MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT - August 2019

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT – August 2019

It’s been a sizzling bank holiday weekend in more ways than one.  Not only have we enjoyed unprecedented temperatures but we’ve had Motown music scorching the airwaves. At long last national radio celebrated the 60th birthday.  BBC Radio 2 opened its frequency with non-stop music and chatting company artists. The Motown countdown kicked off at noon today (Monday) with Craig Charles and the UK’s top one hundred, followed by Trevor Nelson – who I’m listening to now –  as he picks up the next top fifty singles. “Superstition” was the number one downloaded/streamed  song – which is a blinding track – but did surprise me a little. I’m thinking his recent concert here embedded him in the public’s mind, hence his runaway popularity in the top one hundred.  The early evening session has Ken Bruce spinning Motown cover versions, before Richard Searling highlights the company’s connections with Northern Soul. Then Lionel Richie talks to Johnnie Walker in the early hours: sorry guys, it’ll be without this gal!  All programmes are available via the BBC website though.

Other bank holiday weekend high spots included Stevie Wonder’s live 2005 concert at the Abbey Road Studios, a couple of Tony Blackburn programmes and the history of Motown narrated by Marshall Chess.   I was going to write that it’s about time the BBC acknowledged this incredible music celebration, much of which formed the backdrop to our lives.  Then stopped myself:  research for this Motown Weekend was plainly extensive, particularly with artists’ interviews linking the music.  I then also reminded myself, this was the radio conglomerate run by repressed bureaucrats, who, before pirate stations taught them a harsh lesson, wouldn’t entertain giving airtime to black artists, let alone an entire record company crammed to bursting with talent that, in some ways, changed the way music was recorded and presented.  By saying that, I certainly take no credit away from The Beatles who, it’s probably fair to say, changed the entire music industry on several levels.  So, well done the BBC – you got there in the end!

Club DJs up and down the country also paid homage during the past couple of days, while local radios, like 59.9 Hailsham FM, where I present a Motown/Soul show each Saturday evening, have taken the chance to extend the birthday celebrations, although to be honest, we’ve been celebrating since January!  Why not? A birthday doesn’t have to be confined to one day does it?  I applaud you all and only hope that by some quirk Berry Gordy gets to learn about our dedicated support.

Narrated by Ryan Mandrake and presented by 3DD Productions for Sky Arts, I had the misfortune to watch “Music Icons: Diana Ross and the Supremes” yesterday.  It is thirty minutes of my life I won’t get back. The  programme lacked enthusiasm; the handful of talking heads, whom I didn’t know, barely cracked a smile as they adopted a monotone commentary attitude about several of the trio’s releases in chronological order (with no little anecdotes that we love to hear about) while the latter part of the programme centred around Diana Ross as a singer and actress.  All rushed, particularly the visuals, and irresponsibly edited, it certainly did not befit one of the world’s most successful black female trios of all time. What a waste of an opportunity.   On the upside though…word has it that there’s at least two Marvin Gaye documentaries in the works, and that a BBC4 tv programme has recently been completed on Ready Steady Go for autumn transmission.  I’m not sure which anniversary it’s celebrating, and the person I was talking to was pretty vague, so a quick recce across the internet resulted in these dates: show pilot – 16 July 1963; series start – 9 August 1963; series end – 23 December 1966.  I’m none the wiser, but who needs anniversaries anyway!

Talking of The Supremes, Mary Wilson was in town recently promoting Supreme Glamour, published this month by Thames & Hudson, the same company behind Adam White’s ground breaking Motown: The Sound Of Young America.  I caught Mary on The One Show where she was animated and entertaining with her co-guest Robert Rinder, who appeared bemused most of the time. Anyway,  Mary’s coffee table book was co-penned by Mark Bego, whose work is familiar to us all with publications on Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and, of course, he co-authored Martha Reeves’ sterling autobiography Dancing In The Street, a much respected diary which isn’t far from my desk even now.  Martha’s dedication to detail is awesome, while, on occasion, her honesty is heart breaking.

