Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Motown Spotlight -October 2018

Last month we visited an open-ended interview from Stevie Wonder used to help promote his ambitious 1976 “Songs In The Key Of Life”. Having abandoned plans to retire from the music business, Stevie with his signature fresh on a seven-year recording contract with Motown, took a year off to prepare for this double album release. By all accounts, 130 people worked with him, including Gary Byrd (who co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”), Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams (backing vocalists), and musicians Herbie Hancock, Mike Sembello and Nathan Watts. Stevie worked around the clock in the studio, not eating or sleeping, while those around him struggled to keep up with him. “Songs In The Key Of Life” was as groundbreaking as it was influential and totally all consuming. Michael Jackson once said it was his favourite Stevie album, while Elton John said “Let me put it this way, wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of this with me. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Prince called it the best album ever recorded, and Whitney Houston insisted the album was played throughout the photo shoot for her “Whitney: The Greatest Hits”. Every track was considered a perfect jewel or diamond in the raw – “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears”, “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Pastime Paradise” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today”, are probably the most memorable.

“Songs In The Key Of Life” surpassed all expectations. It shot straight to the top of the US album chart, becoming only the third album in music history to do this, and the first by an American artist, after Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies”. Then, the industry accolades poured in. In 1977, Stevie was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year, an award he’d previously won twice in 1974 (“Innervisions”) and 1975 (“Fulfillingness’ First Finale”). Stevie was absent from the 1977 Grammy ceremony, so was hooked up by satellite link from Nigeria. Bette Midler announced the results but due to a poor video signal, the audience was only able to see Stevie holding a phone and smiling. Andy Williams then went on to make the huge public blunder by asking Stevie – “Can you see us?” In the end, Stevie won four of the seven Grammy nominations.

As it was rather lengthy, we’ll continue with it now; besides, his interviews are few and far between, so, despite its age, being able to print this is rather special, don’t you think?

After covering ad hoc subjects, Stevie then spoke about his family life and career. “The life of Stevie Wonder began in 1961, but I’ll go back about eleven years to say I was born May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. I guess shortly after my birth my family moved with my two older brothers and myself to Detroit. In 1971 I moved to New York but in between Detroit and New York is when the life of Stevie Wonder began with me – through a very close friend of mine, Mr John Glover, with whom I had formed a group – of having the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of The Miracles. John Glover, who was a cousin of Ronnie White, had formed a group of myself and him called Steve and John. I would play bongos and sing, and John played guitar. This was before Stevie Wonder. This was Stevland Morris, which is my real name.

“We lived on Breckinridge Street in Detroit, which is on the west side, with very beautiful people and a very warm atmosphere. I did all the things that the normal boy did, like climbing trees or we used to hop barns. They were where you’d keep different parts of cars or whatever. They weren’t really large enough for cars to fit in but they were in the back of the houses.

“We lived in what you’d call an upper/lower class, or a lower/upper class. We had enough to get by and me not knowing what being poor was like. Whatever we did receive as a family, we were appreciative of. Sometimes, we would go without eating. I can prove it to you by the pain that I felt in my stomach, but my mother raised us in the early part of that time by herself.

“She was fortunate enough to meet my second father who, with them being married, she gave birth to two other children. Timothy, who is a Libra, and Renee, who is a Cancer. My next youngest brother Larry, is a Capricorn and two older brothers Calvin is Aries, and Milton, a Virgo.

“They were very beautiful years. I know it was a part of my life that wasn’t yesterday but I can see it crystal clear in front of me as being a very special part of my life, and if I had to live it again, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it was still my destiny to be Stevie Wonder again, the people that I met I’d still owe a lot to. Like my neighbours, to John Glover’s mother, Ruth, who actually was responsible for us getting to Motown, and dealing with a lot of the many things that we were not aware of, and many times my mother wasn’t aware of either.”

Stevie then moved on to talk about the music that influenced his writing, saying there were many different artists that he’s heard and met in his life that he considers to be unbelievable. “There are songs that have influenced my writing. For instance, ‘It’s All In The Game’ is one of my favourites. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is another, and that influenced ‘All In Love Is Fair’. It’s no problem for me to say that there have been many people that have influenced my music. Music is a world within itself, of a language we all understand, with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance to and clap their hands. So it doesn’t belong to any one person or one people. Music is a gift of life; is a toy that our Supreme Being gave us to express our joys and our sorrows, and even in moments to sorrow, to give us the peace and ability to be strong enough to enjoy the peace that it sometimes brings. I really love the songs of Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Ray Charles. I feel there will never be an award great enough to give to hm [Ray Charles].. He has opened the door to so many hearts, has made the bridge possible to fill the gap that was between many different kinds of music. You know, I can’t believe, for instance, that he received an award from a song I wrote, ‘Living For The City’. That song was alright but he deserves something even better than that.”

