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…

Motown Spotlight - January 2018

Motown Spotlight – January 2018

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

As I mentioned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the last couple of months, it got me thinking about Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell again. So I dug out my vinyl copy of the emotionally charged “You’re All I Need” to play in the background as I put those thoughts into notes, and which led me to this….

With Marvin’s duet success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston still ringing in his ears, Berry Gordy needed to find another singing partner for him. A move Marvin would later claim to be “another money making scheme on BG’s part.” Nonetheless, when new Motown signing Tammi Terrell was introduced to Marvin, he liked her on sight. “It was a pleasure for me” Marvin said at the time. “I wanted to work with (her)…she was pretty, nice. She was soft, warm and sweet, yet misunderstood. Yes, I enjoyed working with her.“ From that first meeting, he realised Tammi was a worldly woman who had lived life in the fast lane, yet once they started singing together, she changed “into a warm, special and hopeful woman.” This musical combination resulted in top selling singles that delighted lovers the world over. It seems so ironic that while they epitomised the perfect couple, each had suffered from abusive partners, either physically or mentally. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy had soured, and Tammi had escaped from a series of unsuitable relationships. Yet from the ashes that were left, the perfect musical partnership rose, inspired by another duo, writers Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, who wrote of the real love Marvin felt was missing in his failed marriage. The fact that the lyrics they sang were an extension of the writers’ love for each other, or an imaginative play on words, didn’t cross the singer’s mind.

Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery believed that teaming up with Marvin was a liberating move for her. Tammi, she said, felt creative and free, enabling her to forge an emotional connection with Marvin, Valerie and Nickolas. Her relationship with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol was by now solid anyway, so the future promised fulfilment and success for the young, shy singer and the angry, hurt sex idol. With everything in place, the musical adventure began in January 1967 when Tammi recorded her vocals for the song (Marvin recorded his a month later) that was earmarked to launch them into the extremely lucrative duet market. Aptly titled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it was the perfect signature tune for their future career together. Berry Gordy noted in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol’s production – “added a new sophisticated and dramatic element to the overall sound. When their first production on Marvin and Tammi was brought into the Friday meeting, there was no debate.” In June 1967 the single shot into the US mainstream top twenty, and top three in the R&B listing. Shamefully, the UK didn’t share their American colleagues’ enthusiasm. Not only did it burn up the US charts, but the song was also nominated for a Grammy award, and, of course, went on to be re-recorded several times, including the magnificent, re-working by Diana Ross which ingenuously mixed ballad, drama and dance.

As noted previously, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” wasn’t born as a song for two, but working with Marvin and Tammi, its composers realised it could easily be adapted. As with several of their duets, Tammi laid down her vocals first, although in this instance, it was done because she hadn’t learned the lyrics. However, when Marvin heard the pre-recorded track, he said he could feel her presence which, in turn, made him more alive, and as Johnny Bristol told Ludie Montgomery for her book “My Sister Tommie”, it cemented the singers’ respect and love for each other – “Friendship transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling.” Johnny also felt the song established a spiritual connection for everyone associated with the song. and that when Marvin later joined them in the studio, “He had a fun time and everyone felt the same about the sessions. It was a great environment working with Tammi and Marvin. They did what they did naturally.” All worked comfortably together, tagging themselves the ‘riff brothers’, with Tammi the ‘riff sister’. “They had a magical …. connection, and when they sang they sounded like they (had known) each other their entire lives.”

Marvin told author David Ritz in his book “Divided Soul” that Tammi was a woman who could not be controlled by men. “I loved that about (her). I knew we could be friends, but not lovers. Independent women hold no romantic interest for me.” He conceded though that when they were singing together, they were in love, but this was the result of him creating two characters – “two lovers that might have been taken from a play or a novel…. that’s how the Marvin-and-Tammi characters were born.”

With the runaway success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” came distress. Six months after its release, in October 1967, Tammi collapsed on stage during a performance before four thousand students, at Virginia’s Hampton-Sydney College. Part way through their third song, as she fell, Marvin grabbed her by the arms, and carried her off stage. Having suffered from dizziness and migraine headaches for some time, Tammi had been feeling ill before the 8pm concert, so took time out to recuperate on a couch backstage, while Marvin played poker with his musicians in a nearby room. Rumours ran amok as to the reason for her collapse. Past boyfriends, including David Ruffin, were blamed due to their violent behaviour towards her, and indeed, it is in the public domain that she was hit about the head with a hammer and, on another occasion, pushed down a flight of stairs. However, at the time, the guessing game was in first gear. Motown eventually released a press statement confirming that a slow growing malignant tumour on the right side of Tammi’s brain had been diagnosed. When Marvin realised just how sick his singing partner was, he was inconsolable, a feeling that, by the way, never left him. Thankfully, Tammi slowly recovered from surgery to continue recording, where the first sessions included “You’re All I Need To Get By”.

Meanwhile, the British market also failed to support the duo’s second release “Your Precious Love”, reminiscent of the floating Moonglows’ style, and again lifted from their debut “United” album. It sold better than its predecessor by soaring into the US top five, and narrowly missing the R&B top spot, during the September. A Valerie Simpson favourite, because it was one of the first written with the duettists in mind, and, “there was something very sexy about the way they did it.” Featuring Harvey Fuqua, Marvin and Tammi on backing vocals, Valerie acknowledged to Ludie Montgomery, Tammi’s additional input, including the ad-libs – “that’s why it was so great to have them both in the studio together because they would bounce off each other. “ During the life of “Your Precious Love”, Tammi was pictured on crutches, sneaking into The Cherry Hill Theatre/Restaurant in Camden, New Jersey, to watch Marvin perform. It was an emotional scene to witness.

With no UK action so far, sighs of relief must have been heard in Motown’s London office, when the third outing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, recorded in the Hitsville studio between 16 and 21 March 1967, crept into the British top fifty during January 1968, launching their musical love affair. Once again the single hovered below the US R&B top spot but peaked in the top ten.

Marvin and Tammi’s first single of 1968, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, lifted from their second album “You’re All I Need”, faired better than their previous British release by peaking in the top forty, while across the Atlantic, it managed to top the R&B chart and was their second pop top ten hit. Marvin recalled recording that particular song because they were trying different kinds of riffs and note changes to challenge each other, “and that’s how that song is as melodic and syncopated in the way that it is…. We really had fun recording that.” And the album itself re-established their vinyl love affair – they cried, rejoiced, teased, pledging unremitting emotions. It was their first hour, but recorded under the direst of circumstances due to Tammi’s failing health, as noted in the album’s sleeve notes. It seems that when “You’re All I Need” was issued, Tammi, had undergone at least six operations, and was in hospital, later recuperating in the Bahamas. “I’m feeling fine” she said in an interview at the time. Learning to knit while in hospital made her feel like a grandma, she continued, and upon returning home she started cooking and eating soul food. “I went down to ninety-three pounds in the hospital and now I weigh one hundred and twenty-five.” Her hair, shorn for surgery, was almost natural now. “But, for a while there, my father said I looked just like him.” It was also reported that she was partially sighted and had lost some of her motor functions, hence the crutches or wheelchair. However, it’s thought that Tammi’s sheer determination to return to work pulled her through, and her nagging depressive moods at missing performing with Marvin just as their star was rising, began lifting. However, despite all her best intentions, doctors insisted she stick to a limited work schedule, had daily concentrated rest periods, with live performances a no-go area. It was also disclosed that Motown paid her medical bills.

It was a tragedy. Tammi Terrell was, at last, in a position to shrug off her past struggling years, but was now unable to enjoy them. Promotional work was also difficult. With their chart success, it was obvious the public wanted to see them, and tour promoters, television shows and the media in general, flooded to feature them. Some commitments were jointly honoured, but when Tammi was unable to join him, it was a reluctant Marvin who went it alone without being able to divulge the true nature of his partner’s absence. In the end, Motown singer Barbara Randolph replaced Tammi on stage, a move she wasn’t comfortable with, as she told me. “It was very difficult working with him because these were his troubled years. For example, I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening. It was scary (because) they throw hard boiled eggs. And the audience was waiting for Marvin.” Nevertheless, Barbara had nothing but admiration for him, saying she never heard him raise his voice in anger, or get into any type of loud situation. “He was extremely likeable, easy going, and a very mellow person…I admired him before I ever worked with him.” Meanwhile, Tammi concentrated on recording and, apparently, was often seen in the studio singing from a wheelchair or balanced between crutches.

