In the celebration of the release of “In The Meantime,” the 1st single from the new association between SoulMusic Records and award-winning music man Preston Glass’ Platinum Garage Recordings, David Nathan conducts interviews with renowned trumpeter Willie Bradley and legendary vocalist Gerald Alston – and learns about Willie’s work with the original James Brown band and Gerald’s ongoing work with the pioneering vocal group, The Manhattans…
David Nathan of SoulMusic Records and Preston Glass of Platinum Garage Recordings are proud to announce a new association for releasing great new soul, R&B and smooth jazz tracks. Our first release is by renowned trumpeter WILLIE BRADLEY and features legendary soul vocalist GERALD ALSTON (of The Manhattans) on a Preston Glass-written and produced new gem, “In The Meantime.” This lyrically timely track is due for release worldwide on October 3 via CDBaby. You can hear a preview at SoundCloud. We invite you to listen, like and share!
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)
One of the UK’s most enduring recording artists, Kiki Dee has been making music since the early ’60s. With a personal background and love for R&B/soul music, Kiki has the distinction of having been the first British artist to be signed to and to record for Motown and it’s with that in mind that Kiki is performing in October at the first Soul Galore Weekend in Folkstone. In advance of the show, Kiki spoke with SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan about her experiences as a Motown artist…
WILSON PICKETT: WILSON PICKETT SINGS BOBBY WOMACK (KENT)
Now this is interesting, for me anyway, because I just love Wilson’s voice. It’s so rasping, almost on the raw side, and, my, can he turn a song into something else. And this CD is a fine example of his immense talent that perhaps is overlooked sometimes. From the blurb, the material here covers 1966 – 1968 when he recorded 17 songs by Mr Womack, then a rising composer/singer. Of course, he was destined to bask in his own public spotlight but that would take a while yet. So, it could be argued, that Wilson Pickett helped Bobby on his way. Anyway, I’m bouncing across the tracks, loving as I do the high octane ballad “People Make The World (What It Is)”, followed by a chunky “I’m A Midnight Mover”, saturated in brass, interrupted by shrill support vocals, portraying the man at his finest. Wilson’s ability to whip up a whirlpool of R&B emotion, whether tackling a fast mover or sweeping ballad is, to be honest, rather special. “It’s A Groove” and “I’m Sorry About That” fit the latter. However, “I’ve Come A Long Way” ups the anti to beat both mentioned ballads hands down! He wails and moans, telling the story against a full background of musicians and vocalists. Extremely inspiring. A song that’s high on my list of all time greats is “Bring It On Home To Me”, and here Wilson pays respect to its creator, Sam Cooke. It’s an easy and relaxing version too. Also included, as a bonus, are both sides of Bobby Womack’s solitary Atlantic single “Find Me Somebody”/”How Does It Feel”. This CD has been a long time in the making. Cliff White conceived the project in 1984, and the journey took in record company rejections and…..well, it is all explained in the accompanying booklet by consultant Bob Fisher. To hell with it; there’s absolutely nothing to dislike here. It is the perfect combination of the voice and the writer. Resist at your peril!
