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!