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 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.