B-side of Ask Any Man
Knowing the previous form of white crooner Tony Martin, here making his last appearance on a Motown 45 and therefore the last time he’ll feature on Motown Junkies, I was immediately suspicious of a song called Spanish Rose – this is going to be a borderline racist thing about a facelessly stereotypical Latina woman, isn’t it?
But no, on actually listening to it, it turns out this is about an actual rose. From Spain. Which he saw in the street, and which reminded him of… Okay, why does this remind him of his ex-girlfriend? And what on earth is going on with this chorus?
Going through the Motown catalogue one side at a time, in order, as we’re doing here, is artificial on a number of levels. I’ve got the benefit of hindsight, I’ve got information about both the future careers of these artists and their reputations in posterity which wouldn’t have been available at the time, I’ve got all the records and yet I wasn’t there to take in any of the context first-hand. But doing it this way also throws a number of these things into my path, records that no self-respecting Motown fan would ever have knowingly bought at the time, strange additional narratives that now directly cross the path of the main Motown Story instead of being forgotten footnotes for collectors only.
And some of them are really awful, and I’m not allowed to skip any of them, even though I was very sorely tempted to do that with Spanish Rose. Or maybe this is my punishment for leaving you all waiting for two months a while back; kind of a penance, a redemptive act of self-flagellation for having neglected the blog. What can I say? I’m really sorry.
Anyway, this is dreadful. The song is hokier than anything we’ve seen on Motown (“proper” Motown, not the Mel-o-dy country & western subsidiary) in years, the instrumentation and arrangement is pure light-entertainment cheese, the lyrics are inscrutable slop, and the vocals… oh dear. Apart from that, it’s fantastic.
You’d think that the virtual tsunami of fondue served up here by the tacky band would suit a veteran crooner like Martin, that he’d respond well to finding himself in more comfortable surroundings, but actually all it does is leave him cruelly exposed.
Tony Martin had enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a star of stage, screen and shellac (his first national hits for Decca came before the Second World War!), scoring international Top Ten singles in the Forties and Fifties along the lines of his rendition of Stranger in Paradise, overshadowed in the wake of Tony Bennett’s competing version. But by the time Tony pitched up at Motown, he had had no hits for eight years, and his film career had long since hit the skids.
Tony’s quasi-bel canto singing style, all the rage in pop circles in previous decades, had, ironically, gone out of style; fair enough, it happens. But the material needed to show off his voice had also gone out of style, and that’s more of a problem. Check out his beautiful version of La Vie En Rose – not really my thing, but I can appreciate when it’s being done well. And then listen to Spanish Rose, which by comparison is like a child’s daubed finger-painting compared with a Caravaggio.
Why does this fail, and fail so spectacularly? Is it because Tony’s voice had lost some of its power in the years since he’d been a top draw, or is it because Davis and Wilson were excellent pop/R&B writers and hugely out of their element, assuming one kind of staid and cheesy was as good as another? The strangulated, uneasy, vocalising here is a tough listen, both in terms of sounding dreadful, and in terms of the sympathetic cringe for such an obvious fish out of water. On the one hand, you could argue Tony’s performance isn’t a million miles away from those Fifties examples – a little looser, a little less able to stretch for the biggest notes, but in the same sort of ballpark – and that it’s actually the song, a wince-inducingly jaunty dinner-theatre sort of number, which doesn’t suit his voice at all. On the other hand, you can certainly say that however ropey the source material, Tony does it no favours – he’s phoning this in, he misses a couple of important notes in awkward, clashing style, and the whiff of a man who believes himself to be slumming it, believes his current situation is beneath him, comes over clear and rancid.
Either way, this sounds awful. If this had been bought in from some third-rate Tin Pan Alley hack, dashed off on the back of an envelope between takes of some ghastly daytime TV variety spectacular in exchange for some beer money, it would still be inexcusable. To find it’s actually written and produced by two of the most talented writers in the Motown stable – and lacking any kind of self-awareness which might let them play the pastiche card – it’s nothing short of shocking. But Tony doesn’t get off the hook either: as with so many of the worst Motown singles, this is bad material badly cast and sung badly, and it makes for an all-round miserable experience.
This is total, irredeemable garbage, the absolute worst of all Martin’s six sides for Motown, and a fitting note to end one of the most improbable careers in Motown history, as incongruous as anything from Irene Ryan, Albert Finney or the Abbey Tavern Singers. That this blip should have come in the middle of such a sustained run of R&B greatness, a Golden Age upon which Motown’s reputation now largely rests today, is to add insult to injury, but at least it’s over for the time being. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
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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“Ask Any Man”
|Jr. Walker & the All-Stars
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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