Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Unsung" Songs: Pop Hits Everyone Should Know

If there's anything I learned from watching TV One's Unsung episodes dedicated to Motown greats Mary Wells and The Marvelettes, it's this: The biggest hits aren't necessarily the best ones. And I'm not talking about Diana Ross and/or The Supremes -- who, as one act (from 1967 to 1969, that's how the trio was billed) and as two separate ones, have long overshadowed their one-time label mates -- but rather the unsung's own hit lists.

Actually, I've known this truth about signature songs for years, and I've written about it at least thrice before (here, here and here). These two Unsung episodes in particular really drove home the point for me once again, to the point that I'm once again making the point again. I wanted to watch them over and over, if only for the snippets of rare live performances of both acts' unsung hits.

Of course, everybody already knows their biggest ones, both of which probably owe their enduring popularity to their relative musical simplicity and more concise lyrical hooks.

"Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes became Motown's first No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1961, launching an historic musical movement. I have fond memories of this particular song from my childhood -- not the Marvelettes' version but rather the 1974 cover by Carpenters, which, like the original, was a No. 1 single. My siblings and I used to dance and sing along to it every time my sister played her vinyl 45 copy.

Those were the days. But by the time I hit puberty, they were over for good. Even when I was in the middle of my own puppy-love phase, "Please Mr. Postman" came across as the silly ranting of a lovestruck teen who really needed to find a better hobby than pining for some negligent guy and stalking the mailman. Today, The Marvelettes version, co-written by original member Georgia Dobbins (who departed before it became a hit), sounds dated, primitive and a little haunted.

I much prefer The Marvelettes' more sophisticated delivery (courtesy of Wanda Young, who replaced Gladys Horton as the group's main lead singer in the mid '60s) and the complex lyrical conceit of the Smokey Robinson compositions "Don't Mess with Bill" (1966) and "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game" (1967). Although they peaked at Nos. 6 and 13, respectively, on the Hot 100, they're as overshadowed by The Marvelettes' debut hit today as the Marvelettes were by The Supremes in the '60s.

"My Guy" by Mary Wells was so huge that for a brief period, Wells was known as "The Queen of Motown," but to be honest, I didn't really have any idea who she was until 1991, the year before her death. Suffering from throat cancer and barely able to speak, she appeared with her young daughter on a daytime talk show (I believe it was Jenny Jones's, but don't quote me on that) and discussed her tumultuous life and times.

My first exposure to "My Guy" had been nine years earlier, once again, via a cover version, Sister Sledge's, which hit No. 23 on the Hot 100. At the time, I thought the song was notable only as a clever twist on "My Girl," The Temptations first No. 1 single, from 1964.

Little did I know that "My Girl" actually predated "My Guy" by nine months. By the time I finally got around to hearing Wells' original, I was fairly underwhelmed -- by both the singer and the song. I remained that way until a few days ago when I watched Wells' Unsung episode and realized that there was so much more to her than her signature song.

She had three other Top 10 pop hits, all consecutive, in 1962, when she was still in her teens -- "The One Who Really Loves You," "You Beat Me to the Punch" and "Two Lovers" -- and all of them, like "My Guy" and the best of The Marvelettes above, written and produced by none other than Smokey Robinson, who also co-wrote and co-produced "My Girl" with his fellow Miracle Ronald White. (That smashing cymbal sound at the end of every line of the first and final verse of "The One Who Really Loves You" is a genius production flourish.)

"My Guy" actually sounds better to me in the context of Wells' earlier hits because her soft vocal touch begins to make more sense. She may not have been the most powerful singer (neither was Diana Ross, or any of The Marvelettes separately), but her technique was an effective one in telling mini-stories through song (Smokey's songs). There was an intimacy and familiarity in her understated delivery that made her sound as if she was having a one-on-one conversation. Unfortunately, her manner of singing directly through the melody instead of performing somersaults over and around it would later go out of style in R&B, as songs became more showcases to impress audiences than communicate with them.

According to Unsung, Wells was the favorite American singer of The Beatles, whose "Love Me Do" replaced "My Guy" at No. 1. I'd like to think that her three big crossover hits that preceded her biggest one had as much to do with it.

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