Welcome to the first column of the new year and, needless to say, hope we’ll spend the next twelve months together talking Motown and related issues. In the aftermath of suffering from this awful cough lurgy, I decided I needed to ease my way into this 2017 debut, so unearthed a CD I’d long forgotten – “Strung Out” from Gordon Staples and the String Thing. First issued on the Motown label in September 1970, the version I’m playing is the Reel Music 2009 reissue and I have to say, it focuses on ‘old school’ musicianship delivered by the finest exponents of Motown inspired music, all under the directorship of the wonderful Paul Riser, about whom Berry Gordy once said – “(He) is one of the great unsung heroes of Motown. His string arrangements, creativity and warmth, on so many songs, created a unique flavour that helped the Motown sound become the Motown Sound.” As a whole, it’s an easy listening journey which was just what I needed today, covering tracks like “Toonie”, “Sounds Of The Zodiac”, “The Look Of Love” and “Someday We’ll Be Together”. Jackie Hicks, Louvain Demps and Marlene Barrow provided their oh-so distinctive vocals to several tracks, including the last named title, while the musicians, of course, were Motown’s finest, like James Jamerson, Dennis Coffey, Earl Van Dyke and Jack Ashford, joined by violins, violas, cellos and harps, with the resulting rich, full sound that ebbs and flows, easing tensions in an unhurried fashion. And that’s just the job this afternoon.
Gordon Staples penned the album’s original sleeve notes to mention the following – “In a symphony orchestra of 105 musicians, 65 are string players. There is hardly a musical composition that is not enhanced by a string section. The sound of strings has a wide range of colour that is without boundaries – all the way from Mahler to Leroy Anderson. Come along with us and get ‘Strung Out’, for the sound you will hear in this album is yet another example of our ‘String Thing’”. And, he’s so right: strings do sing! Together with playing for Berry Gordy, Gordon was, as you know, the concert master of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and of course was much in demand. Anyway, this Reel Music release was dedicated to his memory, as Gordon died in 1990, and what made this an even more special release was the involvement of his widow, Beatrix, who provided visuals and anecdotes. Do check it out if you’ve missed it… Let’s move on…
With every new year, Motown fans – me included – start speculating about what the next few months have to offer. What I’ve read so far is that “The Early Motown EPs – Volume 2” box set will be available from Universal this month, featuring discs from The Contours, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. Check out the relevant websites for further information including price. It seems Spectrum could have five further classic albums available during March; well, according to Amazon that is, while Ace/Kent have yet to make any announcement. Meantime, we’ve been treated to “Motown Unissued 1966” but as a digital release only – darn it. Anyway, have been listening to the trio of Chris Clark tracks included, namely, “Never Trust A Man”, “I Still Love You” and “Never Stop Loving Me” which are remarkably vital and so typically Motown. A valid trip into the past and one I know she’s rather pleased about.
That reminds me, as I’ve mentioned Ms Clark, she’s involved in a charity single organised by Paul Stuart Davies titled “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”. Other contributing artists are Tommy Hunt, Dean Parrish, Sidney Barnes, Pat Lewis, Johnny Boy, The Signatures and, of course, Paul. A rousing, happy live recording bursting with enthusiasm, and wrapped in love, with sale proceeds earmarked for Wigan DJ Jon Bates, who is wheelchair bound and desperately needs to raise £30,000 for a life-changing operation that’s only performed in America. So, a very worthy cause for sure. “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” can be downloaded now but those of you who’d like to own a vinyl copy, here’s the link http://thesignatures.co.uk/product/northern-soul-survivors-single/ It’s a terrific version and I wish all concerned the best in raising much needed funds to help Jon become whole again.
