MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT - August 2019

MOTOWN SPOTLIGHT – August 2019

It’s been a sizzling bank holiday weekend in more ways than one.  Not only have we enjoyed unprecedented temperatures but we’ve had Motown music scorching the airwaves. At long last national radio celebrated the 60th birthday.  BBC Radio 2 opened its frequency with non-stop music and chatting company artists. The Motown countdown kicked off at noon today (Monday) with Craig Charles and the UK’s top one hundred, followed by Trevor Nelson – who I’m listening to now –  as he picks up the next top fifty singles. “Superstition” was the number one downloaded/streamed  song – which is a blinding track – but did surprise me a little. I’m thinking his recent concert here embedded him in the public’s mind, hence his runaway popularity in the top one hundred.  The early evening session has Ken Bruce spinning Motown cover versions, before Richard Searling highlights the company’s connections with Northern Soul. Then Lionel Richie talks to Johnnie Walker in the early hours: sorry guys, it’ll be without this gal!  All programmes are available via the BBC website though.

Other bank holiday weekend high spots included Stevie Wonder’s live 2005 concert at the Abbey Road Studios, a couple of Tony Blackburn programmes and the history of Motown narrated by Marshall Chess.   I was going to write that it’s about time the BBC acknowledged this incredible music celebration, much of which formed the backdrop to our lives.  Then stopped myself:  research for this Motown Weekend was plainly extensive, particularly with artists’ interviews linking the music.  I then also reminded myself, this was the radio conglomerate run by repressed bureaucrats, who, before pirate stations taught them a harsh lesson, wouldn’t entertain giving airtime to black artists, let alone an entire record company crammed to bursting with talent that, in some ways, changed the way music was recorded and presented.  By saying that, I certainly take no credit away from The Beatles who, it’s probably fair to say, changed the entire music industry on several levels.  So, well done the BBC – you got there in the end!

Club DJs up and down the country also paid homage during the past couple of days, while local radios, like 59.9 Hailsham FM, where I present a Motown/Soul show each Saturday evening, have taken the chance to extend the birthday celebrations, although to be honest, we’ve been celebrating since January!  Why not? A birthday doesn’t have to be confined to one day does it?  I applaud you all and only hope that by some quirk Berry Gordy gets to learn about our dedicated support.

Narrated by Ryan Mandrake and presented by 3DD Productions for Sky Arts, I had the misfortune to watch “Music Icons: Diana Ross and the Supremes” yesterday.  It is thirty minutes of my life I won’t get back. The  programme lacked enthusiasm; the handful of talking heads, whom I didn’t know, barely cracked a smile as they adopted a monotone commentary attitude about several of the trio’s releases in chronological order (with no little anecdotes that we love to hear about) while the latter part of the programme centred around Diana Ross as a singer and actress.  All rushed, particularly the visuals, and irresponsibly edited, it certainly did not befit one of the world’s most successful black female trios of all time. What a waste of an opportunity.   On the upside though…word has it that there’s at least two Marvin Gaye documentaries in the works, and that a BBC4 tv programme has recently been completed on Ready Steady Go for autumn transmission.  I’m not sure which anniversary it’s celebrating, and the person I was talking to was pretty vague, so a quick recce across the internet resulted in these dates: show pilot – 16 July 1963; series start – 9 August 1963; series end – 23 December 1966.  I’m none the wiser, but who needs anniversaries anyway!

Talking of The Supremes, Mary Wilson was in town recently promoting Supreme Glamour, published this month by Thames & Hudson, the same company behind Adam White’s ground breaking Motown: The Sound Of Young America.  I caught Mary on The One Show where she was animated and entertaining with her co-guest Robert Rinder, who appeared bemused most of the time. Anyway,  Mary’s coffee table book was co-penned by Mark Bego, whose work is familiar to us all with publications on Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and, of course, he co-authored Martha Reeves’ sterling autobiography Dancing In The Street, a much respected diary which isn’t far from my desk even now.  Martha’s dedication to detail is awesome, while, on occasion, her honesty is heart breaking.

With a foreward by Whoopi Goldberg – a lady who bubbles over with all things entertaining, while being a leading figure in civil rights, LGBT and other causes she believes deserve a public voice – Supreme Glamour readers enter the world of home-made frocks to designer gowns, celebrating The Supremes’ rise to fame through fashion rather than song. Alongside well publicised visuals there’s a huge amount of exclusive pictures indicating how the group’s brand was developed.  We travel through the stoic poses of the early line up, with photos taken wearing those heavy necklaces and suits, through to the frilly blouses and pleated skirts, t-shirts and slacks.  The conservative-styled dresses eventually explode into the rich, sumptuous gowns bedecked in glass beads, sequins,  pearls, and all in glorious hip hugging colour, which became their trademark. Utilising the talents of some of the top designers like Michael Travis and Bob Mackie, The Supremes were probably loved for their stage clothes as much as they were for their music.  Like Motown:The Sound Of Young America, the black/white and coloured visuals are lavishly presented with accompanying detail captions, while the story of the fashionista trio is recounted throughout.  Cover price is £29.95 but available at £18.54 from Amazon.

It’s certainly been a month for book releases as here’s another.  Although I knew my dear friend Graham Betts, who has a penchant for facts and figures, was publishing his long-researched tomes, the thrill is in the holding of the actual book.  The Official Charts: The Sixties is a massive research vehicle, so valuable to people like myself who constantly refer to these sources of information.  Briefly, this book uses the singles charts used by BBC Radio 1, Top Of The Pops and the much-loved industry magazine Music Week.  Listed weekly, they are easy to read, with the artists’ names in bold print. Moving on from these pages, you’ll find EP and album charts covering the same decade.  The Official Singles Hits Book is a companion read, crammed with data, listings of artist by artist hit singles, EPs and albums, brief biographies, awards, honours and sales.   Similar publications covering the Eighties are also available: £20 and £16 respectively.  By the way, Graham is known to us for his 2014 Motown  Encyclopedia, another useful guide to everyone and everything connected with the company.  Actually, I told him with a smile that I was miffed because he beat me to it as I had planned a similar project about the ladies of Motown.  All is fair in love and publishing, of course, and maybe something for another day eh?

Another book that arrived in the post is the revised and updated Lucy O’Brien’s The Classic Biography: Dusty published this month by Michael O’Mara Books.  I’ve got Lucy’s previous two books about the singer and this once features new interviews and photographs.  As the blurb says “Dusty Springfield was one of our greatest pop singers. She was a musical pioneer and the very essence of authentic white soul.”  However, as we know, she played a pivotal role in endorsing Motown over here. Lucy covers this from the time Dusty was a member of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, her friendship with Martha Reeves, working with the artists at The Brooklyn Fox, New York, and, of course, the crème de la crème, The Sound Of Motown which introduced the British public to the magic of the music in their own homes on 28 April 1965.  Dusty attended the opening night of the Motown Revue on 20 March, sitting in the audience of the Astoria, Finsbury Park, with other excited fans. It seemed every soul fan in London turned out that night to celebrate.  When Dusty was asked for her autograph, she said ‘Any other time but not tonight, because I’m here as a fan.”  In a Daily Express review, Ron Boyle applauded the new label – “To counterblast the Liverpool sound along came the Detroit sound known to the ‘in’ crowd as Tamla Motown…The punch of the big beat in a velvet glove.”  Martha Reeves has always given her British friend kudos for promoting the company in the UK. “Any chance she got she’d mention Detroit and the Motown sound.  Lots of things happened after that tour, so she introduced Motown to England.  She can take credit for that.”  The tour may have been a financial disaster but The Sound Of Motown lives on.

Lucy’s book, now with a new cover, covers the singer’s public life of beehives and black mascara, while dipping into how it really was behind the glare of the spotlight.  Using new introduction and interviews with the likes of Tom Jones and Dusty’s music arranger Ivor Raymonde, Lucy offers fresh material to satisfy most Dusty fans, with opinions that are rounded and often different about the shy, awkward convent girl who created a musical brand that crossed from pop into soul music.  Naturally, the ground-breaking album “Dusty In Memphis” is once again highlighted, a release the singer was shy to admit centred her squarely in the soul world.  Since her death, the floodgates opened about her struggle with being gay, her drugs and alcohol addiction, and the darkest secrets of her mental health issues.  I am a firm believer that some aspects of anyone’s personal life shouldn’t be exposed in the public arena, but such is the way of the world today, there’s no such animal as discretion. Besides, didn’t Dusty tell her lifelong friend Pat Rhodes that after her death she would hear things she wouldn’t like. So the singer was very aware!  Having said this, I sincerely hope I kept within the boundaries in my 2008 book A Girl Called  Dusty, but if asked to update this, would my thinking change?

Anyway, the legacy the singer left behind is awesome; her status as a pop icon and soul singer has never been stronger.  Dusty played a vital musical role on several levels, including her beloved Motown.  As Martha is quoted in the book – “Dusty had a positive enthusiasm for the music.  At the same time she didn’t pretend she was the bona-fide article. She acknowledged her roots and often said that she wished she’d been born black.”  Available from Amazon at £13.88.

And finally…one book that really excites me –  Lamont Dozier’s  How Sweet It Is co-penned by Scott B Bomar.  Strictly speaking, it’s not published until October, and I’ve not yet read it but thought I’d squeeze in a mention here. The publicity blurb states the book pulls back the curtain on studio secrets that inspired some of H-D-H’s songs.  “After exploring the struggle of growing up in Detroit and pursuing music, Lamont takes us behind the scenes of the Motown machine, sharing personal stories of his encounters with  Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Berry Gordy. He details the rise of own artistic career, his business and legal struggles, and the personal triumphs and tragedies that defined him. ”  On my bucket list for sure!

