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.

 

August 2017: Soul Music Reissue Reviews

August 2017: Soul Music Reissue Reviews

WILSON PICKETT: WILSON PICKETT SINGS BOBBY WOMACK (KENT)
Now this is interesting, for me anyway, because I just love Wilson’s voice. It’s so rasping, almost on the raw side, and, my, can he turn a song into something else. And this CD is a fine example of his immense talent that perhaps is overlooked sometimes. From the blurb, the material here covers 1966 – 1968 when he recorded 17 songs by Mr Womack, then a rising composer/singer. Of course, he was destined to bask in his own public spotlight but that would take a while yet. So, it could be argued, that Wilson Pickett helped Bobby on his way. Anyway, I’m bouncing across the tracks, loving as I do the high octane ballad “People Make The World (What It Is)”, followed by a chunky “I’m A Midnight Mover”, saturated in brass, interrupted by shrill support vocals, portraying the man at his finest. Wilson’s ability to whip up a whirlpool of R&B emotion, whether tackling a fast mover or sweeping ballad is, to be honest, rather special. “It’s A Groove” and “I’m Sorry About That” fit the latter. However, “I’ve Come A Long Way” ups the anti to beat both mentioned ballads hands down! He wails and moans, telling the story against a full background of musicians and vocalists. Extremely inspiring. A song that’s high on my list of all time greats is “Bring It On Home To Me”, and here Wilson pays respect to its creator, Sam Cooke. It’s an easy and relaxing version too. Also included, as a bonus, are both sides of Bobby Womack’s solitary Atlantic single “Find Me Somebody”/”How Does It Feel”. This CD has been a long time in the making. Cliff White conceived the project in 1984, and the journey took in record company rejections and…..well, it is all explained in the accompanying booklet by consultant Bob Fisher. To hell with it; there’s absolutely nothing to dislike here. It is the perfect combination of the voice and the writer. Resist at your peril!
Rating: 10

VARIOUS ARTISTS: MAINSTREAM MODERN SOUL 2 1969 – 1976 (KENT)
Seventies soul from Mainstream’s family of labels, headed up by Bob Shad, a jazz producer but a man who knew how to cash in on the growing R&B market. Vocal groups were his preference, where Terry Huff and Special Delivery were the most profitable. To introduce the CD is the rather low-keyed funk sounding “Grass Ain’t Greener”, the first single from Charles Beverly. Its solid beat and robust vocals sustain the regular dance rhythm. Nia Johnson’s “You Are The Spice Of My Life” is a top shelf ballad that drifts along with plenty of back up vocals. Its instant hook is hard to shake. On the other hand, a clipping beat that drops a key, forms the basis of Ellerine Harding’s “I Know Something You Don’t Know”. A little on the busy side for me. An extremely laidback, part singing/talking track “I’ve Got To Tell You” from the flamboyantly named Count Willie with LRL & The Dukes, left me cold. However, love the cute and quaint “Everyone Has Someone”, where Linda Perry has swiped all the ingredients from a fifties’ songbook of also-rans. Yet it has a compelling charm nonetheless. Marking the final single release from Terry Huff, “Where There’s A Will (There’s A Way)”, the song holds a lively rhythm that’s perfect for dancing. Likewise, the pounding Chocolate Syrup’s “You’ve Got A Lot To Give” and Chapter Three’s “I’ll Never Be The Same Pt 1” – a slice of early disco from a female trio who should have done better. Meanwhile, the all male quartet, McArthur, take their “I’ll Never Trust Love Again” to another level, with smooth vocals backing an angst-ridden lead vocalist. Poor love. All the tracks are important in their own way in contributing to the growth of soul music, although there are some that fall below the high standard this specialist market dictated. Nonetheless, for historians, this compilation is a must.
Rating: 7

