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!

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

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motown Spotlight - May 2018

Motown Spotlight – May 2018

As the sun is shining and all is good with the world, let’s dispense with the usual banter to revisit the excellent “Baby I’ve Got It! More Motown Girls” CD, which I started talking about last month, giving overviews of the featured artists.  So, in no particular order, here’s a similar few random words about the remaining ladies, starting with Ann Bogan, who, as you know, replaced Gladys Horton in The Marvelettes.  A native of Cleveland, she was a member of The Challenger III group with whom she recorded three singles for Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label, including “Honey Honey Honey” in June 1962, followed by “Every Day” credited to the Challengers 3 featuring Ann Bogan. She also duetted with Harvey on “What Can You Do”.  When Tri-Phi was absorbed into Motown, Ann became a company artist, and before replacing Gladys Horton sang lead on The Andantes’ 1964 single “(Like A) Nightmare”.  Marlene Barrow-Tate recalled in the book “Motown From The Background” that Harvey – “brought her from Cleveland to record in Detroit.  We needed a lead voice and she was the strong lead singer.  We had wished and hoped for a record.  She sang lead on ‘(Like A) Nightmare’ but our dream never materialised.  There was no real effort to put us out there or promote us.  The song was recorded and that was it…..We were happy with it and it was a good sound we had with Ann.”

Gladys Horton told author Marc Taylor in “The Original Marvelettes” book, that when she first heard Ann sing, “Her voice was just so dynamic…Ann had that gospel voice.”  The first post-Gladys release was “My Baby Must Be A Magician”, another written and produced for the ladies by Smokey Robinson, and by 1968 Ann was elevated to lead voice on “I’m Gonna Hold On As Long As I Can”.  However, it’s thought there are still several unreleased tracks featuring Ann on lead, but, for now, featured on this compilation is her version of “There Are Things”, also recorded by Tammi Terrell using the same backing track.

The pioneering black singer and actress, Barbara McNair is featured here with “You’ve Got Possibilities” from the short-running Broadway musical “It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman”, which is a beautiful contribution here from an equally beautiful lady. Born in Chicago and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, Barbara’s first break came when Max Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard Club, offered her a spot on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show.  Moving on a few years, she signed to Coral Records, and as an actress played a minor singing role in the 1963 film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda. Two years later, with ambitions to break the adult listening market, Berry Gordy secured her because he believed she would add a sophisticated Hollywood touch to his roster of artists. During her tenure she was credited with a pair of official albums “Here I Am” and “The Real Barbara McNair” in 1966 and 1969 respectively. However, she further recorded with Smokey Robinson but it seems Berry was rather reluctant to release the results. Thankfully, in later years, several of the tracks were liberated. One of her most talked about films was “If He Hollers Let Him Go” during 1968, not due to her acting expertise but rather her nude sequences.  She promoted the film by posing for a Playboy spread which she said – “helped my career immensely.” Then the lady also starred as Sidney Poitier’s wife in the 1970 film “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” and its sequel “The Organisation”.  A year earlier, she played a nun in the Elvis Presley movie “Change Of Habit”, when she told The Washington Post – “I find movie acting a more rewarding kind of work than singing.  When I’m working in a club I must go from one song to another rapidly and I don’t have much time to express myself emotionally.  In a movie, you can concentrate on one scene at a time.”  In between times, she hosted her own television variety programme “The Barbara McNair Show” from 1969-1972.

“I spent a long time trying to get Norman Whitfield interested in producing me., but he was always tied up working with The Temptations, Gladys Knight and The Undisputed Truth”. So sayeth Yvonne Fair in a seventies interview.  In the end he succumbed, agreeing to record the single “Funky Music Sho’ Nuff Turns Me On” on her. So pleased was he with the result that he went on to record the “Bitch Is Black” album, containing her immortal version of “It Should Have Been Me” and the delicious “It’s Bad For Me To See You.”  Aside from the music, the album’s artwork also raised eyebrows because it showed the singer brandishing a whip. In fact, when I first saw it I wondered “what the hell?” The whip, she said, was only significant to the album’s actual title – “People think of me as being a little bitchy on stage and that’s where the title came from originally.  I’m not into that way-out stuff.  I don’t dress like Labelle, for example, but I like to think of my music as having a little of their style and quality about it, with a bit of Tina Turner thrown in.” However, included here isn’t a Norman Whitfield track but rather Yvonne’s take on the Barbara George track “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)”, recorded prior to her first outing “Stay A Little Longer”.   Born in Richmond, Virginia, Yvonne was an established artist before she hooked up with Motown, having sung with The Chantels and James Brown, with whom she had a child Venisha, and recorded “I Found You” which James later re-worked into “I Got You (I Feel Good)”.  It seems that between 1962 – 1966 Yvonne recorded a total of five singles with the James Brown Band including the beforementioned title, “Say So Long” and “You Can Make It If You Try”.  Despite being a singer to be reckoned with, Yvonne was overlooked as a Motown artist.

