(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Epiphanies and revelations run wide and deep as we trawl (slowly!) through the tail-end of the Motown singles catalogue in 1965. It’s strange enough listening to some of these records in context now, knowing what happened next, so spare a thought for how hard listeners at the time must have found all these curveballs. Even with the benefit of fifty years’ hindsight, it’s still hard to extrapolate some of these artists’ short-term futures, to predict, say, Stevie Wonder the musical genius, or Marvin Gaye the sensitive soul poet. And now, here are the Marvelettes, firmly under the wing of Smokey Robinson, pulling off perhaps the biggest reinvention of all.
The Marvelettes, as we say every time we meet them here on Motown Junkies, had been Motown’s first great girl group, artistically and commercially; in terms of sales, they’d peaked with their début single, Please Mr. Postman, hitting the jackpot first time out and then plugging away for a decade of diminishing returns. Artistically, they were far from done, and their position within the Hitsville pecking order (leapfrogged first by the Vandellas, then by the Supremes) saw them reinvent themselves as a barnstorming, tough-shelled, sassy girl group trading in uptempo dancers: witness I’ll Keep Holding On, witness Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead.
But even that territory was being mined with more success by the likes of the Velvelettes and the aforementioned Vandellas, and if the Marvelettes were going to stick out, they needed to keep moving forward, to find some new territory to stake their claim on America’s affections. At which point, the group’s story changed forever, and not for the first time the catalyst was one man’s vision: enter Smokey Robinson.
Smokey, taking over from Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter as the group’s producer, had cut his teeth mentoring first Mary Wells and then the Temptations to the top of the charts, while simultaneously keeping his hand in with his own group the Miracles. By the time of Don’t Mess With Bill, his stock was perhaps the highest it had ever been. He’d had a banner year, writing and producing some of his very best songs, for himself and for others, and he surely had plenty on his plate already without being tasked with reviving the Marvelettes brand, especially with the group now in disarray and shedding members. But he took the job with gusto, his enthusiasm fired by the unexpected promotion of Wanda Young Rogers as the group’s lead singer.
Wanda had started out as one of the background voices in the aptly-named Casinyets (so named “because we can’t sing yet”); Gladys Horton had fronted the majority of the Marvelettes’ Motown output over the last four years, with Wanda a shrill and wayward presence given an occasional lead, seemingly for reasons of intra-band politics rather than artistic necessity; without overplaying how bad she was (her barely-controlled teenage falsetto wasn’t necessarily any worse than what Eddie Kendricks was doing over in the boys’ camp, for instance), it made for some difficult listens all the same.
But she’d shown flashes of brilliance before – her Forever is a revelation – and, now 21, her voice had developed considerably as she matured. It surely didn’t hurt that she was now married to Smokey’s Miracles bandmate and very close friend Bobby Rogers, and thus virtually something approaching a sister-in-law to the new man in charge, but this was no case of empty nepotism; while Gladys remained one of Motown’s fine individual lead singers, and while it was undoubtedly a shame she ended up being sidelined in her own group, Wanda had come so far that it would have been criminal to leave her on the bench.
Smokey, as astute a judge of these things as anyone has ever been, was excited about the Marvelettes because he liked what he’d heard, and because he had some big ideas on where this sound could go next, given a push in the right direction. Wanda had fronted both of the Marvelettes’ two previous banging uptempo singles, her forceful, stabbing contralto a focal point on both records, but Don’t Mess With Bill is something else again; it’s a small-scale domestic drama, a kitchen sink epic, needing a restrained lead which is highly sympathetic, believably neurotic, and yet still ineffably cool.
Wanda is perfect for this; Smokey, still a year removed from cutting the first draft of what went on to become Whitfield and Strong’s lasting masterpiece I Heard It Through The Grapevine, here turns in his own paranoid master-class, a mesmerising, mildly menacing stew of minor chords and mistrust. It starts out as a threat, slinky and subtle but still deadly serious – you best keep away from my man, girl! – before the narrator’s confidence audibly crumbles, vacillating between a warning and a plea, and the facade eventually slips away, leaving this as the disjointed thoughts of a scared young woman lashing out at the world.
