While typing this month’s MS thought I’d re-visit Scherrie Payne’s “Vintage Scherrie” CD which I haven’t played for awhile but which is always close at hand. As you know a couple of tracks were extracted for single release – “Remember Who You Are” and “Crumbs Off The Table” – both exceptional in different ways. The first is warmly soulful, sheer beauty, while the second is rather hard edged and decisive, you don’t mess with this gal. Both stylings are handled with total ease of course. However, it’s “Hope” that I get drawn to every time plus her take on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Aw, well, will just let it play through in its entirety until I’m done here. And talking of mountains….
I suppose it was to be expected that, following Diana Ross receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent American Music Awards, an album would be released to coincide with the event. Well, I say ‘album’ but what I really mean is a digital 15 track release under the title “Diamond Diana: The Legacy Collection”, a selection of her biggest titles like “The Boss”, “It’s My House”, “I’m Coming Out”, “Love Hangover” and “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie. However, the carrot that’s being dangled here for stalwart fans is a new dance club, the Anmhe remix of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. It’s alright I suppose, but the whole essence of the Ashford & Simpson composition was the merging of melody and lyrics. A love song of considerable emotion which should, perhaps stay as was intended, and as much as I love the drama attached to Diana’s epic six minutes-plus version on her debut solo album, the 1967 original, produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, and recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell just can’t be matched. Let’s stay with the song for a moment. Composed by Ashford & Simpson prior to their joining Motown, Dusty Springfield longed to record it, as Valerie recalled, “We played (her) that song but wouldn’t give it to her, we wanted to hold that back because we felt it could be our entry to Motown. Nick called it the ‘golden egg’. Dusty, recorded a similar verse melody in ‘I’m Gonna Leave You’”. Undeterred, the British singer, faithful to the original arrangement, included the song in her stage act usually as part of a soul medley, and actually performed it twice on television as a duet, with Engelbert Humperdink during 1970, and with Michael Ball in 1995.
In the wonderful book “The Real Tammi Terrell: My Sister Tommie” penned by Ludie Montgomery and Vickie Wright (published by Bank House Books 2005), they tell of a nervous, slightly intimidated twenty-two-year-old Tammi recording her vocals for the song on 6 January 1967, leaving Marvin to dub in his vocals later in that month. Valerie felt the song was the perfect vehicle for the two singers although it wasn’t conceived as a duet, as Nick said, “..it turned into (one). Everything kind of fell into place. They saw what was necessary and we were there to change up anything they needed and we all worked together. Marvin would tell me that Tammi was his favourite to sing with. She would cuddle up to him like she belonged to him. It was just beautiful what they had.” Johnny Bristol took this one step further when he was quoted about their mystical blending because Marvin felt her deeply when he sang to her pre-recorded track – which was, apparently, the norm on several of their duets. “Their respect and love for each other …transcended the presence and they both didn’t have to be there to capture the feeling. (The song) really sticks out in my mind because they blended so well on that recording. Nick and Valerie were great writers so they made it a spiritual connection for everyone.“ Incidentally, the Four Tops’ Duke Fakir was one of the backing vocalists on the song, “I remember sitting around during the time Marvin and Tammi were recording it and Marvin says, ‘hey man, come in here and help me sing the song because I can’t make it alone.’”
In one of my interviews with Nickolas Ashford, I wondered why he never recorded the song with Valerie, believing as I did, they were the perfect mouthpieces for their compositions. “I don’t think we even thought about it. When you have an artist like Marvin Gaye, who was just a phenomenal singer, it’s just a dream. We were real writers then and we had this voice that we could do something with, and that was all the glory we needed.”
So, returning to Diana Ross’ 1970 album version for just a second, and then we’ll move on, it seems Berry Gordy wasn’t happy with the song, hating the spoken word passage. He wanted the climactic chorus/bridge to start the song rather than be a feature within it. However, he backed down when Ashford & Simpson persuaded him to release an edited three-minute single to combat radio stations editing their own versions. By cutting the playing time, the fullness of the song was hampered of course, allowing listeners to enjoy a mere musical snapshot of the classical string element from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Andantes’ warm vocals supported by Johnny Bristol, Brenda Evans and Billie Calvin (from The Undisputed Truth), Jo Armstead and Ashford & Simpson themselves. Nonetheless, the edited “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” earned Diana her first number one single, and a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The full glorious version was, of course, included on her album: good marketing ploy that. Good Lord, how one thing leads to another when all I intended to do was mention her new digital album! Let’s move on….