VARIOUS ARTISTS: MAINSTREAM MODERN SOUL 2 1969 – 1976 (KENT)
Seventies soul from Mainstream’s family of labels, headed up by Bob Shad, a jazz producer but a man who knew how to cash in on the growing R&B market. Vocal groups were his preference, where Terry Huff and Special Delivery were the most profitable. To introduce the CD is the rather low-keyed funk sounding “Grass Ain’t Greener”, the first single from Charles Beverly. Its solid beat and robust vocals sustain the regular dance rhythm. Nia Johnson’s “You Are The Spice Of My Life” is a top shelf ballad that drifts along with plenty of back up vocals. Its instant hook is hard to shake. On the other hand, a clipping beat that drops a key, forms the basis of Ellerine Harding’s “I Know Something You Don’t Know”. A little on the busy side for me. An extremely laidback, part singing/talking track “I’ve Got To Tell You” from the flamboyantly named Count Willie with LRL & The Dukes, left me cold. However, love the cute and quaint “Everyone Has Someone”, where Linda Perry has swiped all the ingredients from a fifties’ songbook of also-rans. Yet it has a compelling charm nonetheless. Marking the final single release from Terry Huff, “Where There’s A Will (There’s A Way)”, the song holds a lively rhythm that’s perfect for dancing. Likewise, the pounding Chocolate Syrup’s “You’ve Got A Lot To Give” and Chapter Three’s “I’ll Never Be The Same Pt 1” – a slice of early disco from a female trio who should have done better. Meanwhile, the all male quartet, McArthur, take their “I’ll Never Trust Love Again” to another level, with smooth vocals backing an angst-ridden lead vocalist. Poor love. All the tracks are important in their own way in contributing to the growth of soul music, although there are some that fall below the high standard this specialist market dictated. Nonetheless, for historians, this compilation is a must.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: NOTHING BUT A HOUSE PARTY: THE BIRTH OF THE PHILLY SOUND 1967 -71 (KENT)
What a way to kick off this exciting compilation with The Showstoppers taking the CD’s title into their vocal grasp, as the introduction to classic music from the City of Brotherly Love, recorded before the Philly Sound stretched across the world. It’s a sweetshop of multi coloured sounds waiting to be tasted. Executive Suite’s “Christine” holds the promise of a worthy ballad against a chugging beat. Falsetto lead blends easily into a full vocal chorus. Plenty of luscious brass introduces “Love Is All Right” from Alabama-born Cliff Nobles, a soft hitting dancer that allows the drummer plenty of skin time, while Honey & the Bees’ “Help Me (Get Over My Used To Be Lover)” – what a mouthful! – falls directly into the sound category of a seventies girl group. A powerful slice of Archie Bell & the Drells’ magic with “My Balloon’s Going Up” (another strange title) offers a sound that doesn’t let up. Against an intermittent beat, Brenda & the Tabulations saunter through the slow moving “That’s The Price You Have To Pay”. Instantly attractive: Peaches & Herb’s “Let’s Make A Promise”, with its positive melody, is held together by a tight percussion. Then there’s a strong, yet plaintive vocal from Barbara Mason on “You Better Stop It” (a song she also composed) which, in all honesty, is one of the better slower tracks on this set. A familiar, tried and tested, highly danceable “Standing In The Darkness” courtesy of The Ethics, closes the musical journey. It’s fair to say this compilation features some of the earliest recordings from the fledgling Philly company of labels which would, in time, become Motown’s most aggressive competitor. Yet, as was proven, there was plenty of room for both, with space to spare.
Celebrating 30 years as a recording artist and one of the most consistent performers in the soul and jazz scene, award-winning musician Najee has just completed a new CD, Poetry In Motion which includes his personal tribute to the late, legendary Prince (with whom he performed on the road for a number of years) and to vocalist extraordinaire Al Jarreau – via the track “We’ll Be Missing You.”
With some top notch guests such as Maysa, Will Downing, Incognito, Eric Roberson and Bobby Lyle and production by Barry Eastmond, it’s a stellar collection that is a testament to Najee’s staying power and in an interview with David Nathan (who began interviewing him in 1987), he shares about the ‘secret’ to his longevity…
Just as I started planning this Spotlight, an email hit my inbox advertising a hot August night at the Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, Los Angeles with Thelma Houston. Wow! How amazing she looks – beautiful, quirky and overflowing with fun. The planned show features ninety minutes of twenty-plus Motown songs that are the backdrop to Thelma’s life, and a little peek-see is available via her website www.thelmahouston.com and it’s so good. Berry Gordy loves her show, saying “It needs to be everywhere”, while the owner of the jazz club glowed, “I have owned this club for twenty-five years and I have never seen a show like this before.” The actual hot night is 27 August and the booking office is now open. You lucky Americans: Thelma is a phenomenal entertainer, with a voice to move mountains, and she’s gorgeous. Let me tell you, ladies born during the forties were made to last! Any chance for us in the UK I wonder?
