X-Ray Spex Vol. 4: Don’t Mess With Bill….


…Wherein the Blogger indulges his penchant for obsessive examinations of a single songwriter’s body of work, sometimes focusing on a single song out of that body of work…because geekery.

People still repeat the apocryphal Dylan quote calling Smokey Robinson America’s Greatest Poet long after it’s debunking, which is a good sign he probably is our Greatest Living Poet, although the universality of his body of work is such that we’d need another Great Poet to point his genius out to us. After all the word “Poet” – like “Genius” or “Beauty” or “Rebel” or “Artist” – only means something when someone else says it about you. Because his art is so easy to enjoy, the depth of Robinson’s work is often overlooked. Since the early 20th century, we’ve been taught [especially in the States] that nothing accessible/enjoyable/fun/danceable could possibly be art. That’s why English lit professors waste so much time parsing bulshit like “Strawberry Fields,” “American Pie” and anything written by Jim Morrison, while the real world/real time poetry of Hal David, Gerry Goffin, Holland-Dozier and Smokey Robinson [to name a few] is rarely critically celebrated. Fortunately, all the aforementioned became thoroughly wealthy in their time, so it doesn’t feel so unfair…But it doesn’t mean your lit professor wasn’t wasting your time [hint: he/she was]. Like Goffin, David and Holland/Dozier, a huge part of Smokey’s genius is his ability to imagine and articulate the emotions and experiences of female characters in a substantive and real way, while keeping the elegance of his poetry intact. Once upon a time, all songwriters were expected to do this, but in the post Dylan/Beatles era, the idea of writing songs for others to sing fell from favor. It was still done, mind you, but not held in the same regard as in the Tin Pan Alley heyday of Gershwin, Berlin, Loesser, et al, which led to a steep fall in the standards staff writers were held to. In a lot of ways, the song crafting done both at Motown and the Brill Building [and maybe Philly International] represents the last flowering of the Great American Songbook before the British Invasion and the Woodstock Generation shifted the creative balance from Songsmith to Troubador. It’s no surprise that many of the last great American Standards come from the pre-Beatles era. What’s most remarkable is how often Smokey’s female characters are [usually] more interesting than the men he writes [even when he’s the man singing]. Robinson’s catalog is littered with huge hits, but [as always] digging below the hits yields treasure:

The Marvelettes, “Don’t Mess With Bill” [1966] This is an obvious one, but it’s still awesome. By ‘66, girl groups [except for the Supremes] were basically finished and Motown was about to move into arguably it’s greatest artistic period. Smokey helps the Marvelettes end their run of hits on a sly, strutting high note. While Gladys Horton sang leads on most of the group’s hits, the younger, sexier Wanda Young always made the most of her turns in front: “Don’t Mess With Bill” slinks into the room on a chocolaty James Jamerson bass and those trademark Motown chiming vibes that precede the laid-back Funk Brothers’ groove [extra credit to Earl Van Dyke’s Chesire Cat organ line]. Wanda’s vocal is cool and smart. Sure, she knows her guy is bad sometimes, but he’s still all hers and all you other chicks had better steer clear…or else. No way do we mistake Wanda for a weeper or a victim. She knows what’s she doing and she knows she’s got what it takes to bring her Billy back to the straight and narrow every time. Smokey had to be grinning from ear-to-ear writing a song about a woman being crazy about him. He claims that it wasn’t on purpose; the name just “sung” better. Nobody believes him, but when you’re a genius, you can get away with stuff.

The Marvelettes – “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” [1967] Did I say the girl-group era was over? Obviously nobody told Smokey or the Marvelettes, as they made it work again, even as Beatlemania was threatening to obliterate everything around it. “Hunter” is a strangeish story of a female player who thinks she’s on the trail of a new man, only to find out he was waiting for her all along…not that she’s all that upset about getting caught – six of one and all that. The Funk Brothers’ track starts off at “Don’t Mess With Bill” and ups the ante, with a edgy harmonica intro [Stevie Wonder?] leading to what almost feels like the great lost Bond theme. Really, it’s the same “turnabout” story as “You Beat Me To The Punch,” but with Wanda’s sex and sass where Mary Well’s romanticism used to be. “Hunter” didn’t chart as high as “Bill” the year before, but it’s definitely made it’s mark: Grace Jones did a Compass-Point Disco version for her 1980 breakthrough album Warm Leatherette and Massive Attack teamed up with Tracey Thorn in 1995 for a stark, dark and twisted cover of the song for the [otherwise forgettable] Batman Forever soundtrack.

