(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
It’s funny, I suppose. When I started doing this blog some six (!) years ago, I did it primarily because I love Motown so much. And I love Motown so much, in large part, because of this amazing mid-Sixties Golden Age run of top singles we’re now riding here. Back in the early days, when I was slogging my way through the often interesting, occasionally regrettable early years of Motown, when my days were filled with writing about records of wildly variable quality by people I often knew little about, one of the things that kept my spirits up while having to review (for instance) a run of eight jazz records in a row, followed by an awful, feeble comedy skit, was the thought of getting here, to the top of the mountain. This, then, is my reward, as it were.
But it turns out that Motown at the start of 1966 was still a bewildering sort of place, just in a different way. Where once upon a time spotting the gold in the pan was easy, financial security and ever-higher artistic benchmarks turned Motown into a fiercely competitive affair, with artists, writers, musicians, producers and even songs all jostling each other and jockeying for position to get some attention, while merely standing out from the crowd was harder than ever.
And while that makes listening to Motown’s 45s of the time a heavenly (if highly-concentrated) listening experience bordering on sheer joy, it brings new headaches for your humble correspondent here. Enduring classic record follows enduring classic record, with no let-up. Big green numbers pile on top of each other at the end of each review, as the Master Index drowns in a tidal wave of top marks, and still Motown doesn’t rest, still the hits keep on coming. How are they doing this? And how am I going to write about it?
Not that I’m complaining, you understand. The thrill of cueing up each successive brilliant record isn’t diminshed by having just heard a bunch of other brilliant records already, because this is Motown at its best and it’s magnificent. The only sadness, if you can even call it that, is knowing I can’t linger as long as I’d like, that soon enough we’ll have to move on, and before too long we’ll be gently, almost imperceptibly at first, rolling (ever-so-slowly) downhill back off the plateau, never quite to return to these mid-Sixties heights again. Oh, I’ve got an advantage over listeners in 1966, of course, in that I know what’s coming, I know there are plenty more masterpieces after this glorious golden era (and indeed, this decade) is done. But at the time, it must have been… well, like I said, bewildering.
And look, now here are the Isley Brothers, making their Motown début, with a song written by Motown’s most exciting and bankable hitmakers, an absolute can’t-miss matchup. How are they DOING this?
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Apparently, so we’re told, the Isley Brothers ultimately came to regret their decision to sign for Motown. True enough, their Motown phase didn’t last very long, and in my own limited experience, they’re better known – as far as that mythical specimen, the non-Motown-obsessed “general public” goes – for their work both before and after their time with the label than anything they did in Detroit.
But there was a kind of inevitability about the Isleys pitching up at Hitsville. The first truly great act to emerge from doo-wop’s carcass (as opposed to the still-vibrant blues and jazz scenes) by peddling a successful blend of R&B, rock and pop, a blend that played as well with white audiences as black ones – and, critically, vice versa. Musically, they were headed in the same direction as the Motown juggernaut, and so it makes perfect sense they’d eventually hitch a lift once it became clear who was getting there quicker.
Geographically, too, this is something approaching a homecoming; the Isleys hailed from Cincinnati, and so returning to the Midwest from New York City (where Cincinnati and Detroit were still best known as far-off baseball teams) made a kind of sense.
And yet… it was never really like that for the Isley Brothers at Motown. You’d think, with the benefit of hindsight, that Motown would have been thrilled to sign a “name” act, except that by 1966 Motown had no need of external name acts, and anyway the Isleys were not yet as famous as their early records since became. Genuine all-time greats, they’d actually struggled for commercial traction, their CV thus far showing a smattering of R&B chart hits over an eight-year period marked by a series of failed short-term relationships with various labels (some, like RCA and Atlantic, rather bigger than Motown, others clearly a case of any port in a storm, including a tentative release on their own T-Neck imprint); this spell yielded precisely one Top 40 single, their legendary 1962 rendition of Twist And Shout, by now itself getting rather long in the tooth as far as meal tickets go.
So Motown securing the brothers’ signature wasn’t quite the major coup it first appears to modern eyes; rather, this was another feather in Berry Gordy’s cap for a different reason. His former underdog of a little indie label was now bursting with money, sitting pretty in a position not only to throw the Isleys a bone, but to know full well that that was the situation, that Motown held the cards in this relationship. The Isley Brothers came to Motown not as guaranteed superstars, but as second-stringers, and they weren’t parachuted right to the top of the release schedules, having to start somewhere near the bottom. It’s inescapable: Motown were bigger than the Isley Brothers.