One of the most regularly requested singles on my Saturday evening radio programme on Hailsham FM isn’t by one of Motown’s A-line acts, but rather from an unassuming singer who bypassed the general public through no fault of her own. I’m talking about Debbie Dean who I’ve mentioned before and who, among other things, recorded the wonderfully upbeat “Why Am I Lovin’ You”, released in February 1968 which bears as much resemblance to the Motown Sound, as chalk does to cheese. I think it was because of this that it grabbed me, and, of course, in later years, the attention of our beloved Northern Soul fans. But, who was this Debbie Dean? Well, during her stay with Motown, information was scarce, and no matter how much journalists like myself scratched around for a few titbits, even asking other artists for a snippet or two about her, nothing was forthcoming. Thankfully that has now changed, and if it’s alright, would now like to spend some time with this lady who really deserved more than she received. To ensure the composing credits are correct, have consulted two volumes of “The Complete Motown Singles” , while other details I’ve collected over the recent past.
Born Reba Jeanette Smith in February 1928 in Corbin, Kentucky, she moved with her family to Chicago during the fifties. She was the fourth child of Alma and Walter. It’s unclear what persuaded her to pursue the business of music but she performed with Ralph Marterie and his orchestra early on in her career. It seems she first started working with Berry Gordy in 1958, so pre-Motown, when he wrote songs for her, as Penny Smith, and as her group, Penny and the Ekos, signed to Argo Records, including the title “Give Me What You Got”. Using the name Debbie Stevens, she also recorded “Jerry” for Roulette Records, and in 1959 a version of Rick Nelson’s “If You Can’t Rock Me” for the Apt label, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. On the personal front, Debbie married celebrity DJ Jim Lounsbury, host of a popular rock ‘n’ roll television show based in Chicago.
At the age of thirty-two, the red haired Reba Smith joined Motown, becoming Berry Gordy’s first signed white artist. Many believed that Mike Powers, and Nick and the Jaguars, the surfing rock group from Pontiac, Michigan, were his first white act but that was a one-off deal to release “Ich-I-Bon”, a previously recorded instrumental on the Tamla label in May 1959. As the single bombed, no contract was offered them. As for Yugoslavian-born Mr Powers, the credits on “Teenage Sweetheart” read a Rayber Production which Berry placed it on the Zelman label, a name he’d made up, and a label he presumably owned. I am digressing…. back to the lady in question. Her first recording was an ‘answer’ record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around” titled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”. This was the brainchild of Berry’s sister Loucye, penned by her, Berry and Smokey Robinson, and featured The Miracles on support vocals no less! Released, under the name Debbie Dean, on the Motown label in February 1961, and despite its novelty angle, it failed to catch record buyers’ attention but did have longevity, representing a small niche in the company’s growth. Next out was the much misspelt “Itsy Bity Pity Love”, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums, and influenced by the hit-making pop singer Brenda Lee. Penned by Janie Bradford and Popcorn Wylie, it was issued August 1961, but followed the same fate as its predecessor.
It’s assumed Debbie didn’t really fit in with the other female acts on the roster being that much older, but Berry Gordy persevered because he felt she could carry Motown into the lucrative pop world, thereby opening the door for his other acts. A little misguided perhaps, but at least it got Debbie into the recording studio. Her final single “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby”, written by Berry and featuring the only recorded performance of The Paulette Singers, was released in November 1961. Again, it followed the fate of her predecessors, so a despondent singer left Motown in 1962. However, Ms Dean was destined to return.