“I started out as a writer, but once I got into recording it took all my time to get into learning how to perform,” Mary Wells told Wayne Jancik in 1980. “I learned how to walk on and off stage….and got more into being an artist.” When she was auditioned by Berry Gordy, only the Tamla label was in existence and she dearly wanted to join it as it was making itself heard in Detroit.  However, Berry had other ideas; he planned to open another, Motown, and wanted Mary to be one of its first new artists. “I was kinda disappointed about it because Motown wasn’t anything then.”  Berry won out because after a staggering 22 takes, “Bye Bye Baby” was her debut release.  “During that time they had one-track recording.  No-one could make any mistakes.  The singer and musicians had to come out perfect. …I was pretty hoarse but it came out great, more churchy and bluesy.”  From here, Mary was slowly elevated into the position of Motown’s first Queen, thanks to the unprecedented success of “My Guy”, written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  Detroit-born into a poor but hard working family, Mary was shy to the extreme, with no ambition to become a professional singer. Her intention was to work behind the public spotlight, writing songs for other artists, but fate had other plans for her, because within a few months this typical Detroit teenager was the biggest-selling black female artist.  The included remake of “She Don’t Love You” with strings was recorded in an outside studio, date unknown, and has only recently been liberated, gradually filling in the recording gaps in Mary’s somewhat checkered career.

Featured twice on this CD is the multi-award winning musical family who, I think it’s fair to say, has carved a place in our hearts, thanks to the run of platinum music driven by Gladys Knight. Here we have “Is This Why (I Gave My Love To You)”, co-written by Debbie Dean, and the CD’s opening track, “In My Heart I Know It’s Right”, a Marvin Gaye, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua composition. In her autobiography “Between Each Line Of Pain And Glory”, she wrote that prior to Motown, Gladys Knight and the Pips were already a successful group with selling power, and she mulled over whether joining them was right for them. Would they be promoted as a priority act or, as she put it, be a stepchild in that environment?  In other words, what could the company do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves?  Being a group ahead of its time by having formed their own corporation with a profit-sharing plan and a pension and being experienced in booking and money management, they were confident they could avoid future pitfalls the company might throw at them. So a group vote was taken and they signed a seven-year contract with Berry Gordy because, they decided, they wanted his hit making power.  However, it became apparent from day one that they were not going to be Berry Gordy’s priority – “We were relegated to the lower tier of Motown acts with The Monitors and The Spinners. Some of their members had to do odd jobs around Hitsville in order to keep their pay cheques coming.” They doubled as chauffeurs and go-fers until it was their time to record but, she insisted, her group carried nobody’s coats. Their ground level status was further evident she wrote – “(When) we’d hear about parties at Berry’s house and company picnics after they happened, which is usually a clear sign that we weren’t on the A-list.”

Marvin Gaye once said – “Kim Weston’s a great gal and we became very close friends. Working with her (on their ‘Take Two’ album) fulfilled my need to do something different.  It was acting.  It was an escape for me. I could imagine with Kim, for instance, that we were innocent young lovers.” While the lady herself told Susan Whitall – “He was a very shy person when I knew him; very gentle, very sweet and concerned, and very protective of me.” In actual fact, Kim and Marvin had travelled together prior to recording their duets.  Following the release of her “Love Me All The Way”/”It Should Have Been Me” on Tamla in February 1963, she toured as his co-star. “So we did that for three/four years before we recorded together. He was recording with Mary Wells while I was travelling with him.  Unfortunately, we never did any duets together (on stage).” Hence, she was the obvious choice to partner him on vinyl when Mary left the company. Meanwhile, Mickey Stevenson also told Ms Whitall that Kim was his best singer ever – “(She) had a great voice, an absolutely great gift. It was like steel sometimes. She’d hit certain notes, and it could shatter a house.”  Kim’s featured with a pair of titles, “So Long”, the closing theme of the Russ Morgan Orchestra, and “I Up And Think Of You”, one of fifty Robert Hamilton productions in Motown’s vaults, originally recorded by Linda Griner which, by all accounts, is still waiting to surface.

