Just when you think all is well with the world, the gremlins get into your computer and gobble up a morning’s work. And that’s exactly what happened with the result that this Motown Spotlight covers two months. So let’s TCB before anything else happens!
While rifling through my collection the other day, I came across a CD I’d forgotten about, probably because it was mis-filed. Anyway, that aside, it got me thinking, and here’s what I came up with….
As you know, in 1970 Berry Gordy entered the American political arena with his spoken-word Black Forum label, giving a public platform to leading black activists and intellectuals. He initially had grave reservations about dipping his record company into such a volatile and violent market because it worried him that if Motown became too political it would damage the almighty success of groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes. After all, Motown was the top international black recording company, steering street artists into global stars and turning over millions of dollars annually as it did so. The music was aimed at all races, but by now, to mostly white record buyers due to its commercial slant. The early raw ‘race music’ or R&B aimed at black audiences was gone, replaced by lush productions over blue-eyed soul presentations. Yet, it can’t be disputed the music benefitted all as it broke down racial barriers in its quest for unification. However, digging deeper into the formation of Black Forum, it appeared Ewart Abner and Junius Griffin were instrumental in convincing Berry Gordy it was the right move to make. The time was right to make a stand.
Further research revealed that radio and television broadcaster, Alvin Hall, wrote a half-hour programme about the label for the BBC, and indicated that both Abner and Griffin were actually involved in aspects of the civil rights movement, either with Dr Martin Luther King or C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equity). “They saw the need to educate the public, to give the public more information about what was going on nationally – and they were the ones who convinced (Gordy).”
Two years after Dr King was assassinated, Black Forum debuted with his “Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam”, recorded in 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. Showing Dr King in the foreground of the album sleeve, fighting soldiers in the background, and with the words “Black Forum” boldly prominent down the right-hand side, it was a stark black and white drawing on haunting blue. The sleeve was both dramatic and somewhat poignant, while the actual album within was powerful in the extreme, and as I played it back in the day, recall I could have actually been in Dr King’s presence. The record went on to win a 1971 Grammy for Best Spoken-Word Album, Motown’s only winner that year.
Incidentally, during 1963, two Dr King albums were issued on the Gordy label, namely, “The Great March To Freedom” and “The Great March On Washington”, followed five years later by “Free At Last”. When Berry Gordy suggested royalties earned from these albums should be split between King’s family and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King refused. “(He) told me, ‘There is enough confusion out there right now, as it is. I cannot allow the perception of personal gain, right or wrong, to confuse the message of the cause.'” Gordy wrote in his “To Be Loved” autobiography. “Not since Pop (Gordy’s father) and the Reverend William H Peck (his family’s pastor) had any man’s words aroused such deep feelings within me.” He also touched upon the significance of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) which was in the forefront of the fight for civil rights, by writing – “As a kid I remembered them always taking up some unpopular fight for freedom and justice. Now some thought (they) had done too little. I often said if it hadn’t been for them we would never have come this far.”
He also compared Motown to the world Dr King was tirelessly fighting to achieve, where people of different religions and races worked together harmoniously for one goal. “While I was never too thrilled about that turn-the-other-cheek business, Dr King showed me the wisdom of non-violence.” Tragically, King’s death was the result of the violence he wanted to eradicate.
Civil Rights activist and member of the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey!”, and political writers Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner with “Writers Of The Revolution” followed Dr King’s Black Forum debut. In February 1972, the Black Fighting Men Recorded Live In Vietnam’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, narrated by Wallace Terry, was issued. Next up were Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby’s “The Congressional Black Caucus; Emamu Amiri Baraka and The Original Black Poets’ “Black Spirits”; Emamu Amiri Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music”, and Elaine Brown’s eponymous album, rounded off the releases on this short-lived label that opened in 1970 and closed three years later. According to Alvin Hall, it was simple economics. When distributors ordered a healthy quantity of, say, The Temptations’ albums, the order for Black Forum records failed to reach double figures. “There was never the demand or distribution for the records like they anticipated. So after losing money, Berry Gordy closed the door on it.” Nevertheless, Black Forum provided a solid representation of the most radical thinking of their era on record and, to be fair, Gordy should be applauded for taking on such a non-commercial venture which, if it had gone horribly wrong in the political arena, could have had a disastrous financial effect on Motown’s future success.
Based on this, it’s easy to see why Berry was concerned when Marvin Gaye steered his “What’s Going On” project into the political quagmire of war and social issues. Stevie Wonder too, when he publicly ventured into African-American consciousness, with his tenuous approach to political and spiritual statements. Several other Motown artists also flexed their political music muscles and Edwin Starr immediately springs to mind with his version of Whitfield/Strong’s “War”. Previously recorded by The Temptations, this anti-Vietnam protest was released in preference to the group’s less intense version, to become one of the most popular protest singles of all time.