Let’s move away from the printed word to the musical note and a quick reminder. As you know, earlier in the year, and using the slogan “Motown Did It First!”, a huge re-issue programme of physical titles were released by Universal Japan to mark the 60th anniversary. A series of new playlists are to be unveiled during the course of the year, alongside further albums.  So, without listing them all, suffice to say it’s a real pot pourie of artists who hit the market place last March, like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”/”Dance Party”);  Grover Washington Jr (“Mister Magic”); “Odyssey”; Edwin Starr (“War And Peace”);  Leon Ware (“Musical Massage”) and others from Earl Van Dyke, The Temptations, Syreeta, The Supremes, Nolen & Crossley and The Spinners. All releases replicate original artwork and album sequences. Yeah, it was quite a list!  Further details, of course, from the “Motown Did It First!” website.  If Japan can admirably steer this incredible collection, why not the UK I wonder?   Anyway, what we have got is “Motown: Greatest Hits”, available this month on vinyl (yay!) and a 3-CD box set. There are 27 tracks on the first, 60 on the second.  No surprises here I guess as it features the hit-making artists – Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, Marvin Gaye and so on. Unless Motown fans want to mark the birthday with this, sales will come from  the curious record buyer, while connoisseurs will be satisfying their souls with the items like the  “Unreleased” compilations available online only.  I use Spotify, it costs nothing and is easily accessible but, to be honest, nothing replaces the physical vinyl/CD.  No wonder, Universal cops for the cheaper method of getting music to the public.

Next month will be devoted to my visit to the Skegness Motown/Northern Soul Weekender where hanging out with Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, Gloria Jones, among others, will be the name of the game.  That’s if I survive the three days, as it’s been &^%$$ years since I attended such an event – and that was with Gloria and Dave Godin –  whereupon I recall sleeping for a week afterwards!

 

 

Motown Spotlight - July 2019

Motown Spotlight – July 2019

I thought it was about time we lent space to another of Motown’s unsung heroes, who rightly deserved their own special niche in the company’s history, but about whom, little or nothing was known at the time, let alone acknowledged. Thankfully, as time passed, company rules were relaxed, with the result that musicians, session singers and the like received their due credit on label copy. So let’s TCB…

They were Motown’s sought-after session singers at the Los Angeles studios, yet, unlike the Andantes for instance, The Blackberries never scored an official single or album release, despite recording sufficient tracks for both. Often uncredited too on other artists releases, Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King and Venetta Fields were finally singled out as contributors to Tom Clay’s milestone 1971 single “What The World Needs Now Is Love”/”Abraham, Martin & John”. A respected DJ on Los Angeles’ KGBS radio station, Clay created the social commentary single to enjoy a somewhat surprising summer hit. Highlighting segregation, bigotry and prejudice on several levels, soundbites of gunfire effects, a drill sergeant training a platoon, the two songs are linked by The Blackberries. Excerpts of speeches by the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr, with flashbacks to news coverage of the assassinations, reshaped the single into a history lesson of chilling proportions. This was Tom Clay’s only hit but its million-plus sales status encouraged the release of the “What The World Needs Now” album in August ’71. And, of course, the status of The Blackberries.

Pulling on the notes from the outstanding box set “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 12A:1972”, which, among other gems, includes The Blackberries’ “Somebody Up There” and “But I Love You More”. It appears that once recorded, a purchase order was raised for the single to be pressed at the Columbia and Eastern plants early in July 1972. The order was never completed; subsequently the tapes collected dust. However, purchasers of the box set were thrilled to discover the disc (Mowest MW5020) slotted into the packaging – its debut on vinyl! Worth the wait? I think so. The topside “Somebody Up There” is upbeat, and so typical of Motown’s commercial girl group sound, with the added edge of the lead vocals being shared between two singers. Likewise “But I Love You More”, a re-visited version from The (new) Supremes’ “Right On” album. As you know, Diana Ross left the trio to be replaced by Jean Terrell, with her distinctive warm voice, and who actually began recording her vocals for this album while Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued to tour with Diana.

So, who are The Blackberries, another group that falls into Motown’s unsung heroes category? A quick overview coming up…

Sherlie Matthews was born in 1934 in Los Angeles, and at the age of two years was a soloist in her local church, before practising harmonizing with her younger sister. With their grandmother being an accomplished musician and composer, the sisters were tutored from an early age, leading to performances at weddings, church services and other functions. On her website (sherliematthews.com) the singer wrote “From her (grandmother) early nurturing I continued to develop my natural abilities for all phases of the performing arts, through school, college, community and professional workshops.” At ten years old, Sherlie set Bible verses to music as a means to encourage children to learn religious teachings. Decades later, she added “I’ve written and arranged over five hundred songs, both secular and sacred, three children’s musical comedies, two movie themes and several commercials.”

Graduating from the University of California with a BA in Pre-Social Welfare, Sherlie earned a living as a medical social worker until she took the plunge to embark upon a career in the music business with former Vee Jay executive Randy Wood’s Mirwood Records. As a composer and lyricist she was responsible for a large chunk of the label’s output between 1966 and 1967, via her group The Belles, where she shared lead vocals with Brenda and Patrice Holloway. “The three of us did a lot of background singing before I started singing with Vernetta and Clydie. The Belles cut several Mirwood singles including 1966’s ‘Don’t Pretend.'” A second single, “Cupid’s Got A Hold On Me” featured Patrice on lead and can be found on Kent’s 2006 compilation “The Mirwood Soul Story Volume 1”. Again on her website, Sherlie wrote she also created most of the early hits for acts like The Olympics, Bob & Earl and Jackie Wilson, as well as working with James Carmichael, a future Motown arranger, notably with the Commodores.

Her Mirwood tenure stood her in excellent stead when her friend, producer/writer Frank Wilson elevated her professional career by introducing her to Motown in December 1964, where she was signed as a singer, composer and producer. “When I performed at the church that Frank attended, I guess I caught his eye or something. His wife was a member of his gospel group and when that group broke up, he needed someone to take her place,” she explained in the Motown box set’s essay. Incidentally, the pair recorded a single “Come Back To Me” for the Power label using the moniker Sheri Matthews and Sonny Daye, while Frank also recorded solo sides. Alongside performing on stage with the Commodores and Diana Ross, Sherlie noted on her website “I wrote and produced recordings for The Supremes, Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Jackson 5.” With the latter, she worked with Deke Richards on two tracks “Corner Of The Sky” and “Skywriter” from the musical “Pippin”. Out of interest, and as I love Celebration, a mixed-gender vocal group, Sherlie co-wrote and produced their sumptuous single “Since I Met You There’s No Magic”, among other titles, earmarked for their lone eponymous album released on Mowest during 1972. However, the single, with “The Circle Again” on the flipside was pulled for some reason, but can, thankfully, be heard, for instance, on “The Complete Motown Singles:Volume 12B:1972”.

As a session singer, Sherlie contributed to hundreds of recordings ranging from Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, through to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back”, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”, Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning”, The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. To be honest, the list is awesome….Barbra Streisand, Lionel Richie, Ike and Tina Turner…in fact, it would be easier to list those she hadn’t worked with!

Between 1984 – 1988, the singer lived and worked in Australia, where she performed in three groups, formed and recorded an eight member children’s group named Babe, recorded voice overs and commercials, and toured the country as a background singer. Upon her return to the States, she concentrated on her family, while studying for three years to earn a Degree in Computer Graphics/Animation. Moving on, and at the invitation of Ace Records, during 2005 Sherlie performed her Mirwood Records repertoire at a Cleethorpes weekender: Marva Holiday and Jim Gilstrap joined her. Three years later, she released “We Come As One” album with her sister Donna Samuel, plus “A Band Of Angels”, a compilation of children’s songs, followed in 2010 by her solo outing “I’m A Cute Little Gay Boy Inside”. Having penned and arranged 500+ songs, commercials, film themes, children’s musical comedies, her resume is a lifetime experience put to music.

Clydie King, born in 1943 in Dallas, Texas, was raised by her older sister following the death of their mother, and later the family re-located to Los Angeles during the early fifties. The church-trained singer was discovered by Richard Berry to begin her recording career with “A Casual Look” as Little Clydie & The Teens, released on the Bihari brothers’ RPM label, one of several they owned, including Flair and Meteor Records. Moving on from here, Clydie joined Speciality Records where she recorded a pair of singles during 1957-58, namely, “Our Romance” and “I’m Invited To Your Party” (to be found on 1994 “The Speciality Story” 5-CD box set). Following this was a trio of singles carrying the Philips Records logo, with her group The Sweet Things (“The Boys In My Life” and “Only The Guilty Cry”), and as a soloist and duettist with Mel Carter (“Turn Around” and “Who Do You Love” respectively).

During 1965 she joined Sherlie Matthews in Bonnie & The Treasures to record “Home Of The Brave” for Phil Spector’s Phi-Dan imprint and a year on became a core member of Ray Charles’ backing group, The Raelettes (established in 1958) where she stayed for just over two years, and which went on to produce several celebrated soloists. Minnie Riperton, Edna Wright, Marilyn McCoo, Merry Clayton, Susaye Green, among them. Following a further two outings for Imperial, Clydie joined Minit Records to release a handful of singles during 1967-69 – “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” and “Love Now, Pay Later” being two – plus “Ready, Willing And Able” with Jimmy Holiday.

