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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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