POSTCARD FROM THE GIRL GROUP ERA The Marvelettes

A new
box set chronicling the Motown ladies’ latterday career brings their fecund
soul back to glittering life.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

No matter how seminal the first half of the Marvelettes’
Motown career was, the second half had to have a new script.
Their first release — 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman” — may have been the label’s
first crossover hit (and No. 1), and they may have also notched a dozen other
Top 40 pop chart entries for Berry Gordy, but by the mid-‘60s the Sound of
Young America was synonymous with other acts at Hitsville.

 

Since that was especially true of other female groups like
the Supremes and Martha Reeves, the Marvelettes – initially a quintet of
Inkster, Mich., high school friends whose first five LPs from 1961-63 were
collected in 2009 on Hip-O Select’s opening 3-disc career-scanner, The Marvelettes: Forever More, The Complete
Motown Albums, Vol. 1
– had to change their approach and acknowledged as
much. So, gone were the teen angst themes that made the band an integral pillar
of the Girl Group era, and in their place was the mature soulful pop that
characterized the classic Motown releases of the mid-‘60s.

 

Like a capstone on the early era and a declaration of
renewal, 1967’s eponymous release – their first original music in four years
and known as “the Pink Album” — opens Hip-O’s new 4-disc set Forever More: The Complete Motown Albums,
Vol. 2
and signals the change. Now down to a trio and led by Wanda Young’s country
soul-inflected voice and the more pop-oriented vocals of Gladys Horton, the
Marvelettes began a fruitful second career collaborating with Smokey Robinson,
whose songwriting had helped fellow Motown gal Mary Wells’ career take off.

 

Robert Barker’s up-tempo dance-blues cover “Barefootin'”
opens the Pink Album as a bridge between eras, 
leading to the more sophisticated arrangements of Dionne Warwick’s
“Message to Michael,” the syncopated, Robinson-penned classic “The Hunter Gets
Captured by the Game,” and a
magnificent version of Ruby and the Romantics’ “When You’re Young and In Love.”
That was the LP’s second chart-hitting single, and throughout the music has
that signature Motown blend of Civil Rights-era hope contrasted with the
wistful recognition of early-’60s innocence lost forever.

 

 

 

Horton left the band after the eponymous LP (she passed away a year
ago this month – Ed.
) and was replaced by Motown sessions singer Ann Bogan
for the follow-up, 1968’s Sophisticated
Soul
. The band was Young’s now (Bogan sings lead on only one track) , and
as Robinson had already favored what he called her “sexy, country voice,” their
collaboration grew with tracks like “Here I Am Baby” and “My Baby Must Be a
Magician,” the band’s third pop hit – and as it turns out, their last, too.  Key here as well is “Destination: Anywhere,”
a collaboration with second generation Motown writers Nick Ashford and Valerie
Simpson familiar from its key cinematic role in The Commitments, director Alan Parker’s tribute to soul music.

 

It was the band’s second straight cohesive soul LP and its
modest success suggested their new direction’s trajectory would soon surpass
their first.  But the ascendency of other
bands at Motown, especially the Supremes, financially limited the push the
Marvelettes would receive. Combined with the late-‘60s culture’s growing
appetite for funkier, psychedelic-tinged music (personified by Motown’s other
big producer, Norman Whitfield), the Marvelettes were left behind in the wake
of another stylistic evolution. Their follow-up LP, 1969’s In Full Bloom, and its single, “That’s How Heartaches Are Made,” were
commercial failures. The Marvelettes were fading fast, despite the fact that the
this record arguably surpasses Sophisticated
Soul
, or that tracks like “The Truth’s Outside My Door,” the Crystals’
classic “Uptown,” and “At Last I See
Love as It Really Is” are fantastic examples of the Motown sound.

 

In-fighting between the remaining members led to their
disbandment later that year without any official fanfare or farewell tour. But Robinson
was still (rightly) enamored with Young’s voice, and produced a set of
re-imagined and rearranged Motown classics that was supposed to function as her
solo debut. But label head Gordy didn’t believe Young’s name carried enough
weight by itself, and the record was released as The Return of the Marvelettes and marketed as a full-band effort
despite the absence of any other Marvelettes. The music here moves slightly
toward the new sounds of the era, a track like “Marionette” sounding like a
female counterpart to Curtis Mayfield, though without the social themes that
might’ve broadened Young’s appeal.

 

The box set’s third disc is strictly for the audiophiles,
made up only of rare mono versions of the self-titled record and Sophisticated Soul. The fourth disc
raids the vaults and spans the band entire’s career through rare, newly
released and rediscovered performances. Like any collection of such material,
there are tracks that don’t do anything to enhance the artists’ legacy, and
others that make you wonder how they didn’t make the initial cut. “Three Months,”
“Dance a While, Cry a While” and “You Better Behave” are classic Girl Group-era
nuggets highlighting Horton’s sweet pop vocals and representing the band’s
initial identity; “I Can’t Wait Till Summer Comes,” “When My Love Was Born” and
“Change of Heart” stand as fine examples of Young’s soulful approach, and are as
strong as any cuts from the official releases.

 

It’s unfortunate the Marvelettes are considered a footnote
in both the Teen Idol/pre-British Invasion Girl Group era and the more
tumultuous black soul epoch of the mid- and late-‘60s. But then you don’t have
to look too far to find another example of the capriciousness of music history.
The studio band backing the Marvelettes on these records – the incomparable
Funk Brothers — rarely received even LP credits for their integral work. It’s
through collections like Forever More that we’re reminded of the musical fecundity of this decade, and how household
names like Motown earned their reputation not just through the stars, but
through the strength of their vision and entire rosters.

 

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