Motown Spotlight - December 2016

Motown Spotlight – December 2016

Tell me, why is it that colds, sniffles, coughs and sneezes last so much longer when Christmas Day is looming? Now in my third week, it really is a pathetic, sickly creature writing this but, hey, the show must go on – and Motown is the show! I know what I’ll do, play some Festive songs. “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” is just the job. In between some of the tracks like The Supremes’ “White Christmas”, Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas”, Four Tops’ “Merry Christmas Baby” and The Miracles’ “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, there’s spoken word greetings from some of the contributors. They’re all young voices of course, but the sentiment is there. A splash of tinsel on the grooves! Feeling better already…let’s TCB

The other day I decided to play the “Magic Lady” CD first released in the late eighties and was surprised to hear it’s stood the test of time. And the music reminded me of a chat with Linda Stokes during the time of its release, and the first single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)” which reached the UK top forty, following its American success. Sadly, it was the only one but, hey, for a new act, it was a brilliant result. So, I dug out that interview printed in Blues & Soul, thinking it might be interesting to re-visit my chat and also remind ourselves how the duo got together. Hope you’ll join me on our journey…

Michael Stokes, producer and composer, was the key to Magic Lady: he was also Linda’s husband. It appears his first break came when he was a mere thirteen years old because his mother’s restaurant was opposite Spector Records in New York, and its employees were regular visitors there. “It was part of my life” Michael told a 1988 edition of Voices From The Shadows magazine. ”One day Marvin Schlachter (owner of Prelude Records) came in and I told him I was working on some songs. He fobbed me off for a couple of weeks, but then decided to listen. He thought (they) were very good.” One thing led to another, resulting in Michael being offered a job writing material for him. Moving on to the late sixties, he moved to Detroit to hook up with Eddie Kendricks’ EJK Records, before returning to New York. Long story short, Michael had carved a niche for himself in the business and was subsequently in demand as a producer during the seventies and eighties. Now based in Los Angeles, he successfully worked with Creative Source, Shirley Caesar, Rose Royce and Smokey Robinson, among others.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Hailing from Palmer Woods, Detroit, Michael never knew his biological father because he was murdered while on a visit to the hospital where his son was born. However, as his mother owned a string of restaurants, their future was thankfully financially stable, helping to closet him from the racial tensions that plagued America while he was growing up. He mentioned this in the same interview with the before mentioned magazine. “I went to white schools, and I lived in a Jewish neighbourhood so people weren’t black and white to me. It was only my later education that opened my eyes to what was really going down. I decided my music was the best way I could give people something to alleviate their suffering in whatever small degree.”

Back to the plot. Magic Lady – Linda Stokes, Kimberley Ball and Jackie Steele – was Michael’s brainchild, first signed to Arista Records in 1980. From here they switched to A&M where they enjoyed a US R&B hit “Hot And Sassy”, and a UK specialist soul hit with “Hold Tight”. Then came Michael’s licensing deal with Berry Gordy via his MS International Productions set up, where Magic Lady, now minus Kimberly Ball, was one of several acts included in the deal.

I had in fact spoken to Michael prior to chatting with Linda, and he told me Magic Lady’s eponymous album was a women’s album for women. When it was in the embryonic stages, Linda, Michael and Jackie had actually discussed the project at length, as Linda told me “We have a democratic attitude when we work. Jackie and myself both think alike…it’s almost as if our brains are locked into each other.” When they all came up with identical ideas, they knew they were onto a winner. However, working and living with her husband must cause problems I thought, but not so, because they never took their work home and, she laughed, she let him win their arguments. “But basically, we think alike, so arguments don’t happen that often!”

Linda and Jackie are Detroiters. Linda caught the singing bug in high school, while Jackie’s father was a minister, so was raised in a gospel environment. However, both were avidly aware of Motown and dreamed one day of joining the company. “It’s such a great feeling being with (them). I believe we have a good union and hopefully that relationship will work for us both. Everything seems to be going to plan right now and we’re excited about what’s happening. Performing comes easily because it’s fun.”

So, let’s talk music, and the “Magic Lady” album which, she said at the time, was a different type of project for Motown which, she believed, would surprise a lot of people. They worked on it for over three months because the intention was to release a concept work that carried a theme throughout. “It’s a personal album and when we were turning it around it felt we were holding conversations with music. We wanted it to reflect today’s attitude about love and chose not to bring sex or drugs into it.” Sticking to romance was better, they believed, keeping their ideas ‘clean’ and acceptable. Preaching to listeners was also not on their agenda. “We wanted stories that touched the heart. It’s hard for us to write gimmicky lyrics because our songs have to mean something to us first if we’re going to effectively convey them to people.” Anyway, I think the result speaks for itself because apart from the terrific debut single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)”, I instantly fell in love with “Misty-Eyed” and “Summer Love”. In fact, there wasn’t a lot I didn’t like and that still holds strong today. However, what caught my eye was the album’s packaging – the piercing green eyes that appear on the front cover. You feel drawn to them because they follow you around. Or is it my cold medication kicking in?! Then I also noticed that Berry Gordy was credited as executive producer; not a cosmetic title either Linda explained, because his input was invaluable. “It was a daunting prospect working with him but he is so respected by everyone that I soon lost my nervousness.”

