Motown Spotlight - March 2019

Motown Spotlight – March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NEW FEATURE! SOULMUSIC GLOBAL PLAYLIST FOR MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT!

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT (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.