Motown Spotlight: August/September 2017

Motown Spotlight: August/September 2017

Yay! It has arrived! And reading the excitement gushing across many Facebook pages, there’s not a negative vibe to be read. You know what I’m talking about – Brenda Holloway’s “Spellbound”, which is one of the most exciting compilations this year. I know I’ve been involved from the outset which was, and still is, a tremendous thrill for me because Brenda is one helluva artist and one feisty lady who so graciously chatted to me for ages for the CD notes. The worst part was keeping it a secret! Anyway, there’s no need to detail the tracks included as Paul Nixon, who, with our very own David Nathan, produced the project, does an admirable job, also explaining the origin of the music, but I must say the ballads are totally captivating like “Don’t Compare Me To Her”. There’s a mixture of composers and producers ensuring a huge diversity in Brenda’s ability to easily manage all styles proving, as if she needed to, that she’s the total consummate artist, who, sadly, was categorised in the ‘overlooked’ section of Motown. Compilations like these issued by SoulMusic Records involve many people at the offset, responsible for all the aspects of ensuring the final release is beyond excellent, which is why they can’t be rushed. Believe me, writing the notes was probably the easiest part! All I can say is, thank you guys for bringing us the music, and to Brenda herself for recording such gems in the first place. Maybe here is the right place to mention other SMR Motown CDs just in case they’ve slipped your mind, and a few I’ve been involved with – Thelma Houston’s “Any Way You Like It”, “Billy Preston & Syreeta”, “Syreeta”, G.C. Cameron’s “Love Songs & Other Tragedies”, and The Dynamic Superior’s “Dynamic Superiors”/”Pure Pleasure”. Obviously, we hope there’ll be plenty more to fulfil our Motown dreams. Let’s TCB…

The entire Hotel St Regis in midtown Detroit has been booked to accommodate visitors attending Detroit A Go Go, a five day Motown and Soul Festival booked to start on 18 October. I don’t know too many details, apart from the fact that I’m not going, but I understand performing acts include The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, The Elgins, The Contours, Pat Lewes, JJ Barnes among the advertised list. According to what I’ve read it seems the event will provide an insight into the enduring phenomenon that’s been observed from affar, like the overseas fascination with Motown and its obscure musical cousins. Yorkshire resident, Phil Dick – DJ, record label owner and longtime fan – is the Festival’s organiser, who said that Motown in particular really resonated with the English in the sixties, and “DJs began looking for more records with that sound, looking further afield for more obscure labels. It was that music that really resonated predominantly with the white working class in England; the sound, the beat, but mostly the lyrics. Most of the songs are about love and hope and happiness.” He also acknowledges the huge importance of our Northern Soul Scene, citing that many followers have never been to Detroit that bred this wonderful music, “Detroit has always been right in the centre of the northern soul movement, particularly because of the Motown connection, but also because so much other great music was being made there in the sixties and seventies……I felt that rather than just bringing one or two artists to England, let’s take fans to the US and have lots of them performing for us.” British DJs like Phil himself and Neil Rushton will be spinning the sounds. Y’know what? Sounds like great fun, and I really hope it all comes together for everyone concerned. Click here for more information about tickets, etc.

Flipping over the coin now, the situation doesn’t look that good for the 40th annual Kennedy Centre Honours ceremony in December this year. Due to the political moves undertaken by the Trump administration, one of the announced attendees Lionel Richie may sideline the event. He told the New York Daily Times, “I’m not really happy with what’s going on right now with the controversies….But I think I’m just going to wait it out and see where it’s gonna be by that time.” Apparently, he’s the third to indicate a no-show, and this month President Trump and his First Lady said they won’t be attending either. At this rate, there’ll only be the CBS network television crew there filming, um, nothing much. Moving on….

