CD REISSUE REVIEWS - January 2019

CD REISSUE REVIEWS – January 2019

THE DEELE: STREET BEAT/MATERIAL THANGZ/EYES OF A STRANGER (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

This American outfit’s star rose during the eighties with hits like “Body Talk” and “Two Occasions” and, among other things, gave birth to a pair of rising producers Kenny “Babyface” Edmunds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid. This expanded box set of three CDs reminds us of their first three Solar albums, focusing on the extraordinary artistry of the group as they ploughed their own brand of funk and pop fusion into the lucrative market of two decades ago. I have to confess, some of it is lost on me, but what I like, I love. The Deele’s debut album “Street Beat” in 1983 carried their first hit “Body Talk” which stormed into the top three R&B listing, before crossing over to peak in Billboard’s top eighty singles chart. As an aside, the song was featured in the pilot tv programme of “Miami Vice”. “Just My Luck” and “I Surrender” were also R&B hits. Two years later, “Material Thangz” hit the shops, but failed to repeat the success of its predecessor. Nonetheless, it held credible titles, highlighting “Sweet November” as the overall prize. In 1987, “Eyes Of A Stranger” upped their game to become their most commercially successful album so far, due to a couple of exceptional singles – “Two Occasions” and “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies” – the former a top five R&B hit and crossover top ten charter; the latter peaking in the R&B top ten. Following the release of this top selling album, Babyface and L.A. Reid left The Deele to pursue other production work. However, this trio of discs, with several interesting and outstanding songs, like “I’ll Send You Roses” and “Video Villian”, and ten bonus tracks, is a must-have collection for lovers of hard-edged funk/R&B wearing a pop overcoat with an eighties’ dateline.

Rating: 8

 
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: FAME NORTHERN SOUL (KENT RECORDS)

This is an interesting release because it’s yet another dip into the Fame catalogue of rare gems. For instance, while searching for tracks, no less than thirteen Candi Staton titles were unearthed, and one such find “One More Hurt” is included here. In the same breath of excellence, another artist thrilled researchers, namely, Spencer Wiggins with “I’m At The Breaking Point” and “Holding On (To A Dying Love)” – both much-wanted by fans. Unlike Motown, who used the same backing tracks time and again on different acts, irrespective of whether any had been hits or not, Fame adopted a different approach when re-visiting songs. Their intention was to inject new ideas, and new twists of sounds, into the original tracks, resulting in a ‘new’ song entirely. And this compilation gives an insight into their way of working. Otis Clay’s take on Jimmy Hughes’ “I’m Qualified” is a good example. Club and soul favourites are here like Arthur Conley with “I Can’t Stop (No, No, No)” and Clarence Carter’s “Looking For A Fox”, spicing up the overall feel of the compilation. Fame earned respect by producing some of the classiest Southern Soul music at their Muscle Shoal studios, yet the company wasn’t afraid of standing up against, and contributing to, the music of the day delivered by other labels like Stax and, of course, Motown. Excellent, informative notes, as always, support this twenty-four tracker, which is another valuable appreciation of this remarkable company’s stylish roster of artists.
Rating: 8

 
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THE ISLEY BROTHERS THE EARLY YEARS (WIENERWORLD)

This previously released collection of songs is now available again courtesy of Wienerworld, and all but one track – “I Need Your Love” – were included on the Isley’s second studio album, “Twist & Shout” released on Wand during 1962. It appears that “I Need Your Love” is actually The Impressions, wrongly credited to the Isleys. That aside, and recognising these tracks are pre-Motown when the trio became a vital part of the magical Motown Sound, the “Twist & Shout” theme seems prevalent throughout. “Let’s Twist Again” has a sharper edge to it than the huge international seller by Chubby Checker, while “The Snake” is obviously repetitive in lyric and chorus, as it chugs along in an almost raw fashion with masses of brass which, again, is apparent across all the songs. “You Better Come Home” is a direct “Twist & Shout” clone, with the pace quickening for the somewhat frenetic “Rubber Leg Twist”. This makes tracks like “Hold On Baby” a pleasant distraction as the sharp tempo is slightly slower. The Isley Brothers would fully come into their own upon joining Motown, although while there, they suffered the fate of recording other acts’ songs. Yet, they still secured their successful niche in the charts, steering as they did, the Detroit sound that defined soul music. With their Motown tenure behind them, the best was yet to come. And that’s a whole different story.
Rating: 6

Motown Spotlight - December 2018

Motown Spotlight – December 2018

Just recently I was a guest on the highly respected Clive Richardson’s Solar Radio programme. “Soul Summit” is an annual affair, and I was, naturally, delighted to be invited along again to have a chat. In the studio with Clive was Adam White, author of “Motown – The Sound Of Young America”, and, although I didn’t join the programme until it was part-way through – I was on air at Hailsham FM – did manage to get my selected tracks included. As you know, I’ve known Clive for the longest time, and talking to Adam reminded me that I probably first met him during the sixties in The Clifton Record Shop in Bristol, run by Bill Francis. The shop specialised in Motown and soul music, and, if my memory serves me well, Adam later wrote and distributed a regular newsletter, crammed with must-have information about new Motown releases. This would have been prior to my moving to London, so I’ve no idea how I travelled up country but am guessing it was with Phil Symes and Pete McIlroy, who ran the Jimmy Ruffin fan club. What stuck out in my mind particularly about this trip, was hearing Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Reflections” played through the shop’s several powerful wall speakers. Adam pointed out while the song was playing that the music actually shifted from one speaker to the other, particularly the introduction. What an amazing experience it was for this country gal who relied on her parents’ hi-fi to play singles, often so loud that they became rather distorted. But, hey, that was part of the whole experience. Thank you Clive for your kind invitation; it’s always a fun experience, although I know sometimes I do push you to the limit with risqué comments. Keep the soul flag flying my friend. And, thank you Adam, for fuelling my appetite for Motown over the years.

Let’s TCB some more with Anna Records. As you know, Gwen Gordy had the photo franchise at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, and with her sister Anna became celebrities of the city’s nightlife. Through her contacts, Gwen introduced her brother Berry to the Bar’s manager, Al Green, who also managed LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson. Other hook-ups included a life-changing one for Berry with fellow songwriter Roquel “Billy” Davis who, although not a hit maker as yet, did have valuable connections with Chess Records. The two decided to work together. “Roquel and I made a solid writing team” Gordy wrote in his autobiography “To Be Loved”, “I was the active go-getter, the extrovert. He was more passive and had a patient way about him. I’d watch how business and creative people seemed to feel comfortable dealing with him.”

When it was suggested that Berry, Roquel and Gwen form an alliance to open a new label, Anna Records – which Gwen had already registered and named after her sister – Berry declined, having had his cheque book burned by a previous business arrangement. Even a national distribution deal with Chess Records, failed to sway his decision. Berry’s all-consuming ambition was to be his own boss but he promised to help them in whatever capacity needed. “We had taken separate paths and for the first time I was really on my own and really, really happy.”

Gwen and Roquel rented a downstairs room in the record store that Berry once used to sell the Blues to a limited buying audience, as their company headquarters. Gradually the Anna label gained local momentum, while Berry struggled independently. When he wrote “Money (That’s What I Want)” with Janie Bradford for his Tamla label, he wanted national exposure for the single by Barrett Strong. Following its release in Detroit, he sent it to the Washington-Baltimore and the Cleveland-Cincinnati areas, with plans to promote it further afield. The idea worked well but there was a downside; orders came in so quickly that he was swamped and totally unable to press sufficient records to match demand. Gwen had the answer: release “Money (That’s What I Want)” on her label, which she did in August 1959. “I liked the idea” Berry Gordy wrote. “(It was) a good opportunity to fulfil my promise to her and Roquel to help them in any way I could.” Yet still the plan backfired as Gordy quickly realised he had made more money working directly with his independent distributors. “(They) had to pay Chess. Chess had to pay Anna Records, and then Anna paid me. I was the furthest away from the money.” He stuck to his original plan in future to go it alone.

Anyway, all this preamble is to introduce a 2-CD package that arrived last week – “The Complete Anna Records Singles – Volumes One and Two”. Am I right in thinking that our Graham Betts and Paul Nixon had a hand in this, because certainly the latter is mentioned in the short CD notes? So, to the music…..

The first disc kicks off with both sides of The Voice Masters’ first two singles “Hope And Pray”, “Oops I’m Sorry”, “Needed” and “Needed (For Lovers Only)” from May 1959. Evolved from the Five Jets and Five Stars, they were the first outfit that Berry Gordy used as session singers. Passing through its membership were future Temptations’ Melvin Franklin and David Ruffin, plus Henry Dixon and Walter Gaines who went on to become members of Motown’s best kept secret, The Originals. These are followed by a pair of tracks, namely, “Hit And Run Away Love” and “Advertising For Love”, from the Detroit-based Hill Sisters. It appears Carol, Lynne and Beverly were session singers prior to joining Anna, but it was a short-lived career, as following their unsuccessful venture into the music business, they abandoned all ideas of becoming recording artists.

Also of note on this disc is Bob Kayli with “Never More” and “Peppermint (You Know What To Do)”, also released mid-1959. Kayli, as you know, is Berry Gordy’s younger brother, Robert, who would later record two further singles “Small Sad Sam” on Tamla, and “Hold On Pearl” which, although scheduled for that label, ended up on Gordy instead for November 1962 release.

The eleventh Anna outing was the afore-mentioned “Money (That’s What I Want)”, with “Beatnik Beat” and “Scratch Back” from Paul Gayten, his follow-up to the earlier hit “The Hunch”. Already an established artist before linking with Anna, having enjoyed five top ten R&B hits between 1947-1950, Paul later rejected an offer from Berry Gordy to join Motown. The talented pianist, composer and producer died in 1991, aged 71 years. The first CD of 26 tracks closes with (another future Originals’ member) Ty Hunter and the Voice Masters’ “Orphan Boy” and “Everything About You”, released during July 1960.

“Hurry Up And Marry Me” and “Do You Want To See My Baby” from Herman Griffin, introduces the second CD, housing 28 tracks. He was first associated with the Gordy family by recording “I Need You” on The House Of Beauty label. Switching to Anna, and later Tamla in 1960 with “True Love (That’s Love)”, Griffin worked with Mary Wells as her touring musical director, often attempting to steal her limelight with his acrobatic antics on stage. He was also (probably) responsible for Mary’s hasty exit from Motown, despite her riding high in the single’s chart with “My Guy”. The couple later married, with the unhappy liaison ending when Mary’s new career failed to ignite. The rest is history.

Ruben Fort’s “So Good” and “I Feel It” is followed by Allan “Bo” Story with his version of “Blue Moon”, a blues version of the Rodgers and Hart classic, making way for “Hoy Hoy” and “No One Else But You” from Johnny and Jackey. Johnny Bristol needs no introduction; prolific composer, producer and singer, he first duetted with Jackey Beavers, before moving to the Tri Phi label, later joining Motown. While there, he was responsible for some of the company’s most defining songs for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Edwin Starr, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jr Walker, among others. Plus, of course, he first recorded “Someday We’ll Be Together” with Jackey Beavers, later recorded by Diana Ross, with back-up vocals by Merry Clayton, Maxine Waters, and Julia Waters, as the Supremes’ farewell single in 1969. By the way, the male voice ad-libbing on the track belongs to Mr Bristol. From Motown, this exceptionally talented man, who I had the great privilege to meet, forged a recording career in his own right with world sellers like “Love Me For A Reason” and “Hang On In There Baby.” It was a sad day when he died from natural causes in 2004, at the age of 65 years.

