It was nearly forty years ago that Marc Bolan died in a car crash in Barnes and 30 September would have been his 60th birthday, and somehow I was drawn to his partner and Motown singer/composer Gloria Jones. First turning to her “Windstorm” album holding the haunting “If Roses Don’t Come (In Spring This Year)” and the massively emotional “Bring On The Love (Why Can’t We Be Friends Again)”, both composed by the lady, and released by Capitol Records in 1978. If my memory serves me well, she recorded these tracks in the States, and Marc, who stayed in the UK to finished filming his “Marc” television series, regularly updated me on her progress. The tragedy was that upon her return, they dined at Mortons Club, and it was on their way home, that the accident happened that killed Marc outright. Gloria sustained dreadful injuries, one of which was a broken jaw where her mouth was wired for ages. She used to write me little notes when I visited, which was often. It was thought she’d never sing again but slowly her rich, warm, gospel-tinged voice returned – thankfully. Anyway, after “Windstorm” I re-visited her 1973 Motown album “Share My Love” and the wonderfully atmospheric album title penned by Gloria and Janie Bradford. Another pair of standout tracks here are the emotionally sizzling “Try Love” which she co-wrote. Beautifully stylish and soulfully delivered. And with her famous songwriting partner British-born Pam Sawyer wrote “What Did I Do To Lose You”. Yes, one day my book will be written and my time with Gloria and Marc will be lovingly remembered – among other things! Anyway, another day, another story; let’s move on.
I got there in the end! Finally watched with absolute delight Carolyn, Milly, Bertha and Norma – The Velvelettes – performing “Needle In A Haystack” at the annual Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame celebrations held last month at the Ford Performing Arts Theatre in Dearborn, Michigan. Each year, those acts who are inducted are celebrated through musical performances, spoken word, and live and video tributes by many of today’s biggest musical names who have been influenced by R&B musical greats. This year, Mary Wilson hosted the ceremony, where inducted Motown acts included Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, and the fabulous Velvelettes who, as you know, are all original group members. And my didn’t they look sleek in their long gowns, as they moved as one, with their voices as strong and pure as the first time round. It brings a lump to my throat seeing these ladies because they’ve stuck together, loved together (and probably argued a lot too!) but all the while never let anything interfere with their music. True professionals, true legends. When their recordings with Motown dried up, they decided to hang up their microphones and stage gowns. Then the chance finger of fate pointed in their direction when a DJ in the Washington area wanted to hook up with the group. “He was a lover of The Velvelettes and asked over his radio show did anyone know me” Norma once told me in a UK interview. “He wanted me to get the others together. So I phoned them and we got together for the first time in twenty years. We acted like teenagers, I can tell you. We stayed up all night, it was wonderful.”
The group went on to perform at a festival which featured most types of music – jazz, R&B, gospel, and so on. “We got the rock section,” Norma laughed. “The Velvelettes represented sixties music. We got together for a couple of weekends and came up with a medley of songs that included both The Shirelles and The Supremes. It was about a fifteen-minute show and we were scared to death.” However, the overwhelming response from their audience, got them thinking that maybe they could stay together as a performing unit in the business, working around their regular jobs, and when their next invitation was to participate in a Motown Revue at the Fox Theatre, with Jr Walker, Martha Reeves and others, they had their answer. “We opened the show in front of six thousand people. It was fantastic because we’d not seen the other acts for years. People sent us notes to stay together. Diana Ross sent us one too.” Their next important port of call was the UK, where they were astonished to learn they had a solid fan base. In fact, Norman claimed they never knew what happened outside the States – “Motown never told us we had released singles here!” Once a fan, always a fan: we’re a loyal bunch for sure, I told her.
I mentioned last month the unexpected death of Jimmy Levine and just wanted to say a few more words more about the guy who cut his musical teeth on Motown. And, as importantly, he was planning to write his book “Anna & Me” about his relationship with Anna Gordy which, among other things, led to my talking to her. We’d got as far as the book synopsis and Jimmy was, at my suggestion – as he was…er… a slow writer – talking to his tape recorder. He then planned to post me the completed cassettes. It was a method we both felt comfortable with. Well, you know what I’m going to say. We never got there. Oh, meant to have said too, we had the approval of the Gordy family to write this book. Anyway, let me tell you a bit about the innovative man that was Mr Levine who knew everyone there was to know in the business, who would help anyone who needed it, and who loved with a heart bigger than the world.
Born in San Francisco in 1954, he had seven brothers and five sisters, and lived in a middle class white neighbourhood. His family attended his grandfather’s church, St Paul Missionary Baptist, and it was during a service that four-year-old Jimmy was mesmerized listening to his mother and grandmother playing the piano. Two of his older brothers played in a band, and by the time he was ten years old, Jimmy had mastered the saxophone. Whilst at high school, he was asked by his friend Robert Reed to join the Black Pain & Co band. They played around the San Francisco area, later becoming one of the hottest bands in northern California. In time, the group progressed to suppor artists like Ray Charles and Al Green on stage.
