One of the UK’s most enduring recording artists, Kiki Dee has been making music since the early ’60s. With a personal background and love for R&B/soul music, Kiki has the distinction of having been the first British artist to be signed to and to record for Motown and it’s with that in mind that Kiki is performing in October at the first Soul Galore Weekend in Folkstone. In advance of the show, Kiki spoke with SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan about her experiences as a Motown artist…
Just as I started planning this Spotlight, an email hit my inbox advertising a hot August night at the Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, Los Angeles with Thelma Houston. Wow! How amazing she looks – beautiful, quirky and overflowing with fun. The planned show features ninety minutes of twenty-plus Motown songs that are the backdrop to Thelma’s life, and a little peek-see is available via her website www.thelmahouston.com and it’s so good. Berry Gordy loves her show, saying “It needs to be everywhere”, while the owner of the jazz club glowed, “I have owned this club for twenty-five years and I have never seen a show like this before.” The actual hot night is 27 August and the booking office is now open. You lucky Americans: Thelma is a phenomenal entertainer, with a voice to move mountains, and she’s gorgeous. Let me tell you, ladies born during the forties were made to last! Any chance for us in the UK I wonder?
One of the most regularly requested singles on my Saturday evening radio programme on Hailsham FM isn’t by one of Motown’s A-line acts, but rather from an unassuming singer who bypassed the general public through no fault of her own. I’m talking about Debbie Dean who I’ve mentioned before and who, among other things, recorded the wonderfully upbeat “Why Am I Lovin’ You”, released in February 1968 which bears as much resemblance to the Motown Sound, as chalk does to cheese. I think it was because of this that it grabbed me, and, of course, in later years, the attention of our beloved Northern Soul fans. But, who was this Debbie Dean? Well, during her stay with Motown, information was scarce, and no matter how much journalists like myself scratched around for a few titbits, even asking other artists for a snippet or two about her, nothing was forthcoming. Thankfully that has now changed, and if it’s alright, would now like to spend some time with this lady who really deserved more than she received. To ensure the composing credits are correct, have consulted two volumes of “The Complete Motown Singles” , while other details I’ve collected over the recent past.
Born Reba Jeanette Smith in February 1928 in Corbin, Kentucky, she moved with her family to Chicago during the fifties. She was the fourth child of Alma and Walter. It’s unclear what persuaded her to pursue the business of music but she performed with Ralph Marterie and his orchestra early on in her career. It seems she first started working with Berry Gordy in 1958, so pre-Motown, when he wrote songs for her, as Penny Smith, and as her group, Penny and the Ekos, signed to Argo Records, including the title “Give Me What You Got”. Using the name Debbie Stevens, she also recorded “Jerry” for Roulette Records, and in 1959 a version of Rick Nelson’s “If You Can’t Rock Me” for the Apt label, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. On the personal front, Debbie married celebrity DJ Jim Lounsbury, host of a popular rock ‘n’ roll television show based in Chicago.
At the age of thirty-two, the red haired Reba Smith joined Motown, becoming Berry Gordy’s first signed white artist. Many believed that Mike Powers, and Nick and the Jaguars, the surfing rock group from Pontiac, Michigan, were his first white act but that was a one-off deal to release “Ich-I-Bon”, a previously recorded instrumental on the Tamla label in May 1959. As the single bombed, no contract was offered them. As for Yugoslavian-born Mr Powers, the credits on “Teenage Sweetheart” read a Rayber Production which Berry placed it on the Zelman label, a name he’d made up, and a label he presumably owned. I am digressing…. back to the lady in question. Her first recording was an ‘answer’ record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around” titled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”. This was the brainchild of Berry’s sister Loucye, penned by her, Berry and Smokey Robinson, and featured The Miracles on support vocals no less! Released, under the name Debbie Dean, on the Motown label in February 1961, and despite its novelty angle, it failed to catch record buyers’ attention but did have longevity, representing a small niche in the company’s growth. Next out was the much misspelt “Itsy Bity Pity Love”, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums, and influenced by the hit-making pop singer Brenda Lee. Penned by Janie Bradford and Popcorn Wylie, it was issued August 1961, but followed the same fate as its predecessor.
It’s assumed Debbie didn’t really fit in with the other female acts on the roster being that much older, but Berry Gordy persevered because he felt she could carry Motown into the lucrative pop world, thereby opening the door for his other acts. A little misguided perhaps, but at least it got Debbie into the recording studio. Her final single “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby”, written by Berry and featuring the only recorded performance of The Paulette Singers, was released in November 1961. Again, it followed the fate of her predecessors, so a despondent singer left Motown in 1962. However, Ms Dean was destined to return.
From Motown, she returned to the public arena, moved to Los Angeles and started performing in Southern California. She recorded “Don’t Bug Me Baby”, in a one-off deal with Sue Records during 1964. For this she chose the name Debra Dion. Two years later, using the same moniker, she recorded “Take My Hand” for Treva Records. She hooked up with Deke Richards who, I believe, performed with The Deacons, and occasionally supported Ike and Tina Turner. More importantly, he was the key to Debbie returning to Motown. As a member of the company composing/producing team known as The Corporation or The Clan, he was always on the look out for new writers. When he learned her past history with the company, he persuaded her to re-join them. Although the intention wasn’t for Debbie to record again, when she co-wrote “Why Am I Lovin’ You” with Deke Richards (Dennis Lussier), they decided to cut it on her but, for some reason, a year passed from recording it to releasing it during February 1968 on the VIP subsidiary. Once again, the single caused only a minor flutter sales wise, but thank god for us in the UK. We adopted the song as a Northern Soul item despite only a few DJs owning a copy. Stock copies were limited, the promotional discs even less – and the single wasn’t British-released. I’m thinking that whoever owns a copy (including myself) they should wrap it in cotton wool and place in a vault. Now, of course, it’s in the public domain on one of “The Complete Motown Singles” box sets. It appears a second single, “You Asked Me” was scheduled but canned. However, that wasn’t the end of her Motown career because she flourished as a songwriter, usually with Deke Richards, to pen “Why Did You Leave Me Darling” for The Temptations, “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Edwin Starr’s “Backyard Lovin’Man”, among other titles. Unfortunately, this appears to be the end of my research, except that it has a sad ending because Debbie Dean died during February 2001 in Ojai, Ventura County, California. Had hoped I’d find more to share with you, but sadly couldn’t. Still, better than nothing aye.
I’m delighted to say “Chasing Motown” written by M. J. Critchley is now available. It’s his personal view of the company, lavishly presented in full glossy colour where many of the featured pictures are personal so not seen before in the public domain. As I’ve known Mike since the sixties, it was a huge thrill for me to follow his journey involving meeting a whole host of artists like Brenda Holloway, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (well nearly!), Edwin Starr, Bettye Lavette, The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, Gloria Jones, and so many more. Alongside his chats with artists, he allows us into his personal life, his extensive travelling often in pursuit of the acts he loves so dearly – many of whom adopted him as a personal friend and a welcome guest to their homes – and the upsets and highs that accompany this crazy world of music. Early Motown is extensively covered, and discovering those glorious sounds from Detroit is well documented. So, yes, Mike’s book is a rare gem. Now you need details – via email, email@example.com or his website, mjcritchley-chasingmotown.com. Price £22 + p/p £3.40. On a personal note, thank you Mike for the name checks, and we did share a few adventures didn’t we?
Well, that’s the lot for this month. Thank you for your continued support because without you, there wouldn’t be me.
It occurred to me the other day that on 6 June 1936 a very special guy was born in Detroit, a man who was destined to front one of soul music, and perhaps the world’s most recognisable of groups. And this got me thinking: talking about my favourite group ever and its main man is long over due. But where to start without repeating much published biographies which can easily be read elsewhere? Dipping into their British musical achievements and milestones appealed, so let’s talk Four Tops – Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and of course, their main man, Levi Stubbs. All Detroiters; all true to the group until death they did part and, a point to mention, never once did it cross Levi’s mind to ditch his friends for a solo career, or insist that his name be upfront of them – “we enjoy singing together but we’re friends first!” he said.
