Motown Spotlight - June 2019

Motown Spotlight – June 2019

Well, if you’d asked me a year ago would I attend a Northern Soul Weekend I’d have given a negative response, sighing that those days were over for me. But no, here I am going to an event “The Northern Soul Survivors” in Skegness, Lincolnshire, kicking off on 20 September for three nights. I’ll give you the line-up as it stands at present – Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones, Bobby Brooks Wilson, Tommy Hunt, Dean Parrish, Eddie Holman, Angelo Starr and The Team, Lorraine Silver, and Ritchie Sampson.  Alongside these are British acts like Signatures featuring Stefan Taylor, Paul Stuart Davies and Johnny Boy.  I’m told other artists are yet to be announced, so more when I know.

The place to be is Butlin’s and the event covers five venues.  Thirty legendary DJs are booked, with a dance competition (that’s me out for sure!), meet and greets, record and memorabilia stalls, silent disco, dance workshop, spa, water world and a host of other attractions.  More information can be gleaned from bigweekends.com or 0330 1009750.  All I can say is the three girls are back in town and personally speaking I can’t wait to meet them again. Hope my accommodation is next to theirs as we’ve years of catch-up to take care of!  I’ll pass on more details when they arrive courtesy of Russ Winstanley, who is organising the event.  Meantime, I’ve one nagging question: how on earth do I get to Skegness from East Sussex!

I’m not going to dwell on the CBS television special “Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration” which aired Stateside on Easter Sunday – where Berry Gordy closed the show with his speech about his dreams coming true and where he thanked people who helped make his company “a legacy of love” – but rather wanted to make mention of a short interview Martha Reeves gave to The Daily News. As you know, her performance was axed from the two-hour show which included her colleagues Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, alongside non-Motowners. Martha said she was originally asked to sing “Nowhere To Run” and not her signature song “Dancing In The Street”. Then when the programme was edited, there was nothing at all. As always, she proved what a Motown ambassador she is, when she told the newspaper, “I’ve learned to handle the decisions that Motown made from the early beginnings.  The history of Motown is in my heart and I guess I’m one of the best people to express it because I’m one of the only people living who can.”  To be honest, I don’t know that I’d have been that gracious.  Let’s move on….

I’m grateful to my colleague Adam White for mentioning this book a few months ago in his West Grand Blog.  I knew I’d got it, but took a few exasperating hours to locate it! Anyway, what am I talking about? Janie Bradford’s Rolling! Take One! Lyric, Rhyme & Prose published in 1996 by Mountain Goat Press. The book is a little worst for wear and well thumbed but extremely enjoyable as an insight into her writing talent.  When Janie first met Berry Gordy, she gave him a notebook filled with her poems, passing them off as song lyrics. He saw through her ruse but believed they could be structured into commercial songs. “I’ve always felt a kinship to rhyme” she wrote. “I guess that is why I have been writing poems as far back as I can remember….It was while I was attending Lincoln High School …that I began to amass the notebook filled with poems.”

Born in June 1939, in Charleston, Missouri, Janie was known for her quirky sense of humour, which she wrote, was inherited from her minister father “who would preach a hell-fire and brimstone sermon that brought his audience to their feet, then he would tell the most unrelated joke and lay them in the aisles with laughter.” She had two siblings, brother Joe and sister Clea who, when older was a respected jazz singer. She  relocated to Detroit, so Janie joined her.  Clea often worked with Jackie Wilson, who lived a short distance away from them, and who often fell asleep on their floor in front of the television. It was through Jackie that Janie met Berry Gordy, and from that, the two began writing together, where one of their first collaborations was “Lonely Teardrops” for the before mentioned Mr Wilson.  In between composing, Janie was Motown’s first receptionist, but I’m assuming she left that role when writing took up all her time. So, next of note was “Money (That’s What I Want)” first recorded by Barrett Strong and subsequently covered over two hundred times.  From here, she moved on to work with Smokey, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, among others, notching up hits like “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”, “Your Old Standby”, “Contract On Love”, “Hip City Part 11”, “Honey Bee Keep On Stinging Me”, “My Smile Is Just A Frown Turned Upside Down”, “Share My Love” and so many others.

Being so engrossed in writing songs, Janie’s first love of writing poetry was relegated to the back burner. However, they were regularly retrieved when she was asked by some of the guys working at Motown to compose a love letter to win the heart of a potential lover. She wrote – “Granted most of them were songwriters and producers themselves, but I guess they could not muster up that something extra special needed to create a…speciality letter.” By doing this she knew who was dating who, yet never told because “they paid me very well!”  Enterprising lady. The bubble burst for Ms Bradford when Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. When told she had to be a credited producer or performing artist to ensure her work was recorded, it was the close of an era for her.

Janie’s book – where the foreword is a collection of quotes from Claudette Robinson, Chuck Jackson, Levi Stubbs, Brian Holland, Mable John and Mary Wilson – is split into sections. For example, there’s Poems That Make You Go Mmm prefaced by Janie noting “Erasers were put on pencils for mistakes made on paper. Words spoken cannot so easily be erased from the mind”.  While others include Identity, Friendship, Black Heritage, Music and Growing Through Changes. Dotted about are pictures of her family and her professional life, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my little insight into the talents of this remarkable wordsmith.  However, that’s not all this lady is known and respected for, as Motown fans will know. …read on….

