TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Debuts on the U.K. singles chart (as Tamla Motown 693) on Wednesday, April 16, 1969.
SONGWRITERS: Ivy Jo Hunter, Beatrice Verdi.
PRODUCER: Ivy Jo Hunter.
BACKSTORY: The spring of ’69 was a prosperous season for Motown Records in Britain, where the company was better known as Tamla Motown. The very week that “Behind A Painted Smile” made its chart debut, Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why” was climbing the Top 20, while two reissues, “(I’m A) Road Runner” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars and “Nowhere To Run” by Martha & the Vandellas, were also moving up the best-sellers. Oh, and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” had only just wrapped up its three-week run at Number One.
The Isleys’ British success with “Smile” was all the more unusual, given that the track had merely occupied the trio’s Soul On The Rocks album in 1967, then appeared as the flip of a U.S. 45 (“All Because I Love You”) which didn’t chart at all when first released in late ’68. It took the initiative of Tamla Motown U.K. to select “Smile” as the A side of a single the following May, and to promote it strongly enough to secure a Top 5 placing. Thus, the brothers gained their second-biggest British hit since “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” reached the Top 3 in 1966.
“Behind A Painted Smile” is a perfect example of the unhinged vocal style which the Isleys – Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly – had cultivated ever since their breakthrough with “Shout” in 1959. “On their greatest records,” wrote one critic, “they sounded demented, frenzied, deranged. Which was precisely why those records cast a spell over a generation of rock ’n’ roll musicians worldwide.” The same flavour is apparent in other tracks made at Motown by the three brothers, including “Got To Have You Back” and “Tell Me It’s Just A Rumor Baby.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of the U.K. affection for “Behind A Painted Smile” is that it occurred after the Isleys had quit Motown in December 1968 to start their own label, T-Neck Records. That venture gave the brothers their first million-selling smash, “It’s Your Thing” – and drew a lawsuit from Motown, claiming that the hit was created while the Isleys were still under contract there. In 1975, a federal court found in favour of the group. You can bet they smiled at that outcome.
REMAKES: The Isley Brothers’ considerable career in the music industry has inspired many versions of their hits – but “Behind A Painted Smile” is not one of them. That is testimony, perhaps, to the unique, inimitable performance, first put on tape at the Motown studios with producer Ivy Jo Hunter during early 1967. The song’s working title then? “Behind A Faded Smile.” Meanwhile, the Isleys’ most-covered Motown track is “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” with remakes by the Zombies, Donnie Elbert, Wild Cherry, Lou Christie, Vonda Shepard, Bettye Swann and Boyzone, among others. Not to mention the remake by Rod Stewart, who drafted none other than Ronald Isley to join him. The result went Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. Another reason to smile.
FOOTNOTE: There was one singer who rose to the challenge of “Behind A Painted Smile.” Dutch jazz vocalist Mathilde Santing recorded a piano-backed interpretation on her eponymous debut album in 1982. Fourteen years later, she selected four more Motown chestnuts to perform on stage and, subsequently, on her in-concert album, Choosy Live! All four were the work of Smokey Robinson, and previously recorded by the Miracles: “Choosey Beggar,” “I Don’t Blame You At All,” “Point It Out” and “More Love.” Still later, Santing maintained the Motown habit with a version of Stevie Wonder’s “All In Love Is Fair.” There were smiles all around at the company’s music publishing arm, no doubt.