(Written by Berry Gordy)
There’s an argument to say that Motown were never better than the winter of 1965/66, that this was in many ways the label’s high water mark. For sure it was both the best and worst of times to be newly signed to Motown; the label’s coffers were now swollen to such an extent that Berry Gordy could afford to take as many long shots as he fancied, but the pressure to perform had grown too. If the chances of getting a Motown record deal were high, so were the chances of being dropped straight after. Anyone without a hit under their belt couldn’t expect to stick around for too long.
Indeed, as 1965 draws to a close, we find Motown in a bit of a strange place. In some respects, this was the same little black-owned independent company, run from out of a cramped house in Detroit; new signings, wooed by the label’s sudden vault to the top, were often underwhelmed by the modest premises, so much at odds with Motown’s slick, glossy public image. In other ways, though, Motown had changed beyond recognition, and those new signings were a major part of that. We’ve already said goodbye to a lot of the faces that built Motown, their departures barely registering as talented newcomers came thick and fast.
At this stage, the most striking of the new arrivals were female vocalists. Most of Motown’s attempts to replace Mary Wells in the label’s line-up had met with limited success, commercially if not artistically; the careers of Brenda Holloway and Kim Weston had both seemingly hit brick walls, and despite the company’s perseverance with both, they were still in the market for a new solo female star. And they certainly went looking; although the slow pace of entries here on Motown Junkies has dulled the impact a bit, we’ve only just met Tammi Terrell and Barbara McNair. All of these women have exceptional voices, and with Gladys Knight just around the corner, the larder was now well-stocked with great singers. And still Motown went looking.
And now, here’s Chris Clark, who offered something very different indeed.
WHO’S GONNA TAKE YOUR JIVE
Chris Clark, Motown’s first new white soul act since R. Dean Taylor, was a Californian nightclub singer (from Santa Cruz, not Los Angeles as often stated), who’d been recommended to Berry Gordy by Hal Davis in the label’s West Coast office. But she wasn’t really a “new” signing at all.
Rather, Chris was someone called off the bench after a long apprenticeship; she’d actually been at Motown since 1963. Like Martha Reeves, having turned up at Hitsville for an audition, she ended up doing office work while waiting for her chance behind the mic. (Like Martha, she was also uncommonly tall, only even more so in Chris’ case.) Eventually, that chance came, with a song written and produced by none other than Gordy himself. Acres of print (and more recently, electrons) have been dedicated to gossip, rumours, hearsay and chit-chat over just why the boss took a sudden interest in Chris’ career, and often – to this day, in fact – that’s used as a stick with which to beat her, a talentless white woman who only got a record deal because she was screwing the boss, the heady cocktail of nepotism and race as potent as ever.
(Incidentally, can I just get something off my chest here? “Blue eyed soul” as an identifiable genre of music is a thing, yes, fair enough, but it’s not a catch-all descriptor for any soul music sung by any white artist. Miss Clark here should really be exhibit A for this position. Yes, a lot of white soul artists ultimately tended towards the MOR end of the spectrum – but no more so than black artists covering sappy white standards. There’s more “soul” in this than in 90% of The Temptations In A Mellow Mood, for instance. But I digress.)
This does Chris a massive disservice, because regardless of who she was or wasn’t sleeping with, she had an excellent voice. It wasn’t just the colour of her skin that made her stick out at Motown, nor was it her tomboy demeanour and refusal to play along with the charm school duties the image-obsessed label forced all its female acts to undertake (although, perhaps tellingly, she and Brenda Holloway – another outcast from the Detroit clique – became firm friends). Rather, Chris was just different altogether, gung-ho and game and immediately interesting, and whatever the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gordy also felt he had a real talent on his hands. And he was right.
Several people have called Chris Clark Motown’s (or even America’s) answer to Dusty Springfield, and there’s a lot of mileage in the comparison beyond their being two blonde white girls: they were both husky-voiced soul singers who fooled a lot of first-time listeners into thinking they were black Southerners. In Dusty’s case, both Martha Reeves and Mary Wells made the assumption, and Chris caused similar confusion when people found out she was actually Caucasian and from the West Coast. This went down poorly with Motown’s increasingly-alienated black urban fans (Clark was actually booed off the stage at the Apollo by a crowd who hadn’t realised she was white, a neat mirroring of the similar nonsense Bob Kayli had faced from audiences who didn’t realise he was black), but white listeners reacted positively – as they always have – to the white girl with the black voice.
