Tell me, why is it that colds, sniffles, coughs and sneezes last so much longer when Christmas Day is looming? Now in my third week, it really is a pathetic, sickly creature writing this but, hey, the show must go on – and Motown is the show! I know what I’ll do, play some Festive songs. “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” is just the job. In between some of the tracks like The Supremes’ “White Christmas”, Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas”, Four Tops’ “Merry Christmas Baby” and The Miracles’ “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, there’s spoken word greetings from some of the contributors. They’re all young voices of course, but the sentiment is there. A splash of tinsel on the grooves! Feeling better already…let’s TCB
The other day I decided to play the “Magic Lady” CD first released in the late eighties and was surprised to hear it’s stood the test of time. And the music reminded me of a chat with Linda Stokes during the time of its release, and the first single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)” which reached the UK top forty, following its American success. Sadly, it was the only one but, hey, for a new act, it was a brilliant result. So, I dug out that interview printed in Blues & Soul, thinking it might be interesting to re-visit my chat and also remind ourselves how the duo got together. Hope you’ll join me on our journey…
Michael Stokes, producer and composer, was the key to Magic Lady: he was also Linda’s husband. It appears his first break came when he was a mere thirteen years old because his mother’s restaurant was opposite Spector Records in New York, and its employees were regular visitors there. “It was part of my life” Michael told a 1988 edition of Voices From The Shadows magazine. ”One day Marvin Schlachter (owner of Prelude Records) came in and I told him I was working on some songs. He fobbed me off for a couple of weeks, but then decided to listen. He thought (they) were very good.” One thing led to another, resulting in Michael being offered a job writing material for him. Moving on to the late sixties, he moved to Detroit to hook up with Eddie Kendricks’ EJK Records, before returning to New York. Long story short, Michael had carved a niche for himself in the business and was subsequently in demand as a producer during the seventies and eighties. Now based in Los Angeles, he successfully worked with Creative Source, Shirley Caesar, Rose Royce and Smokey Robinson, among others.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Hailing from Palmer Woods, Detroit, Michael never knew his biological father because he was murdered while on a visit to the hospital where his son was born. However, as his mother owned a string of restaurants, their future was thankfully financially stable, helping to closet him from the racial tensions that plagued America while he was growing up. He mentioned this in the same interview with the before mentioned magazine. “I went to white schools, and I lived in a Jewish neighbourhood so people weren’t black and white to me. It was only my later education that opened my eyes to what was really going down. I decided my music was the best way I could give people something to alleviate their suffering in whatever small degree.”
Back to the plot. Magic Lady – Linda Stokes, Kimberley Ball and Jackie Steele – was Michael’s brainchild, first signed to Arista Records in 1980. From here they switched to A&M where they enjoyed a US R&B hit “Hot And Sassy”, and a UK specialist soul hit with “Hold Tight”. Then came Michael’s licensing deal with Berry Gordy via his MS International Productions set up, where Magic Lady, now minus Kimberly Ball, was one of several acts included in the deal.
I had in fact spoken to Michael prior to chatting with Linda, and he told me Magic Lady’s eponymous album was a women’s album for women. When it was in the embryonic stages, Linda, Michael and Jackie had actually discussed the project at length, as Linda told me “We have a democratic attitude when we work. Jackie and myself both think alike…it’s almost as if our brains are locked into each other.” When they all came up with identical ideas, they knew they were onto a winner. However, working and living with her husband must cause problems I thought, but not so, because they never took their work home and, she laughed, she let him win their arguments. “But basically, we think alike, so arguments don’t happen that often!”
Linda and Jackie are Detroiters. Linda caught the singing bug in high school, while Jackie’s father was a minister, so was raised in a gospel environment. However, both were avidly aware of Motown and dreamed one day of joining the company. “It’s such a great feeling being with (them). I believe we have a good union and hopefully that relationship will work for us both. Everything seems to be going to plan right now and we’re excited about what’s happening. Performing comes easily because it’s fun.”
So, let’s talk music, and the “Magic Lady” album which, she said at the time, was a different type of project for Motown which, she believed, would surprise a lot of people. They worked on it for over three months because the intention was to release a concept work that carried a theme throughout. “It’s a personal album and when we were turning it around it felt we were holding conversations with music. We wanted it to reflect today’s attitude about love and chose not to bring sex or drugs into it.” Sticking to romance was better, they believed, keeping their ideas ‘clean’ and acceptable. Preaching to listeners was also not on their agenda. “We wanted stories that touched the heart. It’s hard for us to write gimmicky lyrics because our songs have to mean something to us first if we’re going to effectively convey them to people.” Anyway, I think the result speaks for itself because apart from the terrific debut single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)”, I instantly fell in love with “Misty-Eyed” and “Summer Love”. In fact, there wasn’t a lot I didn’t like and that still holds strong today. However, what caught my eye was the album’s packaging – the piercing green eyes that appear on the front cover. You feel drawn to them because they follow you around. Or is it my cold medication kicking in?! Then I also noticed that Berry Gordy was credited as executive producer; not a cosmetic title either Linda explained, because his input was invaluable. “It was a daunting prospect working with him but he is so respected by everyone that I soon lost my nervousness.”
To round off this musical re-visit, I must mention that Linda was also a dress designer, and this would have been her chosen career if music hadn’t beckoned. An example of her work can be seen on the reverse side of the album sleeve. Wherever she went, so did her sketch pad, just in case. Oh lor, as always, I seem to have written more than I had originally planned but nonetheless, hope it’s of interest and, perhaps, re-kindled a little curiosity to play the ladies’ music again. It was just by chance that I spotted the CD in my collection and thought – why not?
Just one more item before leaving. As it’s now in the public domain, and as I made mention of this project last time, there was an exclusive luncheon presentation at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Beverly Hills, California, just recently to officially announce plans for the Motown Museum Expansion project due to open in 2019. Among the VIP guests was SoulMusic.com’s own David Nathan, who, as a member of the panel of experts, spoke about the profound impact Motown made on the world. “Motown is one of the best imports this country has produced,” he said in his speech. Hosted by company vice president Iris Gordy, she introduced her cousin Robin Terry, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the museum, after taking over the role from her grandmother (the late) Esther Gwen Gordy. Over time, Robin transformed Hitsville USA into a world-class museum attraction for Motown fans the world over. Although Berry Gordy wasn’t in attendance, many of the seventy or so guests spoke about him and the music empire he created, including members of his family, Suzanne DePasse, and other industry figures. Motowners in attendance included Scherrie Payne, Betty Kelley, Janie Bradford, Mable John, Mary Wilson, Claudette Robinson, Eddie Holland, Brenda Holloway and Charlene. So now you know. Fabulous, just fabulous!
Well, the Christmas CD has been re-played a couple of times since I started this and I must say it’s cheered me immensely. Marvin Gaye singing “Christmas In The City” to be followed by The Temptations’ “Silent Night”. No better way to close this last column of 2016 than with the beautiful voices of these guys.
So, all that’s left for me to say is a very Happy Christmas to you all, where I’m hoping you’ll spend time with your family and closest loved ones. For all those people who are working over the Festive period in a variety of jobs, keeping us safe, and tending to the sick and less fortunate, thank you so much for your dedication. To wish you a successful and healthy 2017 goes without saying, and I’d like to think there will be peace on earth for us all as well. Although it seems grossly inadequate, thank you for keeping the Motown faith this year; you really are a treasured bunch of people and it’s been a real treat for me to have met so many of you during the past twelve months.
Motown is yesterday; Motown is today, and Motown is tomorrow.