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: NOTHING BUT A HOUSE PARTY: THE BIRTH OF THE PHILLY SOUND 1967 -71 (KENT)
What a way to kick off this exciting compilation with The Showstoppers taking the CD’s title into their vocal grasp, as the introduction to classic music from the City of Brotherly Love, recorded before the Philly Sound stretched across the world. It’s a sweetshop of multi coloured sounds waiting to be tasted. Executive Suite’s “Christine” holds the promise of a worthy ballad against a chugging beat. Falsetto lead blends easily into a full vocal chorus. Plenty of luscious brass introduces “Love Is All Right” from Alabama-born Cliff Nobles, a soft hitting dancer that allows the drummer plenty of skin time, while Honey & the Bees’ “Help Me (Get Over My Used To Be Lover)” – what a mouthful! – falls directly into the sound category of a seventies girl group. A powerful slice of Archie Bell & the Drells’ magic with “My Balloon’s Going Up” (another strange title) offers a sound that doesn’t let up. Against an intermittent beat, Brenda & the Tabulations saunter through the slow moving “That’s The Price You Have To Pay”. Instantly attractive: Peaches & Herb’s “Let’s Make A Promise”, with its positive melody, is held together by a tight percussion. Then there’s a strong, yet plaintive vocal from Barbara Mason on “You Better Stop It” (a song she also composed) which, in all honesty, is one of the better slower tracks on this set. A familiar, tried and tested, highly danceable “Standing In The Darkness” courtesy of The Ethics, closes the musical journey. It’s fair to say this compilation features some of the earliest recordings from the fledgling Philly company of labels which would, in time, become Motown’s most aggressive competitor. Yet, as was proven, there was plenty of room for both, with space to spare.
Rating: 9

 

 

 

March 2017: Reissues and New Music Reviews

March 2017: Reissues and New Music Reviews

a-woman417ROZETTA JOHNSON: A WOMAN’S WAY – THE COMPLETE ROZETTA JOHNSON 1963 – 1975 (KENT)

This compilation seems to have slipped through the net and for that my apologies. However, as they say – better late than never. The lady from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who carved a place for herself in music history through her slices of southern soul, is more than amply represented here with her releases from the sixties and seventies. I was surprisingly impressed at the way Rozetta effortlessly wanders through the hopelessness of unreturned love, stirring up a gamut of emotions, while, on the other hand, ruthlessly persuades her listeners that she’s not to be messed with. Or, perhaps she’s a blank canvass that can be coloured in from track to track. Anyway, it seems her first documented single “I Understand My Man” b/w “Willow Weep For Me” was released under the name Rosetta Johnson and the Organettes on NRC, before she switched to the Jessica imprint with “That Hurts”, a more mainstream sound, and “It’s Nice To Know You”. She then left the recording scene behind her to concentrate on live dates until signing with Moonsong/Clintone to score a pair of top three R&B hits with her first two releases, namely “A Woman’s Way” and “Who Are You Gonna Love (Your Woman Or Your Wife)”, written by Sam Dees, with whom she recorded her best work. Alongside regular releases, there’s the extended version of “I’ve Come Too Far With You” complete with alternate vocals, plus previously unheard support and lead vocals on “I Can Feel My Love Comin’ Down”. The fact that Ms Johnson is no longer with us, makes this compilation more vital to her fans, and connoisseurs of authentic soul music.
Rating: 8

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pied-piper419 VARIOUS ARTISTS: PIED PIPER FINALE  (KENT RECORDS)

This is the last in the trilogy of this Pied Piper series, and we have Jack Ashford to thank because the titles come from his  personal collection. Among the gems here is the previously undocumented Lorraine Chandler song “Ease My Mind”, co-penned by the aforementioned Funk Brother and the singer. And it’s quite something too. Jack recruited members of the Funk Brothers to play on these sessions, and, I believe, many of the Pied Piper releases.  Wonder what Berry Gordy made of this!  However, their involvement does make this compilation that more interesting.  I instantly zoned in on the tracks by the Pied Piper Players, notably “The Bari Sax”, with its total funky groove, which kick starts this compilation. The Hesitations’ “Soul Superman”, a much-needed R&B top fifty hit, is equally compelling, plus the couple from The Metros, namely “No Baby” and “Sweetest One”.  Add into the mix Reggie Alexander’s “It’s Better” and Freddie Butler’s “Deserted”; both are prime exponents of a kindred soul spirit.  Then there’s “Gambler’s Blues”, another diamond in the mine. Although this song by Nancy Wilcox was included in the first of this series, the ungraded version here was discovered on master tape in Mr Ashford’s collection.  Ady Croasdell wrote in his excellent CD notes – “The rare soul world is indebted to Jack Ashford, Shelley Haims and the Pied Piper singers, musicians, arrangers, producers and songwriters for making such enthralling and inspiring soul music.”  And so say all of us!
Rating: 8

manhattansoul3416VARIOUS ARTISTS: MANHATTAN SOUL 3 (KENT)

