My apologies for being late this month – blame it on the boogie, that’s all I can say. So let’s TCB……. I was astonished to learn that in its first year in London Motown:The Musical has recouped its £5.5 million costs in a mere twenty-eight weeks. Not only that, bookings are being taken through to February next year. Does this mean, the musical has performed better in London than New York? Well, according to some critics, the UK production is slicker and, in some instances, better cast. This has slightly confused me, as with hand on heart, would have said it was the other way round. At least that’s what I felt when I saw the British show on 27 February last year. Anyhows, I’m planning to see Dreamgirls next month at the Savoy Theatre, which, I’m told will blow me away, so watch this space, because it’ll take a mighty big wind to do that! Although this show – very (very) loosely based around the story of The Supremes – is packed to the gunnels for most performances so it doesn’t seem to have affected ticket sales for Motown:The Musical, proving, of course, the sound of Young America never dies. Let’s move on..
It wasn’t difficult to choose the music this time – as will become apparent as you read on – because I’ve loved this album from the first day of its release in January 1965. It’s the group’s first official Motown release – “Four Tops” written and produced in the main by Holland, Dozier, Holland. Kicking off with “Baby I Need Your Loving”, released in July 1964 as a single: that wonderful, hypnotic ballad so full of love and warmth. We move into the equally mesmerising “Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile), another single in the November, followed by “Where Did You Go?”. This leads into the third single on the trot “Ask The Lonely” penned by Ivy Jo Hunter/Mickey Stevenson, with a single release in January 1965. In between, there’s “Your Love Is Amazing”, “Love Has Gone” and “Call On Me”, with two further Hunter/Stevenson compositions “Don’t Turn Away” and “Tea House In China Town”, ending with Marv Johnson’s “Left With A Broken Heart”. Adding support vocals are, naturally, The Andantes, and that all important music from the Funk Brothers. Motown at its mighty best! My original album is rather worn from constant plays over the decades, but happily it was re-issued a few times so have back up copies when this one finally disintegrates.
Last week a film crew from a London university came to my house in East Sussex so’s I could contribute my bit to a documentary Charlene Campbell is shooting about early Motown in the UK. Due to the ongoing train problems in my area, getting to London is still very hit and miss, so Charlene and her three assistants drove to me, which I thought was really above and beyond. Lynne Pemberton, who ran The Temptations fan club, joined us. Anyway, after chatting away about my involvement with Motown during the sixties, it got me thinking about how I actually came across the music that inspired a generation of youngsters at the time, and how that same sound has continued to live through future generations and decades. As far as I know, it was Dusty Springfield who opened my eyes to this new kind of soul music, and with her influence, and that of Dave Godin who spearheaded the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, I was hooked. What my actual first Motown record was now escapes me, but am thinking I started my collection with the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” in 1965, which in turn led me to investigate other artists from this mysterious label in Detroit. So I started my journey with a successful act and then worked my way back to those acts nobody – outside cult or underground fans – had heard of, much to our shame. As record shops in my locality didn’t stock any type of black music, let alone Motown, I placed a repeat order at my local shop for any disc carrying the Tamla Motown label. So that was in 1965: my, I had a lot of catching up to do! Later on, I’d travel to London on the train (yup! steam trains weren’t prone to strikes) to shop in Soul City where a large stock of imported Motown records could be found, blowing my hard earned money in one fabulous musical fest.