Jackey Beavers, on the other hand, was a gospel and R&B singer, who, following his stay at Anna, went on to record with Roquel Davis for the Checker label, a subsidiary of Chess Records. Their debut outing in 1965, “Jack-A-Rue”, was a minor local hit. Not so their follow-up. From here, Beavers unsuccessfully hooked up with several other labels before being ordained as a minister; first at the New Hope Baptist Church, then at the Glory Harvester Church. He also recorded a handful for gospel albums for the Glory label. He died at the age of 71 in October 2008.

Other tracks worth a mention here include Lamont Anthony’s “Let’s Talk It Over” and “Benny The Skinny Man” released in November 1960. He worked his way through several groups, including The Voice Masters, before recording as a soloist under various names, until he joined Motown’s top composing/producing trio Holland, Dozier, Holland. And you know the rest! Then, there’s David Ruffin with an early 1961 release, “I’m In Love” and “One Of These Days”. David actually lived with Berry Gordy’s father “Pops”, and helped him with the construction work on the Hitsville building, before packing boxes of records with another ambitious, rising star, Marvin Gaye. In time both would find their way to the recording studio. Gwen Gordy told the “Detroit Free Press” that David Ruffin was the perfect gentleman. “But the thing that impressed me about (him) was that he was one of the only artists I’ve seen who rehearsed like he was on stage.”

Finally, Joe Tex, featured here six times, closes this second CD with “Baby You’re Right” and “Ain’t That A Mess”. Joining the Anna set up during 1960 from Ace Records, he attracted a solid fan base due to his opening shows for James Brown, Little Richard, among others. Incidentally, James Brown re-recorded “Baby You’re Right”, with a lyric and melody change, earning himself a top two R&B single. By the mid-sixties, Joe Tex had joined Atlantic Records and released thirty non-hit songs. However, that was to change when success came with his particular brand of Southern Soul, with touches of gospel, R&B and funk. Another artist taken too soon, Joe died in August 1982 following a heart attack. He was 49 years old.

This is merely an overview of artists who were instrumental in keeping the Anna label afloat, earning some success on the way. With severe financial problems, the label closed and was absorbed into Berry Gordy’s operation during 1961, with its artists becoming Motown acts rather by default. Gwen Gordy was also transferred to her brother’s company to handle business affairs, before spreading her wings by co-heading artist development. She then managed acts like Shorty Long, The Spinners and Jr Walker and the All Stars. Apparently, Gwen was also responsible for signing Tammi Terrell, and later convinced her brother she should duet with Marvin Gaye. Clever lady! A vital and energetic member of the team, Gwen was widely loved, and highly respected by the acts she worked with, often guiding them into stardom. Into the seventies, she founded Gwen Glenn Productions, producing the likes of High Inergy, until she retired from the business during the early eighties. In November 1999, Gwen lost her battle with cancer and, although she lived in San Diego, was buried in Detroit. She was 71 years old. Her legacy of pioneering her brother’s future music enterprise is rightly recorded in Motown’s history books. Certainly a lady to be reckoned with!

So, if you’re interested in, or hooked on, Anna Records, then this pair of CDs will fit the bill, with all the known singles available across two discs.

All that’s left for me now is to wish you all a very Happy Christmas time. Whether you’re with your loved ones, or working in one of the vital services that we rely upon, like the medical and caring professions, the services protecting us from harm, and other essential professions, my thoughts and thanks are with you all. My heartfelt wishes and hopes for a healthy, happy and peaceful coming year – when we celebrate Motown’s 60th anniversary – are also sent your way. Thank you for supporting me again this year because without you, there’d be no me, and I’m hoping we’ll stay together for another year, at the very least!

 
 
 

CD REISSUE REVIEWS - December 2018

CD REISSUE REVIEWS – December 2018

TOWER OF POWER: YOU OUGHT TO BE HAVIN’ FUN/THE COLUMBIA/EPIC ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

Another two-CD package in SoulMusic Records’ anthology series, featuring this time the Tower Of Power, a defining funk and soul group for almost four decades. The 35 track anthology covers titles lifted from the Columbia released “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now”, “We Came To Play” and “Back On The Streets” (1976-1979), while the second disc covers “Monster On A Leash”, “T.O.P”, “Souled Out” and “Rhythm & Business” issued by Epic Records (1991-1997). Aw, and there’s some sweet soul sounds to be enjoyed here too. “You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun”, their debut Columbia single, is one: full of instant hooklines and chorus against a chugging beat. Likewise, “Bittersweet Soul Music” and “Somewhere Down The Road”: magic in those grooves for sure. They move and sway at an easy pace. The driving “Soul With A Capital ‘S’” kicks off the second disc, with its little JB riff, before the group play homage to the man himself with “Diggin’ On James Brown”. Lashings of brass introduce the steady “How Could This Happen To Me”, leaving the leisurely “Come To A Decision” to warm the soul. The fullness of the music is a rich backdrop that gravitates towards the soulful, but rarely restrained, lead vocal, itself complimented by a sympathetic chorus. Not every track passes muster but, I have to say, on the whole, there’s not a lot to dislike here. The material covers all the emotions from resilience to vulnerability, commitment to betrayal, love and hate, through some of the finest exponents of soul deliveries.
Rating: 8

 

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THE SUPREME VOICES COLLECTION: FEATURING FORMER LADIES OF THE SUPREMES: JEAN TERRELL, SCHERRIE PAYNE, LYNDA LAURENCE, CINDY BIRDSONG WITH SUNDRAY TUCKER, FREDDI POOLE, JAYNE EDWARDS (ALTAIR RECORDS)

This long awaited 3-CD package has enjoyed unprecedented social media promotion and support, liken to, say, the announcement of a forthcoming Star Wars movie. When word first escaped this project was nearing completion, ripples of music were available online to tempt us. With some of the finest female voices in the business, these tasters left us wanting more. As you probably know, I’ve always had the highest regard and love for these ladies of soul and song who, despite great odds, have with the approval of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, kept the name of The Supremes alive. Included in this musical package is a dvd of their 20th anniversary gala concert recorded at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre in California. The ladies perform classics from The Supremes’ catalogue, like “Reflections”, “Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love”, through to “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking”, with a sideways dip into “Respect” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. However, what I loved the most was the friendly interaction between artists and audience; the feeling of mutual respect and the easy exchange of bantering. Awards were presented to every Supreme, past and present, and it was such joy to see Cindy collecting hers in person. Moving to the second disc featuring remixes and bonus tracks, most produced by the trio’s most dedicated of producers, Rick Gianatos. To be honest, I’m not a great lover of extended remixes, alternate versions and so on, but absolutely appreciate there’s a value to them on several levels. “Up The Ladder To The Roof”, “Stoned Love”, “Sisters United (We’re Taking Control)” and “Moving On Up” are among the titles included here. So, on to the first disc. And what an incredible experience it is with their dynamic harmonies: listen to Lynda soar to heaven and back on “Breaking And Entering” for instance. She’s absolutely flawless! This gal takes no prisoners. The ladies’ impeccable vocals that sweep and soar across and beyond the driving dance beats so prevalent through the majority of the tracks here, are emotionally charged, enhancing the overall scorching excitement. Their sizzling debut single “Give Me The Night” is a fine example of this as it hits the explosive disco nerve right on, without losing sight of the song’s original delivery. Fabulous! “Somewhere Out There” is awesome as it gnaws away at delicate emotions, while the burning “Road To Freedom” engages instantly with its strong delivery. As a whole, this CD is gutsy and spiritual; crammed with musical visions against a background of solid, driving music, while bursting with stylish, elegant presentations from four main players in the Motown story. Need I say more.
Rating: 9

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ULTRAFUNK ULTRAFUNK/MEAT HEAT (ROBINSONGS)

Well, these two CDs set my memory into overdrive by revisiting the seventies with some of the smoothest, funkiest sounds that got dancers getting into the groove on nights out. Apparently, these tracks are all of Ultrafunk’s known recordings, and is a timely release to placate their rising cult following, although it’s rather perplexing to see a half naked lady holding a nonplussed chicken on the front cover of “Meat Heat”. (I dread of think of the connotations surrounding this) Recording on the much-revered Contempo label, the group was something of an enigma as their pictures didn’t appear on album sleeves, nor did they conduct media interviews. Years later though, their identity was revealed but I won’t give the game away here. However, the well respected Charles Waring, who penned the excellent CD notes, does reveal the membership and confirms the group was the brainchild of Gerry Shury, a bespectacled white guy, who had mastered the piano, saxophone and clarinet. From here, Shury successfully wrote for acts, notably “Guilty” for The Pearls (later covered by First Choice) and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”. Also much in demand as a session singer, Shury’s name was attached to Jimmy Helms, Major Lance and The Real Thing, among others. Certainly a man of many talents. During the early seventies, the studio group, Ultrafunk, was formed to be signed to Contempo, itself born from the import record shop of the same name run by John Abbey, Blues & Soul magazine’s first editor. In actual fact, John chose the name Ultrafunk, and their later sister group, The Armada Orchestra, his take on MFSB. Although the group never enjoyed mainstream chart success, their name was synonymous with best UK dance music, and it’s easy to see why from the music playing now. Check out “Kung Fu Man” featuring Freddie Mack, or the re-worked soul titles like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” and “I Wish”, plus Bill Withers’ “Who Is He And What Is He To You” and “Use Me”. There’s also four bonus tracks including the instrumental and 7” single versions of “Kung Fu Man”. Ultrafunk injected a new styling into British funk; plenty of brass against cool chugging beats, with plucking guitars highlighting the changing grooves. Nothing hurried; the music just eases along at a steady pace which is typical of most of the tracks here. And therein lies their beauty.
Rating: 8

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ZAPP: THE NEW ZAPP IV U/VIBE (ROBINSONGS)

There’s no pausing for breath with this pair of CDs from the stylish funk outfit simply known as Zapp, under the leadership of Roger Troutman. Following the reissue success of their first trio of albums, here we have the next couple. First out, “The New Zapp IV U” from 1985, crammed with electronic devices capable of reproducing a plethora of freaky sounds that was so relevant to the group’s overall music. This state-of- the-art technology put them head and shoulders above their competitors, and as such they became major players in the business. Their take on “I Only Have Eyes For You” is disconcerting to say the least, with its distorted vocals and sharp beat; the song’s actual title is the only line I recognised. Spawning the singles “It Doesn’t Really Matter”, “Itchin’ For Your Twitchin’” (eh?), and the biggest of all, “Computer Love” which is compulsive listening and elevated the album to gold status. It was, I believe, the last to feature Troutman who decided to pursue a solo career. Hearing this today, the all embracing sound is rather passé to these ears, especially the precision-styled funk beat, that was, at the time, so on-the-button and excitingly engrossing. Four years later the “Vibe” album followed, featuring the harmonised Smokey Robinson composition “Ooh Baby Baby” which The Miracles recorded to perfection. “Been This Way Before” and “Ain’t The Thing To Do” are surprisingly welcoming with their low-keyed melodies, while a couple of highlights are a version of The Ohio Players’ seventies hit “Fire” and the burning “I Play The Talk Box”. Summing up then, these CDs left me ‘funked out’ from an unpleasant trip, with moments of unexpected respite from the electronic cacophony. Did I say this out loud?
Rating: 5