“You’re All I Need To Get By”, with Ashford and Simpson on backing vocals, finally crashed the UK top twenty in October 1968, and once again Marvin and Tammi dominated the US R&B listing, this time, for five consecutive weeks, and racked up another top ten mainstream hit.

Into 1969, and with The Andantes and The Originals as session singers, another track from the “You’re All I Need” album, “You Ain’t Livin’ ‘Till Your Lovin’” hit the UK top thirty in the June, while the States opted for “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey”; top thirty and twenty in the US pop and R&B charts respectively. Marvin’s solo status was about to drastically change when, slotted in between the run of duets, his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” shot to the top of the UK chart, with repeat performances across the world. The game plan was changing, Marvin was now an international name and, of course, much in demand. The single’s runaway success had taken Marvin and Motown by surprise. Having been recorded early-1967, Marvin’s was the second version to be released (the first by Gladys Knight and the Pips, although the very first take was an album track by The Miracles on their 1968 “Special Occasion”). Marvin’s moody interpretation, a stroke of genius by producer Norman Whitfield, was hidden away on his “In The Groove” album. However, it didn’t stay concealed for long because it grabbed the attention of some American radio DJs who gave it serious airtime, leaving Berry Gordy no option but to release it as a single. Prior to this international chart topper, Marvin had several solo outings to his credit, including “You’re Unchanging Love”, “You” and “Chained”, while in January 1969, Tammi released her only solo album “Irresistible”, from which a series of singles were extracted.

However, both artists were committed to further duets, and were in the process of completing a third album “Easy”, when one of its tracks, the musical jewel “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By” was lifted during June 1969. Hitting the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, plus a top twenty placing in the R&B listing, the public was unaware of the turmoil created behind closed studio doors due to an ailing Tammi. Next out in America was another track “What You Gave Me”, while Motown in Britain chose “The Onion Song” for November 1969 release. Despite its cheesy title, the song actually reflected social consciousness although did appear to be a little slice of nonsense upon first hearing. In hindsight, the song was probably more suited to the British market, but following its unexpected top ten success, America released it during March 1970, to falter in the top fifty, and the R&B top forty.

Over the years, much as been said about their last studio album “Easy” with a somewhat shoddy, unattractive painting by Carl Owens on the front sleeve. Fans had no reason to believe that the music inside wasn’t an authentic Marvin and Tammi release. However, when it was leaked from Motown that Tammi was unable to record, doubts were cast. It’s now on public record that Marvin actually did not want to work on this album because his singing partner was too ill, and that the suggestion of a replacement singer would not only deceive the public, but destroy the special, intimate relationship he shared with Tammi. However, he changed his mind when Berry Gordy confirmed that Tammi and her family would benefit from the album’s sales and any extracted singles. After much speculation, it’s now thought that the majority of the album tracks were authentic, and when two or three titles were needed to complete the project, Valerie Simpson stepped in. A move she has both confirmed and denied, by saying she helped Tammi sing her parts. In a later interview, Marvin revealed Tammi didn’t record much on the album at all, and confirmed Valerie had recorded “The Onion Song” and “What You Gave Me”. Saying she had faithfully captured Tammi’s voice, skilfully imitating her distinctive style and only someone who had worked so intimately with her could possibly have pulled this off. And also as Valerie had probably recorded several of their demos, she was the obvious ‘culprit’. In hindsight, this is irrelevant. It isn’t the first time Motown’s marketing department has stretched the truth. Didn’t The Andantes record with Diana Ross, yet records were released showing “Diana Ross and the Supremes” on the labels? We were none the wiser back then. It’s only in recent times with the growing demand for unreleased material that studio paperwork revealed we had been misled. Having said that, with the “Easy” front sleeve being a painting, fans, like myself, did question Tammi’s involvement in the recordings, although eventually accepted, having seen pictures of the ailing singer in the American press, that a new photo shoot for the project was out of the question. This didn’t affect our enjoyment of the album, despite it being a mixture of sounds. But our hearts went out to Miss Terrell.

While the UK was celebrating Motown’s 10th anniversary in 1970 – and after two and a half years of fighting her illness which entailed several hospital stays, where Marvin was a regular visitor – Tammi Terrell slipped into a coma and died from brain cancer complications on 16 March, a month before her twenty-fifth birthday. Fourteen years later, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father on 1 April, a day short of his forty-fifth birthday.

Valerie Simpson: “The chemistry between them was fantastic and while they never had a romance in real life, when they sang together ‘wow’, they were lovers.”

(With sincere thanks to Ludie Montgomery/Vickie Wright’s “The Real Tammi Terrell: My Sister Tommie”. Published by Bank House Books 2005)

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Motown Spotlight: August/September 2017

Motown Spotlight: August/September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Kiki Dee 2017 SoulMusic.com Interview With David Nathan

Kiki Dee 2017 SoulMusic.com Interview With David Nathan


One of the UK’s most enduring recording artists, Kiki Dee has been making music since the early ’60s.  With a personal background and love for R&B/soul music, Kiki has the distinction of having been the first British artist to be signed to and to record for Motown and it’s with that in mind that Kiki is performing in October at the first Soul Galore Weekend in Folkstone.   In advance of the show, Kiki spoke with SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan about her experiences as a Motown artist…

Click here for tickets for Kiki Dee’s performance at The Soul Galore Weekender

 

Motown Spotlight: July 2017

Motown Spotlight: July 2017

Just as I started planning this Spotlight, an email hit my inbox advertising a hot August night at the Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, Los Angeles with Thelma Houston.  Wow!  How amazing she looks – beautiful, quirky and overflowing with fun.  The planned show features ninety minutes of twenty-plus Motown songs that are the backdrop to Thelma’s life, and a little peek-see is available via her website www.thelmahouston.com  and it’s so good. Berry Gordy loves her show, saying “It needs to be everywhere”, while the owner of the jazz club glowed, “I have owned this club for twenty-five years and I have never seen a show like this before.”  The actual hot night is 27 August and the booking office is now open. You lucky Americans: Thelma is a phenomenal entertainer, with a voice to move mountains, and she’s gorgeous. Let me tell you, ladies born during the forties were made to last! Any chance for us in the UK I wonder?

One of the most regularly requested singles on my Saturday evening radio programme on Hailsham FM isn’t by one of Motown’s A-line acts, but rather from an unassuming singer who bypassed the general public through no fault of her own.  I’m talking about Debbie Dean who I’ve mentioned before and who, among other things, recorded the wonderfully upbeat “Why Am I Lovin’ You”, released in February 1968 which bears as much resemblance to the Motown Sound, as chalk does to cheese.  I think it was because of this that it grabbed me, and, of course, in later years, the attention of our beloved Northern Soul fans.  But, who was this Debbie Dean?  Well, during her stay with Motown, information was scarce, and no matter how much journalists like myself scratched around for a few titbits, even asking other artists for a snippet or two about her, nothing was forthcoming. Thankfully that has now changed, and if it’s alright, would now like to spend some time with this lady who really deserved more than she received.  To ensure the composing credits are correct, have consulted two volumes of “The Complete Motown Singles” , while other details I’ve collected over the recent past.

Born Reba Jeanette Smith in February 1928 in Corbin, Kentucky, she moved with her family to Chicago during the fifties. She was the fourth child of Alma and Walter. It’s unclear what persuaded her to pursue the business of music but she performed with  Ralph Marterie and his orchestra early on in her career.  It seems she first started working with Berry Gordy in 1958, so pre-Motown,  when he wrote songs for her, as Penny Smith, and as her group, Penny and the Ekos, signed to Argo Records, including the title “Give Me What You Got”.  Using the name Debbie Stevens, she also recorded “Jerry” for Roulette Records, and in 1959 a version of Rick Nelson’s “If You Can’t Rock Me” for the Apt label, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. On the personal front, Debbie married celebrity DJ Jim Lounsbury, host of a popular rock ‘n’ roll television show based in Chicago.

