MARVIN GAYE:  Celebrating A Pioneer - YOU'RE THE MAN 1972 Album Release

MARVIN GAYE: Celebrating A Pioneer – YOU’RE THE MAN 1972 Album Release

In celebration of Marvin Gaye’s 80th birthday on April 2, Motown/UMe has released his never-issued 1972 Tamla/Motown album, You’re The Man, in 2-LP gatefold vinyl and digital editions.  You’re The Man features all of Gaye’s solo and non-soundtrack recordings from 1972, with most of the album’s tracks making their vinyl release debuts.

In 1972, Marvin Gaye was on top: or so it seemed. “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler”),” the three singles from his universally acclaimed album What’s Going On, had each hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart (since renamed Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) and Top 10 Pop the year before. His new single, “You’re The Man” – a percolating, sarcastic riff on political non-action issued as the U.S. presidential campaign was kicking off – reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart. He saw Motown schedule a You’re The Man album (catalog number Tamla 316). But when the lead single didn’t cross over Pop, stalling at No. 50, Marvin retreated. Ambivalent about recording, stubborn about moving to Los Angeles with Berry Gordy and Motown, Marvin by his actions proclaimed no more new Marvin Gaye music.

Or so it seemed.

In this singular and transitional year for the late music legend, Gaye recorded more than an album’s worth of music in Detroit and L.A. He produced himself, creating a suite of aching ballads; he worked with songwriters-becoming-producers Willie Hutch, then known mainly for the Jackson 5 smash “I’ll Be There,” but soon to be lauded for his film scores to The Mack and Foxy Brown; and with Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones, whose “Piece of Clay” for Marvin decades later became a smash in the 1995 film Phenomenon. He cut two sought-after tracks with Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell, half of the hit-making machine behind the Jackson 5; he got together with Hal Davis, who was preparing a Marvin Gaye-Diana Ross album, to cut another topical gem, “The World Is Rated X.” And Marvin funnelled his anger over the Vietnam War, and his brother’s experiences there, into a sequel of sorts to “What’s Going On,” the poetic holiday ballad, “I Want To Come Home For Christmas.” He even re-cut “You’re The Man” as an eerie funk jam, perhaps for the LP as a bookend to the single.

None of these tracks or any other on the LP, except the single, were issued at the time.

Three tracks from the album are newly mixed by SaLaAM ReMi, the songwriter and producer long associated with Nas, the Fugees, and Amy Winehouse: “My Last Chance,” “Symphony,” and “I’d Give My Life For You.” Also included is the rare, long LP version of Gaye’s cancelled 1972 Christmas single, plus an unreleased vault mix of its instrumental B-side. Over the years, songs from You’re The Man have been included on several CD releases but 15 of the album’s 17 tracks have not been released on vinyl until now.

You’re The Man’s 2LP vinyl edition includes new liner notes by Marvin Gaye biographer David Ritz. In his essay, Ritz delves into Gaye’s deeply personal internal conflict as a source of creative vigor and emotional burden as he experienced What’s Going On’s massive success and all that came with it. “Now I could do what I wanted,” Gaye told Ritz in an interview that first appeared in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “For most people that would be a blessing. But for me the thought was heavy. They said I’d reached the top, and that scared me because Mother used to say, ‘First ripe, first rotten.’ When you’re at the top there’s nowhere to go but down. No, I needed to keep going up – raising my consciousness – or I’d fall back on my behind. When would the war stop? That’s what I wanted to know – the war inside my soul.”

Despite his inner turmoil, that same year Gaye recorded a duets album with Diana Ross, and he accepted an offer to write what became his landmark Trouble Man film score. A year later, he released Let’s Get It On, the biggest hit of his career.

In addition to You’re The Man, Motown/UMe will release a new expanded edition of Marvin Gaye’s 1965 album, A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole, digitally on March 15. Honoring what would have been Cole’s 100th birthday, the album’s original mono mix makes its digital debut with the new edition, which also adds more than a dozen bonus tracks, including six alternate takes from the studio sessions.

Marvin Gaye: You’re The Man [2LP vinyl]
Tracklisting:

Side 1
Produced by Marvin Gaye (1), Hal Davis (2), Gloria Jones and Pamela Sawyer (3), Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell (4)
1. You’re The Man 5:45
2. The World Is Rated X 3:50
3. Piece of Clay 5:10
4. Where Are We Going? 3:53

Side 2
Produced by Willie Hutch
1. I’m Gonna Give You Respect 2:55
2. Try It, You’ll Like It 3:55
3. You Are That Special One 3:35
4. We Can Make It Baby 3:20

Side 3
Produced by Marvin Gaye except *Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell.
Mixes for tracks 1-3, by SaLaAM ReMi, and track 5, by Art Stewart, are previously unreleased.
1. My Last Chance 3:40
2. Symphony 2:52
3. I’d Give My Life For You 3:31
4. Woman of the World* 3:30
5. Christmas In the City (instrumental) 3:48

Side 4
Produced by Marvin Gaye
1. You’re The Man Version 2 4:40
2. I Want to Come Home For Christmas 4:48
3. I’m Going Home (Move) 4:38
4. Checking Out (Double Clutch) 4:50

SOULMUSIC GLOBAL (SoulMusic.com’s Official YouTube Channel)

DAVID NATHAN’S SPOTIFY PLAYLIST – CELEBRATING MARVIN GAYE

Motown Spotlight - March 2019

Motown Spotlight – March 2019

Quite often when I’m writing this blog I have some Motown music playing in the background. This time is no exception and as I listened it got me thinking….

With the Mary Jane Girls’ single “In My House” and his own “Glow” album in the American charts, Rick James launched his next protégé, Val Young.  He’d originally penned “In My House” for Val but decided to cut it on the Girls instead, rewarding them with an international number one and their first platinum seller. Anyway, I digress, prior to the release of  Val Young’s aptly titled “Seduction” album in July 1985 (UK: March 1986), she released the single “Mind Games” in America as a taster of what was to come.  Watch out world!

“Seduction” was Rick James’ conception, from the music to the musicians through to the actual artwork. He wrote and produced it, sang support vocals with members of the Mary Jane Girls and the Stone City Band, and played guitar, drums, congas, synthesisers and timbales alongside his own group and musicians from the Stone City Band.  On the project he steered his musical family with Val Young at the helm through a powerful, solid funk/dance journey.  The distinctive Rick James brand of music was rampant throughout, as he multi-layered the songs with full-blooded riffs, rhythms and a multitude of driving, hard hitting tempos. Nothing was left to chance as the perfectionist in him encouraged his musicians to go that one step further to ensure the prime vocalist had all the support she needed.  Hell’s bells, what a blending of sounds that was too!

From the opening track, “Mind Games”, into “If You Should Ever Be Lonely” the beat was relentless.  “Let’s Fall In Love”  and “Tellin’ Me Lies”, slightly less robust in sound but nonetheless mega-exciting, led into “Come Hang Out” and the epic “Seduction”. A Rick James orgy of personalised funk which, I guess in hindsight, could probably be said of the whole album.  One of my favourites has to be “Piece Of My Heart” with its unyielding musical drive, yet have a huge fondness for the last two tracks “Waiting For You” and “Make Up Your Mind”.  To be honest, if I was reviewing this for the first time, I’d easily award it full points, based on Rick James’ production alone. However, topping this with Val’s raw-edged rasping, robust voice, it’s absolute magic to these ears.

Like the Mary Jane Girls before her, Ms Young naturally attracted considerable media interest as she was marketed as the ‘black Marilyn Monroe’.  “My blonde hair was Rick’s idea” explained the singer at the time of the album’s release. “He convinced me that blondes have more fun and more funds.  I’m the same person inside, but I do like it. When I look in the mirror, I like what I see. Sure, people do stop and look at me but I don’t mind.  Mostly I get compliments and the only one or two negatives have come from people who don’t know me.”

To find out more about the lady, I delved into “The Confessions Of Rick James” written by the singer and published in 2007 by Colossus Books. As far as I can tell, it’s still available. Due to the explicitness of the book, I’m being mindful of what I can share here without causing offence. So, he wrote that Val (later to become his lover) actually looked like a black version of the world’s most famous film icon. “I had her hair done blonde and dressed her in sexy clothes from the thirties and forties. She pulled it off well.  She was one of the most down-to-earth ladies I’ve known; simple and straight.”

Born Valaria Maria Young on 13 June 1958, and later known as “Lady V”, she was raised in Detroit, where, at the age of eleven she sang in her nearby church and later in school. She finished her education to ensure she had a profession to fall back on should her ambition to become a professional singer failed to materialize.

During 1978 Val got her first professional break as a ‘Bride Of Funkenstein’ with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.  She stayed a year with Clinton (who was also a staff writer at Motown) before touring and recording with Roy Ayers during 1980.  From here she became a backing vocalist with the Gap Band on stage and in the studio, and can be heard on their funk anthem “Oops Up Side Your Head”, and on five subsequent albums.  It seems she first met Rick backstage in Memphis during his 1979 “Bustin’ Out” tour. “I just walked up to him and told him I loved him, and wanted to sing with him. Getting to work with Rick has been the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.”  While James wrote, “She was a beautiful black thing.”

Although sadly not a huge money spinner, “Seduction” represented her aggressive unique talent and with the right marketing and promotion could have elevated Val Young into Motown’s top funk songstress.  A 12” single bearing the album’s title was released during September 1985; two months later over here in the UK.   “(It) was one of the longest standing dance records in New York City’s dance chart,” James added. “She was a diva in New York. They loved her….It was magic when she sang.  I always liked the way she sounded (because) she had this sexy-ass rasp to her voice.”