Wondering whether this lashing-out is real or imagined – one can easily picture Wanda in front of the mirror, waving away her rival’s protests, making herself angry, going over what she’d like to have said – is just one of the excellent things about this record. The target starts out in the realm of the hyper-specific – you can imagine this being aimed directly at some neighbour-woman or work colleague (though probably not a classmate, so mature does Wanda sound here), such that you expect her to be named along with Bill (a name supposedly chosen by Smokey, incidentally, purely for scansion rather than it being his own name) and the narrator’s reeled-off list of apparent mutual male acquaintances:
Now there’s Johnny, there’s Joe, and there’s… Frank and Jim,
just to name a few;
now, Bill’s got me, and… I’ve got him
I’m sure there’s one for you
…and yet, by the time we hit one of the catchiest of the song’s boatload of super-catchy hooks (Hear what I say, girls keep away, oh) the song is seemingly aimed at all girls everywhere, a scattergun blanket warning – he’s mine and mine alone, so back off, everyone else! – so low is her self-esteem. And our Billy doesn’t even seem like much of a catch in the first place, given we’re told he’s “put tears in my eyes a thousand times or more”, but she’s damned if she’s going to give him up to some supposed trollop who may or may not even be interested (indeed, who may not even exist at all). It’s a masterpiece of characterisation.
Smokey, the master of matching a lyric to a performer, has outdone himself here. Wanda’s previous two excursions had seen her – in the words of one commenter here on Motown Junkies – “throwing down with the best of them”, and on being asked to create a follow-up, a lesser writer/producer might have been expected to turn in something in the same mould. Instead, this is all about the performance, not just the technical strength of the vocal, the way Wanda handles the sharp turns.
(Though let’s not underplay that aspect of it; despite the slow tempo, this is packed full of long notes and passages of syllables piled up on each other; just because it’s not at 140bpm, it’s still hard to sing, much like riding a bike up a steep and twisty mountain road compared to the exhilaration of racing back downhill again. But I digress.) It’s Wanda’s “acting” here – and indeed, her “casting” for the part in the first place – that makes Don’t Mess With Bill tick. That, and the Funk Brothers.
Oh, the Funk Brothers. Right. If this session wasn’t at the back of their minds when they congregated to create Marvin’s version of Grapevine, I’d be surprised, as so much of what they’re doing here sounds like a dry run. Not that the two songs are particularly musically similar beyond the use of minor chords to create an atmosphere of foreboding, like a paranoid soup of insecurities for the narrator to swim against; Grapevine (in Marvin and Smokey’s versions) is organ-led, …Bill is punctuated with a sawtooth saxophone that’s strangely sexy and sinuous and yet somehow unsettling. Rather, it’s the feeling both songs conjure that forms the real link between them – I don’t know what information or instruction the musicians had been given to create this atmosphere, but they nail it. If soul is a state of mind, both of these great Motown records are the sound of that mind beginning to lose it after one too many late nights and cups of coffee.
Because this is a great Motown record, there’s no two ways about it. That it came from the Marvelettes, that Motown (or Smokey) had found a niche for them, marks a major stepping stone, the group now almost fully converted from the artless buzz of the Casinyets who’d muddled through a high school talent contest into the late-Sixties Marvelettes, Motown’s most thoughtful purveyors of what came to be dubbed “sophisticated soul”. (Though the journey’s not completely done – there’ll be two singles, including one more astonishing 45rpm landmark staging-post, on the way before we hit the Pink Album). Put simply, they sound all grown up now. Play this back-to-back with an older Marvelettes record like… well, the B-side, for starters, and the difference is striking. Not only that, but it’s striking in a good way.
We’ve never had cause to doubt the Marvelettes’ quality before, but now they’re paired with the right producer, they’ve got a part to play in the Motown story too, a part that finally makes sense; Don’t Mess With Bill is almost something like a rebirth, the start of the Marvelettes’ magnificent second act, and its brilliance is cause for much celebration.
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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“Since You’ve Been Loving Me”
“Anything You Wanna Do”
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