At the age of thirty-two, the red haired Reba Smith joined Motown, becoming Berry Gordy’s first signed white artist. Many believed that Mike Powers, and Nick and the Jaguars, the surfing rock group from Pontiac, Michigan, were his first white act but that was a one-off deal to release “Ich-I-Bon”, a previously recorded instrumental on the Tamla label in May 1959.  As the single bombed, no contract was offered them.  As for Yugoslavian-born Mr Powers, the credits on “Teenage Sweetheart” read a Rayber Production which Berry placed it on the Zelman label, a name he’d made up, and a label he presumably owned. I am digressing…. back to the lady in question. Her first recording was an ‘answer’ record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around” titled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”. This was the brainchild of Berry’s sister Loucye,  penned by her, Berry and Smokey Robinson, and featured The Miracles on support vocals no less! Released, under the name Debbie Dean, on the Motown label in February 1961, and despite its novelty angle, it failed to catch record buyers’ attention but did have longevity, representing a small niche in the company’s growth.  Next out was the  much misspelt “Itsy Bity Pity Love”, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums, and influenced by the hit-making pop singer Brenda Lee.  Penned by Janie Bradford and Popcorn Wylie, it was issued August 1961, but followed the same fate as its predecessor.

It’s assumed Debbie didn’t really fit in with the other female acts on the roster being that much older, but Berry Gordy persevered because he felt she could carry Motown into the lucrative pop world, thereby opening the door for his other acts.  A little misguided perhaps, but at least it got Debbie into the recording studio.  Her final single “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby”, written by Berry and featuring the only recorded performance of The Paulette Singers, was released in November 1961.  Again, it followed the fate of her predecessors, so a despondent singer left Motown in 1962.  However, Ms Dean was destined to return.

From Motown, she returned to the public arena, moved to Los Angeles and started performing in Southern California. She recorded “Don’t Bug Me Baby”, in a one-off deal with Sue Records during 1964. For this she chose the name Debra Dion. Two years later, using the same moniker, she recorded “Take My Hand” for Treva Records.  She hooked up with Deke Richards who, I believe, performed with The Deacons, and occasionally supported Ike and Tina Turner.  More importantly, he was the key to Debbie returning to Motown. As a member of the company composing/producing team known as The Corporation or The Clan, he was always on the look out for new writers.  When he learned her past history with the company, he persuaded her to re-join them. Although the intention wasn’t for Debbie to record again, when she co-wrote “Why Am I Lovin’ You” with Deke Richards (Dennis Lussier), they decided to cut it on her but, for some reason, a year passed from recording it to releasing it during February 1968 on the VIP subsidiary.  Once again, the single caused only a minor flutter sales wise, but thank god for us in the UK.  We adopted the song as a Northern Soul item despite only a few DJs owning a copy.  Stock copies were limited, the promotional discs even less – and the single wasn’t British-released.  I’m thinking that whoever owns a copy (including myself) they should wrap it in cotton wool and place in a vault.  Now, of course, it’s in the public domain on one of “The Complete Motown Singles” box sets.  It appears a second single, “You Asked Me” was scheduled but canned. However, that wasn’t the end of her Motown career because she flourished as a songwriter, usually with Deke Richards, to pen “Why Did You Leave Me Darling” for The Temptations,  “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Edwin Starr’s “Backyard Lovin’Man”, among other titles.  Unfortunately, this appears to be the end of my research, except that it has a sad ending because Debbie Dean died during February 2001 in Ojai, Ventura County, California.  Had hoped I’d find more to share with you, but sadly couldn’t.  Still, better than nothing aye.

I’m delighted to say “Chasing Motown” written by M. J. Critchley is now available. It’s his personal view of the company, lavishly presented in full glossy colour where many of the featured pictures are personal so not seen before in the public domain.  As I’ve known Mike since the sixties, it was a huge thrill for me to follow his journey involving meeting a whole host of artists like Brenda Holloway, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (well nearly!), Edwin Starr, Bettye Lavette, The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, Gloria Jones, and so many more.  Alongside his chats with artists, he allows us into his personal life, his extensive travelling often in pursuit of the acts he loves so dearly – many of whom adopted him as a personal friend and a welcome guest to their homes –  and the upsets and highs that accompany this crazy world of music.  Early Motown is extensively covered, and discovering those glorious sounds from Detroit is well documented. So, yes, Mike’s book is a rare gem. Now you need details – via email, mikecritchley@talk21.com or his website, mjcritchley-chasingmotown.com.  Price £22 + p/p £3.40.   On a personal note, thank you Mike for the name checks, and we did share a few adventures didn’t we?

Well, that’s the lot for this month. Thank you for your continued support because without you, there wouldn’t be me.

 

 

Motown Spotlight, June 2017

Motown Spotlight, June 2017

It occurred to me the other day that on 6 June 1936 a very special guy was born in Detroit, a man who was destined to front one of soul music, and perhaps the world’s most recognisable of groups. And this got me thinking: talking about my favourite group ever and its main man is long over due. But where to start without repeating much published biographies which can easily be read elsewhere? Dipping into their British musical achievements and milestones appealed, so let’s talk Four Tops – Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and of course, their main man, Levi Stubbs. All Detroiters; all true to the group until death they did part and, a point to mention, never once did it cross Levi’s mind to ditch his friends for a solo career, or insist that his name be upfront of them – “we enjoy singing together but we’re friends first!” he said.

With his laughing eyes and wide smile, Levi was the boss or leading force in the group. His influence over audiences during their performances was unique, although he one time quipped, “It’s not like being their God or anything like that, but it’s a beautiful feeling.” Levi was a strikingly attractive figure of a man, and like his friends, was always sharply dressed whether front stage or back. He was sophisticated, and although sometimes intimidating, his calming effect on fans and journalists alike warmed him to them. Hah, and I’ve not mentioned his voice yet: a natural golden baritone, that he often strained when reaching the tenor range which some of the songs demanded. Often the veins in his neck stood out, with sweat pouring down his face, as the pleading urgency in his voice captured the very essence of Holland, Dozier, Holland’s compositions. “His bold, dramatic readings of their material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-sixties”, a journalist once wrote.

Out of loyalty to his friends, he dismissed all offers of a solo career, even to the extent of refusing to play Louis McKay opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings The Blues”. He would never overshadow the others, he said. However, he did lend his voice to Audrey, a carnivorous plant in the 1986 musical “Little Shop Of Horrors”, and three years later to the evil Mother Brain in the television series “Captain N:The Game Master”.

Levi was the defining sound of the Four Tops, although he modestly said in 1994, “I’m rather loud and raw. I don’t really have a style. I just come by the way I sing naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.” On the other hand, Duke Fakir was more emphatic, saying, “He was a master performer and had a terrific voice. He could touch you by just singing about a stone. I look at him as one of the finest lead singers in the world.”


So let’s dip in and out of their UK career, using Levi’s quotes, and I promise with not a mention of my association with them, running their fan club or Motown Ad Astra that followed. He told a now unknown American reporter the group was born in 1954 when they were kids fresh out of high school. They all left with diplomas with ambitions to make an impression on the world. Music though was their common denominator, “We decided we wanted to become professional singers. We taught ourselves four-part harmony and rehearsed every single moment we could. For a while we inflicted ourselves on people at church socials and school functions. They seemed to like what they heard, so it encouraged us a lot. From there, we went on to win a succession of amateur talent contests and after that we just found ourselves wrapped up in show business.”

Choosing to name themselves The Four Aimes (because they were aiming for the top!) they took their smooth style and mellow, tight harmonies to parties, colleges and a few Detroit nightclubs for a couple of years. Singing a mixture of standards and jazz they attracted a following which culminated in their first professional engagement at the Ebony Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, where for a week they earned the princely sum of $329. However, it only took a further year for them to move up a groove when Billy Davis, cousin of Lawrence, offered them a recording contract with Chess Records. Changing their name to the Four Tops (not The Four Tops) to avoid confusion with the already established Ames Brothers, their stay at the company, although a learning curve, was unsuccessful, resulting in one single released in 1956 titled “Kiss Me Baby”. Once again, they turned to the club circuit, travelling distances to work, including hooking up with the Larry Steele Revue in 1958 to criss-cross America, performing four shows a day, all week. Later, they opened for Della Reese on an eight week tour, then BB King, before supporting the rising star Jackie Wilson (Levi’s cousin) and, of course, Billy Eckstine, where they fronted his touring revue and learned their craft.