The instantly compelling “If You Should Ever Be Lonely” followed in February 1986.  Again aimed at the extremely lucrative disco/funk buying mood at the time, it was, like its predecessor, a much requested track in nightclubs. But sadly, not sufficiently to generate enough sales to cross it over into the national listings.  “Sometimes getting a performance out of Val was like pulling teeth,” James further wrote. “But the outcome was always worth it.”

A Christian and mother, and later wife of Process and the Doo Rags’ member, Dennis Andrews, Val Young said she was careful with the lyrical content of her material, despite calling her album “Seduction”, which she interpreted as meaning “sexy and showing everything you’ve got, but you can only admire it, you can’t have it.  In my case, my eyes are my seducers, they do my talking for me. I think my album is seductive but it’s also tasteful.”

Rick James introduced the lady to American audiences via a five-month tour with the Mary Jane Girls and Process and the Doo Rags.  The latter unit was another of Rick’s projects whom he intended to sign to Motown but when negotiations broke down, their planned album was scrapped.  The group switched to CBS Records instead.

Before Val could release her second album “Private Conversations” with Motown, Rick and his inimitable stable of artists became the subject of dispute with the company. This was partly due to his world crumbling into a drug haze making him incapable of spearheading his family of music, and Motown’s reluctance to continue bank rolling them.  Subsequently, careers came to an unexpected halt when all releases were temporarily shelved as the wrangle continued.  “Although she didn’t get a huge hit like the Mary Jane Girls or myself, I always loved recording with her.  She was a joy to work with,” Rick further wrote in his autobiography.

However, “Private Conversations” wasn’t lost. Ms Young signed with the Buffalo-based Amherst Records, where the album was released in 1987, spawning the title track as a 12” single.  Rick James produced a handful of tracks that included “True Love (Is Hard To Find)”, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, “Dreamin’”, “Forever Yours” and “Sweetest Thing”.  By all accounts, the album is now difficult to find with a resulting high price tag which accounts for me not spending more time with it!

In his book James recalled a time when Diana Ross invited him, Val Young and the Mary Jane Girls to her house.  She had just broken up with Gene Simmons and was, Rick wrote, heartbroken.  “She asked me ‘Who is that girl, Val Young?’  At first I thought ‘Uh-oh, what has Val done now?’  But she said ‘Rick, don’t you ever lose her.’  Then Diana went on to tell me how she and Val were both from Detroit and how they talked about recipes and growing up in the Brewster Projects.  I think Val bought Diana down to earth for a moment.  Diana wasn’t Diana anymore, just a poor, struggling girl from Detroit’s Brewster Projects.”

From Rick James, Val hooked up with Bobby Brown to tour with him during 1988, following the release of his “Don’t Be Cruel” album.  From here, her extraordinary talent was widely recognised, and she was much in demand as a session singer.  Teena Marie, Bobby Womack, El DeBarge, Teddy Riley and Evelyn “Champagne” King were among those she worked with.  Judging by the list of projects she was involved with during the nineties, Val was an extremely busy lady, but I have been unable to locate any further recordings.  Moving into the noughties, she appeared on several Public Broadcasting Service-televised concerts, like one as a background singer for Raphael Saadiq, and she can be seen on the official music video for Eddie Murphy and Snoop Lion’s “Red Light” single. That reminds me, one Rick James’ conceptual video that sticks out in my mind, is that for his single “Glow” – what a song! – because it  features his  musical family, including Val Young on support vocals.  Do check it out.

Finally, before ending this ‘seducing’ item on Ms Young, I came across a 2018 American advertisement for a Rick James Tribute show where the Mary Jane Girls featuring Val were performing.  The blurb read “Val Young, Candice Ghant and Farah Melanson currently represent today’s Mary Jane Girls.”  Well I never!

Before closing, I’d like to give a mention to a new Kent release “Cosmic Truth/Higher Than High” from The Undisputed Truth.  Featuring their last two Motown albums, produced by Norman Whitfield, this release follows the CD premiere of their first, third and fourth albums (the second one was already available on CD) a couple of years ago.  Since that time, a spokesperson for Kent said they’d been pursued by fans to release the remaining Gordy albums by the group’s changed membership. The decision to go ahead was made when the first collection proved to be a healthy seller.  So, to bring you up to date. Following their fourth album “Law Of The Land”, the two original songstresses, Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Jo Evans departed, leaving Joe Harris on his own.

Instead of burying The Undisputed Truth altogether, Norman Whitfield and Joe, recruited a Detroit quartet, The Magic Tones, to carry on their name. Virginia “Vee” McDonald (the only lady in the line-up and niece of The Miracles’ Pete Moore) and Joe Harris, were joined by Calvin Stephenson, Tyrone Barkley and Tyrone Douglas.  Of the eighteen tracks here, spanning two CDs, several were minor hits, but “Help Yourself”, their biggest seller, shot into the R&B top twenty, and crossed over to peak in the top seventy.  The latter was their highest position since “Smiling Faces Sometimes”.  Incidentally, the version of “Help Yourself” included here, is the re-make of the original featured on

their earlier “Down To Earth” album which, by the way, held material by both the original trio and the new line-up.

With the personnel change, the group’s image underwent a major make over – huge afros, silver face paint with coloured eye make-up, space age silver outfits – as they became fully-fledged members of the funk club, swiping ideas from the George Clinton songbook to secure longevity. Some of the material is second hand, like The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, wearing a different musical overcoat, which was lengthened from its original four minutes, while “1990” flattered the original length.  Inspired by the children’s fairy tale, “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood” was their first to bypass the charts due, quite probably, to their vulgar interpretation of the innocent writer’s intention, while “Earthquake Shake” (the opening track on “Cosmic Truth”) merged into the unlikely inclusion of the Neil Young song “Down By The River”. Then the flat-out “Squeeze Me, Tease Me” overflowing with funk/rock, and “UFO’s” paying direct homage to Clinton’s Funkadelic, proved just too much for this gal.

Sometimes I felt drowned by Norman Whitfield’s all-consuming productions which, to be fair, aren’t lightweight are they?  Also, I often felt he’d lost his way as he bamboozled the listener (and possibly the singers) with a plethora of music.  While Phil Spector adopted the same principle, his productions were full to bursting but smoothly rounded, almost enveloping the vocalists. Whitfield, on the other hand, appeared to scatter his musical litter across the studio floor, then sweep them up in no particular order.  Sounds like I’m on a downer here, doesn’t it?  But no, it’s more a case of disappointment as I tightly cling onto the Truth’s early material which I absolutely love, and always have done. Nevertheless, it’s a great feeling to add this release to my collection and I’m sure you Truth fans out there, will feel the same.

That’s it for this month.  I’m hoping you’ll join me next time around, but meantime, please stay safe and Keep the Motown Faith.

 

NEW FEATURE! SOULMUSIC GLOBAL PLAYLIST FOR MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT!

Motown Spotlight - January/February 2019

Motown Spotlight – January/February 2019

[Site owner David Nathan note: ‘This Motown Spotlight should have been published at the end of January – so apologies to Sharon and all for the delay.”]

Happy 60th birthday Motown!  And a Happy New Year to you – even though it’s now the first week of February! Both belated I know, but, I can assure you, the sentiments are exactly the same. So let’s TCB…Over the past few weeks information has filtered through about plans to celebrate this extremely significant event so I’ll run them past you now and, needless to say, if you know of  others, do please let me know.

So, first off. As part of a year long celebration, the Motown Museum announced plans to run an online video series, “Archive Dives”, bringing into the public arena unseen items from its treasure trove of artifacts.  If I’m right, this started the day before the actual anniversary on Saturday, 12 January, and will continue on a regular basis via its Facebook page, tying in key dates in Motown’s history.  The revealed items will then go on display in Hitsville. The anniversary ball also got rolling with a digital playlist of 70 vintage songs and I think Spotify is the site to check out to hear these.  Robin Terry, Museum chairwoman and CEO told the Detroit Free Press “We have this tremendous collection of artefacts and many aren’t seen by the public.  We’re taking the anniversary year as an opportunity to showcase some of these unique items.”

Motown Museum Facebook Page

Kicking off the series is the actual Ber-Berry Co-op savings account book owned by Berry Gordy Sr, which, among other things, shows the organizational structure put in place by members of the family; minutes from the Co-op meeting dated 8 February 1959, providing a glimpse into how the family conducted their business at this time, and the archival document that was the official accounting ledger certifying the re-payment of Berry’s $800 loan.  “What’s really exciting for us, and for all Motown fans, is that this is just the beginning,” Terry said. “It’s a privilege for us to continue to share more Motown history and artifacts from our vast collection with fans and to tell new stories in new ways.” This stockpile of unseen treasures is also one of the driving forces behind the non-profit Museum’s $50 million fundraising campaign to expand the complex with 40,000 square feet of exhibits, meeting and performing areas, among other things, with expectations of quadrupling the complex’s footprint. These guys don’t do things by half do they?!

Other events planned by the Museum include a 60th anniversary exhibition in early spring and a party in the grounds with live music, free Museum tours and food trucks, which has been tagged as a beefed-up edition of the annual Founder’s Day event that’s held in commemoration of Berry’s late sister Esther, who, as you know, took on the challenge of opening the Museum to the public during 1985. What a stroke of genius that was too!  I have to say, it was a huge thrill and personal ambition to get the chance to meander through the smallish rooms where history was made: in fact, if it wasn’t for the photos I took at the time, can’t believe I was actually there. And from what some other folks have told me, they felt exactly the same although putting into actual words the overwhelming feelings of being there, was somewhat difficult. Only one gripe though was the shop where prices were sky-high and beyond the reach of my pay packet for sure.  I wonder how the former first lady Michelle Obama felt when she wandered around in December? Judging by the video I’ve seen, it was smiles all round. Anyhow, I’m digressing…

So, according to the Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum, the keystone event will be Motown’s 60th birthday celebrations covering 21-23 September on sites across Detroit, opening with a black-tie concert dinner “Hitsville Honors”. A Motown-infused gospel concert in partnership with local churches is planned for the next day, with the weekend closing on a high note with the “Soul-In-One Motown Golf Classic.”  Robin Terry further said the plans were geared to include everyone in the local community because “This is obviously a tremendous milestone year. Our approach is to celebrate six decades of not only phenomenal music but these artists who came out of Detroit.”