Jumping a decade, and after savouring success with The Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles, Clydie enjoyed an R&B top four hit with “‘Bout Love” from her “Direct Me” album via the Lizard label, and another R&B hit with “Loneliness (Will Bring Us Together Again)” as Brown Sugar featuring Clydie King. An album for Chelsea Records was next. Moving on further, the singer joined Bob Dylan for his 1970 album “New Morning”, before becoming a regular touring crew member. Dylan had recently converted to evangelical Christianity, so, it’s said, the two bonded over faith and music, before becoming lovers for several years. Clydie King died in January 2019 at the age of seventy-five. Bob Dylan said of her passing “She was my ultimate singing partner. No-one ever came close. We were two soul mates.”

Venetta Fields was born into a religious family during 1941 in Buffalo, New York. Like Sherlie and Clydie, she was an early-aged gospel singer in church. Citing Aretha Franklin as her all-consuming inspiration, she kicked off her singing career with The Templaires, later The Corinthian Gospel Singers. While working as a beautician in 1961, Venetta spotted a poster advertising an Ike & Tina Turner Revue at a nearby venue. After being told there was a vacancy in their support group. The Ikettes, she auditioned, was successful and went on to enjoy a five-year stay as a touring and recording member. Her solo slots like “The Love Of My Man” can be heard on 1964’s “The Ike & Tina Turner Revue Live” album.

As a member of The Ikettes, Venetta recorded “Crazy In Love” and “Prisoner In Love” for Ike’s Teena record label, after which their material was released on the Innis and Phi-Dan labels. A move to Modern Records in 1964 clocked up interesting sales with “The Camel Walk”, “Peaches ‘N’ Cream” and “I’m So Thankful”. In time though Ike Turner had two sets of Ikettes: a new line-up that toured with Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars, while the other, that included Venetta, toured with him. At the height of the Revue’s success, the Turners decided to move to Los Angeles in 1965, whereupon Venetta, Jessie Smith and Robbie Montgomery morphed into The Mirettes. “I was an Ikette for five years. It was a rough job, but a very good experience,” explained Venetta in an unidentified interview. “It’s just like a school…and when you graduate you have to leave…staying too long you get stagnant and stifled by what you’re doing.” The new group landed a deal with Mirwood Records, where their 1967 single “Now That I Found You, Baby” was penned and produced by a certain Sherlie Matthews. Switching to the MCA imprint Revue during 1968, they recorded “In The Midnight Hour”, pre-loved by Wilson Picket, among other titles, before moving to Minit where “Help Wanted” was another poor seller. From this, and under a deal with UNI Records, their “Whirlpool” album was issued, with extracted singles unfortunately attracting minimum interest.

As a session singer, Venetta often hooked up with Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, earning themselves the reputation of being vital contributors to A-listed acts – Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, to mention a few. With Clydie, she recorded with The Rolling Stones on their “Exile On Main Street” album in the early seventies, singing on the “Tumbling Dice”, “Let It Loose”, “Shine A Light” and “I Just Want To See His Face” tracks. “All wonderful songs” said Venetta. “And they were just right for us. We know gospel (and) that’s what most people wanted from us, a gospel sound.”

After touring Australia as part of Boz Scagg’s support group during 1978 and 1980, Venetta decided, two years later, to move there permanently. “I had all that experience and a good reputation, but I felt like I was stuck in a stereotyped box….I had to get away to somewhere where I could start again.” One settled, she threw herself back into work once more; lending her voice to touring American acts like Randy Crawford, Dionne Warwick and George Benson, and recording with a host of Australian artists. By 1980 she had formed a new group, Venetta’s Taxi, in Melbourne, with Sherlie, became a singing coach and presented vocal workshops. Nine years later, the stage beckoned, as she debuted in musical theatre playing Alice in “Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn” in Sydney. Other stage appearances were next, including forming, and touring with, her own musical “Gospel Jubilee”.
After hanging up her microphone for other artists, and living a quiet life on the Gold Coast, the singer received the 2002 Australian Gospel Singer of the Year award, and recorded her own “At Last” album three years later. (venettafields.com)

Like Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King, Venetta Fields’ voice was a premium to any recording, and when they joined ranks in the early seventies to become The Blackberries to work from Motown’s Los Angeles offices, their future looked secure. With the Mowest single recorded, Sherlie worked with Marva Holiday and producer Deke Richards to create an album for the trio. “Kidnapped”, “I Found A Friend”, “Let’s Get Married” and “Love Child” were in the selection of titles, as confirmed by Reel Music, who were considering releasing the album canned by Berry Gordy, who rejected it without good reason, although Sherlie believed he felt The Blackberries posed a threat to The Supremes at the time. “…And the company was unused to a female group alternating leads. Motown didn’t have enough faith in our new concept to take a chance. Today it’s the common denominator,” she explained in the essay for “The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 12A:1972”. Deke Richards agreed. He was responsible for the unique recording style that achieved the sound he wanted, but not one that was recognised by Motown, as it involved the trio singing as one, then individually, and then with one lead supported by two backing vocalists. “The result was a fat but very tight sound,” he said. “It also gave me complete control over the voicing of the harmonies.” Like the single before it, the album likewise collected dust.

From here, and during 1972, Steve Marriott asked the trio to join Humble Pie. Sherlie opted out as she had a young family: Billie Barnum (late of Apolla) replaced her. The line-up subsequently toured and recorded with the group throughout 1973, issued their own single, a version of “Twist And Shout”, on A&M Records, while Marriott produced an album which, like its Motown predecessor, was canned. The two groups parted company at this point, whereupon Billy Preston produced a further single on them in 1974 titled “Yesterday’s Music”. The Blackberries last outing by all accounts. However, by now, Clydie had recorded with Brown Sugar for other labels including RCA Records.

Despite ongoing battles to record their own material, The Blackberries were the crème de la crème in session and performing singers. And as such they were constantly on the most-wanted list. However, the industry was changing and by the mid-seventies recording techniques were different. “That was around the time of the end of all the background singing in Los Angeles” Sherlie said. “We were one of the last groups actually to do that type of thing, because most of the new groups emerged with self-contained vocals.”

As with this type of overview, some items are probably missing, particularly when the ladies branched out individually. I’m reliant on several different and diverse sources for this information and, like a jigsaw, have attempted to put the pieces together. With this in mind, I’d like to acknowledge the ladies’ two websites, plus Wikipedia and the numerous sites advertising obscure records and discographies. The visuals I also acknowledge with grateful thanks, most of which are uncredited.

So, all that’s left for me to say this month is….”Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” will be premiered in Los Angles on 8 August, with Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson expected to walk down the red carpet. The film is premiered in Detroit on 23 August, before being screened on Showtime at 9pm the following day. British screenings are expected but I have no confirmation yet, I’m afraid.

That’s it for now and, as always, I look forward to your company next month.

TOM CLAY
THE BLACKBERRIES
CELEBRATION
CLYDIE KING
THE MIRETTES

Motown Spotlight - June 2019

Motown Spotlight – June 2019

Well, if you’d asked me a year ago would I attend a Northern Soul Weekend I’d have given a negative response, sighing that those days were over for me. But no, here I am going to an event “The Northern Soul Survivors” in Skegness, Lincolnshire, kicking off on 20 September for three nights. I’ll give you the line-up as it stands at present – Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones, Bobby Brooks Wilson, Tommy Hunt, Dean Parrish, Eddie Holman, Angelo Starr and The Team, Lorraine Silver, and Ritchie Sampson.  Alongside these are British acts like Signatures featuring Stefan Taylor, Paul Stuart Davies and Johnny Boy.  I’m told other artists are yet to be announced, so more when I know.

The place to be is Butlin’s and the event covers five venues.  Thirty legendary DJs are booked, with a dance competition (that’s me out for sure!), meet and greets, record and memorabilia stalls, silent disco, dance workshop, spa, water world and a host of other attractions.  More information can be gleaned from bigweekends.com or 0330 1009750.  All I can say is the three girls are back in town and personally speaking I can’t wait to meet them again. Hope my accommodation is next to theirs as we’ve years of catch-up to take care of!  I’ll pass on more details when they arrive courtesy of Russ Winstanley, who is organising the event.  Meantime, I’ve one nagging question: how on earth do I get to Skegness from East Sussex!

I’m not going to dwell on the CBS television special “Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration” which aired Stateside on Easter Sunday – where Berry Gordy closed the show with his speech about his dreams coming true and where he thanked people who helped make his company “a legacy of love” – but rather wanted to make mention of a short interview Martha Reeves gave to The Daily News. As you know, her performance was axed from the two-hour show which included her colleagues Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, alongside non-Motowners. Martha said she was originally asked to sing “Nowhere To Run” and not her signature song “Dancing In The Street”. Then when the programme was edited, there was nothing at all. As always, she proved what a Motown ambassador she is, when she told the newspaper, “I’ve learned to handle the decisions that Motown made from the early beginnings.  The history of Motown is in my heart and I guess I’m one of the best people to express it because I’m one of the only people living who can.”  To be honest, I don’t know that I’d have been that gracious.  Let’s move on….