When Brenda Holloway was sixteen-years-old, she worked with Barry White, and on the Donna label with her sister Patrice. “Patrice had a hit when I was eighteen and she was twelve called ‘The Del-Viking’…I used to do the dancing because she was kind of chunky at twelve.”  The sisters also earned a living as background singers for the likes of Tina Turner, The Blossoms and Johnny Rivers. Brenda said her relationship with Berry Gordy was totally unique, likening herself to his adopted child – “…As far as being part of the (Gordy) family, I was adopted and wanted.  And I didn’t come there (Motown) broke…I was refined, I’ve always been refined.” It appears Berry trusted Brenda and her instincts because she was focused and regimented.  Staying out all night partying wasn’t her way – “I didn’t believe in that because I knew I had to get up the next day.”  And then when she was cranky, he’d tell her to stay in her room – “Just like a little kid!…but he loved me, he wanted me on his label.  He enjoyed my singing and enjoyed me as an artist.” Her contributions here, “Without Love You Lose A Good Feelin’” and the CD’s title “Baby I’ve Got It”, are as different as chalk and cheese.  The first title was, seemingly, one of 150 tracks Brenda recorded but canned, while the second, is her version of the flipside of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted”, while a version by Little Lisa lingers in the vaults.

Talking of Patrice, her final remaining song from the vaults is included here, “In Your Heart”, although the recording date is not known.  Frank Wilson once said – “Patrice was beautiful.  She was sassy. She was extraordinarily creative and way ahead of her generation.  I loved her very much”. While Sherrie Matthews commented – “…Her personality was always so cheerful….She had one of the best voices I ever had the pleasure to sing with.”  Born in Los Angeles, shortly after her family relocated from Atascadero, she joined Motown shortly after Brenda, where she worked with Smokey Robinson.  However, her name was etched in the history books when she co-wrote the iconic “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, among other titles. However, one Patrice single did sneak out, her tribute to Little Stevie Wonder, “Stevie”/”He Is The Boy Of My Dreams”, penned by Frank Wilson, released on the VIP label during 1964, where she, as a twelve-year-old played the role of a much older woman.  Apparently, there are other tracks credited to her, like, Smokey’s “For The Love Of Mike”, a cover of The Supremes’ “Those DJ Shows” and a duet with Brenda titled “Come Into My Palace”. Given that Motown’s promotion of her sister lacked direction and enthusiasm, Patrice didn’t stand a chance, and she became an early casualty in 1964 but her time would arrive by signing with Capitol Records.

Katherine Anderson told a radio presenter on WRDV-FM that Berry Gordy chose the name Marvelettes. When he first saw them perform he apparently said – “Those girls are marvellous.”  However, there’s been several stories handed down through the years about the name, but I’ve opted to stick with this one (for now!). Their association with Berry when they first signed was tight, but she added – “As the company grew he became more distant because he had to spread himself in different directions.  Primarily a lot of things came from within ourselves.”  Although Smokey Robinson had a huge influence over them, that didn’t restrict them from working with other writers and producers. “Everybody pretty much knew that Smokey was Berry’s boy, therefore he was able to get things (done) and he did very well for us….It’s always been said that when we came along, girl groups didn’t last that long, and I never knew the reason. Thank God we made it for ten years.”

With the one-time membership of Katherine, Gladys Horton, Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins (who was replaced by Wanda Young) the ladies enjoyed Motown’s first number one crossover hit with “Please Mr Postman”.  To celebrate the achievement, Berry bought each girl a diamond ring, and worked with them as they catapulted into teenage idols, releasing a further run of hit singles as they climbed. The ladies topped the first national Motown Revue in 1962, and by the time they returned to Detroit, Gladys had hooked up with Hubert Johnson, and Georgeanna with Billy Gordon, both from The Contours, and Wanda with The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers. Love bus indeed! Then Juanita decided to leave the line-up, whereupon The Marvelettes continued as a quartet.  Katherine remembered – “In those days we had a very demanding schedule (sometimes) performing up to seven shows a night.  Juanita found it hard and decided to pursue other interests.”  The last time the group worked together was early in 1969 at Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club. An era had ended, but their legacy continues thanks to compilations like this, where the first version of “Playboy” is included, alongside “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”, their take on The Chiffon’s smash and, actually featuring Wanda with the ladies and not The Andantes, which was sometimes the case with other recordings.