In the notes – and I own the copyright to them all so no reproduction please without my consent – Jimmy sent me as an outline for his book, he wrote – “In 1973, I met Wally Cox who worked with Harvey Fuqua and Marvin Gaye. Wally told me that Marvin was going to be in concert at the Oakland Coliseum early-1974 and would I like to be on stage with him. Man that blew my mind! I said ‘you bet – this can change my life’. The morning of the concert, Wally introduced me to Gene Page, the arranger/conductor for Marvin at the time. I was invited to be part of the orchestra. That was the biggest night of my life. About two weeks later, my friend Michael Hong, one of the background singers for Marvin, at the time moved to Los Angeles to live on the hill that we all know now to be Outpost Drive. Michael told me that Marvin would like for me to come to Los Angeles and work with him. So the summer of 1995, I packed up my grey corvette and headed to Los Angeles. It took five hours to drive from Richmond, California, and man was I tired when I got there. I called Michael to ask where I was to go now that I was in LA, and he told me that Marvin had given him the address 2745 Outpost Drive, Hollywood. I drove up the long hill almost to the top, and when I got to the address, I saw two pearly white gates that had G/G on them. This meant Gordy/Gaye. I pushed the button on the phone; a woman answered. I said ‘Jimmy Levine for Michael Hong’ and the two gates opened. I drove up the driveway, saw a parking lot to my left and a house a little further up the drive, way to my right. I drove to my right and parked beside the swimming pool. I saw a beautiful woman sitting next to Michael. She got up and started walking towards my car. I got out of my car and walked towards her. Then she started walking backwards, like she didn’t want to meet me. So I asked Michael who is this woman and who does she think she is? So I said ‘the hell with this, got back in my car and drove back down the hill.”
Not wanting to leave the situation as was, Jimmy called the house again from a phone box whereupon Michael answered this time. “He said ‘Jimmy, what the hell are you doing? That was Mrs Gaye, Marvin’s wife and Berry’s sister.’ I said ‘how the hell did I know? She acted like she didn’t want to shake my hand.’ He replied ‘Get your ass back up here now, she wants to meet you. Marvin told her all about you. And that was my introduction to Anna Gaye! Michael had worked everything out, and Miss Gaye and I shook hands and that began 38 years of the most wonderful friendship two people could have.” Anna went on to employ Jimmy as president of her Outpost Productions, which included him signing, producing and writing for the company. “I wrote a lot of songs, played sax and keyboards.” However, the happy relationship was tarnished when Jimmy became aware that Anna was unhappy and going through some emotional issues. “About four months into my being in Los Angeles, Anna and I went to lunch together, and she told me about what she was going through with Marvin and the divorce. She was really hurt, angry and sad at the same time. She told me my energy was a breath of fresh air to her.” Jimmy was also signed to Jobete as a writer, where he worked with Teena Marie, Rick James, among others, and met and befriended the Motown family, and families of Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and so on……
Anna Gordy’s story is well documented from the time as a teenager she exhibited her family’s strong work ethic, walking a mile each day from her home to her first outside job in a local store. Following this, she worked for the US Government’s Tacon plant. Living life fully, her audacious spirit transported her through a variety of experiences from horseback riding at her sister Loucye’s ladies riding school, tap dancing and being a model. In the mid-fifties Anna changed direction to join her entrepreneur sister Gwen in a photo concession business, which she operated at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. The sisters enjoyed a particularly strong bond and when Gwen later formed a record label, she proudly named the company, Anna Records. It was there that Anna caught the eye of a young Marvin Gaye. When the two first met he went to her house or office every day at 4pm. Anna waved to acknowledge him. One time he didn’t show up as usual because he wanted to see if she had missed him! In time, they married whereupon Anna skillfully oversaw her husband’s career, and as she couldn’t have children, they adopted a boy. And the rest as they say, is history.
Away from Motown, Jimmy relocated to Chicago to work with a variety of artists signed to Gold Coast Records, an offshoot of Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, before opening the Mo-Philly Group with Raymond Earl, which handled all aspects of the music industry. He was later involved with Larry Kimpel at GVR Records which, among other things, released the fabulous Gene Van Buren album “Still”. But, also let’s not forget Jimmy’s own “Share My Love” album released in 2006 where he recruited musical assistance from his pals like Ray Parker Jr, Howard Hewitt and Philip Ingram. It was a collection of original material and cover versions, given the working title “Jimmy Levine and Friends” when he came up with the idea in 1984. He only returned to the project in 2002 when his daughter begged him to record some music that was ‘good old R&B/soul’. Eight months later “Share My Love” was released. Alongside writing his book, Jimmy had other projects underway, but sadly, his life ended before any could be completed. So, in my small way, here’s my heartfelt tribute to a guy who touched my life, and who had so much more to give. Rest in peace now Jimmy.