b/w Fading Away
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
b/w Fading Away
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
1966 is full of Motown landmarks, and they don’t come much bigger than this.
Or, well, do they? Before I ever Got Into Motown, this was one of the obvious touchstones I was always familiar with, one of the ones I just assumed everyone knew. A Top 10 hit here in Britain, it’s certainly a well-known song, and – if it isn’t quite as ubiquitous as My Girl (but then again, what is?) – it’s immediately recognisable, from the second those first few grizzled horn-and-bass pulses come pumping out of the radio. This isn’t the Temptations’ great monument, but it’s surely not far behind, right?
So, it was something of a surprise for me to discover that, while it did the business back home on black radio (becoming the Tempts’ third R&B number one), Get Ready was actually considered something of a flop on original release, enough to lose Smokey the gig as the Temptations’ main writer/producer. In 1966, Motown valued crossover success far above scoring big on the R&B charts, and when this single limped into the top 30 (quite literally, at number 30) for one week before sinking like a stone, Berry Gordy was deeply unimpressed. Smokey may have been Gordy’s closest and longest-serving lieutenant, a friend and a trusted collaborator and valued second-in-command, but for Motown’s flagship male group to be shunned so harshly by white radio was not only embarrassing, but potentially extremely harmful to Gordy’s overall vision.
After this, Norman Whitfield took over at the helm of the Temptations, effectively for the rest of their top-level career; rather than being the triumphant pinnacle I’d assumed it to be, this record in fact marks the (commercially) disappointing end of a chapter, and of a glorious era.
All of which is not only a shame, but also really confusing, because this is truly spectacular.
IF EVER I’M ASKED WHAT MAKES MY DREAMS REAL
It’s not really clear to me what the “problem” was here, at more than fifty years’ remove (gulp!), but I can hazard a guess. This is probably the hottest Temptations cut so far, not only aimed squarely at the dancefloor but with a low, growling, almost menacing edge underneath the hip-shaking groove, all driven by those horns and some phenomenal bass work, and on the basis of that some people have drawn the simple conclusion that, while Motown had grown rich marrying hot black jazz and R&B grooves to smoother, poppier sounds, put bluntly, this was too black.
And maybe it really is that simple; it’s certainly possible that, even in 1966, this was enough to scare off enough milquetoast whites and their parents (or, more likely, the radio stations they were listening to) to kill its chart chances.
To these modern ears, it’s really not much of a step beyond what Marvin Gaye was doing around the same time, or the Isley Brothers, or Otis Redding… but then I think of what the Stax equivalent of Get Ready might be, and the first song I thought of was Sam and Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’, released a few months later, and the exact same thing happened there – top of the R&B chart, squashed miserably on the Hot 100.
It’s tempting to just shrug and chalk it up to America just not being quite ready (making the title a fun double reference, I guess), a cultural situation that would shortly cease to exist; while the civil rights movement was barely getting started addressing the inequalities in American society, the cultural cross-pollination between black and white music that had begun with rock ‘n’ roll, traced its way through the British invasion and, yes, the rise of Motown and their contemporaries in the pop-soul vanguard, was nigh unstoppable. The rise of a counterculture also aided the more widespread distribution and acceptance of harder-edged sounds that might not previously have found an audience; if Get Ready had emerged two years later, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
Effectively, then, what we have here is a turning point of sorts, a record caught between eras – on the one hand, it’s as beautiful as anything Eddie Kendricks had sung before, and there’s enough of the smooth, irresistible Temptations sound of cuts like The Way You Do The Things You Do to maintain the link with Smokey’s past great work with the group. On the other, with the benefit of a hindsight listeners in 1966 simply wouldn’t have had, it clearly seems to presage the future of the Temptations in the latter part of the 1960s, ironically nodding towards a path the group would tread with Norman Whitfield, rather than Smokey, in the years immediately ahead. There’s more of Stax in this than maybe any big-ticket Motown vocal hit so far, and if Smokey’s own performing past shows up in this one’s DNA (the most obvious Miracles touchstone to me is Going to a Go-Go, though you can definitely discern traces of My Girl Has Gone too), this one sounds harder and more physical, the falsetto vocals and swirling string curlicues offsetting the thump and grind of the rhythm track in ways familiar to us now through funk and disco, but probably alien to many listeners at the time.
Oh, and that reminds me:
A MOTOWN JUNKIES PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt this song in karaoke, unless you are actually Eddie Kendricks. Trust me, your throat will thank you the next day.
FEE FI FO FUM
I mean, it’s not just the vocal acrobatics that mark this song out as Eddie K’s own personal kingdom, not to be encroached upon by karaoke interlopers. The lyrics themselves exude a sexual confidence, almost bordering on the aggressive, which really comes to the fore when you’re trying to sing it for yourself, and Eddie quietly, subtly maximises that to such an extent that you only really recognise it by its absence. The various Motown cover versions that exist – a pristine, sparkling Diana Ross pop overhaul on the Supremes A Go Go LP, a sludgy West Coast rock run-through by Rare Earth (of which more in a few years!) that keeps the primal, grunting energy but loses the seduction, two different takes by Smokey Robinson himself, less trading on past glories and more like proofs of concept to try and play up different aspects of his own remarkable song – all feel slightly watered-down in this regard, censored, neutered of the seductive sex appeal that courses through the veins of this original Temptations version. All of those remakes work to a certain extent – it’s an excellent song, and its foundations are strong enough to withstand a conversion to disco, for instance – but they’re all slightly washed-out compared to this one.