To round off this musical re-visit, I must mention that Linda was also a dress designer, and this would have been her chosen career if music hadn’t beckoned. An example of her work can be seen on the reverse side of the album sleeve. Wherever she went, so did her sketch pad, just in case. Oh lor, as always, I seem to have written more than I had originally planned but nonetheless, hope it’s of interest and, perhaps, re-kindled a little curiosity to play the ladies’ music again. It was just by chance that I spotted the CD in my collection and thought – why not?

Just one more item before leaving. As it’s now in the public domain, and as I made mention of this project last time, there was an exclusive luncheon presentation at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Beverly Hills, California, just recently to officially announce plans for the Motown Museum Expansion project due to open in 2019. Among the VIP guests was SoulMusic.com’s own David Nathan, who, as a member of the panel of experts, spoke about the profound impact Motown made on the world. “Motown is one of the best imports this country has produced,” he said in his speech. Hosted by company vice president Iris Gordy, she introduced her cousin Robin Terry, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the museum, after taking over the role from her grandmother (the late) Esther Gwen Gordy. Over time, Robin transformed Hitsville USA into a world-class museum attraction for Motown fans the world over. Although Berry Gordy wasn’t in attendance, many of the seventy or so guests spoke about him and the music empire he created, including members of his family, Suzanne DePasse, and other industry figures. Motowners in attendance included Scherrie Payne, Betty Kelley, Janie Bradford, Mable John, Mary Wilson, Claudette Robinson, Eddie Holland, Brenda Holloway and Charlene. So now you know. Fabulous, just fabulous!

Well, the Christmas CD has been re-played a couple of times since I started this and I must say it’s cheered me immensely. Marvin Gaye singing “Christmas In The City” to be followed by The Temptations’ “Silent Night”. No better way to close this last column of 2016 than with the beautiful voices of these guys.

So, all that’s left for me to say is a very Happy Christmas to you all, where I’m hoping you’ll spend time with your family and closest loved ones. For all those people who are working over the Festive period in a variety of jobs, keeping us safe, and tending to the sick and less fortunate, thank you so much for your dedication. To wish you a successful and healthy 2017 goes without saying, and I’d like to think there will be peace on earth for us all as well. Although it seems grossly inadequate, thank you for keeping the Motown faith this year; you really are a treasured bunch of people and it’s been a real treat for me to have met so many of you during the past twelve months.

Motown is yesterday; Motown is today, and Motown is tomorrow.

Motown Spotlight - November 2016

Motown Spotlight – November 2016

Wow! Amazingly wonderful news to start with this month which is quite a treat these days. On behalf of us all at soulmusic.com, many congratulations to Diana Ross who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the current President Barak Obama! She is one of 21 recipients of America’s highest civilian award which represents admirable contributions to the security or national interests of the US, world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours. Much like our honours system methinks; wonder when I’ll become a Dame which is my wildest wish. Anyway, the President said “It’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better. From scientists, philanthropists and public servants to activists, athletes and artists, these twenty-one individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.” “I am so deeply humbled to be one of the recipients….and I am truly grateful and appreciative of such a great gift” Diana responded. Other recipients included Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks and the other boss, Bruce Springsteen.

chris-clark-and-stevie-wonder

And more hugely great news, this time concerning Chris Clark! Remember last month I mentioned her song “The Ghosts Of San Francisco” featured in the movie “When The World Came To San Francisco”, was in the official selection at New York’s Jazz Festival? And a video was also posted alongside the story? Well, it won its category of Mixed Genre Jazz Festival Award! So congratulations to all concerned and especially to the lady herself who told me the people attending were from around the world, and that the intention behind this Festival is to create a place for jazz musicians and film makers to network and interact. There’s another planned for next year in New York at the Adam Clayton Powell Building. Needless to say, Chris is over the moon and then some….and so are we.

Just a little something slightly off the wall now. It probably comes as no surprise to my regulars that among my all-time musical wonders of the world is Terry Lindsey’s “It’s Over” (have now got it uploaded on to my HailshamFM playlist thanks to a like minded soul presenter Paul Orr). Well, I was reading up on said Terry, born in Romulus, Michigan, and when she decided singing was for her, she headed for Detroit where she signed with Correc-tone because she couldn’t see herself settling at Motown. “I had been there, not as an artist, but I was there” she once said. “I just decided uh-uh. The artists would go on the road and they would have no place to stay. Not only did they have no place to stay, but the company would get paid before them. They were scratching to survive and I couldn’t go through that.” To cut a long story short, when that label folded, Terry hooked up with Golden World, Motown’s biggest local rival, where under the name Theresa Lindsay she recorded “Daddy-O”/”I’ll Bet You” in September 1966. As you know, Berry Gordy purchased Golden World, whereupon Terry was offered a contract with Motown. She refused. “I didn’t want to go with (them) as all the female acts they had, the only one they were running with was Diana. I didn’t want that, just to be on the shelf, sitting there. And I wanted to study show tunes and Broadway tunes. So I went to New York. I studied stage presentation, television, how to breathe again, phrasing, everything.” And it was while she was there that producer Ed Lubunski approached her to record “It’s Over”, released by President Records during 1969. “He felt I could do something with it” she said. Do something with it? My, my, the lady turned her soul inside out and that of the listeners to deliver a passionate, awesomely emotional few minutes following a haunting introduction that’s so persistent it’s difficult to shake. Just think, if Terry had signed to Motown “It’s Over” might never have been, or would it? Interesting little tale isn’t it? Not too sure of its origin, but my thanks to whoever conducted the interview with the lady. Let’s move on….

