b/w Spanish Rose
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
It comes to something when a wacky curio like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine isn’t the weirdest Supremes-related single of the month.
White crooner Tony Martin, here making his third and final appearance on a Motown 45, was a star of the Fifties fallen on relatively hard times, picked up by Motown just a few months before things went stratospheric. His status as one of the loyal pre-Big Time “old guard” was a status granted on a technicality, Martin’s signing to Motown being more a case of any port in a storm rather than a mark of his belief in the little black independent label’s future prospects (no better illustrated than during a national TV appearance on The Tonight Show (!) in late 1965, when Martin, asked by Johnny Carson what he was doing for a recording contract these days, tactlessly shrugged off Motown’s throwing him a career lifeline, muttering he was tied up with “some little unkown label in the Midwest” and insinuating he was open to offers).
Still, it was a status granted nonetheless, and as a result, Martin was afforded more reciprocal loyalty than any of the company’s here today, gone tomorrow singings since the summer of 1964. It meant that even after two awful singles, the faintly creepy Talkin’ To Your Picture and the laughably pompous The Bigger Your Heart Is The Harder You Fall – a real pair of duds, complete flops both commercially and artistically – he was given the chance to cut a third. The eye-popping amounts of money the label had made since his arrival, in large part due to the success of the Supremes, made such largesse on Motown’s part a feasible play. Not just for sentimental reasons, either; Berry Gordy still hankered for a successful MOR act, a ticket into the whitest and wealthiest rooms of old America.
What’s really interesting is the choice of material. In a move which was either perceptive and bold or ham-fistedly inappropriate, this is a cover of a Supremes song (the B-side to Baby Love, in fact), meaning that right in the middle of perhaps the most incredible run of singles in Motown’s history, greatness piling up on top of greatness, we’re treated to the prospect of a 52-year-old white man in a lounge suit pretending to be Diana Ross.
Once the initial shock of seeing the one-time Alvin Morris singing a Holland-Dozier-Holland song has faded, you can sort of see the sense in the pick. Ask Any Girl, in its original incarnation, was an outlier among the Supremes’ better songs; originally intended for Kim Weston (and thus far outside Diana’s usual vocal range), then oddly chosen both as the closing track of the seminal Where Did Our Love Go LP and the opening track of its follow-up More Hits from the Supremes, as well as the flip-side of one of Motown’s biggest multi-million-selling international hits, it nonetheless deviated from the usual Motown template, bringing in a complex structure, an unusual time signature and unexpected flamenco influence.
Certainly it’s a song that, conceptually anyway, lends itself to an MOR reinterpretation in a more sophisticated way than the usual “slow it down 50% and slap on a string section” approach (although of course with source material as strong as Holland-Dozier-Holland were providing, that tactic could still pay big dividends – look to the aforementioned Miss Weston’s blockbusting Stop! In The Name Of Love for an example).
Motown’s West Coast studio here provides a suitably ersatz take on the Funk Brothers’ pummelling energy – there’s a sort of slightly sticky showbiz sheen on this which seems at odds with the demented staccato drive of the original. You’d expect Tony to be more in his element the cheesier the surroundings, but he’s as ill at ease as ever here; once the big dramatic intro/overture (which is admittedly well-handled) gives way to the drum beat and strident backing vocals, Martin quickly slips into a syrupy performance verging on self-parody, with lowlights almost too many to pick out. Nobody in the history of the world has pronounced the word “man” the way he does it the first time, full of faux-emotional baritone vibrato and unnnaturally-stretched syllables; his pronunciation of “slumber” is somehow even funnier, like a lumberjack warning of a falling tree; and his reading at 1:25 of “…and he’ll UN-der-STA-A-A-AND why… I sit! And CRYYYY!” is unintentionally hilarious, a stentorian movie trailer voiceover artist “singing” – reciting – his lines flat in character. It’s awful.
(Also, the whole thing just comes across as weird anyway – for whatever reason, while I could buy Diana Ross doling out this self-pitying rant, Tony Martin just doesn’t connect with the material in the same way. Perhaps it’s the age difference, or perhaps the ceremonial pomp with which Martin puffs up his part; where Diana seemed vulnerable and wounded, he merely comes across as a grown man acting like a petulant, self-entitled boy. Not tremendously edifying.)
But Tony’s hammy excesses, by now almost slipping into spoof territory, can’t completely torpedo a strong underlying song. It’s a pity the crazed flamenco of the original has been sacrificed in favour of a faster but also less-interesting style, and it’s true that the re-recording brings out almost everything I’d mistrusted in the Supremes’ rendition, but underneath it all, it remains a good tune; whenever Tony shuts up for a moment and leaves the band and the backing singers to la-la-la their way through the infectious horn-driven instrumental breaks, you’re reminded of the song’s fundamental quality. Of course, my saying the best part of a single is the singer’s absence is damning with the faintest of faint praise, but this still ends up being just about Tony Martin’s best single for Motown. Which really isn’t saying very much.
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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- The Supremes (September 1964)
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