With his laughing eyes and wide smile, Levi was the boss or leading force in the group. His influence over audiences during their performances was unique, although he one time quipped, “It’s not like being their God or anything like that, but it’s a beautiful feeling.” Levi was a strikingly attractive figure of a man, and like his friends, was always sharply dressed whether front stage or back. He was sophisticated, and although sometimes intimidating, his calming effect on fans and journalists alike warmed him to them. Hah, and I’ve not mentioned his voice yet: a natural golden baritone, that he often strained when reaching the tenor range which some of the songs demanded. Often the veins in his neck stood out, with sweat pouring down his face, as the pleading urgency in his voice captured the very essence of Holland, Dozier, Holland’s compositions. “His bold, dramatic readings of their material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-sixties”, a journalist once wrote.
Out of loyalty to his friends, he dismissed all offers of a solo career, even to the extent of refusing to play Louis McKay opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings The Blues”. He would never overshadow the others, he said. However, he did lend his voice to Audrey, a carnivorous plant in the 1986 musical “Little Shop Of Horrors”, and three years later to the evil Mother Brain in the television series “Captain N:The Game Master”.
Levi was the defining sound of the Four Tops, although he modestly said in 1994, “I’m rather loud and raw. I don’t really have a style. I just come by the way I sing naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.” On the other hand, Duke Fakir was more emphatic, saying, “He was a master performer and had a terrific voice. He could touch you by just singing about a stone. I look at him as one of the finest lead singers in the world.”
So let’s dip in and out of their UK career, using Levi’s quotes, and I promise with not a mention of my association with them, running their fan club or Motown Ad Astra that followed. He told a now unknown American reporter the group was born in 1954 when they were kids fresh out of high school. They all left with diplomas with ambitions to make an impression on the world. Music though was their common denominator, “We decided we wanted to become professional singers. We taught ourselves four-part harmony and rehearsed every single moment we could. For a while we inflicted ourselves on people at church socials and school functions. They seemed to like what they heard, so it encouraged us a lot. From there, we went on to win a succession of amateur talent contests and after that we just found ourselves wrapped up in show business.”
Choosing to name themselves The Four Aimes (because they were aiming for the top!) they took their smooth style and mellow, tight harmonies to parties, colleges and a few Detroit nightclubs for a couple of years. Singing a mixture of standards and jazz they attracted a following which culminated in their first professional engagement at the Ebony Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, where for a week they earned the princely sum of $329. However, it only took a further year for them to move up a groove when Billy Davis, cousin of Lawrence, offered them a recording contract with Chess Records. Changing their name to the Four Tops (not The Four Tops) to avoid confusion with the already established Ames Brothers, their stay at the company, although a learning curve, was unsuccessful, resulting in one single released in 1956 titled “Kiss Me Baby”. Once again, they turned to the club circuit, travelling distances to work, including hooking up with the Larry Steele Revue in 1958 to criss-cross America, performing four shows a day, all week. Later, they opened for Della Reese on an eight week tour, then BB King, before supporting the rising star Jackie Wilson (Levi’s cousin) and, of course, Billy Eckstine, where they fronted his touring revue and learned their craft.
In between times, another recording contract was dangled before them. This time with Columbia Records but, before the ink had dried on the document, the Four Tops had released “Ain’t That Love” – and were dropped! From here, more short tenures followed with the Detroit-based labels Red Top, Singular and Riverside Records, where they issued “Pennies From Heaven” and “Where Are You” late in 1962. Positive help thankfully was on the way, and to cut another story short, Berry Gordy signed them. This actually took him two years to pull off – he’d wanted them at Motown much earlier and to this end had given them a recording contract to sign, but for some reason the move failed to happen. Once under Motown’s umbrella, the Tops became session singers for the likes of Mary Wells, and Holland & Dozier. In between times, they continued to work local clubs, and with Billy Eckstine, to boost their income. Then it was the Tops turn to record in their own right, recording nearly thirty tracks for their debut album “Breaking Through” destined for release in 1964 via Motown’s subsidiary Workshop Jazz, as Berry Gordy wanted to attract adult jazz enthusiasts to expand his buying market. The album wasn’t released at the time, unlike others by Earl Washington, Paula Greer and Pepper Adams, among others. Workshop Jazz lived for a year, with no hint of the desired success.
To be fair, Berry was at a loss where to place the group, and didn’t want to lose them. He then hit on a plan: he sought out Holland, Dozier and Holland who had made such great strides with The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. The ploy, he believed, might just work but it was a difficult transition period for the group because it needed Levi’s voice to be out front, which was something never considered previously. From the first tentative recording steps that included experimenting with “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964, it was decided this would be the recording formula for the future. Interestingly, Levi couldn’t warm to the song, and suggested Lawrence be lead. No chance, was the feedback. The recorded version had such hit potential that Berry Gordy was convinced it would kick start their career. He was spot on. However, any chance of them enjoying a British hit was scuppered at the time by The Fourmost’s version which soared into the top thirty. And, unfortunately, this practice would dog Motown artists – and of course American acts generally – for years, denying them hits in their own right – and that’s another story! It was left to “I Can’t Help Myself” on the Tamla Motown label to introduce the Four Tops as a new UK charting name in July 1965, followed by “It’s The Same Old Song”, both top thirty hits. “Those guys were phenomenal” enthused Mr Stubbs about Holland, Dozier and Holland. “After ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ we had a solid hit run.” Indeed, the Four Tops were on their way. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was their third British hit, and at its release Levi spoke to Alan Smith. “We spent years trying to improve our act. Every performance we give, we try to be that little bit better. Some people think of us as specialising in one type of music, but we don’t. That would put us in a rut. We’re inspired by anyone who has talent…and we sing everything from pop, country and western, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and progressive music.”
Then Holland, Dozier and Holland electrified the groove. Motown’s music exploded in a way it never had before, prompting UK journalist Penny Valentine to write, “If you have ever been lonely, if you have any soul or any heart at all, you must go and buy this record now. After you’ve heard it you will never need to listen to another record for as long as you live.” No guesses needed – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” shot to the top of the UK chart in 1966, Motown’s second to do so (The Supremes’ “Baby Love” in 1964 was the first). With its introduction of teenager Danya Hartwick’s flute, galloping percussion, and the improvised recording technique of hands tapping on a wooden chair, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was so untypical of the Motown sound created by H-D-H. It was the jewel in the crown, rapidly progressing from a landmark release into a Motown anthem, worlds apart from anything heard previously. Ironically, Levi wasn’t happy with the song, saying he was a singer not a talker (in view of comments made over previous singles where he was accused of shouting on record rather than singing) yet the line “just look over your shoulder” was his spontaneous addition! H-D-H also had their reservations; in fact they didn’t want the song released at all, claiming it to be an experiment using the Tops, The Andantes and Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy thought otherwise and issued it, saying “we’re releasing the biggest record you’ve ever made.” Once the overwhelming success of the single had sunk in, Levi was rather blasé, “We’re naturally thrilled at the success….but we don’t have to let off steam over it. I think we’ve been around long enough to know the ups and downs of this business without becoming overcome when something like this happens….We knew at once that it was a big hit sound. It was a unique combination of ballad and rock.”
In November 1966, the Four Tops – who by now toured endlessly – performed two sell out concerts at London’s Saville Theatre, with hundreds of fans unsuccessful in getting tickets. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, stunned at the riotous welcome the group received there, booked the Royal Albert Hall for them in January, with two shows before 14,000 people. A special sound system was fitted in the Hall to reflect the Motown sound, which was a first for the venue. With Madeline Bell among the support acts, the audiences (including myself) were hysterical from start to finish. There was something in the air; the atmosphere was electric; it was just the place to be at that time. One reviewer glowed, “It was the Saville Theatre twenty times over. It was a spectacle on a scale you wouldn’t have expected outside a mammoth film production…the incredible enthusiasm of a World Cup football crowd. And that was before the Four Tops stepped on stage.” Four Tops fever had hit the UK, and this red hot reception was repeated throughout the tour. “That was one of our greatest moments” Levi said of the London date.
Touring the UK would now be an annual event and although the initial hysteria may have dampened, the group continued to perform before packed audiences. Levi – “I like an audience that lets itself go, and the people who come to see us to do whatever they feel. You can always tell when someone is into what you are doing. I think we have some regular fans and we seem to be getting younger ones too….English audiences are so loyal. They’ve been good to us and we know they don’t drop you just like that.” After several years of visits, Levi remarked that they had been so fortunate. “We can’t say ‘it’s because of that producer or that..’ because we’ve had various producers on our records. Personality-wise, we don’t clash very often as a group. We’ve been around each other so long we’ve got to the stage where the right hand knows what the left hand is going to do…Touring the UK is like a mad house!”