(One British journalist even tagged her with the nickname “The White Negress”, a sobriquet surely meant as a compliment – but which brings modern listeners up short, and which apparently once caused Chris some bother when she repeated this story during an interview with a Deep South radio station. Suffice to say, she’s not called that any more).
But that’s the backstory. What’s the result like?
EVERY DOG IS GONNA HAVE ITS DAY
It’s excellent, obviously. Yet another new talent unearthed, Motown’s scouting department surely the envy of any major league sports franchise when it came to picking winners. I remember the first time I heard this, having been led to expect an embarrassment, a grubby favour for services rendered, a distracting footnote in the Motown story. What we have here, instead, is something quite different from anything Motown have done before, blues and honky-tonk (no pun intended) piano mingled together in a heady cocktail of lolloping pop-soul fun, and CC riding over the top in engaging style, another fine new name to add to the increasingly overcrowded roster.
Now, it’d be all very well for me to say for the record that since I have no interest at all in who went to bed with who, there’s no need to mention it again, as the story adds no extra dimension here, doesn’t inform what’s on the actual record. But I’m actually not so sure that’s true. There’s a great bit in Citizen Kane where the title character puts his new wife, a low-rent club singer, through the humiliation of mounting an opera with her in the lead role just to prove herself (for his own reputation); the opera in question opens, implausibly, with a full aria, the singer left completely exposed, with predictable results. Do Right Baby Do Right, whose backstory would appear to share a number of parallels here, opens in similar fashion. No quiet entrance, no hiding behind a Funk Brothers fanfare; Chris Clark is introduced to the world with an aria of her own, stranded without instruments for fourteen long seconds and with just two words to sustain her, a long, melismatic, acapella “You… bet-ter…”
But here’s where the story diverges, because Chris smashes it out of the park, proving immediately that she belongs, quieting the doubters, setting us up for the pumping, wheezing strut of the next three minutes, as she takes complete control.
It’s interesting to me that after this single bombed – which was maybe to be expected, records on the lower-priority VIP imprint rarely receiving Motown’s full promotional attention – Chris Clark was pushed into all sorts of other interesting directions, but never really followed up the spark she began with here. As with so many mid-Sixties Motown débuts and dead ends, this is a tantalising glimpse of something that never quite happened; arguably, Motown would never get any closer than this to having their own answer to Dusty Springfield.
And yet here, on this one single, she’s magnificent, the band apparently falling into place behind her, frenzied piano and growling sax (and the Lewis Sisters, no less, on backing vocals, and credited on the label too!) all trading blows in a thick and menacing soup of bitter recriminations, and Chris Clark fronting it all with a furious, magnificently pissy sneer of considerable delicacy and dexterity.
She loses her grip slightly on it a couple of times, sure, but then for each weaker moment, like the hey! hey! exhortations near the end, there’s something magnificent, like her melismatic near-solo reprise/relapse in the bridge to the middle eight at the 1:10 mark – You know I ne-hee-hee-heed you / Oh, how I nee-heed you, baby, tailing off for that duck-walking baritone sax to buzz and scrape along the piano lid.
Berry Gordy has been called a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid, and he wouldn’t have promised some random girl a record (and written it, and produced it) for any reason if he didn’t think something good would come of it. Whatever the salacious subtext, it’s just as likely Gordy saw and heard something in Chris Clark which let him write and produce a different kind of record, to roll up his sleeves and flex his creative muscles again. More isolated than ever from the Motown factory floor, the big boss was still capable of doing fascinating and unexpected things when a project sparked his interest; here, he’s got a new kind of voice and a new kind of singer to play with, and together they make this record something new.
Yet again in the course of writing this blog, I find myself confronted with a narrative and a record which seem to bear no relation to each other; I really liked this one. Now’s the time, alright.
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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“Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine”
“Don’t Be Too Long”
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