However, there’s more tracks….and they are included in a special 2-CD compilation named ” Power To The Motown People! Civil Rights Anthems And Political Soul 1968 – 1975″ (Universal-Island Records/ M980 090 2) which I unearthed from my collection and which, to be honest, inspired me to re-visit the Black Forum label. I do urge you to check this out if you haven’t already done so. However, before moving forward with this, I’ve just been reminded of the “Love Child” album in 1968. Discarding the glamorous gowns, coiffured hair and pouting poses to dress in cut-off jeans and sweatshirts, Diana Ross and the Supremes wore little make-up with their hair in the afro style popular at the time, on the album sleeve. The aim was probably to show they were streetwise and one of the gang. The music was a markedly different sound for the trio – who were used to Holland, Dozier, Holland compositions – as writers and producers like Ashford & Simpson, R Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Smokey Robinson and Gordy himself, were pulled together across tracks like the album’s title, “I’m Livin’ In Shame” and their version of “Does Your Mama Know About Me”.
The single “Some Things You Never Get Used To” was released prior to the album and the intention was to use this as the album’s title. However, when the single failed to rack up big sales, the plan was scrapped, and it was relegated to “Love Child” instead. “Love Child” the single, co-penned by Pam Sawyer, was released to rejuvenate the trio’s selling power to become their 11th US chart topper, propelling the album into a top selling item. On her Facebook page, Pam had nothing but praise for Diana Ross. “I was lucky to be allowed to work directly in the studio and I was thrilled (Diana) was so co-operative. We actually went into a small bathroom adjacent to the studio where she could listen privately, where she wrote signs and underlined words in her own writing….as she couldn’t read my badly written handwriting. She is the consummate artist.” The single was a mere toe dip into the urban, socially conscious whirlpool because the remainder of the album was devoted to rather sweet soul tracks, with moments of inspiration.
Anyway, I’ve digressed. “Power To The Motown People!” includes Detroit mixes of Marvin’s “What’s Going On, “What’s Happening Brother” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, with the unexpected inclusion of “You’re The Man (Pts 1 & 11). The Undisputed Truth’s magnificent ten minute version of “Ball Of Confusion”, “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” and “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, stand proudly next to David Ruffin’s “Flower Child” (lifted from his “My Whole World Ended” elpee). Naturally, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers’ “Does Your Mama Know About Me” is included. Diana Ross and the Supremes’ haunting “Shadows Of Society”, “The Young Folks” and the disturbing “I’m Livin’ In Shame”, sit happily with Syreeta’s distressing history of African-Americans in “Black Maybe”, and Stevie Wonder’s “Do Yourself A Favour.”
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ emotional “I Should Be Proud” is another co-penned by Pam Sawyer, with lyrics highlighting the devastating news of Private Johnny C Miller losing his life in the Vietnam War. With Martha as the narrator, she tells the story of people around her gushing how proud she should be because he fought and died for his country, while all she wanted was her lover safely back home. Due to the anti-war message, Martha said the single was pulled from many radio stations’ playlists, but more importantly, it was personal to her as one of her brothers lost his life in a Vietnam War related incident. To this day, it remains one of the most upsetting of releases although Ms Sawyer again indicated on her Facebook page that she felt creatively restricted because some of the original lyrics dealing with drug addiction were changed. “The lyric at the end originally said ‘now he can’t live without a needle in his arm’.” The intention was to tell the story of the young boyfriend being an innocent when he went to war but due to his injuries, returned a broken man hooked on heroin. Regrettably, or thankfully, Motown’s Quality Control committee gave it the thumbs down.
The Temptations are obviously featured on this special 2007 compilation with “Masterpiece”, “War”, “Plastic Man”, the hard-hitting “Slave” and the George Clinton-inspired “Message From A Black Man”, while Edwin Starr is present with “Stop The War Now” and “Cloud Nine”. Welcome additions here are Reuben Howell’s “Help The People” and Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” and “Life’s No Fun Living In The Ghetto.” The CD is then rounded off with Smokey Robinson’s passive “Just My Soul Responding”; Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Friendship Train”; The Miracles’ “Ain’t Nobody Straight In LA”, Eddie Kendricks’ “My People…Hold On”, and Jr Walker and the All Stars’ “Right On Brothers And Sisters”. All these message songs are, of course, heightened by Motown’s constantly evolving recording techniques, where producers’ imaginations were adventurously exploited.
I was, however, a little surprised that one track in particular was overlooked; that by Tom Clay released on the Mowest label. Titled “What The World Needs Now Is Love”/”Abraham, Martin And John”, it is a thought provoking compilation of clips from the song, interspliced with speeches by John and Bobby Kennedy, Dr King, among other items. This ground-breaking single went on to sell over one million copies and prompted the release of a follow up “Whatever Happened To Love”, and the album “What The World Needs Now.” Alas, one can’t have it all!
Compiled and annotated by Peter Doggett, “Power To The Motown People!” is an extremely potent selection of songs. While it doesn’t condone or condemn what was happening in America and the world at the time, it does go to show Motown was aware and cared in a non-violent manner. And I, for one, salute them!
