Motown Spotlight - July 2018

Motown Spotlight – July 2018

BARBARA McNAIR…

After playing this lady’s Motown music for the last couple of days, I decided to dig a little deeper into the fascinating life and times of Barbara McNair.  Here’s what I came up with which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did….

Following her birth on 4 March 1934 in Chicago, Illinois, to parents Horace and Claudia, Barbara Jean McNair and her family relocated to Racine, Wisconsin.  She had four siblings;  Sam, Horace, Juanita and Jacqueline. Encouraged by her parents to study music from an early age, Barbara sang in church services and school plays, before studying music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.   Her sister Jacqueline always believed Barbara was headed for a career in show business, saying – “She sang from the time she was five years old in churches and then at school. We always encouraged her.”

After her high school years, Barbara moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA but left after a year believing that New York with its “school of hard knocks” would give her a more practical education.  It was the right move to make, because among other things, she won an episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts programme, where audiences selected the winners using an applause meter. And while working a secretarial day job for the National Foundation of Settlements, and of an evening auditioning for Manhattan nightclub gigs, she got that all important break when impresario Max Gordon offered her a stint at the legendary Village Vanguard Jazz Club in Lower Manhattan. This led to another turning point in her career when she was offered residences at the Purple Onion, New York, and the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.  One of her performances encouraged a New York Times journalist to write that although Ms McNair was strikingly beautiful she didn’t have to depend on looks alone. “She is a highly knowledgeable performer who projects an aura of beauty, a warm personality and an appealing sense of fun.”  While the singer had other ideas as she told the New York Post in 1963 – “People talked and smoked and drank while I sang. People never did that in Racine so I was shocked.”

From her nightclub performances Barbara became a popular headlining jazz singer and enjoyed guest spots on television variety programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Hollywood Palace.  As her exposure grew she switched from jazz to sing popular tunes of the day, saying – “not necessarily rock and roll but good solid standards.”  Ralph Carmichael, her musical director at the time, told The Times – “She’s got a big great, wailing voice.  She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else.”

Her recording career appears to have kicked off as a member of the cast for the film “The Body Beautiful” in 1958, when the soundtrack was released on Blue Pear.  A year later, she switched to Coral Records to record “Front Row Centre” featuring show tunes like “Hello Young Lovers”, “The Party’s Over” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You”.  Somewhere in this time span (probably late-1957) she recorded what she called “a terrible rock and roll record” called “Bobby”.  Enthusiastically performed by her, this quirky single with teenage lyrics, was held together by a male chorus, and was so typical of what record buyers were buying at the time.  For some reason though, Barbara failed to hit the mark.  My research also throws up that she signed with Roulette to yield “That’s All I Want From You” in 1961, and “Honeymoonin’”, the following year.

The “Love Talk” album for Signature followed.  This time the track listing included “He Is A Man”, “Kansas City” and “All About Love”.  Before recording for Warner Brothers in 1964, Barbara made musical shorts for Scopitone, a franchise for coin operated machines that were said to be the forerunners of today’s music videos.  “The Livin’ End” for Warner Brothers was a far cry from her recognisable sultry Motown sessions as she returned to her roots to musically dance with jazz, plus the obligatory standard material.  Tracks like “When In Rome”, “Secret Love” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” were intended to appeal to a cross section of adult buyers.  I noticed that on the reverse album sleeve, alongside the necessary blurb, the headline ran – “This Is One Classy Singing Lady, Barbara McNair.  Also Known As The Livin’ End.”  Indeed!

The leap from nightclub performances to the Broadway stage was a smooth one.  She replaced (future Motown recording artist) Diahann Carroll in the lead role of “No Strings”.  While she wowed the New York audiences, it was a different story when the company toured, as she told The Times in 1968. “In St Louis and Kansas, I got a lot of hate mail and obscene phone calls.  There were no threats on my life, just messages like…’how dare you stand up on stage and kiss a white man?’”  This wasn’t the first time racism smacked Barbara in the face, as she recalled being forced to walk out of a hotel in Miami.  Sure, she was offered a room but forbidden to swim in the pool.  In another instance she said she was told in no uncertain terms to eat in the employees’ dining room and not with the other guests.  From “The Body Beautiful”, Barbara joined the cast of “The Pajama Game”.

In 1967 she travelled to Southeast Asia with Bob Hope to perform for the American troops during the Vietnam War (“I went over there to see what war was like and to comfort the men and I was appalled”) and toured with Nat King Cole, before kick starting an acting career on television, guesting in popular programmes like Dr Kildare, I Spy, Mission: Impossible and McMillan And Wife, when she played Rock Hudson’s ex-girlfriend.  However, one of the most ground breaking moves came when she hosted her own syndicated The Barbara McNair Show because she was one of the first African-American women to do so. It ran for three seasons – 1969-1972 – and featured top names like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers, Della Reese, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and so on.

From the small screen, Barbara enjoyed a successful film career via a diverse selection of roles. The first appears to be an unbilled part in the family drama film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda, where in the small print, Barbara is listed as a graduation singer. However, the most notable films, of course, were with Elvis Presley and Sidney Poitier.  In 1969 she played Sister Irene in “Change Of Habit”, a nun who helped a physician, played by Presley, to run a clinic.  So taken was he by Barbara that during a 1969 performance in Las Vegas, he dedicated “Suspicious Minds” to her, telling his audience that “..I found her to be one of the nicest, warmest, lovingest people I’ve ever met.”  When some members of his audience complained they couldn’t see her, Presley instructed the house lights to be turned on full.   Off set, he would, with guitar in hand, visit Barbara at her home where they sang and jammed together.   There was also an instance when Mahalia Jackson visited the film set for “Change Of Habit”.  Barbara said – “Elvis and I were sitting together and Mahalia …..asked if Elvis would participate in a fundraiser that she was going to organise.  Elvis was so gracious.  ‘Mrs Jackson, I am so happy to meet you. I would love to do it but I still have to ask the Colonel.’  So, after she left, he said to me, ‘I’ll never do it, the Colonel won’t let me’. But he was so gracious to her (because) he knew all the time the Colonel wouldn’t let him do it.”

A year later, Barbara played Valerie, the wife of the black police detective, Virgil Tibbs, played by Poitier in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs”.   This was the second instalment in a trilogy, the first being the award-winning “In The Heat Of The Night” in 1967, and Poitier reprised his previous role, with the film title liberated from the first film.  Considered to be a disappointing sequel, it attracted comments like “the film is poorly paced….Poitier seems bored…flat return for the detective… taking on a cool, protoblaxploitation feel, this is a step down to its predecessor.”  The final in the trilogy, “The Organisation” was poorly received, due to its unbelievable plot.  Barbara also played Lily, a nightclub singer, girlfriend of an escaped prisoner in “If He Hollers Let Him Go!” released in 1968.  Playing opposite Raymond St Jacques, the film was slated for its two unfair angles – racism and nudity – with a storyline exploiting black/white tensions.   Barbara agreed to promote the movie by posing nude, and told The Post that her steamy photo spread for Playboy magazine – “helped my career immensely.”

When talking about the film industry, Barbara was outspoken, not like some who feared that speaking their minds would leave them jobless. She told The Times – “When I was making a lot of movies, they didn’t want women to look too black.  But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal. (They) went all the way in the other direction.  For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic”.  Troubled by programmes that showed African-American as under-achievers, she further told the newspaper – “There’s so little to inspire the young black child.”  Then during 1968, Barbara told a reporter that Lenny Bruce had said she was in fact Caucasian – “and that someone took a paintbrush and painted me brown.  White people are not aware that Negroes look all kinds of different ways. We don’t all have wide noses and full lips.”

