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.”

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.

 
 

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.

 

Motown Spotlight - March 2018

Motown Spotlight – March 2018

Can it really be over fifty years ago that one of the most groundbreaking programmes was screened on prime time national television?  Well, indeed it is, and for people as young as myself, we settled in to watch an event that, in my opinion, was a first, not only for Motown fans, but the British public in general. As Rediffusion covered the  London area, and I lived in East Sussex, I needed to secure the indoor television aerial in just the right position to pick up a viewable signal.  Quite an art I can tell you, but possible. So, what am I talking about? The Sound Of Motown, screened at 9.40pm on 28 April 1965 on Associated Rediffusion Television.  To say it was the most exciting of programmes would be a total understatement. It was a dream come true, an ambition realised, and, although not recognised at the time, the programme made significant inroads into breaking down the barriers erected in the entertainment world.

So, how did it come about?  As years passed, different stories emerged but I think it’s fair to say that this is probably what happened. However, let’s backtrack for a second to another programme which, to all intents and purposes, was the launching pad for The Sound Of Motown.  On 9 August 1963, Ready Steady Go, a brand new, and innovative music programme was screened for the first time by Rediffusion. I won’t dwell too much on this because the series – which lasted until 23 December 1966 – has been well documented over the years, but suffice to say, it revolutionised the way in which music was presented to viewing audiences.  Originally filmed in the small Studio 9 in London’s Kingsway, where participating acts mimed to their songs, Ready Steady Go was later transferred to the larger Studio 5 at Wembley, enabling artists to perform live, with an orchestra tucked away somewhere which was difficult due to the layout of the studio floor.  Artists performed on different mini-stages, often in the middle of a dancing audience; occasionally from studio gantries, or from the top of a staircase. As if this wasn’t tricky enough, the ever present cameras were large with rotating lens turrets rather than zooms, and weaved around the audience, often careering into unsuspecting individuals.  But, hey, that was part of the fun and no serious damage was done. RSG was glorious organised mayhem, broadcast live, bringing into our living rooms some of the best soul music of the time, alongside the major names in popular music.

The best remembered presenters, Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan, steered the programme as best they could, often stumbling over their lines and presenting acts that weren’t ready to perform.  Joining them was the now solo Dusty Springfield, riding off her first hit single “I Only Want To Be With You”.  A regular visitor to the programme as a member of The Springfields, and as a member of the audience, Dusty was a Britain’s top female singer and a huge coupe for the RSG team. Besides she loved to party!  By now, of course, it was no secret that The Beatles and Dusty were avidly flying the Motown flag, mentioning the company in interviews and singing its material on live and television shows. What better ambassadors could Motown have had!  “I suppose I had a lot to do with promoting them,” Dusty once said. “I didn’t realise it at the time.  It’s only when people have told me that, including Motown people themselves.  (Motown was) running my motor so to speak, so it never occurred to me that I was doing PR for them.  I was just entranced.”

Due to her immense drawing power it was decided to give Dusty her own television programme and, as she and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were now best friends, -after meeting up when Dusty appeared on Murray The K’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Extravaganza at New York’s Fox Theatre with a host of American acts including a Motown contingent – they were lined up to be her special guests.  This was to change, Dusty told me, when Berry Gordy planned to send his first Motown Revue to tour Britain to celebrate the opening of the Tamla Motown label during March 1965. Following a licensing deal with EMI Records, it was deemed logical to include all the touring acts with Martha and the girls. Besides it was a brilliant marketing tool to promote the new label, marking the longest free advertisement for a relatively unknown American artist roster on black and white commercial television.   The Motown Revue was to kick off at the Finsbury Park Astoria on 20 March, before hitting venues in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Wolverhampton, among others.  Twenty-one towns in twenty-four days, with a television programme to rehearse, film and complete before they left London.  No mean feat!