Janie created The Heroes And Legends Scholarship Programme (HAL) to help talented young people in the community to shape their careers in one of the performing arts. HAL also spotlighted positive role models from many diverse backgrounds, including leaders in the fields of theatre, music, films and business, who have utilised their celebrity status to benefit the community.  In September 1990 Janie and her team launched the first HAL Awards black tie ceremony in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to raise money for their Scholarship Fund which, I understand, helps those promising students who have achieved at least a 2.0 grade average.  The Fund provides financial assistance to enable them to complete their education, later being honoured at the star studded annual Awards event.  Nine Awards are presented annually, including Legacy, Icon, Theatre and TV/Film and The Unsung Hero sections, and past recipients cover Smokey, the Four Tops, Della Reese, Thelma Houston, Tyne Daly, The Temptations, Ray Parker Jr, Gladys Knight and Berry Gordy. HAL also recognised the talents of producers, composers and industry figures like Universal executive Andy Skurow, and so well deserved too.  Last year the event was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where honourees were Deniece Williams, the Undisputed Truth, Suzanne de Passe and Switch, among others.  Brenda Holloway, Brenda Lee Eager and The Dennis Edwards Review provided the entertainment, while Martha Reeves, Freda Payne, Claudette Robinson and Ms Houston, wore the presenters’ hats. Will there be an awards ceremony this year I wonder?

And that’s not all as Janie Bradford went on to open Twinn Records with fellow-Motowner, writer/producer/singer Marilyn McLeod.  Born in Detroit, Marilyn came from a musical family as her parents were singers, and her pianist mother composed music. According to www.twinnrecords.com, her five siblings were musical, particularly her older brother Ernie Farrow who played upright bass with the noted jazz musician Yusef Lateef, while her late musician sister Alice was married to the legendary saxophone player John Coltrane and recorded several albums as a keyboardist and harpist.  Long story short, Marilyn joined Jobete as a songwriter during 1968 where she stayed for fifteen years. Her compositions are no strangers to Motown fans, as she pitched songs for the likes of Diana Ross with “Love Hangover” which won the singer her fourth US chart topper in 1976.  Co-penned with Pam Sawyer, it was earmarked for Marvin Gaye, but its producer Hal Davis believed it suited the sensual Diana better, as it weaved between ballad and dance. In fact, once Diana heard the backing track, she stamped her mark on it, with the result launching her as a major player in the disco market. First heard as a track on her self-named album, it was rush-released when the 5th Dimension issued their version, thereby killing her “I Thought It Took A Little Time” which had charted.

Other McLeod written and co-written tracks include Jr Walker’s “Walk In The Night”, Marvin Gaye/Diana Ross/Stevie Wonder/Smokey Robinson’s “Pops We Love You”, the Four Tops’ “Body And Soul”, Marvin and Diana’s “Love Twins” and “Include Me In Your Life”. “The World Is Rated X” for solo Marvin, and High Inergy’s “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)”.  These are just the ones that spring to mind.  Then, it seems she moved on to record with Nu Page for the Mowest label, and as a member of Pure Magic.  From Motown, Marilyn released “(I Don’t Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Side” for Fantasy Records in 1979, before co-writing numerous tracks for Ian Levine’s great Motorcity Records, and recording her own album “I Believe In Me” in 2010 for Twinn Records, which she kindly sent to me at the time. Phew! That was a long sentence. It was an excellent release, co-written with Janie Bradford, with a handful of top songs including “What Would Marvin Say”, “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Day” and “About U”.  The CD is certainly a worthy addition to any soul fan’s collection.

Yeah, I did digress a bit this time, as the intention was to tell you about Janie’s book, but one thing led to another, and here we are, nearly at the close of this month’s offering.  However, I can’t close yet without mentioning “Motown: The Complete No 1’s” box set, due at the end of this month.  Released as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations (what?! I must have missed them – thank goodness though for the wonderful Jr Walker & the All Stars’ box set “Walk In The Night – The Motown 70s Studio Albums”)!

This 11-CD is, I presume, identical to the one I bought in 2008, but with an added CD.  If this is the case, fans like myself, who have the original, will be forking out around £120 for the following handful of  tracks:  The Miracles and the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You”, the Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, Stevie Wonder’s “For You Love”, and Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (2017 remix), “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” (2018 mix).  Well, if that’s so, here’s one gal who won’t be buying it.

Thank you for being with me this month, always love your company, and I’ll be back before you know it.

MARILYN McLEOD’S YOU TUBE CHANNEL

Motown Spotlight - April/May 2019

Motown Spotlight – April/May 2019

Just when you think all is well with the world, the gremlins get into your computer and gobble up a morning’s work.  And that’s exactly what happened with the result that this Motown Spotlight covers two months. So let’s TCB before anything else happens!

While rifling through my collection the other day, I came across a CD I’d forgotten about, probably because it was mis-filed.  Anyway, that aside, it got me thinking, and here’s what I came up with….

As you know, in 1970 Berry Gordy entered the American political arena with his spoken-word Black Forum label, giving a public platform to leading black activists and intellectuals. He initially had grave reservations about dipping his record company into such a volatile and violent market because it worried him that if Motown became too political it would damage the almighty success of groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes.  After all, Motown was the top international black recording company, steering street artists into global stars and turning over millions of dollars annually as it did so.  The music was aimed at all races, but by now, to mostly white record buyers due to its commercial slant. The early raw ‘race music’ or R&B aimed at black audiences was gone, replaced by lush productions over blue-eyed soul presentations. Yet, it can’t be disputed the music benefitted all as it broke down racial barriers in its quest for unification. However, digging deeper into the formation of Black Forum, it appeared Ewart Abner and Junius Griffin were instrumental in convincing Berry Gordy  it was the right move to make.  The time was right to make a stand.

Further research revealed that radio and television broadcaster, Alvin Hall, wrote a half-hour programme about the label for the BBC, and indicated that both Abner and Griffin were actually involved  in aspects of the civil rights movement, either with Dr Martin Luther King or C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equity). “They saw the need to educate the public, to give the public more information about what was going on nationally – and they were the ones who convinced (Gordy).”