In between times, another recording contract was dangled before them. This time with Columbia Records but, before the ink had dried on the document, the Four Tops had released “Ain’t That Love” – and were dropped! From here, more short tenures followed with the Detroit-based labels Red Top, Singular and Riverside Records, where they issued “Pennies From Heaven” and “Where Are You” late in 1962. Positive help thankfully was on the way, and to cut another story short, Berry Gordy signed them. This actually took him two years to pull off – he’d wanted them at Motown much earlier and to this end had given them a recording contract to sign, but for some reason the move failed to happen. Once under Motown’s umbrella, the Tops became session singers for the likes of Mary Wells, and Holland & Dozier. In between times, they continued to work local clubs, and with Billy Eckstine, to boost their income. Then it was the Tops turn to record in their own right, recording nearly thirty tracks for their debut album “Breaking Through” destined for release in 1964 via Motown’s subsidiary Workshop Jazz, as Berry Gordy wanted to attract adult jazz enthusiasts to expand his buying market. The album wasn’t released at the time, unlike others by Earl Washington, Paula Greer and Pepper Adams, among others. Workshop Jazz lived for a year, with no hint of the desired success.

To be fair, Berry was at a loss where to place the group, and didn’t want to lose them. He then hit on a plan: he sought out Holland, Dozier and Holland who had made such great strides with The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. The ploy, he believed, might just work but it was a difficult transition period for the group because it needed Levi’s voice to be out front, which was something never considered previously. From the first tentative recording steps that included experimenting with “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964, it was decided this would be the recording formula for the future. Interestingly, Levi couldn’t warm to the song, and suggested Lawrence be lead. No chance, was the feedback. The recorded version had such hit potential that Berry Gordy was convinced it would kick start their career. He was spot on. However, any chance of them enjoying a British hit was scuppered at the time by The Fourmost’s version which soared into the top thirty. And, unfortunately, this practice would dog Motown artists – and of course American acts generally – for years, denying them hits in their own right – and that’s another story! It was left to “I Can’t Help Myself” on the Tamla Motown label to introduce the Four Tops as a new UK charting name in July 1965, followed by “It’s The Same Old Song”, both top thirty hits. “Those guys were phenomenal” enthused Mr Stubbs about Holland, Dozier and Holland. “After ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ we had a solid hit run.” Indeed, the Four Tops were on their way. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was their third British hit, and at its release Levi spoke to Alan Smith. “We spent years trying to improve our act. Every performance we give, we try to be that little bit better. Some people think of us as specialising in one type of music, but we don’t. That would put us in a rut. We’re inspired by anyone who has talent…and we sing everything from pop, country and western, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and progressive music.”

Then Holland, Dozier and Holland electrified the groove. Motown’s music exploded in a way it never had before, prompting UK journalist Penny Valentine to write, “If you have ever been lonely, if you have any soul or any heart at all, you must go and buy this record now. After you’ve heard it you will never need to listen to another record for as long as you live.” No guesses needed – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” shot to the top of the UK chart in 1966, Motown’s second to do so (The Supremes’ “Baby Love” in 1964 was the first). With its introduction of teenager Danya Hartwick’s flute, galloping percussion, and the improvised recording technique of hands tapping on a wooden chair, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was so untypical of the Motown sound created by H-D-H. It was the jewel in the crown, rapidly progressing from a landmark release into a Motown anthem, worlds apart from anything heard previously. Ironically, Levi wasn’t happy with the song, saying he was a singer not a talker (in view of comments made over previous singles where he was accused of shouting on record rather than singing) yet the line “just look over your shoulder” was his spontaneous addition! H-D-H also had their reservations; in fact they didn’t want the song released at all, claiming it to be an experiment using the Tops, The Andantes and Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy thought otherwise and issued it, saying “we’re releasing the biggest record you’ve ever made.” Once the overwhelming success of the single had sunk in, Levi was rather blasé, “We’re naturally thrilled at the success….but we don’t have to let off steam over it. I think we’ve been around long enough to know the ups and downs of this business without becoming overcome when something like this happens….We knew at once that it was a big hit sound. It was a unique combination of ballad and rock.”

In November 1966, the Four Tops – who by now toured endlessly – performed two sell out concerts at London’s Saville Theatre, with hundreds of fans unsuccessful in getting tickets. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, stunned at the riotous welcome the group received there, booked the Royal Albert Hall for them in January, with two shows before 14,000 people. A special sound system was fitted in the Hall to reflect the Motown sound, which was a first for the venue. With Madeline Bell among the support acts, the audiences (including myself) were hysterical from start to finish. There was something in the air; the atmosphere was electric; it was just the place to be at that time. One reviewer glowed, “It was the Saville Theatre twenty times over. It was a spectacle on a scale you wouldn’t have expected outside a mammoth film production…the incredible enthusiasm of a World Cup football crowd. And that was before the Four Tops stepped on stage.” Four Tops fever had hit the UK, and this red hot reception was repeated throughout the tour. “That was one of our greatest moments” Levi said of the London date.

Touring the UK would now be an annual event and although the initial hysteria may have dampened, the group continued to perform before packed audiences. Levi – “I like an audience that lets itself go, and the people who come to see us to do whatever they feel. You can always tell when someone is into what you are doing. I think we have some regular fans and we seem to be getting younger ones too….English audiences are so loyal. They’ve been good to us and we know they don’t drop you just like that.” After several years of visits, Levi remarked that they had been so fortunate. “We can’t say ‘it’s because of that producer or that..’ because we’ve had various producers on our records. Personality-wise, we don’t clash very often as a group. We’ve been around each other so long we’ve got to the stage where the right hand knows what the left hand is going to do…Touring the UK is like a mad house!”

Mad house it might have been, but a dangerous one also, as he remembered a particular concert at the Finsbury Park Astoria with a 2,000 audience at fever pitch. The Tops had reached finale time when Levi threw his hanky into the air. Of course, the inevitable happened; fans thronged forward at the same time as the curtain dropped to the stage with an unaware Levi standing there. While the other three Tops were hauled to safety, police and security wrenched Levi clear of the falling curtain weighing several tons. “I just didn’t realise (it) was coming down. I can remember moving towards the edge of the stage and hearing it touch. When I realised what had happened it made my head spin. I was very lucky.”

Touring dominated their lives. The group rarely spent time with their families because when not on the road, they were in the studio, which of course, was the same for all Motown’s A-list acts. “Sometimes I feel like we’re non-stop machines. Don’t ask me how we stand up to it, but somehow we do.”

“Standing In The Shadows Of Love” followed “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. The spine tingling excitement in “Bernadette” was next, with “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”, “You Keep Running Away” and “Walk Away Renee” rounding off 1967. Motown/UK took the initiative to extract the latter track from the “Reach Out” album which was almost top heavy with cover versions (“If I Were A Carpenter”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “Cherish”) and their fans were far from happy. Levi was quick to respond that the tracks weren’t newly recorded, “(and) to be honest we just haven’t had the time to get into the studios to cut new material. The album was experimental because it was the first time we’d tackled really successful pop songs from other writers. And it came off. Maybe not so many people really dug ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ but that was just us trying to give a new approach to the original rather than just copy the arrangement and style of The Monkees.” At the time of this interview, Levi confirmed they had recently been in the studio trying to stockpile material and they had plans to work again with Holland, Dozier, Holland .“because they’re great writers and our approach fits so well. It’s like a marriage” As it turned out, “I’m In A Different World” was their last official release with the trio in 1968, the follow-up to “Yesterday’s Dreams”, but others came to light in later years. “We were hurt, shattered and a bit confused…suddenly we weren’t getting all those custom-written songs” Levi said when H-D-H left Motown due to unresolved issues. “And we started having to look around for material.” It was also at this time that questions were asked about them retiring from live performances, but that was a move Levi would not entertain. “The day we decide to do that will be the day we’ll probably give up the whole thing. Working in the studios is a kick but we still believe that if people buy the records then it’s a pleasure for all of us to communicate on stage.”