One of the songs I regularly play on my Saturday evening soul programme is the Northern Soul Survivors’ charity single, a cover of Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”. Featuring Tommy Hunt, Chris Clark, Dean Parrish, Pat Lewis, Sidney Barnes, Johnny Boy and The Signatures, and, last but by no means least, Paul Stuart Davies, who masterminded the whole thing. Released on vinyl and as a download single, it was, as you know, recorded to raise funds for Jon Bates, a Wigan DJ who is wheelchair bound and in need of money to pay for an operation that could see him walk again. “As someone who listens to soul music daily, recording this song has been like being part of soul music history” Paul explained. “I’m very lucky and I loved every minute making the record.” So, let’s spend some time with the young man behind the single. Born in Manchester in 1982, Paul Stuart Davies began professionally performing as a teenager, and following an introduction to a local agent, was soon performing in clubs and pubs across Lancashire. From here, he attended music college which lead to a career as a vocal coach, and as co-creator of the Darwen School Of Music. However, it was his love of Motown that prompted him to front The Soul Train, a 9-piece group, where their popularity grew following performances in Blackpool and Blackburn clubs.
During 2015, and following an endorsement from Marvin Gaye’s second wife Janis, he took to the solo spotlight where he performed alongside Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, The Velvelettes and The Contours at The World’s Biggest Northern Soul Weekender staged at Butlins in Skegness. Event organiser, Russ Winstanley, was so impressed with the young man’s enthusiastic talent that he invited him to regularly perform at his events, often alongside Motown and Northern Soul legends, many of whom he befriended. “Like the majority of soul fans, I just love Paul’s incredible voice” said Russ. “The quality and purity left me staggered.” Paul’s career escalated when, in May this year, he flew to Detroit to record “Tomorrow’s Love” (based around a 1965 instrumental by Billy Butler) at the renowned United Sound Systems studio. “I haven’t touched the original instrumental” he explained. “What I wanted to achieve was authenticity. This is a Northern Soul record recorded in 2017. I’m not sure when the last original Northern Soul record was recorded in Detroit but it would have been many years ago.” With him in the studio were Kim Weston, Pat Lewes, Tobi Legend, and Rosalind and Betty, the original Vandellas. “When I told them I was going to Detroit to record (it) they all said ‘we’ll be there’. It was just a wonderful experience. I’m lucky enough to be able to call these great artists friends as I have got to know them over the past few years, both from performing with them and also by speaking to them regularly.”
Then during the last two weeks, Paul contacted me saying he’d returned to that Detroit studio to cut the follow-up to “Tomorrow’s Love”, titled “Baby, It’s Yours” with The Fantastic Four providing support vocals. The song is an absolute delight; upbeat, energetic with the catchiest hook I’ve heard in a long while. By the way, it’s flipside “That’s The Truth” was recorded at the same time. Available now on download and, thank goodness, both titles will be available on vinyl by visiting www.paulstuartdavies.co.uk/shop as, of course, was his first single.
Somewhere in between these trips to Detroit, Paul recorded a live performance at the Darwen Library Theatre and issued some of it as an extended play single/CD (not sure what to call it) titled “Northern Soul Reimagined”. Here he was joined by his friends covering tracks like “Long After Tonight Is All Over” and “Because Of You”, together with studio versions of “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” about which the Vandellas said, “It was 53 years ago when we first recorded (the song) with Marvin Gaye at Hitsville USA. What a thrill to once again provide backing vocals on the same song with Paul…with his smooth, clear voice, offering a wonderful, fresh vocal treatment to this truly sentimental song.”
By way of an early Christmas present for Motown fans, Paul has even more recently recorded “Lovin’ Me Stronger”, a realistic reminder of the company’s early work. Having played it a few times, I can honestly say it certainly is a grower and one that gets the fingers tapping. Yes, like this a lot. And check this out – he’s offering it free of charge on his website – so what are you waiting for? Go get and enjoy.
I’ll let Chris Clark have the last word here because she believes Paul is an amazing singer. “I’d heard about him, looked him up and called to ask if he’d duet with me. We had a great time and he’s a steller talent who’s going to be on the scene a very long time.” My grateful thanks to all who contributed to this article, allowing me to join them in my admiration for a young man who is determined to keep our music alive.