When asked what her favourite song is, Martha Reeves always says every tune is special to her.  And further – “Every song that I’ve sung I’ve had to place myself in a situation so that I can believe in it.”  In particular she cited “My Baby Loves Me” where uninvited tears spring into her eyes, and – “I get a special warmth when I feel ‘Come And Get These Memories’ coming on.  ‘Jimmy Mach’, I’ll find him one day, while ‘Dancing In The Street’ means that you can get a group of people together to enjoy music and dancing and just let yourselves go.”   Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson and Ivory Joe Hunter wrote the track when the Detroit riots were scourging the city and, she said – “It was an effort to get everybody to dance and sing. Basically, to spread music, because music has always been what soothes the souls of the world.”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas represent all that is good about Motown, and as their lead singer, she has always been the ideal ambassador to promote the company.  Their popularity, particularly in the UK, is as solid and strong as it’s ever been, proven by their regular visits to sold out venues.  Two tracks here have caused huge interest; for starters, check out “Mr Misery (Let Me Be)”, where the group has added their vocals to the backing track used by The Miracles, and, secondly, the “Come And Get These Memories” soundalike with “I’m Willing To Pay The Price”. One thing I didn’t know until now was that Martha appeared in “Fairy Tales”, an x-rated movie, although she hastened to add she kept her clothes on!  “I’m seen coming out of this cauldron bubble which is my first time singing on the large screen”, she explained in a 1981 interview. “It was quite different because I’m just basically a singer (but) I see now though that if you open your mind and you study, you can do anything.”

Phew – we’ve made it!  I’m just hoping I’ve not run out of space this month to round off this wonderful “Baby I’ve Got It” release, and, of course, that these quirky notes have brought some of the tracks alive.

 
 

Motown Spotlight - April 2018

Motown Spotlight – April 2018


Here come the girls! More Motown ladies to be precise, courtesy of the new CD release “Baby I’ve Got It!” from Ace Records, offering a grand twenty-four tracks from names we’re familiar with and some we’ve missed on the way. This month and next they’ll all get a mention, with our thanks for their contribution to laying the foundation of what was to become “The Sound of Young America.” And, like most things I write about, there’s no particular order here because The Lollipops kick off the proceedings. Signed to Harry Balk’s Impact label in Detroit, the group became Motown artists rather by default when Balk sold his label to Berry Gordy in 1967. While Harry became a producer, The Lollipops – Arenita Walker (lead and songwriter), Joyce Walker and Angela Allen – cut nine tracks while signed. The VIP outing “Cheating, Is Telling On You”/”Need Your Love” in October 1969 was originally scheduled for the Gordy label, but here we have the doo-wop inspired “There Was”. Incidentally, on the previous UK compilation “Love And Affection”, their “Go For Yourself” track, which was left incomplete, got its first outing on this CD. I’m thinking that could be it from this relatively unknown trio which is annoying to a Motown writer like myself!

Ashford and Simpson’s “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” was recorded as the follow-up to their “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” for Rita Wright. Despite the fact this latter single bombed at the time – but later became a much wanted gem – the composing duo were given the green light to work again with Rita, even though Tammi Terrell had already stored her version of the song in the “pending release file”. By the way, Blinky Williams also recorded the song using the same backing track. Rita’s recording of “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” wasn’t completed until it was unearthed for this new CD – and it’s brilliant. Ms Wright once said she had rebelled against Motown’s executives’ plans of pushing her into a jazzier direction, preferring to stick with the styling of the Ashford and Simpson compositions. “If I had listened, especially to Mr Gordy, I would have had a more successful run at Motown fame.” So, when Berry suggested a name change to Syreeta, saying it sounded more glamorous, she readily agreed. Life began to change for the young singer: from working with, and later marrying, Stevie Wonder, she took giant steps towards becoming a respected composer and singer. In between times, she recorded demos, including The Supremes’ “Love Child” and Diana Ross’ “Something’s On My Mind”, and when Diana left the trio Berry Gordy considered replacing her with Syreeta instead of Jean Terrell. The move was vetoed by Mary Wilson. Solo success did find Syreeta in the early seventies thanks to hits like “Spinnin’ And Spinnin’”, “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the biggest selling of all, “With You I’m Born Again”, her duet with Billy Preston. Her sister Kim said at the time of Syreeta’s death in 2004, “She was a totally incredible person. She was always searching, always looking for, I’d like to say ‘enlightenment’ but it sounds too ‘woo-woo’. She was always trying to find out what was right and what was true.”

