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Monday, May 11, 2015

Brenda Holloway: The Early Years

BRENDA HOLLOWAY: THE EARLY YEARS (1962-1964/2009)

1) Constant Love; 2) Suddenly; 3) The Game Of Love; 4) Hey Fool; 5) I Never Knew You Looked So Good Until I Quit You; 6) I Want A Boyfriend (Girlfriend); 7) I'll Give My Life; 8) I Ain't Gonna Take You Back; 9) Gonna Make You Mine; 10) Unless I Have You; 11) Candy; 12) Echo; 13) I Get A Feeling; 14) It's You; 15) He's Gone; 16) The Nursery; 17) Will You Be My Love; 18) I Told You Baby; 19) I'll Find Myself A Guy; 20) Do The Del Viking, Pt. 1; 21) You're My Only Love; 22) Every Little Bit Hurts (demo).

Few people know that Brenda Holloway actually had a recording career prior to her Motown engagement — and probably even fewer give a damn about that. Big frickin' mistake, as it turns out, now that we have this wonderful, carefully assembled collection of the various tracks that she recorded either as a solo artist, or as part of a duo or a vocal band from 1962 to early 1964. This compilation, as inauspicious as it is on the surface, is actually a fun-filled, representative slice of, let's say so, «Afro-American bubble-gum pop» in the pre-British Invasion era, and is not to be missed by any nostalgic fan of those young and innocent days.

First of all, it is interesting that very little here, if anything at all, actually sounds like ʽEvery Little Bit Hurtsʼ (for some strange reason, her original recording of it from 1962 is omitted here in favor of a new demo version from 1964, for Motown already — with strings instead of key­boards). Instead of being slow, regal, and tragic, she comes across as upbeat, energetic, loud, sometimes even abrasive — and occasionally screeching her head off with even more reckless­ness than Aretha in those same years. Of course, this is all basically «teen pop» without much pretense at depth of any sort, but it does raise the issue of pigeonholing: here, she is all over the place, and then, in one year's time, she'd become a prisoner of her biggest hit. Was that voluntary, or the result of Motown's forceful image-making? Just three or four of these songs, had they been included on her first LP, would have made it far less formulaic and far more exciting.

For instance, here is her first single, ʽHey Foolʼ, credited to Jesse James and released on the small Donna label — a gritty blues-rocker with a scorching electric guitar solo played by God knows who, but with a fierce, piercing tone that reminds one of Freddie King (and, subsequently, early Yardbirds-era Clapton). The rhythm section is a bit wobbly, but guitar and vocals are impeccable. And the B-side is ʽEchoʼ, co-credited to Brenda and her sister Patrice — a slow, waltzing ballad this time, but with an imaginative gimmick as Brenda and Patrice bounce their "there's an echo... echo... echo..." off each other in a unique combination (they have slightly different ranges whose interference produces an almost psychedelic effect). Both these songs are better than just about anything on her Motown debut, bar the big hit single, of course.

Several of the songs are exciting and hilarious duets with male singers: on ʽI Never Knew You Looked So Good Until I Quit Youʼ and ʽGonna Make You Mineʼ, she is downright nasty and raunchy, roughing up her vocal cords while Jess Harris is playing the part of the dumb, but weirdly seductive, baritone — and on ʽI Want A Boyfriendʼ, recorded with Robert Jackson, they put a sharp echo effect on her already hysterical "I want a, I want a, I want a boyfriend!" intro that is guaranteed to glue your attention: there was not a single song in her Motown catalog where she would sound that fiery and insistent. And in each and every one of these vocal battles, she always makes it clear who's on top and who's really in the background.

One has to be careful, though, because not every one of these tracks has Brenda as lead vocalist: for instance, the one single included here under the name of ʽThe Four J'sʼ (appropriately recor­ded for the 4J label) features two other ladies, while Holloway is dismissed to the position of background singer; and the joke number ʽDo The Del Viking, Pt. 1ʼ was released under the name of Patricia Holloway, so I suppose that once again, Brenda is just singing backup here. But that's not a big problem, because, like I said, the collection works as a «wholistic» package — sort of «the early life and times of Brenda Holloway», a little bit of a working Odyssey as she goes through label after label, team after team, style after style, carefully building up an original pedi­gree that would eventually assure her a place in the big leagues (and not a very respectable place at that — this compilation definitely shows that she deserved a lot better).

Discussing the other songs would not be very helpful, because composition and arrangements are predictably not the strongest elements here: most of the chord sequences, lyrics, and sentiments are totally in line with the formulae of the day. And this is the mistake which most people who have reviewed this package seem to have made — for some reason, they tended to focus on the songs, when in reality you have to focus on the delivery of the songs, on the character behind the songs, and on the difference between this character and Brenda's subsequent Motown image. Just put on ʽI Never Knew You Looked So Goodʼ and then go listen to some of her Motown dirges, and it's like two different singers, and it's, like, a transition that took place in between when she was fifteen years of age and seventeen years of age. Reason enough to be at least slightly amazed, not to mention seriously amused, and to issue a surefire thumbs up and a strong recommendation, provided the package is still circulating somewhere out there.

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