Two years after Dr King was assassinated, Black Forum debuted with his “Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam”, recorded in 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. Showing Dr King in the foreground of the  album sleeve, fighting soldiers in the background, and with the words “Black Forum” boldly prominent down the right-hand side, it was a stark black and white drawing on haunting blue.  The sleeve was both dramatic and somewhat poignant, while the actual album within was powerful in the extreme, and as I played it back in the day, recall I could have actually been in Dr King’s presence.  The record went on to win a 1971 Grammy for Best Spoken-Word Album, Motown’s only winner that year.

Incidentally, during 1963, two Dr King albums were issued on the Gordy label, namely, “The Great March To Freedom” and “The Great March On Washington”, followed five years later by “Free At Last”.  When Berry Gordy suggested royalties earned from these albums should be split between King’s family and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King refused.  “(He) told me, ‘There is enough confusion out there right now, as it is.  I cannot allow the perception of personal gain, right or wrong, to confuse the message of the cause.'” Gordy wrote in his “To Be Loved” autobiography.  “Not since Pop (Gordy’s father) and the Reverend William H Peck (his family’s pastor) had any man’s words aroused such deep feelings within me.” He also touched upon the significance of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) which was in the forefront of the fight for civil rights, by writing – “As a kid I remembered them always taking up some unpopular fight for freedom and justice. Now some thought (they) had done too little.  I often said if it hadn’t been for them we would never have come this far.”

He also compared Motown to the world Dr King was tirelessly fighting to achieve, where people of different religions and races worked together harmoniously for one goal.  “While I was never too thrilled about that turn-the-other-cheek business, Dr King showed me the wisdom of non-violence.” Tragically, King’s death was the result of the violence he wanted to eradicate.

Civil Rights activist and member of the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey!”, and political writers Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner with “Writers Of The Revolution” followed Dr King’s Black Forum debut.  In February 1972, the Black Fighting Men Recorded Live In Vietnam’s  “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, narrated by Wallace Terry, was issued.  Next up were Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby’s “The Congressional Black Caucus; Emamu Amiri Baraka and The Original Black Poets’ “Black Spirits”; Emamu Amiri Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music”, and Elaine Brown’s eponymous album, rounded off the releases on this short-lived label that opened in 1970 and closed three years later. According to Alvin Hall, it was simple economics.  When distributors ordered a healthy quantity of, say, The Temptations’ albums, the order for Black Forum records failed to reach double figures. “There was never the demand or distribution for the records like they anticipated. So after losing money, Berry Gordy closed the door on it.”  Nevertheless, Black Forum provided a solid representation of the most radical thinking of their era on record and, to be fair, Gordy should be applauded for taking on such a non-commercial venture which, if it had gone horribly wrong in the political arena, could have had a disastrous financial effect on Motown’s future success.

Based on this, it’s easy to see why Berry was concerned when Marvin Gaye steered his “What’s Going On” project into the political quagmire of war and social issues.  Stevie Wonder too, when he publicly ventured into African-American consciousness, with his tenuous approach to political and spiritual statements. Several other Motown artists also flexed their political music muscles and Edwin Starr immediately springs to mind with his version of Whitfield/Strong’s “War”. Previously recorded by The Temptations, this anti-Vietnam protest was released in preference to the group’s less intense version, to become one of the most popular protest singles of all time.

However, there’s more tracks….and they are included in a special 2-CD compilation named ” Power To The Motown People! Civil Rights Anthems And Political Soul 1968 – 1975″ (Universal-Island Records/ M980 090 2) which I unearthed from my collection and which, to be honest, inspired me to re-visit the Black Forum label.  I do urge you to check this out if you haven’t already done so.  However, before moving forward with this, I’ve just been reminded of the “Love Child” album in 1968. Discarding the glamorous gowns,  coiffured hair and pouting poses to dress in cut-off jeans and sweatshirts, Diana Ross and the Supremes wore little make-up with their hair in the afro style popular at the time, on the album sleeve.  The aim was probably to show they were streetwise and one of the gang.  The music was a markedly different sound for the trio – who were used to Holland, Dozier, Holland compositions – as writers and producers like Ashford & Simpson, R Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Smokey Robinson and Gordy himself, were pulled together across tracks like the album’s title, “I’m Livin’ In Shame” and their version of “Does Your Mama Know About Me”.

The single “Some Things You Never Get Used To” was released prior to the album and the intention was to use this as the album’s title. However, when the single failed to rack up big sales, the plan was scrapped, and it was relegated to “Love Child”  instead.  “Love Child” the single, co-penned by Pam Sawyer, was released to rejuvenate the trio’s selling power to become their 11th US chart topper, propelling the album into a top selling item. On her Facebook page, Pam had nothing but praise for Diana Ross. “I was lucky to be allowed to work directly in the studio and I was thrilled (Diana) was so co-operative. We actually went into a small bathroom adjacent to the studio where she could listen privately, where she wrote signs and underlined words in her own writing….as she couldn’t read my badly written handwriting.  She is the consummate artist.”  The single was a mere toe dip into the urban, socially conscious whirlpool because the remainder of the album was devoted to rather sweet soul tracks, with moments of inspiration.