Mad house it might have been, but a dangerous one also, as he remembered a particular concert at the Finsbury Park Astoria with a 2,000 audience at fever pitch. The Tops had reached finale time when Levi threw his hanky into the air. Of course, the inevitable happened; fans thronged forward at the same time as the curtain dropped to the stage with an unaware Levi standing there. While the other three Tops were hauled to safety, police and security wrenched Levi clear of the falling curtain weighing several tons. “I just didn’t realise (it) was coming down. I can remember moving towards the edge of the stage and hearing it touch. When I realised what had happened it made my head spin. I was very lucky.”
Touring dominated their lives. The group rarely spent time with their families because when not on the road, they were in the studio, which of course, was the same for all Motown’s A-list acts. “Sometimes I feel like we’re non-stop machines. Don’t ask me how we stand up to it, but somehow we do.”
“Standing In The Shadows Of Love” followed “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. The spine tingling excitement in “Bernadette” was next, with “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”, “You Keep Running Away” and “Walk Away Renee” rounding off 1967. Motown/UK took the initiative to extract the latter track from the “Reach Out” album which was almost top heavy with cover versions (“If I Were A Carpenter”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “Cherish”) and their fans were far from happy. Levi was quick to respond that the tracks weren’t newly recorded, “(and) to be honest we just haven’t had the time to get into the studios to cut new material. The album was experimental because it was the first time we’d tackled really successful pop songs from other writers. And it came off. Maybe not so many people really dug ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ but that was just us trying to give a new approach to the original rather than just copy the arrangement and style of The Monkees.” At the time of this interview, Levi confirmed they had recently been in the studio trying to stockpile material and they had plans to work again with Holland, Dozier, Holland .“because they’re great writers and our approach fits so well. It’s like a marriage” As it turned out, “I’m In A Different World” was their last official release with the trio in 1968, the follow-up to “Yesterday’s Dreams”, but others came to light in later years. “We were hurt, shattered and a bit confused…suddenly we weren’t getting all those custom-written songs” Levi said when H-D-H left Motown due to unresolved issues. “And we started having to look around for material.” It was also at this time that questions were asked about them retiring from live performances, but that was a move Levi would not entertain. “The day we decide to do that will be the day we’ll probably give up the whole thing. Working in the studios is a kick but we still believe that if people buy the records then it’s a pleasure for all of us to communicate on stage.”
The somewhat haphazard – yet successful – trait of releasing cover version singles continued until the Four Tops hooked up properly with Frank Wilson, although one or two did slip in. Their first commercial collaboration resulted in the “Still Waters Run Deep” album, a wonderfully warm collection of material, creating a whole different sound for the group, including the two lifted singles “It’s All In The Game” (a Tommy Edwards’ original) and “Still Waters (Love)”; top five and ten respectively. However, prior to this alliance, the Tops took several months out for personal reasons. Or as Levi put it, the group “ran out of gas”. The years of touring had taken their roll on them. “We were off almost nine months and I’m not sure it did us any good. It’s an uphill fight getting back to the top (but) we wanted to get back to our fans and really get things moving again….We’re very fortunate to have Frank Wilson as a producer because he’s really into us. He’s into a smooth sort of stuff, and I guess that’s been our bag just lately.”
From here, they followed in the footsteps of Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations, by teaming up with The Supremes (Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson) for a trio of albums (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Return Of The Magnificent Seven”, “Dynamite” – 1970/1971) and a handful of singles. The music followed no particular pattern, rather a sweet jar full of sounds, snatched at will. However, many (including myself) believed the pairing to be genius. Levi and Jean exchanging vocal dialogue was quite awesome, but they didn’t, sadly, have the edge or the high ranking material given to the previous spirited pairing. Despite the two groups being in the UK at the same time during 1971, there were no plans for them to tour together, let alone perform on the same stage. Hah, not quite! When the Tops appeared on the Save Rave concert at the Royal Albert Hall, The Supremes surprised the audience by being their special guests, probably representing at the time, the most expensive recording talent in the industry. Levi had hoped a fully blown tour would follow (they’d already done so in America) but conceded the financial implications would have been too high for any promoter.
The year 1971 was incredibly significant in the history of Motown because the Four Tops recorded in London. The first act to do so. The story goes that The Moody Blues’ Tony Clarke received a phone call from someone at Motown praising his work and invited him to stop by the Detroit studios when he was next in the city, with a view to working with the Tops and Rare Earth. During his visit, Tony was asked to deviate from the Motown sound because the music he was creating was what they wanted. It happened then, that when the Tops had spare time during their next visit to the UK they got together. To this end, Tony had already chosen “Simple Game” and had recorded the backing track with Blue Mink’s musicians with Arthur Greenslade’s string section. After playing them the track, the Tops rehearsed the song in ten minutes and were confident enough to record it. “It was a tremendous challenge” said Tony at the time. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here was I, a skinny British bloke telling one of the greatest vocal groups in the world what to sing and how.” The tapes were then shipped to Detroit for final vetting and finishing: the all clear was given with the Tops enjoying a top three British hit. However, it took fans a little time to come to terms with “Simple Game” being recorded outside their beloved Motown studios but, to be fair, the single was climbing the chart before the media interviews began. “We (had) a good feeling for that tune so we did it,” Levi told NME’s Julie Webb. “I remember the recording session took all night but we were pleased with the finished result.” “So Deep Within You” also originated from that session but wasn’t released until 1973, a year after the Tops had left Motown, because it was considered a disposable item at the time!
The time was drawing close to the end of an era. And indeed, within the space of two charting singles – “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Supremes, and “Walk With Me, Talk With Me Darling” from the “Nature Planned It” album – the Four Tops and Motown had parted company. The group switched to ABC Dunhill Records, while Motown shed tears of disbelief, which were later dried during 1983 when they returned. In the time between, of course, the group enjoyed a spasmodic hit run, yet their much heralded return home was fraught with problems. So much so they packed their musical suitcasses once more to move to Arista, where their chart success of the sixties returned with the top sellers like “Loco In Acapulco”.
Clearly there’s so much more that could be written about Levi Stubbs and the group but this really is the briefest of overviews.. One thing that’s always struck me to be strange is, unlike other Motown acts, they’ve never written a book about their career. I came close with the help of Levi’s daughter Deborah but sadly it come to nothing.
The group that played and loved together was to be tragically broken when Lawrence Payton died in 1997, with Obie Benson following in 2005. And, Levi Stubbs was next. He was diagnosed with cancer before suffering a stroke, but this didn’t prevent him appearing with his friends in July 2004 at the Detroit Opera House to celebrate their 50th anniversary together. However, it was a losing battle. On 17 October 2008 one of the greatest voices of our age was silenced. Levi died in his sleep in his Detroit home. He was 72 years old.
“He was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard,” said Berry Gordy. “He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving group…people all over the world (were) touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit.”
(My thanks to those journalists who I’m unable to identify through the passage of time)
“How do you stop loving the ones you loved for a lifetime – you don’t. Sylvia Moy made it possible to enrich my world of songs with some of the greatest lyrics. But not only that, she, through her participation and our co-writing those songs, helped me become a far better writer of lyrics,” so sayeth Stevie Wonder about the quiet and gentle lady who was something of a trail blazer, being one of the first women to join the male dominated production/composing team at Motown during the sixties.
And it was with the boy wonder that she first made her presence felt, as Hank Cosby’s widow Pat remembered, “Sylvia was the nucleus. None of (his success) would have happened if she hadn’t seen that Stevie had more in him.” “She broke that glass ceiling for women in the music industry,” Sylvia’s brother Melvin said. “In the sixties, women weren’t encouraged to play instruments, let alone be producers.“ So, let’s delve a little deeper into this story of a star in the making, and the lady behind him who had the faith and determination to ensure he had a future.
Sadly Miss Moy is no longer with us. She died, aged 78 years-old, on 15 April, succumbing to complications from pneumonia at the Beaumont Hospital, in Dearborn, Michigan.
