Sunday, January 4, 2009

Don't Mess With Bill, Marvelettes (1965)

Yesterday I received a cryptic message from my friend Barry - almost like a cry in the wilderness! - asking for a Marvelettes song. His wish is my command.

Motown, which turns 50 this month, had a hierarchy for its artists, and the A-list got most of the attention, a list that was more or less constructed on the basis of Berry Gordy's sense of who had the greatest crossover potential into the largely white pop charts. With that in mind, consider the "marvelous" Marvelettes, who were second tier at best, but still given songs such as the sultry, even menacing, classic Don't Mess With Bill. Written and produced by the master, Smokey Robinson, with uber-funk rhythm provided by the man some called the greatest bass player who ever lived, James Jamerson, this song reaches out and hooks you from the first note.

First, there's that priceless, take-no-prisoners title. On that basis alone, it was a single destined for the charts. But that aside, the song stands out in its directness, its absence of sugar-coating.

Under the heading of "where's the justice?" I'm wondering why the group who delivered Motown's first-ever #1 hit and put the company on the map - Please Mr. Postman, the week of December 11, 1961 - ended up on that second tier. The group had two equally strong lead singers - Wanda Young Rogers and Gladys Horton (it's Young on Don't Mess With Bill, Rogers on Postman) - and seemingly as much star power as any of the other girl groups. Everything I've been able to find on this indicates there were a lot of internal politics and competition between them and the Supremes, who were viewed as more refined than the Marvelettes and thus easier to groom for pop stardom. (They hailed from a rural area outside of Detroit.) One source even reveals that the Marvelettes declined to record Baby Love in 1964, for what reasons I do not know.

Although the Rock Hall has not seen fit to recognize their seminal influence (eligible since 1986, they've never even been considered, according to, a fascinating repository of commentary on the decisionmaking of the Rock Hall powers-that-be), they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.

A curious related YouTube find is a fellow from the UK who channels Jamerson, and demonstrates the bassline in numerous videos of Jamerson signature songs, including this one. He has many appreciative fans who can't get over his mastery of Jamerson's improvisatory style, which involved plucking the strings with only the index finger of his right hand while adding embellishments that no one had previously heard.

As Don Was says in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary, "You have to be absolutely fearless to play those notes in that place and yet be responsible for the bottom of the groove like that." Although the public knew little about him or any of the other Funk Brothers until the documentary was released, his work inspired many bassists who came after him including Paul McCartney, who, in an interview with Bass Guitar magazine, called Jamerson his "hero," because he was "so good and melodic."

Now go sway to Don't Mess With Bill.

1 comment:

cornbread hell said...

i love it. learning something new every day.

and at least twice when you post.