With a foreward by Whoopi Goldberg – a lady who bubbles over with all things entertaining, while being a leading figure in civil rights, LGBT and other causes she believes deserve a public voice – Supreme Glamour readers enter the world of home-made frocks to designer gowns, celebrating The Supremes’ rise to fame through fashion rather than song. Alongside well publicised visuals there’s a huge amount of exclusive pictures indicating how the group’s brand was developed.  We travel through the stoic poses of the early line up, with photos taken wearing those heavy necklaces and suits, through to the frilly blouses and pleated skirts, t-shirts and slacks.  The conservative-styled dresses eventually explode into the rich, sumptuous gowns bedecked in glass beads, sequins,  pearls, and all in glorious hip hugging colour, which became their trademark. Utilising the talents of some of the top designers like Michael Travis and Bob Mackie, The Supremes were probably loved for their stage clothes as much as they were for their music.  Like Motown:The Sound Of Young America, the black/white and coloured visuals are lavishly presented with accompanying detail captions, while the story of the fashionista trio is recounted throughout.  Cover price is £29.95 but available at £18.54 from Amazon.

It’s certainly been a month for book releases as here’s another.  Although I knew my dear friend Graham Betts, who has a penchant for facts and figures, was publishing his long-researched tomes, the thrill is in the holding of the actual book.  The Official Charts: The Sixties is a massive research vehicle, so valuable to people like myself who constantly refer to these sources of information.  Briefly, this book uses the singles charts used by BBC Radio 1, Top Of The Pops and the much-loved industry magazine Music Week.  Listed weekly, they are easy to read, with the artists’ names in bold print. Moving on from these pages, you’ll find EP and album charts covering the same decade.  The Official Singles Hits Book is a companion read, crammed with data, listings of artist by artist hit singles, EPs and albums, brief biographies, awards, honours and sales.   Similar publications covering the Eighties are also available: £20 and £16 respectively.  By the way, Graham is known to us for his 2014 Motown  Encyclopedia, another useful guide to everyone and everything connected with the company.  Actually, I told him with a smile that I was miffed because he beat me to it as I had planned a similar project about the ladies of Motown.  All is fair in love and publishing, of course, and maybe something for another day eh?

Another book that arrived in the post is the revised and updated Lucy O’Brien’s The Classic Biography: Dusty published this month by Michael O’Mara Books.  I’ve got Lucy’s previous two books about the singer and this once features new interviews and photographs.  As the blurb says “Dusty Springfield was one of our greatest pop singers. She was a musical pioneer and the very essence of authentic white soul.”  However, as we know, she played a pivotal role in endorsing Motown over here. Lucy covers this from the time Dusty was a member of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, her friendship with Martha Reeves, working with the artists at The Brooklyn Fox, New York, and, of course, the crème de la crème, The Sound Of Motown which introduced the British public to the magic of the music in their own homes on 28 April 1965.  Dusty attended the opening night of the Motown Revue on 20 March, sitting in the audience of the Astoria, Finsbury Park, with other excited fans. It seemed every soul fan in London turned out that night to celebrate.  When Dusty was asked for her autograph, she said ‘Any other time but not tonight, because I’m here as a fan.”  In a Daily Express review, Ron Boyle applauded the new label – “To counterblast the Liverpool sound along came the Detroit sound known to the ‘in’ crowd as Tamla Motown…The punch of the big beat in a velvet glove.”  Martha Reeves has always given her British friend kudos for promoting the company in the UK. “Any chance she got she’d mention Detroit and the Motown sound.  Lots of things happened after that tour, so she introduced Motown to England.  She can take credit for that.”  The tour may have been a financial disaster but The Sound Of Motown lives on.

Lucy’s book, now with a new cover, covers the singer’s public life of beehives and black mascara, while dipping into how it really was behind the glare of the spotlight.  Using new introduction and interviews with the likes of Tom Jones and Dusty’s music arranger Ivor Raymonde, Lucy offers fresh material to satisfy most Dusty fans, with opinions that are rounded and often different about the shy, awkward convent girl who created a musical brand that crossed from pop into soul music.  Naturally, the ground-breaking album “Dusty In Memphis” is once again highlighted, a release the singer was shy to admit centred her squarely in the soul world.  Since her death, the floodgates opened about her struggle with being gay, her drugs and alcohol addiction, and the darkest secrets of her mental health issues.  I am a firm believer that some aspects of anyone’s personal life shouldn’t be exposed in the public arena, but such is the way of the world today, there’s no such animal as discretion. Besides, didn’t Dusty tell her lifelong friend Pat Rhodes that after her death she would hear things she wouldn’t like. So the singer was very aware!  Having said this, I sincerely hope I kept within the boundaries in my 2008 book A Girl Called  Dusty, but if asked to update this, would my thinking change?