“The music industry has lost one world class voice, and I’ve lost a long and cherished friend. A piece of my history goes with him. We recorded together, and his band The Vancouvers backed me at the Eden Rock in Miami, and we went to the UK and played some gigs together.” So sayeth Chris Clark about Bobby Taylor who we lost last month. The 83-year-old named lead vocalist with The Vancouvers, had been living in Hong Kong for the past fifteen years or so, and had been undergoing treatment for tumours in his spine and leukemia in his throat. Sadly, he lost the battle. Motown fans will be aware of his musical history, so won’t go into great biographical detail, but thought a few highlights would be of interest. The first, of course, is the single that launched the group into the American crossover chart – “Does Your Mama Know About Me” which was born as a poem by the song’s co-writer Tommy Chong. Keyboardist and composer, Tom Baird read it and put it to music. “It was about a black guy asking his girlfriend if her mama knew about him” wrote Tommy in his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Biography”. “The song was about my own experiences with white women. Being half Chinese, there had been times – actually, many of them – when I had to drop a girl off at the end of the block so her parents wouldn’t see who she was dating. That experience saddened me.” Pressed in red vinyl and released in February 1968 (UK – May 1968), the single was followed by a pair of US hits: “I Am Your Man” (Ashford and Simpson) in June ‘68 and “Malinda” (Smokey Robinson and Warren Moore) in the October. All three releases were lifted from their solitary eponymous album issued August 1968 (the same month as Edwin Starr’s amazing “Soul Master” album), with its British release the following year in the February. It also now appears that both “I Am Your Man” and “Malinda” were originally intended to be solo Bobby songs but ended up being credited to the group as well. Probably as insufficient tracks had been recorded for their debut album.

Anyway, let’s back track. Born in Washington DC, Bobby’s parents were of Native American and Puerto Rican descent, and he lived in the same neighbourhood as Marvin Gaye when they were kids. He said his mother sang with the great opera singer, Marian Anderson, and her best friends included Billie Holiday, which allowed him to hang out with Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and other A-listed names while he was growing up. “My family knew all the musicians around, and every time somebody would come to town, they’d stop by the house. I always knew when somebody was coming because we’d have big pots of chitterlings and cornbread piled up to the ceiling.” Bobby also served as a cook during the Korean War, later performing with a variety of groups like Little Daddy and the Bachelors, before meeting guitarist Tommy Chong, who would later partner fellow comic “Cheech” Marin. They went on to form The Vancouvers (Wes Henderson, Ted Lewis, Robbie King, Eddie Patterson, Tommy, with Bobby on lead), and supported Motown artists on tour, earning themselves a name to be watched. While supporting The Supremes, Berry Gordy caught their act which included them singing Motown material, and as Tommy wrote, “We could cover any tune we felt like because Bobby could sing them all……Bobby had a range that exceeded Patti LaBelle…. He used to do ‘Danny Boy’ and make everybody cry in the audience. He would hit notes that were unbelievably high and he could sound like anybody he wanted to sound like – Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. I’ve been with a lot of singers, but nothing like Bobby.” They also dipped into The Impressions’ songbook which included the little-known “I Wonder”, the very first song Tommy heard Bobby perform in San Francisco. It later became their most requested song. As well as enjoying their performance, Berry Gordy was also taken by “Does Your Mama Know About Me” and it was probably this that instigated him signing the multi-cultured unit to Motown. “Everybody was just kids” Bobby Taylor told journalist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor during 1998. “We didn’t know business. So Berry Gordy had us sign everything away: even gave them power of attorney. They said they needed it so they could put our cheques in the bank for us if we… were on the road.” When their single began selling, Bobby and the group toured with Diana Ross and the Supremes. Tommy takes up the story, “We opened the show and performed part of our club routine, which eventually pissed off Diana Ross so much that she had the tour manager tell us to stop doing it.” It appeared she was offended by the lyrics of a Parliament song they performed, which the group amended to sing “oh, white girls, you sure been delicious to me.” Diana’s sentiments were also shared by the tour promoters who were not prepared for an unknown band from Canada singing about white girls in this way, particularly as they formed a huge part of the audience!

An outspoken, no-nonsense guy, prone to wearing purple suits, Bobby’s reputation for straight talking, hit Motown. So much so that when he arrived at the studio, the switchboard would alert everybody and they would lock their office doors. “There was no filter on Bobby’s mouth” Tommy said. “He would tell Berry Gordy ‘Nappy-headed little n*****, what’s happening?’ He would talk to Berry like he would talk to me.”


Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers also supported Chris Clark when she performed at the Saville Theatre in London during November 1967, supporting Gladys Knight and the Pips. During an add-on club date while in the city, Chris remembered a vision in tight white leather, white hat with a huge feather, jumping on stage, grabbing a guitar and tearing the place down. It was Jimi Hendrix, and although he subsequently took a while for his star to rise, she immediately recognised a huge talent in the making. Touring with Chris was a regular occurrence in America, where her road manager was Johnny Bristol. However, this touring arrangement came to an end when Tommy and Wes Henderson had to attend an immigration meeting to sort our their green cards on the same date as they had agreed to support Ms Clark. During a verbal altercation, Johnny Bristol sacked both from the group, which eventually led to it breaking up.

