The Ultimate Collection (1998) ****
Right am I or not am I, is not or not is "Please Mr. Postman," the greatest song in rock'n'roll history? Bouncing immediately to the irresistable chorus with ferocious energy and an effortlessly tight rhythm section, it hits the ground running before you've even caught your breath. OK, so maybe that's hyperbole - it's not the greatest song of all time (arguable) but it is the greatest girl-group song of all time (inarguable, and don't bring up the Ronettes or the Shangri-La's, "Leader of the Pack," is novelty silly). Oh, did I mention that it was Motown's first #1 hit single? For that alone the Marvelettes earn at least a footnote in the history books. They never managed another smash nearly as smashing as that chart debut - how could they follow that up? - which is to say (see four-star rating above) they had plenty more good to great material in their reportoire, from the Top Ten hits to the entries on the lower rungs of the Top 40 (or even 100) to the worthy album tracks and B-sides that deserved wider exposure. Apparently they had five lineup changes over the course of their career (this compilation ends in 1970, after which they quietly split up several years later after a dry spell of non-hits), so I'm not going to worry myself over who's who on what lead or backing vocal track; as with most Motown performers, they maintained a consistent sound due to Berry Gordy's assembly line production ethic. What counted was the song, and the Marvelettes received quality material for their A-sides from top of the line songwriters Dozier/Holland and Smokey Robinson, among others.
At 25 tracks there are bound to be a few misfires, notably the quickie cash-in "Twistin' Postman," but mostly the Marvs delivered the goods - why they weren't promoted as successfully as the Supremes is a mystery (actually, not; Berry Gordy had the hots for Diana Ross). Here's the point in the review where I scan the tracklist and try to single out a handful of highlights. Marvin Gaye's "Beechwood 4-5789" ranks in the first rank of rock'n'roll telephone songs; my my how technology has spread, now that everyone has five cellphones numbers have to stretch beyond five digits. Eventually there will be so many people with so many telephones that numbers will be assigned with nearly a dozen digits. Wait, you say they already are? Shit. "Forever," is one of those B-sides that snuck up and almost out-charted its A-side; a classy, yearning, soulful ballad steelily but tenderly reeking of clinging desperation, it's what you might refer to as a "classic". Apparently a big hit at weddings, too. While a U.K. beat group entitled the Action OWN "I'll Keep Holding On," (in their version, the greatest song ever recorded), the Marvelettes' original is brill-excellento in its own right, and well worth hearing in both versions. That way you get to hear "I'll Keep Holding On," twice! Sung from the POV of an insecure woman to an aquaintance that she's afraid is out to steal her boyfriend, "Don't Mess With Bill," finds Smokey at his smokily downbeat finest, as is "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game." The Marvellettes grew slightly softer as the decade wound to a close, which doesn't mean that "When You're Young and in Love," and "That's How Heartaches Are Made," aren't touchingly affecting soft-rock for your inner squishy. It's hard to associate Motown with the adjectives "underrated," and "underexposed," but the Marvelettes fit the envelope.