We’re used to Motown’s anniversaries aren’t we?  Some are true to the dates while others, well, adopted a certain amount of poetic licence.  Actually, I’m thinking in particular of the award-winning  “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” staged at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California, on 25 March 1983. Broadcast by NBC and later available commercially, didn’t we all sit open-mouthed as Marvin Gaye played at the piano, Michael Jackson moonwalked, Smokey Robinson rejoined The Miracles, Stevie Wonder sang with Wonderlove, the Four Tops and The Temptations performed the “battle of the bands”, and Diana Ross returned to the Supremes to the strains of “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  Thirty second spots were afforded to Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Jr Walker, among others, which did not sit at all well with them or Motown fans, yet it was those who were omitted or not actually invited that caused the most upset. We won’t go there now, but suffice to say the album “The Motown Story: First 25 Years” narrated by Lionel Richie and Smokey, followed.  Now long out of print, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Recording.

Also worth a mention is the two-part anniversary special “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” screened by ABC in 1998.  The four-hour documentary featured interviews and performances by Smokey, Diana, Lionel, En Vogue, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, among other A-line names. Also “Motown 50” in 2009 when a variety of artists returned to Hitsville during January to officially launch the year’s celebrations.  Duke Fakir was joined by the likes of Rosalind Ashford, members of the Funk Brothers, Bobby Rogers, Gil Bridges, Mrs Maxine Powell and Paul Riser.   “Fifty years is a wonderful anniversary” Duke told Billboard magazine. “You’ve got to give credit to the songs but, of course, you’ve got to give credit to Berry Gordy for the vision. He had the whole vision, and he made it come true. It’s just great to be part of that legacy and still be alive to talk about it.”

Several discs were issued with the special 50th logo attached, while us Brits were treated to the “Divas of Motown” tour in the November, featuring Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway, the Former Ladies of the Supremes, Thelma Houston, Mable John and Jack Ashford’s Funk Brothers Band.  Wow!  What a concert that was! So what concerts for 2019, I wonder?

This year will also honour Motown’s artists who have passed and those, happily, still with us, like Martha Reeves (who has to be the company’s finest and truest ambassador), Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Otis Williams, Duke Fakir and Mary Wilson. However, I’m not sure as I write this, just what part they will play, maybe over the September weekend.  Anyway, watch this space.

From the musical note to the written word or, to be more precise, colourful pictures. Mark Bego (who you may remember assisted Martha Reeves with her terrific autobiography “Dancing In The Street”) announced on his Facebook page that he helped Mary Wilson compile a 240-page coffee table type book “Supreme Glamour” due to be published this year by Thames & Hudson, the same company behind Adam White’s glorious “Motown:The Sound Of Young America” tome now available in soft back. In a press statement the publisher said, “Marrying sumptuous fashion with insightful biography, ‘Supreme Glamour’ charts the glittering story of  Motown’s most successful act and original pop fashionistas.”

And, let’s not forget either the many hints thrown at us during the past few months about “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” docufilm which focuses on the birth of the company through to its relocation to Los Angeles in 1972.  It will feature new and exclusive interviews with Berry and several of his top artists and creative figures, rare performances and behind-scenes footage from Berry’s personal archives and items discovered in the company’s vaults. Check out https://classic.motown.com/ for more information.

Finally, if you’re planning a trip to New York this year, do try to get tickets for the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life And Times Of The Temptations” based on Otis Williams’ informative autobiography which, I have to say, spares no punches.  The jukebox musical has had a series of regional productions and is expected to hit Broadway next month with previews from the 28th, before the opening night on 21 March.

So, what of the UK and what plans for celebrations here?  Well to be honest, so far, I know of only one very special CD release which hopefully I can talk about next time, likewise a Motown/Northern Soul weekender in Skegness during September featuring three much revered and loved Motown ladies. I’m so happy to read about nightclubs and pubs up and down the country devoting evenings to Motown; tribute groups and shows keeping the sound alive, while radio stations have done the same, with more coming during the year I expect. Actually, on that subject, if anyone cares to spend a little time celebrating with me, do please visit  https://www.mixcloud.com/HailshamFM/sharon-davis-12012019/

Well, that’s about it for now.  Needless to say, will keep you updated as items hit me but, as mentioned before, if you know of any celebrations going on, do let me know and I’ll be happy to share.  We’re in this together remember, so do hope we’ll be holding hands through this year because, to be honest,  it’ll be lonely without you.

Final words then from Robin Terry;  “This year the whole of  Detroit will salute its legacy. The world is going to be celebrating Motown throughout this 60-year anniversary but no other city can claim the birthplace.”

Motown Spotlight - December 2018

Motown Spotlight – December 2018

Just recently I was a guest on the highly respected Clive Richardson’s Solar Radio programme. “Soul Summit” is an annual affair, and I was, naturally, delighted to be invited along again to have a chat. In the studio with Clive was Adam White, author of “Motown – The Sound Of Young America”, and, although I didn’t join the programme until it was part-way through – I was on air at Hailsham FM – did manage to get my selected tracks included. As you know, I’ve known Clive for the longest time, and talking to Adam reminded me that I probably first met him during the sixties in The Clifton Record Shop in Bristol, run by Bill Francis. The shop specialised in Motown and soul music, and, if my memory serves me well, Adam later wrote and distributed a regular newsletter, crammed with must-have information about new Motown releases. This would have been prior to my moving to London, so I’ve no idea how I travelled up country but am guessing it was with Phil Symes and Pete McIlroy, who ran the Jimmy Ruffin fan club. What stuck out in my mind particularly about this trip, was hearing Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Reflections” played through the shop’s several powerful wall speakers. Adam pointed out while the song was playing that the music actually shifted from one speaker to the other, particularly the introduction. What an amazing experience it was for this country gal who relied on her parents’ hi-fi to play singles, often so loud that they became rather distorted. But, hey, that was part of the whole experience. Thank you Clive for your kind invitation; it’s always a fun experience, although I know sometimes I do push you to the limit with risqué comments. Keep the soul flag flying my friend. And, thank you Adam, for fuelling my appetite for Motown over the years.

Let’s TCB some more with Anna Records. As you know, Gwen Gordy had the photo franchise at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, and with her sister Anna became celebrities of the city’s nightlife. Through her contacts, Gwen introduced her brother Berry to the Bar’s manager, Al Green, who also managed LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson. Other hook-ups included a life-changing one for Berry with fellow songwriter Roquel “Billy” Davis who, although not a hit maker as yet, did have valuable connections with Chess Records. The two decided to work together. “Roquel and I made a solid writing team” Gordy wrote in his autobiography “To Be Loved”, “I was the active go-getter, the extrovert. He was more passive and had a patient way about him. I’d watch how business and creative people seemed to feel comfortable dealing with him.”

When it was suggested that Berry, Roquel and Gwen form an alliance to open a new label, Anna Records – which Gwen had already registered and named after her sister – Berry declined, having had his cheque book burned by a previous business arrangement. Even a national distribution deal with Chess Records, failed to sway his decision. Berry’s all-consuming ambition was to be his own boss but he promised to help them in whatever capacity needed. “We had taken separate paths and for the first time I was really on my own and really, really happy.”

Gwen and Roquel rented a downstairs room in the record store that Berry once used to sell the Blues to a limited buying audience, as their company headquarters. Gradually the Anna label gained local momentum, while Berry struggled independently. When he wrote “Money (That’s What I Want)” with Janie Bradford for his Tamla label, he wanted national exposure for the single by Barrett Strong. Following its release in Detroit, he sent it to the Washington-Baltimore and the Cleveland-Cincinnati areas, with plans to promote it further afield. The idea worked well but there was a downside; orders came in so quickly that he was swamped and totally unable to press sufficient records to match demand. Gwen had the answer: release “Money (That’s What I Want)” on her label, which she did in August 1959. “I liked the idea” Berry Gordy wrote. “(It was) a good opportunity to fulfil my promise to her and Roquel to help them in any way I could.” Yet still the plan backfired as Gordy quickly realised he had made more money working directly with his independent distributors. “(They) had to pay Chess. Chess had to pay Anna Records, and then Anna paid me. I was the furthest away from the money.” He stuck to his original plan in future to go it alone.

Anyway, all this preamble is to introduce a 2-CD package that arrived last week – “The Complete Anna Records Singles – Volumes One and Two”. Am I right in thinking that our Graham Betts and Paul Nixon had a hand in this, because certainly the latter is mentioned in the short CD notes? So, to the music…..

The first disc kicks off with both sides of The Voice Masters’ first two singles “Hope And Pray”, “Oops I’m Sorry”, “Needed” and “Needed (For Lovers Only)” from May 1959. Evolved from the Five Jets and Five Stars, they were the first outfit that Berry Gordy used as session singers. Passing through its membership were future Temptations’ Melvin Franklin and David Ruffin, plus Henry Dixon and Walter Gaines who went on to become members of Motown’s best kept secret, The Originals. These are followed by a pair of tracks, namely, “Hit And Run Away Love” and “Advertising For Love”, from the Detroit-based Hill Sisters. It appears Carol, Lynne and Beverly were session singers prior to joining Anna, but it was a short-lived career, as following their unsuccessful venture into the music business, they abandoned all ideas of becoming recording artists.

Also of note on this disc is Bob Kayli with “Never More” and “Peppermint (You Know What To Do)”, also released mid-1959. Kayli, as you know, is Berry Gordy’s younger brother, Robert, who would later record two further singles “Small Sad Sam” on Tamla, and “Hold On Pearl” which, although scheduled for that label, ended up on Gordy instead for November 1962 release.