Unfortunately, I have to end on a very sad note with the passing of Miracle Warren “Pete” Moore who died on his 78th birthday last week. “(He was) a fine human being and valued member of the Motown family” said Berry Gordy upon hearing the news. “He was a quiet spirit with a wonderful bass voice behind Smokey Robinson’s soft, distinctive lead vocals, and was co-writer on several of the Miracles’ hits. A gentleman, loving husband, devoted father and loyal friend. We all loved him and will miss him.” More about Pete, and his contribution to Motown’s success, next month, but, meantime, on behalf of us all at soulmusic.com, my sincere condolences go out to his family, friends and, of course, his fans. “Pete was my brother since I was eleven years old” Smokey posted on twitter. “ I’m really going to miss him.”
It seems ages since I wrote this page so won’t waste time with preambles except to say have just finished listening to the “ Dusty Sings Classic Soul” CD, and I’d quite forgotten she’d recorded “Needle In A Haystack” which she recorded for her second album “Ev’rythings Coming Up Dusty”. For some reason or other it was excluded at the time which was a huge pity because it also featured Madeline Bell and Doris Troy. In hindsight, if it had been included, the girls giggling at the end of the song would probably have been deleted. Not so here! Let’s TCB…
Mountains of congratulations to Diana Ross who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s American Music Awards. She’s a seven-time award winner and hosted the actual show in 1986 and 1987. This Award will recognise her artistic contribution to the entertainment industry and pop culture in general. “I have endless memories of all the years that I’ve appeared on the American Music Awards” said the lady. “It started with Dick Clark, and The Caravan of Stars and American Bandstand. It was Dick Clark who said ‘music is the soundtrack of our lives’. So true. I am so excited to be receiving this honourable award.” Yay for Diana! And there’s more. I’ve just been told that she’s hoping to launch her own perfume “Diamond Diana” for the Christmas market this year…..
When Norman Whitfield left Motown in 1975 he turned his back on one of the most creative periods in the company’s history. Not only was he, with Barrett Strong, credited with defining a Motown sound, but in the late sixties, he was the forerunner into psychedelic soul, using acts like The Temptations and Edwin Starr as his musical mouthpieces. Generally speaking, an album track could span 15 minutes plus, as Whitfield multi-tracked and multi-layered musical epics, distorting vocals when not disguising them. It was his psychedelic baby, and he manipulated the musical notes to create his indelible mark into the new genre that would last a few years yet before self destructing, following a glutton of sounds that attempted to blow minds with the support of mother’s little helpers, of course. Here’s a little overview of history in the making….
Before spearheading this colourful, crazy time, Norman Whitfield had worked with The Velvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Marvelettes, among others, quite often recording the same song on two or more different acts. However, as innovative as Norman was, it’s not him who’s the subject this time (maybe we’ll re-visit some day) but rather a group of people he hand picked to work with – The Undisputed Truth, comprising Joe Harris, Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce Evans. The ladies, hailing from Los Angeles were members of The Delicates and introduced to Motown by Bobby Taylor. My, didn’t that man have an eye and ear for spotting talent! They worked as session singers on The Four Tops’ “Still Waters” project, Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Edwin’s “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On”. Then when The Delicates disbanded, Norman recruited Joe Harris from The Preps, to form his new trio.
After much deliberating, The Undisputed Truth’s debut single “Save My Love For A Rainy Day” was released during June 1971. Originally recorded by The Temptations as a track on their “With A Lot O’Soul” album during 1967, it was a tentative toe dipper into the massive pond known as the music business. Failing to create commercial waves, Norman sanctioned the release of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” which instigated a mini tsunami. “They represented a challenge to me” Norman told journalists at the time. “People were saying Motown had become stagnant so I set about making a new group with completely new ideas.” However, he said he later felt his efforts for The Truth were in vain because, “the company simply was never into what the group meant.”