Anyway, that got me thinking about the Four Tops fan club which I started on 20 January 1968, the same year, I believe, as individual clubs opened up across the UK for several other acts, like Jimmy Ruffin, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and so on. With Hitsville’s Margaret Phelps’ help in sending over photos and bits and pieces which were reproduced for club members, the annual membership fee of 5 shillings, I believe, in hindsight, the club was pretty good for what it was. No coloured visuals though: way too expensive! Believe it or not, sitting on my desk is a copy of my first newsletter: one of those stencil-type thingies which I ran off at my place of work once everyone had gone home. Here’s the first paragraph – and it’s so twee, but, so me! “This is a great occasion for Levi, Duke, Larry, Obie and myself, as this is the first newsletter of the official Four Tops Fan Club of Great Britain. We welcome you all with open arms and hope you enjoy your stay! We also want to thank you very warmly for your support. Every member will be a part of the huge Motown Family and, with your help, I want to spread the name of the Four Tops all over the country – then everyone will know of our tremendous, exciting and fantastic foursome!” Then there’s some blurb about how much needed to be done before getting to the first newsletter, and the promise that I was dealing with memberships as quickly as I could. This meant I didn’t have time to answer individual letters (remember I had a full time job) so I recruited the assistance of Bernadette from Dartford, Kent, who was well known to the group. Also my mum helped me collate and staple the newsletters together, and then carry the few hundred bulging envelopes to the nearby box which must have delighted the postman no end!
I was able to thank my mum sometimes for her help because should the Four Tops, or any other group/act for that matter perform in Brighton (which was the nearest town to Uckfield where we lived) I’d get tickets. I recall one show in The Dome, Brighton where, after the group had left stage, mum and I hi-tailed it to the stage door, where, after flashing our fan club cards, we were ushered into their dressing room. The guys made such a wonderful fuss of us, shared their champagne and chatted away like we’d known them for years. I was so proud and pleased and, I think, deep down so was mum. Then we realised my dad was waiting in the car outside the theatre to take us home. Hell’s bells, did we get it in the neck: he wasn’t happy. We were though – full of champagne and Four Tops love!
When the individual fan clubs closed, and with the blessing of the guys in Detroit and EMI Records in London, Motown Ad Astra was born in 1969, the year several of the secretaries, including myself, moved to London to live at 34B Sherborne Gardens, Ealing, W13. So, with our very own stencil printer in the lounge, the industry of promoting Motown began in earnest. Once again, we all had full time jobs, so evenings, weekends (and sick days!) were crammed with Motown – answering letters, writing our little TCB magazine, listening to records (many of which were mailed directly from Detroit until the import duty was higher than the cost of the actual vinyl). Financing MAA was through an annual membership fee but also we contributed a percentage of our salaries to keep us afloat. Aw, devotion way and above eh? However, EMI Records were overly generous with merchandise, records and concert tickets, on the understanding that when any act arrived in London, they were given our contact details. We either met them at the airport, or, if they hadn’t touched base beforehand, contacted them within a couple of days of their landing. It was through this unofficial path that we were so lucky to befriend a lot of artists like Jimmy Ruffin, Martha and her Vandellas, The Temptations, The Supremes (although Diana Ross was rarely with Mary and Cindy). Then, in the years that followed with Blues & Soul, I was so lucky to continue those friendships, plus make new ones, every one I cherish.
I’ve also found in my treasure trove of goodies, an interview Jackie Lee, Lynne Pemberton and myself gave to one of the magazines during the late sixties. It’s now sepia in colour, rather dog eared but still readable (thank goodness I had the foresight to stick it to a piece of cardboard). Under the title “Pete Meets The Fan Club Secretaries”, the journalist claimed “MAA is a fan’s best friend”. In case you’re interested in what the article was all about, here’s a few lines from the opening paragraph, when we said, “When The Temptations were over here recently, Otis came round to the flat for a cuppa. We also set out a plate of biscuits. Otis proceeded to take a bite from each biscuit until he found one that suited his taste.” What!!!! I laughingly remembered when I first met Mary Wilson, which I assume was after the trio’s performance at Talk of the Town. “I was talking to her through the window of her car, then she began rolling up the window, not knowing that my hand was inside. It wasn’t so funny at the time though.” I can explain why my hand was where it was. I had a small arrangement of flowers to give to her, while another two in my party had similar flowers each to give to Diana and Cindy. They had no problem – and no sore hand!