The eleventh Anna outing was the afore-mentioned “Money (That’s What I Want)”, with “Beatnik Beat” and “Scratch Back” from Paul Gayten, his follow-up to the earlier hit “The Hunch”. Already an established artist before linking with Anna, having enjoyed five top ten R&B hits between 1947-1950, Paul later rejected an offer from Berry Gordy to join Motown. The talented pianist, composer and producer died in 1991, aged 71 years. The first CD of 26 tracks closes with (another future Originals’ member) Ty Hunter and the Voice Masters’ “Orphan Boy” and “Everything About You”, released during July 1960.

“Hurry Up And Marry Me” and “Do You Want To See My Baby” from Herman Griffin, introduces the second CD, housing 28 tracks. He was first associated with the Gordy family by recording “I Need You” on The House Of Beauty label. Switching to Anna, and later Tamla in 1960 with “True Love (That’s Love)”, Griffin worked with Mary Wells as her touring musical director, often attempting to steal her limelight with his acrobatic antics on stage. He was also (probably) responsible for Mary’s hasty exit from Motown, despite her riding high in the single’s chart with “My Guy”. The couple later married, with the unhappy liaison ending when Mary’s new career failed to ignite. The rest is history.

Ruben Fort’s “So Good” and “I Feel It” is followed by Allan “Bo” Story with his version of “Blue Moon”, a blues version of the Rodgers and Hart classic, making way for “Hoy Hoy” and “No One Else But You” from Johnny and Jackey. Johnny Bristol needs no introduction; prolific composer, producer and singer, he first duetted with Jackey Beavers, before moving to the Tri Phi label, later joining Motown. While there, he was responsible for some of the company’s most defining songs for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Edwin Starr, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jr Walker, among others. Plus, of course, he first recorded “Someday We’ll Be Together” with Jackey Beavers, later recorded by Diana Ross, with back-up vocals by Merry Clayton, Maxine Waters, and Julia Waters, as the Supremes’ farewell single in 1969. By the way, the male voice ad-libbing on the track belongs to Mr Bristol. From Motown, this exceptionally talented man, who I had the great privilege to meet, forged a recording career in his own right with world sellers like “Love Me For A Reason” and “Hang On In There Baby.” It was a sad day when he died from natural causes in 2004, at the age of 65 years.

Jackey Beavers, on the other hand, was a gospel and R&B singer, who, following his stay at Anna, went on to record with Roquel Davis for the Checker label, a subsidiary of Chess Records. Their debut outing in 1965, “Jack-A-Rue”, was a minor local hit. Not so their follow-up. From here, Beavers unsuccessfully hooked up with several other labels before being ordained as a minister; first at the New Hope Baptist Church, then at the Glory Harvester Church. He also recorded a handful for gospel albums for the Glory label. He died at the age of 71 in October 2008.

Other tracks worth a mention here include Lamont Anthony’s “Let’s Talk It Over” and “Benny The Skinny Man” released in November 1960. He worked his way through several groups, including The Voice Masters, before recording as a soloist under various names, until he joined Motown’s top composing/producing trio Holland, Dozier, Holland. And you know the rest! Then, there’s David Ruffin with an early 1961 release, “I’m In Love” and “One Of These Days”. David actually lived with Berry Gordy’s father “Pops”, and helped him with the construction work on the Hitsville building, before packing boxes of records with another ambitious, rising star, Marvin Gaye. In time both would find their way to the recording studio. Gwen Gordy told the “Detroit Free Press” that David Ruffin was the perfect gentleman. “But the thing that impressed me about (him) was that he was one of the only artists I’ve seen who rehearsed like he was on stage.”

Finally, Joe Tex, featured here six times, closes this second CD with “Baby You’re Right” and “Ain’t That A Mess”. Joining the Anna set up during 1960 from Ace Records, he attracted a solid fan base due to his opening shows for James Brown, Little Richard, among others. Incidentally, James Brown re-recorded “Baby You’re Right”, with a lyric and melody change, earning himself a top two R&B single. By the mid-sixties, Joe Tex had joined Atlantic Records and released thirty non-hit songs. However, that was to change when success came with his particular brand of Southern Soul, with touches of gospel, R&B and funk. Another artist taken too soon, Joe died in August 1982 following a heart attack. He was 49 years old.

This is merely an overview of artists who were instrumental in keeping the Anna label afloat, earning some success on the way. With severe financial problems, the label closed and was absorbed into Berry Gordy’s operation during 1961, with its artists becoming Motown acts rather by default. Gwen Gordy was also transferred to her brother’s company to handle business affairs, before spreading her wings by co-heading artist development. She then managed acts like Shorty Long, The Spinners and Jr Walker and the All Stars. Apparently, Gwen was also responsible for signing Tammi Terrell, and later convinced her brother she should duet with Marvin Gaye. Clever lady! A vital and energetic member of the team, Gwen was widely loved, and highly respected by the acts she worked with, often guiding them into stardom. Into the seventies, she founded Gwen Glenn Productions, producing the likes of High Inergy, until she retired from the business during the early eighties. In November 1999, Gwen lost her battle with cancer and, although she lived in San Diego, was buried in Detroit. She was 71 years old. Her legacy of pioneering her brother’s future music enterprise is rightly recorded in Motown’s history books. Certainly a lady to be reckoned with!

So, if you’re interested in, or hooked on, Anna Records, then this pair of CDs will fit the bill, with all the known singles available across two discs.

All that’s left for me now is to wish you all a very Happy Christmas time. Whether you’re with your loved ones, or working in one of the vital services that we rely upon, like the medical and caring professions, the services protecting us from harm, and other essential professions, my thoughts and thanks are with you all. My heartfelt wishes and hopes for a healthy, happy and peaceful coming year – when we celebrate Motown’s 60th anniversary – are also sent your way. Thank you for supporting me again this year because without you, there’d be no me, and I’m hoping we’ll stay together for another year, at the very least!

 
 
 

Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Last month we visited an open-ended interview from Stevie Wonder used to help promote his ambitious 1976 “Songs In The Key Of Life”. Having abandoned plans to retire from the music business, Stevie with his signature fresh on a seven-year recording contract with Motown, took a year off to prepare for this double album release. By all accounts, 130 people worked with him, including Gary Byrd (who co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”), Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams (backing vocalists), and musicians Herbie Hancock, Mike Sembello and Nathan Watts. Stevie worked around the clock in the studio, not eating or sleeping, while those around him struggled to keep up with him. “Songs In The Key Of Life” was as groundbreaking as it was influential and totally all consuming. Michael Jackson once said it was his favourite Stevie album, while Elton John said “Let me put it this way, wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of this with me. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Prince called it the best album ever recorded, and Whitney Houston insisted the album was played throughout the photo shoot for her “Whitney: The Greatest Hits”. Every track was considered a perfect jewel or diamond in the raw – “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears”, “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Pastime Paradise” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today”, are probably the most memorable.

“Songs In The Key Of Life” surpassed all expectations. It shot straight to the top of the US album chart, becoming only the third album in music history to do this, and the first by an American artist, after Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies”. Then, the industry accolades poured in. In 1977, Stevie was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year, an award he’d previously won twice in 1974 (“Innervisions”) and 1975 (“Fulfillingness’ First Finale”). Stevie was absent from the 1977 Grammy ceremony, so was hooked up by satellite link from Nigeria. Bette Midler announced the results but due to a poor video signal, the audience was only able to see Stevie holding a phone and smiling. Andy Williams then went on to make the huge public blunder by asking Stevie – “Can you see us?” In the end, Stevie won four of the seven Grammy nominations.

As it was rather lengthy, we’ll continue with it now; besides, his interviews are few and far between, so, despite its age, being able to print this is rather special, don’t you think?

After covering ad hoc subjects, Stevie then spoke about his family life and career. “The life of Stevie Wonder began in 1961, but I’ll go back about eleven years to say I was born May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. I guess shortly after my birth my family moved with my two older brothers and myself to Detroit. In 1971 I moved to New York but in between Detroit and New York is when the life of Stevie Wonder began with me – through a very close friend of mine, Mr John Glover, with whom I had formed a group – of having the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of The Miracles. John Glover, who was a cousin of Ronnie White, had formed a group of myself and him called Steve and John. I would play bongos and sing, and John played guitar. This was before Stevie Wonder. This was Stevland Morris, which is my real name.

“We lived on Breckinridge Street in Detroit, which is on the west side, with very beautiful people and a very warm atmosphere. I did all the things that the normal boy did, like climbing trees or we used to hop barns. They were where you’d keep different parts of cars or whatever. They weren’t really large enough for cars to fit in but they were in the back of the houses.

“We lived in what you’d call an upper/lower class, or a lower/upper class. We had enough to get by and me not knowing what being poor was like. Whatever we did receive as a family, we were appreciative of. Sometimes, we would go without eating. I can prove it to you by the pain that I felt in my stomach, but my mother raised us in the early part of that time by herself.

“She was fortunate enough to meet my second father who, with them being married, she gave birth to two other children. Timothy, who is a Libra, and Renee, who is a Cancer. My next youngest brother Larry, is a Capricorn and two older brothers Calvin is Aries, and Milton, a Virgo.

“They were very beautiful years. I know it was a part of my life that wasn’t yesterday but I can see it crystal clear in front of me as being a very special part of my life, and if I had to live it again, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it was still my destiny to be Stevie Wonder again, the people that I met I’d still owe a lot to. Like my neighbours, to John Glover’s mother, Ruth, who actually was responsible for us getting to Motown, and dealing with a lot of the many things that we were not aware of, and many times my mother wasn’t aware of either.”

