Former Detroit carmaker Berry Gordy’s ambition was to provide what he calls “The Sound of Young America.” In 1959, when he borrowed $ 800 from his family, he started his own record company and built a studio in his modest suburban home in his hometown of Detroit, calling it ‘Hitsville USA’. He began by signing local singers, bands, musicians, writers and producers: Gordy built his own Motor City assembly line-Motown, which by the mid-1960s had produced a stream of timeless classics.
Within the shiny chassis of a song, the beautiful sound of a perfectly tuned engine, which generates rhythms and harmonies, was efficient as a machine, but by no means mechanical; the skills and feelings of Motown’s house musicians – the Funk Brothers, recruited from Detroit jazz clubs – take care of that. They could descend with dissonance and play with atonality, but they were always as sure-footed as the polished, backbone-slipping choreography of the silk and mohair-clad plays. Supporting singers The Andantes added depth and sweetness.
The most successful songwriters were Holland-Dozier-Holland — the brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier — who delivered the most successful actor, The Supremes, with a series of hits at the top of the list.
In 1965, HDH wrote “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, with a little help from fellow Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy. They had The Supremes in mind to record it, but for once, The Supremes did not get the first bite at this most delicious cherry. A newly drawn group of brothers did.
The Isley Brothers – Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly – joined Motown in 1965, shortly after their guitarist Jimi Hendrix left them. They were offered “This old heart of mine” as their first single on their new label, and the rest is, as they say, one of the greatest records ever made: the apotheosis of Motown.
The song contains versions of The Supremes’ “Back in my arms”, but what then? HDH wrote it, and it was beautiful, so why not a little self-plagiarism, why not another cut of the same old song?
While full of energy, the record is also easy; great power, but not too fast, exactly the right dance speed. Rolling thunder drum. Piano and xylophone. Surface skating, string benches, courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, describe an enchanting rising and falling recoil chorus, backed by brass, including the fantastic bold, simmering baritone action that has such a huge impact on so many of the company’s records had, played by Mike Terry.
The Isleys contribute to the energy, scurrying and kicking around the rhythm. Amidst a jam-packed, jam-packed lyric, they throw in perfectly precise pauses and half-heels. The song soars with joy and falls into sadness: “This old heart, darling, is weak for you … I’m not too proud to shout it, tell the world about it, because I … I love you -ou … yes I do-oo. ”
Motown has always made the best out of a good song. Later in 1966 The Supreme speed it up a bit, just like Tammi Terrell in 1968. By the way, Curtis Mayfield He loved the record so much that he immediately copied it with The Impressions on “Can’t Satisfy” in 1966. He did not get away with it; Motown sued.
If you slow down the song, it usually becomes a misery. One wonderful exception is by Bettye Swann in 1975. Her beautifully spoken intro enriches everything that follows. Delroy Wilson It offers a blue-beating style just rolled out of bed, with an equally drowsy trombone (1967). It’s worth listening to, for all the wrong reasons Richard McGraw, in 2012. He adopts a Dylan voice over a dull, awkward, deconstructed strings / brass background and a children’s choir. Very funny.
Fit Hollywood Decorator Rod Stewart’s the awful hit with an AOR goal in 1975, is worth noting; more interesting is she 1989 duet with original lead singer Ronald Isley. Lamont Dozier and Cliff Richard forms a more unlikely duo in 2018.
In the film of 2018 Bad times in the El Royale, Cynthia Erivo– plays a struggling Sixties soul singer named Darlene Sweet – is filmed and rehearses the song without accompaniment. Impressive in its affected way, sure, but dig the vocal tracks of the Isleys’ first recording to hear how it should be done.
Nothing can improve on The Isley Brothers’ initial effort. This is a textbook in which the original is the largest.
What are your memories of ‘This Old Heart of Mine’? Let us know in the comments section below.
‘The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind another 50 of the most popular songs in the world‘, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.
Music credits: Motown; Spectrum; Echo Records; Suite 102; Atlanties; Jet Star; Import; Warner; V2
Photo credit: Chris Ware / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images