The somewhat haphazard – yet successful – trait of releasing cover version singles continued until the Four Tops hooked up properly with Frank Wilson, although one or two did slip in. Their first commercial collaboration resulted in the “Still Waters Run Deep” album, a wonderfully warm collection of material, creating a whole different sound for the group, including the two lifted singles “It’s All In The Game” (a Tommy Edwards’ original) and “Still Waters (Love)”; top five and ten respectively. However, prior to this alliance, the Tops took several months out for personal reasons. Or as Levi put it, the group “ran out of gas”. The years of touring had taken their roll on them. “We were off almost nine months and I’m not sure it did us any good. It’s an uphill fight getting back to the top (but) we wanted to get back to our fans and really get things moving again….We’re very fortunate to have Frank Wilson as a producer because he’s really into us. He’s into a smooth sort of stuff, and I guess that’s been our bag just lately.”

From here, they followed in the footsteps of Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations, by teaming up with The Supremes (Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson) for a trio of albums (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Return Of The Magnificent Seven”, “Dynamite” – 1970/1971) and a handful of singles. The music followed no particular pattern, rather a sweet jar full of sounds, snatched at will. However, many (including myself) believed the pairing to be genius. Levi and Jean exchanging vocal dialogue was quite awesome, but they didn’t, sadly, have the edge or the high ranking material given to the previous spirited pairing. Despite the two groups being in the UK at the same time during 1971, there were no plans for them to tour together, let alone perform on the same stage. Hah, not quite! When the Tops appeared on the Save Rave concert at the Royal Albert Hall, The Supremes surprised the audience by being their special guests, probably representing at the time, the most expensive recording talent in the industry. Levi had hoped a fully blown tour would follow (they’d already done so in America) but conceded the financial implications would have been too high for any promoter.

The year 1971 was incredibly significant in the history of Motown because the Four Tops recorded in London. The first act to do so. The story goes that The Moody Blues’ Tony Clarke received a phone call from someone at Motown praising his work and invited him to stop by the Detroit studios when he was next in the city, with a view to working with the Tops and Rare Earth. During his visit, Tony was asked to deviate from the Motown sound because the music he was creating was what they wanted. It happened then, that when the Tops had spare time during their next visit to the UK they got together. To this end, Tony had already chosen “Simple Game” and had recorded the backing track with Blue Mink’s musicians with Arthur Greenslade’s string section. After playing them the track, the Tops rehearsed the song in ten minutes and were confident enough to record it. “It was a tremendous challenge” said Tony at the time. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here was I, a skinny British bloke telling one of the greatest vocal groups in the world what to sing and how.” The tapes were then shipped to Detroit for final vetting and finishing: the all clear was given with the Tops enjoying a top three British hit. However, it took fans a little time to come to terms with “Simple Game” being recorded outside their beloved Motown studios but, to be fair, the single was climbing the chart before the media interviews began. “We (had) a good feeling for that tune so we did it,” Levi told NME’s Julie Webb. “I remember the recording session took all night but we were pleased with the finished result.” “So Deep Within You” also originated from that session but wasn’t released until 1973, a year after the Tops had left Motown, because it was considered a disposable item at the time!

The time was drawing close to the end of an era. And indeed, within the space of two charting singles – “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Supremes, and “Walk With Me, Talk With Me Darling” from the “Nature Planned It” album – the Four Tops and Motown had parted company. The group switched to ABC Dunhill Records, while Motown shed tears of disbelief, which were later dried during 1983 when they returned. In the time between, of course, the group enjoyed a spasmodic hit run, yet their much heralded return home was fraught with problems. So much so they packed their musical suitcasses once more to move to Arista, where their chart success of the sixties returned with the top sellers like “Loco In Acapulco”.

Clearly there’s so much more that could be written about Levi Stubbs and the group but this really is the briefest of overviews.. One thing that’s always struck me to be strange is, unlike other Motown acts, they’ve never written a book about their career. I came close with the help of Levi’s daughter Deborah but sadly it come to nothing.

The group that played and loved together was to be tragically broken when Lawrence Payton died in 1997, with Obie Benson following in 2005. And, Levi Stubbs was next. He was diagnosed with cancer before suffering a stroke, but this didn’t prevent him appearing with his friends in July 2004 at the Detroit Opera House to celebrate their 50th anniversary together. However, it was a losing battle. On 17 October 2008 one of the greatest voices of our age was silenced. Levi died in his sleep in his Detroit home. He was 72 years old.

“He was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard,” said Berry Gordy. “He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving group…people all over the world (were) touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit.”

(My thanks to those journalists who I’m unable to identify through the passage of time)

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Motown Spotlight: A Tribute to Sylvia Moy - May 2017

Motown Spotlight: A Tribute to Sylvia Moy – May 2017

“How do you stop loving the ones you loved for a lifetime – you don’t. Sylvia Moy made it possible to enrich my world of songs with some of the greatest lyrics.  But not only that, she, through her participation and our co-writing those songs, helped me become a far better writer of lyrics,” so sayeth Stevie Wonder about the quiet and gentle lady who was something of a trail blazer, being one of the first women to join the male dominated production/composing team at Motown during the sixties.

And it was with the boy wonder that she first made her presence felt, as Hank Cosby’s widow Pat remembered, “Sylvia was the nucleus.  None of (his success) would have happened if she hadn’t seen that Stevie had more in him.”  “She broke that glass ceiling for women in the music industry,” Sylvia’s brother Melvin said. “In the sixties, women weren’t encouraged to play instruments, let alone be producers.“ So, let’s delve a little deeper into this story of a star in the making, and the lady behind him who had the faith and determination to ensure he had a future.

Sadly Miss Moy is no longer with us.  She died, aged 78 years-old, on 15 April, succumbing to complications from pneumonia at the Beaumont Hospital, in Dearborn, Michigan.

Born on 15 September 1938 in Detroit to Hazel Redgell and Melvin Moy, Sylvia Rose was one of nine children. They had relocated to the city from the South for a better life, with music in their blood lines, and ambitions in their hearts. While attending the Northern High School, where, alongside academic lessons, Sylvia studied jazz and classical music, writing songs when the mood took her.  With a handful of local musicians, she recorded backing tracks for her material and, with encouragement from her teachers, travelled to New York for auditions.  Nothing materialised from these trips, but fate had another path for her nearer home when, on 12 February 1963, while singing in Detroit’s Caucus Club on Congress Street, Motown’s A&R director Mickey Stevenson was in the audience, with other Motowners like Hank Cosby,  Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Ivy Joe Hunter.  “…I sang and they joined in with the rhythm, beating on the table” Sylvia recalled. “That was the beginning of it all.”   Indeed it was because she was offered a recording and songwriting contact with the company, where, somewhat ironically she said, “I sang the same songs at Motown I was playing in New York!”

In an interview with The Free Press last year, she confirmed, “Motown came forth with (the two contracts) which shocked me.  Then I was told ‘Sylvia, we’ll get to you as a singer, but in the meantime, we’ve got all these artists and they have no material.  You’re gonna have to write.  I said OK because I was kind of shy anyway, and that’s what I started doing.  I got into it, and the hits started coming.”  More importantly, despite being told ‘women don’t produce’, Sylvia was welcomed as a valued addition at Motown’s production meetings!

Clarence Paul was Stevie’s exclusive producer until the time came when he felt unable to keep up with the young Stevie’s ideas about music.  They had journeyed as far as they could creatively, and it appeared Stevie’s career was heading towards the exit door. No hits, no potential, no future – so what to do? Eventually a plan was hatched. Clarence Paul would continue to be Stevie’s touring musical director and conductor, and, under instruction from Berry Gordy, Hank Cosby would replace him in the studio, a logical move as he had been involved in writing and arranging Stevie’s music from day one. Mickey Stevenson recalled that they all liked Sylvia’s style of writing and that at the time, Motown’s sound was changing, “Clarence was an older producer and guys like Holland, Dozier and Holland were taking us in a different direction. Very swinging and happening.”  So with her singing career on hold, Sylvia Moy began forging ahead as a composer, earning respect from her colleagues, and learning of Stevie’s dilemma, put herself forward to work with Hank Cosby, or as composer/producer John Glover recalled, “Sylvia…was like a throw in.  I think she’d actually written some stuff with Stevie, so I don’t know that she volunteered to ‘take over’ writing with him as much as she already was.”