From Motown, she returned to the public arena, moved to Los Angeles and started performing in Southern California. She recorded “Don’t Bug Me Baby”, in a one-off deal with Sue Records during 1964. For this she chose the name Debra Dion. Two years later, using the same moniker, she recorded “Take My Hand” for Treva Records. She hooked up with Deke Richards who, I believe, performed with The Deacons, and occasionally supported Ike and Tina Turner. More importantly, he was the key to Debbie returning to Motown. As a member of the company composing/producing team known as The Corporation or The Clan, he was always on the look out for new writers. When he learned her past history with the company, he persuaded her to re-join them. Although the intention wasn’t for Debbie to record again, when she co-wrote “Why Am I Lovin’ You” with Deke Richards (Dennis Lussier), they decided to cut it on her but, for some reason, a year passed from recording it to releasing it during February 1968 on the VIP subsidiary. Once again, the single caused only a minor flutter sales wise, but thank god for us in the UK. We adopted the song as a Northern Soul item despite only a few DJs owning a copy. Stock copies were limited, the promotional discs even less – and the single wasn’t British-released. I’m thinking that whoever owns a copy (including myself) they should wrap it in cotton wool and place in a vault. Now, of course, it’s in the public domain on one of “The Complete Motown Singles” box sets. It appears a second single, “You Asked Me” was scheduled but canned. However, that wasn’t the end of her Motown career because she flourished as a songwriter, usually with Deke Richards, to pen “Why Did You Leave Me Darling” for The Temptations, “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Edwin Starr’s “Backyard Lovin’Man”, among other titles. Unfortunately, this appears to be the end of my research, except that it has a sad ending because Debbie Dean died during February 2001 in Ojai, Ventura County, California. Had hoped I’d find more to share with you, but sadly couldn’t. Still, better than nothing aye.
I’m delighted to say “Chasing Motown” written by M. J. Critchley is now available. It’s his personal view of the company, lavishly presented in full glossy colour where many of the featured pictures are personal so not seen before in the public domain. As I’ve known Mike since the sixties, it was a huge thrill for me to follow his journey involving meeting a whole host of artists like Brenda Holloway, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (well nearly!), Edwin Starr, Bettye Lavette, The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, Gloria Jones, and so many more. Alongside his chats with artists, he allows us into his personal life, his extensive travelling often in pursuit of the acts he loves so dearly – many of whom adopted him as a personal friend and a welcome guest to their homes – and the upsets and highs that accompany this crazy world of music. Early Motown is extensively covered, and discovering those glorious sounds from Detroit is well documented. So, yes, Mike’s book is a rare gem. Now you need details – via email, firstname.lastname@example.org or his website, mjcritchley-chasingmotown.com. Price £22 + p/p £3.40. On a personal note, thank you Mike for the name checks, and we did share a few adventures didn’t we?
Well, that’s the lot for this month. Thank you for your continued support because without you, there wouldn’t be me.
Multi-talented producer/songwriter and musician Simon Law recently spoke with renowned US writer Jeff Vasishta for one of our ‘Voice Your Choice’ segments, choosing (7) selections from his 2017 Dome Records’ CD, “Look To The Sky” (which features guest appearances by Jazzie B, Caron Wheeler, Chante Moore, Lain Gray, Maxi Priest and others) as well as selecting (3) of his favourite tracks by other artists….
Part One (Simon’s choices from his latest album)
Part Two (Simon’s choices of tracks by other artists)
It occurred to me the other day that on 6 June 1936 a very special guy was born in Detroit, a man who was destined to front one of soul music, and perhaps the world’s most recognisable of groups. And this got me thinking: talking about my favourite group ever and its main man is long over due. But where to start without repeating much published biographies which can easily be read elsewhere? Dipping into their British musical achievements and milestones appealed, so let’s talk Four Tops – Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and of course, their main man, Levi Stubbs. All Detroiters; all true to the group until death they did part and, a point to mention, never once did it cross Levi’s mind to ditch his friends for a solo career, or insist that his name be upfront of them – “we enjoy singing together but we’re friends first!” he said.
With his laughing eyes and wide smile, Levi was the boss or leading force in the group. His influence over audiences during their performances was unique, although he one time quipped, “It’s not like being their God or anything like that, but it’s a beautiful feeling.” Levi was a strikingly attractive figure of a man, and like his friends, was always sharply dressed whether front stage or back. He was sophisticated, and although sometimes intimidating, his calming effect on fans and journalists alike warmed him to them. Hah, and I’ve not mentioned his voice yet: a natural golden baritone, that he often strained when reaching the tenor range which some of the songs demanded. Often the veins in his neck stood out, with sweat pouring down his face, as the pleading urgency in his voice captured the very essence of Holland, Dozier, Holland’s compositions. “His bold, dramatic readings of their material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-sixties”, a journalist once wrote.