I’m grateful to my colleague Adam White for mentioning this book a few months ago in his West Grand Blog.  I knew I’d got it, but took a few exasperating hours to locate it! Anyway, what am I talking about? Janie Bradford’s Rolling! Take One! Lyric, Rhyme & Prose published in 1996 by Mountain Goat Press. The book is a little worst for wear and well thumbed but extremely enjoyable as an insight into her writing talent.  When Janie first met Berry Gordy, she gave him a notebook filled with her poems, passing them off as song lyrics. He saw through her ruse but believed they could be structured into commercial songs. “I’ve always felt a kinship to rhyme” she wrote. “I guess that is why I have been writing poems as far back as I can remember….It was while I was attending Lincoln High School …that I began to amass the notebook filled with poems.”

Born in June 1939, in Charleston, Missouri, Janie was known for her quirky sense of humour, which she wrote, was inherited from her minister father “who would preach a hell-fire and brimstone sermon that brought his audience to their feet, then he would tell the most unrelated joke and lay them in the aisles with laughter.” She had two siblings, brother Joe and sister Clea who, when older was a respected jazz singer. She  relocated to Detroit, so Janie joined her.  Clea often worked with Jackie Wilson, who lived a short distance away from them, and who often fell asleep on their floor in front of the television. It was through Jackie that Janie met Berry Gordy, and from that, the two began writing together, where one of their first collaborations was “Lonely Teardrops” for the before mentioned Mr Wilson.  In between composing, Janie was Motown’s first receptionist, but I’m assuming she left that role when writing took up all her time. So, next of note was “Money (That’s What I Want)” first recorded by Barrett Strong and subsequently covered over two hundred times.  From here, she moved on to work with Smokey, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, among others, notching up hits like “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”, “Your Old Standby”, “Contract On Love”, “Hip City Part 11”, “Honey Bee Keep On Stinging Me”, “My Smile Is Just A Frown Turned Upside Down”, “Share My Love” and so many others.

Being so engrossed in writing songs, Janie’s first love of writing poetry was relegated to the back burner. However, they were regularly retrieved when she was asked by some of the guys working at Motown to compose a love letter to win the heart of a potential lover. She wrote – “Granted most of them were songwriters and producers themselves, but I guess they could not muster up that something extra special needed to create a…speciality letter.” By doing this she knew who was dating who, yet never told because “they paid me very well!”  Enterprising lady. The bubble burst for Ms Bradford when Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. When told she had to be a credited producer or performing artist to ensure her work was recorded, it was the close of an era for her.

Janie’s book – where the foreword is a collection of quotes from Claudette Robinson, Chuck Jackson, Levi Stubbs, Brian Holland, Mable John and Mary Wilson – is split into sections. For example, there’s Poems That Make You Go Mmm prefaced by Janie noting “Erasers were put on pencils for mistakes made on paper. Words spoken cannot so easily be erased from the mind”.  While others include Identity, Friendship, Black Heritage, Music and Growing Through Changes. Dotted about are pictures of her family and her professional life, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my little insight into the talents of this remarkable wordsmith.  However, that’s not all this lady is known and respected for, as Motown fans will know. …read on….

Janie created The Heroes And Legends Scholarship Programme (HAL) to help talented young people in the community to shape their careers in one of the performing arts. HAL also spotlighted positive role models from many diverse backgrounds, including leaders in the fields of theatre, music, films and business, who have utilised their celebrity status to benefit the community.  In September 1990 Janie and her team launched the first HAL Awards black tie ceremony in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to raise money for their Scholarship Fund which, I understand, helps those promising students who have achieved at least a 2.0 grade average.  The Fund provides financial assistance to enable them to complete their education, later being honoured at the star studded annual Awards event.  Nine Awards are presented annually, including Legacy, Icon, Theatre and TV/Film and The Unsung Hero sections, and past recipients cover Smokey, the Four Tops, Della Reese, Thelma Houston, Tyne Daly, The Temptations, Ray Parker Jr, Gladys Knight and Berry Gordy. HAL also recognised the talents of producers, composers and industry figures like Universal executive Andy Skurow, and so well deserved too.  Last year the event was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where honourees were Deniece Williams, the Undisputed Truth, Suzanne de Passe and Switch, among others.  Brenda Holloway, Brenda Lee Eager and The Dennis Edwards Review provided the entertainment, while Martha Reeves, Freda Payne, Claudette Robinson and Ms Houston, wore the presenters’ hats. Will there be an awards ceremony this year I wonder?

And that’s not all as Janie Bradford went on to open Twinn Records with fellow-Motowner, writer/producer/singer Marilyn McLeod.  Born in Detroit, Marilyn came from a musical family as her parents were singers, and her pianist mother composed music. According to www.twinnrecords.com, her five siblings were musical, particularly her older brother Ernie Farrow who played upright bass with the noted jazz musician Yusef Lateef, while her late musician sister Alice was married to the legendary saxophone player John Coltrane and recorded several albums as a keyboardist and harpist.  Long story short, Marilyn joined Jobete as a songwriter during 1968 where she stayed for fifteen years. Her compositions are no strangers to Motown fans, as she pitched songs for the likes of Diana Ross with “Love Hangover” which won the singer her fourth US chart topper in 1976.  Co-penned with Pam Sawyer, it was earmarked for Marvin Gaye, but its producer Hal Davis believed it suited the sensual Diana better, as it weaved between ballad and dance. In fact, once Diana heard the backing track, she stamped her mark on it, with the result launching her as a major player in the disco market. First heard as a track on her self-named album, it was rush-released when the 5th Dimension issued their version, thereby killing her “I Thought It Took A Little Time” which had charted.

Other McLeod written and co-written tracks include Jr Walker’s “Walk In The Night”, Marvin Gaye/Diana Ross/Stevie Wonder/Smokey Robinson’s “Pops We Love You”, the Four Tops’ “Body And Soul”, Marvin and Diana’s “Love Twins” and “Include Me In Your Life”. “The World Is Rated X” for solo Marvin, and High Inergy’s “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)”.  These are just the ones that spring to mind.  Then, it seems she moved on to record with Nu Page for the Mowest label, and as a member of Pure Magic.  From Motown, Marilyn released “(I Don’t Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Side” for Fantasy Records in 1979, before co-writing numerous tracks for Ian Levine’s great Motorcity Records, and recording her own album “I Believe In Me” in 2010 for Twinn Records, which she kindly sent to me at the time. Phew! That was a long sentence. It was an excellent release, co-written with Janie Bradford, with a handful of top songs including “What Would Marvin Say”, “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Day” and “About U”.  The CD is certainly a worthy addition to any soul fan’s collection.

Yeah, I did digress a bit this time, as the intention was to tell you about Janie’s book, but one thing led to another, and here we are, nearly at the close of this month’s offering.  However, I can’t close yet without mentioning “Motown: The Complete No 1’s” box set, due at the end of this month.  Released as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations (what?! I must have missed them – thank goodness though for the wonderful Jr Walker & the All Stars’ box set “Walk In The Night – The Motown 70s Studio Albums”)!

This 11-CD is, I presume, identical to the one I bought in 2008, but with an added CD.  If this is the case, fans like myself, who have the original, will be forking out around £120 for the following handful of  tracks:  The Miracles and the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You”, the Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, Stevie Wonder’s “For You Love”, and Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (2017 remix), “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” (2018 mix).  Well, if that’s so, here’s one gal who won’t be buying it.

Thank you for being with me this month, always love your company, and I’ll be back before you know it.

MARILYN McLEOD’S YOU TUBE CHANNEL

REISSUE REVIEW (May 2019): MARVIN GAYE - YOU'RE THE MAN (Tamla)

REISSUE REVIEW (May 2019): MARVIN GAYE – YOU’RE THE MAN (Tamla)

Why this was hyped as the ‘lost’ album is confusing because the material isn’t new as such which I think we were led to believe in the pre-publicity.  Most of the tracks have snuck out as individual items in one form or another, on compilations like “Marvin Gaye: The Anthology”, “Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye:Never Before Released Masters”, “The Master: 1961-1984” and so on. So strictly speaking, the songs weren’t lost.  However, having said that, I can fully appreciate why the album stayed under wraps as the track “You’re The Man Part 1” bombed when released as a single in America only during April 1972. Here’s a little back track. Hot on the heels of Marvin’s “What’s Going On” project which ignited music from the soul for the soul. A work dictated by human conscience, highlighting in music intense, soul searching issues that included unlocking the secrets of environmental disasters, and crying unashamedly over the futility of war.  “What’s Going On” was a masterpiece on so many levels and changed, not only Motown’s strict code of recording, but that of the industry as a whole, and inspired other artists, like Stevie Wonder for instance, to have the courage to tread into previously forbidden territories.

Following the release of “What’s Going On” Marvin toyed around with ideas, fielded off third party material, with a state of mind that was far from solid. Gutted that “You’re The Man Part 1” died, and Berry Gordy’s directive that the proposed project be squashed, he said “I had a whole album planned around that track because I very much wanted to work in the movie field and I wanted to use this music as a soundtrack.”   So, he strove to regain public acceptance once more, and while Motown was cautious about taking too many chances with his work, they both realised it was an impossibility to follow “What’s Going On”.  Every aspect of Marvin’s life conflicted at this time; his personal life changed for the worst while his career expanded, yet Marvin lived one day at a time. “There were disputes over financial matters, over promotion, over a whole heap of things. Also my marriage was beginning to run into difficulties. Anna (Gordy) and I had in fact separated.”