temptations-001

Although the original report about this was first announced a couple of years ago, it’s once again galloped into the public forum, so maybe this time there’s some credence to the news circulating the music business. The Temptations’ Musical based on the 1998 television mini-series about the group’s public life, with a smattering of personal stuff thrown into the mix. Suzanne de Passe was the producer of this, by the way. The only original group member Otis Williams said when the musical was first mooted that the television series was still popular and much loved. “I never would have imagined the possibilities of the Tempts’ life story going to Broadway. But it’s wonderful.” From the news available this month, it would appear casting is about to start, and Suzanne is involved in the new project. And that’s about as much as I know, so it’ll be a case of watch this space.

hitsvillekc

No Motown fan can have escaped the news that the Hitsville studio which stands proudly in its white and blue overcoat along West Grand Boulevard is to undergo a massive $50 million expansion that aims to transform it into a world-class tourist destination. A 50,000 square-foot project will rise around the existing museum which was, as you know, founded during 1985 and has been visited since then by countless fans, including myself. As the existing building only houses a fraction of Motown’s memorabilia, the expanding museum will doubtless showcase exhibitions drawn from private collections. Y’know, as much as I welcome change, I just so hope none of the magic will be taken from the humble little house with its “Hitsville USA” sign hanging out front.

This planned development is part of a community revitalisation in the area, alongside neighbourhood projects that includes a $110 million Henry Ford Health System cancer centre and a retail-residential complex. The HFHS sold a vacant plot of land on Holden Street to the Hitsville board and is expected to become a key connection road to the planned hospital. Thomas Habitz, who is the urban planning specialist working with the Henry Ford complex said “We’re overwhelmingly supportive of Motown and have been collaborating with them in the planning. There’s a co-operative synergy between the two institutions, as different as they are.” This month, Ford boosted the Motown fund with an investment of $6 million, with the company’s president Joe Hinrichs saying “We are thrilled to play a role in the next chapter of a global music icon. The enhanced museum will not only upgrade the visitor experience, it also fits with our commitment to investing in the cultural heritage of Detroit and southeast Michigan.” While the Hitsville spokeswoman, Robin Terry said “Motown and Ford Motor Company have wide and deeply connected roots. As two Detroit-born brands, they have had, and continue to have today, a transformative and profound impact on creativity and innovation around the world.” Detroit is on the up and not before time too!

Alongside all this great news, comes sadness I’m afraid. The first I heard about it was when Gloria Jones contacted me saying – “we lost Ray Singleton. She was an incredible woman.” Known as Mother Motown, I’m sure you don’t need me to elaborate but Raynoma Gordy Singleton was a pioneer of Motown’s formation. In 1958 she fell in love with ex-boxer and – I quote her words – a small-time agent named Berry Gordy, ‘a raggedy bum with a bad hairdo’. Together, they formed the Rayber Music Writing Company, followed by Tamla (their first record label), Jobete publishing and later in 1961, the Motown label itself. A multi-talented lady for sure as she wrote arrangements, sang back up vocals, fine-tuned harmonies and prepared the all-essential professional lead sheets for copyright and recording schedules. Raynoma was all things to loads of people because not only was she a hot business-minded manager and ace trouble-shooter, but was the essential creative spark and mother confessor to the fledgling record company. Her marriage to Berry Gordy produced one son, and when that ended in divorce, she married Eddie Singleton, a successful writer, producer and artist during the late fifties/early sixties working with names like Barbara Lewis. As Mrs Singleton Raynoma, she became the cornerstone of his Shrine Records label, a byword for quality soul releases.

Both Berry and Eddie credit her as being the biggest influence behind Motown’s success, as the latter told me. “The company started in her little apartment. She also plays fourteen instruments. The Motown Sound in essence stemmed from her, she even trained all the arrangers. She was the musician.” Later on, in 1970, Eddie married Motown singer Barbara Randolph, and I was lucky enough to meet them both in London during April 1989: in fact, spent a lot of time in their company which was a huge thrill for me. Sadly both are no longer with us. Anyway, in 1990 Raynoma wrote her autobiography “The Untold Story: Berry, Me And Motown” and I have to say, it’s probably the most honest read about the company and its personnel and artists that I’ve chanced to read. Certainly a lot of questions are answered and it’s a compelling read from start to finish. Don’t know if it’s still available though. Naturally, our sincere condolences go to Raynoma’s family and friends at this sad time. Also we would also like to thank her from the bottom of our hearts for her young ambitions that assisted, or spearheaded, the birth of one of the most significant record companies of our age.

Motown Spotlight October 2016

Motown Spotlight October 2016

(With apologies to Sharon Davis for being a couple of days late in adding this to the site)

A note of sadness to start – with the passing of Robert Bateman at the age of eighty years. The founder member and bass singer of The Satintones and, of course, a composer of considerable note because he co-wrote and produced the company’s first trail blazing number one US single “Please Mr Postman” for The Marvelettes. Robert was born in Chicago, Illinois but Detroit became his home. Being one of the first handful of staff Berry Gordy signed to his fledgling company, he was, like the others, involved in all manner of behind scenes activities, including session singing and studio engineer, when he purchased their first set of recording equipment in the form of a tape machine discarded by the Detroit radio station, WJLB.