And on that note, that’s it for this month. Isn’t it ironic how so many memories can flood back from an interview in my dining room? Oh sure, there’s plenty more, but another time, or maybe I will get serious about writing an autobiography of sorts. Who knows.
Thank you for your continued support and do keep on flying the Motown flag.
It is with profound sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of my dear fellow Aquarian friend and colleague, the great Mr. Leon Ware. One of the most talented music men I ever had the privilege to interview and get to know, Leon always provided great opportunities for conversations about life, sex and music. When we found out that our birthdays were a day apart, that further cemented a bond that began back in 1976 when we did our first interview for Britain’s Blues & Soul magazine, reprinted here.
One of my fondest memories of Leon was watching him enchant an audience in Paris in July 2009, just a few months after I came back to live in London. He was simply magnificent, weaving his musical magic through songs from his then-latest album “Moon Ride” as well as doing his versions of songs that had been recorded by others, most memorably Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” the title track of the classic 1976 LP that Leon had originally recorded for himself (that he then produced on Marvin), “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded by so many
greats including Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and others), “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (cut by Michael Jackson and Zulema among others), “Inside My Love,” cut by Minnie Riperton and later revived by Trina Broussard. Leon’s work with contemporary soul man Maxwell resulted in the hypnotic “Sumthin’ Sumethin'” and there’s no doubt that Leon’s timeless recordings (think “Rockin’ You Eternally,” “That’s Why I Came To California”) impacted
later generations: his music was often sampled by rap and hip-hop artists who loved the sensual textures that were at the very heart of his art.
There is so much more I could say about Leon: he was funny, smart, naughty, spiritual, profound and yet always real. You can listen to a great inteview we did in 2013 that gives just a taste of the kind of conversations we had. My thoughts today are of the great times we spent together over many years, of seeing him in action on stage and the easy-flowing conversations we had. My deepest love, blessings and prayers go to his wonderful wife Carol and his family. His spirit lives on through his unforgettable work.
RIP, my Aquarian brother.
February 23, 2017
Motown’s Musical Masseur
By David Nathan, February 1977
(C) SoulMusic.com, 2017
Some guys get all the best album sleeve sessions! With his “Musical Massage” set, Leon Ware has come to the fore of Motown’s influx on new recording talent, to follow his success as a songwriter and producer with many of Soul’s favourite sons and daughters…
IN THEIR efforts to broaden their own musical horizon in the past eighteen months, Motown have certainly unearthed some dynamic new talent. Via his debut album for the company, Leon Ware has certainly proven to be one of them and although the “Musical Massage” album hasn’t exactly set the charts on fire, the critics have favourably reviewed it and that usually suggests that a new star is in its ascendency.
Despite this being Leon’s first actual recording success, it is neither his first recording experience and nor is it his first taste of actual success because he has been a prominent songwriter and record producer for the past decade.
“I’ve been involved in music for all but three of my thirty six years,” Leon points out. “Admittedly, it wasn’t until I was twenty three that I really became involved.”
The story really begins in 1954 when, in his home town of Detroit, he formed a little vocal group called the Romeos — and the group included Lamont Dozier and Ty Hunter, who is now one of the Originals of “Down To Love Town” and “Baby I’m For Real” fame. It seems that the trio had been at the same school together — along with, apparently, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. However, after three years, the group split up — with Lamont going more into songwriting/producing and Ty into solo work.
Having finished school — and having met and turned down Berry Gordy — Leon signed with ABC and stayed there for almost four fruitless years. It left a sour taste in his mouth and he returned to regular commerce until 1964 when he finally accepted a post with the growing Motown company.
And it was during that one year stay that he had his first taste of success — as a songwriter for the Isley Brothers’ “Got To Have You Back” hit.
In 1965, he joined Groovesville Music in an independent production capacity and worked with the Holidays, Pat Lewis and Terri Bryant during a two year stretch. From there, he moved on to another disappointing spell — three years with Bell and many of the projects simply were not released.