Making music was all he had, yet his next project was an unexpected move which once again stretched Motown’s promotion department to the limit.  In the wake of Isaac Hayes penning the movie soundtrack for Shaft and the growing popularity in low budget, semi-violent black flicks, Marvin jumped on the merry-go-round to write his only film score “Trouble Man”.  He totally immersed himself in the project, adopting the role of the film’s main character ‘Mr T’ to write the whole album.  The result was moody and jazz-tinged, almost a sinister reflection of his darkest moments.  Despite offering film-goers similar ingredients as the other black flicks, “Trouble Man” was a non-starter, much to Marvin’s annoyance.  Without the film’s visuals to support the music much of the excitement of “Trouble Man” was lost. “I wanted to say that I could divert from ‘What’s Going On’ and actually go into another area completely.”  Following its release, Marvin admitted it wasn’t the official follow-up to “What’s Going On”, but rather a diversion, because he planned to write about his two passions in life – women and sex – and the “Let’s Get It On” ball breaker was conceived.

So, here we are, back to now, re-living songs recorded during this experimental period of indecision, where Marvin was in a dangerously fragile state of mind, where his sense of normality was scorched, and his cluttered mind bursting with ideas and emotions that made him unpredictable.  His musical route was born from his confusion and this compilation is the result. From the opening and title track where he mercilessly attacks the political way of thinking which, to be honest, has changed not at all, we’re treated “The World Is Rated X” where Marvin returns to dissect certain aspects of “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”.   Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer’s composition “Piece Of Clay” is divine as it weaves through the way people are moulded like clay by dictatorship, while “You Are That Special One” is an upbeat Willie Hutch song, and a favourite of mine. Marvin’s unique falsetto voice inspires “Where Are We Going” and it’s an optimistic singer who sings “We Can Make It Baby”.  Listening to “Symphony” sent shivers up my spine; beautifully conceived and styled; likewise “I’d Give My Life For You”, leaving a more funkier style to seep through on “Try It, You’ll Like It”.  I smiled at the cheeky inclusion of “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” because it’s relevant to the period in Marvin’s life, yet so out of place here.

With a fresh vision injected into some of the songs by Salaam Remi, wiping the dust from the grooves, this compilation is a previously-loved collection of songs, and bringing them together as an 80th birthday present, was a stroke of genius, or was it a stroke of a quick dollar? However, accepting it as the former, it’s with a sad and happy heart that fans like myself will play this again and again, reminding ourselves that despite the tormented traumas Marvin was living through at this time, these songs are reflective of his unquestionable talent. As an aside, I wonder if the man himself would have approved?

Rating: 10

 

 

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!

CD REISSUE REVIEWS - MARCH 2019

CD REISSUE REVIEWS – MARCH 2019

REGINA BELLE: SHOW ME THE WAY – THE COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
What a wonderful melting pot of sounds this 29-tracker is from this remarkable songstress. Drawn from four albums between 1987-1995, this package holds the original album versions of ten American hits, kicking off with the likes of “Show Me The Way”, “So Many Tears” – paying homage to Billie Holiday – and “How Could You Do It To Me” from her debut album “All By Myself” released in 1987. Two years on, “Stay With Me” was crammed with top selling items, including her beautifully crafted duet “All I Want Is Forever” with James Taylor, “Baby Come To Me” and “What Goes Around”. The set also spawned her first British hit “Good Lovin’” before the album passed gold status in America. “Dream In Colour” is taken from her third album “Passion”, while “Love T.K.O.” is the only single from 1995’s “Reachin’ Back” album. In between these, there’s a couple of stylish duets – “I Can’t Imagine” with Peabo Bryson and “Better Together” with Johnny Mathis. Having played these CDs over and over I was hypnotised by the Regina’s commitment to easing every emotion from the lyrics whether she’s being defiant, passionate or fervently devoted to the love of her life. Her voice combines resilience and vulnerability, while being surprisingly restrained in guarded musical moments. Music for the soul from the soul.
Rating: 9

FULL TRACK LISTING, BUY NOW LINK
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GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: ON AND ON – THE BUDDAH/COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
Well, what can I say about this 2-CD release that you don’t already know. Suffice to say, the hits are here! From the group’s Buddah years, we’re treated to the poignant “Try To Remember”/”The Way We Were”; the soulful upbeat “Midnight Train To Georgia” through to the impacting “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” – and that’s all before you can draw breath. Then we’re thrown into the absolute idyllic musical dream with “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”, “Come Back And Finish What You Started” and “It’s A Better Than Good Time”. Pure bliss while evoking memories of rather wonderful times in the past, but, having said that, they’re as relevant today as they were when originally issued. With her Pips, Gladys Knight brought home the goods every time with the most potent of songs that covered the whole emotional gamut, in her easy, relaxed way. Turning now to the Columbia years where the hits continued with the likes of “Landlord”, “Taste Of Bitter Love”, “Save The Overtime (For Me)” and, of course, the irrepressible “Bourgie, Bourgie”. This package is an innovative and comprehensive collection of pure diamonds and among the 22 American hits over a twelve year period, there’s a selection of first –rate tracks given that special GK touch, including a special version of “Wind Beneath My Wings”. As I’m going to see Gladys at the Royal Albert Hall in June, this is a timely reminder, if I needed it, of the remarkably talented soulful and grounded superstar whose music has been a backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember. And, believe me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rating: 10

FULL TRACK LISTING, BUY NOW
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CHARLES EARLAND: COMING TO YOU LIVE/EARLAND’S JAM/EARLAND’S STREET THEMES (ROBINSONGS)
The sun is shining through my office window and this double-CD package is playing in the background, setting the mood for an idyllic afternoon. Born in Philadelphia, this extraordinary jazz musician, nicknamed ‘The Mighty Burner’ mastered the saxophone while in high school. At the age of 17 years he played tenor sax with Jimmy McGriff and during the early sixties formed his first band, before learning the organ to play with Pat Martino. From here he joined Lou Donaldson’s group for a year until 1969 when he hooked up with Grover Washington Jr. So that’s set the scene for the first album released in 1980 where the stand out has to be its title track with its soulful vocals and jazz funk riffs followed by “I Will Never Tell”. Other titles like the opening “Cornbread” introduce what would be known as smooth jazz which, I have to say, sums up the entire release here, except for the scorching “Take Me To Heaven”. Moving on two years with “Earland’s Jam”, another slice of intoxicating jazz based tracks like the outstanding “The Only One” plus there’s interesting takes on the Doobie Brothers’ “You Belong To Me”, Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty” and “Never Knew Love Like This Before” from Stephanie Mills. A musical cocktail here, where most interpretations work beautifully. The final album, “Earland’s Street Themes”, from 1983, moves on a pace to take inspiration from urban music and contemporary R&B which infiltrated the opening track “Be My Lady (Tonight)”. Others to check out include the dance/funk slice of upbeat in “Go All The Way” and the gospel discharges apparent in “Walk With Me”. Also, among the several bonus tracks included here, is the 12” version of his only UK hit “Let The Music Play” in 1978. Well, it wasn’t the afternoon I’d planned yet, thanks to Mr Earland’s unhurried, gentle approach to his music with the occasional lively bite, it was a rewarding couple of hours. And the sun is still shining!

Rating: 8

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: LOWRIDER SOUL (KENT)
To be honest I’ve not heard the phrase ‘lowrider’ before now but I’m led to believe it’s derived from American automobiles which are customised to cruise the streets of South Carolina. Or to be more precise, a customised vehicle with hydraulic jacks that allow the chassis to be lowered nearly to the road! Anyway, this compilation features some of the music played from these vehicles which originated from Mexico, South and Central America. Covering the period 1962-1970 we’re treated to doo wop and sweet mid tempo outings like The Four Tees’ “One More Chance”. Artists so familiar to soul fans including Barbara Mason, The Whispers and Brenton Wood are featured with a trio of gems. Mason’s “Oh, How It Hurts” overflows with emotional angst, while The Whispers’ low-key, doo wop “As I Sit Here” is a joy, leaving Benton’s “Where Were You” simply begs for attention. And let’s not forget William Bell with “Crying All By Myself”, a stylish performance; The Vows’ “I Wanna Chance” who, with a changed membership, recorded “Buttered Popcorn” for Motown’s VIP label in 1965 or “Second Hand Happiness” from Jimmy Conwell, a wonderful slice of deep soul. As always with Kent’s compilations, an informative, full-coloured booklet is on hand and, while an education for me in the nicest possible way, think this CD would appeal only to soul connoisseurs.