In the late fifties, The Satintones and The Miracles were Gordy’s only working male groups, and as Mr Bateman recalled “We had our record out (on the Tamla label) ‘Motor City’ and it seemed like we were getting some airplay until The Miracles had a record out.” So he tackled Berry about this, and was told that as there was only one label radio stations would play a limited number of its releases. “I suggested another label. So the next thing I know is we recorded ‘My Beloved’ and Berry came up with Motown as his new label. To me, that name came off ‘Motor City’.” “My Beloved” was the first official release on the new subsidiary in September 1961, and this plus 25 other titles have been made available for a while now on the Ace Records compilation “The Satintones Sing!” (The quotes printed here have been lifted from the booklet accompanying this release) When the hitless group disbanded in 1961, Robert and Brian Holland formed the writing/producing partnership, Brianbert, and one of the first songs they worked on was to re-write “Please Mr Postman” which had been partly written by William Garrett, a friend of The Marvelettes. This led to them writing other tracks for the ladies, including “Twistin’ Postman” and “Playboy”. When it was time to move on in 1962, Robert joined the Correc-Tone label, before moving to New York to for a successful tenure with Capitol Records. He was never far away from the music scene, and upon returning to Detroit in 1970, worked in local studios, among other things. Then this year he was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame in Detroit, and was an honoured guest at the HAL Awards Ceremony in September. It was shortly after this that he suffered a cardiac arrest and slipped into a coma from which he sadly didn’t recover. His nephew Tony Stovall told the Detroit Free Press that his uncle was just an adventurous guy. “He did it all – producing, writing and discovering artists. From A to Z he could do anything in the music business.” Rest in peace Mr Bateman….

Although I’ve mentioned this in the review section, I’d like to say a little bit more about the recent Ace release “Let It Be – Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney and Harrison”. Alongside other acts’ versions of The Beatles material, four Motown acts are included, as follows. The Temptations’ “Hey Jude” from their psychedelically friendly album “Puzzle People” released in 1969. The song has been covered over forty times apparently, with The Temptations’ version not the first for Motown. They were beaten to the microphone by The Miracles and The Supremes, but their take was issued first. The Four Tops recorded several Beatles’ tracks during their Motown stay, including “Michelle” and “The Long And Winding Road”, but their contribution here is “The Fool On The Hill” lifted from the 1969 “Now” album which also holds the wonderfully compulsive “The Key” and “What Is A Man”, a pair of songs that shine with the group’s brilliance. Extracted from the trio’s “With Love (From Us To You)” from 1964, The Supremes are included with “A World Without Love”, and it’s interesting to remember, the ladies also recorded “I Saw Her Standing There” at the same album sessions, but this wasn’t issued until much later as a CD track. And last but certainly not least, a track from a seventies’ signing to Motown who are again gradually causing a stir among fans – The Undisputed Truth and “With A Little Help From My Friends” from 1972, one of several versions with, I guess, Joe Cocker winning top spot for his emotionally evoking rendition. Not bad for a song that started its commercial life as a little ditty from solo Ringo Starr who was thrown a musical bone by the group members every now and again. That reminds me. Some years ago I penned the notes for a Reader’s Digest exclusive 3xCD compilation titled “The Ultimate Motown Collection – Motown Makeover”. I don’t know if it’s still available but it’s a blockbuster of a collection of the company’s artists paying homage to others, like The Originals’ “Wichita Lineman”, Kiki Dee’s “Walk On By”, Marvin Gaye’s “Yesterday”, Blinky’s “Rescue Me”, “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me”, and…well you get the message. A super collection at any level.

After recovering from her terrific success at the Northern Soul Weekender in Skegness, Chris Clark contacted me to say she had recorded “The Ghosts Of San Francisco”, a song written for her by John Thomas Bullock and R. Christian Anderson. It’s from the movie “When The World Came To San Francisco” and the music video, which can be seen on Youtube, is an ‘official selection’ at the New York Jazz Festival this year. Think you’ll agree with me, Miss CC does a brilliant job as she oozes the blues with a jazz edge, with just a piano to accompany her. Fingers crossed for all concerned that you’ll win. And, before I forget, here’s a message she sent – “Thank you so much to my Northern Soul family who never fail to make me feel loved and welcomed. I have no words to tell you how much your respect and devotion to the music we made, makes us feel. And how rich the experience when you have us over to share it once again between us. And that dang place is massive. Eight thousand people showed up (for the weekend) so thank you for letting me be part of it.”

What am I playing right now? “Something On My Mind: The Rita Wright Years 1967 – 1970”. Not for the first time either as I expect you’ve realised, and as much as I, and hundreds others, welcomed this with open arms, I can’t help but think that maybe the lady was right when she said in 1972 she hoped that Motown wouldn’t release what she called “those old tapes”. Being the ultimate perfectionist she was with her art – probably some of this rubbing off from working with Stevie Wonder – I’m not sure, had she lived, that releasing what sounds like unfinished tracks would have sat well with her. For sure, the completed work is amazing and worthy of release during the seventies, but maybe items like “Love Child”, Syreeta wouldn’t have been happy about. Anyway, I’ll not bang on about it anymore because, as I say, it’s a much valued release – and my guilty pleasure.

tamla-motown-exhibition-visual

Let’s move on and to an event that’s happening in December. Most of us have been aware that Keith Rylatt had been working on a book based on a box of photos which had been forgotten about for over fifty years. Here’s the story… Dave Godin, helped by Clive Stone, set up the first British Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, which they ran from Dave’s bedroom in Kent. (Hah, some time later I ran the Four Tops fan club from my bedroom. Must be something to do with the music!) Dave contacted Berry Gordy which resulted in him visiting Detroit to be shown around the studio and meet the artists. By the time Dave left the city, Berry, believing the Society’s fan base was larger than it actually was, decided to send one of his Revues here to coincide with the launching of the new Tamla Motown label with The Supremes “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (TMG 501) in March 1965 was the first release. This followed a licensing deal with EMI Records, whereupon the newly created label was lovingly used in the UK and Europe, but not America. Over the years that association included the addition of other labels like Motown, Rare Earth and Mowest, until the two major companies parted in the early eighties. Motown moved its operation to RCA Records, as it was known then, and the rest is history.

