became less of a self-important joke and more a statement of fact, the label could allocate better budgets for MOR sessions, and Motown began signing up established MOR performers, many of impressive stature. See Sammy Turner, Bunny Paul, Bobby Breen, Billy Eckstine, Tony Martin, not to mention the starchier leanings of the Supremes and Four Tops, or Marvin Gaye’s own multiple, failed attempts to swim in the same circles… and now, for the latest in the line, here’s Barbara McNair.
AND STARRING BARBARA McNAIR AS HERSELF
Ms McNair, who we’re meeting for the first time here on Motown Junkies, is one of the more fascinating characters we’ve come across so far in the Motown story. By the time she signed with Motown, she was already famous, a veteran actress and variety performer of stage, screen and TV, and even without the Motown connection her life would make for compelling reading. Here’s some edited highlights: she was one of the first African-American entertainers to get her own televised variety show (the unimaginatively-named The Barbara McNair Show), she flew to Vietnam to entertain the troops (striking up an unlikely friendship with Bob Hope in the process), her showbiz mogul husband was later murdered by the Mafia amid dark rumours of FBI involvement, and – if all this wasn’t interesting enough – she also became one of the earliest black women to pose naked for Playboy. Oh, and she also found the time to cut some records.
Perhaps only the first of those achievements is relevant to You’re Gonna Love My Baby; the variety show is in this record’s DNA, and if I don’t usually submit to the tyranny of genres, the arbitrary drawing of lines over what is and isn’t “soul” or “R&B” or “pop” or “jazz” or whatever, well, even without knowing the back story, this is a softer, more middle-of-the-road sound than the ostensibly similar stuff (in tempo anyway) which, say, Tammi Terrell or Brenda Holloway were cutting at the same time.
But if “maturity” is a notion which doesn’t necessarily always sit well with Motown, where youth reigned, where the oldest creative forces were in their mid-thirties, where even the big boss wasn’t yet 40, where the sales slogan was “The Sound of Young America”, well, this is still a very fine record. I did know the backstory, and I’d not enjoyed most of Motown’s previous excursions into this kind of territory, so I went into this expecting gloopy horrors in the Tony Martin mould, something to contrast with the grace and power of Tammi’s 45. Two weeks later, my fears remain unfounded, and I’m still whistling this to myself.
Effectively, what this record does – for the first time since Bobby Breen two hundred-odd sides ago – is play to the singer’s vocal strengths, letting them express their own style on something like their own home turf. It’s a show tune by any other name, but Miss McNair (who co-wrote the song, along with Motown’s MOR guru Ron Miller and the spectacularly named Coleridge Taylor Perkinson) is clever enough and experienced enough to know what to do with this kind of material, assimilating the style almost immediately, firmly asserting her starring role over the thickly-applied musical arrangement, and then spending the rest of the record (once she’s got the spotlight) bringing out the pain and nuance in the the intriguing lyric.
The second-person story of a woman addressing her ex-boyfriend’s new partner, wishing her well and emploring her not to make the same mistakes she did, it quickly becomes clear that the narrator isn’t over this at all; when she declares I still love him, for any slower-witted listeners who hadn’t got the subtext yet, we realise this isn’t even meant for the new woman to hear, that it’s a soliloquy, an unsent letter to be scrunched up once the narrator thinks better of it.
Vocally, it’s never less than interesting – if the style is dated to our ears (and I’ve no idea how it went down back in 1965), it’s also powerful in several ways, and as might be expected it’s certainly well-acted. Well-produced, too, with a pretty tune to go along with the Broadway aspirations of its singer and its arrangement.
All told, this is another fine launch record for another promising Motown talent in this most extraordinary of Motown years. It doesn’t entirely “fit” the musical narrative of Motown ’65 (though it fits the commercial behemoth narrative very well indeed), but there are some strikingly modern touches mixed in with the stagey setting, and I’m surprised it didn’t find more favour with buyers; it’s absolutely fine by me.
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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“Hold Me Oh My Darling”
“The Touch Of Time”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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