Monday, September 12, 2005

The Supremes - Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart

The Supremes

I know I’ve covered this ground before in this space, but bear with me. I, for many years, as a soul music fan, was egregious in my casual dismissal of the product of the Motown Record Corporation. There, I said it again. I made my mea culpas previously, but let me lay it out again (briefly). I grew up on “oldies radio” (blah blah blah) Oldies radio plays the same dozen Motown hits over and over again ad infinitum (blah blah blah) In my initial foray into collecting soul music I was drawn to the grittier sounds of Southern soul (blah blah blah) I mistakenly equated the 275,000 plays of ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch (I Can’t Help Myself)’ that I was subjected to as a youth with all of Motown, and as a result assumed that the Sound of Young America required no further investigation (blah blah blah) I was – of course – wrong. Oh my, I was soooooooo wrong..... (Pause briefly for gnashing of teeth, tearing out of hair and pained wailing...) Ahhh, better. Live and learn, that’s how I look at it. Either way, though I still turn the dial whenever “Baby Love” comes on the radio, I am man enough to admit that the waters that are Motown run much, much deeper than the aforementioned tired old playlist. It also pays to note that now that I am aware of my mistakes, the airplay gate swings both ways, i.e. I am now extra happy when I hear a Motown song that I feel is underplayed (or just of a naturally higher quality). Am I making myself clear? such underplayed gem is ‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ (from the ‘Supremes A Go Go’ LP) by the Supremes. I haven’t ever been a huge fan of the Supremes. I always dug Martha & The Vandellas, the Marvelettes and (most of all) the Velvelettes more. I’m willing to admit that the old “familiarity breeds contempt” formula has something to do with this, but I think it’s also rooted in my preference for a singer like Martha Reeves over Diana Ross. It also has something to do with the fact that the people in charge of making the records at Motown (rarely the artists themselves) had a tendency not to mess with success, i.e. “if the Supremes had success with this record, let’s make a dozen more like it.” That “sameness” was also a mark of who at Motown was working regularly with a particular artist, i.e. Supremes with Holland/Dozier/Holland, Velvelettes with Norman Whitfield etc. That said, ‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ really caught my ear the first time I heard it (probably about 35 years ago). It has one of the most interesting arrangements in the Motown catalogue. For most of the verse the only instruments you really hear are piano, vibes, drums and the brief punctuation of the baritone sax. The rhythm, a steady 4/4 stomp is so constant and unerring that it almost feels as if it’s been looped (there’s virtually no change in the beat for the entire record). As the verses go on, the horn section and backing vocals gradually become more prominent, until all the elements are in the forefront. This is one of those records that really made a lot more sense to me after I became attuned to the whole ‘Northern Soul’ thing. In a lot of ways ‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ sounds like it was created as a template for that sound. The heavy backbeat for the dancers, poppy melody, bright highlights like the vibes, baritone sax highlights and solo, all elements that appear over and over again as signature motifs in ‘Northern Soul’ records. This certainly has a lot to do with the fact that much of what is now known (and collected) as ‘Northern Soul’ is independent label soul that was created using those Detroit (mostly Motown) motifs in a new context, with many of those elements appearing as a kind of “shorthand”, i.e. ‘If you liked it on a Motown hit, you’re gonna LOVE it on my record!”.‘Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart’ is far too successful a record (top 40 in most markets, top 10 in a few in the Spring of 1966) to be regarded very highly by the trainspotters in the Northern Soul community (with the dancers probably digging it but the DJs/collectors turning up their noses at something so “common”), but it is undeniably part of the pattern from which that subgenre was created.

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Blogger guapo said...

Thanks for finding me so soon Larry! Did you see what the vultures did with my old web address? A cautionary tale that if you ever tire of your blog don`t, whatever you do, delete the whole thing.

9/12/2005 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Agreed, this is great - and not so played-out that I don't hear new things in it. Especially love the vibes.

9/12/2005 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous darcy said...

My sentiments exactly - though I couldn't have put it have as well as you.

9/12/2005 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous darcy said...

thats ... half as well as you.
Excuse me, but we have just won the Ashes!

9/12/2005 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is definitely one of Diana, Mary, and Flo's finest moments. You might check out the very first Supremes LP, Meet the Supremes, which features lead vocals by all three members. It's a surprisingly strong slice of R&B.

Motown has finally wised up a little bit and started putting out Cds of obscurities and outtakes instead of the same old tired repackagings of "My Girl" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." There is so much great stuff by the Contours, Shorty Long, et al. as well as lesser-known stuff by the better-known artists that was undervalued by Berry Gordy, but that is now much more appreciated...


9/13/2005 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Peter (the other) said...

Although, like you, I felt there was some taint to the Motown output, I always maintained an unstoppable respect for the craft. I had only remembered "Itching.. " as a minor hit, until 1979 when I heard a pounding version of it by the late Phil Seymour, drummer and singer originally of the Dwight Twilley Band (I know, a bit pale for these pages). I went right home and slapped it on and it has been in regular rotation ever since.

9/14/2005 02:06:00 AM  
Blogger Scott Soriano said...

No reason to defend this pick. This period of Supremes had some great songs. If you dont have Supremes a go-go it is worth checking out. since motown policy was to have all their acts and producers cut a version of the singles there are some very cool non-hits by other motown acts of hit singles, each done with different bands and producers. the supremes version of Get Ready is really nice and like a lot of their Holland, Dozer, Holland produced stuff in its urgency and a killer driving riff like on Itching in My Heart. Despite the many motown hit collections and the unfortunate use of a lot of their songs in tv ads and the utter cynicism of barry gordy, Motown had great session players, fantastic producers, and great writers. smokey robinson, isaac hayes, david porter, H-D-H, norman whitfield, marvin gaye (as producer & writer) and gordy himself - that is quite a load of talent. few labels have ever had that much firepower on staff.

9/15/2005 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have to attribute much of the song "Itching" to the fantastic Motown drummer, Benny Benjamin. He set the beat and rest of those guys had to keep up. That guy kept a beat like a "human metronome". This guy was unbelievable..!

3/12/2007 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Dave in Northridge said...

I teach courses in the cultural history of the United States, and this is the song I play when we consider the Supremes. I lead into it with a discussion of Holland-Dozier-Holland as well.

4/24/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Allan Breitenbach said...

Loved reading your review of my second most favorite of the Supremes- the first being "Back In My Arms Again". I especially was impressed with your comments of the Benny Benjamin beat. This may be off topic for you- but I posit this opinion: This song led the framework for the worldwide craze that happened in the mid to late 70's- DISCO! Your opinion, please.

5/17/2013 01:58:00 AM  

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