Dealing with the demands of public life, was something Stevie adjusted to because he said he knew what the job was before I took it. “So you have to hash out all these things in your mind. Amongst the excitement you are feeling…you know, you are going to have moments where there will be personal things that adhere just to your life that are significant only to yourself, but you still have to face your audience and do a performance. “

And, finally, he spoke of his plans for the future. “I hope to do a book about myself. There have been people that have set out to write different things about Stevie Wonder in book form, but I believe that the book I’ll write – which will take a great deal of (time) – will kinda speak of things that many people don’t know about, and definitely would not know about, if they haven’t heard any of my music. But, my music actually speaks in the closest way to me than anything else I could ever do. If you listen to the ones I’ve written, or those of others that I will record, you’ll hear how I feel, and it is the only way that …..it’s the deepest me, and I sometimes feel that people that listen to the music, or my fans are much closer to me than some who are my close acquaintances or friends.”

So, there you are. Interesting stuff eh? And it was only by chance that I happened to come across the 1976 interview while looking for another piece of research that was totally unrelated. I’m guessing my filing system needs a huge, dedicated overhaul!

In between writing last month’s blog and this, I flew to New York for a short break, combining both work and pleasure. Once again, I’d quite forgotten how I suffered from jet lag following these long hauls, and, true to form, it took me about a week to feel anything like my normal self. Lightweight I hear you say….and you’d be right! Combined with that, I returned with a New York head cold which has now gone the same way as the jet lag – thankfully. Anyway, while in the city that never sleeps, I was invited to visit Andy Scurow at Universal Music Group’s offices. Although I was there in 2013, it’s always a thrill to walk into his extremely disorganised office (“But I know where everything is,” he laughed. “Much like my office at home,” I said with eyebrows raised) because of the history contained within the reels of master tapes relocated from Detroit. There are shelves of them, crammed alongside his reference books (clocked two of mine) and other items. A few corridors down from his office is the studio where he and others work on potential re-issued projects. His last, as you know, was the extremely lavish expanded edition of “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland” which was welcomed by fans. One of Andy’s biggest thrills was when Diana Ross endorsed the release. They met, chatted about it, and when he gave her a copy, she agreed to be photographed with it. However, he told me, securing further releases is rather sketchy at the moment, and, when I pressed him about it being Motown’s 60th anniversary next year, and shouldn’t we all be working towards ensuring the event didn’t pass by unnoticed, we ended up in stalemate.

On the upside, we relocated to the studio where, under guidance, I had the huge thrill of being instrumental in lifting a lead voice from support vocals and individual instruments on the computer. Choosing the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, I was able to hear unencumbered, the raw, soulful voice of Levi Stubbs, then added Obie, Duke, Larry and the Andantes into the mix before bringing in the music, practically instrument by instrument. By being able to do this in the grander scale of things, means that singers and musicians are easily identifiable when a particular track is being considered for re-issue, ensuring the correct credits are included with the release. It’s a long and assiduous process that bites heavily into personal time but which, in the end, is so worthwhile. Of all the Motown artists, there’s a gigantic demand for Diana Ross’ unreleased titles, and although Andy and I spoke of several canned albums’ worth of her material – and I daren’t give any more details here – it seems unlikely her fans will have ‘ear’ of them in the near future.

Before closing, I’d just like to say that I hope our most significant and influential re-issue labels like SoulMusic Records and Kent are able to help us celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary next year. If there’s a way, I know the guys will find it!

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 - March 2018

Motown Spotlight – March 2018

Can it really be over fifty years ago that one of the most groundbreaking programmes was screened on prime time national television?  Well, indeed it is, and for people as young as myself, we settled in to watch an event that, in my opinion, was a first, not only for Motown fans, but the British public in general. As Rediffusion covered the  London area, and I lived in East Sussex, I needed to secure the indoor television aerial in just the right position to pick up a viewable signal.  Quite an art I can tell you, but possible. So, what am I talking about? The Sound Of Motown, screened at 9.40pm on 28 April 1965 on Associated Rediffusion Television.  To say it was the most exciting of programmes would be a total understatement. It was a dream come true, an ambition realised, and, although not recognised at the time, the programme made significant inroads into breaking down the barriers erected in the entertainment world.