It was at the end of 1969 that he started working with the Righteous Brothers — just before their split. He also was involved in some of the things on the MGM distributed Venture label on acts such as Johnny Nash and Kim Weston.
The year between summer of ’69 and mid-’70, Leon concentrated on writing and in 1970 he started to write with Bob Hilliard — until the latter’s untimely death in 1972. However, one of the songs that they wrote together was “Come L’Amore”, a song that did some business for Bobby Womack and that, incidentally, Leon is currently recording on an Italian artiste, Laura St. Paul.
Leon moved on to work with Ike & Tina Turner and wrote most of the material on their ‘”Nuff Said” album It was during this era that he recorded his own first album for U.A.
1973 saw him working for A&M and trams involved with Quincy Jones. Leon was involved in the “Body Heat” album, writing such songs as “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” and “Body Heat” itself. Leon considers that “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” is one of his best compositions yet and is especially proud of the way Donny Hathaway handled it on his “Extensions Of A Man” album for Atco.
But it wasn’t until 1975 that Leon came home to Motown and that’s really where it has all happened for him. His main claim to recent fame comes via his involvement in the Marvin Gaye album, “I Want You”.
“Some of the songs had been recorded for my own solo album but when Marvin Gaye heard it, he wanted them and I was more than pleased to turn it over to him completely,” Leon explains. “That’s really why there is such a similarity between the sound of my “Musical Massage” album and the “I Want You” album.
“It’s similar because it is my concept that was turned over to Marvin — and I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it, I can tell you. I think I respect Marvin as a man and a talent more than anybody else in the business. It’s certainly enhanced my career and I’m proud to add that it’s been the biggest album in Marvin’s career, too.
“It’s funny, too, because I was also heavily involved with Quincy Jones’ biggest album. I have just completed an album on Syreeta and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the trick can work for her, too.”
Although the “Musical Massage” album was begun in 1975, it wasn’t until the spring of 1976 that it was completed.
“I had recorded “I Want You” and “All The Way Around” for my own album and they were among the first ones we did. The co-producer, by the way, was T-Boy Ross, who is Diana’s brother and whose real name is Arthur. Anyway, at the same session, we cut “Instant Love” (a song that Leon had written in earlier years with Bob Hilliard and which had been recorded by the Main Ingredient earlier on), “Share Your Love” and “Body Heat”.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the album is its provocative sleeve — and you can see the full photo on this page and you’ll better understand my choice of words!
“Yes, it is a sensual concept,” Leon admitted gently. “But it says it all, doesn’t it? Love, hate, sex, religion. One reviewer called it the most motivated sleeve in a while.
“The model’s name is Azerzee Houri and she’s been on several other album sleeves in the past. She was a centrefold in “Playboy” last year, you know. And that’s me there, too — they are my hands! Yes, I guess they could persuade me to do a centrefold for “Playgirl” — I’m not the inhibited kind, you see!”
However, one of the lesser broadcast facts about the “Musical Massage” album is that it features guest spots by Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack.
Currently, Leon is heavily involved in two projects. Firstly, there is the album that he has been recording in Milan, Italy on Laura St. Paul and that’s what will bring him to London during February. And he is just completing his own second album.
“It’s going to be called “The Whole World Is My Home” and it deals with the same basic realities,” he enthuses. “It should be out in April and by that time, “Musical Massage” should have died down.”
But his forthcoming trip to London will be his first and he is thrilled about the way that he has been accepted over here already. Given the breaks, Leon could certainly develop into being another of Motown’s new-wave superstars.