That muscularity that drives this particular version of the song is not to be downplayed, it’s a fantastic reminder of those early days when the raw, artless Temptations were just a scruffy young bunch of lads, newly-arrived at Berry Gordy’s tiny record label, trying to sing their way out of the projects.
But the difference in Eddie’s voice is that here, unlike those prehistoric early Tempts cuts, he’s never in danger of going out of control, even if he never quite sounds like he’s in charge of the music. Appropriately, it’s the music that’s pushing him around, a fitting match to the lyrics, which almost read as if the narrator is being put up to this by his friends, dared to do something he’d never have found the courage to say for himself without a friendly prod. And it works. Boy, does it ever work.
I’M ON MY WAY
That intro, though! This is as hard-nosed as anything we’ve heard so far, starting out with just bass and horns, the first appearance of that ten-note run actually just repeating the same five growling, bassy notes before the strings kick in two bars later to lock in the groove and lift it into the realm of the whistleable, dum dum dum DUM dum, dum dum dum DA da!, along with rolling drums, all thrilling jazz fills and tough R&B drill beats.
It’s one thing for me to say the Funk Brothers have rarely sounded better, even though I think that’s true; but Get Ready is more than that. Indeed, while most of the Funk Brothers’ Motown singles as top-billed artists are just their original band tracks with the vocals scrubbed off and superfluous Earl Van Dyke organ overdubs added in their place, this is one example where I feel like just the band track on its own would be a fantastic record in its own right. But that’s a disservice to some truly excellent vocal work, the last piece of the puzzle that pushes this one to true greatness.
There’s something almost visceral about Eddie’s vocal delivery here, that falsetto pumped up to maximum energy just to keep up with the thundering band track, the urgency of the music teasing out an urgency in his voice, almost daring him not to back down, that adds credibility to the lyrical plea. Eddie’s narrator is full of bluster, giving advance warning to a female listener, telling her he’s about to make a move on her which she’ll be powerless to resist. If you’re going to sing a sentiment like the one behind Get Ready – though not necessarily the actual lines, some of which are really quite beautiful Smokey work, “whenever I’m asked what makes my dreams real, I tell ’em YOU DO!” – well, if you’re going to make that work, you have to sound confident. And this record is the sound of confidence, as committed to tape.
It’s not only the Eddie Show, of course. The other Temptations join in with their vocal response interjections right the way through to ride over those drum fills (“You’re all right! You’re outta sight!”); this may be very much a solo address to the unidentified girl, but Eddie has his gang of bros right here in his corner, and the effect is charming rather than hectoring. As if to underline that point, just before we get to the chorus, Eddie, high voice wavering ever so slightly, engages in a ludicrous nursery rhyme chant – Fee fi fo fum / Look out, baby, ‘cos here I come!” – but just as the whole thing threatens to leave him precariously exposed and unravel his veneer of confident bluster, Melvin Franklin shows up, right at the bottom of his impossibly deep register, to cover his buddy’s back.
And then suddenly, quite out of nowhere, the Temptations become the Four Tops.
The soaring harmonies on the chorus here act like a ladder to the stars for both Eddie and the listener, a raft of beautifully-judged, high-paced “aaaaah”s that pull you in, the time signature changes to a flat 4/4 beat, the strings twist up to heaven like the Supremes’ I Hear A Symphony and every bit as rousing and energising. It’s one of the all-time great Motown hooks, nearly impossible to replicate, and it’s quite unusual territory for the Temptations in many regards, but it just works perfectly here.
Maybe Smokey knew in some way he was going too far, that white radio wasn’t quite ready for this, that the Temptations’ future lay in another castle. But whatever was going through his mind when writing or recording this, it’s hard not to imagine him breaking into a huge smile when he heard the results. If white radio wasn’t ready for this in 1966, it’s their loss, because now it’s 2020 and I am so very ready for this today. It sounds fantastic.
And it just keeps on going, in the best way possible. One and a half minutes in, we get what’s charitably described as a horn solo, but it’s really just a one-note squall, a screeching exclamation both marking time and calling attention to the fact Eddie needs a breather, before launching back into that magnificent chorus.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say I wish this had a proper ending, or at least just looped that chorus to fade, rather than just kind of petering out as it does, Eddie somehow murmuring in falsetto – I’m on my way / Be there to stay… – as the record falls away. But that’s mere carping.
Yes, it’s yet another ten (and always was); I’ll try not to leave it a year and a half before we meet again, but this is as good a place to be as exists anywhere else in the Motown canon. Bravo, lads.
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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