Out of loyalty to his friends, he dismissed all offers of a solo career, even to the extent of refusing to play Louis McKay opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings The Blues”. He would never overshadow the others, he said. However, he did lend his voice to Audrey, a carnivorous plant in the 1986 musical “Little Shop Of Horrors”, and three years later to the evil Mother Brain in the television series “Captain N:The Game Master”.
Levi was the defining sound of the Four Tops, although he modestly said in 1994, “I’m rather loud and raw. I don’t really have a style. I just come by the way I sing naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.” On the other hand, Duke Fakir was more emphatic, saying, “He was a master performer and had a terrific voice. He could touch you by just singing about a stone. I look at him as one of the finest lead singers in the world.”
So let’s dip in and out of their UK career, using Levi’s quotes, and I promise with not a mention of my association with them, running their fan club or Motown Ad Astra that followed. He told a now unknown American reporter the group was born in 1954 when they were kids fresh out of high school. They all left with diplomas with ambitions to make an impression on the world. Music though was their common denominator, “We decided we wanted to become professional singers. We taught ourselves four-part harmony and rehearsed every single moment we could. For a while we inflicted ourselves on people at church socials and school functions. They seemed to like what they heard, so it encouraged us a lot. From there, we went on to win a succession of amateur talent contests and after that we just found ourselves wrapped up in show business.”
Choosing to name themselves The Four Aimes (because they were aiming for the top!) they took their smooth style and mellow, tight harmonies to parties, colleges and a few Detroit nightclubs for a couple of years. Singing a mixture of standards and jazz they attracted a following which culminated in their first professional engagement at the Ebony Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, where for a week they earned the princely sum of $329. However, it only took a further year for them to move up a groove when Billy Davis, cousin of Lawrence, offered them a recording contract with Chess Records. Changing their name to the Four Tops (not The Four Tops) to avoid confusion with the already established Ames Brothers, their stay at the company, although a learning curve, was unsuccessful, resulting in one single released in 1956 titled “Kiss Me Baby”. Once again, they turned to the club circuit, travelling distances to work, including hooking up with the Larry Steele Revue in 1958 to criss-cross America, performing four shows a day, all week. Later, they opened for Della Reese on an eight week tour, then BB King, before supporting the rising star Jackie Wilson (Levi’s cousin) and, of course, Billy Eckstine, where they fronted his touring revue and learned their craft.
In between times, another recording contract was dangled before them. This time with Columbia Records but, before the ink had dried on the document, the Four Tops had released “Ain’t That Love” – and were dropped! From here, more short tenures followed with the Detroit-based labels Red Top, Singular and Riverside Records, where they issued “Pennies From Heaven” and “Where Are You” late in 1962. Positive help thankfully was on the way, and to cut another story short, Berry Gordy signed them. This actually took him two years to pull off – he’d wanted them at Motown much earlier and to this end had given them a recording contract to sign, but for some reason the move failed to happen. Once under Motown’s umbrella, the Tops became session singers for the likes of Mary Wells, and Holland & Dozier. In between times, they continued to work local clubs, and with Billy Eckstine, to boost their income. Then it was the Tops turn to record in their own right, recording nearly thirty tracks for their debut album “Breaking Through” destined for release in 1964 via Motown’s subsidiary Workshop Jazz, as Berry Gordy wanted to attract adult jazz enthusiasts to expand his buying market. The album wasn’t released at the time, unlike others by Earl Washington, Paula Greer and Pepper Adams, among others. Workshop Jazz lived for a year, with no hint of the desired success.