Listen to David’s “Voice Your Choice” interview with Leon from 2008
Welcome to the first column of the new year and, needless to say, hope we’ll spend the next twelve months together talking Motown and related issues. In the aftermath of suffering from this awful cough lurgy, I decided I needed to ease my way into this 2017 debut, so unearthed a CD I’d long forgotten – “Strung Out” from Gordon Staples and the String Thing. First issued on the Motown label in September 1970, the version I’m playing is the Reel Music 2009 reissue and I have to say, it focuses on ‘old school’ musicianship delivered by the finest exponents of Motown inspired music, all under the directorship of the wonderful Paul Riser, about whom Berry Gordy once said – “(He) is one of the great unsung heroes of Motown. His string arrangements, creativity and warmth, on so many songs, created a unique flavour that helped the Motown sound become the Motown Sound.” As a whole, it’s an easy listening journey which was just what I needed today, covering tracks like “Toonie”, “Sounds Of The Zodiac”, “The Look Of Love” and “Someday We’ll Be Together”. Jackie Hicks, Louvain Demps and Marlene Barrow provided their oh-so distinctive vocals to several tracks, including the last named title, while the musicians, of course, were Motown’s finest, like James Jamerson, Dennis Coffey, Earl Van Dyke and Jack Ashford, joined by violins, violas, cellos and harps, with the resulting rich, full sound that ebbs and flows, easing tensions in an unhurried fashion. And that’s just the job this afternoon.
Gordon Staples penned the album’s original sleeve notes to mention the following – “In a symphony orchestra of 105 musicians, 65 are string players. There is hardly a musical composition that is not enhanced by a string section. The sound of strings has a wide range of colour that is without boundaries – all the way from Mahler to Leroy Anderson. Come along with us and get ‘Strung Out’, for the sound you will hear in this album is yet another example of our ‘String Thing’”. And, he’s so right: strings do sing! Together with playing for Berry Gordy, Gordon was, as you know, the concert master of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and of course was much in demand. Anyway, this Reel Music release was dedicated to his memory, as Gordon died in 1990, and what made this an even more special release was the involvement of his widow, Beatrix, who provided visuals and anecdotes. Do check it out if you’ve missed it… Let’s move on…
With every new year, Motown fans – me included – start speculating about what the next few months have to offer. What I’ve read so far is that “The Early Motown EPs – Volume 2” box set will be available from Universal this month, featuring discs from The Contours, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. Check out the relevant websites for further information including price. It seems Spectrum could have five further classic albums available during March; well, according to Amazon that is, while Ace/Kent have yet to make any announcement. Meantime, we’ve been treated to “Motown Unissued 1966” but as a digital release only – darn it. Anyway, have been listening to the trio of Chris Clark tracks included, namely, “Never Trust A Man”, “I Still Love You” and “Never Stop Loving Me” which are remarkably vital and so typically Motown. A valid trip into the past and one I know she’s rather pleased about.
That reminds me, as I’ve mentioned Ms Clark, she’s involved in a charity single organised by Paul Stuart Davies titled “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”. Other contributing artists are Tommy Hunt, Dean Parrish, Sidney Barnes, Pat Lewis, Johnny Boy, The Signatures and, of course, Paul. A rousing, happy live recording bursting with enthusiasm, and wrapped in love, with sale proceeds earmarked for Wigan DJ Jon Bates, who is wheelchair bound and desperately needs to raise £30,000 for a life-changing operation that’s only performed in America. So, a very worthy cause for sure. “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” can be downloaded now but those of you who’d like to own a vinyl copy, here’s the link http://thesignatures.co.uk/product/northern-soul-survivors-single/ It’s a terrific version and I wish all concerned the best in raising much needed funds to help Jon become whole again.
Now some belated sad news… Our thoughts are with the family of Sylvester Potts, a member of The Contours from almost day one, who recently died in a Detroit hospital following a battle against cancer and alzheimers. He joined the group around 1961, following the release of their debut single for Motown. The Berry Gordy penned “Do You Love Me” elevated The Contours into US R&B stardom, but, due to the nature of the record buying market, that was their biggest seller despite following it with cracking sounds like “Can You Do It” and (my all-time favourite) “Just A Little Misunderstanding.” If you need reminding of their music, do check out Kent’s compilation of unissued material on “Dance With The Contours 1963-1964”, you’ll not be disappointed I promise. From recorded music to live performances…
Moving on to October this year, there’s a planned five day event titled “Detroit A-Go-Go”, celebrating the best in Northern Soul and Motown, at the St Regis Hotel, Detroit, a spit away from the Hitsville building. Participating artists so far include The Velvelettes, The Elgins, Ronnie McNeir, Spyder Turner, The Dynamics and Pat Lewis. It appears top DJs pharmacy-no-rx.net from the UK, Europe and America have also been booked, and there’s a guided tour of the city, a visit into the Hitsville studio, and a record fair, included in the package. That’s all I know for now, but for more information, visit www.detroitagogo.com. However, be aware it’s rather expensive and air fares aren’t included in the prices as far as I can see.