In 1966, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was issued by Warner Brothers, the result of three different recording sessions with three different orchestras.  “The Friendliest Thing”, “If I Had A Hammer” and “On The Other Side Of The Tracks” were included in the track listing.   Also this year, Barbara debuted on the Motown label with “Here I Am”, an album that was, to all intents and purposes, alien to the commercial company sound.  However, the elegance and sophisticated artistry that Barbara delivered in this album was to be applauded, particularly her version of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”.  The obligatory standard material was included, like, “Strangers In The Night”, “Message To Michael”, “For Once In My Life” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile”.  It would have been foolish to ignore the musical heritage that Barbara brought to Motown, because it was her film and television career which Berry Gordy wanted to capitalise upon. So throwing in a couple of company songs was probably to placate Motown fans.  The ploy didn’t really work out, yet the album is now an expensive must-have.

Three long years later, her second album “The Real Barbara McNair” was issued, with the front sleeve credited to her Playboy shoot.   Once again versions of Motown originals were featured, like Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone”, The Miracles’ “If You Can Want”, The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony”, together with outside covers of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “What Now My Love”.   Naturally, Barbara’s delivery was faultless, her styling and presence unbeatable, almost perfect to a tee, yet it was the opening track that dipped into the funk/soul melting pot, that attracted Motown fans the most. “Where Would I Be Without You”, co-written by Frank Wilson, grabbed immediate attention with its off-beat, uptempo approach, and it was probably thanks to our Northern Soul friends that the song remains relevant today.  Many claim “The Real Barbara McNair” was another desperate attempt by Berry Gordy to break Barbara as a cross over artist: once again, he failed.  And once again, the original pressing of this album is now exchanging hands at considerable expense.

Following the release in the late sixties of “More Today Than Yesterday” on Audio Fidelity, with tracks like “Something Happy”, “I Can Tell” and “Didn’t We”, it seems Barbara’s recording career hit a sticky patch until 2004 when “The Ultimate Motown Collection” was issued with a massive 48 tracks.  The double CD package featured her two released Motown albums plus the unreleased masters of “Barbara Sings Smokey”, together with a handful of non-album singles.  A more complete and thorough release would be hard to find, encompassing as it does, her Motown tenure which, while unsuccessful and disappointing at the time, is now revered as an invaluable niche in the growth of the company.

Time passed until 2012 when a surprise album appeared titled “Here’s To Life” that included “Autumn Leaves”, “Tomorrow Mountain”, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, among others. Barbara’s nephew, John Thomas said the songs were personally chosen by her – “and were inspired by her husband Charles and our family. We are a close knit family even though we lived on other sides of the country.”

So now let’s go behind the spotlight. Personally speaking, the singer married Jack Rafferty in 1963 but that ended in 1971.  She married her second husband, Rick Manzie a year later in Las Vegas and lived in a 20-room house at 4265 S. Bruce Street, near to the Sahara Hotel.  (Their house is now an apartment complex).  While her husband was ostensibly her manager, he was also a heroin user, gambler, and a minor associate of the Chicago mob known as The Outfit. However happy she may have been, the marriage signaled the singer’s professional downfall. Having applied her lipstick and eye liner in her dressing room at the Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey, where she was due to perform in October 1972, two white men stood at her open door.  They asked for confirmation of her name, and told her she was under arrest for possession of narcotics and should follow them to the nearby police station. Moments prior to this, a small brown package had been delivered by messenger, and as it was addressed to Barbara, she had signed for it, setting it aside, to continue her preparations for the evening’s performance.  Following her arrest, the Playboy Club naturally cancelled the remainder of her engagement there, with other venues following, like the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario. A television special which was partway finished was also pulled. Barbara told reporters later that she had been paid off.  “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. It’s like a bad dream. I just wonder where it’s going to end.  Emotionally, it has shattered me….This whole thing has had a devastating effect on my career.”  Meanwhile, her spokesperson told Jet magazine, that people had taken the prerogative of prejudging Barbara – “and they’ve cancelled shows without knowing the outcome of the case.”  In a later statement, the shocked singer emphasized – “I do not use narcotics of any kind.  I’ve never taken drugs, never had the need for them.  With my kind of life, you can’t function if you take them. I’ve known kids who were about to experiment with drugs and I tell them, don’t do it!”  To The Post in 1979 she sighed – “You can spend all this time building something and it can be destroyed in a minute.”

If she was convicted she and her husband faced one year in jail and a $5,000 fine each. However, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, concluded Ms McNair was an innocent by-stander and that no charges should be brought against her. On the other hand, they returned an indictment charging her husband with possessing one-half ounce of heroin. He was sentenced to one year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.  That wasn’t the end of it because in December 1976, Rick Manzie’s half-nude body was found in their Las Vegas mansion home: he had been shot several times.  In 1979 Barbara married again.  This time to Ben Strahan, and the marriage lasted five plus years. Seven years on, her fourth marriage to Charles Blecka sadly ended in her death in 2007.   In between times, during 1987, the singer faced another battle – that of bankruptcy.  She filed in a Las Vegas court saying she had assets of $23,080 and debts nearing $458,399, telling the bankruptcy court that she owned no valuable jewelry, save a diamond ring from a previous marriage. The chief cause of the debt was a business arrangement with her then husband, Ben Strahan.  I’m unclear about the outcome.

Yet despite all these pitfalls and everything life threw at her, Barbara McNair continued to perform in nightclubs and cabaret bars. She delighted audiences with her stage tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, and was signed for occasional guest television spots on programmes like The Redd Foxx Show. During 1984, she accepted a recurring, if short-lived role, in the daytime programme General Hospital, followed a year later by a role in the little known “Neon Signs” film.  Starring William Smith and Carol Lynley, Barbara played Grace in this low budget movie that few people saw.  It was her last film.  Outside of her professional life,  Barbara enjoyed her family and socializing with friends. Playing tennis and skiing kept her in shape, standing her in good stead for her touring commitments.

Then, tragically, Barbara was to fight her biggest battle in life when she developed throat cancer and a later an inoperable brain tumor.  Her husband, Charles Blecka, and their family supported her through her brave battling years but in the end the disease won.  Barbara McNair lost her fight in February 2007.  “She was the strongest person I knew” said Charles. “She was powerful in a strong way.  If she set her sights to do something, she did it in a dignified way. …A lot of people think celebrity comes with a burden.  Barbara never did. Along with her inner strength she had this ability to accept everybody, in all walks of life. Ask anybody in the business, she was one of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to come across….She had a special quality that was infectious, that everybody loved.”

A New York reporter wrote of a 1982 performance – “Ms McNair is a gorgeous looking woman with a warm, easy, communicative personality and a voice that can range from softly intense ballads to the edges of gospel, to crisp and rhythmic comedy or to a saloon singer’s belt.”

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.CO.UK

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.COM

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS - July 2018

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS – July 2018

L.T.D: SOMETHING TO LOVE/TOGETHERNESS/DEVOTION/SHINE ON (ROBINSONGS)
The ten-piece group, Love, Togetherness, Devotion, with Jeffrey Osborne on lead vocals, made heavy musical inroads during the seventies, and just released is a reminder of the impact they made. Hailing from North Carolina, the unit, with a changing membership, signed with A&M Records in 1974 to start their journey which, due to the fierce competition from the likes of the Commodores, Maze and Gap Band, made their escape from the ‘also ran’ level that much harder. However, L.T.D held their own to release some dynamic slices of disco and ballad, with sweet grooves, stomping funk, set against textured vocals. And this is typified by the four albums here – “Something To Love” and “Togetherness” (1977/1978); “Devotion” and “Shine On” (1979/1980). There’s an elaborate mix in this melting pot of music, including the group’s mega-selling “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again” with its commanding commercial funk styling, and the solid dancer “Never Get Enough Of Your Love”. Of the ballads, check out the smooth and mellow “(Won’t Cha) Stay With Me”, hugely attractive; likewise “We Both Deserve Each Other’s Love”, “Concentrate On You” and the tear jerking “Where Did We Go Wrong”. Then switch over to “We Party Hearty”, complete with its chanted chorus, sitting alongside the gospel influenced “Make Someone Smile, Today”. “Share My Love” is another yearning slowie, while “Stranger” has an interesting take on adultery. Then saunter into another pair of thoughtful gentleness with “Will Love Grow” and “Lady Love”. Some of the songs here lack the magic of the moment but all evoke memories of the past. Will their cultural musical impact travel across the decades? I don’t know. However, what I’ve heard I liked very much.
Rating: 8

LAKESIDE: SHOT OF LOVE/ROUGH RIDERS/FANTASTIC VOYAGE (ROBINSONGS)
Three albums on a double CD package from a group that was tagged ’The Rolling Stones of Funk’ because no act wanted to follow them on stage, although that doesn’t really live up to the music included here. Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, let’s talk Lakeside. Born from The Nomads, The Montereys, The Young Underground, and the Ohio Lakeside Express, with a succession of changing members, the group eventually edited its name to Lakeside. Managed by Dick Griffey, they hooked up with Frank Wilson who signed them to Motown in 1974, for an unproductive tenure. When Frank switched to ABC Dunhill in 1976, the group followed. A year later, Lakeside issued their eponymous album featuring “If I Didn’t Have You”. Long story short, after being feted by several record companies, they joined Griffey’s Solar Records. Incidentally, Norman Whitfield was also seriously interested in securing them for Whitfield Records, but when Griffey offered them the additional option to compose and co-produce their own material, it was a no-brainer.