Now some belated sad news… Our thoughts are with the family of Sylvester Potts, a member of The Contours from almost day one, who recently died in a Detroit hospital following a battle against cancer and alzheimers. He joined the group around 1961, following the release of their debut single for Motown. The Berry Gordy penned “Do You Love Me” elevated The Contours into US R&B stardom, but, due to the nature of the record buying market, that was their biggest seller despite following it with cracking sounds like “Can You Do It” and (my all-time favourite) “Just A Little Misunderstanding.” If you need reminding of their music, do check out Kent’s compilation of unissued material on “Dance With The Contours 1963-1964”, you’ll not be disappointed I promise. From recorded music to live performances…
Moving on to October this year, there’s a planned five day event titled “Detroit A-Go-Go”, celebrating the best in Northern Soul and Motown, at the St Regis Hotel, Detroit, a spit away from the Hitsville building. Participating artists so far include The Velvelettes, The Elgins, Ronnie McNeir, Spyder Turner, The Dynamics and Pat Lewis. It appears top DJs pharmacy-no-rx.net from the UK, Europe and America have also been booked, and there’s a guided tour of the city, a visit into the Hitsville studio, and a record fair, included in the package. That’s all I know for now, but for more information, visit www.detroitagogo.com. However, be aware it’s rather expensive and air fares aren’t included in the prices as far as I can see.
Now to the written word, and Keith Rylatt’s much talked about book “Hitsville – The Birth Of Tamla Motown”, recently published by Modus, the first title in the company’s publishing arm. You know the story behind the book I’m sure, but briefly, it’s come about following the discovery of a carrier bag of photos and memorabilia dating back to the early sixties, which had been hidden for nearly fifty years, following the passing of Clive Stone, one of the founding members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. And, my, wouldn’t they have been so chuffed to see this book, packed full of historical data that’s treasured by stalwart Motown followers. By the way, I popped by the preview exhibition of the book’s launch in London, briefly met Keith (whose work I’m familiar with having read and reviewed his “CENtral 1179” about the Twisted Wheel Club, which he co-penned with Phil Scott), but due to a mishap with the publisher’s computing system, have only recently received “Hitsville”. However, have now had plenty of time to give it a dedicated, uninterrupted read, and was instantly transported to the early sixties when Motown was testing the musical water in the UK. I won’t go into great detail as you know the early history as well as I do, but what struck me immediately was the all consuming enthusiasm and fired determination, spearheaded by Dave Godin and the TMAS, to promote this young new sound from Detroit. With no internet, it was purely word of mouth, letter by mail, or talk via the phone, and with a relentless energy, Dave and others left no stone unturned to spread the word with Berry Gordy’s blessing.
I’m thinking “Hitsville” is almost the UK equivalent to Al Abrams’ wonderful tome “Hype And Soul!” published in September 2011 by Templestreet Publishing, because Al generously shared his tireless hustling to secure news coverage in a white dominated media system. With so much material to choose from, Keith Rylatt has wisely used the book’s pages to the full, while retaining the historical beauty and significance of the originals. For example, there’s personal letters to and from Dave Godin, newspaper cuttings, advertisements, readers’ letters and reviews, snuggling up with Clive’s breath taking selection of exclusive visuals, many of which are on public show for the first time. All credit then to Stuart Russell, the book’s designer.
As a member of the TMAS, I welcomed the addition of pages from the actual magazines which I’m sorry to say, I no longer have as they, like so much of my memorabilia, got waylaid in my several London moves. Something I’ve always regretted and that’s putting it mildly! Anyway, from the book’s opening chapter “1955 – 1962 From Bexleyheath To Detroit” I knew I was destined for a glorious read through the history of my beloved Motown, and within seconds, was lost in those days of this fledgling company making its first tentative steps on UK soil and the struggle that was to come. From the first concerts and tv appearances, through to the UK Revue and, of course, “The Sound Of Motown” programme which crossed all barriers in British home entertainment, by presenting a black-based prime time music show, hosted by our top girl, Dusty Springfield, herself such a pioneering force for the sound she adopted and adored.
Of course, when the TMAS folded, individual fan clubs were allocated across the UK with myself securing the Four Tops, and when it was decided by Motown US to drop these also, Motown Ad Astra (MAA) was opened, run primarily by myself, Lynne Pemberton, Jackie Lee and Geraldine Jones, from our flat in London’s Ealing. Aw, more memories, trials and tribulations, but all wonderfully good!
Well, what more can I say? “Hitsville! – The Birth Of Tamla Motown” is an all consuming read, an important document of events for fans and curious alike, and shows that without the unmoving commitment and driving tenacity of a few dedicated folks, Motown may have taken just a little longer to cross the British drawbridge. We applaud them with our thanks and love, while thanking Keith and the team for getting it all together for public consumption.
That’s it until next month. Thank you for your continued support and very much look forward to spending this year in your company.