Anyway, Dave Godin launched a huge publicity campaign to celebrate the pending Motown Revue, organised events where fans and artists could meet, and so on. But sadly, at some venues the artists on stage outnumbered members of the audience. Never mind because the fact that we’re still talking about it today, means it was successful for us. Anyhows, I’ll quote from the publicity blurb sent to me yesterday about the box of goodies which was recently discovered in Clive Stone’s loft. “ (It) contains an array of Motown-related ephemera and artefacts, ranging from a novelty key to the Motor City to an autographed programme for the 1964 Motown Company Christmas party, held at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. There were also three Kodak photograph wallets and four folders of negatives in the bottom of the box, many of them covering the untimely first tour of 1965. These unique photos had been briefly shown to family and friends at the time, with a few being given to Dave for the fan club’s magazine, but were never actually published, let alone seen, since the day they left the developers.” Keith’s much-awaited book titled “Hitsville”, which chronicles the entire story from Steve Wonder’s fleeting visit in 1963 through to the Four Tops’ sell out concert at London’s Saville Theatre three years later, is to be launched at an Exhibition featuring these unpublished visuals, on 2 December 2016. It will then run from Saturday 3 December through to Thursday 22 December, plus Saturday 12 December, at The Horse Hospital, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1JD. If you’d like more information just go into the venue’s website, it’s all there.

Check out tickets for the event right here

As you probably know, I host a Motown/Soul programme on HailshamFM every Saturday between 6pm – 8pm. Well, one single I unearthed to play – and one which I’ve loved from the first day of hearing – was Debbie Dean’s “Why Am I Lovin’ You” released February 1968 on the VIP label, just after The Elgins’ “It’s Been A Long Long Time” and before R Dean Taylor’s “Gotta See Jane”. If my information is right, this fast moving, chirpy song was her fourth release after “Everybody’s Talkin’ About My Baby”, “Itsy Bity Pity Love” and “Don’t Let Him Shop Around” , an answer record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around”. Not considered to be typically Motown, “Why Am I Lovin’ You” was very well received, so will play it again at every opportunity. As you know, Debbie was Motown’s first white female solo artist to be signed but when success wasn’t forthcoming, she was dropped from the artist roster. Some years later, she met up with Deke Richards to rejoin Motown as a composer/singer and later worked with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Edwin Starr, The Temptations, among other big names. Oh, and she also co-wrote my little 1968 slice of magic. Born in 1928, Debbie Dean, who also recorded under the names Penny Smith and Debbie Stevens, died in February 2001. Just thought I’d mention it in passing.

That’s the lot for now, so until next month do keep keeping the Motown faith and as always thank you for your continued support.

Motown Spotlight - September 2016

Motown Spotlight – September 2016

Gloria Jones and Sharon Davis

It was nearly forty years ago that Marc Bolan died in a car crash in Barnes and 30 September would have been his 60th birthday, and somehow I was drawn to his partner and Motown singer/composer Gloria Jones. First turning to her “Windstorm” album holding the haunting “If Roses Don’t Come (In Spring This Year)” and the massively emotional “Bring On The Love (Why Can’t We Be Friends Again)”, both composed by the lady, and released by Capitol Records in 1978. If my memory serves me well, she recorded these tracks in the States, and Marc, who stayed in the UK to finished filming his “Marc” television series, regularly updated me on her progress. The tragedy was that upon her return, they dined at Mortons Club, and it was on their way home, that the accident happened that killed Marc outright. Gloria sustained dreadful injuries, one of which was a broken jaw where her mouth was wired for ages. She used to write me little notes when I visited, which was often. It was thought she’d never sing again but slowly her rich, warm, gospel-tinged voice returned – thankfully. Anyway, after “Windstorm” I re-visited her 1973 Motown album “Share My Love” and the wonderfully atmospheric album title penned by Gloria and Janie Bradford. Another pair of standout tracks here are the emotionally sizzling “Try Love” which she co-wrote. Beautifully stylish and soulfully delivered. And with her famous songwriting partner British-born Pam Sawyer wrote “What Did I Do To Lose You”. Yes, one day my book will be written and my time with Gloria and Marc will be lovingly remembered – among other things! Anyway, another day, another story; let’s move on.

I got there in the end! Finally watched with absolute delight Carolyn, Milly, Bertha and Norma – The Velvelettes – performing “Needle In A Haystack” at the annual Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame celebrations held last month at the Ford Performing Arts Theatre in Dearborn, Michigan. Each year, those acts who are inducted are celebrated through musical performances, spoken word, and live and video tributes by many of today’s biggest musical names who have been influenced by R&B musical greats. This year, Mary Wilson hosted the ceremony, where inducted Motown acts included Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, and the fabulous Velvelettes who, as you know, are all original group members. And my didn’t they look sleek in their long gowns, as they moved as one, with their voices as strong and pure as the first time round. It brings a lump to my throat seeing these ladies because they’ve stuck together, loved together (and probably argued a lot too!) but all the while never let anything interfere with their music. True professionals, true legends. When their recordings with Motown dried up, they decided to hang up their microphones and stage gowns. Then the chance finger of fate pointed in their direction when a DJ in the Washington area wanted to hook up with the group. “He was a lover of The Velvelettes and asked over his radio show did anyone know me” Norma once told me in a UK interview. “He wanted me to get the others together. So I phoned them and we got together for the first time in twenty years. We acted like teenagers, I can tell you. We stayed up all night, it was wonderful.”