Anyway, I’ve digressed.  “Power To The Motown People!”  includes Detroit mixes of Marvin’s “What’s Going On, “What’s Happening Brother” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, with the unexpected inclusion of “You’re The Man (Pts 1 & 11). The Undisputed Truth’s magnificent ten minute version of “Ball Of Confusion”, “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” and “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, stand proudly next to David Ruffin’s “Flower Child” (lifted from his “My Whole World Ended” elpee).  Naturally, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers’  “Does Your Mama Know About Me” is included.  Diana Ross and the Supremes’ haunting “Shadows Of Society”, “The Young Folks” and the disturbing “I’m Livin’ In Shame”, sit happily with Syreeta’s distressing history of African-Americans in “Black Maybe”, and Stevie Wonder’s “Do Yourself A Favour.”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ emotional “I Should Be Proud” is another co-penned by Pam Sawyer, with lyrics highlighting the devastating news of Private Johnny C Miller losing his life in the Vietnam War.  With Martha as the narrator, she tells the story of people around her gushing how proud she should be because he fought and died for his country, while all she wanted was her lover safely back home. Due to the anti-war message, Martha said the single was pulled from many radio stations’ playlists, but more importantly, it was personal to her as one of her brothers lost his life in a Vietnam War related incident. To this day, it remains one of the most upsetting of releases although Ms Sawyer again indicated on her Facebook page that she felt creatively restricted because some of the original lyrics dealing with drug addiction were changed. “The lyric at the end originally said ‘now he can’t live without a needle in his arm’.”  The intention was to tell the story of the young boyfriend being an innocent when he went to war but due to his injuries, returned a broken man hooked on heroin.  Regrettably, or thankfully, Motown’s Quality Control committee gave it the thumbs down.

The Temptations are obviously featured on this special 2007 compilation with “Masterpiece”, “War”, “Plastic Man”, the hard-hitting “Slave” and the George Clinton-inspired “Message From A Black Man”, while Edwin Starr is present with “Stop The War Now” and “Cloud Nine”.  Welcome additions here are Reuben Howell’s “Help The People” and Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” and “Life’s No Fun Living In The Ghetto.” The CD is then rounded off with Smokey Robinson’s passive “Just My Soul Responding”; Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Friendship Train”; The Miracles’ “Ain’t Nobody Straight In LA”, Eddie Kendricks’ “My People…Hold On”,  and Jr Walker and the All Stars’ “Right On Brothers And Sisters”.  All these message songs are, of course,  heightened by Motown’s  constantly evolving recording techniques, where producers’ imaginations were adventurously exploited.

I was, however, a little surprised that one track in particular was overlooked; that by Tom Clay released on the Mowest label.  Titled “What The World Needs Now Is Love”/”Abraham, Martin And John”, it is a thought provoking compilation of clips from the song, interspliced with speeches by John and Bobby Kennedy, Dr King, among other items. This ground-breaking single went on to sell over one million copies and prompted the release of a follow up “Whatever Happened To Love”, and the album “What The World Needs Now.”  Alas, one can’t have it all!

Compiled and annotated by Peter Doggett, “Power To The Motown People!” is an extremely potent selection of songs.  While it doesn’t condone or condemn what was happening in America and the world at the time, it does go to show Motown was aware and cared in a non-violent manner.  And I, for one, salute them!

It was with a heavy heart that I read of the passing of Lilian Kyle, known to so many people in the business.  Lilian was Edwin Starr’s manager, later that of The Team, featuring Edwin’s younger brother Angelo.  I’ve known the dear lady for years and admired and respected her tremendously. She was tireless in promoting her artists but never let business get in the way of having a chat in her inimitable warm way.  I’ll miss her regular contacts via social media and, of course, not meeting up with her at concerts.  She loved life, fought the battle but sadly lost. My sincere condolences go out to her family, friends and fans – Lilian Kyle was one helluva lady and I was honoured to have her in my life.

Now there’s time to mention three fabulously exciting releases.  First out is Scherrie Payne’s magnificent “The Man That Got Away”, her version of the Judy Garland song from “A Star Is Born”.  Produced by Rick Gianatos and taken from her forthcoming album “Vintage Scherrie: Volume Two”, the ex-Supreme throws her heart and soul into this moving ballad. Her voice is breathtakingly emotive as she weaves through the lyrics and melody, tugging at the emotions on several levels. I have to say, it’s such a joy hearing her like this; nothing fancy or distracting, just pianist Garrett Miller and Scherrie – the voice. Pure magic!   Available in a gate-fold package housing the CD and DVD, it’s released by Altair Records and available from most reputable sites.

Second out is a Kiki Dee three CD set “Gold”, which sneaks in here thanks to her Motown connection.  Firstly though, I was disappointed that no notes or booklet were included with this major release from a singer who was the first from Britain to record for the company.  Anyway, there are 45 tracks included on this Demon Music Group release including Kiki’s soul and/or Northern Soul treatments on “Put A Little Love In Your Heart”, “I  Second That Emotion”, “Walk On By”, “Why Don’t I Run Away From You”, “The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday”, “How Glad I Am”  and with Elton John “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”.  “I was approached by (Motown) and went over there for eight days to look round” said Kiki in a 1970 interview. “I met the producers and writers, and generally got to know what was going on. I signed the contract on the day I left, and then returned …for two months recording.  They taught me about my voice and how to use it.  In fact I learnt so much in such a short time I couldn’t believe it.”  By all accounts, there were plans for her to duet with Marvin Gaye but, for some reason, the project was shelved. However, during her American stay, she recorded the “Great Expectations” album and performed –  “so that the people who were working with me would have some idea of what I was capable of and to give them a chance to decide what material would suit me best. The idea wasn’t for the producers to turn me into a soul singer but rather to record me on material to which I’m most suited.”  Sadly, the album wasn’t the hit it should have been, despite the critically-acclaimed debut single “The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday”, which I personally loved.

After Motown, Kiki drifted in and out of the British charts, “Amoureuse” and “I’ve Got The Music In Me” being the most successful, until she enjoyed a worldwide hit with Elton titled “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, originally intended to feature Dusty Springfield, for whom Kiki once sang as a session singer.  I have to say, I love this type of compilation and being such a fan of the lady anyway, means I can play my favourite tracks without searching for the original albums.

