It's high time – but isn't it always? – for more Motown, and it was a toss-up between this one and The Temptations Sing Smokey. I've had them for about the same length of time: ever since Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder helped me to grow out of my prog-rock teenage antipathy for the soppy stuff that came out of the Motor City.
Effectively, Mary Wells' greatest hits were penned by one William 'Smokey' Robinson. She and the Temptations both interpret his 'What Love Has Joined Together' and the sublime 'You Beat Me to the Punch'. It's even sometimes quite hard to tell them apart when Eddie Kendricks' high-pitched falsetto takes the lead. So, which one to choose? Mary's 'My Guy' is just about the equal of the Temptations' 'My Girl', even if the latter's 'The Way You Do the Things You Do' knocks spots off Mary's up-tempo best, Holland-Dozier-Holland's 'You Lost the Sweetest Boy'. Heads or tails, jury?
Well, since my inner emotional self is fuelled by injustice, the case of Mary Wells gives me more to get my molars into. After all, everyone knows about the Temps. The quintet that kept going through key personnel changes for about as long as any one vocal group could have surely envisaged: through doo-wop, through their first Motown phase as purveyors of love songs and snappy, happy dance numbers, through their second Motown phase on Norman Whitfield's socially-conscious psychedelic 'Cloud Nine', to the post-disco dance band that knew how to 'Treat Her Like a Lady'.
Mary Wells, on the other hand, started off as the hit-making Queen of Motown until Diana Ross and the Supremes usurped the throne. Such was Berry Gordy's infatuation for the anorexic chantoosse with a beehive and a figure-hugging dress that he effectively lost interest in Mary Wells almost overnight. Recognising this, Mary left the company in 1964, the same year that 'My Guy' gave her her biggest hit. Despite opening for The Beatles on a tour of the UK as their favourite American singer, her post-Motown career was nothing much to speak of and only at the end of her short life was she awarded the proper royalties she was due from her three or four years in the Detroit sun.
Poor Mary. She had a tough childhood growing up in a poor part of Detroit. Two divorces (including Bobby Womack's brother Cecil, who would go on to become one half of Womack & Womack), legal wrangles, career frustrations, a heroin habit, and a cancer of the larynx which ruined her singing voice, wiped out her hard-won financial resources and claimed her life at just 49.
There's little hint of what would come when you listen to these Motown hits. Interestingly, the album begins with her final hit, 'My Guy', the song that will probably one day take her to the Hall of Fame, and concludes with the song that she took to Berry Gordy in 1960 as a prospective singer-songwriter. Although intended for Jackie Wilson, Gordy had her record 'Bye Bye Baby'. The reputed 22 takes probably explain why she sounds more like Lulu belting out 'Shout' than the golden-voiced purveyor of Smokey Robinson's melodies.
Mary and Smokey – as Berry Gordy surmised – made a perfect team. With seven out of eight tracks written by the man Gordy described as a 'composer and lyricist of the first order', Side 1 clearly demonstrates this. The odd song out is 'You Lost the Sweetest Boy', a typically fine Holland-Dozier-Holland number that would have sounded that more convincing had it been given to the incomparable Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.
Mary Wells was patently more suited to the mid tempos and sweet sentiments of a Smokey song. Listening to so many of them at a single sitting made me think of the Cathy & Claire page of my sister's old Jackie magazines. Smokey writes of the emotions and frustrations of young love equally well from the perspective of both the earnest young souls who would write in with their problems and the wise old agony aunt who would dispense all the cool-headed advice. But he does it with such grace and playfulness.
Quite apart from his facility with a lovely, soaring melody – and he's one of those melody-makers like, say, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney whose tunes all have that readily identifiable personal stamp – Smokey had the most deceptively simple but carefully polished way with a lyric. 'No muscle-bound man could take my hand from my guy./No handsome face could ever take the place of my guy.' It might be Jackie, Jim, but not as we know it.
Take, too, the effortless line that feeds the punch line of 'You Beat Me to the Punch' – 'But I found out beyond a doubt/One day, boy, you were a playboy' – which determines our Mary this time to walk away from her two-timin' man and beat him to the punch for once. Which in turn, perhaps, prompted Gene Chandler (of 'Duke of Earl' and 'Get Down') fame to record one of those answer songs that were popular at the time, 'You Threw a Lucky Punch'.
'Two Lovers' throws another curved-ball punch line when Mary/Smokey reveals that the sweet and kind first lover and the other lover who treats her bad and makes her sad and makes her cry even though she can't deny that she loves him are actually... two facets of one and the same person. Freudin' to a go-go!
In 'Operator', we feel the frustrations of the girl on the phone who's desperate to talk to her long gone lover, but can't hear what he tells her because of all the static on the telephone line. As he runs out of dimes, she pleads with the operator to reverse the charges to her, but... but... it's all too darn late. And in 'Laughing Boy', Mary this time is the wise old ex-girlfriend who sees that her former man is not really happy with a new squeeze who's obviously treating him bad: 'When I look at you now, I know somehow/That the smile you are wearing is untrue'.
Ah, great stuff. They don't write 'em like that anymore. Nor, in all honesty, on Side 2 – which contains a less than Simone-ish version of 'My Baby Just Cares for Me' and some of the lesser singles that prompted Berry to deliver her into Smokey's care. 'Oh Little Boy', for example, written by Eddie Holland with Mickey Stevenson, is an overblown sub-Spector affair that's rather river shallow, mountain low.
The two stand-out tracks are, of course, from the top of old Smokey. 'Your Old Stand-by' is our Mary in the role of her man's perennial substitute – but this time his old stand-by is gonna play the part from the depths of the heart, because she knows the part so well that he'll hardly tell that she's left him in misery. Covered by the Temptations on their Smokey album, 'What Love Has Joined Together' is a notch above, with a beautiful melody and lyrics full of the kinds of metaphors and comparisons that we know and love from 'The Way You Do The Things You Do'. 'It would be easier to change all the seasons of the year/Than for anyone to change the way I feel; I love you dear'.
But even if you're just a little too cynical for all that slush and nonsense, this record will win you round if only for the sheer exuberance of the Motown sound. (Hey! It rhymes. Perhaps I could have been a... No, alas no.) There was only one Smokey Robinson. If I can transpose Berry Gordy's words from the Temptations to Mary Wells, 'This album is a prime example of his ability as a song writer'. Add to that the bonus of being filtered (as Lee Ivory's liner notes suggest) through 'a voice that captures the hearts of all who hear her'.
Rather like that wonderful evergreen fade out to 'My Guy', Mary's greatest hits are finger-snappin' good!