Released during 1978, “Shot Of Love” featured the top five R&B hit “It’s All The Way Live”, and “Given In To Love”, a top eighty R&B hit. A year on, “Rough Riders” followed with the extracted singles, “Pull My Strings” and “From 9.00 Until”; both were top fifty hits. However, it was “Fantastic Voyage” which proved to be their biggest selling album yet, soaring into the top twenty pop chart. The title track topped the R&B singles chart for seven weeks, later crashing into the top sixty pop listing, while its follow-up “Your Love Is On The One” hit the R&B top twenty, bypassing the mainstream market this time. Exceeding all expectations, this album elevated Lakeside into a bankable unit.

From here, a string of R&B hits followed, sustaining their pulling power into the eighties. Griffey’s Solar set up had a heavyweight presence in the market place, affording their artists meaty promotion and support, but when the in house competition included Shalamar, The Whispers and Midnight Starr, perhaps Lakeside didn’t get the attention they deserved. Their music across these two CDs goes from nowhere to everywhere, with a balanced diet of dance, funk and ballad. Presentation is faultless yet some of the tracks are sub-standard inasmuch that they’ve not travelled the years gracefully. There’s earthy, gritty sides; sentimental and emotional going hand in hand, but I do feel some of the tracks are pieced together, lacking the essential ingredient that stamps its mark on a hit song. Having said that, I enjoyed what I heard but, I’m afraid, nothing left me begging for more.
Rating: 6

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

She never sang a note or wrote a lyric, but she was as essential to Motown as any of the label’s artists and producers. Who am I talking about? Yup, you guessed it… Mrs. Maxine Powell.

“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing at Motown” said Smokey Robinson in 2013.  “It didn’t matter who you became during the course of your career, how many hits you had, or how well your name was known around the world, two days a week when you were back in Detroit, you had to go to Artists Development. You went there and learned so many things about being in show business.”

So let’s briefly reflect on Mrs. Powell’s early life and how she hooked up with Motown.  Born on 30 May 1915, Maxine Blair was raised by an aunt in Chicago. As a teenager she started acting, eventually appearing with the Negro Drama League, a black repertory company there. From this, she worked as a model, before training as a cosmetologist and manicurist at Madam C.J. Walker’s School of Beauty Culture.  During 1958, the 43-year-old black American etiquette coach moved to Detroit to open her own Finishing and Modelling School in Detroit for African-Americans and, as a talent scout, instigated black productions in theatres, and placed black models in advertising campaigns. To this end, she had three female models, two male and two children on her books, with major clients of Packard, Dodge and Chrysler.  She hosted an annual show, and one particular year wanted to produce a souvenir programme to celebrate the occasion. The Gordy Printing Company, run by Mrs. Esther Gordy and her brother Fuller, was recommended as being the best in Detroit. This marked Mrs. Powell’s first introduction to the family.  Esther’s husband, George Edwards, was a state representative, and intended to run for a seat on Detroit’s City Council.  As Mrs. Powell had an empty office in her property, The Ferry Centre, comprising a large ballroom, private party room, bar, banquet kitchen and five offices, she offered it to George Edwards. Esther became her husband’s campaign manager and, as the Gordy family was notoriously close knit, members often popped by to help him out. Through these visits it became clear that Mrs. Bertha Gordy Snr. was interested in personal development, later signing up for one of Mrs. Powell’s courses:  likewise Loucye and Esther.  Gwen Gordy went on to become one of her models. This was, of course, pre-Motown, where friendships were cemented and working relationships developed.

Prior to Mrs. Powell joining Motown, she was introduced to fledgling artists because they were showcased in her downstairs ballroom.  Indeed, when Berry Gordy penned “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, she was asked to watch his performance then asked to critique it. From here, Berry Gordy asked her to open the ‘Motown Finishing School.’   Once he began signing artists to his new record label, he encouraged them to attend Mrs. Powell’s classes, but it wasn’t obligatory.   “When I met the artists, they were young. They came from humble beginnings and not all, but some of them, were rude and crude, and from the streets and the Projects” she once said. “It’s not where they came from, but where they were heading.  (They’re) gonna learn how to perform, gonna graduate and become great performers.” She called them ‘diamonds in the rough’.  Personal grooming included artists being taught how to walk, the proper way to smoke a cigarette, the graceful way to walk up and down stairs, to jump on a piano, and the correct way to enter and alight from a vehicle without showing a bare leg or underwear. She was quick to point out that she had nothing to do with voice – “I teach them to smile and be beautiful, because every time you smile, every muscle in your body is relaxed for that split second.  And some of them turned out to be rubies and emeralds.”

Each act was also trained to perform an original stage show, with dances and dialogue worked out for them. Even the adlibbing was rehearsed.  Their choreography was painstakingly thought out, right down to holding the microphone, and the many ways of using it effectively.  “Nobody was forced to do anything” Mrs. Powell told the Respect programme.  “I was there only to enrich their life and help them skip to the bank…if they weren’t interested in that, then that was OK.” However, those artists who recognised the value in her classes were told to listen and follow the positive guidelines she offered, saying – “…You’re getting a basic finishing background to do anything you want to do in life…..When I told them you’re going to travel to appear in number one places around the country, and even before the King and Queen, they didn’t believe it.  All they wanted was a hit record. ”

The School was the only one of its kind offered at any record company, and Berry Gordy often joked that he still remembers Mrs. Powell’s aphorisms like – “Do not confuse me with your parents.  They’re stuck with you, I’m not” and “Do not protrude your buttocks.”

However, Marvin Gaye was one artist who believed he didn’t need any training in what he called ‘the charm school’. Mrs. Powell agreed that he may not need her help as much as others, but his biggest failing was singing with his eyes closed, giving the appearance he was singing in his sleep.  She told him – “You can close your eyes for a certain gesture but your eyes are the mirrors of your soul….so we (had) to work on that.”  She also suggested he could improve his walk because he led with his shoulders and head.  His ears should be straight with his shoulders, she told him.  So they worked together until she was satisfied.

She also recalled Diana Ross being a dedicated hard worker, claiming, no other artist matched the hours she put in.  However, when The Supremes sang “Baby Love”, Mrs. Powell told them they were making faces, while Diana opened her mouth so wide it appeared she was about to swallow the microphone.  “We worked on expressing….looking pleasant and with a smile and maybe a gesture.  How to handle the mic (ensuring) the mic didn’t handle you…..All a singer needs is voice and expression.  Anything else you have is an asset to your profession.”  She also encouraged Diana not to look or lean forward, rather push her hip bones forward – “like pushing them up under your chin.”  This created the correct posture. Next on the agenda was how to walk – one foot in front of the other, and further, she said – “The torso of the body should never move.  All you need to walk is to lift your feet and let the action carry the body.”  In later years Diana Ross acknowledged – “Mrs. Powell was the person who taught me everything I know.”