Tracks by LaBrenda Ben have been featured on the previous “Motown Girls” collections, including “Fugitive”, a heavyweight tune, and here she is again. The singer worked with George Fowler, who introduced her to Motown in 1962. They later married, and when he left the company to become a minister, she went with him. But here, on “Bad News”, LaBrenda Benn recorded with Mickey Stevenson and Jo Hunter as producers, which was originally available during 2014 as a digital download, but due to pressure from fans, it’s now released on CD for the first time. Her second track, “It’s All Right” is her take on The Impressions 1963 R&B hit. It’s so frustrating not to have information about artists like this lady because, like you, I’m a stickler for a complete story. However, what I do know is that the first single credited to LaBrenda Ben and the Beljeans, issued on the Gordy label in 1962, was “Camel Walk/The Chaperone”. The A-side was also credited to Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas on the Tamla label, while “Chaperone” was re-issued on the Motown label to satisfy Northern Soul fans. This was followed by LaBrenda Ben’s solo “Just Be Yourself/I Can’t Help It, I’ve Got To Dance” a year later. It’s not clear who comprised the Beljeans although one suggestion was they were the Andantes. Whatever and whoever, LaBrenda Ben and her group became early roster casualties.

Formerly known as Lisa Miller, Little Lisa was 11 years old when she recorded “Keep Away” with the Funk Brothers. Daughter of Kay of the gifted Lewis Sisters, who were already composing and recording for Motown, Lisa recorded at least twelve sides including the solitary single “Hang On Bill” – a re-working of “Hold On Pearl” by Bob Kayli (Robert Gordy) – issued on the VIP label in 1965. Records show that the young girl also recorded versions of “Sweeter As The Days Go By”, “Baby, I’ve Got It”, and “Honey Boy” released by The Supremes and Mary Wells, a rendition of The Marvelettes’ “Daddy Knows Best”, and “Choo Choo Train” which was added to “A Cellarful Of Motown -Volume 2”. Her mother, Kay, said in the notes for “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 5” – “I really had no idea she could sing. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I always took her with us when we went on Motown dates.” She also remembered her daughter needed to climb up on a box to reach the microphone, and that the intention was for Lisa to record demos for other artists. Still as a teenager and now known as Leeza Miller, she did voiceovers on the Fantastic Four series, playing principally Frankie Ray and Nova. From Motown, she hooked up with Trident Records to release “Does She Know”, before switching to Canterbury Records, owned by Mattel Toys. The operation was overseen by Ken Handler, the real life model for Barbie doll’s partner! It appears her aunt and mother were the label’s A&R directors, writing and producing for Joanie Sommers, Alex Valdez and Yellow Balloon, among others. As Lisa Miller, she worked with the Lewis Sisters to record the “Within Myself” album, from which a Christmas single “The Loneliest Christmas Tree” was lifted in 1967. Cyclone Records were next, where she recorded “Castles In The Sky”, again working with the Lewis Sisters. Then during the late eighties, Motorcity Records’ Ian Levine recorded Lisa as Leeza Miller, on a two tracks “Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Sign Of A Heartache, while her biggest achievement of all was working with Sergio Mendes in 1983 where she sang lead on “Never Gonna Let You Go”.

I’ve mentioned the Lewis Sisters, Helen and Kay, and of course they’re featured on this CD with their self penned “Honey Don’t Leave Me” with – check this out – Gloria Jones, Blinky Wiliams and Edna Wright on backing vocals. Edna, by the way, was working as a secretary in Motown’s West Coast office at the time. The Sisters’ talent gradually came into the public domain as, alongside their two singles, it was surprising, yet gratifying, to learn just how much backroom work they achieved for other acts. Working as writers and recording demo tracks for the likes of The Supremes, it seems they also recorded forty plus songs themselves. Of course, the classic, all-time diamond we know and love, “You Need Me” remains high on any soul fans’ list of favourites; mine included. Atmospherically exciting with echo-bathed vocals, or as one reviewer put it, the song was given “a cavernous uptown sound, with sumptuous strings rising and falling”, it was so untypical of the Motown sound. Kay Lewis said Berry Gordy produced the session – and it was frightening! “He was wonderful. Berry became a really close friend of ours too, but at the time it was a little scary. The added reverb happened when Helen and I went back to Detroit. He wanted it to sound like the Righteous Brothers.” This was the final single although they continued to write for Motown through to 1966, and, of course, they played a cameo role in the 1972 movie “Lady Sings The Blues”, starring Diana Ross playing the lead role of Billie Holiday.