Stevie then moved on to talk about the music that influenced his writing, saying there were many different artists that he’s heard and met in his life that he considers to be unbelievable. “There are songs that have influenced my writing. For instance, ‘It’s All In The Game’ is one of my favourites. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is another, and that influenced ‘All In Love Is Fair’. It’s no problem for me to say that there have been many people that have influenced my music. Music is a world within itself, of a language we all understand, with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance to and clap their hands. So it doesn’t belong to any one person or one people. Music is a gift of life; is a toy that our Supreme Being gave us to express our joys and our sorrows, and even in moments to sorrow, to give us the peace and ability to be strong enough to enjoy the peace that it sometimes brings. I really love the songs of Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Ray Charles. I feel there will never be an award great enough to give to hm [Ray Charles].. He has opened the door to so many hearts, has made the bridge possible to fill the gap that was between many different kinds of music. You know, I can’t believe, for instance, that he received an award from a song I wrote, ‘Living For The City’. That song was alright but he deserves something even better than that.”

Dealing with the demands of public life, was something Stevie adjusted to because he said he knew what the job was before I took it. “So you have to hash out all these things in your mind. Amongst the excitement you are feeling…you know, you are going to have moments where there will be personal things that adhere just to your life that are significant only to yourself, but you still have to face your audience and do a performance. “

And, finally, he spoke of his plans for the future. “I hope to do a book about myself. There have been people that have set out to write different things about Stevie Wonder in book form, but I believe that the book I’ll write – which will take a great deal of (time) – will kinda speak of things that many people don’t know about, and definitely would not know about, if they haven’t heard any of my music. But, my music actually speaks in the closest way to me than anything else I could ever do. If you listen to the ones I’ve written, or those of others that I will record, you’ll hear how I feel, and it is the only way that …..it’s the deepest me, and I sometimes feel that people that listen to the music, or my fans are much closer to me than some who are my close acquaintances or friends.”

So, there you are. Interesting stuff eh? And it was only by chance that I happened to come across the 1976 interview while looking for another piece of research that was totally unrelated. I’m guessing my filing system needs a huge, dedicated overhaul!

In between writing last month’s blog and this, I flew to New York for a short break, combining both work and pleasure. Once again, I’d quite forgotten how I suffered from jet lag following these long hauls, and, true to form, it took me about a week to feel anything like my normal self. Lightweight I hear you say….and you’d be right! Combined with that, I returned with a New York head cold which has now gone the same way as the jet lag – thankfully. Anyway, while in the city that never sleeps, I was invited to visit Andy Scurow at Universal Music Group’s offices. Although I was there in 2013, it’s always a thrill to walk into his extremely disorganised office (“But I know where everything is,” he laughed. “Much like my office at home,” I said with eyebrows raised) because of the history contained within the reels of master tapes relocated from Detroit. There are shelves of them, crammed alongside his reference books (clocked two of mine) and other items. A few corridors down from his office is the studio where he and others work on potential re-issued projects. His last, as you know, was the extremely lavish expanded edition of “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland” which was welcomed by fans. One of Andy’s biggest thrills was when Diana Ross endorsed the release. They met, chatted about it, and when he gave her a copy, she agreed to be photographed with it. However, he told me, securing further releases is rather sketchy at the moment, and, when I pressed him about it being Motown’s 60th anniversary next year, and shouldn’t we all be working towards ensuring the event didn’t pass by unnoticed, we ended up in stalemate.

On the upside, we relocated to the studio where, under guidance, I had the huge thrill of being instrumental in lifting a lead voice from support vocals and individual instruments on the computer. Choosing the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, I was able to hear unencumbered, the raw, soulful voice of Levi Stubbs, then added Obie, Duke, Larry and the Andantes into the mix before bringing in the music, practically instrument by instrument. By being able to do this in the grander scale of things, means that singers and musicians are easily identifiable when a particular track is being considered for re-issue, ensuring the correct credits are included with the release. It’s a long and assiduous process that bites heavily into personal time but which, in the end, is so worthwhile. Of all the Motown artists, there’s a gigantic demand for Diana Ross’ unreleased titles, and although Andy and I spoke of several canned albums’ worth of her material – and I daren’t give any more details here – it seems unlikely her fans will have ‘ear’ of them in the near future.

Before closing, I’d just like to say that I hope our most significant and influential re-issue labels like SoulMusic Records and Kent are able to help us celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary next year. If there’s a way, I know the guys will find it!

Motown Spotlight - July 2018

Motown Spotlight – July 2018

BARBARA McNAIR…

After playing this lady’s Motown music for the last couple of days, I decided to dig a little deeper into the fascinating life and times of Barbara McNair.  Here’s what I came up with which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did….

Following her birth on 4 March 1934 in Chicago, Illinois, to parents Horace and Claudia, Barbara Jean McNair and her family relocated to Racine, Wisconsin.  She had four siblings;  Sam, Horace, Juanita and Jacqueline. Encouraged by her parents to study music from an early age, Barbara sang in church services and school plays, before studying music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.   Her sister Jacqueline always believed Barbara was headed for a career in show business, saying – “She sang from the time she was five years old in churches and then at school. We always encouraged her.”

After her high school years, Barbara moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA but left after a year believing that New York with its “school of hard knocks” would give her a more practical education.  It was the right move to make, because among other things, she won an episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts programme, where audiences selected the winners using an applause meter. And while working a secretarial day job for the National Foundation of Settlements, and of an evening auditioning for Manhattan nightclub gigs, she got that all important break when impresario Max Gordon offered her a stint at the legendary Village Vanguard Jazz Club in Lower Manhattan. This led to another turning point in her career when she was offered residences at the Purple Onion, New York, and the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.  One of her performances encouraged a New York Times journalist to write that although Ms McNair was strikingly beautiful she didn’t have to depend on looks alone. “She is a highly knowledgeable performer who projects an aura of beauty, a warm personality and an appealing sense of fun.”  While the singer had other ideas as she told the New York Post in 1963 – “People talked and smoked and drank while I sang. People never did that in Racine so I was shocked.”

From her nightclub performances Barbara became a popular headlining jazz singer and enjoyed guest spots on television variety programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Hollywood Palace.  As her exposure grew she switched from jazz to sing popular tunes of the day, saying – “not necessarily rock and roll but good solid standards.”  Ralph Carmichael, her musical director at the time, told The Times – “She’s got a big great, wailing voice.  She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else.”

Her recording career appears to have kicked off as a member of the cast for the film “The Body Beautiful” in 1958, when the soundtrack was released on Blue Pear.  A year later, she switched to Coral Records to record “Front Row Centre” featuring show tunes like “Hello Young Lovers”, “The Party’s Over” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You”.  Somewhere in this time span (probably late-1957) she recorded what she called “a terrible rock and roll record” called “Bobby”.  Enthusiastically performed by her, this quirky single with teenage lyrics, was held together by a male chorus, and was so typical of what record buyers were buying at the time.  For some reason though, Barbara failed to hit the mark.  My research also throws up that she signed with Roulette to yield “That’s All I Want From You” in 1961, and “Honeymoonin’”, the following year.

The “Love Talk” album for Signature followed.  This time the track listing included “He Is A Man”, “Kansas City” and “All About Love”.  Before recording for Warner Brothers in 1964, Barbara made musical shorts for Scopitone, a franchise for coin operated machines that were said to be the forerunners of today’s music videos.  “The Livin’ End” for Warner Brothers was a far cry from her recognisable sultry Motown sessions as she returned to her roots to musically dance with jazz, plus the obligatory standard material.  Tracks like “When In Rome”, “Secret Love” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” were intended to appeal to a cross section of adult buyers.  I noticed that on the reverse album sleeve, alongside the necessary blurb, the headline ran – “This Is One Classy Singing Lady, Barbara McNair.  Also Known As The Livin’ End.”  Indeed!

The leap from nightclub performances to the Broadway stage was a smooth one.  She replaced (future Motown recording artist) Diahann Carroll in the lead role of “No Strings”.  While she wowed the New York audiences, it was a different story when the company toured, as she told The Times in 1968. “In St Louis and Kansas, I got a lot of hate mail and obscene phone calls.  There were no threats on my life, just messages like…’how dare you stand up on stage and kiss a white man?’”  This wasn’t the first time racism smacked Barbara in the face, as she recalled being forced to walk out of a hotel in Miami.  Sure, she was offered a room but forbidden to swim in the pool.  In another instance she said she was told in no uncertain terms to eat in the employees’ dining room and not with the other guests.  From “The Body Beautiful”, Barbara joined the cast of “The Pajama Game”.

In 1967 she travelled to Southeast Asia with Bob Hope to perform for the American troops during the Vietnam War (“I went over there to see what war was like and to comfort the men and I was appalled”) and toured with Nat King Cole, before kick starting an acting career on television, guesting in popular programmes like Dr Kildare, I Spy, Mission: Impossible and McMillan And Wife, when she played Rock Hudson’s ex-girlfriend.  However, one of the most ground breaking moves came when she hosted her own syndicated The Barbara McNair Show because she was one of the first African-American women to do so. It ran for three seasons – 1969-1972 – and featured top names like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers, Della Reese, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and so on.

From the small screen, Barbara enjoyed a successful film career via a diverse selection of roles. The first appears to be an unbilled part in the family drama film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda, where in the small print, Barbara is listed as a graduation singer. However, the most notable films, of course, were with Elvis Presley and Sidney Poitier.  In 1969 she played Sister Irene in “Change Of Habit”, a nun who helped a physician, played by Presley, to run a clinic.  So taken was he by Barbara that during a 1969 performance in Las Vegas, he dedicated “Suspicious Minds” to her, telling his audience that “..I found her to be one of the nicest, warmest, lovingest people I’ve ever met.”  When some members of his audience complained they couldn’t see her, Presley instructed the house lights to be turned on full.   Off set, he would, with guitar in hand, visit Barbara at her home where they sang and jammed together.   There was also an instance when Mahalia Jackson visited the film set for “Change Of Habit”.  Barbara said – “Elvis and I were sitting together and Mahalia …..asked if Elvis would participate in a fundraiser that she was going to organise.  Elvis was so gracious.  ‘Mrs Jackson, I am so happy to meet you. I would love to do it but I still have to ask the Colonel.’  So, after she left, he said to me, ‘I’ll never do it, the Colonel won’t let me’. But he was so gracious to her (because) he knew all the time the Colonel wouldn’t let him do it.”