HE AIN’T HEAVY
Much fun has been had at Motown’s expense concerning the cheesy artwork for their début Motown LP (named for this song, their début Motown 45, which ended up being their biggest hit for Motown altogether; as with Brenda Holloway before them, the Isley Brothers were never able to build on or even emulate the commercial form they hit first time out). Particular attention is paid to the racial airbrushing, taken as either a sign of the times or an example of Motown’s timidity: the African-American Isleys replaced with a generically unthreatening shot of a preppy young white couple playing on the beach, supposedly so as not to scare off white audiences.
If that was the reason, it was surely archaic by now; the white living rooms of America (or, at least, enough of its white teen bedrooms) had already shown plenty of appetite for Motown’s other black faces in the preceding two years, enough to make Motown the commercial envy of any of its peers. The battle wasn’t won, of course, but by 1966, you’d have thought Motown had made enough gains not to have to pander to the prejudiced to chase a few extra sales, right? Right? Plus, the Isley Brothers weren’t some new unknown act; they were a name, if not necessarily a household one then certainly one known to music fans, and they were known to be black, and known to be partial to rock and roll. If spooking the racist horses was the fear, that beach pic smacks of shutting the stable door after they’d bolted.
But that’s kind of missing the point. The great Holland-Dozier-Holland writer/producer team, Motown’s most bankable tunesmiths, this time paired unusually with crack up-and-coming writer Sylvia Moy, have turned in a piece of Motown magic. I’ve talked before about the mythical Quality of Motown, the secret essence that puts a flavour of the label into the grooves of its best cuts, making them hook together in a way that seems somehow effortless. Perhaps more than any single we’ve seen before, This Old Heart Of Mine is positively steeped in it, the song so easy and natural as to seem like something that had always existed in the air, HDH and the Isleys merely the conduits for finally translating it, getting that message down on vinyl, making it corporeal, trapping that magic in those very grooves.
It marks a couple of developments. Firstly, it’s another step up in the quality of Motown’s songwriting and production output that something like this can sound so very unforced, and it acts as a kind of summation of just where the label was at in this brave new year: the Motown Sound gets more and more definable with each of those steps up, and just as each would-be rival knockoff finally clambers up to the ledge, they find Motown have already scaled on up to the next one.
Secondly, the Isleys’ arrival at Motown was of course a new beginning for them, both sides full of hopes. Their début sees them drafted right into Four Tops territory, the HDH contribution turned up to 11 and making the brothers sound like a male Supremes, though perhaps not so much like the Isley Brothers of old; Brand Isley is subsumed to Brand Motown, and it’s glorious.
The latter goes some way to explaining your canoodling Caucasians there. The value of the Isley Brothers’ history to Motown’s marketing is in their name recognition, and really it’s taken no further. Which isn’t to say anyone could have made this record, or that their contribution was negligible, but rather that these are a new Isley Brothers, falling into line as part of a whole corps of standard-bearers for the new Motown, and the resulting single is perhaps the most “accessible” thing they’ve ever recorded, catchy as all get-out, aimed squarely at white radio without being too square. The marketing people wouldn’t have wanted to do anything to dent its chances. Hilarious (and depressing) though that cover is in hindsight, the story behind it was a good album spearheaded by a great record, and both of them perfectly summing up the philosophy of Motown in 1966, the fusion of R&B and pop to create something that appeals strongly to both camps. So far, nowhere have we seen that done better than it is here.
EACH TIME YOU’RE GONE AWAY
What I like best about this, I think, is that – as with all my favourite Isley Brothers cuts – there’s still a very faint trace of the scuzz and grime of the chitlin-circuit Isleys here amid the soaring beauty. It’s as though it’s in their DNA, something buried deep, recalling their sound from the turn of the decade; something that all the perfection of the HDH production (and the implied heavy scrubbing that came with it!) can’t completely efface.
Of course, there’d be no point in Motown signing the Isley Brothers and then airbrushing away everything that actually made them the Isley Brothers, and HDH surely knew it. So, while the links between this and, say, Respectable are pretty tenuous, there’s still an old-school Isley residue here, a thread dangling just out of reach, their past a tangible presence providing a gossamer-thin safety net, all to stop this becoming a clichéd pop number which might have had all the lasting power of a soap bubble. Instead, this is one of my fifty favourite Motown singles, and I know a lot of people out there agree.