Born on 15 September 1938 in Detroit to Hazel Redgell and Melvin Moy, Sylvia Rose was one of nine children. They had relocated to the city from the South for a better life, with music in their blood lines, and ambitions in their hearts. While attending the Northern High School, where, alongside academic lessons, Sylvia studied jazz and classical music, writing songs when the mood took her. With a handful of local musicians, she recorded backing tracks for her material and, with encouragement from her teachers, travelled to New York for auditions. Nothing materialised from these trips, but fate had another path for her nearer home when, on 12 February 1963, while singing in Detroit’s Caucus Club on Congress Street, Motown’s A&R director Mickey Stevenson was in the audience, with other Motowners like Hank Cosby, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Ivy Joe Hunter. “…I sang and they joined in with the rhythm, beating on the table” Sylvia recalled. “That was the beginning of it all.” Indeed it was because she was offered a recording and songwriting contact with the company, where, somewhat ironically she said, “I sang the same songs at Motown I was playing in New York!”
In an interview with The Free Press last year, she confirmed, “Motown came forth with (the two contracts) which shocked me. Then I was told ‘Sylvia, we’ll get to you as a singer, but in the meantime, we’ve got all these artists and they have no material. You’re gonna have to write. I said OK because I was kind of shy anyway, and that’s what I started doing. I got into it, and the hits started coming.” More importantly, despite being told ‘women don’t produce’, Sylvia was welcomed as a valued addition at Motown’s production meetings!
Clarence Paul was Stevie’s exclusive producer until the time came when he felt unable to keep up with the young Stevie’s ideas about music. They had journeyed as far as they could creatively, and it appeared Stevie’s career was heading towards the exit door. No hits, no potential, no future – so what to do? Eventually a plan was hatched. Clarence Paul would continue to be Stevie’s touring musical director and conductor, and, under instruction from Berry Gordy, Hank Cosby would replace him in the studio, a logical move as he had been involved in writing and arranging Stevie’s music from day one. Mickey Stevenson recalled that they all liked Sylvia’s style of writing and that at the time, Motown’s sound was changing, “Clarence was an older producer and guys like Holland, Dozier and Holland were taking us in a different direction. Very swinging and happening.” So with her singing career on hold, Sylvia Moy began forging ahead as a composer, earning respect from her colleagues, and learning of Stevie’s dilemma, put herself forward to work with Hank Cosby, or as composer/producer John Glover recalled, “Sylvia…was like a throw in. I think she’d actually written some stuff with Stevie, so I don’t know that she volunteered to ‘take over’ writing with him as much as she already was.”
“(Stevie) was in puberty and his voice had changed,” Melvin Moy added. “Other producers couldn’t find something that fit.” For his sister to be allowed to take on this role was practically unheard of in the sixties, he said, “Racism and sexism, that was what was going on in the sixties. And certain disciplines relative to the music business were taboo for women.” Sylvia agreed. “(Because) his voice had changed, he just wasn’t selling for a period. But I just believed in him. I knew it was possible (Motown) might let him go, so I was begging ‘please give him to me.’ And that’s when I was finally told ‘well, if you can come up with a hit on him, we’ll keep him’.”
After touring with The Rolling Stones, Stevie planned to record his own song using the incessant, driving beat they used in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and to this end, he laid down the basics of the song, then sought out Hank and Sylvia, as she remembered, “He went through everything. I asked ‘are you sure you don’t have anything else?’ He started singing and playing ‘everything is all right, uptight’. That was as much as he had, so I said ‘that’s it, let’s work with that’.” With Stevie’s input, Sylvia and Hank stitched together “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”. Once the music was part-recorded, she constructed a lyrical skeleton into which she added Stevie’s phrases, and the resulting song ensured the young singer had a future with Motown, with the single laying the foundation upon which to build and expand his new musical team. Yeah, Sylvia had successfully found her niche and, of course, Motown was determined to keep her. Giving her the freedom to create and work, not only with the young Stevie, but also other signed acts, was their way of ensuring her exclusivity. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” raced into the American top three in 1965 (peaking at number ten in Britain) – and a new career was re-launched.
The impetus had to be guaranteed, and following any runaway hit is an awesome task for writers and producers, so the trio took the easy route. They part-cloned the hit to release “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”. The ploy backfired; it failed to repeat its predecessor’s success, prompting Stevie to vow that that would be the last time he’d release a copycat single. When a ‘change of mood’ single “With A Child’s Heart” also sold poorly, Stevie’s team chose different, contemporary composers, like Bob Dylan and Ron Miller, for future singles. The downside was they failed to sell albums, so Berry Gordy reunited the singer with Sylvia Moy and the gang. Their first collaboration, that also included Stevie’s mother, was the uplifting “I Was Made To Love Her” and that hit the spot – literally! The boy genius was back where he belonged.
However, recording with Stevie wasn’t always easy Sylvia said, because it was frustrating to start with. She needed to re-educate him from the way he used to record with Clarence Paul, into a more comfortable, communicative style, while keeping him focused on the song in hand because his over active mind was gearing order klonopin online canada itself up for the next one! Stevie, at one time, admitted he contributed little, leaving Sylvia to actually write all the lyrics, which then had to be converted into Braille for him to read, or, if pushed for time (which was invariably the case) she sang or spoke the lyrics to him through his headphones as he was recording. “I would stay a line ahead of him and we didn’t miss a beat.” She even grabbed people passing by the studio when his enthusiasm deteriorated saying, “If there was no one around, his vocal just died. Stevie had to feel the presence of people.” The softly spoken lady roared with her lyrics from which Stevie benefitted, as he proudly told a packed audience in 2006 when he was a surprise guest at the ceremony where Sylvia was inducted into the 37th annual Songwriters Hall Of Fame, alongside Hank Cosby: “(Sylvia found) unique ways to take the melodies I wrote and putting them into a lyric that was incredible, that touched many hearts.”
Ms Moy worked with her emerging star through to the seventies with hits like “I Was Made To Love Her”, “I’m Wondering”, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “My Cherie Amour”, with others in between, while the last released song credited to the Wonder, Moy, Cosby team appears to be “I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)”, the flipside of 1970’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” penned by Syreeta and others. I think it’s fair to say that Syreeta replaced Sylvia in the singer’s creative team, and, indeed, looking at early photos of both ladies, there’s a spooky facial similarity.
When talking about “My Cherie Amour” Sylvia recalled that Stevie had approached her with a song about a girl he was involved with. “Every song he had at that time had a girl’s name attached to it. He had a little idea and it was ‘Oh my Marsha.’” The lyricist transformed Marsha into “My Cherie Amour”, one of Stevie’s biggest and most endearing hits. (This song also held a special significance for Sylvia: so much so that she used its opening bars of music as a symbol on her personal stationery). Pat Cosby told the media after Ms Moy’s passing that although Stevie received most of the credit on his material, she believed Sylvia, “was the beginning of so many of those songs. Between the three of them, Sylvia with her imaginative mind was just groundbreaking. If she were a man instead of a woman, there would have been a lot more you’d have heard from her. But once her work became known, the resistance waned away, and the producers started looking at her differently and could see the value of what she was trying to do.”
Stevie Wonder wasn’t the only artist to benefit from Sylvia’s talented pen and imaginative mind. For instance, in 1966 she wrote with Holland-Dozier-Holland, one of the company’s anthems, “This Old Heart Of Mine”, highlighting her favourite themes of love and heartache. With Mickey Stevenson she penned “It Takes Two”, with Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in mind, and with Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol wrote one of The Velvelettes’ signature tunes – “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”. Martha Reeves and The Vandellas also benefitted. Songs included their 1967 single “Honey Chile” (the first to show Martha’s full name) full of Southern connotations, “Love Bug (Leave My Heart Alone)” and “(We’ve Got) Honey Love”, all from the trio’s “Ridin’ High” album. There was also “Forget Me Not” a year later. As a point of reference, there are fourteen pages on the Songwriters Hall Of Fame website listing all the songs Sylvia penned alone or with others, and those she wrote at Motown were, of course, re-recorded by several artists, each giving a different take on the song. During her stay at the company, Ms Moy earned fifteen+ gold and platinum records for herself and Motown – not bad for a woman who was told she would never be a composer!