A year later, Barbara played Valerie, the wife of the black police detective, Virgil Tibbs, played by Poitier in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs”.   This was the second instalment in a trilogy, the first being the award-winning “In The Heat Of The Night” in 1967, and Poitier reprised his previous role, with the film title liberated from the first film.  Considered to be a disappointing sequel, it attracted comments like “the film is poorly paced….Poitier seems bored…flat return for the detective… taking on a cool, protoblaxploitation feel, this is a step down to its predecessor.”  The final in the trilogy, “The Organisation” was poorly received, due to its unbelievable plot.  Barbara also played Lily, a nightclub singer, girlfriend of an escaped prisoner in “If He Hollers Let Him Go!” released in 1968.  Playing opposite Raymond St Jacques, the film was slated for its two unfair angles – racism and nudity – with a storyline exploiting black/white tensions.   Barbara agreed to promote the movie by posing nude, and told The Post that her steamy photo spread for Playboy magazine – “helped my career immensely.”

When talking about the film industry, Barbara was outspoken, not like some who feared that speaking their minds would leave them jobless. She told The Times – “When I was making a lot of movies, they didn’t want women to look too black.  But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal. (They) went all the way in the other direction.  For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic”.  Troubled by programmes that showed African-American as under-achievers, she further told the newspaper – “There’s so little to inspire the young black child.”  Then during 1968, Barbara told a reporter that Lenny Bruce had said she was in fact Caucasian – “and that someone took a paintbrush and painted me brown.  White people are not aware that Negroes look all kinds of different ways. We don’t all have wide noses and full lips.”

In 1966, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was issued by Warner Brothers, the result of three different recording sessions with three different orchestras.  “The Friendliest Thing”, “If I Had A Hammer” and “On The Other Side Of The Tracks” were included in the track listing.   Also this year, Barbara debuted on the Motown label with “Here I Am”, an album that was, to all intents and purposes, alien to the commercial company sound.  However, the elegance and sophisticated artistry that Barbara delivered in this album was to be applauded, particularly her version of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”.  The obligatory standard material was included, like, “Strangers In The Night”, “Message To Michael”, “For Once In My Life” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile”.  It would have been foolish to ignore the musical heritage that Barbara brought to Motown, because it was her film and television career which Berry Gordy wanted to capitalise upon. So throwing in a couple of company songs was probably to placate Motown fans.  The ploy didn’t really work out, yet the album is now an expensive must-have.

Three long years later, her second album “The Real Barbara McNair” was issued, with the front sleeve credited to her Playboy shoot.   Once again versions of Motown originals were featured, like Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone”, The Miracles’ “If You Can Want”, The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony”, together with outside covers of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “What Now My Love”.   Naturally, Barbara’s delivery was faultless, her styling and presence unbeatable, almost perfect to a tee, yet it was the opening track that dipped into the funk/soul melting pot, that attracted Motown fans the most. “Where Would I Be Without You”, co-written by Frank Wilson, grabbed immediate attention with its off-beat, uptempo approach, and it was probably thanks to our Northern Soul friends that the song remains relevant today.  Many claim “The Real Barbara McNair” was another desperate attempt by Berry Gordy to break Barbara as a cross over artist: once again, he failed.  And once again, the original pressing of this album is now exchanging hands at considerable expense.

Following the release in the late sixties of “More Today Than Yesterday” on Audio Fidelity, with tracks like “Something Happy”, “I Can Tell” and “Didn’t We”, it seems Barbara’s recording career hit a sticky patch until 2004 when “The Ultimate Motown Collection” was issued with a massive 48 tracks.  The double CD package featured her two released Motown albums plus the unreleased masters of “Barbara Sings Smokey”, together with a handful of non-album singles.  A more complete and thorough release would be hard to find, encompassing as it does, her Motown tenure which, while unsuccessful and disappointing at the time, is now revered as an invaluable niche in the growth of the company.

Time passed until 2012 when a surprise album appeared titled “Here’s To Life” that included “Autumn Leaves”, “Tomorrow Mountain”, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, among others. Barbara’s nephew, John Thomas said the songs were personally chosen by her – “and were inspired by her husband Charles and our family. We are a close knit family even though we lived on other sides of the country.”

So now let’s go behind the spotlight. Personally speaking, the singer married Jack Rafferty in 1963 but that ended in 1971.  She married her second husband, Rick Manzie a year later in Las Vegas and lived in a 20-room house at 4265 S. Bruce Street, near to the Sahara Hotel.  (Their house is now an apartment complex).  While her husband was ostensibly her manager, he was also a heroin user, gambler, and a minor associate of the Chicago mob known as The Outfit. However happy she may have been, the marriage signaled the singer’s professional downfall. Having applied her lipstick and eye liner in her dressing room at the Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey, where she was due to perform in October 1972, two white men stood at her open door.  They asked for confirmation of her name, and told her she was under arrest for possession of narcotics and should follow them to the nearby police station. Moments prior to this, a small brown package had been delivered by messenger, and as it was addressed to Barbara, she had signed for it, setting it aside, to continue her preparations for the evening’s performance.  Following her arrest, the Playboy Club naturally cancelled the remainder of her engagement there, with other venues following, like the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario. A television special which was partway finished was also pulled. Barbara told reporters later that she had been paid off.  “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. It’s like a bad dream. I just wonder where it’s going to end.  Emotionally, it has shattered me….This whole thing has had a devastating effect on my career.”  Meanwhile, her spokesperson told Jet magazine, that people had taken the prerogative of prejudging Barbara – “and they’ve cancelled shows without knowing the outcome of the case.”  In a later statement, the shocked singer emphasized – “I do not use narcotics of any kind.  I’ve never taken drugs, never had the need for them.  With my kind of life, you can’t function if you take them. I’ve known kids who were about to experiment with drugs and I tell them, don’t do it!”  To The Post in 1979 she sighed – “You can spend all this time building something and it can be destroyed in a minute.”

If she was convicted she and her husband faced one year in jail and a $5,000 fine each. However, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, concluded Ms McNair was an innocent by-stander and that no charges should be brought against her. On the other hand, they returned an indictment charging her husband with possessing one-half ounce of heroin. He was sentenced to one year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.  That wasn’t the end of it because in December 1976, Rick Manzie’s half-nude body was found in their Las Vegas mansion home: he had been shot several times.  In 1979 Barbara married again.  This time to Ben Strahan, and the marriage lasted five plus years. Seven years on, her fourth marriage to Charles Blecka sadly ended in her death in 2007.   In between times, during 1987, the singer faced another battle – that of bankruptcy.  She filed in a Las Vegas court saying she had assets of $23,080 and debts nearing $458,399, telling the bankruptcy court that she owned no valuable jewelry, save a diamond ring from a previous marriage. The chief cause of the debt was a business arrangement with her then husband, Ben Strahan.  I’m unclear about the outcome.

Yet despite all these pitfalls and everything life threw at her, Barbara McNair continued to perform in nightclubs and cabaret bars. She delighted audiences with her stage tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, and was signed for occasional guest television spots on programmes like The Redd Foxx Show. During 1984, she accepted a recurring, if short-lived role, in the daytime programme General Hospital, followed a year later by a role in the little known “Neon Signs” film.  Starring William Smith and Carol Lynley, Barbara played Grace in this low budget movie that few people saw.  It was her last film.  Outside of her professional life,  Barbara enjoyed her family and socializing with friends. Playing tennis and skiing kept her in shape, standing her in good stead for her touring commitments.

Then, tragically, Barbara was to fight her biggest battle in life when she developed throat cancer and a later an inoperable brain tumor.  Her husband, Charles Blecka, and their family supported her through her brave battling years but in the end the disease won.  Barbara McNair lost her fight in February 2007.  “She was the strongest person I knew” said Charles. “She was powerful in a strong way.  If she set her sights to do something, she did it in a dignified way. …A lot of people think celebrity comes with a burden.  Barbara never did. Along with her inner strength she had this ability to accept everybody, in all walks of life. Ask anybody in the business, she was one of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to come across….She had a special quality that was infectious, that everybody loved.”

A New York reporter wrote of a 1982 performance – “Ms McNair is a gorgeous looking woman with a warm, easy, communicative personality and a voice that can range from softly intense ballads to the edges of gospel, to crisp and rhythmic comedy or to a saloon singer’s belt.”

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.CO.UK

CLICK THERE FOR THE BARBARA McNAIR PAGE AT AMAZON.COM

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

She never sang a note or wrote a lyric, but she was as essential to Motown as any of the label’s artists and producers. Who am I talking about? Yup, you guessed it… Mrs. Maxine Powell.

“She was such an important, integral part of what we were doing at Motown” said Smokey Robinson in 2013.  “It didn’t matter who you became during the course of your career, how many hits you had, or how well your name was known around the world, two days a week when you were back in Detroit, you had to go to Artists Development. You went there and learned so many things about being in show business.”