To be fair, Berry was at a loss where to place the group, and didn’t want to lose them. He then hit on a plan: he sought out Holland, Dozier and Holland who had made such great strides with The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. The ploy, he believed, might just work but it was a difficult transition period for the group because it needed Levi’s voice to be out front, which was something never considered previously. From the first tentative recording steps that included experimenting with “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964, it was decided this would be the recording formula for the future. Interestingly, Levi couldn’t warm to the song, and suggested Lawrence be lead. No chance, was the feedback. The recorded version had such hit potential that Berry Gordy was convinced it would kick start their career. He was spot on. However, any chance of them enjoying a British hit was scuppered at the time by The Fourmost’s version which soared into the top thirty. And, unfortunately, this practice would dog Motown artists – and of course American acts generally – for years, denying them hits in their own right – and that’s another story! It was left to “I Can’t Help Myself” on the Tamla Motown label to introduce the Four Tops as a new UK charting name in July 1965, followed by “It’s The Same Old Song”, both top thirty hits. “Those guys were phenomenal” enthused Mr Stubbs about Holland, Dozier and Holland. “After ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ we had a solid hit run.” Indeed, the Four Tops were on their way. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was their third British hit, and at its release Levi spoke to Alan Smith. “We spent years trying to improve our act. Every performance we give, we try to be that little bit better. Some people think of us as specialising in one type of music, but we don’t. That would put us in a rut. We’re inspired by anyone who has talent…and we sing everything from pop, country and western, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and progressive music.”
Then Holland, Dozier and Holland electrified the groove. Motown’s music exploded in a way it never had before, prompting UK journalist Penny Valentine to write, “If you have ever been lonely, if you have any soul or any heart at all, you must go and buy this record now. After you’ve heard it you will never need to listen to another record for as long as you live.” No guesses needed – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” shot to the top of the UK chart in 1966, Motown’s second to do so (The Supremes’ “Baby Love” in 1964 was the first). With its introduction of teenager Danya Hartwick’s flute, galloping percussion, and the improvised recording technique of hands tapping on a wooden chair, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was so untypical of the Motown sound created by H-D-H. It was the jewel in the crown, rapidly progressing from a landmark release into a Motown anthem, worlds apart from anything heard previously. Ironically, Levi wasn’t happy with the song, saying he was a singer not a talker (in view of comments made over previous singles where he was accused of shouting on record rather than singing) yet the line “just look over your shoulder” was his spontaneous addition! H-D-H also had their reservations; in fact they didn’t want the song released at all, claiming it to be an experiment using the Tops, The Andantes and Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy thought otherwise and issued it, saying “we’re releasing the biggest record you’ve ever made.” Once the overwhelming success of the single had sunk in, Levi was rather blasé, “We’re naturally thrilled at the success….but we don’t have to let off steam over it. I think we’ve been around long enough to know the ups and downs of this business without becoming overcome when something like this happens….We knew at once that it was a big hit sound. It was a unique combination of ballad and rock.”
In November 1966, the Four Tops – who by now toured endlessly – performed two sell out concerts at London’s Saville Theatre, with hundreds of fans unsuccessful in getting tickets. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, stunned at the riotous welcome the group received there, booked the Royal Albert Hall for them in January, with two shows before 14,000 people. A special sound system was fitted in the Hall to reflect the Motown sound, which was a first for the venue. With Madeline Bell among the support acts, the audiences (including myself) were hysterical from start to finish. There was something in the air; the atmosphere was electric; it was just the place to be at that time. One reviewer glowed, “It was the Saville Theatre twenty times over. It was a spectacle on a scale you wouldn’t have expected outside a mammoth film production…the incredible enthusiasm of a World Cup football crowd. And that was before the Four Tops stepped on stage.” Four Tops fever had hit the UK, and this red hot reception was repeated throughout the tour. “That was one of our greatest moments” Levi said of the London date.
Touring the UK would now be an annual event and although the initial hysteria may have dampened, the group continued to perform before packed audiences. Levi – “I like an audience that lets itself go, and the people who come to see us to do whatever they feel. You can always tell when someone is into what you are doing. I think we have some regular fans and we seem to be getting younger ones too….English audiences are so loyal. They’ve been good to us and we know they don’t drop you just like that.” After several years of visits, Levi remarked that they had been so fortunate. “We can’t say ‘it’s because of that producer or that..’ because we’ve had various producers on our records. Personality-wise, we don’t clash very often as a group. We’ve been around each other so long we’ve got to the stage where the right hand knows what the left hand is going to do…Touring the UK is like a mad house!”
