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

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motown Spotlight - May 2018

Motown Spotlight – May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Motown Spotlight - April 2018

Motown Spotlight – April 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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