So let’s briefly reflect on Mrs. Powell’s early life and how she hooked up with Motown.  Born on 30 May 1915, Maxine Blair was raised by an aunt in Chicago. As a teenager she started acting, eventually appearing with the Negro Drama League, a black repertory company there. From this, she worked as a model, before training as a cosmetologist and manicurist at Madam C.J. Walker’s School of Beauty Culture.  During 1958, the 43-year-old black American etiquette coach moved to Detroit to open her own Finishing and Modelling School in Detroit for African-Americans and, as a talent scout, instigated black productions in theatres, and placed black models in advertising campaigns. To this end, she had three female models, two male and two children on her books, with major clients of Packard, Dodge and Chrysler.  She hosted an annual show, and one particular year wanted to produce a souvenir programme to celebrate the occasion. The Gordy Printing Company, run by Mrs. Esther Gordy and her brother Fuller, was recommended as being the best in Detroit. This marked Mrs. Powell’s first introduction to the family.  Esther’s husband, George Edwards, was a state representative, and intended to run for a seat on Detroit’s City Council.  As Mrs. Powell had an empty office in her property, The Ferry Centre, comprising a large ballroom, private party room, bar, banquet kitchen and five offices, she offered it to George Edwards. Esther became her husband’s campaign manager and, as the Gordy family was notoriously close knit, members often popped by to help him out. Through these visits it became clear that Mrs. Bertha Gordy Snr. was interested in personal development, later signing up for one of Mrs. Powell’s courses:  likewise Loucye and Esther.  Gwen Gordy went on to become one of her models. This was, of course, pre-Motown, where friendships were cemented and working relationships developed.

Prior to Mrs. Powell joining Motown, she was introduced to fledgling artists because they were showcased in her downstairs ballroom.  Indeed, when Berry Gordy penned “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, she was asked to watch his performance then asked to critique it. From here, Berry Gordy asked her to open the ‘Motown Finishing School.’   Once he began signing artists to his new record label, he encouraged them to attend Mrs. Powell’s classes, but it wasn’t obligatory.   “When I met the artists, they were young. They came from humble beginnings and not all, but some of them, were rude and crude, and from the streets and the Projects” she once said. “It’s not where they came from, but where they were heading.  (They’re) gonna learn how to perform, gonna graduate and become great performers.” She called them ‘diamonds in the rough’.  Personal grooming included artists being taught how to walk, the proper way to smoke a cigarette, the graceful way to walk up and down stairs, to jump on a piano, and the correct way to enter and alight from a vehicle without showing a bare leg or underwear. She was quick to point out that she had nothing to do with voice – “I teach them to smile and be beautiful, because every time you smile, every muscle in your body is relaxed for that split second.  And some of them turned out to be rubies and emeralds.”

Each act was also trained to perform an original stage show, with dances and dialogue worked out for them. Even the adlibbing was rehearsed.  Their choreography was painstakingly thought out, right down to holding the microphone, and the many ways of using it effectively.  “Nobody was forced to do anything” Mrs. Powell told the Respect programme.  “I was there only to enrich their life and help them skip to the bank…if they weren’t interested in that, then that was OK.” However, those artists who recognised the value in her classes were told to listen and follow the positive guidelines she offered, saying – “…You’re getting a basic finishing background to do anything you want to do in life…..When I told them you’re going to travel to appear in number one places around the country, and even before the King and Queen, they didn’t believe it.  All they wanted was a hit record. ”

The School was the only one of its kind offered at any record company, and Berry Gordy often joked that he still remembers Mrs. Powell’s aphorisms like – “Do not confuse me with your parents.  They’re stuck with you, I’m not” and “Do not protrude your buttocks.”

However, Marvin Gaye was one artist who believed he didn’t need any training in what he called ‘the charm school’. Mrs. Powell agreed that he may not need her help as much as others, but his biggest failing was singing with his eyes closed, giving the appearance he was singing in his sleep.  She told him – “You can close your eyes for a certain gesture but your eyes are the mirrors of your soul….so we (had) to work on that.”  She also suggested he could improve his walk because he led with his shoulders and head.  His ears should be straight with his shoulders, she told him.  So they worked together until she was satisfied.

She also recalled Diana Ross being a dedicated hard worker, claiming, no other artist matched the hours she put in.  However, when The Supremes sang “Baby Love”, Mrs. Powell told them they were making faces, while Diana opened her mouth so wide it appeared she was about to swallow the microphone.  “We worked on expressing….looking pleasant and with a smile and maybe a gesture.  How to handle the mic (ensuring) the mic didn’t handle you…..All a singer needs is voice and expression.  Anything else you have is an asset to your profession.”  She also encouraged Diana not to look or lean forward, rather push her hip bones forward – “like pushing them up under your chin.”  This created the correct posture. Next on the agenda was how to walk – one foot in front of the other, and further, she said – “The torso of the body should never move.  All you need to walk is to lift your feet and let the action carry the body.”  In later years Diana Ross acknowledged – “Mrs. Powell was the person who taught me everything I know.”

The Temptations’ debut at New York’s Copacabana proved to be a logistical problem for the group until Mrs. Powell came up with the solution.  As there was no stage and restricted space for them to perform in the way that they usually did at other venues, like the Fox Theatre for example, she suggested – “I want all five of you to stand and touch fingers. Stretch your arms out and touch your fingers together, that’s all the space you need to perform. If you cover every inch of where your fingers are, you’ve done (it)”.

Mrs. Powell said Martha Reeves was adorable to work it.  She didn’t only concentrate on herself but also her Vandellas, always teaching them what she had learned.  “(Martha) wasn’t into the real glamour clothes….(but) they always looked nice. “  Mrs. Powell remembered that when the trio was part of the Motown Revue, Martha wasn’t as secure as she wanted to be and often did not feel good about herself.  “So it would take her, maybe, until twelve o’clock to …get herself together where she could feel relaxed and talk to people.”  The two worked together and in time Martha overcame her fears.  Years later in an interview with The Observer newspaper, Martha acknowledged her gratitude: “Everything I do and every move I make has to do with her teachings…She also taught us how to dance with our feet. Today, a lot of women in this business dance with their bodies.  The camera strikes them at the pelvis first, then goes to their faces.  Mrs. Powell showed us how to use our feet, which moved our bodies with elegance.  What she taught me was class and self-worth.”

In another interview with The Guardian during 2013, Martha remembered that as black artists they had to overcome all aspects of racial discrimination, including being denied the use of a toilet or not being allowed to eat in restaurants. “She taught us how to tolerate, to sustain and to persevere.  And she was right.  I survived.”  When Mrs. Powell was in her nineties, they hung out as friends with Martha, once elected to Detroit’s City Council, hiring her to assist her at council functions and charity events. –“(Mrs.. Powell) knew a lot about politics and Detroit. How it ran. She was very aware of everything, a font of information, and a well respected figure in the city.”  Mrs.. Powell also helped Martha write speeches, make connections, while becoming her confidante.  She also refused to tell her real age, at ninety-two, because “people think you’re useless”. All told, Martha continued, Mrs.. Powell served four years doing community liaison by visiting retirement homes, encouraging old folks to get up and dance, and to schools where the young people might have disapproved of two elderly ladies telling them what to do.  “But, she’d have them up and walking, showing them how to be proud and walk without a swag.”

The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers warmly remembered Mrs. Powell as a stickler for positive behaviour – “She deserves all the credit and admiration she gets.  What a wonderful addition to Motown she’s been.”  The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir said, “She taught us all etiquette, class and what you are supposed to do.  That’s artist development.”  And, Berry Gordy told her, “You have style.”

Mrs. Powell insisted she was overwhelmingly proud of all the performers she worked with, telling journalist Jeff Karbour that “This has been a blessing.  I thank God for allowing me to be here….I’m very proud of them because you don’t hear a lot of negative things about Motown artists.”

Mrs. Maxine Powell always radiated a natural dignity and grace, delicately mannered and primly dressed from her shoes to her obligatory hat.  And this is how we remembered her up to her death in October 2013 in Southfield’s Providence Hospital.  Her actual cause of death was said to have been associated with her declining health following a fall on 31 May.  Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by close friends and her Motown family.

Berry Gordy – “The Motown legacy would not be what it is today if not for her.”

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 - 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.

 

Motown Spotlight - March 2018

Motown Spotlight – March 2018

Can it really be over fifty years ago that one of the most groundbreaking programmes was screened on prime time national television?  Well, indeed it is, and for people as young as myself, we settled in to watch an event that, in my opinion, was a first, not only for Motown fans, but the British public in general. As Rediffusion covered the  London area, and I lived in East Sussex, I needed to secure the indoor television aerial in just the right position to pick up a viewable signal.  Quite an art I can tell you, but possible. So, what am I talking about? The Sound Of Motown, screened at 9.40pm on 28 April 1965 on Associated Rediffusion Television.  To say it was the most exciting of programmes would be a total understatement. It was a dream come true, an ambition realised, and, although not recognised at the time, the programme made significant inroads into breaking down the barriers erected in the entertainment world.

So, how did it come about?  As years passed, different stories emerged but I think it’s fair to say that this is probably what happened. However, let’s backtrack for a second to another programme which, to all intents and purposes, was the launching pad for The Sound Of Motown.  On 9 August 1963, Ready Steady Go, a brand new, and innovative music programme was screened for the first time by Rediffusion. I won’t dwell too much on this because the series – which lasted until 23 December 1966 – has been well documented over the years, but suffice to say, it revolutionised the way in which music was presented to viewing audiences.  Originally filmed in the small Studio 9 in London’s Kingsway, where participating acts mimed to their songs, Ready Steady Go was later transferred to the larger Studio 5 at Wembley, enabling artists to perform live, with an orchestra tucked away somewhere which was difficult due to the layout of the studio floor.  Artists performed on different mini-stages, often in the middle of a dancing audience; occasionally from studio gantries, or from the top of a staircase. As if this wasn’t tricky enough, the ever present cameras were large with rotating lens turrets rather than zooms, and weaved around the audience, often careering into unsuspecting individuals.  But, hey, that was part of the fun and no serious damage was done. RSG was glorious organised mayhem, broadcast live, bringing into our living rooms some of the best soul music of the time, alongside the major names in popular music.

