The Supremes - Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart
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? Anyway...one 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.