“The Undisputed Truth” album quickly followed, containing their first two singles, plus the extraordinary “You Got The Love I Need”, using the same 1965 backing track on The Temptations’ “I Got Heaven Right Here On Earth”, an outtake from the group’s “With A Lot O’Soul”. It was also the only original track on The Truth’s debut, as others included their takes on “Like A Rolling Stone” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Anyway, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, recorded by (you’ve guessed it!) The Temptations on their “Sky’s The Limit” album as a monstrous 12 minute plus musical melee, was given a more down to earth treatment by The Truth, and it was undoubtedly this that attracted record buyers to give the trio their first serious seller. And yet again, a Temptations track was re-visited by The Truth for their third British release, “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” released in June 1972, but it did little to progress their career beyond a solid Motown fan base. Extracted from The Truth’s second album “Face To Face With The Truth”, the title wasn’t American released, and it took a further two years for the single to be followed-up in the UK. Other tracks on the album were mixed, switching to “What’s Going On”, through to “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me”, to the terrifically exciting “What It Is?” – an all time favourite of mine. It has to be said, all credit to Motown’s London office for persevering with these and future releases, believing as they did, in the trio’s potential selling power and, of course, trusting their instincts.
With the promise of a new album during 1973, Motown fans and group alike were hoping for original material, and indeed this did appear to be the case. However, Mr Whitfield had other ideas! The Truth’s “Law Of The Land” album, slotted between Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Moring” and “The Best Of The Detroit Spinners”, represented the last from the group’s original membership. Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce Evans left after its release, leaving Joe Harris to form a quintet with Tyrone “Big Ty” Douglas, Calvin “Dhaak” Stephenson, Virginia “V” McDonald, and Tyrone “Lil Ty” Barkeley, ex-members of the Detroit group, The Magictones. Incidentally, this line-up remained unchanged until they split from Motown.
Once again “Law Of The Land” followed its predecessors with versions of further Temptations’ cuts including “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” (although I believe The Truth recorded the original of this) and “Just My Imagination”, which were slotted between Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”, Al Green’s “Love And Happiness” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”. By all accounts, this was one of the last albums to be recorded in Detroit. Motown had moved to Los Angeles, of course, and despite his better feelings, Norman Whitfield had little choice but to follow if he wanted to remain with the company. A move of location might result in a musical change perhaps? Yes, it did – to a certain extent.
I think it’s fair to say, that fans were being deprived of The Truth’s real talent and, I for one, pined to hear them sing tailor made material, and when news filtered through this could happen on their next album “Down To Earth” in 1974, I counted my blessings. The expanded group recorded the first six tracks, including the fabulous “Help Yourself” released as a single in May ’74, (the long overdue follow-up to “Superstar”) while the remaining four were re-issues. Although the album sold well in R&B circles, it failed to cross over into the mainstream chart, although “Help Yourself” was their most successful mainstream American single since “Smiling Faces Sometimes” three years earlier. “I’m A Fool For You” was lifted as its follow-up to become an R&B hit only. Of the other two tracks, “I’m A Fool For You”, British released in September ’74, was another dancer, and another poor seller. It was so disheartening as nothing seemed to work; thankfully, the London office wasn’t about to give up just yet.
For some reason, in the year when the Tamla Motown label celebrated its 10th anniversary, “Law Of The Land” was issued. It was a different mix to the American release, and I’m thinking this rather unique, albeit belated UK release ensured The Truth was included in the anniversary releases. And so we move on to their next elpee “Cosmic Truth” in February 1975 which, I recall, was totally off the beaten track with the overall feel of Rick James clashing with Jimi Hendrix – but in a good way. An interesting, yet complex project, highlighting Norman Whitfield’s darker side, conjuring up images of hallucination and dodgy trips. The futuristic “UFO’s” bumped into the heavy metal tinged “Earthquake Shake”, while the soulful delivery on “Down By The River” is rather refreshing. One reviewer noted – “you couldn’t take enough drugs these days to make something this wild”. Then, the inevitable happened, their Motown relationship hit stoney ground with their sixth and final album “Higher Than High” seven months later in America, and British release in November 1975. The title track was extracted for single release, and followed the fate of the others. Many felt “Higher Than High” took a giant step further into Whitfield’s complex imagination, following an almost tentative step with “Down To Earth”. With titles like “I’m In The Red Zone” (where sex meets drugs); “Life Ain’t So Easy” (a ballad warning of the perils of big city life) and “Poontang” (with its naughty chorus), the album was considered to be an acceptable parting shot.
