(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
And so to 1966, Motown Year Eight, although really the dividing line is no kind of marker at all; the winter of ’65/’66 saw the label at an all-time high, with new potential star names coming off the production line all the time, and the big bankable headline acts cranking out timeless classic after timeless classic, everyone involved on the form of their lives. Peak Motown.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had had as much of an impact as anyone on Motown’s ultra-high quality threshold, coming up with two of their best records to date, Nowhere To Run and You’ve Been In Love Too Long, and yet they’d also endured a frustrating year; those were the only two singles the Vandellas had seen released in 1965, with a six-month gap of radio silence after each of them. What gives?
It’s not as if they weren’t making great records, and it’s not as if those great records weren’t selling. Rather, supposedly “personal issues”, that catch-all descriptor for any fashion of behind-the-scenes shenanigans (used to spark fans’ imaginations in the absence of hard information), were involved in the delay. The result saw one of Motown’s biggest ever acts, in Motown’s biggest ever year, release the same number of singles as the Lewis Sisters. And it’s almost as if nobody noticed.
Even this “comeback” has more than a whiff of stopgap about it. Originally written for Kim Weston (one of the co-writers was her then-husband Mickey Stevenson, whose generous “gifting” of the song to Martha apparently didn’t go down tremendously well over the breakfast table), and featuring no Vandellas other than Martha herself, this had been recorded back in the summer of 1965 and held back until a suitable release slot became available. Quite the slap in the face when you consider Martha had been Motown’s queen for a day back in 1963, and when you realise we’ve had not one but four Supremes 45s here on Motown Junkies since we last heard from the Vandellas.
So, there are behind-the-scenes problems and drama aplenty surrounding My Baby Loves Me alright. But then the needle drops, and the groove strikes up, and all is well in Motownworld once again.
I’ve been asked more than once why Martha is my favourite Motown female vocalist (and she is – guess what I named my baby daughter), but it’s hard to explain; she just has something about her, something difficult to pin down but somehow inestimable. I think, if I were to try and articulate it, it’s her way of not ever quite fitting to a given tune – I don’t mean she can’t hold the tune, or get her note, I mean that with every vocal she ever turns in, there’s almost a feeling that she wants to explore the boundaries, that the melody is there as a safety net, a sketched line on a canvas, and that for her, exploring the boundaries is what singing is about; just sticking closely to it isn’t really enough of a challenge for a singer or a treat for a listener. So, she doesn’t sing songs so much as inhabit them, unmistakeable and irresistible, the free spirit of jazz and the sweetness of pop and the grunting drive of dirty, sexy soul all fighting in her blood, all seeking an escape into the nearest microphone before the whole thing’s going to blow.
Anyhow, that’s why I love Martha’s voice. And I’m telling you all this because really, for all the fantastic Vandellas hits we’ve had so far (Motown could, and pretty much did, compile a fine Greatest Hits LP made up of the excellent Martha & the Vandellas 45s and albums up to 1965), for me My Baby Loves Me is when we really meet Martha Reeves in full effect. I’ve said already that from here on in – and the start of 1966 is as good a place to mark that border as any other – recording for Motown is a statement in its own right, the brand and the history of the label arguably stronger than those of the individual artists. I think it’s also true of the artists themselves, though: in the mid-Sixties, the recording industry in America had changed, one-time teen sensation acts were achieving a newfound longevity, and here Martha Reeves is playing to her own audience. Join me, she’d exhorted the youth of America on Dancing In The Street, follow me, with the promise of new and exciting worlds to come. Now, a year and a half later, it’s time to make good on those promises; for those who are still listening, she’s no longer that new singer trying to ensnare you, she’s Martha being Martha. And it’s magnificent.
The best thing about this song, I think, is that it gives Martha so much room to stretch out at her leisure, without ever losing the push and snap and flex of earlier, more energetic Vandellas 45s, without slipping into sappy ballad territory. A simple enough declaration of love and trust on the face of it, like the Elgins’ immediately-preceding Darling Baby there’s much more going on beneath the surface – equally excellent, except this one has Martha, too. It’s both seductive and romantic all at once: one reading can make it undeniably sexy, and yet it’s also among my daughter’s favourite lullabies, another reading rendering the song courtly and chaste in its faith and devotion.
Kim Weston was apparently angry with Martha for singing the song the same way Kim had wanted to, but without hearing Kim’s original take, it’s difficult to argue the song didn’t benefit from the change of singer; even if Kim has the technically “better” voice, Martha is no slouch when it comes to hitting the cheap seats in the back, and she sends this one straight from her heart to yours.
Writing about individual highlights in Martha’s vocal here seems like a fool’s errand, because there are so many of them, almost too many to count; the way she revs up and powers down so brilliantly, one minute battering the outer limits (I’ll come runnin’ on the… DOU-BLE!), the next matter-of-factly outlining this is just the way things are (‘Cause I know he NEEDS me), a hint of purr and a glow of satisfaction about it. She puts this character over so completely that it took me several listens before I even considered the narrator might be unreliable, that this account of the perfect relationship might be defiantly wishful, rather than true – this is romance writ large and Martha sounds like a woman in love, in her way as lovestruck as Diana Ross on the Supremes’ I Hear A Symphony.
In fact, if anything, the relationship is actually more believable here, because while Martha’s narrator doesn’t ascribe her guy with any special attributes, achievements or abilities – unusually, unlike a lot of female R&B narrators, she doesn’t even lionise him for basic “least-you-could-expect” faithfulness, all the promises as to future fidelity and loyalty are on her side, not his – her voice makes that irrelevant. We take it as read the relationship is in a blissfully happy place because not only does Martha sound like she’s in a blissfully happy place –
Now, nobody can tell me
The place where I’m going WRONG, oh no!
– but because Martha sounds like if something was amiss, she’d tell us, and she can stick up for herself. Just take it as read: he’s great, but this song is about me, not him.
Oh, and just as with Darling Baby (only more so), this is extremely catchy, too; for the longest time I thought it was actually the B-side, but it makes perfect sense as a topside too, Martha taking a fine but tightly-contained band track and pumping it full of hooks with her voice alone, just as she always does. By the time we get to the call-and-response bit in the coda, Yeah yeah yeah, YEAH yeah!, it’s like we’ve never even heard any of her other songs; this isn’t by the woman who sang Come And Get These Memories, but rather that one’s by the woman who sang My Baby Loves Me. We love it for what it is, not because we already love Martha Reeves. And yet she couldn’t have done this without the confidence already gained from all those achievements so far; she couldn’t have done this if she wasn’t already Martha Reeves, star performer.
Usually, it should be me writing about what makes Martha a star, but My Baby Loves Me is the sort of performance that makes the case on my behalf better than I ever could – I find it hard to put into words just what it is she does, but she does it here better than ever before.
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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|Martha & the Vandellas
“Never Leave Your Baby’s Side”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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