Now to the written word, and Keith Rylatt’s much talked about book “Hitsville – The Birth Of Tamla Motown”, recently published by Modus, the first title in the company’s publishing arm. You know the story behind the book I’m sure, but briefly, it’s come about following the discovery of a carrier bag of photos and memorabilia dating back to the early sixties, which had been hidden for nearly fifty years, following the passing of Clive Stone, one of the founding members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. And, my, wouldn’t they have been so chuffed to see this book, packed full of historical data that’s treasured by stalwart Motown followers. By the way, I popped by the preview exhibition of the book’s launch in London, briefly met Keith (whose work I’m familiar with having read and reviewed his “CENtral 1179” about the Twisted Wheel Club, which he co-penned with Phil Scott), but due to a mishap with the publisher’s computing system, have only recently received “Hitsville”. However, have now had plenty of time to give it a dedicated, uninterrupted read, and was instantly transported to the early sixties when Motown was testing the musical water in the UK. I won’t go into great detail as you know the early history as well as I do, but what struck me immediately was the all consuming enthusiasm and fired determination, spearheaded by Dave Godin and the TMAS, to promote this young new sound from Detroit. With no internet, it was purely word of mouth, letter by mail, or talk via the phone, and with a relentless energy, Dave and others left no stone unturned to spread the word with Berry Gordy’s blessing.
I’m thinking “Hitsville” is almost the UK equivalent to Al Abrams’ wonderful tome “Hype And Soul!” published in September 2011 by Templestreet Publishing, because Al generously shared his tireless hustling to secure news coverage in a white dominated media system. With so much material to choose from, Keith Rylatt has wisely used the book’s pages to the full, while retaining the historical beauty and significance of the originals. For example, there’s personal letters to and from Dave Godin, newspaper cuttings, advertisements, readers’ letters and reviews, snuggling up with Clive’s breath taking selection of exclusive visuals, many of which are on public show for the first time. All credit then to Stuart Russell, the book’s designer.
As a member of the TMAS, I welcomed the addition of pages from the actual magazines which I’m sorry to say, I no longer have as they, like so much of my memorabilia, got waylaid in my several London moves. Something I’ve always regretted and that’s putting it mildly! Anyway, from the book’s opening chapter “1955 – 1962 From Bexleyheath To Detroit” I knew I was destined for a glorious read through the history of my beloved Motown, and within seconds, was lost in those days of this fledgling company making its first tentative steps on UK soil and the struggle that was to come. From the first concerts and tv appearances, through to the UK Revue and, of course, “The Sound Of Motown” programme which crossed all barriers in British home entertainment, by presenting a black-based prime time music show, hosted by our top girl, Dusty Springfield, herself such a pioneering force for the sound she adopted and adored.
Of course, when the TMAS folded, individual fan clubs were allocated across the UK with myself securing the Four Tops, and when it was decided by Motown US to drop these also, Motown Ad Astra (MAA) was opened, run primarily by myself, Lynne Pemberton, Jackie Lee and Geraldine Jones, from our flat in London’s Ealing. Aw, more memories, trials and tribulations, but all wonderfully good!
Well, what more can I say? “Hitsville! – The Birth Of Tamla Motown” is an all consuming read, an important document of events for fans and curious alike, and shows that without the unmoving commitment and driving tenacity of a few dedicated folks, Motown may have taken just a little longer to cross the British drawbridge. We applaud them with our thanks and love, while thanking Keith and the team for getting it all together for public consumption.
