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129) The Temptations – “My Girl”

Motown was an enterprise founded on the almost hubristic conviction that a regional label making “race music” could become Hitsville, USA, that at least as many whites as blacks would spin its records. Even as the label’s singles climbed the charts, Berry Gordy and company were too ambitious to remain complacent. Motown’s early successes proved that audiences would embrace stylish, catchy pop-soul, regardless of race. The next challenge, then, was not commercial but artistic. The Motown number ones covered so far succeeded primarily on performance and melody. Now, though, the label was beginning to cohere its sound. Motown needed a style that was both instantly identifiable (like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) and which popped from radio speakers (like the brightly produced Beatles singles).

The label had already made great strides by 1964 – just compare The Supremes’ arc from the muddled sound of “Where Did Our Love Go” to the tight, punchy “Come See About Me.” But it was The Supremes’ male counterparts, The Temptations, who released the record that set the gold standard for Motown’s sonic ambitions. Smokey Robinson co-wrote “My Girl” with Ronald White as an answer song/companion piece to “My Guy,” but the newer composition so outpaced the inspiration that the two scarcely appear to have been recorded in the same decade, much less by the same house band. The light-jazz touchpoints have been replaced with electric guitars; Mary Wells’ elocution-lesson delivery gives way to David Ruffin’s elegant roughness. Rather than the live-band-in-the-studio instrumentation of the past, “My Girl” has a very deliberate sound, in which the bass is distinct from the lead guitar is distinct from the horns, where each drum beat and finger snap is crisp and discrete, creating a depth of sound that envelops the listener as if it were a physical space. That’s not even touching the song itself, along with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” the best thing Robinson had penned up to that point, both of which are so satisfying in structure and seemingly effortless in composition that they scarcely seem of human provenance. The idea that either Robinson or The Temptations could ever top “My Girl” seems absurd, and yet they would. But more than just a glorious record, “My Girl” threw down the gauntlet for Motown’s songwriters and performers. The Supremes and Four Tops would attempt to out-do The Temptations, and Holland-Dozier-Holland and Whitfield-Strong would try to trump Robinson. The resulting discography elevated Motown from a label that released some great singles to the cultural force that forever changed the sound of popular music. 9

Hit #1 on March 6, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
129 of 1004 #1’s reviewed; 12.85% through the Hot 100

Liner Notes

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Filed under 09, 1965

108) Mary Wells – “My Guy”

With Mary Wells, Motown got serious.  Before her, Tamla/Motown operated essentially like a regional label that happened to have a few massive hits. The distinctive Motown sound had yet to be formulated.  Bluesier numbers like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” abutted the smooth pop of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and the bongo-harmonica stylings of Little Stevie Wonder.  But with Wells, label head Berry Gordy saw an opportunity to shape a star – and, in the process, create the template that would drive the label’s success.

Wells’s first single, the self-penned “Bye Bye Baby,” was gospel-blues by way of Jackie Wilson.  Wells’s voice was raw and throaty, her attitude defiant: “Well you took my love, threw it away/You’re gonna want my love someday/Well, bye bye, baby.” But between the single’s release in 1960 and Wells’s eventual trip to the top of the charts, Gordy buffed her persona to a fine sheen.  Despite being the same age as The Marvelettes, Wells was positioned as a mature alternative to the girl group sound. Gordy hired charm coaches to teach her poise, a practice that would continue throughout the label’s golden age.  Her voice thinned out; syllables became more clearly enunciated.  Wells’s material took a turn toward the mainstream, culminating in the light jazz motifs of “My Guy.”  In its careful melding of R&B and vocal pop, the record splits the difference between The Beatles and “Hello, Dolly!

Like most Wells hits after “Bye Bye Baby,” the song was written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  Of the early Motown singles, Robinson’s work with The Miracles would come closest to defining the direction that the label would take.  But records like “Shop Around” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” despite their polished sound, have a verve that’s missing from the tightly-reined Wells singles. “My Guy” has a lot of positives going for it, not the least Wells’s precise but natural interpretation.  But “My Guy” also finds Motown working out some of the kinks of its new sound.  Gordy had intended the label to appeal to white audiences, but the Wells records sound a little too sterile, a little too eager to concede the “soul” part of the soul-pop equation.  It’s a tricky balance.  But by the time companion song “My Girl” would be released a few months later, it’s one that Motown had perfected.  7

Hit #1 on May 16, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
108 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 11.00% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1964