Rating: 7

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: ON THE DETROIT BEAT/MOTOR CITY SOUL UK STYLE 1963-67 (ACE RECORDS)
As much as I applaud these artists for paying homage to Motown, I’m angry because they could have denied the originators a place in the British charts. Then, looking at the situation from a different angle, perhaps Motown would have suffered a longer non-identity without them. Or, which is possibly more relevant, maybe we weren’t ready for this raw, young sound from Detroit preferring to enjoy our own tried and tested music with the occasional interruption from established American acts. Then, on top of this, of course, was the dictating British radio which steered its programmes towards adult listening until Bill Haley swept all sense of respectability from under its feet. Whatever the reasons, and I guess I’m thinking out loud here, Motown and its artists did smash through the barriers and into our charts – eventually. It goes without saying that the sterling work done by Dusty Springfield in promoting this new cult sound was invaluable to its growth here, culminating in the iconic “The Sound Of Motown” television show screened in April 1965, and often referred to as the longest music advertisement ever! And she paid her respects to several company acts during her career, kicking off with The Supremes’ “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” on her debut album. In the same breath, The Beatles were also trailblazers when they too rifled through the Motown catalogue for their second album, yet none are featured here. At the height of their career, the Fab Four not only recorded company songs but also requested Mary Wells join one of their UK tours, and Brenda Holloway on their second American tour. Where The Beatles went, others followed, hence fellow Liverpudlians like Cilla Black and Sounds Incorporated recording Jr Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun”, and Billy J Kramer, “I’ll Be Doggone”, the Marvin Gaye classic. An adventurous Helen Shapiro took on “You’re My Remedy”; Bill Kenwright and the Runaways tried “I Want To Go Back There Again”, while The Hollies tackled “Mickey’s Monkey”. When Motown’s artists began infiltrating our charts in their own right, the cover-versions more or less ceased, except for Springfield of course, who regularly included one or two on her albums. However, let’s face it, nobody could match, let alone emulate that glorious young Detroit sound, either vocally or musically because, to be honest, our musicians were certainly no match for the Funk Brothers. Although this type of CD isn’t normally reviewed here, I couldn’t really let it pass because, at the end of the day, our acts were saluting a record company that defined our musical backdrop for decades. So that should count for something.

Rating: 5

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: SOLAR SOUL (SOLAR RADIO)
Wasn’t sure what to expect with this collection of tracks from artists who have enjoyed airtime on Solar Radio over the past two years but I have to confirm it’s exactly what it says on the tin – 21st century soul. I believe this is the second project, the first in 2001 released under “The Soul Sound Of Solar Radio”, and the formula is the same – supporting artists who have hit the station’s Sweet Rhythms Chart, plus remixes and recent favourites. Randy Muller featuring Carolyn Harding’s “Beautiful Feeling” which begins the musical adventure was one I instantly gravitated towards with the percussion steering the mid-paced tempo, allowing Carolyn to weave in and out the melody, interrupted only by stabbing strings or something similar. “Roma” is another that grabbed my interest. Hannah White’s vocals highlight this dance-slanted mover, which does, remarkably, err on the side of a continual laid-back feel through to the Donna Summer interlude, which is a slice of musical ingenuity. Then there’s the smooth saxophone (I think) introduction on “Latino Girl” from Mather & Kingdon which is replaced by a decisive melody with an unexpected key change part-way through. Or the quirky Ray Hayden track “Things Will Get Better” which, to be honest threw me a little, as was unsure where it was going. Never fear, it settled down under an atmospheric overcoat with an infectious melody. A couple more to mention: “Mystified” from Bashiyra with its lovely chugging feel and double-tracked vocals, and Groove Association featuring Georgie B’s “Feeling Happy” where the clipped beat, warm vocals and catchy hookline exude a certain kind of magic. Packaged in a gatefold sleeve and 8-page booklet, this was one surprise I actually enjoyed.
Rating: 9

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RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS - July 2018

RECENT REISSUE REVIEWS – July 2018

L.T.D: SOMETHING TO LOVE/TOGETHERNESS/DEVOTION/SHINE ON (ROBINSONGS)
The ten-piece group, Love, Togetherness, Devotion, with Jeffrey Osborne on lead vocals, made heavy musical inroads during the seventies, and just released is a reminder of the impact they made. Hailing from North Carolina, the unit, with a changing membership, signed with A&M Records in 1974 to start their journey which, due to the fierce competition from the likes of the Commodores, Maze and Gap Band, made their escape from the ‘also ran’ level that much harder. However, L.T.D held their own to release some dynamic slices of disco and ballad, with sweet grooves, stomping funk, set against textured vocals. And this is typified by the four albums here – “Something To Love” and “Togetherness” (1977/1978); “Devotion” and “Shine On” (1979/1980). There’s an elaborate mix in this melting pot of music, including the group’s mega-selling “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again” with its commanding commercial funk styling, and the solid dancer “Never Get Enough Of Your Love”. Of the ballads, check out the smooth and mellow “(Won’t Cha) Stay With Me”, hugely attractive; likewise “We Both Deserve Each Other’s Love”, “Concentrate On You” and the tear jerking “Where Did We Go Wrong”. Then switch over to “We Party Hearty”, complete with its chanted chorus, sitting alongside the gospel influenced “Make Someone Smile, Today”. “Share My Love” is another yearning slowie, while “Stranger” has an interesting take on adultery. Then saunter into another pair of thoughtful gentleness with “Will Love Grow” and “Lady Love”. Some of the songs here lack the magic of the moment but all evoke memories of the past. Will their cultural musical impact travel across the decades? I don’t know. However, what I’ve heard I liked very much.
Rating: 8

LAKESIDE: SHOT OF LOVE/ROUGH RIDERS/FANTASTIC VOYAGE (ROBINSONGS)
Three albums on a double CD package from a group that was tagged ’The Rolling Stones of Funk’ because no act wanted to follow them on stage, although that doesn’t really live up to the music included here. Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, let’s talk Lakeside. Born from The Nomads, The Montereys, The Young Underground, and the Ohio Lakeside Express, with a succession of changing members, the group eventually edited its name to Lakeside. Managed by Dick Griffey, they hooked up with Frank Wilson who signed them to Motown in 1974, for an unproductive tenure. When Frank switched to ABC Dunhill in 1976, the group followed. A year later, Lakeside issued their eponymous album featuring “If I Didn’t Have You”. Long story short, after being feted by several record companies, they joined Griffey’s Solar Records. Incidentally, Norman Whitfield was also seriously interested in securing them for Whitfield Records, but when Griffey offered them the additional option to compose and co-produce their own material, it was a no-brainer.

Released during 1978, “Shot Of Love” featured the top five R&B hit “It’s All The Way Live”, and “Given In To Love”, a top eighty R&B hit. A year on, “Rough Riders” followed with the extracted singles, “Pull My Strings” and “From 9.00 Until”; both were top fifty hits. However, it was “Fantastic Voyage” which proved to be their biggest selling album yet, soaring into the top twenty pop chart. The title track topped the R&B singles chart for seven weeks, later crashing into the top sixty pop listing, while its follow-up “Your Love Is On The One” hit the R&B top twenty, bypassing the mainstream market this time. Exceeding all expectations, this album elevated Lakeside into a bankable unit.

From here, a string of R&B hits followed, sustaining their pulling power into the eighties. Griffey’s Solar set up had a heavyweight presence in the market place, affording their artists meaty promotion and support, but when the in house competition included Shalamar, The Whispers and Midnight Starr, perhaps Lakeside didn’t get the attention they deserved. Their music across these two CDs goes from nowhere to everywhere, with a balanced diet of dance, funk and ballad. Presentation is faultless yet some of the tracks are sub-standard inasmuch that they’ve not travelled the years gracefully. There’s earthy, gritty sides; sentimental and emotional going hand in hand, but I do feel some of the tracks are pieced together, lacking the essential ingredient that stamps its mark on a hit song. Having said that, I enjoyed what I heard but, I’m afraid, nothing left me begging for more.
Rating: 6

Motown Spotlight - June 2018

Motown Spotlight – June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motown Spotlight - April 2018

Motown Spotlight – April 2018


Here come the girls! More Motown ladies to be precise, courtesy of the new CD release “Baby I’ve Got It!” from Ace Records, offering a grand twenty-four tracks from names we’re familiar with and some we’ve missed on the way. This month and next they’ll all get a mention, with our thanks for their contribution to laying the foundation of what was to become “The Sound of Young America.” And, like most things I write about, there’s no particular order here because The Lollipops kick off the proceedings. Signed to Harry Balk’s Impact label in Detroit, the group became Motown artists rather by default when Balk sold his label to Berry Gordy in 1967. While Harry became a producer, The Lollipops – Arenita Walker (lead and songwriter), Joyce Walker and Angela Allen – cut nine tracks while signed. The VIP outing “Cheating, Is Telling On You”/”Need Your Love” in October 1969 was originally scheduled for the Gordy label, but here we have the doo-wop inspired “There Was”. Incidentally, on the previous UK compilation “Love And Affection”, their “Go For Yourself” track, which was left incomplete, got its first outing on this CD. I’m thinking that could be it from this relatively unknown trio which is annoying to a Motown writer like myself!

Ashford and Simpson’s “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” was recorded as the follow-up to their “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” for Rita Wright. Despite the fact this latter single bombed at the time – but later became a much wanted gem – the composing duo were given the green light to work again with Rita, even though Tammi Terrell had already stored her version of the song in the “pending release file”. By the way, Blinky Williams also recorded the song using the same backing track. Rita’s recording of “It’s Been A Long Time Happenin’” wasn’t completed until it was unearthed for this new CD – and it’s brilliant. Ms Wright once said she had rebelled against Motown’s executives’ plans of pushing her into a jazzier direction, preferring to stick with the styling of the Ashford and Simpson compositions. “If I had listened, especially to Mr Gordy, I would have had a more successful run at Motown fame.” So, when Berry suggested a name change to Syreeta, saying it sounded more glamorous, she readily agreed. Life began to change for the young singer: from working with, and later marrying, Stevie Wonder, she took giant steps towards becoming a respected composer and singer. In between times, she recorded demos, including The Supremes’ “Love Child” and Diana Ross’ “Something’s On My Mind”, and when Diana left the trio Berry Gordy considered replacing her with Syreeta instead of Jean Terrell. The move was vetoed by Mary Wilson. Solo success did find Syreeta in the early seventies thanks to hits like “Spinnin’ And Spinnin’”, “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the biggest selling of all, “With You I’m Born Again”, her duet with Billy Preston. Her sister Kim said at the time of Syreeta’s death in 2004, “She was a totally incredible person. She was always searching, always looking for, I’d like to say ‘enlightenment’ but it sounds too ‘woo-woo’. She was always trying to find out what was right and what was true.”

