Californian songbird Brenda Holloway climbed the Motown ladder with ‘Every Little Bit Hurts,’ the tearjerker that became her signature, when it reached No. 3 R&B and No. 13 pop in 1964. But when it came to a new song by Smokey Robinson, the ill-advised departure of Mary Wells from the Motown hierarchy was her gain.
“Mary Wells left Motown and she was gone,” she later said in The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 5. “And Smokey was without an artist, and if you ever see Smokey without an artist, it’s like a day without sunshine. So he needed someone to fill that space and I was available, and I tried to sound like Mary Wells.”
Robinson’s ‘When I’m Gone’ was recorded by Wells, before her departure from Motown, in May, 1964. The song sat in the vault for eight months until, in January of the new year, Smokey recorded Holloway’s overdubs and added strings. Brenda did herself a disservice when she described herself as a mere Wells soundalike, and the result was an atmospheric, finger-snapping gem.
‘When I’m Gone’ entered both the soul and pop charts in the US on 6 March, 1965, starting at No. 37 on Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles and No. 74 on the Hot 100. It went as high as No. 12 with her soul audience and No. 25 on the pop side, and was followed three months later by another Smokey song and production that deserved much better, ‘Operator.’