Motown Spotlight - November 2018

Motown Spotlight – November 2018

I’m a little late with this because I’ve not been at my desk for the last few weeks or so, and then there was a delivery hiccup but, hey, we’re here now with this review of Thelma Houston’s mega release featuring her last four Motown albums on one CD package, courtesy SoulMusic Records. Not only are we treated to the full track listings on “The Devil In Me”, “Ready To Roll”, “Ride The Rainbow” and “Reachin’ All Around”, but also bonus titles and extended editions like 1977’s non-album flipside “If You Won’t Let Me Walk On The Water”, and 1978’s “Love Masterpiece” from the “Thank God It’s Friday” movie. Phew…

As you know, Thelma has been performing for over forty-seven years, recorded more than twenty-three albums, and is still wowing audiences with her “Motown Experience”, a ninety-minute tribute to the music of Motown and More. “My show is about celebrating love”, she says. “With the backdrop of Motown, I take you on a passionate journey that will have you singing along from the beginning to the end.” Featuring twenty-plus Motown songs, Thelma takes her audiences on a musical and inspirational journey chronicling her career, and from what I’ve seen on her website, it’s a pretty exciting adventure too. She also pays tribute to Jimmy Webb through the glorious “Sunshower” album and visits her gospel roots. “You are never too old to follow your dreams!” Of course, we’re hoping that one day we’ll get to see this show over here but, for now, she’s committed to performing in America through to the new year.

While at Motown, Ms Houston may not have been given the best material but she certainly turned around any inferior tracks, personalising them by injecting her stylish presentations into the grooves, bringing the songs alive. She easily adapts from ballad to dance, and, believe me, there’s a few monster cuts across these four albums. Disc one, kicks off with “I’m Here Again” – the follow-up to “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, although her duet with Jerry Butler, “It’s A Lifetime Thing” was squashed in between. “At the time that song (“I’m Here Again”) happened I was changing labels [at Motown] and that had an effect” she told me. “It was manufactured to be the same as ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and I didn’t really like it but felt obligated to do it. Then after that was ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ which I thought was a far better song. You think about things like this, try to analyse and figure out why something happens, but in the end you decide no one thing can be blamed.” Other titles to mention are the mesmerising “Baby, I Love You Too Much”, and the absolute highlight “Your Eyes”. A sizzling ballad; an unrelenting emotional experience, which has been high on my playlist since its original release. An awesome song on so many levels.

>Disc two opens with the afore-mentioned “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” (from 1979) leading into a couple of the most compelling songs I’ve heard – “I Wanna Be Back In Love Again” and “Imaginary Paradise” – yet there’s the intoxicating “Lies” and “(I’ve Given You) The Best Years Of My Life”. Of her time with the company, Thelma had few regrets, as she explained while still a signed artist. “They are good to me and have taken a genuine interest in me….and they don’t make me do anything I don’t really want to do. ….I wanted to go to acting lessons, and Motown paid for me to do that. I also wanted to do an album in 1975 for Sheffield Lab and they let me. The album was called ‘I’ve Got The Music In Me’ and I honestly loved doing it.”

I’ve known Ms Houston since the seventies, from our first meeting when we sipped drinks in London’s Serpentine Bar, and to now have her last Motown recordings in one package kinda rounds off that phase in her recording life. As an aside, she looks great and quirky, with her funky hairstyles and glamorous stage gowns. Her cheeky smile and twinkling eyes, and, of course, her voice!

Talking about Ms Houston leads me to the second release I’d like to highlight now – “The Essential Motown Northern Soul” 3-CD set, featuring a staggering sixty-six tracks. As with any compilations like this, it’s a foregone conclusion that fans will have several, if not, the bulk of the tracks. However, for someone like myself this release will save me dipping into other releases like the “Cellarful” series because there’s more than enough here to satisfy my hunger in one listening session. I can quite understand though that some, more in the know than myself, will find this release quite disconcerting, wanting unissued items to replace duplicate titles. It’ll come I’m sure. Obviously I won’t attempt to talk about each title as we’d be here forever and beyond, so will just mention a few.

There’s the familiar titles like the NS Motown anthem, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” which rightly kicks off the adventure, followed by the Four Tops’ “Something About You” and “I’m Grateful”; Tammi Terrell’s “All I Do Is Think About You” and “Give In, You Just Can’t Win”; the Isley Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s Just A Rumor Baby”; The Velvelettes’ “Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I”; Earl Van Dyke and the Motown Brass’ “6 By 6”; The Undisputed Truth’s “You Got The Love I Need”; Thelma Houston’s “I Ain’t Going Nowhere”; Stevie Wonder’s “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”…. you get the picture?

Personally speaking, I was overjoyed to see “Why Am I Lovin’ You” from Debbie Dean, and from Patrice Holloway “The Touch Of Venus”, while “Can’t Hold The Feeling Back” and “We’ll Keep On Rolling” are included from her sister Brenda. There’s a couple of interesting slices from The Temptations, “A Tear From A Woman’s Eyes” and “Angel Doll”, alongside a few from Gladys Knight And the Pips, including the mesmerising “No One Could Love You More”. No NS compilation would be complete without Chris Clark, so check out “Something’s Wrong” – you won’t be disappointed. Likewise, Barbara McNair’s “It Happens Every Time” – sheer magic. So with Kim Weston, The Monitors, Al Kent, The Supremes, The Dalton Boys, David Ruffin, Tommy Good, among the other featured artists, this is a well-rounded, thoughtful and entertaining release that, I think, will be welcome in any record collection. However, I have one gripe – there’s no accompanying booklet and, as you know, this annoys the hell out of me!

Let’s move on…with an update of the Motown Museum’s expansion project which began filtering through some months ago. Some of the original plans have been scrapped to be replaced by new conceptual designs and ideas. With over 70,000 visitors a year flooding into Detroit to walk the sacred boards in the Hitsville building, it seemed logical to use this historical site in a redevelopment programme. Just recently, Berry Gordy hosted meetings with Suzanne de Passe and Museum officials, including its CEO Robin Terry (Berry’s great niece) because, with the company’s 60th anniversary looming, plans for the 50,000 square foot complex that will be built around and behind Hitsville, need to be escalated. The plan (at this time) includes transforming the West Grand Boulevard site into a contemporary cultural experience, a cutting-edge complex, with Hitsville being the jewel in the crown. After sitting idle for over a decade, the building was, as you’re aware, taken over by Esther Gordy Edwards, who, with tireless dedication transformed it into a museum in 1985. Berry was intent on keeping his company’s legacy alive by different means and, it appears, creating a museum wasn’t a priority for him. However, his mind was changed when he realised just how important it was to preserve the birthplace of his company.

Financial support for the proposed project was initially pledged by conglomerates like the Ford Motor Company, William Davidson Foundation and the DTE Energy Foundation, but now its drawing interest from out-of-state donors. Although Robin Terry was unable to confirm the targeted timeline in an interview with Brian McCollum in the “Detroit Free Press,” she did confirm the philanthropic momentum was growing. “The next six months are game-changing. People are being extremely generous. The work we’ve been doing, these kinds of gifts, they just take time. And now you’ll start to see (the results)” she told McCollum. With promises of a major album campaign and event in Detroit next year, the highlight of the 60th anniversary will be “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” which has been filming since early last year. Directed by the London production company Fulwell 73, the film has Berry Gordy’s total support and input, alongside artists and archive footage.

The heart of Motown may have left Detroit during the seventies, but the city never abandoned one of its biggest assets, and that needs to be preserved, as Robin Terry further said. “There’s a legacy that’s been created here that has had tremendous impact, maybe the most profound in our lifetime, on our culture and this world. ….We have to figure out how to translate this important, authentic Detroit story to (the) next generation.”

As exciting as this is, I have to say – what of the UK?

(My sincere thanks to the Detroit Free Press)

 

Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Last month we visited an open-ended interview from Stevie Wonder used to help promote his ambitious 1976 “Songs In The Key Of Life”. Having abandoned plans to retire from the music business, Stevie with his signature fresh on a seven-year recording contract with Motown, took a year off to prepare for this double album release. By all accounts, 130 people worked with him, including Gary Byrd (who co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”), Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams (backing vocalists), and musicians Herbie Hancock, Mike Sembello and Nathan Watts. Stevie worked around the clock in the studio, not eating or sleeping, while those around him struggled to keep up with him. “Songs In The Key Of Life” was as groundbreaking as it was influential and totally all consuming. Michael Jackson once said it was his favourite Stevie album, while Elton John said “Let me put it this way, wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of this with me. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Prince called it the best album ever recorded, and Whitney Houston insisted the album was played throughout the photo shoot for her “Whitney: The Greatest Hits”. Every track was considered a perfect jewel or diamond in the raw – “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears”, “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Pastime Paradise” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today”, are probably the most memorable.

“Songs In The Key Of Life” surpassed all expectations. It shot straight to the top of the US album chart, becoming only the third album in music history to do this, and the first by an American artist, after Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies”. Then, the industry accolades poured in. In 1977, Stevie was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year, an award he’d previously won twice in 1974 (“Innervisions”) and 1975 (“Fulfillingness’ First Finale”). Stevie was absent from the 1977 Grammy ceremony, so was hooked up by satellite link from Nigeria. Bette Midler announced the results but due to a poor video signal, the audience was only able to see Stevie holding a phone and smiling. Andy Williams then went on to make the huge public blunder by asking Stevie – “Can you see us?” In the end, Stevie won four of the seven Grammy nominations.

As it was rather lengthy, we’ll continue with it now; besides, his interviews are few and far between, so, despite its age, being able to print this is rather special, don’t you think?

After covering ad hoc subjects, Stevie then spoke about his family life and career. “The life of Stevie Wonder began in 1961, but I’ll go back about eleven years to say I was born May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. I guess shortly after my birth my family moved with my two older brothers and myself to Detroit. In 1971 I moved to New York but in between Detroit and New York is when the life of Stevie Wonder began with me – through a very close friend of mine, Mr John Glover, with whom I had formed a group – of having the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of The Miracles. John Glover, who was a cousin of Ronnie White, had formed a group of myself and him called Steve and John. I would play bongos and sing, and John played guitar. This was before Stevie Wonder. This was Stevland Morris, which is my real name.

“We lived on Breckinridge Street in Detroit, which is on the west side, with very beautiful people and a very warm atmosphere. I did all the things that the normal boy did, like climbing trees or we used to hop barns. They were where you’d keep different parts of cars or whatever. They weren’t really large enough for cars to fit in but they were in the back of the houses.