“The Truth became pawns in a political situation that had nothing to do with me” Norman Whitfield once said. “I guess that this was what led to me leaving Motown. As a company they developed a lack of respect for what people were doing for them, and they lost their creative direction when certain people left.” In actual fact, two years prior to leaving, Norman had formed his own Whitfield Records, with the intention of Motown distributing its product. When negotiations between the two parties reached deadlock, Norman hooked up with Warner Brothers instead. He encouraged The Undisputed Truth to move with him, with Willie Hutch and Jr Walker following. It was, of course, his biggest non-Motown act Rose Royce (including members of Edwin Starr’s backing group) who put Whitfield Records on the international map.
Signing with the new label, resulted in The Undisputed Truth’s top selling dancer “You + Me = Love”, featuring Chaka Khan’s sister Taka Boom. A pair of albums also benefitted from Whitfield’s promotion machine – “Method To The Madness” and “Smokin’” in 1976 and 1979 respectively. The first featured the disco anthem, adding to its selling power, while the second included classic titles like “Space Machine” and “Atomic Funk”.
When Whitfield Records closed during the early eighties, it seems The Truth disbanded, with its members branching out into other areas of the business, joining other bands or recording as soloists. Moving into the next decade, Joe Harris and Brenda Joyce Evans reformed the group, adding Belita Woods to the membership. As such they joined Ian Levine’s roster of acts to record a new version of “Law Of The Land” for his Motorcity label. Billie Rae Calvin and V McDonald recorded as soloists, and all were featured on the compilation “A Tribute To Norman Whitfield”.
So, the reason for spending time with Mr Whitfield and the Truth will now become apparent because, just recently, a trio of their albums became available in one package titled “Nothing But The Truth” from the guys at Kent Records. For the first time on CD these albums – “The Undisputed Truth”, “Law Of The Land”, “Down To Earth” – plus a handful of bonus tracks, attempt to put right the neglect shown towards their catalogue. After playing the two CDs several times, I have to admit this release is long over due because it brings home just how talented and worthy of success they were. Enjoy the music, because I sure did – and will again……..
Last but not least, and I’m fast running out of space here. The secret is out, and my, it was one that I’ve kept for awhile. Lynda Laurence has left The Former Ladies, and Susaye Greene has replaced her. They’ll be known as “Scherrie and Susaye, Formerly Of The Supremes” with Joyce Vincent. In a statement, Scherrie said that back in 1978 when she and Susaye were auditioning for a third Supreme after Mary Wilson departed, Joyce was their choice. “But, unfortunately, Motown decided to retire the name since no original member was in the group. All these years later, as fate would have it, the three of us are back together again, united as one. Ironic, but wonderful!” Lynda decided it was time to put aside her Supreme gowns to pursue a different avenue, and it goes without saying, that I wish her a fabulous future.
I’ll quickly recap the history of The Former Ladies Of The Supremes using Scherrie’s words. “Ever since the F.L.O.S. were formed by Ronnie Phillips and Superstar International Records back in 1986, it has been a whirlwind trip for me. Initially, the group consisted of Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong and me. Cindy stayed with us for a short time and then, for the second time, as with The Supremes, Lynda took her place. For the next seven years, Jean, Lynda and I travelled and entertained audiences all over the world. Then, Jean made her departure. The group went through several metamorphoses after that, including a name change to ‘Scherrie and Lynda, formerly of The Supremes”. Lynda’s sister, Sundray Tucker, Freddie Poole and then Joyce Vincent, formerly of Tony Orlando and Dawn, joined us.” Incredibly, in April 2016 the ladies celebrated their 30th anniversary! So, now a new, exciting musical journey is about to start with the amended membership, and as Scherrie says, “(We) will do our best to continue to keep the Supreme legacy alive.” As a personal note, all the ladies have been immensely supportive of my work, so it’s the least I can do, to return that love ten fold. Scherrie, Susaye and Joyce, I wish you all every success for the future and thank you for keeping the music alive.
OK, I’m outta here as I’m sure I’ve taken up too much space this time around. Do, please remember that without you, there’d be no me – and for that I count my blessings.