The best remembered presenters, Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan, steered the programme as best they could, often stumbling over their lines and presenting acts that weren’t ready to perform.  Joining them was the now solo Dusty Springfield, riding off her first hit single “I Only Want To Be With You”.  A regular visitor to the programme as a member of The Springfields, and as a member of the audience, Dusty was a Britain’s top female singer and a huge coupe for the RSG team. Besides she loved to party!  By now, of course, it was no secret that The Beatles and Dusty were avidly flying the Motown flag, mentioning the company in interviews and singing its material on live and television shows. What better ambassadors could Motown have had!  “I suppose I had a lot to do with promoting them,” Dusty once said. “I didn’t realise it at the time.  It’s only when people have told me that, including Motown people themselves.  (Motown was) running my motor so to speak, so it never occurred to me that I was doing PR for them.  I was just entranced.”

Due to her immense drawing power it was decided to give Dusty her own television programme and, as she and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were now best friends, -after meeting up when Dusty appeared on Murray The K’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Extravaganza at New York’s Fox Theatre with a host of American acts including a Motown contingent – they were lined up to be her special guests.  This was to change, Dusty told me, when Berry Gordy planned to send his first Motown Revue to tour Britain to celebrate the opening of the Tamla Motown label during March 1965. Following a licensing deal with EMI Records, it was deemed logical to include all the touring acts with Martha and the girls. Besides it was a brilliant marketing tool to promote the new label, marking the longest free advertisement for a relatively unknown American artist roster on black and white commercial television.   The Motown Revue was to kick off at the Finsbury Park Astoria on 20 March, before hitting venues in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Wolverhampton, among others.  Twenty-one towns in twenty-four days, with a television programme to rehearse, film and complete before they left London.  No mean feat!

Shortly after 7am on Monday, 15 March 1965, the Motown contingent arrived at London Airport on their chartered Boeing 707.  Berry Gordy’s artists were accompanied by lawyer George Schiffer, Maxine Powell, chaperones Evelyn Johnson and Ardena Johnson, road managers, assistants and hairdressers, while Berry Gordy brought his three oldest children (Hazel, Berry and Terry), his mother and father.  Carrying customised B.O.A.C. Cunard flight bags advertising the Tamla Motown label, they were all enthusiastically welcomed by members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society.  Prior to the visit, Berry had written to Dave confirming that 15 March was a red letter day because his new label would be launched on that date. “It is as a result of such loyal and devoted efforts as yours that such an historic event is possible. All the artists and entire staff join me in thanking you for your loyal and unwavering support of Tamla Motown and its artists.”

Once everyone was settled in the Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone, meeting up with The Temptations was first for obligatory photo shoots around London’s tourist attractions. This was supervised by Motown UK’s Peter Prince and, my, how those historic visuals have remained relevant through the decades.  Almost magical. Next was free time where they explored the West End. Incidentally, The Supremes were the only group to occupy the penthouse suite next to the Gordy family, confirmed by the ladies in later press interviews. They also talked of the gifts Berry lavished on them, including diamond rings.

Anyway, back to the plot, and following hasty meetings between Dusty and Vicki Wickham, producer of Ready Steady Go, Rediffusion were asked to approve the  revised plan for the television programme.  Dusty was now to host a Motown show featuring Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Earl Van Dyke Sextet, whose membership was the company’s finest – Jack Ashford, Eli Fontaine, Robert White, Bob Cousar, Tony Newton, led by their leader, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke.  Not surprisingly, Berry Gordy wouldn’t allow his two most valued musicians, drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson, to tour. They stayed in Detroit to head up the remaining musicians, to keep recording sessions flowing in the artists’ absence. Martha Reeves was happy with this new concept. She still had an ace up her sleeve.  By the way, The Temptations, who weren’t on the Revue, were already in Britain on a promotional trip, and returned to Detroit following the show’s taping. Stevie Wonder was also in town prior to the Revue arriving, while Gordy’s most in-demand soloist Marvin Gaye was unable to join them due to a serious viral infection.

Originally, called Dusty Springfield Presents The Sound Of Motown, it was during production abbreviated to The Sound Of Motown, although the concept remained untouched.  Music journalist, Bob Dawbarn, who attended the rehearsals at the Wembley studio wrote “It was the usual shambles as the fast-moving show was assembled. With artists streaking like greyhounds in and out of dressing rooms for quick costume changes and sweating cameramen given only seconds to switch from one group to the next.”   Supremes, Florence Ballard told him – “We’ve brought fourteen changes of costume on this trip. The big problem is sizes.  Finding something that we all liked, that will look right in all our sizes.”  However, Bob’s immediate impression was one of complete and polished professionalism of the participating artists which, he wrote, “makes some of our miming monsters look the rank amateurs they really are.”

The acts worked for twelve hours solid at the studio, with no retakes, singing live to pre-recorded tracks although upon viewing it did seem Earl Van Dyke’s musicians were also playing in the moment.  The studio itself was more like a large industrial yard and looking at a picture of it now, showing all the acts for the finale, there was scaffolding to one side of the studio, the audience seated on the other, with a backdrop of the artists’ names littered across the skyline of Detroit. Immediately in front of the backdrop was a raised area for the dancers which stretched from one side to the other; in front of this, the musicians, who looked out onto the huge space in front of them. On this particular picture, Martha and the Vandellas were next to The Temptations and Dusty on one side, in the middle The Miracles and Stevie Wonder, and on the other side The Supremes.  Scattered around them were cameramen, steering cumbersome equipment, varying in size.

However, although the running order was planned in advance, it became apparent that as rehearsals progressed Berry Gordy was calling the shots. Martha Reeves, who was Dusty’s first choice, noticed these changes, as she recalled in her autobiography “Dancing In The Streets”. “I took offence when Berry began moving acts around until The Supremes were in a co-starring position.  The Supremes didn’t even know Dusty but suddenly they were incorporating a cover version of Sam Cooke’s ’Shake’ to supply them material for an additional spot.”  She also commented that The Supremes’ records were just starting to sell in Britain, while she and the Vandellas had toured once before, cementing a solid fan base, therefore her group should have been awarded the extra spot.  She told Berry of her feelings and balked at his response which went along the lines of that The Supremes were on the top rung of the ladder and Martha and the Vandellas were on the lower one. “My disappointment showed clearly on my face and in my voice. As we lined up for the finale, I was directed by the producers to a spot where the camera did not reach.  Standing off to the sidelines for the finale, I must have looked real ugly because I was so sad and hurt.”

However, what Martha didn’t realise at the time, because the comments came from the television viewers, her duet with Dusty on “Wishin’ And Hopin’” was voted as one of the programme’s highlights, even to this day.  “I could see Diane in the wings eating her heart out because she hadn’t been chosen to do it,” Martha further wrote in her book. “On another number (‘Can’t Hear You No More’) we also sang backup for Dusty.”  I’ve just watched a video of “Wishin’ And Hopin’” and smiled because  Dusty is gooning around part way through the song, which I suspect, is a reaction to being plagued by nerves.  In her book “Dreamgirl”, Mary Wilson wrote that she enjoyed working with Dusty.  “Her and the crew treated each one of us like a star, but it was clear that Martha and the Vandellas were their favourites.  That was okay. I always thought there was room for all of us at the top.”

Once the cameras had rolled for the last time and the programme was in the bag, the Motowners  headed for a party hosted by singer Dana Valery in Holland Park.  There they joined Vicki, Dusty and her brother Tom, members of the Rolling Stones, Madeline Bell, Sandie Shaw, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, among others. A who’s-who in British music, all wanting to bask in Motown’s magic.

So, it’s now the evening of 28 April and The Sound Of Motown is about to start.  And one by one, we’re introduced to the Sound of Young America on a whistle-stop tour of classic songs, iconic dance routines and lifetime memories.  We salivated to Martha and the Vandellas with “Heatwave”, “Nowhere To Run”, “Dancing In The Street”;  The Supremes and “Baby Love”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go”.  We loved The Temptations impeccable choreography while performing “My Girl”, “It’s Growing”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, while soaking up The Miracles’ smooth deliveries on “Ooo Baby Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”. Little Stevie’s “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues” and “Kiss Me Baby” was compulsive viewing as, in one instance, he performed on top of a pedestal without falling off.  Then, before you can catch your breath or believe your eyes, the finale “Mickey’s Monkey” with all acts singing and dancing, rounded off this once-in-a-lifetime programme, in true Motown style!   “The actual sound of Tamla Motown is always distinctive and unmistakable” said Dusty at the time. “The music is light, lifting but strong..and never boring. The songs are excellent and because of this many have become standards.  The artists are as exciting as their records. All professional and knock-out performers. There’s the phenomenal Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas.  Their ‘Heatwave’, ‘Live Wire’ and my all-time favourite ‘Dancing In The Street’ make them one of the most exciting acts I’ve ever seen.”

As time passed fans were desperate to own a copy of the programme, but nothing seemed to be available either legally or not. Dave Clark International bought the rights to the programme and it appears refused, for some reason, to make it commercially available. Then in 1985, “Ready Steady Go! Special Edition” was released, featuring The Sounds Of Motown including a clumsy insert of Marvin Gaye singing two songs, “How Sweet It Is” and “Can I Get A Witness”.  Until 2018, Dave Clark retained the rights, whereupon it was announced that BMG Rights Management had acquired ancillary rights to the whole Ready Steady Go series which I’m assuming, includes the Motown special.  Could it be a re-issue is on the horizon?

There’s much more that could be written about this extraordinary time in Motown’s British history, and the programme that’ll always remain a highlight, but I just thought an overview of how/where/when it came about might be of some interest. Sure, I realise I’ve neglected the actual Revue, so maybe we’ll get to this another time.

As always, thank you for being with me this month and, believe me,  there’s loads more coming your way this year.

Watch the entire show on YouTube…