“We lived in what you’d call an upper/lower class, or a lower/upper class. We had enough to get by and me not knowing what being poor was like. Whatever we did receive as a family, we were appreciative of. Sometimes, we would go without eating. I can prove it to you by the pain that I felt in my stomach, but my mother raised us in the early part of that time by herself.

“She was fortunate enough to meet my second father who, with them being married, she gave birth to two other children. Timothy, who is a Libra, and Renee, who is a Cancer. My next youngest brother Larry, is a Capricorn and two older brothers Calvin is Aries, and Milton, a Virgo.

“They were very beautiful years. I know it was a part of my life that wasn’t yesterday but I can see it crystal clear in front of me as being a very special part of my life, and if I had to live it again, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it was still my destiny to be Stevie Wonder again, the people that I met I’d still owe a lot to. Like my neighbours, to John Glover’s mother, Ruth, who actually was responsible for us getting to Motown, and dealing with a lot of the many things that we were not aware of, and many times my mother wasn’t aware of either.”

Stevie then moved on to talk about the music that influenced his writing, saying there were many different artists that he’s heard and met in his life that he considers to be unbelievable. “There are songs that have influenced my writing. For instance, ‘It’s All In The Game’ is one of my favourites. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is another, and that influenced ‘All In Love Is Fair’. It’s no problem for me to say that there have been many people that have influenced my music. Music is a world within itself, of a language we all understand, with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance to and clap their hands. So it doesn’t belong to any one person or one people. Music is a gift of life; is a toy that our Supreme Being gave us to express our joys and our sorrows, and even in moments to sorrow, to give us the peace and ability to be strong enough to enjoy the peace that it sometimes brings. I really love the songs of Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Ray Charles. I feel there will never be an award great enough to give to hm [Ray Charles].. He has opened the door to so many hearts, has made the bridge possible to fill the gap that was between many different kinds of music. You know, I can’t believe, for instance, that he received an award from a song I wrote, ‘Living For The City’. That song was alright but he deserves something even better than that.”

Dealing with the demands of public life, was something Stevie adjusted to because he said he knew what the job was before I took it. “So you have to hash out all these things in your mind. Amongst the excitement you are feeling…you know, you are going to have moments where there will be personal things that adhere just to your life that are significant only to yourself, but you still have to face your audience and do a performance. “

And, finally, he spoke of his plans for the future. “I hope to do a book about myself. There have been people that have set out to write different things about Stevie Wonder in book form, but I believe that the book I’ll write – which will take a great deal of (time) – will kinda speak of things that many people don’t know about, and definitely would not know about, if they haven’t heard any of my music. But, my music actually speaks in the closest way to me than anything else I could ever do. If you listen to the ones I’ve written, or those of others that I will record, you’ll hear how I feel, and it is the only way that …..it’s the deepest me, and I sometimes feel that people that listen to the music, or my fans are much closer to me than some who are my close acquaintances or friends.”

So, there you are. Interesting stuff eh? And it was only by chance that I happened to come across the 1976 interview while looking for another piece of research that was totally unrelated. I’m guessing my filing system needs a huge, dedicated overhaul!

In between writing last month’s blog and this, I flew to New York for a short break, combining both work and pleasure. Once again, I’d quite forgotten how I suffered from jet lag following these long hauls, and, true to form, it took me about a week to feel anything like my normal self. Lightweight I hear you say….and you’d be right! Combined with that, I returned with a New York head cold which has now gone the same way as the jet lag – thankfully. Anyway, while in the city that never sleeps, I was invited to visit Andy Scurow at Universal Music Group’s offices. Although I was there in 2013, it’s always a thrill to walk into his extremely disorganised office (“But I know where everything is,” he laughed. “Much like my office at home,” I said with eyebrows raised) because of the history contained within the reels of master tapes relocated from Detroit. There are shelves of them, crammed alongside his reference books (clocked two of mine) and other items. A few corridors down from his office is the studio where he and others work on potential re-issued projects. His last, as you know, was the extremely lavish expanded edition of “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland” which was welcomed by fans. One of Andy’s biggest thrills was when Diana Ross endorsed the release. They met, chatted about it, and when he gave her a copy, she agreed to be photographed with it. However, he told me, securing further releases is rather sketchy at the moment, and, when I pressed him about it being Motown’s 60th anniversary next year, and shouldn’t we all be working towards ensuring the event didn’t pass by unnoticed, we ended up in stalemate.

On the upside, we relocated to the studio where, under guidance, I had the huge thrill of being instrumental in lifting a lead voice from support vocals and individual instruments on the computer. Choosing the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, I was able to hear unencumbered, the raw, soulful voice of Levi Stubbs, then added Obie, Duke, Larry and the Andantes into the mix before bringing in the music, practically instrument by instrument. By being able to do this in the grander scale of things, means that singers and musicians are easily identifiable when a particular track is being considered for re-issue, ensuring the correct credits are included with the release. It’s a long and assiduous process that bites heavily into personal time but which, in the end, is so worthwhile. Of all the Motown artists, there’s a gigantic demand for Diana Ross’ unreleased titles, and although Andy and I spoke of several canned albums’ worth of her material – and I daren’t give any more details here – it seems unlikely her fans will have ‘ear’ of them in the near future.

Before closing, I’d just like to say that I hope our most significant and influential re-issue labels like SoulMusic Records and Kent are able to help us celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary next year. If there’s a way, I know the guys will find it!

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS - September 2018

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS – September 2018

JEAN CARNE: DON’T LET IT GO TO YOUR HEAD:THE ANTHOLOGY  (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

Wonderful! Just wonderful! Those simple words came into my head after listening to the first disc in this CD package, another in the super anthology series. Culling tracks from her four album tenure ( “Jean Carn”, “Happy To Be With You”, “When I Find You Love”, “Sweet And Wonderful”) at Philadelphia International Records, SoulMusicRecords’ David Nathan has selected some absolute gems, particularly for the first CD.  With her five octave vocal range, the Georgia-born singer’s career began when she met and married Doug Carn while studying at the Julliard School of Music in New York.  Relocating to Los Angeles, Jean recorded at least three albums with her husband and worked with Earth, Wind And Fire, before hooking a deal with Gamble and Huff’s Philly operation.

Her debut eponymous album in 1976 merged the finest seventies’ jazz and soul music with Instant Funk and MFSB providing support music and voices. The lazy, yet chugging rhythm on “Free Love” kicks off this package; enthusiastically full of Philly magic, while the next, “No Laughing Matter” instantly catches, before moving to a lower level only to rise again, completely rounding off this compulsive track. Her dancers are here, like “Was That All It Was” and “What’s On Your Mind”, the latter making its debut on CD. Then the relaxed ballad “When I Find You Love” breaks up the mood; so stylish with the sympathetic orchestra adding to the beauty of the song, it shows Jean’s innate ability to successfully tackle any tempo with confidence. Dipping into Motown’s catalogue, she performs a crisper vocalled “Love Makes Me Do Foolish Things”, following Martha Reeves’ lead by giving the song that essential raw edge, resulting in a real sixties’ feel and mood. And then the gem of gems, the totally outstanding “If You Should Know Me By Now” with the instantly recognizable Temptations on support vocals.  Total class!

From Philadelphia International  Jean had switched to Motown to record the solitary “Trust Me” album which included the before mentioned title, released as a single.  The album struggled, but the single garnered huge R&B sales. A scheduled follow-up album was canned; more’s the pity.  “If You Wanna Go Back” holds a compelling chorus and rousing feel, while “Happy To Be With You”, a little J5 to start off with, strides into a bop, until the song takes off with a regular beat.  Of the duets, there’s “Sweet And Wonderful” with Glenn Jones, and a trio of Norman Connors’ titles featuring Jean; one duetting with Michael Henderson.  She’s a featured vocalist on Al Johnson’s “I’m Back For More”; on a couple from Grover Washington Jr, including the coolest of cool versions of “The Look Of Love”. Jean further adds her voice to Roy Ayers, Dexter Wansel, and Universe titles.  As the promotional note says – this anthology is a remarkable testament to the timeless artistry of this soulful supernova.  I’ll say no more.
Rating: 9

THE WHISPERS: ONE FOR THE MONEY/OPEN UP YOUR LOVE/HEADLIGHTS (ROBINSONGS)
Three albums across two CDs is what you call real value for money from a group best known for their dance tracks during the eighties. With these releases, they lay the foundation of what was to come and it’s easy to see how The Whispers grew to oak trees from these acorns. Released in 1976, “One For The Money” was their debut on Don Cornelius’s Soul Train Records. Taking a leaf from the growing Philadelphia Sound’s songbook, with the sweeping sumptuous strings and tight vocals, the group didn’t quite make it because the material let them down. “Sounds Like A Love Song”, for instance, a beautiful ballad is grossly hampered by the non-impacting chorus lines. David Gates’ “Make It With You” from the “Open Up Your Love” album left me squirming, while “I’m Gonna Make You My Wife” (featured in “Waiting To Exhale”) left me begging for more. Released in 1977, this album was their last for Soul Train.“Headlights”, a year later, on Solar Records rounds off this trio of albums. “Disco Melody” is so-so, at a steady pace, but largely nondescript. An exchange of comments open the album’s title (also the first track), to introduce a get-down funk, sprightly horn section with a mid tempo groove. Then there’s the slowie, “(Olivia) Lost And Turned Out”, lamenting a young lady’s life on the streets, but by staying on an even level, the full meaning of the song is lost. However, was there a surprise waiting? You bet. “The Planets Of Life” suddenly did pump life into disc two. Against a pulsating rhythm, with bags of atmosphere, this really touched the spot, and was a re-recording of their first official album on Dore. Loosely speaking, The Whispers were formed during 1963 in Watts, California by twin brothers Wallace and Walter Scott. After being invited to San Francisco by Sly Stone, they eventually relocated there, building up a solid fan base via their live performances. Global success, however, was on the horizon when, during the eighties, “And The Beat Goes On” launched them into a different league altogether, proving their professional relationship with Solar really did the trick. The hits just kept on comin’. Rating: 6

THE SPINNERS: WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (KENT RECORDS)
Well, this is a turn up. I just remember the group’s “2nd Time Around” album in 1970, capitalising on the single “It’s A Shame” penned by Stevie Wonder, Syreeta and Lee Garrett, which was a UK top twenty hit. However, alongside “2nd Time Around”, there’s thirteen bonus tracks including ten unissued items spanning 1967 to 1970. Containing most of the group’s singles, with the exception of “Message From A Blackman” and their second hit “We’ll Have It Made”; the first a powerful, thoughtful song, and the second, a commercially slanted item directed at the mainstream market. Although the guys were regular visitors to the recording studio, resulting in over one hundred songs being logged, their released output was twenty-six tracks, covering two albums and a rack of singles. Not only were they competing in the market place but also in-house with other acts, who, it was felt, were more viable money makers. This state of frustration eventually led to them switching companies to Atlantic Records, where, with a name change, they received the accolade they’d worked for and deserved.