The Temptations’ debut at New York’s Copacabana proved to be a logistical problem for the group until Mrs. Powell came up with the solution.  As there was no stage and restricted space for them to perform in the way that they usually did at other venues, like the Fox Theatre for example, she suggested – “I want all five of you to stand and touch fingers. Stretch your arms out and touch your fingers together, that’s all the space you need to perform. If you cover every inch of where your fingers are, you’ve done (it)”.

Mrs. Powell said Martha Reeves was adorable to work it.  She didn’t only concentrate on herself but also her Vandellas, always teaching them what she had learned.  “(Martha) wasn’t into the real glamour clothes….(but) they always looked nice. “  Mrs. Powell remembered that when the trio was part of the Motown Revue, Martha wasn’t as secure as she wanted to be and often did not feel good about herself.  “So it would take her, maybe, until twelve o’clock to …get herself together where she could feel relaxed and talk to people.”  The two worked together and in time Martha overcame her fears.  Years later in an interview with The Observer newspaper, Martha acknowledged her gratitude: “Everything I do and every move I make has to do with her teachings…She also taught us how to dance with our feet. Today, a lot of women in this business dance with their bodies.  The camera strikes them at the pelvis first, then goes to their faces.  Mrs. Powell showed us how to use our feet, which moved our bodies with elegance.  What she taught me was class and self-worth.”

In another interview with The Guardian during 2013, Martha remembered that as black artists they had to overcome all aspects of racial discrimination, including being denied the use of a toilet or not being allowed to eat in restaurants. “She taught us how to tolerate, to sustain and to persevere.  And she was right.  I survived.”  When Mrs. Powell was in her nineties, they hung out as friends with Martha, once elected to Detroit’s City Council, hiring her to assist her at council functions and charity events. –“(Mrs.. Powell) knew a lot about politics and Detroit. How it ran. She was very aware of everything, a font of information, and a well respected figure in the city.”  Mrs.. Powell also helped Martha write speeches, make connections, while becoming her confidante.  She also refused to tell her real age, at ninety-two, because “people think you’re useless”. All told, Martha continued, Mrs.. Powell served four years doing community liaison by visiting retirement homes, encouraging old folks to get up and dance, and to schools where the young people might have disapproved of two elderly ladies telling them what to do.  “But, she’d have them up and walking, showing them how to be proud and walk without a swag.”

The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers warmly remembered Mrs. Powell as a stickler for positive behaviour – “She deserves all the credit and admiration she gets.  What a wonderful addition to Motown she’s been.”  The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir said, “She taught us all etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do.  That’s artist development.”  And, Berry Gordy told her, “You have style.”

Mrs. Powell insisted she was overwhelmingly proud of all the performers she worked with, telling journalist Jeff Karbour that “This has been a blessing.  I thank God for allowing me to be here….I’m very proud of them because you don’t hear a lot of negative things about Motown artists.”

Mrs. Maxine Powell always radiated a natural dignity and grace, delicately mannered and primly dressed from her shoes to her obligatory hat.  And this is how we remembered her up to her death in October 2013 in Southfield’s Providence Hospital.  Her actual cause of death was said to have been associated with her declining health following a fall on 31 May.  Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by close friends and her Motown family.

Berry Gordy – “The Motown legacy would not be what it is today if not for her.”

CHUBBY TAVARES 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

CHUBBY TAVARES 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

As one of the founding members of the global family supergroup that bears his last name, Chubby Tavares’ distinctive voice has been heard literally by millions of music lovers the world over. He began recording solo projects a few years back at the same time, continuing constant performances with his brothers. Chubby’s great third album marks a reunion with award-winning producer/songwriter Preston Glass and work with up-and-coming LA producer Brandon Wattz as well as with UK hitmaker Nigel Lowis. Released through SoulMusic Records in association with Platinum Garage Records, “Amazing Ride” includes a wonderful duet with Pattie Brooks as well as remake of the Charlie Chaplin standard, “Smile” which has gained popularity among UK soul music listeners…

Phone interview with David Nathan conducted June 14

CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE ‘AMAZING RIDE’

 

 

Motown Spotlight - May 2018

Motown Spotlight – May 2018

As the sun is shining and all is good with the world, let’s dispense with the usual banter to revisit the excellent “Baby I’ve Got It! More Motown Girls” CD, which I started talking about last month, giving overviews of the featured artists.  So, in no particular order, here’s a similar few random words about the remaining ladies, starting with Ann Bogan, who, as you know, replaced Gladys Horton in The Marvelettes.  A native of Cleveland, she was a member of The Challenger III group with whom she recorded three singles for Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label, including “Honey Honey Honey” in June 1962, followed by “Every Day” credited to the Challengers 3 featuring Ann Bogan. She also duetted with Harvey on “What Can You Do”.  When Tri-Phi was absorbed into Motown, Ann became a company artist, and before replacing Gladys Horton sang lead on The Andantes’ 1964 single “(Like A) Nightmare”.  Marlene Barrow-Tate recalled in the book “Motown From The Background” that Harvey – “brought her from Cleveland to record in Detroit.  We needed a lead voice and she was the strong lead singer.  We had wished and hoped for a record.  She sang lead on ‘(Like A) Nightmare’ but our dream never materialised.  There was no real effort to put us out there or promote us.  The song was recorded and that was it…..We were happy with it and it was a good sound we had with Ann.”

Gladys Horton told author Marc Taylor in “The Original Marvelettes” book, that when she first heard Ann sing, “Her voice was just so dynamic…Ann had that gospel voice.”  The first post-Gladys release was “My Baby Must Be A Magician”, another written and produced for the ladies by Smokey Robinson, and by 1968 Ann was elevated to lead voice on “I’m Gonna Hold On As Long As I Can”.  However, it’s thought there are still several unreleased tracks featuring Ann on lead, but, for now, featured on this compilation is her version of “There Are Things”, also recorded by Tammi Terrell using the same backing track.

The pioneering black singer and actress, Barbara McNair is featured here with “You’ve Got Possibilities” from the short-running Broadway musical “It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman”, which is a beautiful contribution here from an equally beautiful lady. Born in Chicago and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, Barbara’s first break came when Max Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard Club, offered her a spot on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show.  Moving on a few years, she signed to Coral Records, and as an actress played a minor singing role in the 1963 film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda. Two years later, with ambitions to break the adult listening market, Berry Gordy secured her because he believed she would add a sophisticated Hollywood touch to his roster of artists. During her tenure she was credited with a pair of official albums “Here I Am” and “The Real Barbara McNair” in 1966 and 1969 respectively. However, she further recorded with Smokey Robinson but it seems Berry was rather reluctant to release the results. Thankfully, in later years, several of the tracks were liberated. One of her most talked about films was “If He Hollers Let Him Go” during 1968, not due to her acting expertise but rather her nude sequences.  She promoted the film by posing for a Playboy spread which she said – “helped my career immensely.” Then the lady also starred as Sidney Poitier’s wife in the 1970 film “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” and its sequel “The Organisation”.  A year earlier, she played a nun in the Elvis Presley movie “Change Of Habit”, when she told The Washington Post – “I find movie acting a more rewarding kind of work than singing.  When I’m working in a club I must go from one song to another rapidly and I don’t have much time to express myself emotionally.  In a movie, you can concentrate on one scene at a time.”  In between times, she hosted her own television variety programme “The Barbara McNair Show” from 1969-1972.

“I spent a long time trying to get Norman Whitfield interested in producing me., but he was always tied up working with The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Undisputed Truth”. So sayeth Yvonne Fair in a seventies interview.  In the end he succumbed, agreeing to record the single “Funky Music Sho’ Nuff Turns Me On” on her. So pleased was he with the result that he went on to record the “Bitch Is Black” album, containing her immortal version of “It Should Have Been Me” and the delicious “It’s Bad For Me To See You.”  Aside from the music, the album’s artwork also raised eyebrows because it showed the singer brandishing a whip. In fact, when I first saw it I wondered “what the hell?” The whip, she said, was only significant to the album’s actual title – “People think of me as being a little bitchy on stage and that’s where the title came from originally.  I’m not into that way-out stuff.  I don’t dress like Labelle, for example, but I like to think of my music as having a little of their style and quality about it, with a bit of Tina Turner thrown in.” However, included here isn’t a Norman Whitfield track but rather Yvonne’s take on the Barbara George track “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)”, recorded prior to her first outing “Stay A Little Longer”.   Born in Richmond, Virginia, Yvonne was an established artist before she hooked up with Motown, having sung with The Chantels and James Brown, with whom she had a child Venisha, and recorded “I Found You” which James later re-worked into “I Got You (I Feel Good)”.  It seems that between 1962 – 1966 Yvonne recorded a total of five singles with the James Brown Band including the beforementioned title, “Say So Long” and “You Can Make It If You Try”.  Despite being a singer to be reckoned with, Yvonne was overlooked as a Motown artist.