And the third project is one I’ve kept a secret for the longest time, released on our very own SoulMusic Records – “Walk In The Night: The Motown 70s Studio Albums” from Jr Walker & the All Stars. A timely release to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary, don’t you think?  The highly colourful and eye-catching box set contains three CDs featuring six albums – A Gasssss”, “Rainbow Funk”,  “Moody Jr”, “Peace & Understanding Is Hard To Find”,  “Jr Walker & The All Stars” and “Hot Shot” – in their entirety, spanning 1970-1976.  I should mention here, that the 1974 eponymous album was only issued in the UK and Europe, and all are debuting on CD for this worldwide release.

A backbone musician with the All Stars, Jr Walker’s rousing, often raw, sax playing and identifiable gruff vocals, elevated him into stardom.  Sure, his start in life was awful yet his determination to bring his music to the world spurred him on when others would have said ‘what the hell’.

So a quick summary coming up:

Disc One:  “A Gasssss” and “Rainbow Funk” were both produced by Johnny Bristol, and include noted tracks like “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)”, “Carry Your Own Load” and “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”.

Disc Two:   The Johnny Bristol produced “Moody Jr” and “Peace & Understanding Is Hard To Find” produced by Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, Gloria Jones, Pam Sawyer and Jr Walker,  include charted titles like “Way Back Home”, “Groove Thang” and “Walk In The Night”.

Disc Three:  “Jr Walker & The All Stars”, produced by Clarence Paul, known for his work with the young Stevie Wonder, who guests on a couple of tracks, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “All In Love Is Fair”.  Then the final album “Hot Shot”, produced by Brian Holland and Lawrence Horn, features that haunting “I Need You Right Now” with Thelma Houston on vocals.

On a personal note, I was extremely honoured to be associated with this extremely significant release, returning Jr Walker & the All Stars to the public stage, and it’s with fingers crossed that I hope this lovingly prepared and mastered work, leads the way for more releases in the future.

Phew!  That’s it for now. I’ll be back again on track next month if those blessed gremlins have moved on to pastures new.

(selected visuals courtesy of Motown Museum’s FB page)

JR. WALKER & THE ALL STARS: WALK IN THE NIGHT 3-CD SET – LOWEST PRICE ONLINE AT CHERRY RED WEBSITE!

 

Motown Spotlight - March 2019

Motown Spotlight – March 2019

Quite often when I’m writing this blog I have some Motown music playing in the background. This time is no exception and as I listened it got me thinking….

With the Mary Jane Girls’ single “In My House” and his own “Glow” album in the American charts, Rick James launched his next protégé, Val Young.  He’d originally penned “In My House” for Val but decided to cut it on the Girls instead, rewarding them with an international number one and their first platinum seller. Anyway, I digress, prior to the release of  Val Young’s aptly titled “Seduction” album in July 1985 (UK: March 1986), she released the single “Mind Games” in America as a taster of what was to come.  Watch out world!

“Seduction” was Rick James’ conception, from the music to the musicians through to the actual artwork. He wrote and produced it, sang support vocals with members of the Mary Jane Girls and the Stone City Band, and played guitar, drums, congas, synthesisers and timbales alongside his own group and musicians from the Stone City Band.  On the project he steered his musical family with Val Young at the helm through a powerful, solid funk/dance journey.  The distinctive Rick James brand of music was rampant throughout, as he multi-layered the songs with full-blooded riffs, rhythms and a multitude of driving, hard hitting tempos. Nothing was left to chance as the perfectionist in him encouraged his musicians to go that one step further to ensure the prime vocalist had all the support she needed.  Hell’s bells, what a blending of sounds that was too!

From the opening track, “Mind Games”, into “If You Should Ever Be Lonely” the beat was relentless.  “Let’s Fall In Love”  and “Tellin’ Me Lies”, slightly less robust in sound but nonetheless mega-exciting, led into “Come Hang Out” and the epic “Seduction”. A Rick James orgy of personalised funk which, I guess in hindsight, could probably be said of the whole album.  One of my favourites has to be “Piece Of My Heart” with its unyielding musical drive, yet have a huge fondness for the last two tracks “Waiting For You” and “Make Up Your Mind”.  To be honest, if I was reviewing this for the first time, I’d easily award it full points, based on Rick James’ production alone. However, topping this with Val’s raw-edged rasping, robust voice, it’s absolute magic to these ears.

Like the Mary Jane Girls before her, Ms Young naturally attracted considerable media interest as she was marketed as the ‘black Marilyn Monroe’.  “My blonde hair was Rick’s idea” explained the singer at the time of the album’s release. “He convinced me that blondes have more fun and more funds.  I’m the same person inside, but I do like it. When I look in the mirror, I like what I see. Sure, people do stop and look at me but I don’t mind.  Mostly I get compliments and the only one or two negatives have come from people who don’t know me.”

To find out more about the lady, I delved into “The Confessions Of Rick James” written by the singer and published in 2007 by Colossus Books. As far as I can tell, it’s still available. Due to the explicitness of the book, I’m being mindful of what I can share here without causing offence. So, he wrote that Val (later to become his lover) actually looked like a black version of the world’s most famous film icon. “I had her hair done blonde and dressed her in sexy clothes from the thirties and forties. She pulled it off well.  She was one of the most down-to-earth ladies I’ve known; simple and straight.”

Born Valaria Maria Young on 13 June 1958, and later known as “Lady V”, she was raised in Detroit, where, at the age of eleven she sang in her nearby church and later in school. She finished her education to ensure she had a profession to fall back on should her ambition to become a professional singer failed to materialize.

During 1978 Val got her first professional break as a ‘Bride Of Funkenstein’ with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.  She stayed a year with Clinton (who was also a staff writer at Motown) before touring and recording with Roy Ayers during 1980.  From here she became a backing vocalist with the Gap Band on stage and in the studio, and can be heard on their funk anthem “Oops Up Side Your Head”, and on five subsequent albums.  It seems she first met Rick backstage in Memphis during his 1979 “Bustin’ Out” tour. “I just walked up to him and told him I loved him, and wanted to sing with him. Getting to work with Rick has been the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.”  While James wrote, “She was a beautiful black thing.”