Yay! It has arrived! And reading the excitement gushing across many Facebook pages, there’s not a negative vibe to be read. You know what I’m talking about – Brenda Holloway’s “Spellbound”, which is one of the most exciting compilations this year. I know I’ve been involved from the outset which was, and still is, a tremendous thrill for me because Brenda is one helluva artist and one feisty lady who so graciously chatted to me for ages for the CD notes. The worst part was keeping it a secret! Anyway, there’s no need to detail the tracks included as Paul Nixon, who, with our very own David Nathan, produced the project, does an admirable job, also explaining the origin of the music, but I must say the ballads are totally captivating like “Don’t Compare Me To Her”. There’s a mixture of composers and producers ensuring a huge diversity in Brenda’s ability to easily manage all styles proving, as if she needed to, that she’s the total consummate artist, who, sadly, was categorised in the ‘overlooked’ section of Motown. Compilations like these issued by SoulMusic Records involve many people at the offset, responsible for all the aspects of ensuring the final release is beyond excellent, which is why they can’t be rushed. Believe me, writing the notes was probably the easiest part! All I can say is, thank you guys for bringing us the music, and to Brenda herself for recording such gems in the first place. Maybe here is the right place to mention other SMR Motown CDs just in case they’ve slipped your mind, and a few I’ve been involved with – Thelma Houston’s “Any Way You Like It”, “Billy Preston & Syreeta”, “Syreeta”, G.C. Cameron’s “Love Songs & Other Tragedies”, and The Dynamic Superior’s “Dynamic Superiors”/”Pure Pleasure”. Obviously, we hope there’ll be plenty more to fulfil our Motown dreams. Let’s TCB…
The entire Hotel St Regis in midtown Detroit has been booked to accommodate visitors attending Detroit A Go Go, a five day Motown and Soul Festival booked to start on 18 October. I don’t know too many details, apart from the fact that I’m not going, but I understand performing acts include The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, The Elgins, The Contours, Pat Lewes, JJ Barnes among the advertised list. According to what I’ve read it seems the event will provide an insight into the enduring phenomenon that’s been observed from affar, like the overseas fascination with Motown and its obscure musical cousins. Yorkshire resident, Phil Dick – DJ, record label owner and longtime fan – is the Festival’s organiser, who said that Motown in particular really resonated with the English in the sixties, and “DJs began looking for more records with that sound, looking further afield for more obscure labels. It was that music that really resonated predominantly with the white working class in England; the sound, the beat, but mostly the lyrics. Most of the songs are about love and hope and happiness.” He also acknowledges the huge importance of our Northern Soul Scene, citing that many followers have never been to Detroit that bred this wonderful music, “Detroit has always been right in the centre of the northern soul movement, particularly because of the Motown connection, but also because so much other great music was being made there in the sixties and seventies……I felt that rather than just bringing one or two artists to England, let’s take fans to the US and have lots of them performing for us.” British DJs like Phil himself and Neil Rushton will be spinning the sounds. Y’know what? Sounds like great fun, and I really hope it all comes together for everyone concerned. Click here for more information about tickets, etc.
Flipping over the coin now, the situation doesn’t look that good for the 40th annual Kennedy Centre Honours ceremony in December this year. Due to the political moves undertaken by the Trump administration, one of the announced attendees Lionel Richie may sideline the event. He told the New York Daily Times, “I’m not really happy with what’s going on right now with the controversies….But I think I’m just going to wait it out and see where it’s gonna be by that time.” Apparently, he’s the third to indicate a no-show, and this month President Trump and his First Lady said they won’t be attending either. At this rate, there’ll only be the CBS network television crew there filming, um, nothing much. Moving on….
“The music industry has lost one world class voice, and I’ve lost a long and cherished friend. A piece of my history goes with him. We recorded together, and his band The Vancouvers backed me at the Eden Rock in Miami, and we went to the UK and played some gigs together.” So sayeth Chris Clark about Bobby Taylor who we lost last month. The 83-year-old named lead vocalist with The Vancouvers, had been living in Hong Kong for the past fifteen years or so, and had been undergoing treatment for tumours in his spine and leukemia in his throat. Sadly, he lost the battle. Motown fans will be aware of his musical history, so won’t go into great biographical detail, but thought a few highlights would be of interest. The first, of course, is the single that launched the group into the American crossover chart – “Does Your Mama Know About Me” which was born as a poem by the song’s co-writer Tommy Chong. Keyboardist and composer, Tom Baird read it and put it to music. “It was about a black guy asking his girlfriend if her mama knew about him” wrote Tommy in his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Biography”. “The song was about my own experiences with white women. Being half Chinese, there had been times – actually, many of them – when I had to drop a girl off at the end of the block so her parents wouldn’t see who she was dating. That experience saddened me.” Pressed in red vinyl and released in February 1968 (UK – May 1968), the single was followed by a pair of US hits: “I Am Your Man” (Ashford and Simpson) in June ‘68 and “Malinda” (Smokey Robinson and Warren Moore) in the October. All three releases were lifted from their solitary eponymous album issued August 1968 (the same month as Edwin Starr’s amazing “Soul Master” album), with its British release the following year in the February. It also now appears that both “I Am Your Man” and “Malinda” were originally intended to be solo Bobby songs but ended up being credited to the group as well. Probably as insufficient tracks had been recorded for their debut album.