“(Stevie) was in puberty and his voice had changed,” Melvin Moy added. “Other producers couldn’t find something that fit.”  For his sister to be allowed to take on this role was practically unheard of in the sixties, he said, “Racism and sexism, that was what was going on in the sixties. And certain disciplines relative to the music business were taboo for women.”  Sylvia agreed.  “(Because) his voice had changed, he just wasn’t selling for a period. But I just believed in him.  I knew it was possible (Motown) might let him go, so I was begging ‘please give him to me.’  And that’s when I was finally told ‘well, if you can come up with a hit on him, we’ll keep him’.”

After touring with The Rolling Stones, Stevie planned to record his own song using the incessant, driving beat they used in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and to this end, he laid down the basics of the song, then sought out Hank and Sylvia, as she remembered, “He went through everything.  I asked ‘are you sure you don’t have anything else?’  He started singing and playing ‘everything is all right, uptight’. That was as much as he had, so I said ‘that’s it, let’s work with that’.” With Stevie’s input, Sylvia and Hank stitched together “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.  Once the music was part-recorded, she constructed a lyrical skeleton into which she added Stevie’s phrases, and the resulting song ensured the young singer had a future with Motown, with the single laying the foundation upon which to build and expand his new musical team.  Yeah, Sylvia had successfully found her niche and, of course,  Motown was determined to keep her. Giving her the freedom to create and work, not only with the young Stevie, but also other signed acts, was their way of ensuring her exclusivity.   “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”  raced into the American top three in 1965 (peaking at number ten in Britain) –  and a new career was re-launched.

The impetus had to be guaranteed, and following any runaway hit is an awesome task for writers and producers, so the trio took the easy route.  They part-cloned the hit to release “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”.  The ploy backfired; it failed to repeat its predecessor’s success, prompting Stevie to vow that that would be the last time he’d release a copycat single.  When a ‘change of mood’ single “With A Child’s Heart” also sold poorly, Stevie’s team chose different, contemporary composers, like Bob Dylan and Ron Miller, for future singles. The downside was they failed to sell albums, so Berry Gordy reunited the singer with Sylvia Moy and the gang.  Their first collaboration, that also included Stevie’s mother, was the uplifting “I Was Made To Love Her” and that hit the spot – literally!  The boy genius was back where he belonged.

However, recording with Stevie wasn’t always easy Sylvia said, because it was frustrating to start with. She needed to re-educate him from the way he used to record with Clarence Paul, into a more comfortable, communicative style, while keeping him focused on the song in hand because his over active mind was gearing itself up for the next one!  Stevie, at one time, admitted he contributed little, leaving Sylvia to actually write all the lyrics, which then had to be converted into Braille for him to read, or, if pushed for time (which was invariably the case) she sang or spoke the lyrics to him through his headphones as he was recording.  “I would stay a line ahead of him and we didn’t miss a beat.”  She even grabbed people passing by the studio when his enthusiasm deteriorated saying, “If there was no one around, his vocal just died.  Stevie had to feel the presence of people.” The softly spoken lady roared with her lyrics from which Stevie benefitted, as he proudly told a packed audience in 2006 when he was a surprise guest at the ceremony where Sylvia was inducted into the 37th annual Songwriters Hall Of Fame, alongside Hank Cosby: “(Sylvia found) unique ways to take the melodies I wrote and putting them into a lyric that was incredible, that touched many hearts.”

Ms Moy worked with her emerging star through to the seventies with hits like “I Was Made To Love Her”, “I’m Wondering”, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “My Cherie Amour”, with others in between, while the last released song credited to the Wonder, Moy, Cosby team appears to be “I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)”, the flipside of 1970’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” penned by Syreeta and others.  I think it’s fair to say that Syreeta replaced Sylvia in the singer’s creative team, and, indeed, looking at early photos of both ladies, there’s a spooky facial similarity.

When talking about “My Cherie Amour” Sylvia recalled that Stevie had approached her with a song about a girl he was involved with.  “Every song he had at that time had a girl’s name attached to it. He had a little idea and it was ‘Oh my Marsha.’” The lyricist transformed Marsha into “My Cherie Amour”, one of Stevie’s biggest and most endearing hits. (This song also held a special significance for Sylvia: so much so that she used its opening bars of music as a symbol on her personal stationery).  Pat Cosby told the media after Ms Moy’s passing that although Stevie received most of the credit on his material, she believed Sylvia, “was the beginning of so many of those songs. Between the three of them, Sylvia with her imaginative mind was just groundbreaking.  If she were a man instead of a woman, there would have been a lot more you’d have heard from her. But once her work became known, the resistance waned away, and the producers started looking at her differently and could see the value of what she was trying to do.”


Stevie Wonder wasn’t the only artist to benefit from Sylvia’s talented pen and imaginative mind.  For instance, in 1966 she wrote with Holland-Dozier-Holland, one of the company’s anthems, “This Old Heart Of Mine”, highlighting her favourite themes of love and heartache.  With Mickey Stevenson she penned “It Takes Two”, with Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in mind, and with Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol wrote one of The Velvelettes’ signature tunes – “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”.   Martha Reeves and The Vandellas also benefitted.  Songs included their 1967 single “Honey Chile” (the first to show Martha’s full name) full of Southern connotations, “Love Bug (Leave My Heart Alone)” and “(We’ve Got) Honey Love”, all from the trio’s “Ridin’ High” album.  There was also “Forget Me Not” a year later.   As a point of reference, there are fourteen pages on the Songwriters Hall Of Fame website listing all the songs Sylvia penned alone or with others, and those she wrote at Motown were, of course, re-recorded by several artists, each giving a different take on the song.  During her stay at the company, Ms Moy earned fifteen+ gold and platinum records for herself and Motown – not bad for a woman who was told she would never be a composer!

Detroit was Sylvia’s home and there she wanted to stay, so when Motown relocated to Los Angeles, they moved without her.  While the company settled into their new home, she embarked upon another adventure by signing with 20th Century Records as both writer and singer.  One of her first projects was to record and release “And This Is Love” during 1973, a song penned by herself and Frederick Long, arranged by Paul Riser, which is now considered to be a much-valued addition to any soul collection.  Placing her recording career on hold again, Sylvia went on to write theme music for films like “Mr Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Presidents”, and theme songs for several television series, including the popular “The Wonder Years” and “Blossom”.  From here, she expanded further by founding the non-profit organisation, the Centre for Creative Communications, her own studio named Masterpiece Sound, and rehearsal room, on the West Side of Detroit, where she mentored underprivileged young folks.  Her intention was to give back what she was offered while growing up, “to encourage children to live a good life…because that’s how are parents were.”

Then during 1989, alongside a host of ex-Motowners, Sylvia was persuaded by Ian Levine to once again hold a microphone to record “Major Investment” for his innovative Nightmare Records, later Motorcity Records. While there, she also recorded her versions of “My Cherie Amour” and “I Hear A Symphony”.  All entirely credible recordings from the lady with the delicate smile and warm personality, who, despite her shyness, hugged the ambition as a young girl to sing for a living.

At her funeral at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, officiated by Bishop Charles Ellis III, family and friends mingled with Motowners like Martha Reeves, and city officials. A statement from Berry Gordy was read by his great niece Robin Terry (head of the Motown Museum) that included the words, “At this moment we are all sharing a tremendous loss.  In addition to her early work with Stevie, Sylvia went on to do other great things at Motown, gaining the respect of fellow songwriters and opening the door for other women.”

Although in Ireland, performing at golfer Rory Mcllroy’s wedding, Stevie paid tribute in a taped video….”I loved Sylvia from the moment that I met her.  Her heart and passion, her desire to not only do great music, but to do great things with my music.  Even in these later years, I longed for us to collaborate again, yet who am I to fight with the Most High in His decision to making her one of His angels for song for eternity.  Maybe someday in eternity, at its given time and space, we will write together again.  I love you, Sylvia.”  He then ended the video with a personalised version of “My Cherie Amour”.

