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……

anna gordy 1

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

various381 skinphonic-press-release

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!