Anyway, the legacy the singer left behind is awesome; her status as a pop icon and soul singer has never been stronger.  Dusty played a vital musical role on several levels, including her beloved Motown.  As Martha is quoted in the book – “Dusty had a positive enthusiasm for the music.  At the same time she didn’t pretend she was the bona-fide article. She acknowledged her roots and often said that she wished she’d been born black.”  Available from Amazon at £13.88.

And finally…one book that really excites me –  Lamont Dozier’s  How Sweet It Is co-penned by Scott B Bomar.  Strictly speaking, it’s not published until October, and I’ve not yet read it but thought I’d squeeze in a mention here. The publicity blurb states the book pulls back the curtain on studio secrets that inspired some of H-D-H’s songs.  “After exploring the struggle of growing up in Detroit and pursuing music, Lamont takes us behind the scenes of the Motown machine, sharing personal stories of his encounters with  Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Berry Gordy. He details the rise of own artistic career, his business and legal struggles, and the personal triumphs and tragedies that defined him. ”  On my bucket list for sure!

Let’s move away from the printed word to the musical note and a quick reminder. As you know, earlier in the year, and using the slogan “Motown Did It First!”, a huge re-issue programme of physical titles were released by Universal Japan to mark the 60th anniversary. A series of new playlists are to be unveiled during the course of the year, alongside further albums.  So, without listing them all, suffice to say it’s a real pot pourie of artists who hit the market place last March, like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”/”Dance Party”);  Grover Washington Jr (“Mister Magic”); “Odyssey”; Edwin Starr (“War And Peace”);  Leon Ware (“Musical Massage”) and others from Earl Van Dyke, The Temptations, Syreeta, The Supremes, Nolen & Crossley and The Spinners. All releases replicate original artwork and album sequences. Yeah, it was quite a list!  Further details, of course, from the “Motown Did It First!” website.  If Japan can admirably steer this incredible collection, why not the UK I wonder?   Anyway, what we have got is “Motown: Greatest Hits”, available this month on vinyl (yay!) and a 3-CD box set. There are 27 tracks on the first, 60 on the second.  No surprises here I guess as it features the hit-making artists – Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, Marvin Gaye and so on. Unless Motown fans want to mark the birthday with this, sales will come from  the curious record buyer, while connoisseurs will be satisfying their souls with the items like the  “Unreleased” compilations available online only.  I use Spotify, it costs nothing and is easily accessible but, to be honest, nothing replaces the physical vinyl/CD.  No wonder, Universal cops for the cheaper method of getting music to the public.

Next month will be devoted to my visit to the Skegness Motown/Northern Soul Weekender where hanging out with Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, Gloria Jones, among others, will be the name of the game.  That’s if I survive the three days, as it’s been &^%$$ years since I attended such an event – and that was with Gloria and Dave Godin –  whereupon I recall sleeping for a week afterwards!

 

 

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: August/September 2017

Motown Spotlight: August/September 2017

Yay! It has arrived! And reading the excitement gushing across many Facebook pages, there’s not a negative vibe to be read. You know what I’m talking about – Brenda Holloway’s “Spellbound”, which is one of the most exciting compilations this year. I know I’ve been involved from the outset which was, and still is, a tremendous thrill for me because Brenda is one helluva artist and one feisty lady who so graciously chatted to me for ages for the CD notes. The worst part was keeping it a secret! Anyway, there’s no need to detail the tracks included as Paul Nixon, who, with our very own David Nathan, produced the project, does an admirable job, also explaining the origin of the music, but I must say the ballads are totally captivating like “Don’t Compare Me To Her”. There’s a mixture of composers and producers ensuring a huge diversity in Brenda’s ability to easily manage all styles proving, as if she needed to, that she’s the total consummate artist, who, sadly, was categorised in the ‘overlooked’ section of Motown. Compilations like these issued by SoulMusic Records involve many people at the offset, responsible for all the aspects of ensuring the final release is beyond excellent, which is why they can’t be rushed. Believe me, writing the notes was probably the easiest part! All I can say is, thank you guys for bringing us the music, and to Brenda herself for recording such gems in the first place. Maybe here is the right place to mention other SMR Motown CDs just in case they’ve slipped your mind, and a few I’ve been involved with – Thelma Houston’s “Any Way You Like It”, “Billy Preston & Syreeta”, “Syreeta”, G.C. Cameron’s “Love Songs & Other Tragedies”, and The Dynamic Superior’s “Dynamic Superiors”/”Pure Pleasure”. Obviously, we hope there’ll be plenty more to fulfil our Motown dreams. Let’s TCB…