“I started out as a writer, but once I got into recording it took all my time to get into learning how to perform,” Mary Wells told Wayne Jancik in 1980. “I learned how to walk on and off stage….and got more into being an artist.” When she was auditioned by Berry Gordy, only the Tamla label was in existence and she dearly wanted to join it as it was making itself heard in Detroit.  However, Berry had other ideas; he planned to open another, Motown, and wanted Mary to be one of its first new artists. “I was kinda disappointed about it because Motown wasn’t anything then.”  Berry won out because after a staggering 22 takes, “Bye Bye Baby” was her debut release.  “During that time they had one-track recording.  No-one could make any mistakes.  The singer and musicians had to come out perfect. …I was pretty hoarse but it came out great, more churchy and bluesy.”  From here, Mary was slowly elevated into the position of Motown’s first Queen, thanks to the unprecedented success of “My Guy”, written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  Detroit-born into a poor but hard working family, Mary was shy to the extreme, with no ambition to become a professional singer. Her intention was to work behind the public spotlight, writing songs for other artists, but fate had other plans for her, because within a few months this typical Detroit teenager was the biggest-selling black female artist.  The included remake of “She Don’t Love You” with strings was recorded in an outside studio, date unknown, and has only recently been liberated, gradually filling in the recording gaps in Mary’s somewhat checkered career.

Featured twice on this CD is the multi-award winning musical family who, I think it’s fair to say, has carved a place in our hearts, thanks to the run of platinum music driven by Gladys Knight. Here we have “Is This Why (I Gave My Love To You)”, co-written by Debbie Dean, and the CD’s opening track, “In My Heart I Know It’s Right”, a Marvin Gaye, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua composition. In her autobiography “Between Each Line Of Pain And Glory”, she wrote that prior to Motown, Gladys Knight and the Pips were already a successful group with selling power, and she mulled over whether joining them was right for them. Would they be promoted as a priority act or, as she put it, be a stepchild in that environment?  In other words, what could the company do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves?  Being a group ahead of its time by having formed their own corporation with a profit-sharing plan and a pension and being experienced in booking and money management, they were confident they could avoid future pitfalls the company might throw at them. So a group vote was taken and they signed a seven-year contract with Berry Gordy because, they decided, they wanted his hit making power.  However, it became apparent from day one that they were not going to be Berry Gordy’s priority – “We were relegated to the lower tier of Motown acts with The Monitors and The Spinners. Some of their members had to do odd jobs around Hitsville in order to keep their pay cheques coming.” They doubled as chauffeurs and go-fers until it was their time to record but, she insisted, her group carried nobody’s coats. Their ground level status was further evident she wrote – “(When) we’d hear about parties at Berry’s house and company picnics after they happened, which is usually a clear sign that we weren’t on the A-list.”

Marvin Gaye once said – “Kim Weston’s a great gal and we became very close friends. Working with her (on their ‘Take Two’ album) fulfilled my need to do something different.  It was acting.  It was an escape for me. I could imagine with Kim, for instance, that we were innocent young lovers.” While the lady herself told Susan Whitall – “He was a very shy person when I knew him; very gentle, very sweet and concerned, and very protective of me.” In actual fact, Kim and Marvin had travelled together prior to recording their duets.  Following the release of her “Love Me All The Way”/”It Should Have Been Me” on Tamla in February 1963, she toured as his co-star. “So we did that for three/four years before we recorded together. He was recording with Mary Wells while I was travelling with him.  Unfortunately, we never did any duets together (on stage).” Hence, she was the obvious choice to partner him on vinyl when Mary left the company. Meanwhile, Mickey Stevenson also told Ms Whitall that Kim was his best singer ever – “(She) had a great voice, an absolutely great gift. It was like steel sometimes. She’d hit certain notes, and it could shatter a house.”  Kim’s featured with a pair of titles, “So Long”, the closing theme of the Russ Morgan Orchestra, and “I Up And Think Of You”, one of fifty Robert Hamilton productions in Motown’s vaults, originally recorded by Linda Griner which, by all accounts, is still waiting to surface.

When Brenda Holloway was sixteen-years-old, she worked with Barry White, and on the Donna label with her sister Patrice. “Patrice had a hit when I was eighteen and she was twelve called ‘The Del-Viking’…I used to do the dancing because she was kind of chunky at twelve.”  The sisters also earned a living as background singers for the likes of Tina Turner, The Blossoms and Johnny Rivers. Brenda said her relationship with Berry Gordy was totally unique, likening herself to his adopted child – “…As far as being part of the (Gordy) family, I was adopted and wanted.  And I didn’t come there (Motown) broke…I was refined, I’ve always been refined.” It appears Berry trusted Brenda and her instincts because she was focused and regimented.  Staying out all night partying wasn’t her way – “I didn’t believe in that because I knew I had to get up the next day.”  And then when she was cranky, he’d tell her to stay in her room – “Just like a little kid!…but he loved me, he wanted me on his label.  He enjoyed my singing and enjoyed me as an artist.” Her contributions here, “Without Love You Lose A Good Feelin’” and the CD’s title “Baby I’ve Got It”, are as different as chalk and cheese.  The first title was, seemingly, one of 150 tracks Brenda recorded but canned, while the second, is her version of the flipside of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted”, while a version by Little Lisa lingers in the vaults.

Talking of Patrice, her final remaining song from the vaults is included here, “In Your Heart”, although the recording date is not known.  Frank Wilson once said – “Patrice was beautiful.  She was sassy. She was extraordinarily creative and way ahead of her generation.  I loved her very much”. While Sherrie Matthews commented – “…Her personality was always so cheerful….She had one of the best voices I ever had the pleasure to sing with.”  Born in Los Angeles, shortly after her family relocated from Atascadero, she joined Motown shortly after Brenda, where she worked with Smokey Robinson.  However, her name was etched in the history books when she co-wrote the iconic “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, among other titles. However, one Patrice single did sneak out, her tribute to Little Stevie Wonder, “Stevie”/”He Is The Boy Of My Dreams”, penned by Frank Wilson, released on the VIP label during 1964, where she, as a twelve-year-old played the role of a much older woman.  Apparently, there are other tracks credited to her, like, Smokey’s “For The Love Of Mike”, a cover of The Supremes’ “Those DJ Shows” and a duet with Brenda titled “Come Into My Palace”. Given that Motown’s promotion of her sister lacked direction and enthusiasm, Patrice didn’t stand a chance, and she became an early casualty in 1964 but her time would arrive by signing with Capitol Records.

Katherine Anderson told a radio presenter on WRDV-FM that Berry Gordy chose the name Marvelettes. When he first saw them perform he apparently said – “Those girls are marvellous.”  However, there’s been several stories handed down through the years about the name, but I’ve opted to stick with this one (for now!). Their association with Berry when they first signed was tight, but she added – “As the company grew he became more distant because he had to spread himself in different directions.  Primarily a lot of things came from within ourselves.”  Although Smokey Robinson had a huge influence over them, that didn’t restrict them from working with other writers and producers. “Everybody pretty much knew that Smokey was Berry’s boy, therefore he was able to get things (done) and he did very well for us….It’s always been said that when we came along, girl groups didn’t last that long, and I never knew the reason. Thank God we made it for ten years.”