The group went on to perform at a festival which featured most types of music – jazz, R&B, gospel, and so on. “We got the rock section,” Norma laughed. “The Velvelettes represented sixties music. We got together for a couple of weekends and came up with a medley of songs that included both The Shirelles and The Supremes. It was about a fifteen-minute show and we were scared to death.” However, the overwhelming response from their audience, got them thinking that maybe they could stay together as a performing unit in the business, working around their regular jobs, and when their next invitation was to participate in a Motown Revue at the Fox Theatre, with Jr Walker, Martha Reeves and others, they had their answer. “We opened the show in front of six thousand people. It was fantastic because we’d not seen the other acts for years. People sent us notes to stay together. Diana Ross sent us one too.” Their next important port of call was the UK, where they were astonished to learn they had a solid fan base. In fact, Norman claimed they never knew what happened outside the States – “Motown never told us we had released singles here!” Once a fan, always a fan: we’re a loyal bunch for sure, I told her.

Jimmy Levine

I mentioned last month the unexpected death of Jimmy Levine and just wanted to say a few more words more about the guy who cut his musical teeth on Motown. And, as importantly, he was planning to write his book “Anna & Me” about his relationship with Anna Gordy which, among other things, led to my talking to her. We’d got as far as the book synopsis and Jimmy was, at my suggestion – as he was…er… a slow writer – talking to his tape recorder. He then planned to post me the completed cassettes. It was a method we both felt comfortable with. Well, you know what I’m going to say. We never got there. Oh, meant to have said too, we had the approval of the Gordy family to write this book. Anyway, let me tell you a bit about the innovative man that was Mr Levine who knew everyone there was to know in the business, who would help anyone who needed it, and who loved with a heart bigger than the world.

Born in San Francisco in 1954, he had seven brothers and five sisters, and lived in a middle class white neighbourhood. His family attended his grandfather’s church, St Paul Missionary Baptist, and it was during a service that four-year-old Jimmy was mesmerized listening to his mother and grandmother playing the piano. Two of his older brothers played in a band, and by the time he was ten years old, Jimmy had mastered the saxophone. Whilst at high school, he was asked by his friend Robert Reed to join the Black Pain & Co band. They played around the San Francisco area, later becoming one of the hottest bands in northern California. In time, the group progressed to support artists like Ray Charles and Al Green on stage.

In the notes – and I own the copyright to them all so no reproduction please without my consent – Jimmy sent me as an outline for his book, he wrote – “In 1973, I met Wally Cox who worked with Harvey Fuqua and Marvin Gaye. Wally told me that Marvin was going to be in concert at the Oakland Coliseum early-1974 and would I like to be on stage with him. Man that blew my mind! I said ‘you bet – this can change my life’. The morning of the concert, Wally introduced me to Gene Page, the arranger/conductor for Marvin at the time. I was invited to be part of the orchestra. That was the biggest night of my life. About two weeks later, my friend Michael Hong, one of the background singers for Marvin, at the time moved to Los Angeles to live on the hill that we all know now to be Outpost Drive. Michael told me that Marvin would like for me to come to Los Angeles and work with him. So the summer of 1995, I packed up my grey corvette and headed to Los Angeles. It took five hours to drive from Richmond, California, and man was I tired when I got there. I called Michael to ask where I was to go now that I was in LA, and he told me that Marvin had given him the address 2745 Outpost Drive, Hollywood. I drove up the long hill almost to the top, and when I got to the address, I saw two pearly white gates that had G/G on them. This meant Gordy/Gaye. I pushed the button on the phone; a woman answered. I said ‘Jimmy Levine for Michael Hong’ and the two gates opened. I drove up the driveway, saw a parking lot to my left and a house a little further up the drive, way to my right. I drove to my right and parked beside the swimming pool. I saw a beautiful woman sitting next to Michael. She got up and started walking towards my car. I got out of my car and walked towards her. Then she started walking backwards, like she didn’t want to meet me. So I asked Michael who is this woman and who does she think she is? So I said ‘the hell with this, got back in my car and drove back down the hill.”

Not wanting to leave the situation as was, Jimmy called the house again from a phone box whereupon Michael answered this time. “He said ‘Jimmy, what the hell are you doing? That was Mrs Gaye, Marvin’s wife and Berry’s sister.’ I said ‘how the hell did I know? She acted like she didn’t want to shake my hand.’ He replied ‘Get your ass back up here now, she wants to meet you. Marvin told her all about you. And that was my introduction to Anna Gaye! Michael had worked everything out, and Miss Gaye and I shook hands and that began 38 years of the most wonderful friendship two people could have.” Anna went on to employ Jimmy as president of her Outpost Productions, which included him signing, producing and writing for the company. “I wrote a lot of songs, played sax and keyboards.” However, the happy relationship was tarnished when Jimmy became aware that Anna was unhappy and going through some emotional issues. “About four months into my being in Los Angeles, Anna and I went to lunch together, and she told me about what she was going through with Marvin and the divorce. She was really hurt, angry and sad at the same time. She told me my energy was a breath of fresh air to her.” Jimmy was also signed to Jobete as a writer, where he worked with Teena Marie, Rick James, among others, and met and befriended the Motown family, and families of Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and so on……