The entire Hotel St Regis in midtown Detroit has been booked to accommodate visitors attending Detroit A Go Go, a five day Motown and Soul Festival booked to start on 18 October. I don’t know too many details, apart from the fact that I’m not going, but I understand performing acts include The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, The Elgins, The Contours, Pat Lewes, JJ Barnes among the advertised list. According to what I’ve read it seems the event will provide an insight into the enduring phenomenon that’s been observed from affar, like the overseas fascination with Motown and its obscure musical cousins. Yorkshire resident, Phil Dick – DJ, record label owner and longtime fan – is the Festival’s organiser, who said that Motown in particular really resonated with the English in the sixties, and “DJs began looking for more records with that sound, looking further afield for more obscure labels. It was that music that really resonated predominantly with the white working class in England; the sound, the beat, but mostly the lyrics. Most of the songs are about love and hope and happiness.” He also acknowledges the huge importance of our Northern Soul Scene, citing that many followers have never been to Detroit that bred this wonderful music, “Detroit has always been right in the centre of the northern soul movement, particularly because of the Motown connection, but also because so much other great music was being made there in the sixties and seventies……I felt that rather than just bringing one or two artists to England, let’s take fans to the US and have lots of them performing for us.” British DJs like Phil himself and Neil Rushton will be spinning the sounds. Y’know what? Sounds like great fun, and I really hope it all comes together for everyone concerned. Click here for more information about tickets, etc.

Flipping over the coin now, the situation doesn’t look that good for the 40th annual Kennedy Centre Honours ceremony in December this year. Due to the political moves undertaken by the Trump administration, one of the announced attendees Lionel Richie may sideline the event. He told the New York Daily Times, “I’m not really happy with what’s going on right now with the controversies….But I think I’m just going to wait it out and see where it’s gonna be by that time.” Apparently, he’s the third to indicate a no-show, and this month President Trump and his First Lady said they won’t be attending either. At this rate, there’ll only be the CBS network television crew there filming, um, nothing much. Moving on….

“The music industry has lost one world class voice, and I’ve lost a long and cherished friend. A piece of my history goes with him. We recorded together, and his band The Vancouvers backed me at the Eden Rock in Miami, and we went to the UK and played some gigs together.” So sayeth Chris Clark about Bobby Taylor who we lost last month. The 83-year-old named lead vocalist with The Vancouvers, had been living in Hong Kong for the past fifteen years or so, and had been undergoing treatment for tumours in his spine and leukemia in his throat. Sadly, he lost the battle. Motown fans will be aware of his musical history, so won’t go into great biographical detail, but thought a few highlights would be of interest. The first, of course, is the single that launched the group into the American crossover chart – “Does Your Mama Know About Me” which was born as a poem by the song’s co-writer Tommy Chong. Keyboardist and composer, Tom Baird read it and put it to music. “It was about a black guy asking his girlfriend if her mama knew about him” wrote Tommy in his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Biography”. “The song was about my own experiences with white women. Being half Chinese, there had been times – actually, many of them – when I had to drop a girl off at the end of the block so her parents wouldn’t see who she was dating. That experience saddened me.” Pressed in red vinyl and released in February 1968 (UK – May 1968), the single was followed by a pair of US hits: “I Am Your Man” (Ashford and Simpson) in June ‘68 and “Malinda” (Smokey Robinson and Warren Moore) in the October. All three releases were lifted from their solitary eponymous album issued August 1968 (the same month as Edwin Starr’s amazing “Soul Master” album), with its British release the following year in the February. It also now appears that both “I Am Your Man” and “Malinda” were originally intended to be solo Bobby songs but ended up being credited to the group as well. Probably as insufficient tracks had been recorded for their debut album.