Although sadly not a huge money spinner, “Seduction” represented her aggressive unique talent and with the right marketing and promotion could have elevated Val Young into Motown’s top funk songstress.  A 12” single bearing the album’s title was released during September 1985; two months later over here in the UK.   “(It) was one of the longest standing dance records in New York City’s dance chart,” James added. “She was a diva in New York. They loved her….It was magic when she sang.  I always liked the way she sounded (because) she had this sexy-ass rasp to her voice.”

The instantly compelling “If You Should Ever Be Lonely” followed in February 1986.  Again aimed at the extremely lucrative disco/funk buying mood at the time, it was, like its predecessor, a much requested track in nightclubs. But sadly, not sufficiently to generate enough sales to cross it over into the national listings.  “Sometimes getting a performance out of Val was like pulling teeth,” James further wrote. “But the outcome was always worth it.”

A Christian and mother, and later wife of Process and the Doo Rags’ member, Dennis Andrews, Val Young said she was careful with the lyrical content of her material, despite calling her album “Seduction”, which she interpreted as meaning “sexy and showing everything you’ve got, but you can only admire it, you can’t have it.  In my case, my eyes are my seducers, they do my talking for me. I think my album is seductive but it’s also tasteful.”

Rick James introduced the lady to American audiences via a five-month tour with the Mary Jane Girls and Process and the Doo Rags.  The latter unit was another of Rick’s projects whom he intended to sign to Motown but when negotiations broke down, their planned album was scrapped.  The group switched to CBS Records instead.

Before Val could release her second album “Private Conversations” with Motown, Rick and his inimitable stable of artists became the subject of dispute with the company. This was partly due to his world crumbling into a drug haze making him incapable of spearheading his family of music, and Motown’s reluctance to continue bank rolling them.  Subsequently, careers came to an unexpected halt when all releases were temporarily shelved as the wrangle continued.  “Although she didn’t get a huge hit like the Mary Jane Girls or myself, I always loved recording with her.  She was a joy to work with,” Rick further wrote in his autobiography.

However, “Private Conversations” wasn’t lost. Ms Young signed with the Buffalo-based Amherst Records, where the album was released in 1987, spawning the title track as a 12” single.  Rick James produced a handful of tracks that included “True Love (Is Hard To Find)”, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, “Dreamin’”, “Forever Yours” and “Sweetest Thing”.  By all accounts, the album is now difficult to find with a resulting high price tag which accounts for me not spending more time with it!

In his book James recalled a time when Diana Ross invited him, Val Young and the Mary Jane Girls to her house.  She had just broken up with Gene Simmons and was, Rick wrote, heartbroken.  “She asked me ‘Who is that girl, Val Young?’  At first I thought ‘Uh-oh, what has Val done now?’  But she said ‘Rick, don’t you ever lose her.’  Then Diana went on to tell me how she and Val were both from Detroit and how they talked about recipes and growing up in the Brewster Projects.  I think Val bought Diana down to earth for a moment.  Diana wasn’t Diana anymore, just a poor, struggling girl from Detroit’s Brewster Projects.”

From Rick James, Val hooked up with Bobby Brown to tour with him during 1988, following the release of his “Don’t Be Cruel” album.  From here, her extraordinary talent was widely recognised, and she was much in demand as a session singer.  Teena Marie, Bobby Womack, El DeBarge, Teddy Riley and Evelyn “Champagne” King were among those she worked with.  Judging by the list of projects she was involved with during the nineties, Val was an extremely busy lady, but I have been unable to locate any further recordings.  Moving into the noughties, she appeared on several Public Broadcasting Service-televised concerts, like one as a background singer for Raphael Saadiq, and she can be seen on the official music video for Eddie Murphy and Snoop Lion’s “Red Light” single. That reminds me, one Rick James’ conceptual video that sticks out in my mind, is that for his single “Glow” – what a song! – because it  features his  musical family, including Val Young on support vocals.  Do check it out.

Finally, before ending this ‘seducing’ item on Ms Young, I came across a 2018 American advertisement for a Rick James Tribute show where the Mary Jane Girls featuring Val were performing.  The blurb read “Val Young, Candice Ghant and Farah Melanson currently represent today’s Mary Jane Girls.”  Well I never!

Before closing, I’d like to give a mention to a new Kent release “Cosmic Truth/Higher Than High” from The Undisputed Truth.  Featuring their last two Motown albums, produced by Norman Whitfield, this release follows the CD premiere of their first, third and fourth albums (the second one was already available on CD) a couple of years ago.  Since that time, a spokesperson for Kent said they’d been pursued by fans to release the remaining Gordy albums by the group’s changed membership. The decision to go ahead was made when the first collection proved to be a healthy seller.  So, to bring you up to date. Following their fourth album “Law Of The Land”, the two original songstresses, Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Jo Evans departed, leaving Joe Harris on his own.

Instead of burying The Undisputed Truth altogether, Norman Whitfield and Joe, recruited a Detroit quartet, The Magic Tones, to carry on their name. Virginia “Vee” McDonald (the only lady in the line-up and niece of The Miracles’ Pete Moore) and Joe Harris, were joined by Calvin Stephenson, Tyrone Barkley and Tyrone Douglas.  Of the eighteen tracks here, spanning two CDs, several were minor hits, but “Help Yourself”, their biggest seller, shot into the R&B top twenty, and crossed over to peak in the top seventy.  The latter was their highest position since “Smiling Faces Sometimes”.  Incidentally, the version of “Help Yourself” included here, is the re-make of the original featured on

their earlier “Down To Earth” album which, by the way, held material by both the original trio and the new line-up.