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Anna Gordy’s story is well documented from the time as a teenager she exhibited her family’s strong work ethic, walking a mile each day from her home to her first outside job in a local store. Following this, she worked for the US Government’s Tacon plant. Living life fully, her audacious spirit transported her through a variety of experiences from horseback riding at her sister Loucye’s ladies riding school, tap dancing and being a model. In the mid-fifties Anna changed direction to join her entrepreneur sister Gwen in a photo concession business, which she operated at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. The sisters enjoyed a particularly strong bond and when Gwen later formed a record label, she proudly named the company, Anna Records. It was there that Anna caught the eye of a young Marvin Gaye. When the two first met he went to her house or office every day at 4pm. Anna waved to acknowledge him. One time he didn’t show up as usual because he wanted to see if she had missed him! In time, they married whereupon Anna skillfully oversaw her husband’s career, and as she couldn’t have children, they adopted a boy. And the rest as they say, is history.

Away from Motown, Jimmy relocated to Chicago to work with a variety of artists signed to Gold Coast Records, an offshoot of Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, before opening the Mo-Philly Group with Raymond Earl, which handled all aspects of the music industry. He was later involved with Larry Kimpel at GVR Records which, among other things, released the fabulous Gene Van Buren album “Still”. But, also let’s not forget Jimmy’s own “Share My Love” album released in 2006 where he recruited musical assistance from his pals like Ray Parker Jr, Howard Hewitt and Philip Ingram. It was a collection of original material and cover versions, given the working title “Jimmy Levine and Friends” when he came up with the idea in 1984. He only returned to the project in 2002 when his daughter begged him to record some music that was ‘good old R&B/soul’. Eight months later “Share My Love” was released. Alongside writing his book, Jimmy had other projects underway, but sadly, his life ended before any could be completed. So, in my small way, here’s my heartfelt tribute to a guy who touched my life, and who had so much more to give. Rest in peace now Jimmy.

Motown Spotlight - Soul Music's regular feature - August 2016

Motown Spotlight – Soul Music’s regular feature – August 2016

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As I was thinking about this month’s Motown musings, news arrived of an exciting – let’s not be coy here, it’s a wonderfully incredible – release courtesy of Kent Records at the end of September. “The Rita Wright Years 1967 – 1970”, a fourteen track compilation, some of which were previously recorded, with the remainder taken from a pair of recently found tapes which she recorded during 1970 in Los Angeles. No, I haven’t heard it yet, but the sheer historical value of this pending release is staggering because, for one thing, it will fill in blank spaces in Syreeta’s early career. Among the unissued material like “Love’s Gone Bad”, “I Want To Go Back There Again”, “Can’t Stop”, “You” and “Save The Country”, there’s the version of “Love Child” which has been kicking around on YouTube for ages now.

During our many conversations, Syreeta told me her version was never seriously considered for single release, and this was also backed up a few years ago by one-time UK Motown product manager, Gordon Frewin, despite the singer’s fans begging to purchase it. Syreeta recorded many demo songs for Motown’s A-list acts and “Love Child” was one of them, providing as she did guide vocals for lead singers. That’s the real purpose behind demo versions, apart from there (then) being a Union requirement that an artist has to be at the microphone when a band track was laid down. Syreeta, who died too soon in July 2004 after a battle against cancer was a loyal Motown artist, enjoyed her life with the company and the artists, and never once spoke out against either. She once told me “I learned all the way up and now have experience in a little bit of the business side because I used to sit in on Mr Gordy’s meetings sometimes and learned how to manoeuvre things.” It was only when Motown was sold that she was told she didn’t fit into the company’s new image. “..I fought for my own identity and freedom for a number of years so I don’t want to be anywhere where they’re going to put me in clothes that are slit from my toes up to my neck, and where I’m not wearing underclothes because it’s fashionable. That’s not me”. Oh lor, this planned short mention has gone on a bit, so my apologies to those who’ve nodded off.

You’ll never guess what I’m playing while I tap away at the keyboard. “Big Motown Hits & Hard-To-Find Classics Vol 2” but check this out. It’s on cassette!! Yup, and, apart from the occasional click, plays like it did in 1986. No sleeve notes of course, but track listing is pretty wonderful with Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone” kicking off. Eddie Holland’s “Jamie”, The Supremes/Four Tops’ “River Deep, Mountain High”, Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, Tammi Terrell’s “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” and R Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” following on side one. Get up, walked to the player and turn cassette over. First track is Shorty Long’s “Function At The Junction”, with The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Sayin’ Something”, Isley Brothers’ “I Guess I’ll Always Love You”, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me”, Rare Earth’s “Born To Wander” following. Leaving Billy Preston/Syreeta’s “With You I’m Born Again” as the closing track. Enjoying every second!