Anyway, let’s back track. Born in Washington DC, Bobby’s parents were of Native American and Puerto Rican descent, and he lived in the same neighbourhood as Marvin Gaye when they were kids. He said his mother sang with the great opera singer, Marian Anderson, and her best friends included Billie Holiday, which allowed him to hang out with Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and other A-listed names while he was growing up. “My family knew all the musicians around, and every time somebody would come to town, they’d stop by the house. I always knew when somebody was coming because we’d have big pots of chitterlings and cornbread piled up to the ceiling.” Bobby also served as a cook during the Korean War, later performing with a variety of groups like Little Daddy and the Bachelors, before meeting guitarist Tommy Chong, who would later partner fellow comic “Cheech” Marin. They went on to form The Vancouvers (Wes Henderson, Ted Lewis, Robbie King, Eddie Patterson, Tommy, with Bobby on lead), and supported Motown artists on tour, earning themselves a name to be watched. While supporting The Supremes, Berry Gordy caught their act which included them singing Motown material, and as Tommy wrote, “We could cover any tune we felt like because Bobby could sing them all……Bobby had a range that exceeded Patti LaBelle…. He used to do ‘Danny Boy’ and make everybody cry in the audience. He would hit notes that were unbelievably high and he could sound like anybody he wanted to sound like – Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. I’ve been with a lot of singers, but nothing like Bobby.” They also dipped into The Impressions’ songbook which included the little-known “I Wonder”, the very first song Tommy heard Bobby perform in San Francisco. It later became their most requested song. As well as enjoying their performance, Berry Gordy was also taken by “Does Your Mama Know About Me” and it was probably this that instigated him signing the multi-cultured unit to Motown. “Everybody was just kids” Bobby Taylor told journalist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor during 1998. “We didn’t know business. So Berry Gordy had us sign everything away: even gave them power of attorney. They said they needed it so they could put our cheques in the bank for us if we… were on the road.” When their single began selling, Bobby and the group toured with Diana Ross and the Supremes. Tommy takes up the story, “We opened the show and performed part of our club routine, which eventually pissed off Diana Ross so much that she had the tour manager tell us to stop doing it.” It appeared she was offended by the lyrics of a Parliament song they performed, which the group amended to sing “oh, white girls, you sure been delicious to me.” Diana’s sentiments were also shared by the tour promoters who were not prepared for an unknown band from Canada singing about white girls in this way, particularly as they formed a huge part of the audience!

An outspoken, no-nonsense guy, prone to wearing purple suits, Bobby’s reputation for straight talking, hit Motown. So much so that when he arrived at the studio, the switchboard would alert everybody and they would lock their office doors. “There was no filter on Bobby’s mouth” Tommy said. “He would tell Berry Gordy ‘Nappy-headed little n*****, what’s happening?’ He would talk to Berry like he would talk to me.”


Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers also supported Chris Clark when she performed at the Saville Theatre in London during November 1967, supporting Gladys Knight and the Pips. During an add-on club date while in the city, Chris remembered a vision in tight white leather, white hat with a huge feather, jumping on stage, grabbing a guitar and tearing the place down. It was Jimi Hendrix, and although he subsequently took a while for his star to rise, she immediately recognised a huge talent in the making. Touring with Chris was a regular occurrence in America, where her road manager was Johnny Bristol. However, this touring arrangement came to an end when Tommy and Wes Henderson had to attend an immigration meeting to sort our their green cards on the same date as they had agreed to support Ms Clark. During a verbal altercation, Johnny Bristol sacked both from the group, which eventually led to it breaking up.

During 1968 Bobby left his group to record as a soloist where his limited releases switched labels. His first “Oh, I’ve Been Blessed”/”Blackmail”, was originally scheduled on the Gordy label, but transferred to VIP for early 1970 release. A year later “My Girl Has Gone” carried the Gordy label, while “Hey Lordy” was a Mowest single in November 1971. In between times, he released “Taylor-Made Soul” in July 1969 on Gordy; British release was six months later. Nothing worked, despite the high calibre of the material, so Bobby and Motown parted company by 1971, although a financial disagreement was said to be the real reason. Bobby later successfully sued Motown for unpaid royalties.