Anyway, spread across this release is a mouth watering list of writers and producers – Edwin Starr, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Bristol, among them – with the outcome being a super collection of solid, tip top tracks. Moving from The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Baby” which is divine, there’s “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music”, also recorded by The Supremes, and a highly credible, stylish “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)”, with which David Ruffin scored an international hit. I’m thinking, maybe this album wouldn’t have attracted re-issue status by itself, so the bonus tracks are such a massive buying magnet. Please don’t overlook “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, “Gonna Keep On Tryin’ Till I Win Your Love” or “When It Starts To Rain It Pours”. Magic! Personally speaking, The Spinners really deserved more support while at Motown; their combined talent equalled that of other male groups, so where did it all go wrong? Thankfully, Stevie took up the challenge and elevated them to the position they deserved. Incidentally, the CD’s title “While The City Sleeps” was recorded in 1965 on the West Coast, while the album is G.C.Cameron’s last as a Spinner, and by the time Philippe Wynne replaced him, they were signed to Atlantic. An excellent release and goes a long way to reminding us that success is possible the second time around. No pun intended. Rating: 9

LALOMIE WASHBURN: MY MUSIC IS HOT (CHERRY RED RECORDS)
This lady tries to live up to the CD’s title on some of the tracks here, her first solo album released in 1977, but all too often, sells herself short. Cutting her teeth with the seventies’ soul/funk groups Love Craft and High Voltage, Lalomie was also a support vocalist for Ike & Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and Ray Charles, among others. She also worked with composers for Aretha Franklin and The Brothers Johnson. So, huge pedigree here for the Memphis-born singer who, I guess, ranks as one of the industry’s unsung names. At least she was to me but, thankfully, with this re-issue that’s been corrected. With all the tracks on her first album included here, together with flipsides and – as appears to be the norm these days – alternate mixes of her early releases, this presents a well-rounded collection of material highlighted by her often deep, rich vocals delivered from the heart. “Give Me Love With The Music” opens the CD, with luscious harmonising vocals and rising chords, leading the way for a quartet of singles – “Double Funkin’”, a loose brassy, jazzy beat which, according to the CD booklet, is a celebration of sexuality without shame; the mid-paced “My Love Is Hot” chugging across the beat with a repetitive chorus; the dancer “Man Power (Can You Do It)” leaning towards tender funk on a conveyor belt; “Two Sides”, a surprising addition by comparison, as it’s a take on The Carpenters’ original version. Not to be dismissed because Lalomie’s take is ultra cool and smooth in delivery. A non-album single that’s included here in both mono and stereo form. From the CD’s pictures, Lalomie looked to be one feisty lady who strutted along the fast lane, with her heart on her sleeve, but that’s sadly not reflected here. However, if this was the taster for her future career, her next releases surely gave her more latitude and freedom to express a sassy, funky side, as I suspect she took no prisoners! Rating: 6

 
KENNY LATTIMORE: NEVER TOO BUSY: THE ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
Another in this top selling series, this re-issue is drawn from the singer’s two Columbia albums and his 2001 Arista release, clocking up a 2 CD-package holding a massive thirty tracks. While presenting his own style, which is easy and welcoming, the Washington DC-born Kenny pulls influence from the likes of Marvin Gaye, adding the polished touch we’ve come to expect from singers raised on soul music. His debut eponymous album in 1996 spawned a pair of top twenty singles: the mellow “Never Too Busy” and the Grammy-nominated ballad “For You”. So successful was this release, thanks to the singles, that sales tipped gold status. Also here are two commercially-slanted duets with Chante Moore – “Figure It Out” and “Tonight (2 Step)” – the latter earning them a place in the lucrative gospel market. Kenny’s professional career started during the eighties in the group Maniquin where he took lead vocals on their self-titled album on Epic Records.

Relocating to New York, he signed with Columbia where his solo career kicked off with the before mentioned “For You”. His next classically styled soul project, “From The Soul Of Man” in 1998 gave birth to a couple of hit singles, “Days Like This” and “If I Lose My Woman”, further cementing his presence as a money making artist. Although Kenny easily slips into the soul ballad singer box, and that’s no mean tag to have, he brings with him an often cautious approach to his music, although never stilted, cultivating a seamless move from soul/R&B ballad to uptempo. with a full-blooded, gloriously encompassing musical backdrop. His warm, emotive voice mixes resilience and vulnerability and probably sums up his ability to inject believability into the lyrics. And that’s what makes him stand out from the rest! Rating: 9

WILLIE HIGHTOWER: OUT OF THE BLUE (ACE RECORDS)
Listening to this reminded me of sitting in front of the fire, wearing a pair of worn out slippers and sipping a mug of hot chocolate. Every thing about this country soul material here is relaxing, laid-back and non-fussy, and so easy to listen to. I’m reminded of Sam Cooke too but that’s hardly surprising as he was one of Willie’s musical influences. So the deal is, 77 year old Willie Hightower hooks up with 95 year old Memphis producer, Quinton Claunch in the legendary Memphis Shoals, Alabama, to record this album, and as the CD’s blurb so succinctly puts it – “it’s like turning back the hands of time to soul music’s heyday in the 1960s. Not only is this a completely new recording but there are real musicians playing real instruments with real songs.” From the opening track “I Found You”, the mood is set as we meander through unobtrusive melodies, full-padded music supporting Willie’s lifetime of stylish vocal expertise. Gravitating to “Rock Me Gently” because it’s a song I readily recognised, I stepped out to “Tired Of Losing You” and “Everybody Wants My Girl.” Hotly followed by “Raining all The Time” and “No Gettin’ Over Me”. The weather outside my window might be grey and miserable, but these few minutes spent in the company of Mr Hightower has undoubtedly lifted my spirits into a tension-free zone. These guys may be in their twilight years but the music has never sounded so satisfying. Rating: 9

 
JACK ASHFORD: JUST PRODUCTIONS VOLUME 2 (KENT RECORDS)
Following the great response to the first release, this compilation is the last from Jack’s independent soul productions, covering 1967 into the mid-1970s. Of course, Mr Ashford is no stranger to us, being a vital member of The Funk Brothers with whom he laid down the defining Motown sound, and he’s a guy I had the pleasure to meet following a London performance by the group. Here we have a melting pot of tracks recorded under his Just Productions company where, on occasion you can hear strains of Motown, but, on the whole, it’s a much harder, funkier style throughout. Interestingly, Jack sings on a couple of tracks – the ballad “Let Me Take Care Of Your Heart” and a brassy “This Ain’t Just Another Dance Song” – and, while he preferred to let others take this role, his voice is warmly inviting. The Perfections take on The Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby”, while Softtouch, who recorded on Motown’s Prodigal label, are featured here with a snappy “Say That You Love Me Boy”. Check out a Northern Soul gem “There Can Be A Better Way” from The Sound Of New Detroit, or the sweeping ballad “How Long Has It Been Since You Had A Love Affair” courtesy of Cecil Norman Jr. There’s loads of goodies on offer here but just don’t take my word for it, hear them for yourself. Rating: 8

 
ROSE ROYCE: GREATEST HITS LIVE (WIENERWORLD)
Actually, for a ‘live’ CD this isn’t bad and Gwen Dickey’s voice has a lot to do with that comment. My, that lady can sing: she soars and dips the scales, holding notes as she gets down with the music. Pure soulful magic! As you know, Norman Whitfield’s group, Rose Royce, was elevated into stardom with “Car Wash” in 1976, and in the wake of that film’s runaway success, the group could do little wrong. The movie’s title gave them their debut UK top ten hit, and during 1977, two further singles hit the listing big time – “I Wanna Get Next To You” and “Do Your Dance”. Their star was rising fast. However, the biggest selling titles were waiting around the corner, namely, “Wishing On A Star”, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Is It Love You’re After”. All carrying the Rose Royce brand: strong hooklines, chunky melodies that either swept along in a ballad, or strutted in a funky mid-tempo tune. And, they’re all included here, recorded during one of the group’s 1993 performances, where the musicians are tight, full-blooded, with masses of natural on-stage interaction. Also, as with most live performances there’s a dose of audience participation. Here it takes place during an over-long “The Magic Touch”, where it’s often difficult to hear whether there’s an actual response. However, all in all, this is an above average ‘live’ set but, I’d have thought, only attractive to Rose Royce fans. Rating: 7

 
IKE & TINA TURNER: GOLDEN EMPIRE (CLASSIC WORLD)
This appears to be a mish-mash of previous releases under this name, which themselves were a haphazard reflection of the career of one of the most volatile, exciting, hard-driving hybrid of soul and rock acts. And, of course, there was Tina, a ferocious whirlwind of energy, power and voice. This twenty-two song compilation skips all over the place with titles spanning albums released during their career as a professional couple. The monster hits are here – “”Proud Mary”, “Nutbush City Limits”, “River Deep, Mountain High”, and “I Want To Take You Higher” – but what is particularly outstanding, if you like, is their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” which I’ve not heard previously. Making up for it now! Some of the tracks are sketchy, raw in the extreme, making listening a bit edgy which I found disconcerting. However, there’s no letting up of the pure electricity between Ike and Tina; the blending of voice with his distinctive guitar plucking, working in unison with the trill support vocals. “The Locomotion” is interesting; “Come Together” is exactly what it says on the tin, and “It’s Your Thing” grabs attention. To be honest, I’ve heard better and the fact that there’s little information in the CD packaging is frustrating. Rating: 5

 

Motown Spotlight - August/September 2018

Motown Spotlight – August/September 2018

Something different this month I thought, and maybe a little off-beat, but here goes. Let’s talk about one of the most significant albums in Motown’s history – Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life”, his 18th studio album, released in September 1976, some forty-two years ago. Originally scheduled for October ‘75, but delayed because at the last minute Stevie decided some tracks needed re-mixing. Needless to say, this plunged Motown’s marketing department into sheer panic: it desperately needed to keep news of the pending album in the public arena so, among other things, produced t-shirts saying “We’re Almost Finished”, with Stevie himself wearing one for promotional use.

Then, as if to placate his fans frustration at having to wait, Stevie included a four-track seven-inch extended play single, “A Something’s Extra” within the package. This double album release was also a time of indecision for Stevie as he considered quitting the music business to emigrate to Ghana to work with disabled children. In fact, plans were actually put in place for his farewell concert. Something changed his mind; perhaps the offer of a new recording contract with Motown, said to be worth $37 million. Anyway, whatever the reason, Stevie re-signed in August 1975 to a seven-year deal, worth seven albums.

“Songs In The Key Of Life”, with the working title of “Let’s See Life The Way It Is”, was exclusively previewed by the media at Long View Farm, a recording studio in Massachusetts. Those attending left with an autographed copy of the album. Meanwhile, without the artist in attendance, Motown in London held its own media preview in one of the reception rooms at EMI House in London’s Manchester Square. It was there that I, and other journalists, with wine and nibbles on hand, heard the album for the first time. We left with an unsigned copy of the album.  However, journalists and radio deejays not on guest lists weren’t forgotten because Stevie had previously recorded an open-ended interview which was used across the world as a promotional aid. And it’s this that now forms the basis of this month’s blog.

Naturally, the first question he answered concerned the long wait for the album. “It’s just me not being satisfied with it. I get into the thing where I want to give the public the latest feeling that I have experienced, and that takes time. I have to make sure that I am completely satisfied with the material, and with the title of the album being ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, that is a very broad statement. I think if I can just accomplish one fraction of dealing with life – my life and the lives of people that will be aware of me over this album – I’ll be happy.”