With the one-time membership of Katherine, Gladys Horton, Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins (who was replaced by Wanda Young) the ladies enjoyed Motown’s first number one crossover hit with “Please Mr Postman”.  To celebrate the achievement, Berry bought each girl a diamond ring, and worked with them as they catapulted into teenage idols, releasing a further run of hit singles as they climbed. The ladies topped the first national Motown Revue in 1962, and by the time they returned to Detroit, Gladys had hooked up with Hubert Johnson, and Georgeanna with Billy Gordon, both from The Contours, and Wanda with The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers. Love bus indeed! Then Juanita decided to leave the line-up, whereupon The Marvelettes continued as a quartet.  Katherine remembered – “In those days we had a very demanding schedule (sometimes) performing up to seven shows a night.  Juanita found it hard and decided to pursue other interests.”  The last time the group worked together was early in 1969 at Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club. An era had ended, but their legacy continues thanks to compilations like this, where the first version of “Playboy” is included, alongside “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”, their take on The Chiffon’s smash and, actually featuring Wanda with the ladies and not The Andantes, which was sometimes the case with other recordings.

When asked what her favourite song is, Martha Reeves always says every tune is special to her.  And further – “Every song that I’ve sung I’ve had to place myself in a situation so that I can believe in it.”  In particular she cited “My Baby Loves Me” where uninvited tears spring into her eyes, and – “I get a special warmth when I feel ‘Come And Get These Memories’ coming on.  ‘Jimmy Mach’, I’ll find him one day, while ‘Dancing In The Street’ means that you can get a group of people together to enjoy music and dancing and just let yourselves go.”   Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson and Ivory Joe Hunter wrote the track when the Detroit riots were scourging the city and, she said – “It was an effort to get everybody to dance and sing. Basically, to spread music, because music has always been what soothes the souls of the world.”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas represent all that is good about Motown, and as their lead singer, she has always been the ideal ambassador to promote the company.  Their popularity, particularly in the UK, is as solid and strong as it’s ever been, proven by their regular visits to sold out venues.  Two tracks here have caused huge interest; for starters, check out “Mr Misery (Let Me Be)”, where the group has added their vocals to the backing track used by The Miracles, and, secondly, the “Come And Get These Memories” soundalike with “I’m Willing To Pay The Price”. One thing I didn’t know until now was that Martha appeared in “Fairy Tales”, an x-rated movie, although she hastened to add she kept her clothes on!  “I’m seen coming out of this cauldron bubble which is my first time singing on the large screen”, she explained in a 1981 interview. “It was quite different because I’m just basically a singer (but) I see now though that if you open your mind and you study, you can do anything.”

Phew – we’ve made it!  I’m just hoping I’ve not run out of space this month to round off this wonderful “Baby I’ve Got It” release, and, of course, that these quirky notes have brought some of the tracks alive.

 
 

WILL DOWNING, NAJEE & MELI'SA MORGAN - SOUL SUMMIT

WILL DOWNING, NAJEE & MELI’SA MORGAN – SOUL SUMMIT

On the special occasion of the much-anticipated London concerts (June 22nd and June 24th at Islington Assembly Hall) by a trio of outstanding U.S. performers – Will Downing (in the UK for shows for the first time in many years), Najee (who appeared on a great show with Gary Taylor a couple of years ago) and Meli’sa Morgan (who wowed UK audiences on shows with Patti LaBelle, The Whispers and Melba Moore within the last few years), David Nathan caught up with all three for a ‘Soul Summit’…in two parts since Najee and Meli’sa were on the call on one day and Will the next…

NAJEE & MELI’SA

WILL DOWNING

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JAMES MTUME 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

JAMES MTUME 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

The multi-faceted and multi-talented James Mtume has been contributing to the world of music for some five decades: best known to soul music audiences in particular as the creator of the group Mtume in the late ’70s, his work as a producer with partner Reggie Lucas on stellar recordings by Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway is just part of the story. As a member of the legendary Miles Davis’ band and born into the jazz royalty family, The Heath Brothers, Mtume’S musical resume is singular, stretching all the way into the ’90s when he was the musical director for the popular TV series, “New York Undercover.” 2018 represents the 35th anniversary of the much-sampled massive Mtume group hit, “Juicy Fruit” and the airing of an episode on Mtume via TV-One’s popular “Unsung” series in the US.

Sad footnote: this phone interview was conducted on May 11 and just over a week later, Mtume’s renowned collaborator, Reggie Lucas passed away. We salute Reggie for his exemplary contribution to the work he did with James Mtume in the band Mtume and as a part of one of the most successful production/songwriting teams of the ’70s and ’80s.

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS - May 2018

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS – May 2018

THE POINTER SISTERS: THE POINTER SISTERS/THAT’S A PLENTY  (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

Oh yeah! This is wonderful and it feels good to hear both these albums again.  Released in 1973 on Blue Note, the Sisters’ first album has always been a huge favourite in my collection. Cleverly packaged and marketed, it shot to the top of the US R&B chart, passed gold status, proving they were here to stay and this debut was testament to that. The imaginative use of vocals from Bonnie, June, Ruth and Anita which are often combined, sometimes scat and jazz-tinged, but always with an edge.  They drive and wail, pitch and touch their voices in and around tracks that are excitingly divine.

With the album cover showing them in 40s’ styled clothes, we knew we were in for a treat, starting with their take of “Yes We Can Can”, both sassy and cool.  The quirky full-spirited, energetic “Wang Dang Doodle” and the amusing “Old Songs” with its pounding rhythm steering their voices reminded me of Bette Midler.  Hell.  Should I have written that? With the ability to mix R&B with a fresh approach, and with cover versions rubbing grooves with a couple of Pointers’ compositions – “Jada”  and “Sugar” – this was a brilliantly conceived launching pad for them. Check out too “That’s How I Feel”;  rather zany, with improvised vocals and nonsense lyrics, with their voices used as instruments.

Ragtime starts “That’s A Plenty” with “Bangin’ On The Pipes/Steam Heat”.  Both fast and furious, totally impulsive and crazy because how can a song about a radiator be so deliriously lovely?  With lyrics that mean nothing but rather highlight a scat/bebop vocal which they do so well, “Salt Peanuts” races along like a speeding train over its tracks, taking no prisoners on the way.  Change of style with the country-flavoured “Fairytale” which gave them their second top forty hit, crossing over into the C&W chart enabling them to become the first African-American vocal group to star at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.  The song also won them their first Grammy Award for Best Country Performance.  Glorious tight vocals shine across “Grinning In Your Face” against a steady, unhurried beat, while a young Bonnie Raitt plays slide guitar.

The Pointers’ self penned “Shaky Flat Blues” is followed by “That’s A Plenty/Surfeit USA” crammed with surprises as it shifts from one genre to another in quick succession, and from the sounds of it, great fun and laughter resonated around the studio.  Meanwhile, “Black Coffee” instantly stills the mood with low key, heartfelt Blues, sedately presented.  So cool.  The “That’s A Plenty” album sleeve, while not colourful, does strike an impressive pose in stark black and white, silhouetting the four ladies dancing.  There’s absolutely nothing to fault across these two albums; they’re both steeped in originality whether from a soul, jazz or Blues songbook, and the Pointer Sisters (while probably out of breath most of the time!) are incredible.   Absolutely priceless!

Rating: 10

SHALAMAR: UPTOWN FESTIVAL/DISCO GARDENS/BIG FUN  (CHERRY RED RECORDS)

It was the five bonus tracks on this double CD package that excited me the most.  These single versions of the biggest disco tracks around in the late seventies/early eighties, had my blood pressure rising, adrenalin bubbling and voice singing at full pelt. Let me remind you – “Uptown Festival”, “Take That To The Bank”, “Right In The Socket”, “The Second Time Around” and “I Owe You One”. Know what I mean? Hard driving dance that never lets up, with building chorus and hooklines, they’re so totally addictive and so epitomise the best in disco.  Formed in 1978 by the producer and host of the innovative US music show “Soul Train” and featuring Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley and Gary Mumford, the trio couldn’t sing a bum note as their string of UK hits proved.  OK, so the line-up changed slightly but so long as Jeffrey and Jody were there, we knew we were onto a winner.