Survived by two brothers and five sisters, Sylvia Moy, who never married, was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, on 1200 Elmwood Street on Detroit’s East Side, one of Michigan’s most important historic sites.  It goes without saying, she will be missed dreadfully but happily her work will live on through the voices of others.

The final words here belong, of course, to Stevie, “You know that we learn at an early age that we are not meant to be here forever.  So please, even through the pain of it all, celebrate this wonderful African-American woman’s life, for she was another example of one of God’s greatest creations.”

(credits: “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Mark Ribowsky/wwwtelegraph.co.uk/www.freep.com/www.rollingstone.com/www.washingtonpost.com)

Sylvia Moy – Digital Downloads (Amazon UK)

Sylvia Moy – Digital Downloads (Amazon US)

Motown Spotlight, April 2017

Motown Spotlight, April 2017

It’s all happening this month for Supremes’ fans. Just in case the news has escaped you the much talked about extended version of “The Supremes A Go-Go” has been released. It seems ages ago when this was first mooted, with lots of information bites but nothing concrete. But, hey, here it is at about £28 a copy – and with a slight colour change on the front cover, plus an added apostrophe after “A”. Originally issued in 1966, it was Motown’s first album to top Billboard’s popular music chart, and the first from a girl group during what’s considered to be the rock era. Alongside their seventh chart topper “You Can’t Hurry Love”, there’s the top ten title “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”, but what will interest Supremes’ fans more are the mono and stereo mixes of the original twelve tracker, their versions of other acts’ songs like “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and outtakes including The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”. What did catch my eye, though, was the girls’ duet with the Four Tops on “Shake Me Wake Me (When It’s Over)”, but I don’t know that that’s enough for me to part with my pocket money. Anyway, there’s a massive 53 tracks across two CDs, with an accompanying booklet, one of which recreates The Supremes’ 1966 tour book, while the other offers the album’s production notes and so on.

The second release is the 1980 album “diana”, originally produced by the Chic guys Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. It’s a double album release on pink vinyl, but that’s not all – instead of being 33rpm, it’s 45rpm for maximum fidelity, the blurb says. I re-read that, just to check it wasn’t a typo. Anyhows, when Diana first heard Chic’s finished work on the original project she was unhappy because she felt it sounded too much like Sister Sledge and Chic themselves, with too much disco added to the mix. Plus, she believed, as the guys had only been in the music business for a couple of years or so, they didn’t have the experience to Diana Ross-ize the work. So, she pulled in her engineering team and worked with them until she considered it to be a more commercial album for release. Needless to say, Nile and Bernard were furious initially, but after hooking up with the artist, accepted where she was coming from, saying they were happy with the album because she was. I have to say, I worked on this while at Motown, and it was a glorious experience as the product was high class, with not a bum track, and, of course, we had a large budget to work with. So we pulled out all the stops to promote it knowing it was to be her last for the company. On top of the usual promotion, we produced life size 3D cut outs of her for instore display (I had one standing in my office for a while intending to use it as a competition prize. Then it was gone and I never discovered what happened to it, bearing in mind it couldn’t have walked out by itself!) and practically covered London in posters and flyers. However, the biggest promotional tool we could have wished for was Diana herself, who willingly cut short a private holiday in London with Gene Simmons, to film a promotional video for “My Old Piano” which was a bit of a fiasco to arrange, then agreed to attend an invitation only reception at the Inn On The Park Hotel. This is where I officially met her for the first time; a great thrill for me. As I was working my professional face remained on public show, but inside I was as wildly excited as a fan can be. Peter Prince (who we talked about last month) presented Diana with several silver discs. So heavy were they that she had to lean against a wall behind her while photographers clicked away. Once she had left, with her discs being carried this time by a colleague, I had the largest alcoholic drink I could lay my hands on!

The album (originally titled “Friend To Friend”) went on to sell one million copies in the UK alone, after giving birth to several runaway hits including “I’m Coming Out”, “My Old Piano” and “Upside Down”, re-establishing the lady as an international selling power, paving the way for her lucrative deal with Capitol Records. For years after this release, Ross fans were pining to hear the original mixes, so in 2003 they were issued as part of a CD deluxe edition, and it’s now available again as a 2-album set. For vinyl collectors only methinks. Apparently, there’s a couple more items due for re-issue and re-mastering including “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland”.

Actually, if I may, I’ll digress for a moment but still with Diana. A reader sent me a note to say that there’s talks to upgrade her playground in Central Park West. Having visited it with Keith Russell a few years back – we took a long stroll around the Park checking out Strawberry Fields and others places of interest, and it was long trek too – he showed me where it was. Pretty understated by comparison to what’s on offer for children these days, but that could change as the singer told the New York Post this month. “Every time I’m in the city I always go by and peek, and see how it’s doing. To watch the children playing, it really warms my heart. We have been in conversations about refurbishing the playground and updating it, which I would like to do very much.” Positive thinking there, so perhaps it will renovated by the time I return to New York whenever that’ll be as the dates keep changing. In the same interview, Diana spoke of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by the then President Obama. She sat next to Robert Redford, alongside Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and others. “I do not take my freedom or the freedom that we all have in our country for granted.” Mmm, I wonder what her feelings are about the new president?!

Back to the music again. “Motown Funk” has also been issued. A 2-album set in red vinyl, holding 22 tracks highlighting the immense talent of Motown’s in house band, the mighty Funk Brothers. Not only were these guys the very heartbeat of the company, but they can be heard on thousands of records where their presence was played down for years. However, not so now – they are shining brightly in their own right. Participating artists include Barbara McNair, Willie Hutch, Sisters Love, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Temptations, among others, and as I write this it’s not clear to me whether this is a re-issue – “Motown Funk” from 2003 springs to mind – or a compilation of previously issued Funk albums. Time will tell.

Anyway, to round off this music talk: next month, the fourth “The Motown 7s Box” is to be released, and once again offers rare and unreleased items to delight us. Compiled by Richard Searling, artists featured on the seven singles include Rita Wright, Marvin Gaye (“Sweet Thing”), Brenda Holloway (“Can’t Hold The Feelin’ Back”), David Ruffin (“That World I Lived In”), Shorty Long (“Baby Come Home To Me”), The Monitors (“Share A Little Love With Me”), Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Ain’t You Glad You Chose Love”) and Thelma Houston, among others. By the way, like the previous releases, this set includes a voucher to download MP3 versions of the singles by logging into www.backtoblackvinyl.com. You’ll need to dig deep as these sets aren’t cheap.

Like so many, I was so deeply saddened by the death of our Sylvia Moy just recently, and plan to spend some time reflecting on her great contribution to music next month. However, on behalf of myself and the guys here at soulmusic.com, am sending our condolences to Sylvia’s family, friends and fans across the world. A wonderful lady who will be missed like hell.


Finally, this item has popped up in my intray today about “Needle In A Haystack”, the story of The Velvelettes. This is all I know for now. Being staged at the New McCree Theatre, billed as Michigan’s most exciting venue, it’s a musical by Charles H Winfrey. The group don’t appear in it, but it seems it centres around their Motown recordings; their significant, yet understated musical presence at a time when the company was growing but concentrating on other artists. I smiled at the musical’s advertisement because the pose used has been liberated from their Motorcity Records single’ “Pull My Heartstrings”. Hope whoever is responsible has got clearance from Mr Levine. More when I know it, but can confirm “Needle In A Haystack” runs from 4 – 27 May 2017.

That’s it for this month, and as always, my thanks for supporting me and long may we be together.

Motown Memories:  Adam White on Sylvia Moy (Renowned Songwriter/Producer)

Motown Memories: Adam White on Sylvia Moy (Renowned Songwriter/Producer)

Songwriter and producer Sylvia Moy has penned many of the classics that are at the very heart of the vast Motown catalogue  including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, “My Cherie Amour”, “I Was Made to Love Her”, and “Never Had a Dream Come True” by Stevie Wonder; and “Honey Chile” and “Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone” by Martha and the Vandellas;  and co-wrote “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” with Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Isley Brothers; and “It Takes Two” with William “Mickey” Stevenson for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.