In this 1976 interview, Stevie also openly talked about random aspects of his life, including his blindness, and how he’s accepted his disability. “It’s a reality. The only way you can look at it is, as being the truth, and I think when you accept that, your soul is then free of anything else. Being blind is not a handicap really. There are many things you can’t do but there are many things you can. It’s all in your state of mind, and how determined you are to do as much as you possibly can.” As for a concept of what sight actually is, he explained he has certain pictures in his mind that he can draw upon from what people have told him. “From my understanding …when you say ‘blue’, there is a kind of feeling that I dig. Blue, in my mind, is a very fresh colour. In black there is a great mystery. When I think of green, I think of a very flat surface, very straight ahead. When I think of pink, I think of something as a human’s colour. Now, I don’t know if that is what it’s about, but that is what I get.

“There are mental shapes and colours that I am able to perceive only because I have been given, at some previous time, an understanding verbally of what the colour is about. Therefore, if a person closes their eyes, they would think of what they saw or what has been recorded in the subconscious, and you will be able to picture things as how you see them. I think that’s part of life, like, the imagination of an artist who has a picture in his mind, and no-one else can see it but him. Some people say they are able to see in their dreams. There is no way possible for a (blind) person to see in their dreams because if they’re able to do that, then they must have been able to see at some early part of their life. So, I don’t miss it. It’s not like an absence of something because I never knew what it was like. Therefore, I feel very normal.”

Say, if the Devil approached him with a bargain: his voice for his sight, would Stevie agree to the swop? “No! My voice is my vehicle. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the ability to sing and write, and I believe the words of the Supreme Being’s message will enable me to reach people during my lifetime. So I couldn’t give that up: it’s my mission, my purpose on his earth. I believe that everything happens for a reason, no matter how sad or how joyful the occasion, and we are to learn from it. For instance, I learn from the songs I write. Sometimes I say, that’s not me writing that because I don’t ever think that I have the ability to write the poetry of a song. In the album, there’s a song called ‘As’, and it’s for Yolanda, the woman who gave birth to my daughter, Aisha. It’s for my mother and father, and Yolanda’s mother and father, and all the people that I have loved, and all the loves of my life that I have had the pleasure of meeting. They all helped me to another level of consciousness, so I couldn’t give that up for my sight.”

From here, Stevie moved on to talk about drugs and religion and, once again, it was plain talking all the way. “I have experienced marijuana before because I wanted to know what it was about, but I was with a group of people that were very honest and not jiving. They said ‘let’s see what this is about, check it out,’ and I didn’t like the experience of it. I was very paranoid; the music started getting louder and my mind said ‘Oh, this is a drag’. I didn’t like it. But I know that it can be positive for some people, but for me it’s not necessary.”

Although Stevie was raised in the Baptist faith, he stated he didn’t now belong to any specific church. “I believe that I speak to God any time I want to, and I feel that He is in my mind, my heart and my soul. I respect all religions. I believe that some are searching, or disagreeing to find the answer to agree. In my mind, the true religion is that we all are one, and I think if we remember the one code of life – which always sticks in my mind – is do to others as you would have them do to you. That is like the greatest giant step that man will ever make.”

Switching to Motown, young Stevie signed with Berry Gordy in 1961 and, while in awe of his extraordinary talent, Gordy was unsure how to record and market him. As history tells, the youngster was tutored and nurtured for an eventual career that nobody could have anticipated, reaching stratospheric levels as a singer, composer, performer, and man of the people. “Motown was a studio out of nowhere. No one ever expected there would be music coming out of Detroit. I think it took everyone by surprise. The thing is when you are a new artist, having never sung before a microphone in the studio, you have no technique. You only have what you feel and the process has taken me so long. The delay with ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ is because in the previous album ‘Fulfillingness First Finale’ some of the demos turned out better than the final performance. A great example of that is ‘Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away’. I hope that some day, people may be able to hear some of the stuff that was never released to get an idea of what I mean.” Of the songs he was totally at ease with, he said. “’Visions’ and ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ which speaks of my first love to a girl named Angie. She was a very beautiful woman. She’s now married and has three children. ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’, I had fun doing that with Syreeta. We were travelling and had gone to England and we were having fun. ‘Superstition’ and ‘Living For The City’. I also like the ‘Talking Book’ album and ‘Innervisions’. I think the words to ‘As’ are the best I’ve ever written.”

The interview is quite extensive – and my thanks to whoever typed the transcript from Stevie’s audio interview (suspect Noreen Allen undertook the task at some point) – so will continue with the remainder next month. Because…..

I’d like to now include a few words about the passing of our Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Not my words, because I’ve found it so very difficult to put my feelings into print, but those of others. However, if it’s of interest, I dedicated a radio show to her https://www.mixcloud.com/HailshamFM/sharon-davis-18082018/ which, I believe, hopefully says it all.

First, from Berry Gordy. “A national treasure to everyone. But to me personally, Aretha Franklin was my dear, dear friend, my home girl, and I loved her a lot. From seeing her as a baby singing and playing at her piano at her father’s home, to her giving a rousing performance at the White House, she has always been amazing. No matter how the music has changed over the years, she remained so relevant. Though never signed to Motown, Aretha was considered part of my family. We always shared fond memories of the Motor City, life, and just things. Her passing is not only a tremendous personal loss for me, but for people all over the world who were touched by her incredible gift and remarkable spirit. Aretha Franklin will always be the undisputed Queen of Soul, and her legacy will live forever.”

Next up, Smokey Robinson. “We had a wonderful friendship that lasted throughout her life. They called her ‘the Queen of Soul’ but Aretha could sing anything you put in front of her – opera, soul, gospel, jazz, whatever it was. I will miss her so much but I know she’s at peace.” And, Martha Reeves. “I celebrate the gifts she gave to the world of music and to the world in general, to society, and to the city of Detroit which we both loved. We are sisters in song and sisters in faith, so I look forward to the day when we will be together again.”

The last word rightly belongs to Stevie, with whom she planned to record an album this year. In fact, they had spoken about it two months before Aretha died. “There was a song I had written called ‘The Future’ and we were going to sing it together. …She touched every genre. Every singer was influenced in some way by the way she sang, and they will forever be influenced by her, because of her voice, her emotion and her sincerity. When Aretha sings your song, she takes it and you don’t get it back. And that’s what she did with ‘Until You Come Back To Me’.

I love you Aretha, and that’s a forever thing.

 

Motown Spotlight - July 2018

Motown Spotlight – July 2018

BARBARA McNAIR…

After playing this lady’s Motown music for the last couple of days, I decided to dig a little deeper into the fascinating life and times of Barbara McNair.  Here’s what I came up with which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did….

Following her birth on 4 March 1934 in Chicago, Illinois, to parents Horace and Claudia, Barbara Jean McNair and her family relocated to Racine, Wisconsin.  She had four siblings;  Sam, Horace, Juanita and Jacqueline. Encouraged by her parents to study music from an early age, Barbara sang in church services and school plays, before studying music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.   Her sister Jacqueline always believed Barbara was headed for a career in show business, saying – “She sang from the time she was five years old in churches and then at school. We always encouraged her.”

After her high school years, Barbara moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA but left after a year believing that New York with its “school of hard knocks” would give her a more practical education.  It was the right move to make, because among other things, she won an episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts programme, where audiences selected the winners using an applause meter. And while working a secretarial day job for the National Foundation of Settlements, and of an evening auditioning for Manhattan nightclub gigs, she got that all important break when impresario Max Gordon offered her a stint at the legendary Village Vanguard Jazz Club in Lower Manhattan. This led to another turning point in her career when she was offered residences at the Purple Onion, New York, and the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.  One of her performances encouraged a New York Times journalist to write that although Ms McNair was strikingly beautiful she didn’t have to depend on looks alone. “She is a highly knowledgeable performer who projects an aura of beauty, a warm personality and an appealing sense of fun.”  While the singer had other ideas as she told the New York Post in 1963 – “People talked and smoked and drank while I sang. People never did that in Racine so I was shocked.”

From her nightclub performances Barbara became a popular headlining jazz singer and enjoyed guest spots on television variety programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Hollywood Palace.  As her exposure grew she switched from jazz to sing popular tunes of the day, saying – “not necessarily rock and roll but good solid standards.”  Ralph Carmichael, her musical director at the time, told The Times – “She’s got a big great, wailing voice.  She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else.”

Her recording career appears to have kicked off as a member of the cast for the film “The Body Beautiful” in 1958, when the soundtrack was released on Blue Pear.  A year later, she switched to Coral Records to record “Front Row Centre” featuring show tunes like “Hello Young Lovers”, “The Party’s Over” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You”.  Somewhere in this time span (probably late-1957) she recorded what she called “a terrible rock and roll record” called “Bobby”.  Enthusiastically performed by her, this quirky single with teenage lyrics, was held together by a male chorus, and was so typical of what record buyers were buying at the time.  For some reason though, Barbara failed to hit the mark.  My research also throws up that she signed with Roulette to yield “That’s All I Want From You” in 1961, and “Honeymoonin’”, the following year.

The “Love Talk” album for Signature followed.  This time the track listing included “He Is A Man”, “Kansas City” and “All About Love”.  Before recording for Warner Brothers in 1964, Barbara made musical shorts for Scopitone, a franchise for coin operated machines that were said to be the forerunners of today’s music videos.  “The Livin’ End” for Warner Brothers was a far cry from her recognisable sultry Motown sessions as she returned to her roots to musically dance with jazz, plus the obligatory standard material.  Tracks like “When In Rome”, “Secret Love” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” were intended to appeal to a cross section of adult buyers.  I noticed that on the reverse album sleeve, alongside the necessary blurb, the headline ran – “This Is One Classy Singing Lady, Barbara McNair.  Also Known As The Livin’ End.”  Indeed!

The leap from nightclub performances to the Broadway stage was a smooth one.  She replaced (future Motown recording artist) Diahann Carroll in the lead role of “No Strings”.  While she wowed the New York audiences, it was a different story when the company toured, as she told The Times in 1968. “In St Louis and Kansas, I got a lot of hate mail and obscene phone calls.  There were no threats on my life, just messages like…’how dare you stand up on stage and kiss a white man?’”  This wasn’t the first time racism smacked Barbara in the face, as she recalled being forced to walk out of a hotel in Miami.  Sure, she was offered a room but forbidden to swim in the pool.  In another instance she said she was told in no uncertain terms to eat in the employees’ dining room and not with the other guests.  From “The Body Beautiful”, Barbara joined the cast of “The Pajama Game”.

In 1967 she travelled to Southeast Asia with Bob Hope to perform for the American troops during the Vietnam War (“I went over there to see what war was like and to comfort the men and I was appalled”) and toured with Nat King Cole, before kick starting an acting career on television, guesting in popular programmes like Dr Kildare, I Spy, Mission: Impossible and McMillan And Wife, when she played Rock Hudson’s ex-girlfriend.  However, one of the most ground breaking moves came when she hosted her own syndicated The Barbara McNair Show because she was one of the first African-American women to do so. It ran for three seasons – 1969-1972 – and featured top names like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers, Della Reese, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and so on.