News has also reached me that legendary Motown press man, Al Abrams will be inducted posthumously into the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Music Hall Of Fame. The ceremony took place on 21 August at the Ford Performing Arts Theatre, Dearborn, Michigan. (I must have driven pass this when in Detroit a couple of years ago without realising it – doh!). You may not know, but also this year Al was the recipient of a Detroit Music Award for his special achievement within the music industry, and inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizen Hall Of Fame as a transplanted Michigan Wolverine for his international contribution to music. It goes without saying, of course, that for Al to be inducted into this year’s Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame is an honour indeed when bearing in mind other notables included Smokey Robinson, Prince, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes and the like. He would have been really chuffed and humbled for sure, and so very sad he couldn’t receive it in person. Al’s widow Nancy accepted the award on his behalf. Bet she was beside herself too during what could only have been an extremely emotional ceremony.

Talking of Smokey, he’s branched out again, following his food range marketed by SPGL Foods Inc, back in 2006 or thereabouts. With the logo “the soul is in the bowl”, the dishes were inspired by the food he discovered while on the road. Apparently, food is one of Smokey’s life passions, and was never far from his mind as he sought out the famous and the lesser-known chefs throughout America. Subsequently, each of the four dishes that went on sale had its own special story. So, marketed under the banner “Smokey Robinson Food”, he offered Down Home Pot Roast, Seafood Gumbo, Chicken & Chicken Sausage, and Smokey’s Red Beans & Rice. How successful this venture was I don’t know, but they’re no longer available. Anyway, I’ve digressed because this new venture, where advertising proclaims he is the personification of the mantra “black don’t crack” (a phrase, by the way, Martha Reeves imparted to me years ago and I’ve always remembered it), has been launched Skinphonic, a company born when Smokey and his wife Frances were disappointed in the quality of skincare products available. It appears they sought out the help of some of America’s top skincare formulators to find a solution, whereupon a team of interested parties took up the challenge and after over two years of research developed a product the couple tested and later approved. Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle were instilled into him as a child, Smokey told journalists, which has led to him pursing his love of music by touring at the age of 76 years. “I used to run marathons” he told Nicole Evatt of The Associated Press. “Do things that I thought were going to be beneficial for me at this time in my life. When I got to this point in my life I didn’t realise how beneficial it was going to be because I feel great.” As well as practising yoga for 35 years plus, Smokey has also been a vegetarian for longer. “I’m only going to get this one body so I want to be healthy as long as possible.”

Touring these days is, of course, hectic, tiring and often draining, physically and mentally. It also includes lots of rest, he further explained to Nicole Evatt. “Someone will be like ‘OK Smokey, where’s the party?’ I just had a party for two-and-a-half hours. I was onstage, that was the party for me.” Once off stage, he invariably headed for his hotel room, to watch television until he fell asleep. No partying for this guy! Anyway, Mr and Mrs Robinson have launched two products: the twice daily cleanser “My Girl” at nearly $30 for the ladies, and “Get Ready – Cause Here I Come” for the gents. This comprises the twice daily cleanser, AM Hydration and PM Treatment Complex (whatever that means) at around $90. I can’t actually believe I’m writing this but, hey ho, that’s Smokey for you! Back to the music…

It can’t have escaped your notice that there’s another Motown-related law suit simmering away that involves Ed Sheeran, echoing the recent one where Marvin Gaye’s estate successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their “Blurred Lines” runaway hit. It was alleged the song borrowed some of Marvin’s “Got To Give It Up” (and other influences from Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways”) although the couple insisted they didn’t deliberately infringe any of the material. In a lot of cases where this happens, the cases are either settled out of court or dropped entirely, with no case to answer. However, this time Marvin’s estate wouldn’t back down, and once a Californian judge decreed he found the songs similar enough, the trial got underway. It’s interesting to know that as Marvin’s estate doesn’t own his music rights, only that of the sheet music, the jury only heard a stripped-down version of the questionable piece, but it was obviously sufficient to pass judgement that a $7.4 million pay out was in order. In the court documents, Robin Thicke said Pharrell Williams had written almost every part of the song, and that, at the time, he (Robin) was high on alcohol and the pain killer Vicodin. And – here’s a thing – the single earned them $16.7 million, with $5.7 million to Thicke, $5.2 million to Pharrell, leaving $704,774 to other relevant companies. I don’t know whether they paid the amount the judge decreed, because I can find no reference to it across the internet.

Anyway, is this then what’s in store for our Mr Ed Sheeran who has been sued by the estate of Ed Townsend, co-writer of “Let’s Get It On” in a court action that indicates he lifted fundamental elements from the composition, in his “Thinking Out Loud” single. Part of the suit included: “The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic compositions of ‘Thinking’ are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of ‘Let’s’. The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinking’.” Ed Townsend’s family who filed the complaint in the Southern District of New York’s federal court, have requested the suit goes to trial. This will be the second time this year Ed Sheeran has been involved in a court action like this. Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard sued him for $20 million claiming his song “Photograph” lifted major elements from their composition “Amazing”, recorded and released by Matt Cardle. Oh dear, all I can say is – watch this space.

And finally, I’m ending on a very sad note because quite out of the blue I received an email from my pal Larry Kimpel, GVR Records boss, which began – “I regret to be the bearer of bad news, but I have just received word that our mutual friend and colleague, Jimmy Levine has passed on. He apparently had been secretly battling pancreatic cancer.” To say I was devastated was an understatement. I shall so miss the dear, sweet, lovely man, with a heart of gold and, who, among other things, introduced me to Anna Gordy. Next month, I’d like to add my comments to his memory. Meantime, Jimmy, have a safe journey into your next life. And on behalf of David, Michael and myself, our heartfelt condolences go to Jimmy’s family, friends and fans across the world. He was quite a guy!