In the extremely informative booklet accompanying “Baby I’ve Got It!” Thelma Brown contacted the compilers to talk about her stay at Motown, and, if I may, I’ll liberate a few words here. In 1963, when she was 12 years old and performing at the Elks Club in her home town of Lockport, New York, she was heard by Harvey Fuqua and his wife Gwen Gordy. They liked what they heard and invited her to stay with them at their Detroit house for the summer to “do some singing”. This later led to her recording four tracks at Hitsville, with talk of her duetting with Stevie Wonder, which, for some reason, never happened. Thelma’s recordings – “Dear Parents”, “Cookie Boy” and “Dance Yeah Dance” (which appeared on the “Finders Keepers – Motown Girls 1961-67”) were among Harvey and Gwen’s first productions, and when their Harvey and Tri Phi labels amalgamated with Berry Gordy, Thelma became a Motown artist. “Cookie Boy”, included here, was recorded in August 1963, and once the summer holiday with Harvey and Gwen was over, Thelma returned home. She subsequently heard nothing from anyone at Motown and certainly remained in the dark as to the fate of her recording sessions. That is, until she heard “Dance Yeah Dance” had been released on CD. Apparently, Thelma never professionally performed again and contented herself with being a wife, mother and grandmother. However, she said, what a great way to spend a summer holiday.

Berry Gordy signed the big-voiced and big-haired Liz Lands to crack the R&B market. With her six octave vocal range, he felt she was the ideal vehicle to give Motown the presence it needed. Of the 100 or so songs she recorded between 1963-64 only a handful were released. Mostly were spirituals or standard tunes, with the exception of “It’s Crazy Baby”, included here. Recognised from her promotional pictures as the lady with the beehive hair atop her head, Liz was born in 1939 in the Georgian Islands and relocated to New York City when she was five years old. Studying classical music, she was tethered to Dr Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she first met Berry Gordy in Detroit. This led to her debut single, “We Shall Overcome” being issued on Motown’s short-lived Divinity imprint during 1963. The inspiriting gospel performance was later re-issued on Gordy with the flipside of Martin Luther King’s resounding speech “I Have A Dream”. Also released in the December was a tribute to the fallen President John Kennedy titled “May What He Lived For Live”. Berry Gordy had supported the young, handsome President and intended to use this song, which he co-wrote, as a means of his respect and love. Copies of the single were actually sent to the White House, whereupon it appears Jackie Kennedy wrote back with her thanks. Berry Gordy needed to push Ms Lands into the mainstream market, so opted to record the above-average pop song “Midnight Johnny” with The Temptations and The Andantes as support vocalists. Using The Temptations was a wise move as “The Way You Do The Things You Do” was rapidly climbing the American chart. “Midnight Johnny” was later covered by Connie Haines, while its flipside “Keep Me” was re-done by The Originals. In hindsight, Liz’s single didn’t stand a chance because she was sandwiched between Motown’s A-team that included Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street”, The Contours’ “Can You Jerk Like Me?”, and, of course, the quickly rising Temptations. With her career a non-starter hit-wise, it ended before it had really started, so she left Motown to join the Chicago-based One-derful Records during 1967 to issue “One Man’s Poison” in particular.

Finally in this month’s tribute to some of Motown’s pioneering ladies of song – Miss Oma Page, sister of Gene and Billy, respected composers and producers. In between his duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, it transpired Marvin Gaye had recorded with Oma Heard. However, further investigation led to her surname generating a mystery, to put it mildly. So, let’s see if I can get this right. Oma Heard was introduced to Motown when Mary Wells left with the intention of replacing her. Marvin recorded five duets with her, four of which appeared on the 1990 “Marvin Gaye Collection” box set where she was credited incorrectly as Oma Page. According to “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 4” notes, the confusion arose when their duet tapes, recorded in Los Angeles, were transferred to Detroit, and were filed incorrectly under Oma Page. The situation worsened because there was a genuine Oma Page recording already in the can, a version of Carolyn Crawford’s “When Someone’s Good To You”, and that’s included here. Berry Gordy then made the decision not to sign Oma Page so no further recordings were made with her. Phew, hope that’s right now. But it does prove that a typing error can lead to all sorts of bewildering speculations. (Oma Heard’s Motown releases included “Lifetime Man”/”My Lonely Heart” in September 1964 on the VIP imprint, and in November 1969 as part of the girl group Dorothy, Oma & Zelpha on “Henry Blake”, via a licensing deal with Chisa.)

Aw, have run out of space this time, so we’ll continue next month, visiting the tracks by the more heavyweight artists, like Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Patrice Holloway, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Thank you again for your continued support, and hope you’ve found some interest in my overview of one of this year’s most significant releases so far which, once again, has gone a long way to completing our collections and, probably more importantly, reminding us of the unsung heroines who often go unnoticed, yet their contributions to the fledgling company was so momentous.