Detroit was Sylvia’s home and there she wanted to stay, so when Motown relocated to Los Angeles, they moved without her. While the company settled into their new home, she embarked upon another adventure by signing with 20th Century Records as both writer and singer. One of her first projects was to record and release “And This Is Love” during 1973, a song penned by herself and Frederick Long, arranged by Paul Riser, which is now considered to be a much-valued addition to any soul collection. Placing her recording career on hold again, Sylvia went on to write theme music for films like “Mr Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Presidents”, and theme songs for several television series, including the popular “The Wonder Years” and “Blossom”. From here, she expanded further by founding the non-profit organisation, the Centre for Creative Communications, her own studio named Masterpiece Sound, and rehearsal room, on the West Side of Detroit, where she mentored underprivileged young folks. Her intention was to give back what she was offered while growing up, “to encourage children to live a good life…because that’s how are parents were.”
Then during 1989, alongside a host of ex-Motowners, Sylvia was persuaded by Ian Levine to once again hold a microphone to record “Major Investment” for his innovative Nightmare Records, later Motorcity Records. While there, she also recorded her versions of “My Cherie Amour” and “I Hear A Symphony”. All entirely credible recordings from the lady with the delicate smile and warm personality, who, despite her shyness, hugged the ambition as a young girl to sing for a living.
At her funeral at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, officiated by Bishop Charles Ellis III, family and friends mingled with Motowners like Martha Reeves, and city officials. A statement from Berry Gordy was read by his great niece Robin Terry (head of the Motown Museum) that included the words, “At this moment we are all sharing a tremendous loss. In addition to her early work with Stevie, Sylvia went on to do other great things at Motown, gaining the respect of fellow songwriters and opening the door for other women.”
Although in Ireland, performing at golfer Rory Mcllroy’s wedding, Stevie paid tribute in a taped video….”I loved Sylvia from the moment that I met her. Her heart and passion, her desire to not only do great music, but to do great things with my music. Even in these later years, I longed for us to collaborate again, yet who am I to fight with the Most High in His decision to making her one of His angels for song for eternity. Maybe someday in eternity, at its given time and space, we will write together again. I love you, Sylvia.” He then ended the video with a personalised version of “My Cherie Amour”.
Survived by two brothers and five sisters, Sylvia Moy, who never married, was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, on 1200 Elmwood Street on Detroit’s East Side, one of Michigan’s most important historic sites. It goes without saying, she will be missed dreadfully but happily her work will live on through the voices of others.
The final words here belong, of course, to Stevie, “You know that we learn at an early age that we are not meant to be here forever. So please, even through the pain of it all, celebrate this wonderful African-American woman’s life, for she was another example of one of God’s greatest creations.”
(credits: “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Mark Ribowsky/wwwtelegraph.co.uk/www.freep.com/www.rollingstone.com/www.washingtonpost.com)
It’s all happening this month for Supremes’ fans. Just in case the news has escaped you the much talked about extended version of “The Supremes A Go-Go” has been released. It seems ages ago when this was first mooted, with lots of information bites but nothing concrete. But, hey, here it is at about £28 a copy – and with a slight colour change on the front cover, plus an added apostrophe after “A”. Originally issued in 1966, it was Motown’s first album to top Billboard’s popular music chart, and the first from a girl group during what’s considered to be the rock era. Alongside their seventh chart topper “You Can’t Hurry Love”, there’s the top ten title “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”, but what will interest Supremes’ fans more are the mono and stereo mixes of the original twelve tracker, their versions of other acts’ songs like “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and outtakes including The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”. What did catch my eye, though, was the girls’ duet with the Four Tops on “Shake Me Wake Me (When It’s Over)”, but I don’t know that that’s enough for me to part with my pocket money. Anyway, there’s a massive 53 tracks across two CDs, with an accompanying booklet, one of which recreates The Supremes’ 1966 tour book, while the other offers the album’s production notes and so on.
The second release is the 1980 album “diana”, originally produced by the Chic guys Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. It’s a double album release on pink vinyl, but that’s not all – instead of being 33rpm, it’s 45rpm for maximum fidelity, the blurb says. I re-read that, just to check it wasn’t a typo. Anyhows, when Diana first heard Chic’s finished work on the original project she was unhappy because she felt it sounded too much like Sister Sledge and Chic themselves, with too much disco added to the mix. Plus, she believed, as the guys had only been in the music business for a couple of years or so, they didn’t have the experience to Diana Ross-ize the work. So, she pulled in her engineering team and worked with them until she considered it to be a more commercial album for release. Needless to say, Nile and Bernard were furious initially, but after hooking up with the artist, accepted where she was coming from, saying they were happy with the album because she was. I have to say, I worked on this while at Motown, and it was a glorious experience as the product was high class, with not a bum track, and, of course, we had a large budget to work with. So we pulled out all the stops to promote it knowing it was to be her last for the company. On top of the usual promotion, we produced life size 3D cut outs of her for instore display (I had one standing in my office for a while intending to use it as a competition prize. Then it was gone and I never discovered what happened to it, bearing in mind it couldn’t have walked out by itself!) and practically covered London in posters and flyers. However, the biggest promotional tool we could have wished for was Diana herself, who willingly cut short a private holiday in London with Gene Simmons, to film a promotional video for “My Old Piano” which was a bit of a fiasco to arrange, then agreed to attend an invitation only reception at the Inn On The Park Hotel. This is where I officially met her for the first time; a great thrill for me. As I was working my professional face remained on public show, but inside I was as wildly excited as a fan can be. Peter Prince (who we talked about last month) presented Diana with several silver discs. So heavy were they that she had to lean against a wall behind her while photographers clicked away. Once she had left, with her discs being carried this time by a colleague, I had the largest alcoholic drink I could lay my hands on!
The album (originally titled “Friend To Friend”) went on to sell one million copies in the UK alone, after giving birth to several runaway hits including “I’m Coming Out”, “My Old Piano” and “Upside Down”, re-establishing the lady as an international selling power, paving the way for her lucrative deal with Capitol Records. For years buy clonazepam 2mg after this release, Ross fans were pining to hear the original mixes, so in 2003 they were issued as part of a CD deluxe edition, and it’s now available again as a 2-album set. For vinyl collectors only methinks. Apparently, there’s a couple more items due for re-issue and re-mastering including “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland”.
Actually, if I may, I’ll digress for a moment but still with Diana. A reader sent me a note to say that there’s talks to upgrade her playground in Central Park West. Having visited it with Keith Russell a few years back – we took a long stroll around the Park checking out Strawberry Fields and others places of interest, and it was long trek too – he showed me where it was. Pretty understated by comparison to what’s on offer for children these days, but that could change as the singer told the New York Post this month. “Every time I’m in the city I always go by and peek, and see how it’s doing. To watch the children playing, it really warms my heart. We have been in conversations about refurbishing the playground and updating it, which I would like to do very much.” Positive thinking there, so perhaps it will renovated by the time I return to New York whenever that’ll be as the dates keep changing. In the same interview, Diana spoke of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by the then President Obama. She sat next to Robert Redford, alongside Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and others. “I do not take my freedom or the freedom that we all have in our country for granted.” Mmm, I wonder what her feelings are about the new president?!
Back to the music again. “Motown Funk” has also been issued. A 2-album set in red vinyl, holding 22 tracks highlighting the immense talent of Motown’s in house band, the mighty Funk Brothers. Not only were these guys the very heartbeat of the company, but they can be heard on thousands of records where their presence was played down for years. However, not so now – they are shining brightly in their own right. Participating artists include Barbara McNair, Willie Hutch, Sisters Love, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Temptations, among others, and as I write this it’s not clear to me whether this is a re-issue – “Motown Funk” from 2003 springs to mind – or a compilation of previously issued Funk albums. Time will tell.
Anyway, to round off this music talk: next month, the fourth “The Motown 7s Box” is to be released, and once again offers rare and unreleased items to delight us. Compiled by Richard Searling, artists featured on the seven singles include Rita Wright, Marvin Gaye (“Sweet Thing”), Brenda Holloway (“Can’t Hold The Feelin’ Back”), David Ruffin (“That World I Lived In”), Shorty Long (“Baby Come Home To Me”), The Monitors (“Share A Little Love With Me”), Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Ain’t You Glad You Chose Love”) and Thelma Houston, among others. By the way, like the previous releases, this set includes a voucher to download MP3 versions of the singles by logging into www.backtoblackvinyl.com. You’ll need to dig deep as these sets aren’t cheap.
