Ladies and gentlemen, the return of the Velvelettes. My one-man campaign to raise the profile of Motown’s most criminally overlooked group isn’t helped by this being the first time we’ve written about them here on Motown Junkies in over a year, which gives you some idea just how far down the Hitsville pecking order the ladies had fallen.
Apparently, this song – which, like every Velvelettes single, is excellent, let’s get that out of the way right at the start – was intended as a follow-up to their previous, stupendous Motown 45, Lonely Lonely Girl Am I, back in the summer. But someone at Motown decided they didn’t like the final mix, cancelling the single (slated for VIP 25021, for all the discography nerds out there) and commissioning several new overdubs which were eventually discarded anyway. By the time this sneaked out at the end of 1965, any momentum from Lonely Lonely Girl Am I was lost, and the single failed to chart; there would be just one more Velvelettes 45 before the group disbanded.
But let’s stay on the bright side. This is yet another fine seven-inch from the least-heralded of Motown’s genius writer/artist partnerships, Norman Whitfield’s burgeoning stock within the company owing much to the brilliant interpretation of his ideas by the Velvelettes, who are on excellent form again. If it’s not quite the equal of the two world-beating Velvelettes efforts that came before, well, only in Velveletteworld could this be considered any kind of disappointment, because it’s splendid.
In the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5, lead singer Cal Gill (who provides a lovely series of recollections) singles out the James Jamerson bass and Jack Ashford tambourine on this track for special praise, and she’s absolutely right; this pummels along like it’s on rails, the constantly-bashed four-to-the-floor tambourine showing up R. Dean Taylor’s horrible Let’s Go Somewhere (which had tried the same trick to disastrous effect) for the disappointment it is.
If the delay in getting this one out to the people initially makes it seem as though the Velvelettes are taking their cues from the Marvelettes and Vandellas, rather than providing them, a look at the recording dates reveals that once again, the Whitfield/Velvelettes team are at the cutting edge of the Motown sound, muscular and menacing. It’s not their fault a six month holdup pushed them back in the Motown innovation pack as we transition into 1966.
To listen to a good Velvelettes record is to be transported, in so many ways. There’s something magical about the Velvelettes when they hook it all together, something which makes it a lasting regret they didn’t have a longer time in the sun at Motown. Knowing their story was all but finished, on top of the fact that nobody at the time seemed to care, it’s difficult not to start pining for the great late-Sixties Velvelettes songs we never got to hear, the new songs they might have teased out of Norman Whitfield, the amazing records that might have resulted. The pain is eased by the group’s Motown Anthology double CD set, collecting together their considerable unreleased Motown output, which is positively stuffed with quality castoffs – but when you hear something like A Bird In The Hand, which again seems so effortlessly brilliant compared to almost any pop record you care to mention, you can’t help but feel we missed out.
Here, they’re on top form again, their intricate dovetailing harmonies (very much a Velvelette USP) as mesmerising as ever as they swirl and loop around the listener, a three-ring circus of sound with Cal Gill barking like a ringmaster. Apparently she had a case of laryngitis coming on when her lead vocals were laid down, accounting for her throatier, raspier lead vocal here in comparison to the smoke and silk of her earlier cuts, but Whitfield liked the effect so much he forced her through several takes to get the right amount of breathy worldliness into the sixteen-year-old lead singer for her to convincingly dispense seasoned relationship advice.
It worked; she gives it the full Martha Reeves here, with spectacular results. When she leaps up the register with a heartfelt exclamation of “HOLD ON TIGHT is the thing to do” at 2:14, we’re witnessing what should’ve been the start of a magnificent new phase in an already highly accomplished singing career, rather than the beginning of the end. Yes, yes, I know, spilt milk, tears, whatever.
The chorus is yet another killer stomp of repetitive elements and a blasting 4/4 beat, once again underlining just how good the Velvelettes were at selling this sort of thing, Cal switching off altogether for the other Velvelettes to take up the mantra-like earworm chant – bird in the hand is worth two in the bush now / bird in the hand is worth two in the bush now – and floating over the top with her interjections (“Remember girls! Hold on!”) And the high harmonies are just again slotted in exactly right, fitting the rhythm with digital-watch timing (“Hold on, baby, to what you got!”) It’s just a remarkable record.
It’s not my favourite Velvelettes 45 (we’ve had those already), but what it is is another outstanding Motown single, full of hooks which will instantly take up residence in your head for weeks, from a group who were unjustly overlooked at the time. It should have been another fantastic track to go on the million-selling best-of package their brilliance deserved; instead, it’s one of the last things Motown released on them, one of the last things left to remember them by. But it does them justice, there’s no doubt about that.
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!)
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