On offer here are Shalamar’s first three albums, “Uptown Festival”, “Disco Gardens” and “Big Fun”, and on the first we’re treated to ten Motown tracks sung non-stop over a seventies disco beat.  Two further company songs are given the Shalamar treatment, namely, “Ooo Baby Baby” and “Forever Came Today”.  For “Disco Gardens”, with the membership of Jeffrey, Jody and Gerald Brown, the highlight hinges on the hit “Take That To The Bank”, with occasional inspiring musical moments via “Shalamar Disco Gardens” and “Leave It All Up To Love”.  It’s one long dance party although listening to it now, am sad it hasn’t travelled well.  The third, “Big Fun”, however, boasts the classic membership of the two Js and Howard Hewitt, and is just what it says on the album cover.  Fun!  It also way outsold its predecessor thanks to the included hits, like their biggest seller “The Second Time Around”.   Shalamar have such an instantly distinctive sound, said to be the very heart of Solar Records, and it is true to say their singles are immediately recognisable from the opening vocals, despite some of the cuts falling short of the excellence we came to expect from them.  Nonetheless, a worthy compilation for disco fans.

Rating: 8

MARLENA SHAW: GO AWAY LITTLE BOY:THE COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY  (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

Being the gal I am, I immediately headed for Marlena’s version of “Touch Me In The Morning” – and what a wow! track it is!  Taken at a dance pace, the song dips and rises through this remix, grabbing attention as the Diana Ross ballad is transformed into a disco classic.  Fabulous! So, now calm and my curiosity stemmed, here we have another in SoulMusic Records’ much loved anthology series from Ms Shaw, revisiting her Columbia Records tenure between 1977 – 1980.  Not being too familiar with her musical heritage I researched her background and rise to fame while listening to this diverse collection of music which earned her the title of soul/jazz legend.  Her uncle and jazz trumpet player, Jimmy Burgess, introduced her on stage during one of his performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and from here she studied music.  She dropped out of the course to get married and sang in jazz clubs as and when.  During 1963 she auditioned unsuccessfully for Columbia, before signing to Chess Records to release a pair of albums on their Cadet imprint, followed by five albums for Blue Note.

“Yu-Ma/Go Away Little Boy” from her Columbia debut “Sweet Beginnings” in 1977 is obviously a highlight on this anthology, soaring into the US R&B chart where it stayed for 11 weeks.  Love her spoken rap here which, by all accounts, she perfected while performing in an upstate New York club. Van McCoy’s beautifully styled ballad “Walk Softly” mixes easily with “Look At Me, Look At You (I’m Flying)”, a lustrous cool jazz item.  Her acapella introduction on “You Bring Out The Best In Me” leads into a compelling song, while the mood changes for “Mamma Tried” with its gospel feel, where Marlena accompanies herself on keyboards. Her first three charting singles for Columbia are here – the lively “The Writing’s On The Wall”, “Pictures And Memories”, upbeat and catchy, and “No Deposit, No Return”, her own composition.  Then the beautifully haunting “Theme From ‘Looking For Mr Goodbar’ (Don’t Ask To Stay Until Tomorrow)” from the 1977 film is quite outstanding.  I may not have known too much about Miss Shaw before hearing this, but now, after listening to this 2-CD package, I feel like we’re old friends.

Rating: 9

Clif Payne 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

Clif Payne 2018 SoulMusic.com Interview

With the late 2016 release of “No Payne, No Gain,” his duet with the legendary Freda Payne (not related as far as the pair can tell), Harlem-born, Bay Area-based Clif Payne (who has worked with an array of artists over the years including Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Tony Bennett and Bobby McFerrin) achieved international recognition, particularly in the UK where it became a Top 10 soul hit). Now comes his second CD, “Too” (the follow-up to his debut album “Welcome To My World”), produced by Preston Glass and Larry Batiste and released through SoulMusic Records in association with Platinum Garage Records. Clif shares with David Nathan about the new album (which includes a new duet with Freda, “Yesterday’s Payne, Tomorrow’s Joy”) and more…

CLICK HERE FOR LINKS TO BUY/DOWNLOAD & STREAM “TOO”

CLICK HERE FOR “TOO” AT CDBABY

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Motown Spotlight - April 2018

Motown Spotlight – April 2018


Here come the girls! More Motown ladies to be precise, courtesy of the new CD release “Baby I’ve Got It!” from Ace Records, offering a grand twenty-four tracks from names we’re familiar with and some we’ve missed on the way. This month and next they’ll all get a mention, with our thanks for their contribution to laying the foundation of what was to become “The Sound of Young America.” And, like most things I write about, there’s no particular order here because The Lollipops kick off the proceedings. Signed to Harry Balk’s Impact label in Detroit, the group became Motown artists rather by default when Balk sold his label to Berry Gordy in 1967. While Harry became a producer, The Lollipops – Arenita Walker (lead and songwriter), Joyce Walker and Angela Allen – cut nine tracks while signed. The VIP outing “Cheating, Is Telling On You”/”Need Your Love” in October 1969 was originally scheduled for the Gordy label, but here we have the doo-wop inspired “There Was”. Incidentally, on the previous UK compilation “Love And Affection”, their “Go For Yourself” track, which was left incomplete, got its first outing on this CD. I’m thinking that could be it from this relatively unknown trio which is annoying to a Motown writer like myself!

Ashford and Simpson’s “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” was recorded as the follow-up to their “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” for Rita Wright. Despite the fact this latter single bombed at the time – but later became a much wanted gem – the composing duo were given the green light to work again with Rita, even though Tammi Terrell had already stored her version of the song in the “pending release file”. By the way, Blinky Williams also recorded the song using the same backing track. Rita’s recording of “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” wasn’t completed until it was unearthed for this new CD – and it’s brilliant. Ms Wright once said she had rebelled against Motown’s executives’ plans of pushing her into a jazzier direction, preferring to stick with the styling of the Ashford and Simpson compositions. “If I had listened, especially to Mr Gordy, I would have had a more successful run at Motown fame.” So, when Berry suggested a name change to Syreeta, saying it sounded more glamorous, she readily agreed. Life began to change for the young singer: from working with, and later marrying, Stevie Wonder, she took giant steps towards becoming a respected composer and singer. In between times, she recorded demos, including The Supremes’ “Love Child” and Diana Ross’ “Something’s On My Mind”, and when Diana left the trio Berry Gordy considered replacing her with Syreeta instead of Jean Terrell. The move was vetoed by Mary Wilson. Solo success did find Syreeta in the early seventies thanks to hits like “Spinnin’ And Spinnin’”, “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the biggest selling of all, “With You I’m Born Again”, her duet with Billy Preston. Her sister Kim said at the time of Syreeta’s death in 2004, “She was a totally incredible person. She was always searching, always looking for, I’d like to say ‘enlightenment’ but it sounds too ‘woo-woo’. She was always trying to find out what was right and what was true.”

Tracks by LaBrenda Ben have been featured on the previous “Motown Girls” collections, including “Fugitive”, a heavyweight tune, and here she is again. The singer worked with George Fowler, who introduced her to Motown in 1962. They later married, and when he left the company to become a minister, she went with him. But here, on “Bad News”, LaBrenda Benn recorded with Mickey Stevenson and Jo Hunter as producers, which was originally available during 2014 as a digital download, but due to pressure from fans, it’s now released on CD for the first time. Her second track, “It’s All Right” is her take on The Impressions 1963 R&B hit. It’s so frustrating not to have information about artists like this lady because, like you, I’m a stickler for a complete story. However, what I do know is that the first single credited to LaBrenda Ben and the Beljeans, issued on the Gordy label in 1962, was “Camel Walk/The Chaperone”. The A-side was also credited to Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas on the Tamla label, while “Chaperone” was re-issued on the Motown label to satisfy Northern Soul fans. This was followed by LaBrenda Ben’s solo “Just Be Yourself/I Can’t Help It, I’ve Got To Dance” a year later. It’s not clear who comprised the Beljeans although one suggestion was they were the Andantes. Whatever and whoever, LaBrenda Ben and her group became early roster casualties.