Anyway, let’s back track. Born in Washington DC, Bobby’s parents were of Native American and Puerto Rican descent, and he lived in the same neighbourhood as Marvin Gaye when they were kids. He said his mother sang with the great opera singer, Marian Anderson, and her best friends included Billie Holiday, which allowed him to hang out with Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and other A-listed names while he was growing up. “My family knew all the musicians around, and every time somebody would come to town, they’d stop by the house. I always knew when somebody was coming because we’d have big pots of chitterlings and cornbread piled up to the ceiling.” Bobby also served as a cook during the Korean War, later performing with a variety of groups like Little Daddy and the Bachelors, before meeting guitarist Tommy Chong, who would later partner fellow comic “Cheech” Marin. They went on to form The Vancouvers (Wes Henderson, Ted Lewis, Robbie King, Eddie Patterson, Tommy, with Bobby on lead), and supported Motown artists on tour, earning themselves a name to be watched. While supporting The Supremes, Berry Gordy caught their act which included them singing Motown material, and as Tommy wrote, “We could cover any tune we felt like because Bobby could sing them all……Bobby had a range that exceeded Patti LaBelle…. He used to do ‘Danny Boy’ and make everybody cry in the audience. He would hit notes that were unbelievably high and he could sound like anybody he wanted to sound like – Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. I’ve been with a lot of singers, but nothing like Bobby.” They also dipped into The Impressions’ songbook which included the little-known “I Wonder”, the very first song Tommy heard Bobby perform in San Francisco. It later became their most requested song. As well as enjoying their performance, Berry Gordy was also taken by “Does Your Mama Know About Me” and it was probably this that instigated him signing the multi-cultured unit to Motown. “Everybody was just kids” Bobby Taylor told journalist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor during 1998. “We didn’t know business. So Berry Gordy had us sign everything away: even gave them power of attorney. They said they needed it so they could put our cheques in the bank for us if we… were on the road.” When their single began selling, Bobby and the group toured with Diana Ross and the Supremes. Tommy takes up the story, “We opened the show and performed part of our club routine, which eventually pissed off Diana Ross so much that she had the tour manager tell us to stop doing it.” It appeared she was offended by the lyrics of a Parliament song they performed, which the group amended to sing “oh, white girls, you sure been delicious to me.” Diana’s sentiments were also shared by the tour promoters who were not prepared for an unknown band from Canada singing about white girls in this way, particularly as they formed a huge part of the audience!
An outspoken, no-nonsense guy, prone to wearing purple suits, Bobby’s reputation for straight talking, hit Motown. So much so that when he arrived at the studio, the switchboard would alert everybody and they would lock their office doors. “There was no filter on Bobby’s mouth” Tommy said. “He would tell Berry Gordy ‘Nappy-headed little n*****, what’s happening?’ He would talk to Berry like he would talk to me.”
Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers also supported Chris Clark when she performed at the Saville Theatre in London during November 1967, supporting Gladys Knight and the Pips. During an add-on club date while in the city, Chris remembered a vision in tight white leather, white hat with a huge feather, jumping on stage, grabbing a guitar and tearing the place down. It was Jimi Hendrix, and although he subsequently took a while for his star to rise, she immediately recognised a huge talent in the making. Touring with Chris was a regular occurrence in America, where her road manager was Johnny Bristol. However, this touring arrangement came to an end when Tommy and Wes Henderson had to attend an immigration meeting to sort our their green cards on the same date as they had agreed to support Ms Clark. During a verbal altercation, Johnny Bristol sacked both from the group, which eventually led to it breaking up.
During 1968 Bobby left his group to record as a soloist where his limited releases switched labels. His first “Oh, I’ve Been Blessed”/”Blackmail”, was originally scheduled on the Gordy label, but transferred to VIP for early 1970 release. A year later “My Girl Has Gone” carried the Gordy label, while “Hey Lordy” was a Mowest single in November 1971. In between times, he released “Taylor-Made Soul” in July 1969 on Gordy; British release was six months later. Nothing worked, despite the high calibre of the material, so Bobby and Motown parted company by 1971, although a financial disagreement was said to be the real reason. Bobby later successfully sued Motown for unpaid royalties.