That’s it until next month. Thank you for your continued support and very much look forward to spending this year in your company.
Tell me, why is it that colds, sniffles, coughs and sneezes last so much longer when Christmas Day is looming? Now in my third week, it really is a pathetic, sickly creature writing this but, hey, the show must go on – and Motown is the show! I know what I’ll do, play some Festive songs. “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” is just the job. In between some of the tracks like The Supremes’ “White Christmas”, Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas”, Four Tops’ “Merry Christmas Baby” and The Miracles’ “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, there’s spoken word greetings from some of the contributors. They’re all young voices of course, but the sentiment is there. A splash of tinsel on the grooves! Feeling better already…let’s TCB
The other day I decided to play the “Magic Lady” CD first released in the late eighties and was surprised to hear it’s stood the test of time. And the music reminded me of a chat with Linda Stokes during the time of its release, and the first single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)” which reached the UK top forty, following its American success. Sadly, it was the only one but, hey, for a new act, it was a brilliant result. So, I dug out that interview printed in Blues & Soul, thinking it might be interesting to re-visit my chat and also remind ourselves how the duo got together. Hope you’ll join me on our journey…
Michael Stokes, producer and composer, was the key to Magic Lady: he was also Linda’s husband. It appears his first break came when he was a mere thirteen years old because his mother’s restaurant was opposite Spector Records in New York, and its employees were regular visitors there. “It was part of my life” Michael told a 1988 edition of Voices From The Shadows magazine. ”One day Marvin Schlachter (owner of Prelude Records) came in and I told him I was working on some songs. He fobbed me off for a couple of weeks, but then decided to listen. He thought (they) were very good.” One thing led to another, resulting in Michael being offered a job writing material for him. Moving on to the late sixties, he moved to Detroit to hook up with Eddie Kendricks’ EJK Records, before returning to New York. Long story short, Michael had carved a niche for himself in the business and was subsequently in demand as a producer during the seventies and eighties. Now based in Los Angeles, he successfully worked with Creative Source, Shirley Caesar, Rose Royce and Smokey Robinson, among others.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Hailing from Palmer Woods, Detroit, Michael never knew his biological father because he was murdered while on a visit to the hospital where his son was born. However, as his mother owned a string of restaurants, their future was thankfully financially stable, helping to closet him from the racial tensions that plagued America while he was growing up. He mentioned this in the same interview with the before mentioned magazine. “I went to white schools, and I lived in a Jewish neighbourhood so people weren’t black and white to me. It was only my later education that opened my eyes to what was really going down. I decided my music was the best way I could give people something to alleviate their suffering in whatever small degree.”
Back to the plot. Magic Lady – Linda Stokes, Kimberley Ball and Jackie Steele – was Michael’s brainchild, first signed to Arista Records in 1980. From here they switched to A&M where they enjoyed a US R&B hit “Hot And Sassy”, and a UK specialist soul hit with “Hold Tight”. Then came Michael’s licensing deal with Berry Gordy via his MS International Productions set up, where Magic Lady, now minus Kimberly Ball, was one of several acts included in the deal.
I had in fact spoken to Michael prior to chatting with Linda, and he told me Magic Lady’s eponymous album was a women’s album for women. When it was in the embryonic stages, Linda, Michael and Jackie had actually discussed the project at length, as Linda told me “We have a democratic attitude when we work. Jackie and myself both think alike…it’s almost as if our brains are locked into each other.” When they all came up with identical ideas, they knew they were onto a winner. However, working and living with her husband must cause problems I thought, but not so, because they never took their work home and, she laughed, she let him win their arguments. “But basically, we think alike, so arguments don’t happen that often!”