From the small screen, Barbara enjoyed a successful film career via a diverse selection of roles. The first appears to be an unbilled part in the family drama film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda, where in the small print, Barbara is listed as a graduation singer. However, the most notable films, of course, were with Elvis Presley and Sidney Poitier.  In 1969 she played Sister Irene in “Change Of Habit”, a nun who helped a physician, played by Presley, to run a clinic.  So taken was he by Barbara that during a 1969 performance in Las Vegas, he dedicated “Suspicious Minds” to her, telling his audience that “..I found her to be one of the nicest, warmest, lovingest people I’ve ever met.”  When some members of his audience complained they couldn’t see her, Presley instructed the house lights to be turned on full.   Off set, he would, with guitar in hand, visit Barbara at her home where they sang and jammed together.   There was also an instance when Mahalia Jackson visited the film set for “Change Of Habit”.  Barbara said – “Elvis and I were sitting together and Mahalia …..asked if Elvis would participate in a fundraiser that she was going to organise.  Elvis was so gracious.  ‘Mrs Jackson, I am so happy to meet you. I would love to do it but I still have to ask the Colonel.’  So, after she left, he said to me, ‘I’ll never do it, the Colonel won’t let me’. But he was so gracious to her (because) he knew all the time the Colonel wouldn’t let him do it.”

A year later, Barbara played Valerie, the wife of the black police detective, Virgil Tibbs, played by Poitier in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs”.   This was the second instalment in a trilogy, the first being the award-winning “In The Heat Of The Night” in 1967, and Poitier reprised his previous role, with the film title liberated from the first film.  Considered to be a disappointing sequel, it attracted comments like “the film is poorly paced….Poitier seems bored…flat return for the detective… taking on a cool, protoblaxploitation feel, this is a step down to its predecessor.”  The final in the trilogy, “The Organisation” was poorly received, due to its unbelievable plot.  Barbara also played Lily, a nightclub singer, girlfriend of an escaped prisoner in “If He Hollers Let Him Go!” released in 1968.  Playing opposite Raymond St Jacques, the film was slated for its two unfair angles – racism and nudity – with a storyline exploiting black/white tensions.   Barbara agreed to promote the movie by posing nude, and told The Post that her steamy photo spread for Playboy magazine – “helped my career immensely.”

When talking about the film industry, Barbara was outspoken, not like some who feared that speaking their minds would leave them jobless. She told The Times – “When I was making a lot of movies, they didn’t want women to look too black.  But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal. (They) went all the way in the other direction.  For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic”.  Troubled by programmes that showed African-American as under-achievers, she further told the newspaper – “There’s so little to inspire the young black child.”  Then during 1968, Barbara told a reporter that Lenny Bruce had said she was in fact Caucasian – “and that someone took a paintbrush and painted me brown.  White people are not aware that Negroes look all kinds of different ways. We don’t all have wide noses and full lips.”

In 1966, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was issued by Warner Brothers, the result of three different recording sessions with three different orchestras.  “The Friendliest Thing”, “If I Had A Hammer” and “On The Other Side Of The Tracks” were included in the track listing.   Also this year, Barbara debuted on the Motown label with “Here I Am”, an album that was, to all intents and purposes, alien to the commercial company sound.  However, the elegance and sophisticated artistry that Barbara delivered in this album was to be applauded, particularly her version of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”.  The obligatory standard material was included, like, “Strangers In The Night”, “Message To Michael”, “For Once In My Life” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile”.  It would have been foolish to ignore the musical heritage that Barbara brought to Motown, because it was her film and television career which Berry Gordy wanted to capitalise upon. So throwing in a couple of company songs was probably to placate Motown fans.  The ploy didn’t really work out, yet the album is now an expensive must-have.

Three long years later, her second album “The Real Barbara McNair” was issued, with the front sleeve credited to her Playboy shoot.   Once again versions of Motown originals were featured, like Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone”, The Miracles’ “If You Can Want”, The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony”, together with outside covers of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “What Now My Love”.   Naturally, Barbara’s delivery was faultless, her styling and presence unbeatable, almost perfect to a tee, yet it was the opening track that dipped into the funk/soul melting pot, that attracted Motown fans the most. “Where Would I Be Without You”, co-written by Frank Wilson, grabbed immediate attention with its off-beat, uptempo approach, and it was probably thanks to our Northern Soul friends that the song remains relevant today.  Many claim “The Real Barbara McNair” was another desperate attempt by Berry Gordy to break Barbara as a cross over artist: once again, he failed.  And once again, the original pressing of this album is now exchanging hands at considerable expense.

Following the release in the late sixties of “More Today Than Yesterday” on Audio Fidelity, with tracks like “Something Happy”, “I Can Tell” and “Didn’t We”, it seems Barbara’s recording career hit a sticky patch until 2004 when “The Ultimate Motown Collection” was issued with a massive 48 tracks.  The double CD package featured her two released Motown albums plus the unreleased masters of “Barbara Sings Smokey”, together with a handful of non-album singles.  A more complete and thorough release would be hard to find, encompassing as it does, her Motown tenure which, while unsuccessful and disappointing at the time, is now revered as an invaluable niche in the growth of the company.

Time passed until 2012 when a surprise album appeared titled “Here’s To Life” that included “Autumn Leaves”, “Tomorrow Mountain”, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, among others. Barbara’s nephew, John Thomas said the songs were personally chosen by her – “and were inspired by her husband Charles and our family. We are a close knit family even though we lived on other sides of the country.”

So now let’s go behind the spotlight. Personally speaking, the singer married Jack Rafferty in 1963 but that ended in 1971.  She married her second husband, Rick Manzie a year later in Las Vegas and lived in a 20-room house at 4265 S. Bruce Street, near to the Sahara Hotel.  (Their house is now an apartment complex).  While her husband was ostensibly her manager, he was also a heroin user, gambler, and a minor associate of the Chicago mob known as The Outfit. However happy she may have been, the marriage signaled the singer’s professional downfall. Having applied her lipstick and eye liner in her dressing room at the Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey, where she was due to perform in October 1972, two white men stood at her open door.  They asked for confirmation of her name, and told her she was under arrest for possession of narcotics and should follow them to the nearby police station. Moments prior to this, a small brown package had been delivered by messenger, and as it was addressed to Barbara, she had signed for it, setting it aside, to continue her preparations for the evening’s performance.  Following her arrest, the Playboy Club naturally cancelled the remainder of her engagement there, with other venues following, like the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario. A television special which was partway finished was also pulled. Barbara told reporters later that she had been paid off.  “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. It’s like a bad dream. I just wonder where it’s going to end.  Emotionally, it has shattered me….This whole thing has had a devastating effect on my career.”  Meanwhile, her spokesperson told Jet magazine, that people had taken the prerogative of prejudging Barbara – “and they’ve cancelled shows without knowing the outcome of the case.”  In a later statement, the shocked singer emphasized – “I do not use narcotics of any kind.  I’ve never taken drugs, never had the need for them.  With my kind of life, you can’t function if you take them. I’ve known kids who were about to experiment with drugs and I tell them, don’t do it!”  To The Post in 1979 she sighed – “You can spend all this time building something and it can be destroyed in a minute.”

If she was convicted she and her husband faced one year in jail and a $5,000 fine each. However, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, concluded Ms McNair was an innocent by-stander and that no charges should be brought against her. On the other hand, they returned an indictment charging her husband with possessing one-half ounce of heroin. He was sentenced to one year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.  That wasn’t the end of it because in December 1976, Rick Manzie’s half-nude body was found in their Las Vegas mansion home: he had been shot several times.  In 1979 Barbara married again.  This time to Ben Strahan, and the marriage lasted five plus years. Seven years on, her fourth marriage to Charles Blecka sadly ended in her death in 2007.   In between times, during 1987, the singer faced another battle – that of bankruptcy.  She filed in a Las Vegas court saying she had assets of $23,080 and debts nearing $458,399, telling the bankruptcy court that she owned no valuable jewelry, save a diamond ring from a previous marriage. The chief cause of the debt was a business arrangement with her then husband, Ben Strahan.  I’m unclear about the outcome.

Yet despite all these pitfalls and everything life threw at her, Barbara McNair continued to perform in nightclubs and cabaret bars. She delighted audiences with her stage tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, and was signed for occasional guest television spots on programmes like The Redd Foxx Show. During 1984, she accepted a recurring, if short-lived role, in the daytime programme General Hospital, followed a year later by a role in the little known “Neon Signs” film.  Starring William Smith and Carol Lynley, Barbara played Grace in this low budget movie that few people saw.  It was her last film.  Outside of her professional life,  Barbara enjoyed her family and socializing with friends. Playing tennis and skiing kept her in shape, standing her in good stead for her touring commitments.

Then, tragically, Barbara was to fight her biggest battle in life when she developed throat cancer and a later an inoperable brain tumor.  Her husband, Charles Blecka, and their family supported her through her brave battling years but in the end the disease won.  Barbara McNair lost her fight in February 2007.  “She was the strongest person I knew” said Charles. “She was powerful in a strong way.  If she set her sights to do something, she did it in a dignified way. …A lot of people think celebrity comes with a burden.  Barbara never did. Along with her inner strength she had this ability to accept everybody, in all walks of life. Ask anybody in the business, she was one of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to come across….She had a special quality that was infectious, that everybody loved.”

A New York reporter wrote of a 1982 performance – “Ms McNair is a gorgeous looking woman with a warm, easy, communicative personality and a voice that can range from softly intense ballads to the edges of gospel, to crisp and rhythmic comedy or to a saloon singer’s belt.”

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.CO.UK

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.COM

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS - July 2018

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS – July 2018

L.T.D: SOMETHING TO LOVE/TOGETHERNESS/DEVOTION/SHINE ON (ROBINSONGS)
The ten-piece group, Love, Togetherness, Devotion, with Jeffrey Osborne on lead vocals, made heavy musical inroads during the seventies, and just released is a reminder of the impact they made. Hailing from North Carolina, the unit, with a changing membership, signed with A&M Records in 1974 to start their journey which, due to the fierce competition from the likes of the Commodores, Maze and Gap Band, made their escape from the ‘also ran’ level that much harder. However, L.T.D held their own to release some dynamic slices of disco and ballad, with sweet grooves, stomping funk, set against textured vocals. And this is typified by the four albums here – “Something To Love” and “Togetherness” (1977/1978); “Devotion” and “Shine On” (1979/1980). There’s an elaborate mix in this melting pot of music, including the group’s mega-selling “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again” with its commanding commercial funk styling, and the solid dancer “Never Get Enough Of Your Love”. Of the ballads, check out the smooth and mellow “(Won’t Cha) Stay With Me”, hugely attractive; likewise “We Both Deserve Each Other’s Love”, “Concentrate On You” and the tear jerking “Where Did We Go Wrong”. Then switch over to “We Party Hearty”, complete with its chanted chorus, sitting alongside the gospel influenced “Make Someone Smile, Today”. “Share My Love” is another yearning slowie, while “Stranger” has an interesting take on adultery. Then saunter into another pair of thoughtful gentleness with “Will Love Grow” and “Lady Love”. Some of the songs here lack the magic of the moment but all evoke memories of the past. Will their cultural musical impact travel across the decades? I don’t know. However, what I’ve heard I liked very much.
Rating: 8

LAKESIDE: SHOT OF LOVE/ROUGH RIDERS/FANTASTIC VOYAGE (ROBINSONGS)
Three albums on a double CD package from a group that was tagged ’The Rolling Stones of Funk’ because no act wanted to follow them on stage, although that doesn’t really live up to the music included here. Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, let’s talk Lakeside. Born from The Nomads, The Montereys, The Young Underground, and the Ohio Lakeside Express, with a succession of changing members, the group eventually edited its name to Lakeside. Managed by Dick Griffey, they hooked up with Frank Wilson who signed them to Motown in 1974, for an unproductive tenure. When Frank switched to ABC Dunhill in 1976, the group followed. A year later, Lakeside issued their eponymous album featuring “If I Didn’t Have You”. Long story short, after being feted by several record companies, they joined Griffey’s Solar Records. Incidentally, Norman Whitfield was also seriously interested in securing them for Whitfield Records, but when Griffey offered them the additional option to compose and co-produce their own material, it was a no-brainer.