Mad house it might have been, but a dangerous one also, as he remembered a particular concert at the Finsbury Park Astoria with a 2,000 audience at fever pitch. The Tops had reached finale time when Levi threw his hanky into the air. Of course, the inevitable happened; fans thronged forward at the same time as the curtain dropped to the stage with an unaware Levi standing there. While the other three Tops were hauled to safety, police and security wrenched Levi clear of the falling curtain weighing several tons. “I just didn’t realise (it) was coming down. I can remember moving towards the edge of the stage and hearing it touch. When I realised what had happened it made my head spin. I was very lucky.”
Touring dominated their lives. The group rarely spent time with their families because when not on the road, they were in the studio, which of course, was the same for all Motown’s A-list acts. “Sometimes I feel like we’re non-stop machines. Don’t ask me how we stand up to it, but somehow we do.”
“Standing In The Shadows Of Love” followed “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. The spine tingling excitement in “Bernadette” was next, with “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”, “You Keep Running Away” and “Walk Away Renee” rounding off 1967. Motown/UK took the initiative to extract the latter track from the “Reach Out” album which was almost top heavy with cover versions (“If I Were A Carpenter”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “Cherish”) and their fans were far from happy. Levi was quick to respond that the tracks weren’t newly recorded, “(and) to be honest we just haven’t had the time to get into the studios to cut new material. The album was experimental because it was the first time we’d tackled really successful pop songs from other writers. And it came off. Maybe not so many people really dug ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ but that was just us trying to give a new approach to the original rather than just copy the arrangement and style of The Monkees.” At the time of this interview, Levi confirmed they had recently been in the studio trying to stockpile material and they had plans to work again with Holland, Dozier, Holland .“because they’re great writers and our approach fits so well. It’s like a marriage” As it turned out, “I’m In A Different World” was their last official release with the trio in 1968, the follow-up to “Yesterday’s Dreams”, but others came to light in later years. “We were hurt, shattered and a bit confused…suddenly we weren’t getting all those custom-written songs” Levi said when H-D-H left Motown due to unresolved issues. “And we started having to look around for material.” It was also at this time that questions were asked about them retiring from live performances, but that was a move Levi would not entertain. “The day we decide to do that will be the day we’ll probably give up the whole thing. Working in the studios is a kick but we still believe that if people buy the records then it’s a pleasure for all of us to communicate on stage.”
The somewhat haphazard – yet successful – trait of releasing cover version singles continued until the Four Tops hooked up properly with Frank Wilson, although one or two did slip in. Their first commercial collaboration resulted in the “Still Waters Run Deep” album, a wonderfully warm collection of material, creating a whole different sound for the group, including the two lifted singles “It’s All In The Game” (a Tommy Edwards’ original) and “Still Waters (Love)”; top five and ten respectively. However, prior to this alliance, the Tops took several months out for personal reasons. Or as Levi put it, the group “ran out of gas”. The years of touring had taken their roll on them. “We were off almost nine months and I’m not sure it did us any good. It’s an uphill fight getting back to the top (but) we wanted to get back to our fans and really get things moving again….We’re very fortunate to have Frank Wilson as a producer because he’s really into us. He’s into a smooth sort of stuff, and I guess that’s been our bag just lately.”
From here, they followed in the footsteps of Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations, by teaming up with The Supremes (Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson) for a trio of albums (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Return Of The Magnificent Seven”, “Dynamite” – 1970/1971) and a handful of singles. The music followed no particular pattern, rather a sweet jar full of sounds, snatched at will. However, many (including myself) believed the pairing to be genius. Levi and Jean exchanging vocal dialogue was quite awesome, but they didn’t, sadly, have the edge or the high ranking material given to the previous spirited pairing. Despite the two groups being in the UK at the same time during 1971, there were no plans for them to tour together, let alone perform on the same stage. Hah, not quite! When the Tops appeared on the Save Rave concert at the Royal Albert Hall, The Supremes surprised the audience by being their special guests, probably representing at the time, the most expensive recording talent in the industry. Levi had hoped a fully blown tour would follow (they’d already done so in America) but conceded the financial implications would have been too high for any promoter.
