b/w Sad Song
(Written by Frank Wilson)
b/w Sad Song
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Of all the questions prompted by Motown’s sudden and meteoric rise to something approaching omnipresence in 1965, I doubt “so, what’s next for Brenda Holloway?” was near the top of anyone’s list of burning issues. The erstwhile Next Big Thing had suffered badly during the course of the preceding year, wrongfooted by a misguided corporate decision to saddle her with a job lot of Mary Wells’ hand-me-downs and then stymied by a lack of promotional clout when she cut material better suited to her own voice. Her last single (back in August), the magnificent once-in-a-lifetime You Can Cry On My Shoulder, had missed the Hot 100 (indeed, it barely scraped the Hot, um, 120); six months on and Together ‘Til The End Of Time suffered the same commercial fate, and by then, nobody was really talking about Brenda any more.
This isn’t quite the sound of Motown washing its hands of their one-time brightest new hope, but it doesn’t exactly smack of confidence either (no more direct involvement from the big names, a track recorded not in Detroit but Brenda’s native Los Angeles courtesy of Motown’s already-deprecated West Coast office, saddled with a re-used two-year-old archive cut, Sad Song, on the B-side); Brenda and Motown weren’t through with each other just yet, but her shot at the really big time, the one-name superstar diva territory she’d once looked destined to achieve, had pretty much officially come and gone.
But here begins the strange second act of Brenda’s Motown life, a life from now on mostly lived out of the spotlight. On my radio show, I’ve christened her the Queen of Unreleased Motown, because while there were a lot of artists who toiled largely in the dark at Hitsville stockpiling new music, precious little of which ever saw the light of day, Brenda remains a case apart: from here through her eventual walkout in 1968, during which time she troubled the Top 40 chart compilers just once more, the tracks we’ll cover on Motown Junkies represent only the tip of a particularly hefty iceberg. There are absolutely dozens more Brenda Holloway cuts under the surface, cuts which had to wait for the CD era to be heard – indeed, cuts which are still waiting, fifty years later – and, crucially, cuts which under different circumstances could, just feasibly, have been enduring hits.
This isn’t really one of them, and if I’m being honest, nor is it one of her very best – but as well as being really rather lovely, it’s an important step towards her finding that elusive voice of her own. Together with her previous effort’s flip, How Many Times Did You Mean It, it marks a restatement of values, a kind of reboot. Away from the crowds, Brenda quietly finds a thread long abandoned, a thread that ran through her mesmerising debut Every Little Bit Hurts and its beguiling sequel I’ll Always Love You; now that nobody’s really watching, left to her own devices, she picks that thread back up again, and it’ll take her somewhere new and unexpected, somewhere difficult but occasionally very rewarding. We follow, with caution.
Mind you, that caution is well justified, I think. We’re in the middle of the greatest sustained run of glorious artistic and commercial success Motown had ever achieved (arguably, that they would ever achieve), and absent the artificial dividing line of the new year (which severs the thread if you’re playing The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 and then have to pause to get Volume 6 down from the shelf to continue the story), listening to December ’65 and January ’66 as a continuous and contiguous whole really makes Together ‘Til The End Of Time stick out, and not necessarily in a good way.
There’s always been more than a touch of MOR about Brenda’s work at Motown so far, and that’s including the very best of it; even her catalogue of Mary Wells covers seems to have acquired a showbiz sheen that wasn’t really there when Miss Wells was singing those same songs, so it’s probably safe to say the unifying factor in that ever-so-slight drift cheesewards was Miss Holloway herself. That whitebread tendency is only underlined by her propensity for gussying up a plain passage with a much bigger performance, pumping the throttle in a way that’s often a thrill but which also risks sacrificing meaning and nuance. Keep on determinedly ironing out the underlying emotions in a song in order to show off what a good voice you’ve got, and you might well end up with something that sounds like it’s been ironed: smooth and crisp and flat. Or, to put it more simply, bigger isn’t always better, and not everything is a show tune or torch song.
In this way, up until now Brenda has shown how easily she could become a victim of her own vocal prowess; in common with many of her labelmates, she seems to have been someone who grew up listening to a lot of standards, but crucially she didn’t then follow up that Broadway love by hanging out with a load of hardened jazz cats and blues heads, her physical isolation out in her native California unavoidably cutting her off from developments in Detroit to an extent. Hence, it’s possible that Brenda’s apparent natural tendency towards the poppy and the splashy, a tendency which for me has undermined what could have been some exceptional records so far, might have been some kind of defensive mechanism in the face of Motown’s unending pressure to deliver. Patience was famously short around Hitsville, and the expectation for Brenda to both get with the program and show what made her so special at the same time resulted in a good many OTT vocal performances, treating each track like some kind of final audition.
The effect on the worst offenders is ironic: Brenda, an articulate, loquacious and intelligent woman with a largely-hidden knack for songwriting and musical theory, gives the impression she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care what she’s singing about.
But what if the song you’re singing actually turns that into an asset, rather than a liability? What if it gives you something to really get your teeth into and make your own? That’s when Brenda comes into her element, and that’s the Brenda Holloway I know and love. We saw the results on her aforementioned first two Motown singles, which together with You Can Cry On My Shoulder form a kind of trilogy of imposing, suffocating hyper-ballads; when you don’t give in to the schmaltzy impulses but instead turn them to your advantage, you can weaponise that voice and those Broadway instincts for the purposes of good, like a female take on Marvin Gaye suddenly realising you don’t get to be Nat King Cole just by singing a load of the same songs he sang.