Martha and the Vandellas – “No More Tearstained Makeup” [1966] You know a writer is great when the “filler” track they write for an album with three Holland/Dozier tunes is the one people still talk about. No doubt “Jimmy Mack” and “Ready For Love” were iron-clad hits for the Vandellas but one of Smokey Robinson’s most elegant and well-written songs lurks on the second side of the Vandella’s Watchout! album. Once again Jamerson introduces the track solo, with a 1-4-5 bass walk that gives way to Uriel Jones’ snare whip as Martha Reeves arrives with a sweet, major key melody belying the subject of the song. The strolling pop-soul perfection of the backing track with Robert White’s clipped guitar strokes pushing Vandellas’ hand claps [possibly augmented by the Andantes] is matched by Robinson’s lyric, which unfolds the “lipstick on his collar” cliche into a gorgeous set of extended metaphors to describe the ache of a woman scorned. While the song seem like a “ladies only” affair at first, it’s easy for anyone to know Martha’s feeling on the matter. Not only is the lyric amazing story telling, Robinson’s rhymes are complex and thrilling, using an AABC scheme inside the verse with “C” being a terminal rhyme from verse to verse. Being a sorcerer, he makes each line sound more effortless than the last, capping the verses with a bittersweet but hopeful refrain that appears like that ray of sun in the distance on a rainy day. The Marvelettes would cover the song in their final days, but other than an odd Elvis Costello live version, this song doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar. A shame, that.

Kim Weston – “Marionette” [1966] Motown has always been a sort of good news/bad news proposition: While it was a magnet for an amazing array of talent, some of that talent was bound to slip through the cracks, be undervalued, unsung. Kim Weston has to rank with Levi Stubbs in this category [while the Four Tops had their share of hits, they also spent a lot of time covering crap like “Cherish” and “If I Were a Carpenter”]. Kim Weston’s titanic duet with Marvin Gaye “It Takes Two” is so ubiquitous, most of us assume she had a long career. In fact, Weston would leave Motown altogether a year after this amazing track, bouncing around from label to label, never quite finding the song or moment to shine. Shine she does here, on a tune co-written by Smokey and Mickey Stevenson, who produced the session. The song is cast in blues and greys, with a ominous Jamerson bass line opening along with a staccato snare fill from Richard “Pistol” Allen; both giving way to a bluesy Earl Van Dyke piano roll. Weston almost seems to channel Robinson’s own soft high tenor as she sings first person to a friend [sister?] who’s gotten in too deep with a man who left her after talking her into…what exactly? It’s 1966 here and there’s only so much Robinson and Weston can tell us, but we can’t help thinking the [probably younger] woman before her has more than her pride injured: “He had a hold on you/He was your pupeteer/You did everything he wanted you to/Now he’s not here” Stevenson’s production lets the strings and horns swirl around Weston as the Andantes’ backing vocals rise like smoke from a burned out love affair, consoling, never scolding. It’s easy to believe Weston knows so much about what happened because she’s been there herself. Robinson’s lyric is a subtler set of metaphors than in “Makeup” before it, but no less powerful. And then at the peak of the arragement, Robinson and Stevenson put the dagger in with their bridge: “For you he was no good/He must have found your heart not made of wood.” The Marvelettes would cover this song in 1970 [in the mode of the Supremes’ “Love Child”] but their version didn’t chart either.  Too dark to be a typical Motown smash, not danceable enough for the Northern Soul crowd to fetishize, and sung by an artist fated to obscurity in plain sight, Robinson and Stevenson probably never figured “Marionette” to be anything more than a b-side or album cut that let them experiment a bit.  But as we know, great artists do their greatest work when they think nobody is watching. “Marionette” is a masterpiece that’s been overlooked far too long, by an artist so gifted we take his masterpieces for granted. But if that didn’t happen, we obsessives would have nothing to do.

NEXT: Bel Canto Battle! 


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