Tracks by LaBrenda Ben have been featured on the previous “Motown Girls” collections, including “Fugitive”, a heavyweight tune, and here she is again. The singer worked with George Fowler, who introduced her to Motown in 1962. They later married, and when he left the company to become a minister, she went with him. But here, on “Bad News”, LaBrenda Benn recorded with Mickey Stevenson and Jo Hunter as producers, which was originally available during 2014 as a digital download, but due to pressure from fans, it’s now released on CD for the first time. Her second track, “It’s All Right” is her take on The Impressions 1963 R&B hit. It’s so frustrating not to have information about artists like this lady because, like you, I’m a stickler for a complete story. However, what I do know is that the first single credited to LaBrenda Ben and the Beljeans, issued on the Gordy label in 1962, was “Camel Walk/The Chaperone”. The A-side was also credited to Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas on the Tamla label, while “Chaperone” was re-issued on the Motown label to satisfy Northern Soul fans. This was followed by LaBrenda Ben’s solo “Just Be Yourself/I Can’t Help It, I’ve Got To Dance” a year later. It’s not clear who comprised the Beljeans although one suggestion was they were the Andantes. Whatever and whoever, LaBrenda Ben and her group became early roster casualties.

Formerly known as Lisa Miller, Little Lisa was 11 years old when she recorded “Keep Away” with the Funk Brothers. Daughter of Kay of the gifted Lewis Sisters, who were already composing and recording for Motown, Lisa recorded at least twelve sides including the solitary single “Hang On Bill” – a re-working of “Hold On Pearl” by Bob Kayli (Robert Gordy) – issued on the VIP label in 1965. Records show that the young girl also recorded versions of “Sweeter As The Days Go By”, “Baby, I’ve Got It”, and “Honey Boy” released by The Supremes and Mary Wells, a rendition of The Marvelettes’ “Daddy Knows Best”, and “Choo Choo Train” which was added to “A Cellarful Of Motown -Volume 2”. Her mother, Kay, said in the notes for “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 5” – “I really had no idea she could sing. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I always took her with us when we went on Motown dates.” She also remembered her daughter needed to climb up on a box to reach the microphone, and that the intention was for Lisa to record demos for other artists. Still as a teenager and now known as Leeza Miller, she did voiceovers on the Fantastic Four series, playing principally Frankie Ray and Nova. From Motown, she hooked up with Trident Records to release “Does She Know”, before switching to Canterbury Records, owned by Mattel Toys. The operation was overseen by Ken Handler, the real life model for Barbie doll’s partner! It appears her aunt and mother were the label’s A&R directors, writing and producing for Joanie Sommers, Alex Valdez and Yellow Balloon, among others. As Lisa Miller, she worked with the Lewis Sisters to record the “Within Myself” album, from which a Christmas single “The Loneliest Christmas Tree” was lifted in 1967. Cyclone Records were next, where she recorded “Castles In The Sky”, again working with the Lewis Sisters. Then during the late eighties, Motorcity Records’ Ian Levine recorded Lisa as Leeza Miller, on a two tracks “Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Sign Of A Heartache, while her biggest achievement of all was working with Sergio Mendes in 1983 where she sang lead on “Never Gonna Let You Go”.

I’ve mentioned the Lewis Sisters, Helen and Kay, and of course they’re featured on this CD with their self penned “Honey Don’t Leave Me” with – check this out – Gloria Jones, Blinky Wiliams and Edna Wright on backing vocals. Edna, by the way, was working as a secretary in Motown’s West Coast office at the time. The Sisters’ talent gradually came into the public domain as, alongside their two singles, it was surprising, yet gratifying, to learn just how much backroom work they achieved for other acts. Working as writers and recording demo tracks for the likes of The Supremes, it seems they also recorded forty plus songs themselves. Of course, the classic, all-time diamond we know and love, “You Need Me” remains high on any soul fans’ list of favourites; mine included. Atmospherically exciting with echo-bathed vocals, or as one reviewer put it, the song was given “a cavernous uptown sound, with sumptuous strings rising and falling”, it was so untypical of the Motown sound. Kay Lewis said Berry Gordy produced the session – and it was frightening! “He was wonderful. Berry became a really close friend of ours too, but at the time it was a little scary. The added reverb happened when Helen and I went back to Detroit. He wanted it to sound like the Righteous Brothers.” This was the final single although they continued to write for Motown through to 1966, and, of course, they played a cameo role in the 1972 movie “Lady Sings The Blues”, starring Diana Ross playing the lead role of Billie Holiday.

In the extremely informative booklet accompanying “Baby I’ve Got It!” Thelma Brown contacted the compilers to talk about her stay at Motown, and, if I may, I’ll liberate a few words here. In 1963, when she was 12 years old and performing at the Elks Club in her home town of Lockport, New York, she was heard by Harvey Fuqua and his wife Gwen Gordy. They liked what they heard and invited her to stay with them at their Detroit house for the summer to “do some singing”. This later led to her recording four tracks at Hitsville, with talk of her duetting with Stevie Wonder, which, for some reason, never happened. Thelma’s recordings – “Dear Parents”, “Cookie Boy” and “Dance Yeah Dance” (which appeared on the “Finders Keepers – Motown Girls 1961-67”) were among Harvey and Gwen’s first productions, and when their Harvey and Tri Phi labels amalgamated with Berry Gordy, Thelma became a Motown artist. “Cookie Boy”, included here, was recorded in August 1963, and once the summer holiday with Harvey and Gwen was over, Thelma returned home. She subsequently heard nothing from anyone at Motown and certainly remained in the dark as to the fate of her recording sessions. That is, until she heard “Dance Yeah Dance” had been released on CD. Apparently, Thelma never professionally performed again and contented herself with being a wife, mother and grandmother. However, she said, what a great way to spend a summer holiday.

Berry Gordy signed the big-voiced and big-haired Liz Lands to crack the R&B market. With her six octave vocal range, he felt she was the ideal vehicle to give Motown the presence it needed. Of the 100 or so songs she recorded between 1963-64 only a handful were released. Mostly were spirituals or standard tunes, with the exception of “It’s Crazy Baby”, included here. Recognised from her promotional pictures as the lady with the beehive hair atop her head, Liz was born in 1939 in the Georgian Islands and relocated to New York City when she was five years old. Studying classical music, she was tethered to Dr Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she first met Berry Gordy in Detroit. This led to her debut single, “We Shall Overcome” being issued on Motown’s short-lived Divinity imprint during 1963. The inspiriting gospel performance was later re-issued on Gordy with the flipside of Martin Luther King’s resounding speech “I Have A Dream”. Also released in the December was a tribute to the fallen President John Kennedy titled “May What He Lived For Live”. Berry Gordy had supported the young, handsome President and intended to use this song, which he co-wrote, as a means of his respect and love. Copies of the single were actually sent to the White House, whereupon it appears Jackie Kennedy wrote back with her thanks. Berry Gordy needed to push Ms Lands into the mainstream market, so opted to record the above-average pop song “Midnight Johnny” with The Temptations and The Andantes as support vocalists. Using The Temptations was a wise move as “The Way You Do The Things You Do” was rapidly climbing the American chart. “Midnight Johnny” was later covered by Connie Haines, while its flipside “Keep Me” was re-done by The Originals. In hindsight, Liz’s single didn’t stand a chance because she was sandwiched between Motown’s A-team that included Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street”, The Contours’ “Can You Jerk Like Me?”, and, of course, the quickly rising Temptations. With her career a non-starter hit-wise, it ended before it had really started, so she left Motown to join the Chicago-based One-derful Records during 1967 to issue “One Man’s Poison” in particular.

Finally in this month’s tribute to some of Motown’s pioneering ladies of song – Miss Oma Page, sister of Gene and Billy, respected composers and producers. In between his duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, it transpired Marvin Gaye had recorded with Oma Heard. However, further investigation led to her surname generating a mystery, to put it mildly. So, let’s see if I can get this right. Oma Heard was introduced to Motown when Mary Wells left with the intention of replacing her. Marvin recorded five duets with her, four of which appeared on the 1990 “Marvin Gaye Collection” box set where she was credited incorrectly as Oma Page. According to “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 4” notes, the confusion arose when their duet tapes, recorded in Los Angeles, were transferred to Detroit, and were filed incorrectly under Oma Page. The situation worsened because there was a genuine Oma Page recording already in the can, a version of Carolyn Crawford’s “When Someone’s Good To You”, and that’s included here. Berry Gordy then made the decision not to sign Oma Page so no further recordings were made with her. Phew, hope that’s right now. But it does prove that a typing error can lead to all sorts of bewildering speculations. (Oma Heard’s Motown releases included “Lifetime Man”/”My Lonely Heart” in September 1964 on the VIP imprint, and in November 1969 as part of the girl group Dorothy, Oma & Zelpha on “Henry Blake”, via a licensing deal with Chisa.)

