B-side of Cleo’s Mood
(Written by Autry DeWalt Jr. and Lawrence Horn)
B-side of Cleo’s Mood
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
I said when reviewing the A-side, the excellent bar-room blues/jazz instrumental Cleo’s Mood, that Junior Walker and the All Stars have a habit of turning up to save the day whenever the Motown DNA is in danger of going a bit MOR. Here, on the B-side, we see another one of Junior’s defining traits: a bad record following straight after a good one, and the nagging suspicion that Junior had no real idea what differentiated the two.
Superb though Cleo’s Mood is, I still feel it’s lacking an undefined extra “something” in comparison to truly great All Stars singles like Shotgun and Do The Boomerang, and I wondered if the X factor might be Junior Walker’s vocals. We’ve already discussed here on Motown Junkies how Junior, a saxophone virtuoso and grizzled R&B veteran musician (he was in his mid-thirties by now, but Motown’s teen-savvy marketing craftily lopped ten years off his actual age) was pressed into service as a singer too, revealing a surprisingly good voice: gruff but energetic, rabble-rousing in the best way. But Cleo’s Mood was three and a half years old when Motown dusted it off, a recording from long before Junior ever stepped up to sing.
Baby You Know You Ain’t Right, a much more recent recording, features Junior in full voice… and it’s a grave disappointment, as though almost everything individual or special from the A-side has been scraped away. What’s left behind, as it turns out, is just another male R&B group, and by no measure a great one.
Nearly everything we’ve covered from the All Stars so far has been either from the group’s pre-Motown days (they’d arrived at Hitsville courtesy of a buyout deal which brought nearly the entire roster and catalogue of Harvey Fuqua’s struggling Harvey/Tri-Phi concern into the Motown fold), or collected on the Shotgun LP, or (usually) both. Here, for the first time, we come across a “new” Junior Walker cut: something from the next generation, which would eventually find its way onto the Road Runner album (left).
In theory, this should show a kind of evolution, give an indication as to what was coming around the corner from the All Stars, cockier and louder and better than ever. And it sort of does, but only in hindsight, only by comparison to the much better title track of that second LP, a record which we haven’t heard yet. Without that helpful yardstick to make sense of Baby You Know You Ain’t Right, it comes over a confusing step backwards.
In fact, taken cold – and especially right after the blistering cool of the topside – it sounds lazily complacent, a second-rate Contours album track gussied up with a few token saxophone fills to remind everyone what group we’re listening to. It’s not so much that it’s bad (although it’s not particularly brilliant, but more on that in a moment); it’s more just that it’s kind of disappointing, as though Junior and pals, having already kicked some doors open on their way here, confounding expectations, are now happy to have a little rest, a sit down on the sofas before pushing any more boundaries.
That sounds harsh, I know. The laziness is conceptual, not an effort thing, I’m sure Junior is blowing as hard as ever. Plus, I’m aware my criticism is also artificial, because what Junior Walker fan – what Motown fan – is going to listen to this B-side while remaining unfamiliar with (I’m A) Road Runner? But it brings me back to my original suspicion that Junior wasn’t really sure (or, equally plausibly, didn’t really care) what made his good records good, or his bad records bad; I continually get the feeling that the raucous, jazz-born, blues-bred apparent insouciance that characterises the All Stars’ Motown output wasn’t merely an act, but more a way of life, that Junior and his buddies just wanted to get behind their instruments and go. They always sound like they’re having fun, which is worth something in itself – but what’s that old adage about jazz musicians enjoying themselves more than the audience…?
So this one just kind of plods along, Walker’s trademark sax more than a garnish but less than a spine. I’m not even going to talk about the slightly dubious lyrical content, another entry in a (thankfully still slim) sheaf of regrettable Motown relationship songs embodying attitudes that sound archaic to modern ears – but even if it was in Swahili, it doesn’t give Junior much of a vocal showcase to enjoy; everything about it is just kind of there and much as I try, I can’t bring myself to get excited about it.
What an enthralling review, eh? But this is a hard record to write about because it doesn’t really do it for me, without actually being rubbish. It’s okay, I guess, in that it’ll have you dancing (or at least nodding along and tapping your foot): but I can’t remember a single thing about it once it’s finished playing, which means for me it fails the most fundamental test for a Motown 45.
We’re in the middle of a staggering run of Motown sides here in the winter of 1965/66, perhaps the greatest the company ever put together, and so not only do the really bad ones stick out like sore thumbs, but the more indifferent (generic?) ones also seem less exciting. The ingredients all seem to be here for a raucous good-time All Stars jam, but the end result is oddly uninspiring. Better to come.
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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