Linda and Jackie are Detroiters. Linda caught the singing bug in high school, while Jackie’s father was a minister, so was raised in a gospel environment. However, both were avidly aware of Motown and dreamed one day of joining the company. “It’s such a great feeling being with (them). I believe we have a good union and hopefully that relationship will work for us both. Everything seems to be going to plan right now and we’re excited about what’s happening. Performing comes easily because it’s fun.”
So, let’s talk music, and the “Magic Lady” album which, she said at the time, was a different type of project for Motown which, she believed, would surprise a lot of people. They worked on it for over three months because the intention was to release a concept work that carried a theme throughout. “It’s a personal album and when we were turning it around it felt we were holding conversations with music. We wanted it to reflect today’s attitude about love and chose not to bring sex or drugs into it.” Sticking to romance was better, they believed, keeping their ideas ‘clean’ and acceptable. Preaching to listeners was also not on their agenda. “We wanted stories that touched the heart. It’s hard for us to write gimmicky lyrics because our songs have to mean something to us first if we’re going to effectively convey them to people.” Anyway, I think the result speaks for itself because apart from the terrific debut single “Betcha Can’t Lose (With My Love)”, I instantly fell in love with “Misty-Eyed” and “Summer Love”. In fact, there wasn’t a lot I didn’t like and that still holds strong today. However, what caught my eye was the album’s packaging – the piercing green eyes that appear on the front cover. You feel drawn to them because they follow you around. Or is it my cold medication kicking in?! Then I also noticed that Berry Gordy was credited as executive producer; not a cosmetic title either Linda explained, because his input was invaluable. “It was a daunting prospect working with him but he is so respected by everyone that I soon lost my nervousness.”
To round off this musical re-visit, I must mention that Linda was also a dress designer, and this would have been her chosen career if music hadn’t beckoned. An example of her work can be seen on the reverse side of the album sleeve. Wherever she went, so did her sketch pad, just in case. Oh lor, as always, I seem to have written more than I had originally planned but nonetheless, hope it’s of interest and, perhaps, re-kindled a little curiosity to play the ladies’ music again. It was just by chance that I spotted the CD in my collection and thought – why not?
Just one more item before leaving. As it’s now in the public domain, and as I made mention of this project last time, there was an exclusive luncheon presentation at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Beverly Hills, California, just recently to officially announce plans for the Motown Museum Expansion project due to open in 2019. Among the VIP guests was SoulMusic.com’s own David Nathan, who, as a member of the panel of experts, spoke about the profound impact Motown made on the world. “Motown is one of the best imports this country has produced,” he said in his speech. Hosted by company vice president Iris Gordy, she introduced her cousin Robin Terry, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the museum, after taking over the role from her grandmother (the late) Esther Gwen Gordy. Over time, Robin transformed Hitsville USA into a world-class museum attraction for Motown fans the world over. Although Berry Gordy wasn’t in attendance, many of the seventy or so guests spoke about him and the music empire he created, including members of his family, Suzanne DePasse, and other industry figures. Motowners in attendance included Scherrie Payne, Betty Kelley, Janie Bradford, Mable John, Mary Wilson, Claudette Robinson, Eddie Holland, Brenda Holloway and Charlene. So now you know. Fabulous, just fabulous!
Well, the Christmas CD has been re-played a couple of times since I started this and I must say it’s cheered me immensely. Marvin Gaye singing “Christmas In The City” to be followed by The Temptations’ “Silent Night”. No better way to close this last column of 2016 than with the beautiful voices of these guys.
So, all that’s left for me to say is a very Happy Christmas to you all, where I’m hoping you’ll spend time with your family and closest loved ones. For all those people who are working over the Festive period in a variety of jobs, keeping us safe, and tending to the sick and less fortunate, thank you so much for your dedication. To wish you a successful and healthy 2017 goes without saying, and I’d like to think there will be peace on earth for us all as well. Although it seems grossly inadequate, thank you for keeping the Motown faith this year; you really are a treasured bunch of people and it’s been a real treat for me to have met so many of you during the past twelve months.
Motown is yesterday; Motown is today, and Motown is tomorrow.