 

Motown Spotlight - March 2018

Motown Spotlight – March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the entire show on YouTube…

Motown Spotlight February 2018

Motown Spotlight February 2018

Before taking care of business this month, I’d like to thank those of you who contacted me regarding my piece about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell last time. Your positive comments have inspired me to write about Marvin and his other duettists some time in the future.  Meanwhile though, one reader who asked me to share her comments was none other than Motown’s very own Chris Clark, so here goes…

“Tammi was a cheeky, spontaneous, good hearted pleasure! I ran into her at a couple of Berry Gordy’s parties, hanging out at the studio between sessions and backstage for hours between performances at the Fox shows. What I was most aware of is what she wasn’t – she wasn’t judgemental.  She had this wild, warm – I don’t know how to say it, – but it was a spiritedness.  There was a spiritual aspect to it as well. Just like Brenda Holloway.  With Tammi there was this sense of energy.  It wasn’t challenging nor competitive.  It was there, and you were open to join it, no questions asked. It’s possible different people had different reactions to it.  It’s also possible men felt compelled to tame or contain it, and they might have run into different aspects of it.  I always had the sense that she was someone I’d want in the trenches with me if the shit hit the fan.  That she was the kind of girl who would have your back, but also have that kind of ‘Mash Squad’ humour that can almost make the trenches bearable.  And she was such a talent! That should have been my very first sentence.  She had a gift from the Gods and the courage to express it.  And I think she did give Marvin the love he needed, in the only place he’d felt safe enough to accept it, and not self-defeatedly sabotage it – on the stage and also in their music.”

Let’s TCB some more…if you’ve loads of cash to spare and you’re a Mr Robinson fan you might want to visit his store at http://smokeyrobinson.storenvy/com/ because alongside signed pictures, he’s selling a custom made black suit for a cool $1,200 which was designed for him for the Disney television programme “The Magic Man”.  I’ll give you the details as taken from his website – the black suit features a vest, suspenders (what!) and cape. There are silver rhinestones on the collar and cuffs, vest and down the side of the trouser legs.  The item will be signed and accompanied with a Smokey Robinson Collectables Certificate of Authenticity.  Now, this item may have been on offer for some time, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed it, and honestly wonder why such an iconic artist is selling such a personal article unless – and I’ve just thought of this – he’s raising money for one of his charities.

You may remember that Smokey is the executive music producer for a Netflix animated series for children based on the Jobete catalogue of songs.  Apparently each episode in the series draws inspiration from the music of  Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5 and, of course, Smokey, among others.  And it is this musical backdrop that revolves around the adventures of a shy eight-year-old Ben, who is gifted with an artistic ability to bring street art to life.  Living in the imaginary city of Motown, Ben and his friends discover that creativity is magic, bringing vibrancy to their city.   “I’m thrilled to be a part of this wonderful new series that will embrace the magic of Motown and present our songs to a whole new generation of fans and their families.” Smokey said at the time of the press launch. “I’m so impressed with the creative vision for the series and can’t wait to play my part in bringing it to the world.”   Sounds a hugely interesting project, but unfortunately I’ve been unable to discover more current information about it.   Moving on…

Former Supreme, Scherrie Payne is one of the artists involved in a new music project titled ”La La Peace Song” , the brainchild of producer Rick Gianatos. He explained his reasoning behind the song to Pump It Up Magazine. “I was watching riots take place in Ferguson (after police officer Darren Wilson shot dead Michael Brown in 2014). It reminded me of the riots in my home down, Wilmington, Delaware, after Martin Luther King was killed. I felt a strong sense of déjà vu.”  Written by Johnny Bristol and recorded earlier by both Al Wilson and O.C. Smith,  “La La Peace Song” came to mind as a vehicle to raise funds for all victims of violence. Rick and Johnny had met previously in Detroit during Ian Levine’s Motorcity Reunion sessions. “I co-produced several tracks with Johnny.   He was a wonderful talent and a gentleman of a human being.”  (Yes, I agree – he was an ace guy; ultra friendly, easy going, and a delight to be with)

Anyway, “La La Peace Song” is centred around a trio of lead voices, Pam Vincent, Jim Gilstrap and Joyce Vincent, with additional voices that included  Jessica Williams and Scherrie.  Instead of copying the original version which was styled around Johnny’s “Hang On In There Baby”, Rick injected a seventies flavour akin to Faith, Hope And Charity.  With this release he’s hoping to accomplish an awareness to violent crimes, while addiitionally protesting against the current political climate, which, he said, “seems to condone racism, prejudice, separatism and hatred…Music can teach and it also can heal.  I hope ‘La La Peace Song’ can do both.”  There’s two/three different versions of the song – which is so deliciously catchy that it’s almost impossible to get the hookline out of your mind, while the persuasive vocals push home the important message of love  – so suggest you visit the various sites to hear more.  Thanks guys!