With the personnel change, the group’s image underwent a major make over – huge afros, silver face paint with coloured eye make-up, space age silver outfits – as they became fully-fledged members of the funk club, swiping ideas from the George Clinton songbook to secure longevity. Some of the material is second hand, like The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, wearing a different musical overcoat, which was lengthened from its original four minutes, while “1990” flattered the original length.  Inspired by the children’s fairy tale, “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood” was their first to bypass the charts due, quite probably, to their vulgar interpretation of the innocent writer’s intention, while “Earthquake Shake” (the opening track on “Cosmic Truth”) merged into the unlikely inclusion of the Neil Young song “Down By The River”. Then the flat-out “Squeeze Me, Tease Me” overflowing with funk/rock, and “UFO’s” paying direct homage to Clinton’s Funkadelic, proved just too much for this gal.

Sometimes I felt drowned by Norman Whitfield’s all-consuming productions which, to be fair, aren’t lightweight are they?  Also, I often felt he’d lost his way as he bamboozled the listener (and possibly the singers) with a plethora of music.  While Phil Spector adopted the same principle, his productions were full to bursting but smoothly rounded, almost enveloping the vocalists. Whitfield, on the other hand, appeared to scatter his musical litter across the studio floor, then sweep them up in no particular order.  Sounds like I’m on a downer here, doesn’t it?  But no, it’s more a case of disappointment as I tightly cling onto the Truth’s early material which I absolutely love, and always have done. Nevertheless, it’s a great feeling to add this release to my collection and I’m sure you Truth fans out there, will feel the same.

That’s it for this month.  I’m hoping you’ll join me next time around, but meantime, please stay safe and Keep the Motown Faith.

 

NEW FEATURE! SOULMUSIC GLOBAL PLAYLIST FOR MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT!

SoulMusic Hall Of Fame Inductees: Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds, Daryl Simmons, Preston Glass and Marc Scarborough (on behalf of Skip Scarborough)

SoulMusic Hall Of Fame Inductees: Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Daryl Simmons, Preston Glass and Marc Scarborough (on behalf of Skip Scarborough)

LOS ANGELES, March, 2019 – David Nathan, founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com proudly presents awards to inductees into The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame (inducted by popular vote via online poll)

KENNETH ‘BABYFACE’ EDMONDS – MALE ARTIST, PRODUCER/ARRANGER, SONGWRITER

DARYL SIMMONS – SONGWRITER

PRESTON GLASS – PRODUCER/ARRANGER, SONGWRITER

SKIP SCARBOROUGH – SONGWRITER (presented to Marc Scarborough on behalf of his father)

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to present these much-deserved awards for the outstanding creative contribution of Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Daryl Simmons, Preston Glass and Skip Scarborough to soul music worldwide,” notes Nathan.  “Going forward, we will be creating more awards for the current (and future) inductees into The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame, which offers music lovers the world over to express their appreciation for their favourite artists, songwriters, musicians, producers and arrangers through our SMHoF public poll.  We will be relaunching The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame (which was started in 2012 and currently has over 300 inductees).”

With special thanks: Sid Johnson, Amar Naik, Gina Glass for assistance with coordinating our first SoulMusicHall Of Fame awards presentation

Click here for full lists of current inductees in (12) categories 

Public votes for the Nominations and inductions into The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame are conducted via an online poll accessed through our Facebook page.  For further information, contact info@soulmusic.com. 

Motown Spotlight - January/February 2019

Motown Spotlight – January/February 2019

[Site owner David Nathan note: ‘This Motown Spotlight should have been published at the end of January – so apologies to Sharon and all for the delay.”]

Happy 60th birthday Motown!  And a Happy New Year to you – even though it’s now the first week of February! Both belated I know, but, I can assure you, the sentiments are exactly the same. So let’s TCB…Over the past few weeks information has filtered through about plans to celebrate this extremely significant event so I’ll run them past you now and, needless to say, if you know of  others, do please let me know.

So, first off. As part of a year long celebration, the Motown Museum announced plans to run an online video series, “Archive Dives”, bringing into the public arena unseen items from its treasure trove of artifacts.  If I’m right, this started the day before the actual anniversary on Saturday, 12 January, and will continue on a regular basis via its Facebook page, tying in key dates in Motown’s history.  The revealed items will then go on display in Hitsville. The anniversary ball also got rolling with a digital playlist of 70 vintage songs and I think Spotify is the site to check out to hear these.  Robin Terry, Museum chairwoman and CEO told the Detroit Free Press “We have this tremendous collection of artefacts and many aren’t seen by the public.  We’re taking the anniversary year as an opportunity to showcase some of these unique items.”

Motown Museum Facebook Page

Kicking off the series is the actual Ber-Berry Co-op savings account book owned by Berry Gordy Sr, which, among other things, shows the organizational structure put in place by members of the family; minutes from the Co-op meeting dated 8 February 1959, providing a glimpse into how the family conducted their business at this time, and the archival document that was the official accounting ledger certifying the re-payment of Berry’s $800 loan.  “What’s really exciting for us, and for all Motown fans, is that this is just the beginning,” Terry said. “It’s a privilege for us to continue to share more Motown history and artifacts from our vast collection with fans and to tell new stories in new ways.” This stockpile of unseen treasures is also one of the driving forces behind the non-profit Museum’s $50 million fundraising campaign to expand the complex with 40,000 square feet of exhibits, meeting and performing areas, among other things, with expectations of quadrupling the complex’s footprint. These guys don’t do things by half do they?!