Despite the hype at the time that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, it was, of course, Bobby Taylor who brought them to Berry Gordy’s attention. The Vancouvers were sharing a bill with Jerry Butler at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, with the Jackson 5 as support act, performing a gruelling five shows daily for ten days. The brothers stole the show the minute they took to the stage. “I saw this little kid spinning and stuff and said ‘dang, send him upstairs when he finishes. I want to talk to that kid’” recalled Bobby in one interview, and in another, said “Michael was about eight. In between sets he used to go to sleep on my lap.” So excited was he, that he invited the brothers and their father Joe to Detroit where, during July 1968, they auditioned for Suzanne de Passe. She instantly signed them to a seven-year contract, and Berry Gordy assigned Bobby to work with them. “I had them come live with me that summer while they were auditioning” Bobby said. “….I was living in a white apartment building at the time, and the other tenants, they didn’t want these little black kids around the place. They didn’t do any bad stuff, they were just normal kids running around. But the other tenants didn’t like it, so it got us all kicked out.”
Becoming the Jackson 5’s first producer, they recorded Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You”, among other titles. Working with Michael Jackson was comfortably easy for Bobby because of the youngster’s ability to grasp the recording process. “He’d go in and do it. Everything I gave him to sing, he could sing right back at me.” It was the perfect relationship but, one time, when Joe Jackson attempted to interfere with a session, Bobby pulled a gun on him. However, Berry Gordy considered the songs Bobby produced for the brothers were old-fashioned, and not the way he wanted them to be presented to the public. So, he side stepped him and formed The Corporation, a group of his top composers/producers to deliver original, blue-eyed soul music. In the notes for the 1995 Jackson 5 “Soulsation” CD set, Bobby said, “I’m not an ass-kisser. I’ll tell you what I think. I was running things my way and didn’t want any interference. I was turning the Jackson 5 into a classic soul act. Berry Gordy didn’t like that. He had ideas of his own. He wanted Michael doing more bubblegum material. He sent me packing.” Tommy Chong, on the other hand, fervently believed Bobby’s greatest talent was teaching people how to sing. “’Come on m*****f*****, you can hit that note. Come on, just hit it! That’s the way he was.” Although he went on to supervise most of their debut album “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5”, Bobby received little or no credit for working alongside The Corporation on their early singles like “I Want You Back” and “ABC”..
Several years after leaving Motown, Bobby Taylor discovered he had throat cancer, and relocated to Ohio to live with his mother. He dismissed traditional treatment and sought a herbal cure which was successful to a point, because the polyps returned, prompting Bobby to comment at the time – “I’m not going to do chemotherapy. I came into this life with all my hair and I’m going out with it.” However, this didn’t prevent him from recording, as he released singles on Sunflower, Tommy Zs7, Playboy and Philadelphia International. Then, during the early nineties, Bobby was signed by Ian Levine to record an album for his innovative Motorcity Records label based in London. Titled “Find My Way Back” it featured among its tracks re-works “Does Your Mama Know About Me”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Down To Love Town”.
From here, Bobby Taylor moved to Beijing, before relocating to Hong Kong, where he continued to sing, mostly in friends’ nightclubs. I’m told his last known recording was “Humanity” a tribute to the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner. In one of his later interviews, Bobby told the South China Morning post, “I have twelve kids, met three presidents and, in general, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Before closing this, Chris Clark said she heard a demo of Bobby and the Vancouvers singing the Frank Wilson/Pam Sawyer song “Evening Train” which was headed her way to record. However, Diana Ross stepped in, recorded it with a different arrangement to include it on the group’s “Love Child”. “After hearing Bobby’s version, I personally wouldn’t have even dared to try and match it”, said Ms Clark. ”Please Motown, release his track as his swan song, because my Northern Soul family will adore it.”
The very last word goes to Tommy Chong, “St Peter’s going ‘Bobby Taylor’s in Heaven now, notify everybody!’”
(My thanks to J Douglas Allen-Taylor; Tommy Chong and his book “Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorised Autobiography” and others I was unable to identify. The visuals included here belong to Chris Clark and are reprinted with her permission. They must not be reproduced elsewhere)