It was with a heavy heart that I read of the passing of Lilian Kyle, known to so many people in the business. Lilian was Edwin Starr’s manager, later that of The Team, featuring Edwin’s younger brother Angelo. I’ve known the dear lady for years and admired and respected her tremendously. She was tireless in promoting her artists but never let business get in the way of having a chat in her inimitable warm way. I’ll miss her regular contacts via social media and, of course, not meeting up with her at concerts. She loved life, fought the battle but sadly lost. My sincere condolences go out to her family, friends and fans – Lilian Kyle was one helluva lady and I was honoured to have her in my life.
Now there’s time to mention three fabulously exciting releases. First out is Scherrie Payne’s magnificent “The Man That Got Away”, her version of the Judy Garland song from “A Star Is Born”. Produced by Rick Gianatos and taken from her forthcoming album “Vintage Scherrie: Volume Two”, the ex-Supreme throws her heart and soul into this moving ballad. Her voice is breathtakingly emotive as she weaves through the lyrics and melody, tugging at the emotions on several levels. I have to say, it’s such a joy hearing her like this; nothing fancy or distracting, just pianist Garrett Miller and Scherrie – the voice. Pure magic! Available in a gate-fold package housing the CD and DVD, it’s released by Altair Records and available from most reputable sites.
Second out is a Kiki Dee three CD set “Gold”, which sneaks in here thanks to her Motown connection. Firstly though, I was disappointed that no notes or booklet were included with this major release from a singer who was the first from Britain to record for the company. Anyway, there are 45 tracks included on this Demon Music Group release including Kiki’s soul and/or Northern Soul treatments on “Put A Little Love In Your Heart”, “I Second That Emotion”, “Walk On By”, “Why Don’t I Run Away From You”, “The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday”, “How Glad I Am” and with Elton John “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”. “I was approached by (Motown) and went over there for eight days to look round” said Kiki in a 1970 interview. “I met the producers and writers, and generally got to know what was going on. I signed the contract on the day I left, and then returned …for two months recording. They taught me about my voice and how to use it. In fact I learnt so much in such a short time I couldn’t believe it.” By all accounts, there were plans for her to duet with Marvin Gaye but, for some reason, the project was shelved. However, during her American stay, she recorded the “Great Expectations” album and performed – “so that the people who were working with me would have some idea of what I was capable of and to give them a chance to decide what material would suit me best. The idea wasn’t for the producers to turn me into a soul singer but rather to record me on material to which I’m most suited.” Sadly, the album wasn’t the hit it should have been, despite the critically-acclaimed debut single “The Day Will Come Between Sunday And Monday”, which I personally loved.
After Motown, Kiki drifted in and out of the British charts, “Amoureuse” and “I’ve Got The Music In Me” being the most successful, until she enjoyed a worldwide hit with Elton titled “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, originally intended to feature Dusty Springfield, for whom Kiki once sang as a session singer. I have to say, I love this type of compilation and being such a fan of the lady anyway, means I can play my favourite tracks without searching for the original albums.
And the third project is one I’ve kept a secret for the longest time, released on our very own SoulMusic Records – “Walk In The Night: The Motown 70s Studio Albums” from Jr Walker & the All Stars. A timely release to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary, don’t you think? The highly colourful and eye-catching box set contains three CDs featuring six albums – A Gasssss”, “Rainbow Funk”, “Moody Jr”, “Peace & Understanding Is Hard To Find”, “Jr Walker & The All Stars” and “Hot Shot” – in their entirety, spanning 1970-1976. I should mention here, that the 1974 eponymous album was only issued in the UK and Europe, and all are debuting on CD for this worldwide release.
A backbone musician with the All Stars, Jr Walker’s rousing, often raw, sax playing and identifiable gruff vocals, elevated him into stardom. Sure, his start in life was awful yet his determination to bring his music to the world spurred him on when others would have said ‘what the hell’.
So a quick summary coming up:
Disc One: “A Gasssss” and “Rainbow Funk” were both produced by Johnny Bristol, and include noted tracks like “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)”, “Carry Your Own Load” and “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”.
Disc Two: The Johnny Bristol produced “Moody Jr” and “Peace & Understanding Is Hard To Find” produced by Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, Gloria Jones, Pam Sawyer and Jr Walker, include charted titles like “Way Back Home”, “Groove Thang” and “Walk In The Night”.
Disc Three: “Jr Walker & The All Stars”, produced by Clarence Paul, known for his work with the young Stevie Wonder, who guests on a couple of tracks, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “All In Love Is Fair”. Then the final album “Hot Shot”, produced by Brian Holland and Lawrence Horn, features that haunting “I Need You Right Now” with Thelma Houston on vocals.
On a personal note, I was extremely honoured to be associated with this extremely significant release, returning Jr Walker & the All Stars to the public stage, and it’s with fingers crossed that I hope this lovingly prepared and mastered work, leads the way for more releases in the future.
Phew! That’s it for now. I’ll be back again on track next month if those blessed gremlins have moved on to pastures new.
(selected visuals courtesy of Motown Museum’s FB page)