During 1968 Bobby left his group to record as a soloist where his limited releases switched labels. His first “Oh, I’ve Been Blessed”/”Blackmail”, was originally scheduled on the Gordy label, but transferred to VIP for early 1970 release. A year later “My Girl Has Gone” carried the Gordy label, while “Hey Lordy” was a Mowest single in November 1971. In between times, he released “Taylor-Made Soul” in July 1969 on Gordy; British release was six months later. Nothing worked, despite the high calibre of the material, so Bobby and Motown parted company by 1971, although a financial disagreement was said to be the real reason. Bobby later successfully sued Motown for unpaid royalties.

Despite the hype at the time that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, it was, of course, Bobby Taylor who brought them to Berry Gordy’s attention. The Vancouvers were sharing a bill with Jerry Butler at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, with the Jackson 5 as support act, performing a gruelling five shows daily for ten days. The brothers stole the show the minute they took to the stage. “I saw this little kid spinning and stuff and said ‘dang, send him upstairs when he finishes. I want to talk to that kid’” recalled Bobby in one interview, and in another, said “Michael was about eight. In between sets he used to go to sleep on my lap.” So excited was he, that he invited the brothers and their father Joe to Detroit where, during July 1968, they auditioned for Suzanne de Passe. She instantly signed them to a seven-year contract, and Berry Gordy assigned Bobby to work with them. “I had them come live with me that summer while they were auditioning” Bobby said. “….I was living in a white apartment building at the time, and the other tenants, they didn’t want these little black kids around the place. They didn’t do any bad stuff, they were just normal kids running around. But the other tenants didn’t like it, so it got us all kicked out.”

Becoming the Jackson 5’s first producer, they recorded Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You”, among other titles. Working with Michael Jackson was comfortably easy for Bobby because of the youngster’s ability to grasp the recording process. “He’d go in and do it. Everything I gave him to sing, he could sing right back at me.” It was the perfect relationship but, one time, when Joe Jackson attempted to interfere with a session, Bobby pulled a gun on him. However, Berry Gordy considered the songs Bobby produced for the brothers were old-fashioned, and not the way he wanted them to be presented to the public. So, he side stepped him and formed The Corporation, a group of his top composers/producers to deliver original, blue-eyed soul music. In the notes for the 1995 Jackson 5 “Soulsation” CD set, Bobby said, “I’m not an ass-kisser. I’ll tell you what I think. I was running things my way and didn’t want any interference. I was turning the Jackson 5 into a classic soul act. Berry Gordy didn’t like that. He had ideas of his own. He wanted Michael doing more bubblegum material. He sent me packing.” Tommy Chong, on the other hand, fervently believed Bobby’s greatest talent was teaching people how to sing. “’Come on m*****f*****, you can hit that note. Come on, just hit it! That’s the way he was.” Although he went on to supervise most of their debut album “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5”, Bobby received little or no credit for working alongside The Corporation on their early singles like “I Want You Back” and “ABC”..

Several years after leaving Motown, Bobby Taylor discovered he had throat cancer, and relocated to Ohio to live with his mother. He dismissed traditional treatment and sought a herbal cure which was successful to a point, because the polyps returned, prompting Bobby to comment at the time – “I’m not going to do chemotherapy. I came into this life with all my hair and I’m going out with it.” However, this didn’t prevent him from recording, as he released singles on Sunflower, Tommy Zs7, Playboy and Philadelphia International. Then, during the early nineties, Bobby was signed by Ian Levine to record an album for his innovative Motorcity Records label based in London. Titled “Find My Way Back” it featured among its tracks re-works “Does Your Mama Know About Me”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Down To Love Town”.

From here, Bobby Taylor moved to Beijing, before relocating to Hong Kong, where he continued to sing, mostly in friends’ nightclubs. I’m told his last known recording was “Humanity” a tribute to the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner. In one of his later interviews, Bobby told the South China Morning post, “I have twelve kids, met three presidents and, in general, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Before closing this, Chris Clark said she heard a demo of Bobby and the Vancouvers singing the Frank Wilson/Pam Sawyer song “Evening Train” which was headed her way to record. However, Diana Ross stepped in, recorded it with a different arrangement to include it on the group’s “Love Child”. “After hearing Bobby’s version, I personally wouldn’t have even dared to try and match it”, said Ms Clark. ”Please Motown, release his track as his swan song, because my Northern Soul family will adore it.”

The very last word goes to Tommy Chong, “St Peter’s going ‘Bobby Taylor’s in Heaven now, notify everybody!’”

(My thanks to J Douglas Allen-Taylor; Tommy Chong and his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorised Autobiography” and others I was unable to identify. The visuals included here belong to Chris Clark and are reprinted with her permission. They must not be reproduced elsewhere)