The Marvelettes - I'll Keep On Holding On
“ I got the in the hospital with a kidney stone, baby’s got a stomach virus bluuuues……” The last couple of days have been a stone hootenanny (pun intended) as I was felled for the third time in 5 years by a kidney stone (you do not want to know how bad it hurts…). My experience at the hospital was typical of American health care in the 21st century (it sucked) and I would have gotten as much help if I’d gone to a 7-11, thrown a $20 on the counter and started gobbling Advil and spring water. I get home from the hospital and America’s favorite little soul man (my 15 month old son) starts exploding at both ends with a stomach virus of some kind. He was unhappy, we were unhappy, all God’s chillun was unhappy. Nothing like working all week and having your precious weekend explode in a glowing mushroom cloud of crap, vomit and unbearable abdominal pain. All this too-much-information in explanation as to why there hasn’t been a post since Wednesday. So, anyway… Last week I selected a fresh batch of 45s on which to blog-ify in this space. A coupla Eddie Bo-related numbers, some Hammond groovers and a few of my fave Northern Soul classics. Just so happens one of these pre-selected gems carries with it a message of hope and perserverance fitting in these most recent times of personal trouble. Back some months ago I wrote about Maurice & The Radiants – Baby You’ve Got It, a stunning Northern style dancer that had been covered to great effect by UK mod/soulies the Action. It was on a mid-80’s comp of the Action’s greatest hits that I was first introduced to a number of soul classics, including today’s selection, ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’ by the Marvelettes. Prior to 1986 or so, if you’d brought up the Marvelettes in conversation, ‘Please Mr. Postman’ would have popped into my mind and I would have changed the subject. Of course I had yet to hear ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ (or had only heard Mitch Ryder’s 200mph version) or ‘The Hunter Get’s Captured By The Game’, so my limited frame of reference on all things Motown led me to write off the Marvelettes (unfairly) as inferior or at the very best, run of the mill. Then the day came when my mod mentor Bill Luther whipped a tape on me with the original versions of many of the Action’s best tunes, and my mind was suitably blown. While the Action’s take on ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’ was anthemic, it can’t hold a candle to the Marvelettes original. From the pounding drums of the intro (some of the best-recorded drums on a Motown 45 and that’s saying a lot), which lead into a heavy dance beat, to one of my favorite vocals (not sure if this is Wanda Young or Gladys Horton), once this record has you dancing it just keeps on giving and giving until you’re bobbing your head, eyes closed, dripping sweat on everyone around you (but they’re probably doing the same thing so no big….). Were you to engage in a bit of reverse engineering and dissect this record into it’s individual elements you would discover that unlike so many “whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts” escapades, these building blocks are powerful on their own. The drums stand in both as a rhythmic base (the aggregate impact of the snare, tambourine and handclaps) and propulsive, transitional element (listen to snare/tom tom combos midway through the choruses). They have a deceptive simplicity dependant on the idea that most listeners wouldn’t be sitting there picking the record apart, but rather grooving/dancing. The lead and backing vocals fit together perfectly, and in combination with the percussion provide the bulk of the sound being pushed through your speakers. Though the horn section is present, the majority of the melody is being carried by the singers, and the drums are so high in the mix it’s difficult to focus on anything else (listen to the Supremes’ ‘Love Is Like Am Itching In My Heart’ for a similar Motown arrangement). No matter how you slice it, ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’ is nothing less than a soul anthem. It’s the kind of record that the ecstatic dervishism of Northern Soul dancefloors from the 60’s on is based in. It’s the sound of soul lovers being carried out of themselves for roughly two and a half minutes (to be repeated until they turn on the lights and send everyone out into the cold morning air).