Like Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), this is a record that benefits from a singer holding on by his fingernails as the band track and that unstoppable melody take us on a wild rollercoaster ride. Unlike that track, This Old Heart Of Mine isn’t making up for the deficiencies of its lead vocalist by dragging him up and along; Ronald Isley has vocal chops Frank Wilson could only dream of, and if he’s not exactly on his very best form here, it ends up being to the song’s credit nonetheless.
Actually, this bears a lot of comparison with Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), and I like it for many of the same reasons; it’s got that quality of really great Motown where it’s both hot and sweet all at once, simultaneously pummelling and heart-soaringly lovely, it’s endlessly whistleable, it’s packed with little moments that are ever-so-slightly out of kilter just to make sure the whole thing sticks in your mind.
So, lines stack up thick and fast, almost on top of each other, O’Kelly and Rudolph’s backing vocals saw in and out with great toothy-grinned chunks of chanted harmony just landing in the listener’s range, and the drums and the strings pile up and get loud and messy but never dirty… and then the sun comes out from behind the clouds and everything makes sense, as the chorus just lifts you to heaven.
See, it’s not a happy lyric – this is a song about the strange quality of love which keeps you coming back for more even as your heart inevitably gets stomped on for the thousandth time. “Maybe it’s my mistake, to show this love I feel inside”, muses Ronald, and the jaunty strings somehow add to the tears it feels he’s holding back. “I’m yours whenever you want me”, he pleads, as the lyrics take a turn into self-debasing Temptations territory; the dark side of obsessive love, maybe, and the sort of thing that takes on a different tone when sung by a man than by a woman (as, indeed, we’ll see later on in the course of this blog).
But then everything swings around for that chorus. Ronald winds up – “I’m not too proud to shout it” (a subtle Shout reference?), “tell the world about it – ’cause I…”
Cue perhaps the best-timed pause in Motown history.
What I love most about this song isn’t that it feels true (albeit the heartfelt vocal delivery is fantastic, conveying the sense of just what it’s like to be so very much in love, staying just the right side of being out of control as you find yourself skipping down the street or crying into your pillow); it’s that it causes the same mixture of consternation and joy that it’s trying to convey.
That little pause for a breath and a string sting before Ronald sings “…I love you!” is just inspired, divine, reaching out from the speakers and grabbing you. The whole thing grabs you. This is the sound of classic Motown, writ large.
I love it.
LEAVES ME INCOMPLETE
So, I’ve said before that I came late to Motown, and when I started listening to these 45s, I had no idea which of them were the big hits and which of them were the flops. I’d assumed, just from listening to this, that it was Number One for a month; it’s a rollercoaster ride of a song (I know that’s a cliché, but this one actually feels like being on a rollercoaster!) sung by a star name act, written and produced by Motown’s A-list team, sweetly romantic but also dynamic and tough. How could it miss?
But miss, it did. Relatively speaking, anyway; although it brought the Isleys back to the Top 20 (and the R&B Top Ten) for the first time in four years, that feels like an underachievement for a song and a record as strong as this. Plus, as we’ve already noted, this was the biggest hit they’d ever enjoy during their time at Motown; it was all downhill commercially from here. No use in asking what might have happened had this racked up a few more sales, become a slightly bigger hit still, and potentially changed the Motown hitmaker landscape; this is not only the best-selling Isleys Motown single, for my money it’s also the best Isleys Motown single full stop. The brothers would end up walking away in 1969 to resurrect their own T-Neck label, after a relationship that produced some great records but perhaps never quite lived up to the initial promise of this first salvo.
Still, that’s a heck of a standard to live up to, isn’t it? This is one of the great Motown singles; “anthemic” is another one of those words that gets bandied about, but this really does feel like the Isleys’ Motown anthem. It should be better known, but then that would still be true if this had sold six million copies; it’s a great, great record, and a really nice way to start up this blog again after a super-long hiatus. Welcome back, readers; welcome to Motown, Isleys; welcome to 1966, listeners. Enjoy!
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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“Together ‘Til The End Of Time”
|The Isley Brothers
“There’s No Love Left”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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