Like so many, I was so deeply saddened by the death of our Sylvia Moy just recently, and plan to spend some time reflecting on her great contribution to music next month. However, on behalf of myself and the guys here at soulmusic.com, am sending our condolences to Sylvia’s family, friends and fans across the world. A wonderful lady who will be missed like hell.
Finally, this item has popped up in my intray today about “Needle In A Haystack”, the story of The Velvelettes. This is all I know for now. Being staged at the New McCree Theatre, billed as Michigan’s most exciting venue, it’s a musical by Charles H Winfrey. The group don’t appear in it, but it seems it centres around their Motown recordings; their significant, yet understated musical presence at a time when the company was growing but concentrating on other artists. I smiled at the musical’s advertisement because the pose used has been liberated from their Motorcity Records single’ “Pull My Heartstrings”. Hope whoever is responsible has got clearance from Mr Levine. More when I know it, but can confirm “Needle In A Haystack” runs from 4 – 27 May 2017.
That’s it for this month, and as always, my thanks for supporting me and long may we be together.
Songwriter and producer Sylvia Moy has penned many of the classics that are at the very heart of the vast Motown catalogue including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, “My Cherie Amour”, “I Was Made to Love Her”, and “Never Had a Dream Come True” by Stevie Wonder; and “Honey Chile” and “Love Bug Leave My Heart where to buy clonazepam Alone” by Martha and the Vandellas; and co-wrote “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” with Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Isley Brothers; and “It Takes Two” with William “Mickey” Stevenson for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
Author and medicines4all.com Motown historian Adam White blogs about Sylvia….
First off this month, a very happy 73rd birthday to Miss Diana Ross, who, as I write this, is pulling in the crowds in New York. Undoubtedly a remarkable woman who will, among other things, always be the Queen of Motown. So, to celebrate her birthday, am playing her 1981 compilation “To Love Again”. Why this one? Well, apart from being produced by Michael Masser, it holds some glorious material, probably considered rather twee now of course, like “One More Chance”, “Stay With Me”, “Cryin’ My Heart Out For You”, an alternate version of one of my favourite songs “Touch Me In The Morning”, and the theme from the 1980 film “It’s My Turn”, starring Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh. Ironic title really, as this could have been written for her pending departure from Motown following a reputed $20 million deal with Capitol/RCA. As you know, the album was re-issued during 2003, with additional tracks, including a pair of previously unissued titles “Share Some Love” and “We’re Always Saying Goodbye”. So, as the music gently flows in the background, let’s TCB…
While I was looking through Keith Rylatt’s “Hitsville!” book, I noticed a picture of a serious looking young guy standing next to Earl Van Dyke. Also in the picture were smiling faces from Dave Godin, Robert White, Jack Ashford, Uriel Jones and TMAS member Steve. This reminded me of the man I knew when I flew Motown’s publicity flag working out of EMI Records’ London offices, and he was vice president of the Motown International Division also based in the city, a short walk away. Yeh, I’m talking about Peter Prince!
So, I thought I’d re-visit a chat I had with him which covered not only what his job entailed, but how he got into the business in the first place. I recall it was meant to be an hour’s session to contribute to Motown’s 30th anniversary promotional activities, but it lasted three and, I suspect, could have extended beyond that. As the purpose of the Division he headed up was relatively unknown outside their offices, he explained he worked closely with Motown/USA, reporting directly to Lee Young Snr, and was responsible for all territories outside the States. The offices could have been situated anywhere in the world, he said, but as the UK was closest to Europe, London seemed the most appropriate place to be. “As we’re responsible for doing licensing deals outside America, my job is to make sure everything is in accordance with our agreements, and to ensure artists and records are released and marketed correctly” he told me. He added that sometimes it was necessary to push local companies to encourage them to do the very best for his artists, but, generally speaking, he enjoyed a great working relationship with all licensees. On top of ensuring releases were overseen, Peter’s office also co-ordinated artist visits and phone interviews, which often became complicated, when different countries wanted different artists. And this was on top of me putting in requests for the same thing. So, imagine the pressure when an A-list artist released a new album across the territory – we were all vying for the same person!
Born in London, but living in Essex at the time of the interview, Peter grew up with music, mastered playing the drums, with ambitions to become a jazz musician. He left school to work as an office boy in the publicity department of the film company, Republic Pictures, where he stayed until he joined the RAF as a gunner. Three years on, he was demobbed and joined EMI Records’ press office, but all the while supplemented his income by playing the drums. From EMI he switched to Pye Records, before returning to EMI as a promotion manager. Then came the Motown connection, as Peter gradually built up a solid working relationship with Mrs Esther Edwards. To prove this he showed me letters from her including one about The Supremes who had recently visited London, thanking him for taking care of them during their stay. The letters also made reference to the fees from the BBC for two screenings of the “Baby Love” promotional film totalling £39 7s 6d for each showing, and, as the Top Of The Pops studio was in Manchester in those days, the plane fares were £22 for two people. From the paperwork, 1964 was indeed a busy year because The Miracles visited London and stayed at the President Hotel, Kim Weston appeared with The Beatles on Ready, Steady, Go, Martha and the Vandellas charted in the New Musical Express listing with “Dancing In The Street”, and Record Mirror presented The Supremes with an award for “Baby Love” which had topped the UK chart. “I worked with all the artists at that time…they were a great example for Motown. There were no problems and they were always on time.” They were also well organised, keen to do anything that was asked of them to promote their music and the company – “I wouldn’t say they were ordinary people because they were exceptionally groomed on stage and off, and were real professionals even though most of them were at the beginning of their generic form of klonopin careers.”
The sixties were the perfect learning curve for Peter, for not only was he on hand at the start of the Motown’s gradual breakthrough in the UK, but his hard work and dedication paid off when he was offered the position of vice president of the international office – “Being offered (this) was something I’d always dreamed of because of my early association with the company.” He went from strength to strength, moving with Motown as it lost its newness to become a major player in the music business. One of the biggest changes that he later noticed though was the company’s lack of control over its acts. “When I was first here, (Motown) had its own management which worked really well, and I think it was beneficial for new artists because they were groomed and trained to become good performers.” However, times changed, and with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye not only taking control of their careers, but also their music with the release of concept albums, an unheard of phenomenon at the time, and new signings being self-sufficient, Motown had little choice but to bow down to the new demands.
In time, Motown International took over responsibility for Jobete about which Peter confirmed, “If we didn’t have it our publishing would have to be handled by another company. Now we hold a catalogue of fifteen thousand working titles. The songs seem timeless…and record producers are regularly made aware of Jobete’s wealth by sample albums featuring one minute of all the songs available.” Out of the one hundred albums in the national chart, he said, at least twenty hold a Jobete title. Big business indeed, and one he didn’t want to let go!
One thing that had bugged me was – what happened when, say, the UK didn’t want to release a single Motown/US had, and wanted to choose a title of its own. Well, this is where Peter stepped in to agree or not, an alternative release, while citing it had a massive drawback. “If a territory wants to release a different single it puts extra pressure on that territory to make it a hit. If it doesn’t happen, I try to treat it as an occupational hazard.” On the other hand, if the UK, or any of the territories, followed the American lead, and didn’t chart the music, it was so frustrating. Giving examples of Smokey Robinson’s “Just To See Her” and Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons”, Peter felt both were hit titles but really needed the artists to visit to give them the push they needed. When that didn’t happen, the singles were lost and, of course, the knock on effect meant lower album sales. “I get worried when records are not successful, but that’s part of this business, and something I have to live with.” When Marvin Gaye left the company, Peter was devastated, because he’d built up a great working and personal relationship with him. “As a person I got on with him very well and got to know him better when he recorded his ‘In Our Lifetime’ album over here. …His talent outshone any discrepancies in his character.” He was also upset when Diana Ross left for pastures new, although was thankful Motown had a huge catalogue of her work, some of which was, at the time, unreleased.