Despite the hype at the time that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, it was, of course, Bobby Taylor who brought them to Berry Gordy’s attention. The Vancouvers were sharing a bill with Jerry Butler at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, with the Jackson 5 as support act, performing a gruelling five shows daily for ten days. The brothers stole the show the minute they took to the stage. “I saw this little kid spinning and stuff and said ‘dang, send him upstairs when he finishes. I want to talk to that kid’” recalled Bobby in one interview, and in another, said “Michael was about eight. In between sets he used to go to sleep on my lap.” So excited was he, that he invited the brothers and their father Joe to Detroit where, during July 1968, they auditioned for Suzanne de Passe. She instantly signed them to a seven-year contract, and Berry Gordy assigned Bobby to work with them. “I had them come live with me that summer while they were auditioning” Bobby said. “….I was living in a white apartment building at the time, and the other tenants, they didn’t want these little black kids around the place. They didn’t do any bad stuff, they were just normal kids running around. But the other tenants didn’t like it, so it got us all kicked out.”

Becoming the Jackson 5’s first producer, they recorded Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You”, among other titles. Working with Michael Jackson was comfortably easy for Bobby because of the youngster’s ability to grasp the recording process. “He’d go in and do it. Everything I gave him to sing, he could sing right back at me.” It was the perfect relationship but, one time, when Joe Jackson attempted to interfere with a session, Bobby pulled a gun on him. However, Berry Gordy considered the songs Bobby produced for the brothers were old-fashioned, and not the way he wanted them to be presented to the public. So, he side stepped him and formed The Corporation, a group of his top composers/producers to deliver original, blue-eyed soul music. In the notes for the 1995 Jackson 5 “Soulsation” CD set, Bobby said, “I’m not an ass-kisser. I’ll tell you what I think. I was running things my way and didn’t want any interference. I was turning the Jackson 5 into a classic soul act. Berry Gordy didn’t like that. He had ideas of his own. He wanted Michael doing more bubblegum material. He sent me packing.” Tommy Chong, on the other hand, fervently believed Bobby’s greatest talent was teaching people how to sing. “’Come on m*****f*****, you can hit that note. Come on, just hit it! That’s the way he was.” Although he went on to supervise most of their debut album “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5”, Bobby received little or no credit for working alongside The Corporation on their early singles like “I Want You Back” and “ABC”..

Several years after leaving Motown, Bobby Taylor discovered he had throat cancer, and relocated to Ohio to live with his mother. He dismissed traditional treatment and sought a herbal cure which was successful to a point, because the polyps returned, prompting Bobby to comment at the time – “I’m not going to do chemotherapy. I came into this life with all my hair and I’m going out with it.” However, this didn’t prevent him from recording, as he released singles on Sunflower, Tommy Zs7, Playboy and Philadelphia International. Then, during the early nineties, Bobby was signed by Ian Levine to record an album for his innovative Motorcity Records label based in London. Titled “Find My Way Back” it featured among its tracks re-works “Does Your Mama Know About Me”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Down To Love Town”.

From here, Bobby Taylor moved to Beijing, before relocating to Hong Kong, where he continued to sing, mostly in friends’ nightclubs. I’m told his last known recording was “Humanity” a tribute to the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner. In one of his later interviews, Bobby told the South China Morning post, “I have twelve kids, met three presidents and, in general, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Before closing this, Chris Clark said she heard a demo of Bobby and the Vancouvers singing the Frank Wilson/Pam Sawyer song “Evening Train” which was headed her way to record. However, Diana Ross stepped in, recorded it with a different arrangement to include it on the group’s “Love Child”. “After hearing Bobby’s version, I personally wouldn’t have even dared to try and match it”, said Ms Clark. ”Please Motown, release his track as his swan song, because my Northern Soul family will adore it.”

The very last word goes to Tommy Chong, “St Peter’s going ‘Bobby Taylor’s in Heaven now, notify everybody!’”

(My thanks to J Douglas Allen-Taylor; Tommy Chong and his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorised Autobiography” and others I was unable to identify. The visuals included here belong to Chris Clark and are reprinted with her permission. They must not be reproduced elsewhere)