Diana Ross now.  Many fans across Europe have flown to Las Vegas to catch her very special and intimate showcase at The Wynn Encore Theatre.  Firstly, Keith Russell reported back to me last year that Diana was on top form, that her voice was faultless, and the incredible evening was one to be remembered.  He saw her three times, if my memory serves me correctly, but Las Vegas itself wasn’t for him.  I’ve also kept track of other fans making the trip, and was recently contacted by Jim Hegerty who saw her perform this month.  After the thoroughly entertaining show, presented in the lady’s impeccable style, Jim presented Diana with an award from her European fans.

Unclear what this was about and how many fans were involved in organising this award, I caught up with him last week, and he told me the award was his idea because he felt the star had received all the major industry accolades and trophies but, to his knowledge, she’d never actually received one from her fans.  “I designed it and paid for it because I’m hoping that as it’s from her European fans it may prompt her to tour here again” he told me. “Diana is testament to longevity.  Her voice is incredible and her stage presence is awesome.”  Incidentally, Fredy Rimando filmed the short question/answer session after the show – although answering questions appears to be something Diana doesn’t do easily, particularly when asked about her RCA days – so used the ‘get out of jail card’ by singing “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” instead. Anyway, you can check out Fredy’s short film on  It’s doubtful at this time that Diana will tour outside America though, unlike her former label mates, Lionel Richie, and the Four Tops and The Temptations.

In June, Mr Richie will be performing at venues he’s never been to before, like the County Cricket Ground in Hove, East Sussex, on 23rd, which is about an hour from where I live. Couldn’t believe my eyes!!  Also included is a pair of headlining dates at London’s Hampton Court Palace Festival on 5th and 6th.  The tour starts on 1st at Northampton’s Franklin Gardens, then moves on to Perth, Lincolnshire, Shrewsbury, Leigh, Carlisle, Scarborough, Chesterfield, ending on 24th at Holkham Hall, near Wells-next-the-Sea.  Tickets were haemorrhaging out the door on the first day of sale, so should imagine the tour is now more or less sold out.  Speaking about his return Lionel said. “I’ve been missing the UK and can’t wait to make my long-hgxaawaited return and to see parts of the country I’ve never made it out to before. The fans are always incredible and they make the atmosphere at every show electric, so I look forward to singing along with them soon.”

As for the Four Tops and The Temptations (and having visited several sites for confirmation) I think the dates are as follows for their arena tour in November.  Kicking off in Glasgow’s SEC Armadillo on the 18th, the two groups move through Leeds, Manchester, Gateshead, Birmingham and Liverpool.  Then switch to a somewhat smaller venue at Southend-On-Sea, before hitting London’s 02, with  closing performances at Bournemouth and Nottingham. Again, for this and Lionel’s tour do please check out the relevant sites, particularly as new dates could be included in the future.

Before leaving this subject, and without being controversial, over the years I’ve been contacted by older fans of both groups saying they would prefer to remember them as they were and not as they are now with Duke Fakir and Otis Williams being the only remaining member in the Tops and Tempts respectively.  I fully appreciate their comments and must add that when I first saw these two current groups, I didn’t connect with them either.  So, like many of those who were with the guys from the outset, I likewise, sadly, said my farewells to them and haven’t been back, preferring to remember the two groups in their original format. God bless them.

Finally,  it has been announced that Ace Records are to release the CD package “Baby I’ve Got It – More Motown Girls”  next month.  Of the twenty-four tracks, it seems sixteen are previously unissued, and the remainder being first available on “Motown Unreleased” downloads between 2014 and 2017.  All tracks on this pending release were recorded between 1961 and 1969, and include Brenda Holloway’s “Baby I’ve Got It” (of course!), Kim Weston’s “So Long”,  Little Lisa’s “Keep Away”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Mr Misery (Let Me Be)” and Barbara McNair’s “You’ve Got Possibilities”, among others. By the way, it took a year to get clearance for these songs and quite possibly this will be the last in the series.  But who knows…..

Thank you for being with me this month, and I promise  there’s plenty more to come, so do stay on board.

Motown Spotlight - January 2018

Motown Spotlight – January 2018

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

(With sincere thanks to Ludie Montgomery/Vickie Wright’s “The Real Tammi Terrell: My Sister Tommie”. Published by Bank House Books 2005)

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