Shortly after 7am on Monday, 15 March 1965, the Motown contingent arrived at London Airport on their chartered Boeing 707.  Berry Gordy’s artists were accompanied by lawyer George Schiffer, Maxine Powell, chaperones Evelyn Johnson and Ardena Johnson, road managers, assistants and hairdressers, while Berry Gordy brought his three oldest children (Hazel, Berry and Terry), his mother and father.  Carrying customised B.O.A.C. Cunard flight bags advertising the Tamla Motown label, they were all enthusiastically welcomed by members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society.  Prior to the visit, Berry had written to Dave confirming that 15 March was a red letter day because his new label would be launched on that date. “It is as a result of such loyal and devoted efforts as yours that such an historic event is possible. All the artists and entire staff join me in thanking you for your loyal and unwavering support of Tamla Motown and its artists.”

Once everyone was settled in the Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone, meeting up with The Temptations was first for obligatory photo shoots around London’s tourist attractions. This was supervised by Motown UK’s Peter Prince and, my, how those historic visuals have remained relevant through the decades.  Almost magical. Next was free time where they explored the West End. Incidentally, The Supremes were the only group to occupy the penthouse suite next to the Gordy family, confirmed by the ladies in later press interviews. They also talked of the gifts Berry lavished on them, including diamond rings.

Anyway, back to the plot, and following hasty meetings between Dusty and Vicki Wickham, producer of Ready Steady Go, Rediffusion were asked to approve the  revised plan for the television programme.  Dusty was now to host a Motown show featuring Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Earl Van Dyke Sextet, whose membership was the company’s finest – Jack Ashford, Eli Fontaine, Robert White, Bob Cousar, Tony Newton, led by their leader, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke.  Not surprisingly, Berry Gordy wouldn’t allow his two most valued musicians, drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson, to tour. They stayed in Detroit to head up the remaining musicians, to keep recording sessions flowing in the artists’ absence. Martha Reeves was happy with this new concept. She still had an ace up her sleeve.  By the way, The Temptations, who weren’t on the Revue, were already in Britain on a promotional trip, and returned to Detroit following the show’s taping. Stevie Wonder was also in town prior to the Revue arriving, while Gordy’s most in-demand soloist Marvin Gaye was unable to join them due to a serious viral infection.

Originally, called Dusty Springfield Presents The Sound Of Motown, it was during production abbreviated to The Sound Of Motown, although the concept remained untouched.  Music journalist, Bob Dawbarn, who attended the rehearsals at the Wembley studio wrote “It was the usual shambles as the fast-moving show was assembled. With artists streaking like greyhounds in and out of dressing rooms for quick costume changes and sweating cameramen given only seconds to switch from one group to the next.”   Supremes, Florence Ballard told him – “We’ve brought fourteen changes of costume on this trip. The big problem is sizes.  Finding something that we all liked, that will look right in all our sizes.”  However, Bob’s immediate impression was one of complete and polished professionalism of the participating artists which, he wrote, “makes some of our miming monsters look the rank amateurs they really are.”

The acts worked for twelve hours solid at the studio, with no retakes, singing live to pre-recorded tracks although upon viewing it did seem Earl Van Dyke’s musicians were also playing in the moment.  The studio itself was more like a large industrial yard and looking at a picture of it now, showing all the acts for the finale, there was scaffolding to one side of the studio, the audience seated on the other, with a backdrop of the artists’ names littered across the skyline of Detroit. Immediately in front of the backdrop was a raised area for the dancers which stretched from one side to the other; in front of this, the musicians, who looked out onto the huge space in front of them. On this particular picture, Martha and the Vandellas were next to The Temptations and Dusty on one side, in the middle The Miracles and Stevie Wonder, and on the other side The Supremes.  Scattered around them were cameramen, steering cumbersome equipment, varying in size.