Aw, have run out of space this time, so we’ll continue next month, visiting the tracks by the more heavyweight artists, like Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Patrice Holloway, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Thank you again for your continued support, and hope you’ve found some interest in my overview of one of this year’s most significant releases so far which, once again, has gone a long way to completing our collections and, probably more importantly, reminding us of the unsung heroines who often go unnoticed, yet their contributions to the fledgling company was so momentous.

 

April Reissue & Recent CD Reviews

April Reissue & Recent CD Reviews

CROWN HEIGHTS AFFAIR DANCE LADY DANCE-SURE SHOT-THINK POSITIVE (ROBINSONGS)

So here’s the deal: three albums across two CDs crammed with dance, funk and ballads. Some have full blown group vocals while others the lead singer with sympathetic support voices, but all melting together in the style so significant in the late seventies/early eighties when competition was fierce. Founded by Donnie Linton in 1967, the group from New York City had a sketchy start until their “Dreaming A Dream” in 1975 registered them as crossover US hit makers. The opening cut on this set, “Dance Lady Dance” shot into the US top twenty and hit the UK top fifty, marking their third chart entry. The guys bought to the table their own brand of disco; a rich, all-inclusive sound, almost on the verge of overflowing with horns, percussion and keyboards. Amidst the dance, the occasional ray of eloquent soul shines through. “Empty Soul Of Mine” is a good example. A strongly flavoured ballad of emotional moments that gently tug at the heart. “Heart Upside Down” is another, with its impassioned vocals against a warm, comforting musical backdrop.

To be fair, the uptempo cuts are on the ball, of the minute, bringing home a healthy blend of decisive beats and attractive hook lines that often are quite inspiring. Check out “Think Positive”, a hard hitting rap track where the repetitious, grinding pace is highlighted by vocal breaks, while “You’ve Been Gone” jogs along like a train travelling over railway tracks. Then there’s the tempo change in “I See The Light” which reminded me of Earth Wind & Fire, and “Use Your Body & Soul”, with a rap section midway through, interrupting blistering vocals over a clipped disco beat. And last but certainly not least, classic Crown Heights Affair with “You Gave Me Love”, their biggest selling UK title, hitting the top ten. Heavy, meaty dance where the high spots are the repetitive ‘whoo hoo, whoo hoo’, and I can just imagine a dancefloor crammed with jumping dancers imitating this chorus. Think I’ll join them.
Rating: 8

M.F.S.B.: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (ROBINSONGS)

I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally receive this Collection because my love for this orchestra is on the same level as my feelings for the Salsoul Orchestra, which, of course, is totally reasonable. Why? Well, when M.F.S.B. fractured due to financial disagreements with Gamble & Huff, several musicians actually switched to the Salsoul Orchestra, spearheaded by Vince Montana Jr. Anyway, back to this review. A pool of thirty-plus hand-picked studio musicians who worked with Gamble & Huff in the Philadelphia Sigma Sound Studios, M.F.S.B. (an acronym of Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, in line with the spiritual views of Gamble & Huff, although another meaning was given to the initials by musicians when complimenting another’s musical expertise) were legendary in providing lush and sumptuous music for artists like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Stylistics and The Spinners. Comprising a mixture of multi-talented musicians of all ages, some self-taught or classically trained – like Norman Harris, Bob Babbitt, Earl Young, Vince Montana Jr and Bobby Eli – who became household names, unlike, say, Berry Gordy’s inhouse unit because he insisted they remained nameless, despite them being responsible for the very foundation of what is known as ‘The Motown Sound’. Then, in the early seventies, M.F.S.B. thankfully became recordings artists in their own right when their second single, the theme to the US groundbreaking music show “Soul Train” was released under the title “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” with the added attraction of The Three Degrees. This timeless slice of sophisticated dance tore the international charts apart, selling over one million copies in America alone. The same combination was used again on “Love Is The Message”, another beautifully orchestrated piece, perfect in every respect, and a true legacy of the Philadelphia sound which would grow into a musical giant across the world. The song became one of the first to be inducted into the newly formed Dance Music Hall Of Fame in 2004.

So, this first “Double Definitive Collection” includes full-length versions of their biggest tracks, including “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” featuring the Philadelphia International All Stars. This was a project initiated by Gamble & Huff to support a five-year inner city programme, with all profits earmarked for this cause. What else? There’s “K-Jee” featured in the film and soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever”; a semi-funk “Backstabbers”; an earthy delivery on “Family Affair”; a spiced up “Philadelphia Freedom” which go hand-in-hand with a mellow “South Philly” and a powerful disco based “Get Down With The Philly Sound”. The entire 2-CD package overflows with a musical elegance, enhanced with a dusting of classy melodies and hook lines that extend far and beyond the confines of session musicians. Whether the track is dance orientated, pulsating up tempo or dreamy ballad, the unique orchestral styling of M.F.S.B. is immediately recognisable, and it’s faultless in presentation. They are the very soul of Philadelphia. OK, I realise I’m biased but can’t help myself.
Rating: 10

HAYWOODE: ROSES: REMIXES & RARITIES (CHERRY RED RECORDS)
The gal with the crazy hairstyle and floppy straw hat! Hey, but that was the eighties. One of our precious homegrown singers, Sid remained the girl-next-door, a fab friend and a great talker, and this never changed when her star began rising with crossover hits. We met regularly, and her CBS press agent discovered it was best for our interviews to be at the close of the day because Sid and I like to party afterwards. Anyway, that aside. Released as the companion to the top selling “Arrival” reissue, Sid’s music on this double CD package has been re-mastered from original CBS tapes, and bring together a selection of her most sought after re-mixes. All from the eighties, these cover some rare sides and previously unreleased titles spanning her stay at the record company. It’s wall-to-wall dance music – pop, hi- energy, hard funk meets classic eighties disco – re-mixed by a host of influential names of the decade, like Mike Barbiero and Steve Thompson, who would later work with Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, among others. And their mix of “Roses”, her third single, starts this sometimes frenetic journey. “It’s funky pop and the lyric of not having a man mess me around resonated with me” she said. Her debut single “A Time Like This” here mixed by Nick Martinelli (both 7” and 12”) is quite amazing. Recorded in Philadelphia for her debut US market outing, the track was canned in preference to “Roses”. Bypassing, her second single “Single Handed”, a Detroit extended mix of “I Can’t Let You Go” – which I’ve always loved – has an amazing driving beat. “…totally re-recorded in Detroit with Bruce Nazarian and Duane Bradley it gives the song a more ‘live’ jazzy band feel” said Sid. “(Together with) the sax and piano flavoured pop-soul-funk elements that I was personally vibe with.” Interestingly, there’s a couple of groovy instrumentals here too, “You’d Better Not Fool Around” and “I Can’t Let You Go”, a pleasant diversion for sure.

Talking about “I’m Your Puppet”, Sid’s take on the James and Bobby Purify classic, she explained it was her father’s favourite tune which inspired her to record it. “Music was like food in our house…I was uber-delighted when I found out I was to record it in the home of Philly Soul and work with Nick. These memories of that trip stand out for me.” All credit to her, the song is beautifully constructed and delivered. Sid co-wrote “My Kind Of Hero”, a welcoming ballad sung with a certain commitment – “It does have a Tina Turner feel to the backing track which wasn’t intentional on my part, although she is an inspirational stage goddess for me.” Stock, Aitken and Waterman were the power behind “You’d Better Not Fool Around” which was partly re-recorded and re-mixed before hitting the public as a single. “I like the vocal melody and ‘man, get ya act together’ lyric.” It’s another full-on slice of dance, with a scorching feel and atmosphere. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the CD, in its eye-catching packaging, closes with The Haywoode Mega-Mix comprising five belting tracks that take no prisoners. Summing up, this package is overflowing with energy, youthful enthusiasm and Sid’s total commitment to her music. And there’s more to come as a new album is in the planning stages for release this year, with a promise of UK dates. What more could we want? “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your interest and support of my music over the years. It truly means the world to me.”
Rating: 9

NORMAN BEAKER BAND: WE SEE US LATER (WEINERWORLD)

Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame during 2017 as a legendary blues artist, Norman Beaker wrote and produced this studio album, which I believe has previously been available digitally, and features sixteen tracks covering different styles – but all with a deep rooted blues feel. I’ve seen the Norman Beaker Band perform at my local theatre several times, both as support to Chris Farlowe and as a separate unit, where their music bounces from the stage into the standing room only audience. They really are party nights. Although Norman is deadly serious about his music, he performs with a sense of humour which he believes is a good balance between the music and old comedy, like that delivered by Tony Hancock, whom he also loves. This is openly apparent when the group perform with Chris Farlowe because they’re for ever scoring points off each other. Seriously though, Norman and the guys have toured extensively with the likes of Graham Bond, Chuck Berry and Van Morrison, and worked as session musicians for James Booker and Jack Bruce, among others. The opening track here, “Only I Got What The Other Guys Want”, sets the pace, and the journey into the world of the blues according to Norman begins. Particular highlights are “Time And Tide” featuring Steve Ellis on vocals, and “I Don’t Want A Lover” with Larry Garner supporting on vocals and guitar. Also highly recommended – the earthy “Hard To Be Somebody” and the tormented “Cheating Love”. Norman Beaker has been at the forefront of British blues for over four decades, and although the genre isn’t a particular favourite of mine, I’m grateful to him for educating me through his visits to my town.
Rating: 7