The year 1971 was incredibly significant in the history of Motown because the Four Tops recorded in London. The first act to do so. The story goes that The Moody Blues’ Tony Clarke received a phone call from someone at Motown praising his work and invited him to stop by the Detroit studios when he was next in the city, with a view to working with the Tops and Rare Earth. During his visit, Tony was asked to deviate from the Motown sound because the music he was creating was what they wanted. It happened then, that when the Tops had spare time during their next visit to the UK they got together. To this end, Tony had already chosen “Simple Game” and had recorded the backing track with Blue Mink’s musicians with Arthur Greenslade’s string section. After playing them the track, the Tops rehearsed the song in ten minutes and were confident enough to record it. “It was a tremendous challenge” said Tony at the time. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here was I, a skinny British bloke telling one of the greatest vocal groups in the world what to sing and how.” The tapes were then shipped to Detroit for final vetting and finishing: the all clear was given with the Tops enjoying a top three British hit. However, it took fans a little time to come to terms with “Simple Game” being recorded outside their beloved Motown studios but, to be fair, the single was climbing the chart before the media interviews began. “We (had) a good feeling for that tune so we did it,” Levi told NME’s Julie Webb. “I remember the recording session took all night but we were pleased with the finished result.” “So Deep Within You” also originated from that session but wasn’t released until 1973, a year after the Tops had left Motown, because it was considered a disposable item at the time!
The time was drawing close to the end of an era. And indeed, within the space of two charting singles – “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Supremes, and “Walk With Me, Talk With Me Darling” from the “Nature Planned It” album – the Four Tops and Motown had parted company. The group switched to ABC Dunhill Records, while Motown shed tears of disbelief, which were later dried during 1983 when they returned. In the time between, of course, the group enjoyed a spasmodic hit run, yet their much heralded return home was fraught with problems. So much so they packed their musical suitcasses once more to move to Arista, where their chart success of the sixties returned with the top sellers like “Loco In Acapulco”.
Clearly there’s so much more that could be written about Levi Stubbs and the group but this really is the briefest of overviews.. One thing that’s always struck me to be strange is, unlike other Motown acts, they’ve never written a book about their career. I came close with the help of Levi’s daughter Deborah but sadly it come to nothing.
The group that played and loved together was to be tragically broken when Lawrence Payton died in 1997, with Obie Benson following in 2005. And, Levi Stubbs was next. He was diagnosed with cancer before suffering a stroke, but this didn’t prevent him appearing with his friends in July 2004 at the Detroit Opera House to celebrate their 50th anniversary together. However, it was a losing battle. On 17 October 2008 one of the greatest voices of our age was silenced. Levi died in his sleep in his Detroit home. He was 72 years old.
“He was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard,” said Berry Gordy. “He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving group…people all over the world (were) touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit.”
(My thanks to those journalists who I’m unable to identify through the passage of time)
“Absolutely one of the best albums of 2017 so far and a personal favourite, with some great guest appearances and stellar musicianship,” David Nathan, Founder, SoulMusic.com
Renowned producer/songwriter and musician Simon Law (aka ‘The Funky Ginger’) first came to prominence for his work with Soul II Soul in the late ’80s. Subsequently, he’s worked with the likes of Chante Moore, Brenda Russell, Maxi Priest and others. His very first solo project, the brilliant Look To The Sky album (with guest appearances by Lain Gray formerly of Nu Colors, Caron Wheeler and Jazzie B among others) is released by the UK’s Dome Records. In his interview with David Nathan, he shares about the creation of the album – and discovers that he and David share a mutual deep appreciation for EW&F founder, Maurice White…