What am I waffling on about? The magic and the artistry of Brenda Holloway, who’s getting better and better even as the sales taper off, and who – after this record crashes and burns on the charts – will barely put a foot wrong. I’d say it was one of the more surprising late-career Motown rebirths, right up there with the Marvelettes and Contours, except that what I love about Brenda was there right from the beginning, only needing someone to focus her attention on it – and unlike so many of the other great Motown artists, she had no mentor, no Svengali writer-producer to help her through, she had to find the answer within on her own.
She works at it, she puts her head down, she bats aside the troublesome internal questions about how she went from supporting the Beatles at Shea Stadium to being a nearly-unknown has-been at the age of 19, and she carves out her own niche. It’s all starting to work, and it works because – and I don’t think this is an over-simplification – she’s finally finding herself.
We saw it on How Many Times Did You Mean It: despite that song’s exaggerated, blaring chorus, there was a real sense of a light clicking on somewhere in Brenda’s mind, a tiny spark that flared up just for a few moments; now, Together ‘Til The End Of Time is her scrabbling around in the dark, searching for the source of that light. So when she turns in a song that sounds like a Barbara McNair outtake, right in the middle of a slew of great R&B-pop numbers from almost every other artist in the Motown stable (many of them manifestly less vocally talented than Brenda), the initial disappointment at the hokey deployment is tempered with two things – one, the feeling that Brenda was starting to work out what made her special and to play up to it, as everything that made that monumental trilogy of singles great is here again in full effect. And, two, it’s actually a really pretty song.
Every Little Bit Hurts had been a mournful, mopey sort of song, I’ll Always Love You the tale of a blissfully happy narrator, and then You Can Cry On My Shoulder combined the two to create a genuinely arresting picture of a woman with nothing else to live for putting herself through complete self-effacing subservience to create something end-of-the-world melodramatic.
What’s really clever about this one is that it combines all of those things to really show off every facet of what Brenda can do, or rather has already done: an on-vinyl highlight reel. So, the first verse is all doom and gloom, Miss Holloway balefully singing of “a world filled with so much sorrow” where “no-one really seems to care”, and the song weights itself (and Brenda’s poor heart) with not only loneliness but complete remoteness from the entire rest of the human race:
It’s so easy to be lost in a land
Where no one wants to help you, no one understands
But then the chorus kicks in, and it turns out we’ve all fallen for a classic bait-and-swithch: this is a song of loving devotion after all. Oh, the narrator may be decrying this as an unfair, crapsack world when it comes to romance – but not for her, and boy, is she grateful for that. The entire tone of the song is changed by the new vantage point, as she marvels that given all the problems of the world, given just how small and alone you can feel in a city of millions like Los Angeles, things have still worked out for her.
And so, having shown off the pain of Every Little Bit Hurts, the song turns on a sixpence and continues Brenda’s Greatest Hits tour with the satisfied smile of I’ll Always Love You, while also bringing in more than a touch of the ever-so-noble self-sacrifice from You Can Cry On My Shoulder, as she tells us she’ll:
… make you happy when you’re feeling blue
Should you ever have to leave me, I’ll be waiting for you
And so when we get into the second chorus, the emphasis has changed; it’s valedictory rather than unexpected, and if the note of triumph doesn’t approach the heights of that devastating key change from You Can Cry On My Shoulder to really drive it into your heart and propel the song to greatness, it’s nonetheless understandable why I like it so much; as a summary of what was good about her vocals on my three favourite Brenda records so far, it’s just about the best CV she could have put together.
That chorus is just lovely – “But we’ll hold hands… to-GETHER! And we’ll make our plans… for-EVER!”, one of Frank Wilson’s prettiest melodic figures, safe in Brenda’s hands as we ramp up for the coming refrain. We prepare ourselves for her to do what she so often does: engage the clutch, bring her foot down, let go of her inhibitions, tear off up the stave and do it loud… it’ll sound good but probably lose some of the fragile beauty of the song and the lyrics. Right?
But no, not this time. In fact, Brenda actually steps away from the mic and almost whispers the title phrase, letting the backing singers handle the operatic stuff before she repeats their echo back at them, like an underline: ‘Till the END of time!. The narrator gave it serious consideration, while they went straight for the flashy home-run ball; only then did she feel confident enough in herself to sign her name to such a bold statement, Brenda in one stroke not only selling the song but also fixing everything that was previously “wrong” with her old approach. She’s such a star.
Even then, Frank Wilson can’t resist an instrumental break, and unexpectedly it’s handed to a mournful Western harmonica which has been crying almost unnoticed in the background, hitherto tucked away along with some soft and unobtrusive strings. When the harmonica takes up the refrain, like some forgotten 40s movie soundtracking a hardworking cowboy returning to the ranch at sundown, it’s hard not to visualise Brenda and her beau on a big screen, staring wordlessly into each other’s eyes in black and white.
Now, this all sounds very laudatory, I know, when in fact I don’t actually love it that much. It’s still not perfect – it’s something of a trifle, I find I need to be in the mood to appreciate it (a mood not really created by the various uptempo or soul-searching masterpieces stacking up all around this), we’ve already had my favourite of Brenda’s cuts in the same vein, and even after all my fine words those MOR and unnecessarily showy tendencies haven’t quite yet been put back on the shelf.
Nonetheless, in keeping with the overall theme so far of Motown’s most spectacular winter, this is yet another established Motown artist subtly raising their game to a whole new level, even if it’s by cutting back on previous lows rather than stretching for new highs. If, this time, it’s more about the anticipation of what it means for future records than the one we’re listening to right now, this is still awfully nice, and I can’t begrudge it another big green number. Don’t worry, we’re not running out of them any time soon.
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”
|The Isley Brothers
“This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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