This compilation is the ninth of Scepter/Wand and Musicor/Dynamo recordings issued by Kent, and the standard never slips. The two New York labels were linked by Luther Dixon who put Scepter on the success path with the likes of The Shirelles and Dionne Warwick, before switching to Musicor to work with Tommy Hunt and The Platters, among others. So, the resulting compilation covers most musical genres, for instance I’m listening to Johnny Moore’s “Haven’t I Been Good To You” which, for the world, sounds like The Temptations’ “I Know I’m Losing You”. The CD opens with Dan and The Cleancuts’ “Open Up Your Heart (And Let Me In)”, a super smooth, intense soul sound, while the previous unreleased Shirelles’ “Two Stupid Feet” is so cute – and two twee for the ladies who made such a huge name for themselves on the R&B scene. Still smiling! Van McCoy’s “What’s The Matter Baby” is also heard here for the first time. Yet again, it’s a strange one. Lots of galloping music and a piano break. Thankfully, Melba Moore returns to normality with a traditional ballad formula in the shape of “Does Love Believe In Me”. Add these to tracks from Big Maybelle, which sounds a little off key but hey; Billy Adams, Tommy Hunt and Brook Benton, it’s an extremely credible compilation and one that I’ve enjoyed playing, although when I first started out I had a few reservations. Persistence is the key!
Rating: 8

random418RETROSPECTIVE FOR LOVE: RANDOM ACTIVITIES OF A HEART (WORMFOOD RECORDS)
Um, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when this CD arrived as I reckoned it could well be outside my comfort zone. However, there’s something about this new sound that’s captured me, and wanting more. Hailing from Sicily, Davide Shorty (vocalist, musical director and producer) wanted to bring back the love, and to do this gathered around him a family of similarly soul-centric musicians from his homeland, together with others including Parisian co-vocalist Leslie Phillips. The group is now based in London, the obvious place to be seen and heard, and this, their debut release embraces a wide range of genres, from smooth smouldering soul, into a little jazz and slices of hip-hop. I also spotted a smattering of Coldplay melodies in the mix too. Honest. The pace is set with the opening track “The Picture You Show Me”, an easy, almost moody sound, then it goes a little haywire into “Water N Dust” and “Wanna Get To Know Ya”. What follows though is a mass of changing music, covering love lost and found, with some of the music stripped down only to be built up again. The promise of better things to come is so relevant as the listener is lifted into another musical world that’s so easy to get lost in, while enjoying the isolation. No doubt about it, the music is unique, often raw yet crafted with considerable thought, with the sole aim of pushing home a pot pourie of sounds. Well done to all concerned, and this debut is certainly one I’d highly recommend.
Rating: 8

northernsoulreimagined415PAUL STUART DAVIES: NORTHERN SOUL REIMAGINED (PSD)

With support vocals from Annette and Rosalind, the original Vandellas, and the Voice of Africa, Paul Stuart Davies revisits the very heart of the music heaven lovingly tagged by Dave Godin as Northern Soul, with the release of his “Northern Soul Reimagined”. With his interpretations of “Long After Tonight Is All Over” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)”, a couple of high ranking soul slices, Paul adds a positive, clear attitude as his voice takes command of these classics. Recording live is, I’ve discovered, a rather dicey procedure, but he’s got this covered as well with resulting excitement and atmosphere. Check out “You Don’t Love Me” and, of course, that almighty NS favourite “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” which, of course, is the title of the charity record spearheaded by Paul and featuring, among others, Chris Clark and Tommy Hunt. Recently released, their aim is to raise much needed funds for the Jon Bates appeal. Anyway, back to the subject in hand, “Northern Soul Reimagined” is a brief – yeh, too short Paul! – but, my, did fond memories of my too-rare visits up North return. Am still smiling! (Available from Paul Stuart Davies)
Rating: 7