“My Girl” / The Temptations
“My Guy” / Mary Wells
MOTOWN WEEK #2
One thing I didn’t mention yesterday about Smokey Robinson: He was also one of Motown’s most prolific songwriters, turning out hits for other artists as well -- including this pair, consciously written as a soul-music version of "he says/she says." Motown had a huge hit on its hands in 1964 with Mary Well's"My Guy," but in a brilliant stroke of cross-marketing, Berry Gordy used that to promote another act with the 1965 sequel, the Temptations' "My Girl."
Smokey wrote several songs for the Temptations, but this was their signature tune, and it’s easy to see why. It starts off with one of those openings you instantly recognize when it comes on the jukebox – that drawling guitar line, bomb ba-bah-da-ba-dah bomb ba-ba-dah-ba-dah, taking its sweet time to climb upward. Then in slips David Ruffin’s shimmering tenor, "I got sunshine / On a cloudy day" (the flutters on "sunshine" and "cloudy" are classic). He keeps working that weather metaphor, "And when it’s cold outside / I got the month of May." Then all four parts come in on stair-step chords: "Well, I guess you’ll say / What could make me feel this way" and then Ruffin sparkles in again on "My girl" (as the harmonies deliver another "My girl," here comes a lush suite of strings too), "talking ‘bout / My girl." "My girl" the back-ups repeat in a high staccato, zipping it up to take her away.
Next verse, new metaphor: "I've got so much honey / The bees envy me. / I've got a sweeter song / Than the birds in the trees," and Ruffin’s voice alone is proof how sweet that honey is. Imagine the choreography that went with this, some smart snapping slide step, maybe with a synchronized spin. The Temptations were so goddam elegant, you just KNOW they’d give a girl a good time.
But something about Mary Wells' song comes a little closer to my heart. The beat’s snappier, with a pack of horns punching it up; it starts off with a metaphor (Smokey couldn’t resist): “I'm stickin' to my guy / Like a stamp to a letter / Like the birds of a feather / We stick together,” but as Mary’s voice skips along, all kittenish and flirty and coy, she’s simply dealing out the emotional facts: “Nothing you can do could make me untrue / To my guy / Nothing you can buy could make me tell a lie / To my guy.” I picture her facing another man who IS trying to woo her away, shaking her head and laying her long-nailed fingers on his chest to push him away.
Mary knows she’s got alternatives, and as neat as the rhymes may be, she’s making her decision the way a woman does, on deeper qualities: “No muscle bound man could take my hand / From my guy / No handsome face could ever take the place / Of my guy / He may not be a movie star / But when it comes to being happy / We are.” (Remember that Smokey also wrote “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” for his own group, the Miracles – handsome as he was (is), Smokey knew that looks aren’t everything.)
Where the Temptations are simply giddy with how the girl makes them feel, Mary shrewdly lays out a battle plan – “I gave my guy my word of honor / To be faithful and I'm gonna” (love that rhyme). While the guys wallow around in bliss, the girl is rolling up her sleeves, knowing that a relationship takes work. She’s not saying he’s perfect, she’s not saying there’s magic -- but she’s got material she can work with. So what if he’s off in the clouds right now, warbling “My Girl” about her? Of course a girl likes being appreciated. And when the hard times come – and they will -- she’ll do the heavy lifting. I bet they’ll make it.