Released during 1978, “Shot Of Love” featured the top five R&B hit “It’s All The Way Live”, and “Given In To Love”, a top eighty R&B hit. A year on, “Rough Riders” followed with the extracted singles, “Pull My Strings” and “From 9.00 Until”; both were top fifty hits. However, it was “Fantastic Voyage” which proved to be their biggest selling album yet, soaring into the top twenty pop chart. The title track topped the R&B singles chart for seven weeks, later crashing into the top sixty pop listing, while its follow-up “Your Love Is On The One” hit the R&B top twenty, bypassing the mainstream market this time. Exceeding all expectations, this album elevated Lakeside into a bankable unit.

From here, a string of R&B hits followed, sustaining their pulling power into the eighties. Griffey’s Solar set up had a heavyweight presence in the market place, affording their artists meaty promotion and support, but when the in house competition included Shalamar, The Whispers and Midnight Starr, perhaps Lakeside didn’t get the attention they deserved. Their music across these two CDs goes from nowhere to everywhere, with a balanced diet of dance, funk and ballad. Presentation is faultless yet some of the tracks are sub-standard inasmuch that they’ve not travelled the years gracefully. There’s earthy, gritty sides; sentimental and emotional going hand in hand, but I do feel some of the tracks are pieced together, lacking the essential ingredient that stamps its mark on a hit song. Having said that, I enjoyed what I heard but, I’m afraid, nothing left me begging for more.
Rating: 6

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

She never sang a note or wrote a lyric, but she was as essential to Motown as any of the label’s artists and producers. Who am I talking about? Yup, you guessed it… Mrs. Maxine Powell.

“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing at Motown” said Smokey Robinson in 2013.  “It didn’t matter who you became during the course of your career, how many hits you had, or how well your name was known around the world, two days a week when you were back in Detroit, you had to go to Artists Development. You went there and learned so many things about being in show business.”

So let’s briefly reflect on Mrs. Powell’s early life and how she hooked up with Motown.  Born on 30 May 1915, Maxine Blair was raised by an aunt in Chicago. As a teenager she started acting, eventually appearing with the Negro Drama League, a black repertory company there. From this, she worked as a model, before training as a cosmetologist and manicurist at Madam C.J. Walker’s School of Beauty Culture.  During 1958, the 43-year-old black American etiquette coach moved to Detroit to open her own Finishing and Modelling School in Detroit for African-Americans and, as a talent scout, instigated black productions in theatres, and placed black models in advertising campaigns. To this end, she had three female models, two male and two children on her books, with major clients of Packard, Dodge and Chrysler.  She hosted an annual show, and one particular year wanted to produce a souvenir programme to celebrate the occasion. The Gordy Printing Company, run by Mrs. Esther Gordy and her brother Fuller, was recommended as being the best in Detroit. This marked Mrs. Powell’s first introduction to the family.  Esther’s husband, George Edwards, was a state representative, and intended to run for a seat on Detroit’s City Council.  As Mrs. Powell had an empty office in her property, The Ferry Centre, comprising a large ballroom, private party room, bar, banquet kitchen and five offices, she offered it to George Edwards. Esther became her husband’s campaign manager and, as the Gordy family was notoriously close knit, members often popped by to help him out. Through these visits it became clear that Mrs. Bertha Gordy Snr. was interested in personal development, later signing up for one of Mrs. Powell’s courses:  likewise Loucye and Esther.  Gwen Gordy went on to become one of her models. This was, of course, pre-Motown, where friendships were cemented and working relationships developed.

Prior to Mrs. Powell joining Motown, she was introduced to fledgling artists because they were showcased in her downstairs ballroom.  Indeed, when Berry Gordy penned “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, she was asked to watch his performance then asked to critique it. From here, Berry Gordy asked her to open the ‘Motown Finishing School.’   Once he began signing artists to his new record label, he encouraged them to attend Mrs. Powell’s classes, but it wasn’t obligatory.   “When I met the artists, they were young. They came from humble beginnings and not all, but some of them, were rude and crude, and from the streets and the Projects” she once said. “It’s not where they came from, but where they were heading.  (They’re) gonna learn how to perform, gonna graduate and become great performers.” She called them ‘diamonds in the rough’.  Personal grooming included artists being taught how to walk, the proper way to smoke a cigarette, the graceful way to walk up and down stairs, to jump on a piano, and the correct way to enter and alight from a vehicle without showing a bare leg or underwear. She was quick to point out that she had nothing to do with voice – “I teach them to smile and be beautiful, because every time you smile, every muscle in your body is relaxed for that split second.  And some of them turned out to be rubies and emeralds.”

Each act was also trained to perform an original stage show, with dances and dialogue worked out for them. Even the adlibbing was rehearsed.  Their choreography was painstakingly thought out, right down to holding the microphone, and the many ways of using it effectively.  “Nobody was forced to do anything” Mrs. Powell told the Respect programme.  “I was there only to enrich their life and help them skip to the bank…if they weren’t interested in that, then that was OK.” However, those artists who recognised the value in her classes were told to listen and follow the positive guidelines she offered, saying – “…You’re getting a basic finishing background to do anything you want to do in life…..When I told them you’re going to travel to appear in number one places around the country, and even before the King and Queen, they didn’t believe it.  All they wanted was a hit record. ”

The School was the only one of its kind offered at any record company, and Berry Gordy often joked that he still remembers Mrs. Powell’s aphorisms like – “Do not confuse me with your parents.  They’re stuck with you, I’m not” and “Do not protrude your buttocks.”

However, Marvin Gaye was one artist who believed he didn’t need any training in what he called ‘the charm school’. Mrs. Powell agreed that he may not need her help as much as others, but his biggest failing was singing with his eyes closed, giving the appearance he was singing in his sleep.  She told him – “You can close your eyes for a certain gesture but your eyes are the mirrors of your soul….so we (had) to work on that.”  She also suggested he could improve his walk because he led with his shoulders and head.  His ears should be straight with his shoulders, she told him.  So they worked together until she was satisfied.

She also recalled Diana Ross being a dedicated hard worker, claiming, no other artist matched the hours she put in.  However, when The Supremes sang “Baby Love”, Mrs. Powell told them they were making faces, while Diana opened her mouth so wide it appeared she was about to swallow the microphone.  “We worked on expressing….looking pleasant and with a smile and maybe a gesture.  How to handle the mic (ensuring) the mic didn’t handle you…..All a singer needs is voice and expression.  Anything else you have is an asset to your profession.”  She also encouraged Diana not to look or lean forward, rather push her hip bones forward – “like pushing them up under your chin.”  This created the correct posture. Next on the agenda was how to walk – one foot in front of the other, and further, she said – “The torso of the body should never move.  All you need to walk is to lift your feet and let the action carry the body.”  In later years Diana Ross acknowledged – “Mrs. Powell was the person who taught me everything I know.”

The Temptations’ debut at New York’s Copacabana proved to be a logistical problem for the group until Mrs. Powell came up with the solution.  As there was no stage and restricted space for them to perform in the way that they usually did at other venues, like the Fox Theatre for example, she suggested – “I want all five of you to stand and touch fingers. Stretch your arms out and touch your fingers together, that’s all the space you need to perform. If you cover every inch of where your fingers are, you’ve done (it)”.

Mrs. Powell said Martha Reeves was adorable to work it.  She didn’t only concentrate on herself but also her Vandellas, always teaching them what she had learned.  “(Martha) wasn’t into the real glamour clothes….(but) they always looked nice. “  Mrs. Powell remembered that when the trio was part of the Motown Revue, Martha wasn’t as secure as she wanted to be and often did not feel good about herself.  “So it would take her, maybe, until twelve o’clock to …get herself together where she could feel relaxed and talk to people.”  The two worked together and in time Martha overcame her fears.  Years later in an interview with The Observer newspaper, Martha acknowledged her gratitude: “Everything I do and every move I make has to do with her teachings…She also taught us how to dance with our feet. Today, a lot of women in this business dance with their bodies.  The camera strikes them at the pelvis first, then goes to their faces.  Mrs. Powell showed us how to use our feet, which moved our bodies with elegance.  What she taught me was class and self-worth.”

In another interview with The Guardian during 2013, Martha remembered that as black artists they had to overcome all aspects of racial discrimination, including being denied the use of a toilet or not being allowed to eat in restaurants. “She taught us how to tolerate, to sustain and to persevere.  And she was right.  I survived.”  When Mrs. Powell was in her nineties, they hung out as friends with Martha, once elected to Detroit’s City Council, hiring her to assist her at council functions and charity events. –“(Mrs.. Powell) knew a lot about politics and Detroit. How it ran. She was very aware of everything, a font of information, and a well respected figure in the city.”  Mrs.. Powell also helped Martha write speeches, make connections, while becoming her confidante.  She also refused to tell her real age, at ninety-two, because “people think you’re useless”. All told, Martha continued, Mrs.. Powell served four years doing community liaison by visiting retirement homes, encouraging old folks to get up and dance, and to schools where the young people might have disapproved of two elderly ladies telling them what to do.  “But, she’d have them up and walking, showing them how to be proud and walk without a swag.”

The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers warmly remembered Mrs. Powell as a stickler for positive behaviour – “She deserves all the credit and admiration she gets.  What a wonderful addition to Motown she’s been.”  The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir said, “She taught us all etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do.  That’s artist development.”  And, Berry Gordy told her, “You have style.”

Mrs. Powell insisted she was overwhelmingly proud of all the performers she worked with, telling journalist Jeff Karbour that “This has been a blessing.  I thank God for allowing me to be here….I’m very proud of them because you don’t hear a lot of negative things about Motown artists.”

Mrs. Maxine Powell always radiated a natural dignity and grace, delicately mannered and primly dressed from her shoes to her obligatory hat.  And this is how we remembered her up to her death in October 2013 in Southfield’s Providence Hospital.  Her actual cause of death was said to have been associated with her declining health following a fall on 31 May.  Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by close friends and her Motown family.

Berry Gordy – “The Motown legacy would not be what it is today if not for her.”