Formerly known as Lisa Miller, Little Lisa was 11 years old when she recorded “Keep Away” with the Funk Brothers. Daughter of Kay of the gifted Lewis Sisters, who were already composing and recording for Motown, Lisa recorded at least twelve sides including the solitary single “Hang On Bill” – a re-working of “Hold On Pearl” by Bob Kayli (Robert Gordy) – issued on the VIP label in 1965. Records show that the young girl also recorded versions of “Sweeter As The Days Go By”, “Baby, I’ve Got It”, and “Honey Boy” released by The Supremes and Mary Wells, a rendition of The Marvelettes’ “Daddy Knows Best”, and “Choo Choo Train” which was added to “A Cellarful Of Motown -Volume 2”. Her mother, Kay, said in the notes for “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 5” – “I really had no idea she could sing. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I always took her with us when we went on Motown dates.” She also remembered her daughter needed to climb up on a box to reach the microphone, and that the intention was for Lisa to record demos for other artists. Still as a teenager and now known as Leeza Miller, she did voiceovers on the Fantastic Four series, playing principally Frankie Ray and Nova. From Motown, she hooked up with Trident Records to release “Does She Know”, before switching to Canterbury Records, owned by Mattel Toys. The operation was overseen by Ken Handler, the real life model for Barbie doll’s partner! It appears her aunt and mother were the label’s A&R directors, writing and producing for Joanie Sommers, Alex Valdez and Yellow Balloon, among others. As Lisa Miller, she worked with the Lewis Sisters to record the “Within Myself” album, from which a Christmas single “The Loneliest Christmas Tree” was lifted in 1967. Cyclone Records were next, where she recorded “Castles In The Sky”, again working with the Lewis Sisters. Then during the late eighties, Motorcity Records’ Ian Levine recorded Lisa as Leeza Miller, on a two tracks “Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Sign Of A Heartache, while her biggest achievement of all was working with Sergio Mendes in 1983 where she sang lead on “Never Gonna Let You Go”.

I’ve mentioned the Lewis Sisters, Helen and Kay, and of course they’re featured on this CD with their self penned “Honey Don’t Leave Me” with – check this out – Gloria Jones, Blinky Wiliams and Edna Wright on backing vocals. Edna, by the way, was working as a secretary in Motown’s West Coast office at the time. The Sisters’ talent gradually came into the public domain as, alongside their two singles, it was surprising, yet gratifying, to learn just how much backroom work they achieved for other acts. Working as writers and recording demo tracks for the likes of The Supremes, it seems they also recorded forty plus songs themselves. Of course, the classic, all-time diamond we know and love, “You Need Me” remains high on any soul fans’ list of favourites; mine included. Atmospherically exciting with echo-bathed vocals, or as one reviewer put it, the song was given “a cavernous uptown sound, with sumptuous strings rising and falling”, it was so untypical of the Motown sound. Kay Lewis said Berry Gordy produced the session – and it was frightening! “He was wonderful. Berry became a really close friend of ours too, but at the time it was a little scary. The added reverb happened when Helen and I went back to Detroit. He wanted it to sound like the Righteous Brothers.” This was the final single although they continued to write for Motown through to 1966, and, of course, they played a cameo role in the 1972 movie “Lady Sings The Blues”, starring Diana Ross playing the lead role of Billie Holiday.

In the extremely informative booklet accompanying “Baby I’ve Got It!” Thelma Brown contacted the compilers to talk about her stay at Motown, and, if I may, I’ll liberate a few words here. In 1963, when she was 12 years old and performing at the Elks Club in her home town of Lockport, New York, she was heard by Harvey Fuqua and his wife Gwen Gordy. They liked what they heard and invited her to stay with them at their Detroit house for the summer to “do some singing”. This later led to her recording four tracks at Hitsville, with talk of her duetting with Stevie Wonder, which, for some reason, never happened. Thelma’s recordings – “Dear Parents”, “Cookie Boy” and “Dance Yeah Dance” (which appeared on the “Finders Keepers – Motown Girls 1961-67”) were among Harvey and Gwen’s first productions, and when their Harvey and Tri Phi labels amalgamated with Berry Gordy, Thelma became a Motown artist. “Cookie Boy”, included here, was recorded in August 1963, and once the summer holiday with Harvey and Gwen was over, Thelma returned home. She subsequently heard nothing from anyone at Motown and certainly remained in the dark as to the fate of her recording sessions. That is, until she heard “Dance Yeah Dance” had been released on CD. Apparently, Thelma never professionally performed again and contented herself with being a wife, mother and grandmother. However, she said, what a great way to spend a summer holiday.

Berry Gordy signed the big-voiced and big-haired Liz Lands to crack the R&B market. With her six octave vocal range, he felt she was the ideal vehicle to give Motown the presence it needed. Of the 100 or so songs she recorded between 1963-64 only a handful were released. Mostly were spirituals or standard tunes, with the exception of “It’s Crazy Baby”, included here. Recognised from her promotional pictures as the lady with the beehive hair atop her head, Liz was born in 1939 in the Georgian Islands and relocated to New York City when she was five years old. Studying classical music, she was tethered to Dr Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she first met Berry Gordy in Detroit. This led to her debut single, “We Shall Overcome” being issued on Motown’s short-lived Divinity imprint during 1963. The inspiriting gospel performance was later re-issued on Gordy with the flipside of Martin Luther King’s resounding speech “I Have A Dream”. Also released in the December was a tribute to the fallen President John Kennedy titled “May What He Lived For Live”. Berry Gordy had supported the young, handsome President and intended to use this song, which he co-wrote, as a means of his respect and love. Copies of the single were actually sent to the White House, whereupon it appears Jackie Kennedy wrote back with her thanks. Berry Gordy needed to push Ms Lands into the mainstream market, so opted to record the above-average pop song “Midnight Johnny” with The Temptations and The Andantes as support vocalists. Using The Temptations was a wise move as “The Way You Do The Things You Do” was rapidly climbing the American chart. “Midnight Johnny” was later covered by Connie Haines, while its flipside “Keep Me” was re-done by The Originals. In hindsight, Liz’s single didn’t stand a chance because she was sandwiched between Motown’s A-team that included Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street”, The Contours’ “Can You Jerk Like Me?”, and, of course, the quickly rising Temptations. With her career a non-starter hit-wise, it ended before it had really started, so she left Motown to join the Chicago-based One-derful Records during 1967 to issue “One Man’s Poison” in particular.

Finally in this month’s tribute to some of Motown’s pioneering ladies of song – Miss Oma Page, sister of Gene and Billy, respected composers and producers. In between his duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, it transpired Marvin Gaye had recorded with Oma Heard. However, further investigation led to her surname generating a mystery, to put it mildly. So, let’s see if I can get this right. Oma Heard was introduced to Motown when Mary Wells left with the intention of replacing her. Marvin recorded five duets with her, four of which appeared on the 1990 “Marvin Gaye Collection” box set where she was credited incorrectly as Oma Page. According to “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 4” notes, the confusion arose when their duet tapes, recorded in Los Angeles, were transferred to Detroit, and were filed incorrectly under Oma Page. The situation worsened because there was a genuine Oma Page recording already in the can, a version of Carolyn Crawford’s “When Someone’s Good To You”, and that’s included here. Berry Gordy then made the decision not to sign Oma Page so no further recordings were made with her. Phew, hope that’s right now. But it does prove that a typing error can lead to all sorts of bewildering speculations. (Oma Heard’s Motown releases included “Lifetime Man”/”My Lonely Heart” in September 1964 on the VIP imprint, and in November 1969 as part of the girl group Dorothy, Oma & Zelpha on “Henry Blake”, via a licensing deal with Chisa.)

Aw, have run out of space this time, so we’ll continue next month, visiting the tracks by the more heavyweight artists, like Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Patrice Holloway, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Thank you again for your continued support, and hope you’ve found some interest in my overview of one of this year’s most significant releases so far which, once again, has gone a long way to completing our collections and, probably more importantly, reminding us of the unsung heroines who often go unnoticed, yet their contributions to the fledgling company was so momentous.