Other events planned by the Museum include a 60th anniversary exhibition in early spring and a party in the grounds with live music, free Museum tours and food trucks, which has been tagged as a beefed-up edition of the annual Founder’s Day event that’s held in commemoration of Berry’s late sister Esther, who, as you know, took on the challenge of opening the Museum to the public during 1985. What a stroke of genius that was too!  I have to say, it was a huge thrill and personal ambition to get the chance to meander through the smallish rooms where history was made: in fact, if it wasn’t for the photos I took at the time, can’t believe I was actually there. And from what some other folks have told me, they felt exactly the same although putting into actual words the overwhelming feelings of being there, was somewhat difficult. Only one gripe though was the shop where prices were sky-high and beyond the reach of my pay packet for sure.  I wonder how the former first lady Michelle Obama felt when she wandered around in December? Judging by the video I’ve seen, it was smiles all round. Anyhow, I’m digressing…

So, according to the Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum, the keystone event will be Motown’s 60th birthday celebrations covering 21-23 September on sites across Detroit, opening with a black-tie concert dinner “Hitsville Honors”. A Motown-infused gospel concert in partnership with local churches is planned for the next day, with the weekend closing on a high note with the “Soul-In-One Motown Golf Classic.”  Robin Terry further said the plans were geared to include everyone in the local community because “This is obviously a tremendous milestone year. Our approach is to celebrate six decades of not only phenomenal music but these artists who came out of Detroit.”

We’re used to Motown’s anniversaries aren’t we?  Some are true to the dates while others, well, adopted a certain amount of poetic licence.  Actually, I’m thinking in particular of the award-winning  “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” staged at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California, on 25 March 1983. Broadcast by NBC and later available commercially, didn’t we all sit open-mouthed as Marvin Gaye played at the piano, Michael Jackson moonwalked, Smokey Robinson rejoined The Miracles, Stevie Wonder sang with Wonderlove, the Four Tops and The Temptations performed the “battle of the bands”, and Diana Ross returned to the Supremes to the strains of “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  Thirty second spots were afforded to Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Jr Walker, among others, which did not sit at all well with them or Motown fans, yet it was those who were omitted or not actually invited that caused the most upset. We won’t go there now, but suffice to say the album “The Motown Story: First 25 Years” narrated by Lionel Richie and Smokey, followed.  Now long out of print, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Recording.

Also worth a mention is the two-part anniversary special “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” screened by ABC in 1998.  The four-hour documentary featured interviews and performances by Smokey, Diana, Lionel, En Vogue, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, among other A-line names. Also “Motown 50” in 2009 when a variety of artists returned to Hitsville during January to officially launch the year’s celebrations.  Duke Fakir was joined by the likes of Rosalind Ashford, members of the Funk Brothers, Bobby Rogers, Gil Bridges, Mrs Maxine Powell and Paul Riser.   “Fifty years is a wonderful anniversary” Duke told Billboard magazine. “You’ve got to give credit to the songs but, of course, you’ve got to give credit to Berry Gordy for the vision. He had the whole vision, and he made it come true. It’s just great to be part of that legacy and still be alive to talk about it.”

Several discs were issued with the special 50th logo attached, while us Brits were treated to the “Divas of Motown” tour in the November, featuring Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway, the Former Ladies of the Supremes, Thelma Houston, Mable John and Jack Ashford’s Funk Brothers Band.  Wow!  What a concert that was! So what concerts for 2019, I wonder?

This year will also honour Motown’s artists who have passed and those, happily, still with us, like Martha Reeves (who has to be the company’s finest and truest ambassador), Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Otis Williams, Duke Fakir and Mary Wilson. However, I’m not sure as I write this, just what part they will play, maybe over the September weekend.  Anyway, watch this space.

From the musical note to the written word or, to be more precise, colourful pictures. Mark Bego (who you may remember assisted Martha Reeves with her terrific autobiography “Dancing In The Street”) announced on his Facebook page that he helped Mary Wilson compile a 240-page coffee table type book “Supreme Glamour” due to be published this year by Thames & Hudson, the same company behind Adam White’s glorious “Motown:The Sound Of Young America” tome now available in soft back. In a press statement the publisher said, “Marrying sumptuous fashion with insightful biography, ‘Supreme Glamour’ charts the glittering story of  Motown’s most successful act and original pop fashionistas.”

And, let’s not forget either the many hints thrown at us during the past few months about “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” docufilm which focuses on the birth of the company through to its relocation to Los Angeles in 1972.  It will feature new and exclusive interviews with Berry and several of his top artists and creative figures, rare performances and behind-scenes footage from Berry’s personal archives and items discovered in the company’s vaults. Check out https://classic.motown.com/ for more information.

Finally, if you’re planning a trip to New York this year, do try to get tickets for the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life And Times Of The Temptations” based on Otis Williams’ informative autobiography which, I have to say, spares no punches.  The jukebox musical has had a series of regional productions and is expected to hit Broadway next month with previews from the 28th, before the opening night on 21 March.

So, what of the UK and what plans for celebrations here?  Well to be honest, so far, I know of only one very special CD release which hopefully I can talk about next time, likewise a Motown/Northern Soul weekender in Skegness during September featuring three much revered and loved Motown ladies. I’m so happy to read about nightclubs and pubs up and down the country devoting evenings to Motown; tribute groups and shows keeping the sound alive, while radio stations have done the same, with more coming during the year I expect. Actually, on that subject, if anyone cares to spend a little time celebrating with me, do please visit  https://www.mixcloud.com/HailshamFM/sharon-davis-12012019/

Well, that’s about it for now.  Needless to say, will keep you updated as items hit me but, as mentioned before, if you know of any celebrations going on, do let me know and I’ll be happy to share.  We’re in this together remember, so do hope we’ll be holding hands through this year because, to be honest,  it’ll be lonely without you.

Final words then from Robin Terry;  “This year the whole of  Detroit will salute its legacy. The world is going to be celebrating Motown throughout this 60-year anniversary but no other city can claim the birthplace.”

Motown Spotlight - December 2018

Motown Spotlight – December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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