However, although the running order was planned in advance, it became apparent that as rehearsals progressed Berry Gordy was calling the shots. Martha Reeves, who was Dusty’s first choice, noticed these changes, as she recalled in her autobiography “Dancing In The Streets”. “I took offence when Berry began moving acts around until The Supremes were in a co-starring position.  The Supremes didn’t even know Dusty but suddenly they were incorporating a cover version of Sam Cooke’s ’Shake’ to supply them material for an additional spot.”  She also commented that The Supremes’ records were just starting to sell in Britain, while she and the Vandellas had toured once before, cementing a solid fan base, therefore her group should have been awarded the extra spot.  She told Berry of her feelings and balked at his response which went along the lines of that The Supremes were on the top rung of the ladder and Martha and the Vandellas were on the lower one. “My disappointment showed clearly on my face and in my voice. As we lined up for the finale, I was directed by the producers to a spot where the camera did not reach.  Standing off to the sidelines for the finale, I must have looked real ugly because I was so sad and hurt.”

However, what Martha didn’t realise at the time, because the comments came from the television viewers, her duet with Dusty on “Wishin’ And Hopin’” was voted as one of the programme’s highlights, even to this day.  “I could see Diane in the wings eating her heart out because she hadn’t been chosen to do it,” Martha further wrote in her book. “On another number (‘Can’t Hear You No More’) we also sang backup for Dusty.”  I’ve just watched a video of “Wishin’ And Hopin’” and smiled because  Dusty is gooning around part way through the song, which I suspect, is a reaction to being plagued by nerves.  In her book “Dreamgirl”, Mary Wilson wrote that she enjoyed working with Dusty.  “Her and the crew treated each one of us like a star, but it was clear that Martha and the Vandellas were their favourites.  That was okay. I always thought there was room for all of us at the top.”

Once the cameras had rolled for the last time and the programme was in the bag, the Motowners  headed for a party hosted by singer Dana Valery in Holland Park.  There they joined Vicki, Dusty and her brother Tom, members of the Rolling Stones, Madeline Bell, Sandie Shaw, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, among others. A who’s-who in British music, all wanting to bask in Motown’s magic.

So, it’s now the evening of 28 April and The Sound Of Motown is about to start.  And one by one, we’re introduced to the Sound of Young America on a whistle-stop tour of classic songs, iconic dance routines and lifetime memories.  We salivated to Martha and the Vandellas with “Heatwave”, “Nowhere To Run”, “Dancing In The Street”;  The Supremes and “Baby Love”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go”.  We loved The Temptations impeccable choreography while performing “My Girl”, “It’s Growing”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, while soaking up The Miracles’ smooth deliveries on “Ooo Baby Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”. Little Stevie’s “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues” and “Kiss Me Baby” was compulsive viewing as, in one instance, he performed on top of a pedestal without falling off.  Then, before you can catch your breath or believe your eyes, the finale “Mickey’s Monkey” with all acts singing and dancing, rounded off this once-in-a-lifetime programme, in true Motown style!   “The actual sound of Tamla Motown is always distinctive and unmistakable” said Dusty at the time. “The music is light, lifting but strong..and never boring. The songs are excellent and because of this many have become standards.  The artists are as exciting as their records. All professional and knock-out performers. There’s the phenomenal Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas.  Their ‘Heatwave’, ‘Live Wire’ and my all-time favourite ‘Dancing In The Street’ make them one of the most exciting acts I’ve ever seen.”

As time passed fans were desperate to own a copy of the programme, but nothing seemed to be available either legally or not. Dave Clark International bought the rights to the programme and it appears refused, for some reason, to make it commercially available. Then in 1985, “Ready Steady Go! Special Edition” was released, featuring The Sounds Of Motown including a clumsy insert of Marvin Gaye singing two songs, “How Sweet It Is” and “Can I Get A Witness”.  Until 2018, Dave Clark retained the rights, whereupon it was announced that BMG Rights Management had acquired ancillary rights to the whole Ready Steady Go series which I’m assuming, includes the Motown special.  Could it be a re-issue is on the horizon?

There’s much more that could be written about this extraordinary time in Motown’s British history, and the programme that’ll always remain a highlight, but I just thought an overview of how/where/when it came about might be of some interest. Sure, I realise I’ve neglected the actual Revue, so maybe we’ll get to this another time.

As always, thank you for being with me this month and, believe me,  there’s loads more coming your way this year.

Watch the entire show on YouTube…