I could go on and on, but with limited space, hope these few words about Peter Prince has shed some light on what the Motown International Division was all about during the eighties, and although there’s more to this marathon session with him, hope I’ve selected the more interesting parts. Incidentally, some of the quotes were published in B&S 502. Sadly, Peter passed away on 18 January 2011, at the age of 73 years, in Florida. He had been frail following extensive cancer treatments, then fell and broke his hip. A memorial service was held at St Patrick’s Church in London’s Soho Square, on 16 June, followed by the wake at Ronnie Scott’s Club. A move he clearly would have approved of, don’t you think? This quietly spoken, unflappable man, was a delight to work with, and, boy, did he know his business. Motown was so lucky to have him taking care of their business.
And last but not least, just to give you the heads up about Peter Benjaminson’s new hardback book “Super Freak: The Life Of Rick James” published this month. This follows the singer’s own 2007 autobiography “The Confessions Of Rick James – Memoirs Of A Super Freak” which was a fascinating read but probably one-sided according to Peter, as, for instance, Rick left out several incidents that reflected badly on his character. So, for his new book, Peter has pulled on court records, newspaper archives and interviews with Rick’s family, friends, lovers and group members, to present a more rounded story. Can’t wait to read it. Priced around the £24.99 figure on most websites, this is the author’s third book about Motown artists (Mary Wells and Florence Ballard), not forgetting his much respected “The Story of Motown” from 1979.
That’s it for this month, so do join me again in a few weeks’ time when we’ll keep the Motown flag flying as high as we can.
My apologies for being late this month – blame it on the boogie, that’s all I can say. So let’s TCB……. I was astonished to learn that in its first year in London Motown:The Musical has recouped its £5.5 million costs in a mere twenty-eight weeks. Not only that, bookings are being taken through to February next year. Does this mean, the musical has performed better in London than New York? Well, according to some critics, the UK production is slicker and, in some instances, better cast. This has slightly confused me, as with hand on heart, would have said it was the other way round. At least that’s what I felt when I saw the British show on 27 February last year. Anyhows, I’m planning to see Dreamgirls next month at the Savoy Theatre, which, I’m told will blow me away, so watch this space, because it’ll take a mighty big wind to do that! Although this show – very (very) loosely based around the story of The Supremes – is packed to the gunnels for most performances so it doesn’t seem to have affected ticket sales for Motown:The Musical, proving, of course, the sound of Young America never dies. Let’s move on..
It wasn’t difficult to choose the music this time – as will become apparent as you read on – because I’ve loved this album from the first day of its release in January 1965. It’s the group’s first official Motown release – “Four Tops” written and produced in the main by Holland, Dozier, Holland. Kicking off with “Baby I Need Your Loving”, released in July 1964 as a single: that wonderful, hypnotic ballad so full of love and warmth. We move into the equally mesmerising “Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile), another single in the November, followed by “Where Did You Go?”. This leads into the third single on the trot “Ask The Lonely” penned by Ivy Jo Hunter/Mickey Stevenson, with a single release in January 1965. In between, there’s “Your Love Is Amazing”, “Love Has Gone” and “Call On Me”, with two further Hunter/Stevenson compositions “Don’t Turn Away” and “Tea House In China Town”, ending with Marv Johnson’s “Left With A Broken Heart”. Adding support vocals are, naturally, The Andantes, and that all important music from the Funk Brothers. Motown at its mighty best! My original album is rather worn from constant plays over the decades, but happily it was re-issued a few times so have back up copies when this one finally disintegrates.
Last week a film crew from a London university came to my house in East Sussex so’s I could contribute my bit to a documentary Charlene Campbell is shooting about early Motown in the UK. Due to the ongoing train problems in my area, getting to London is still very hit and miss, so Charlene and her three assistants drove to me, which I thought was really above and beyond. Lynne Pemberton, who ran The Temptations fan club, joined us. Anyway, after chatting away about my involvement with Motown during the sixties, it got me thinking about how I actually came across the music that inspired a generation of youngsters at the time, and how that same sound has continued to live through future generations and decades. As far as I know, it was Dusty Springfield who opened my eyes to this new kind of soul music, and with her influence, and that of Dave Godin who spearheaded the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, I was hooked. What my actual first Motown record was now escapes me, but am thinking I started my collection with the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” in 1965, which in turn led me to investigate other artists from this mysterious label in Detroit. So I started my journey with a successful act and then worked my way back to those acts nobody – outside cult or underground fans – had heard of, much to our shame. As record shops in my locality didn’t stock any type of black music, let alone Motown, I placed a repeat order at my local shop for any disc carrying the Tamla Motown label. So that was in 1965: my, I had a lot of catching up to do! Later on, I’d travel to London on the train (yup! steam trains weren’t prone to strikes) to shop in Soul City where a large stock of imported Motown records could be found, blowing my hard earned money in one fabulous musical fest.
Anyway, that got me thinking about the Four Tops fan club which I started on 20 January 1968, the same year, I believe, as individual clubs opened up across the UK for several other acts, like Jimmy Ruffin, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and so on. With Hitsville’s Margaret Phelps’ help in sending over photos and bits and pieces which were reproduced for club members, the annual membership fee of 5 shillings, I believe, in hindsight, the club was pretty good for what it was. No coloured visuals though: way too expensive! Believe it or not, sitting on my desk is a copy of my first newsletter: one of those stencil-type thingies which I ran off at my place of work once everyone had gone home. Here’s the first paragraph – and it’s so twee, but, so me! “This is a great buy brand klonopin online occasion for Levi, Duke, Larry, Obie and myself, as this is the first newsletter of the official Four Tops Fan Club of Great Britain. We welcome you all with open arms and hope you enjoy your stay! We also want to thank you very warmly for your support. Every member will be a part of the huge Motown Family and, with your help, I want to spread the name of the Four Tops all over the country – then everyone will know of our tremendous, exciting and fantastic foursome!” Then there’s some blurb about how much needed to be done before getting to the first newsletter, and the promise that I was dealing with memberships as quickly as I could. This meant I didn’t have time to answer individual letters (remember I had a full time job) so I recruited the assistance of Bernadette from Dartford, Kent, who was well known to the group. Also my mum helped me collate and staple the newsletters together, and then carry the few hundred bulging envelopes to the nearby box which must have delighted the postman no end!
I was able to thank my mum sometimes for her help because should the Four Tops, or any other group/act for that matter perform in Brighton (which was the nearest town to Uckfield where we lived) I’d get tickets. I recall one show in The Dome, Brighton where, after the group had left stage, mum and I hi-tailed it to the stage door, where, after flashing our fan club cards, we were ushered into their dressing room. The guys made such a wonderful fuss of us, shared their champagne and chatted away like we’d known them for years. I was so proud and pleased and, I think, deep down so was mum. Then we realised my dad was waiting in the car outside the theatre to take us home. Hell’s bells, did we get it in the neck: he wasn’t happy. We were though – full of champagne and Four Tops love!
When the individual fan clubs closed, and with the blessing of the guys in Detroit and EMI Records in London, Motown Ad Astra was born in 1969, the year several of the secretaries, including myself, moved to London to live at 34B Sherborne Gardens, Ealing, W13. So, with our very own stencil printer in the lounge, the industry of promoting Motown began in earnest. Once again, we all had full time jobs, so evenings, weekends (and sick days!) were crammed with Motown – answering letters, writing our little TCB magazine, listening to records (many of which were mailed directly from Detroit until the import duty was higher than the cost of the actual vinyl). Financing MAA was through an annual membership fee but also we contributed a percentage of our salaries to keep us afloat. Aw, devotion way and above eh? However, EMI Records were overly generous with merchandise, records and concert tickets, on the understanding that when any act arrived in London, they were given our contact details. We either met them at the airport, or, if they hadn’t touched base beforehand, contacted them within a couple of days of their landing. It was through this unofficial path that we were so lucky to befriend a lot of artists like Jimmy Ruffin, Martha and her Vandellas, The Temptations, The Supremes (although Diana Ross was rarely with Mary and Cindy). Then, in the years that followed with Blues & Soul, I was so lucky to continue those friendships, plus make new ones, every one I cherish.