Author and Motown historian Adam White blogs about Sylvia….

http://www.adampwhite.com/new-blog/2017/4/9/sylvia-and-stevie-inspiration-and-influence

 

 

 

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT (March 2017)

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT (March 2017)

First off this month, a very happy 73rd birthday to Miss Diana Ross, who, as I write this, is pulling in the crowds in New York. Undoubtedly a remarkable woman who will, among other things, always be the Queen of Motown. So, to celebrate her birthday, am playing her 1981 compilation “To Love Again”. Why this one? Well, apart from being produced by Michael Masser, it holds some glorious material, probably considered rather twee now of course, like “One More Chance”, “Stay With Me”, “Cryin’ My Heart Out For You”, an alternate version of one of my favourite songs “Touch Me In The Morning”, and the theme from the 1980 film “It’s My Turn”, starring Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh. Ironic title really, as this could have been written for her pending departure from Motown following a reputed $20 million deal with Capitol/RCA. As you know, the album was re-issued during 2003, with additional tracks, including a pair of previously unissued titles “Share Some Love” and “We’re Always Saying Goodbye”. So, as the music gently flows in the background, let’s TCB…

While I was looking through Keith Rylatt’s “Hitsville!” book, I noticed a picture of a serious looking young guy standing next to Earl Van Dyke. Also in the picture were smiling faces from Dave Godin, Robert White, Jack Ashford, Uriel Jones and TMAS member Steve. This reminded me of the man I knew when I flew Motown’s publicity flag working out of EMI Records’ London offices, and he was vice president of the Motown International Division also based in the city, a short walk away. Yeh, I’m talking about Peter Prince!

So, I thought I’d re-visit a chat I had with him which covered not only what his job entailed, but how he got into the business in the first place. I recall it was meant to be an hour’s session to contribute to Motown’s 30th anniversary promotional activities, but it lasted three and, I suspect, could have extended beyond that. As the purpose of the Division he headed up was relatively unknown outside their offices, he explained he worked closely with Motown/USA, reporting directly to Lee Young Snr, and was responsible for all territories outside the States. The offices could have been situated anywhere in the world, he said, but as the UK was closest to Europe, London seemed the most appropriate place to be. “As we’re responsible for doing licensing deals outside America, my job is to make sure everything is in accordance with our agreements, and to ensure artists and records are released and marketed correctly” he told me. He added that sometimes it was necessary to push local companies to encourage them to do the very best for his artists, but, generally speaking, he enjoyed a great working relationship with all licensees. On top of ensuring releases were overseen, Peter’s office also co-ordinated artist visits and phone interviews, which often became complicated, when different countries wanted different artists. And this was on top of me putting in requests for the same thing. So, imagine the pressure when an A-list artist released a new album across the territory – we were all vying for the same person!

Born in London, but living in Essex at the time of the interview, Peter grew up with music, mastered playing the drums, with ambitions to become a jazz musician. He left school to work as an office boy in the publicity department of the film company, Republic Pictures, where he stayed until he joined the RAF as a gunner. Three years on, he was demobbed and joined EMI Records’ press office, but all the while supplemented his income by playing the drums. From EMI he switched to Pye Records, before returning to EMI as a promotion manager. Then came the Motown connection, as Peter gradually built up a solid working relationship with Mrs Esther Edwards. To prove this he showed me letters from her including one about The Supremes who had recently visited London, thanking him for taking care of them during their stay. The letters also made reference to the fees from the BBC for two screenings of the “Baby Love” promotional film totalling £39 7s 6d for each showing, and, as the Top Of The Pops studio was in Manchester in those days, the plane fares were £22 for two people. From the paperwork, 1964 was indeed a busy year because The Miracles visited London and stayed at the President Hotel, Kim Weston appeared with The Beatles on Ready, Steady, Go, Martha and the Vandellas charted in the New Musical Express listing with “Dancing In The Street”, and Record Mirror presented The Supremes with an award for “Baby Love” which had topped the UK chart. “I worked with all the artists at that time…they were a great example for Motown. There were no problems and they were always on time.” They were also well organised, keen to do anything that was asked of them to promote their music and the company – “I wouldn’t say they were ordinary people because they were exceptionally groomed on stage and off, and were real professionals even though most of them were at the beginning of their careers.”

The sixties were the perfect learning curve for Peter, for not only was he on hand at the start of the Motown’s gradual breakthrough in the UK, but his hard work and dedication paid off when he was offered the position of vice president of the international office – “Being offered (this) was something I’d always dreamed of because of my early association with the company.” He went from strength to strength, moving with Motown as it lost its newness to become a major player in the music business. One of the biggest changes that he later noticed though was the company’s lack of control over its acts. “When I was first here, (Motown) had its own management which worked really well, and I think it was beneficial for new artists because they were groomed and trained to become good performers.” However, times changed, and with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye not only taking control of their careers, but also their music with the release of concept albums, an unheard of phenomenon at the time, and new signings being self-sufficient, Motown had little choice but to bow down to the new demands.

In time, Motown International took over responsibility for Jobete about which Peter confirmed, “If we didn’t have it our publishing would have to be handled by another company. Now we hold a catalogue of fifteen thousand working titles. The songs seem timeless…and record producers are regularly made aware of Jobete’s wealth by sample albums featuring one minute of all the songs available.” Out of the one hundred albums in the national chart, he said, at least twenty hold a Jobete title. Big business indeed, and one he didn’t want to let go!

One thing that had bugged me was – what happened when, say, the UK didn’t want to release a single Motown/US had, and wanted to choose a title of its own. Well, this is where Peter stepped in to agree or not, an alternative release, while citing it had a massive drawback. “If a territory wants to release a different single it puts extra pressure on that territory to make it a hit. If it doesn’t happen, I try to treat it as an occupational hazard.” On the other hand, if the UK, or any of the territories, followed the American lead, and didn’t chart the music, it was so frustrating. Giving examples of Smokey Robinson’s “Just To See Her” and Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons”, Peter felt both were hit titles but really needed the artists to visit to give them the push they needed. When that didn’t happen, the singles were lost and, of course, the knock on effect meant lower album sales. “I get worried when records are not successful, but that’s part of this business, and something I have to live with.” When Marvin Gaye left the company, Peter was devastated, because he’d built up a great working and personal relationship with him. “As a person I got on with him very well and got to know him better when he recorded his ‘In Our Lifetime’ album over here. …His talent outshone any discrepancies in his character.” He was also upset when Diana Ross left for pastures new, although was thankful Motown had a huge catalogue of her work, some of which was, at the time, unreleased.

I could go on and on, but with limited space, hope these few words about Peter Prince has shed some light on what the Motown International Division was all about during the eighties, and although there’s more to this marathon session with him, hope I’ve selected the more interesting parts. Incidentally, some of the quotes were published in B&S 502. Sadly, Peter passed away on 18 January 2011, at the age of 73 years, in Florida. He had been frail following extensive cancer treatments, then fell and broke his hip. A memorial service was held at St Patrick’s Church in London’s Soho Square, on 16 June, followed by the wake at Ronnie Scott’s Club. A move he clearly would have approved of, don’t you think? This quietly spoken, unflappable man, was a delight to work with, and, boy, did he know his business. Motown was so lucky to have him taking care of their business.

And last but not least, just to give you the heads up about Peter Benjaminson’s new hardback book “Super Freak: The Life Of Rick James” published this month. This follows the singer’s own 2007 autobiography “The Confessions Of Rick James – Memoirs Of A Super Freak” which was a fascinating read but probably one-sided according to Peter, as, for instance, Rick left out several incidents that reflected badly on his character. So, for his new book, Peter has pulled on court records, newspaper archives and interviews with Rick’s family, friends, lovers and group members, to present a more rounded story. Can’t wait to read it. Priced around the £24.99 figure on most websites, this is the author’s third book about Motown artists (Mary Wells and Florence Ballard), not forgetting his much respected “The Story of Motown” from 1979.

That’s it for this month, so do join me again in a few weeks’ time when we’ll keep the Motown flag flying as high as we can.