I’ve also found in my treasure trove of goodies, an interview Jackie Lee, Lynne Pemberton and myself gave to one of the magazines during the late sixties. It’s now sepia in colour, rather dog eared but still readable (thank goodness I had the foresight to stick it to a piece of cardboard). Under the title “Pete Meets The Fan Club Secretaries”, the journalist claimed “MAA is a fan’s best friend”. In case you’re interested in what the article was all about, here’s a few lines from the opening paragraph, when we said, “When The Temptations were over here recently, Otis came round to the flat for a cuppa. We also set out a plate of biscuits. Otis proceeded to take a bite from each biscuit until he found one that suited his taste.” What!!!! I laughingly remembered when I first met Mary Wilson, which I assume was after the trio’s performance at Talk of the Town. “I was talking to her through the window of her car, then she began rolling up the window, not knowing that my hand was inside. It wasn’t so funny at the time though.” I can explain why my hand was where it was. I had a small arrangement of flowers to give to her, while another two in my party had similar flowers each to give to Diana and Cindy. They had no problem – and no sore hand!
And on that note, that’s it for this month. Isn’t it ironic how so many memories can flood back from an interview in my dining room? Oh sure, there’s plenty more, but another time, or maybe I will get serious about writing an autobiography of sorts. Who knows.
Thank you for your continued support and do keep on flying the Motown flag.
It is with profound sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of my dear fellow Aquarian friend and colleague, the great Mr. Leon Ware. One of the most talented music men I ever had the privilege to interview and get to know, buy zanaflex normal dosage, Leon always provided great opportunities for conversations about life, sex and music. When we found out that our birthdays were a day apart, that further cemented a bond that began back in 1976 when we did our first interview for Britain’s Blues & Soul magazine, reprinted here.
One of my fondest memories of Leon was watching him enchant an audience in Paris in July 2009, just a few months after I came back to live in London. He was simply magnificent, weaving his musical magic through songs from his then-latest album “Moon Ride” as well as doing his versions of songs that had been recorded by others, most memorably Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” the title track of the classic 1976 LP that Leon had originally recorded for himself (that he then produced on Marvin), “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded by so many
greats including Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and others), “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (cut by Michael Jackson and Zulema among others), “Inside My Love,” cut by Minnie Riperton and later revived by Trina Broussard. Leon’s work with contemporary soul man Maxwell resulted in the hypnotic “Sumthin’ Sumethin'” and there’s no doubt that Leon’s timeless recordings (think “Rockin’ You Eternally,” “That’s Why I Came To California”) impacted
later generations: his music was often sampled by rap and hip-hop artists who loved the sensual textures that were at the very heart of his art.
There is so much more I could say about Leon: he was funny, smart, naughty, spiritual, profound and yet always real. You can listen to a great inteview we did in 2013 that gives just a taste of the kind of conversations we had. My thoughts today are of the great times we spent together over many years, of seeing him in action on stage and the easy-flowing conversations we had. My deepest love, blessings and prayers go to his wonderful wife Carol and his family. His spirit lives on through his unforgettable work.
RIP, my Aquarian brother.
February 23, 2017
Motown’s Musical Masseur
By David Nathan, February 1977
(C) SoulMusic.com, 2017
Some guys get all the best album sleeve sessions! With his “Musical Massage” set, Leon Ware has come to the fore of Motown’s influx on new recording talent, to follow his success as a songwriter and producer with many of Soul’s favourite sons and daughters…
IN THEIR efforts to broaden their own musical horizon in the past eighteen months, Motown have certainly unearthed some dynamic new talent. Via his debut album for the company, Leon Ware has certainly proven to be one of them and although the “Musical Massage” album hasn’t exactly set the charts on fire, the critics have favourably reviewed it and that usually suggests that a new star is in its ascendency.
Despite this being Leon’s first actual recording success, it is neither his first recording experience and nor is it his first taste of actual success because he has been a prominent songwriter and record producer for the past decade.
“I’ve been involved in music for all but three of my thirty six years,” Leon points out. “Admittedly, it wasn’t until I was twenty three that I really became involved.”
The story really begins in 1954 when, in his home town of Detroit, he formed a little vocal group called the Romeos — and the group included Lamont Dozier and Ty Hunter, who is now one of the Originals of “Down To Love Town” and “Baby I’m For Real” fame. It seems that the trio had been at the same school together — along with, apparently, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. However, after three years, the group split up — with Lamont going more into songwriting/producing and Ty into solo work.
Having finished school — and having met and turned down Berry Gordy — Leon signed with ABC and stayed there for almost four fruitless years. It left a sour taste in his mouth and he returned to regular commerce until 1964 when he finally accepted a post with the growing Motown company.
And it was during that one year stay that he had his first taste of success — as a songwriter for the Isley Brothers’ “Got To Have You Back” hit.
In 1965, he joined Groovesville Music in an independent production capacity and worked with the Holidays, Pat Lewis and Terri Bryant during a two year stretch. From there, he moved on to another disappointing spell — three years with Bell and many of the projects simply were not released.
It was at the end of 1969 does generic klonopin look like that he started working with the Righteous Brothers — just before their split. He also was involved in some of the things on the MGM distributed Venture label on acts such as Johnny Nash and Kim Weston.
The year between summer of ’69 and mid-’70, Leon concentrated on writing and in 1970 he started to write with Bob Hilliard — until the latter’s untimely death in 1972. However, one of the songs that they wrote together was “Come L’Amore”, a song that did some business for Bobby Womack and that, incidentally, Leon is currently recording on an Italian artiste, Laura St. Paul.
Leon moved on to work with Ike & Tina Turner and wrote most of the material on their ‘”Nuff Said” album It was during this era that he recorded his own first album for U.A.
1973 saw him working for A&M and trams involved with Quincy Jones. Leon was involved in the “Body Heat” album, writing such songs as “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” and “Body Heat” itself. Leon considers that “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” is one of his best compositions yet and is especially proud of the way Donny Hathaway handled it on his “Extensions Of A Man” album for Atco.
But it wasn’t until 1975 that Leon came home to Motown and that’s really where it has all happened for him. His main claim to recent fame comes via his involvement in the Marvin Gaye album, “I Want You”.
“Some of the songs had been recorded for my own solo album but when Marvin Gaye heard it, he wanted them and I was more than pleased to turn it over to him completely,” Leon explains. “That’s really why there is such a similarity between the sound of my “Musical Massage” album and the “I Want You” album.
“It’s similar because it is my concept that was turned over to Marvin — and I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it, I can tell you. I think I respect Marvin as a man and a talent more than anybody else in the business. It’s certainly enhanced my career and I’m proud to add that it’s been the biggest album in Marvin’s career, too.
“It’s funny, too, because I was also heavily involved with Quincy Jones’ biggest album. I have just completed an album on Syreeta and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the trick can work for her, too.”
Although the “Musical Massage” album was begun in 1975, it wasn’t until the spring of 1976 that it was completed.
“I had recorded “I Want You” and “All The Way Around” for my own album and they were among the first ones we did. The co-producer, by the way, was T-Boy Ross, who is Diana’s brother and whose real name is Arthur. Anyway, at the same session, we cut “Instant Love” (a song that Leon had written in earlier years with Bob Hilliard and which had been recorded by the Main Ingredient earlier on), “Share Your Love” and “Body Heat”.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the album is its provocative sleeve — and you can see the full photo on this page and you’ll better understand my choice of words!
“Yes, it is a sensual concept,” Leon admitted gently. “But it says it all, doesn’t it? Love, hate, sex, religion. One reviewer called it the most motivated sleeve in a while.
“The model’s name is Azerzee Houri and she’s been on several other album sleeves in the past. She was a centrefold in “Playboy” last year, you know. And that’s me there, too — they are my hands! Yes, I guess they could persuade me to do a centrefold for “Playgirl” — I’m not the inhibited kind, you see!”
However, one of the lesser broadcast facts about the “Musical Massage” album is that it features guest spots by Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack.
Currently, Leon is heavily involved in two projects. Firstly, there is the album that he has been recording in Milan, Italy on Laura St. Paul and that’s what will bring him to London during February. And he is just completing his own second album.
“It’s going to be called “The Whole World Is My Home” and it deals with the same basic realities,” he enthuses. “It should be out in April and by that time, “Musical Massage” should have died down.”
But his forthcoming trip to London will be his first and he is thrilled about the way that he has been accepted over here already. Given the breaks, Leon could certainly develop into being another of Motown’s new-wave superstars.
Listen to David’s “Voice Your Choice” interview with Leon from 2008