So, how did it come about?  As years passed, different stories emerged but I think it’s fair to say that this is probably what happened. However, let’s backtrack for a second to another programme which, to all intents and purposes, was the launching pad for The Sound Of Motown.  On 9 August 1963, Ready Steady Go, a brand new, and innovative music programme was screened for the first time by Rediffusion. I won’t dwell too much on this because the series – which lasted until 23 December 1966 – has been well documented over the years, but suffice to say, it revolutionised the way in which music was presented to viewing audiences.  Originally filmed in the small Studio 9 in London’s Kingsway, where participating acts mimed to their songs, Ready Steady Go was later transferred to the larger Studio 5 at Wembley, enabling artists to perform live, with an orchestra tucked away somewhere which was difficult due to the layout of the studio floor.  Artists performed on different mini-stages, often in the middle of a dancing audience; occasionally from studio gantries, or from the top of a staircase. As if this wasn’t tricky enough, the ever present cameras were large with rotating lens turrets rather than zooms, and weaved around the audience, often careering into unsuspecting individuals.  But, hey, that was part of the fun and no serious damage was done. RSG was glorious organised mayhem, broadcast live, bringing into our living rooms some of the best soul music of the time, alongside the major names in popular music.

The best remembered presenters, Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan, steered the programme as best they could, often stumbling over their lines and presenting acts that weren’t ready to perform.  Joining them was the now solo Dusty Springfield, riding off her first hit single “I Only Want To Be With You”.  A regular visitor to the programme as a member of The Springfields, and as a member of the audience, Dusty was a Britain’s top female singer and a huge coupe for the RSG team. Besides she loved to party!  By now, of course, it was no secret that The Beatles and Dusty were avidly flying the Motown flag, mentioning the company in interviews and singing its material on live and television shows. What better ambassadors could Motown have had!  “I suppose I had a lot to do with promoting them,” Dusty once said. “I didn’t realise it at the time.  It’s only when people have told me that, including Motown people themselves.  (Motown was) running my motor so to speak, so it never occurred to me that I was doing PR for them.  I was just entranced.”

Due to her immense drawing power it was decided to give Dusty her own television programme and, as she and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were now best friends, -after meeting up when Dusty appeared on Murray The K’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Extravaganza at New York’s Fox Theatre with a host of American acts including a Motown contingent – they were lined up to be her special guests.  This was to change, Dusty told me, when Berry Gordy planned to send his first Motown Revue to tour Britain to celebrate the opening of the Tamla Motown label during March 1965. Following a licensing deal with EMI Records, it was deemed logical to include all the touring acts with Martha and the girls. Besides it was a brilliant marketing tool to promote the new label, marking the longest free advertisement for a relatively unknown American artist roster on black and white commercial television.   The Motown Revue was to kick off at the Finsbury Park Astoria on 20 March, before hitting venues in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Wolverhampton, among others.  Twenty-one towns in twenty-four days, with a television programme to rehearse, film and complete before they left London.  No mean feat!

Shortly after 7am on Monday, 15 March 1965, the Motown contingent arrived at London Airport on their chartered Boeing 707.  Berry Gordy’s artists were accompanied by lawyer George Schiffer, Maxine Powell, chaperones Evelyn Johnson and Ardena Johnson, road managers, assistants and hairdressers, while Berry Gordy brought his three oldest children (Hazel, Berry and Terry), his mother and father.  Carrying customised B.O.A.C. Cunard flight bags advertising the Tamla Motown label, they were all enthusiastically welcomed by members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society.  Prior to the visit, Berry had written to Dave confirming that 15 March was a red letter day because his new label would be launched on that date. “It is as a result of such loyal and devoted efforts as yours that such an historic event is possible. All the artists and entire staff join me in thanking you for your loyal and unwavering support of Tamla Motown and its artists.”

Once everyone was settled in the Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone, meeting up with The Temptations was first for obligatory photo shoots around London’s tourist attractions. This was supervised by Motown UK’s Peter Prince and, my, how those historic visuals have remained relevant through the decades.  Almost magical. Next was free time where they explored the West End. Incidentally, The Supremes were the only group to occupy the penthouse suite next to the Gordy family, confirmed by the ladies in later press interviews. They also talked of the gifts Berry lavished on them, including diamond rings.

Anyway, back to the plot, and following hasty meetings between Dusty and Vicki Wickham, producer of Ready Steady Go, Rediffusion were asked to approve the  revised plan for the television programme.  Dusty was now to host a Motown show featuring Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Earl Van Dyke Sextet, whose membership was the company’s finest – Jack Ashford, Eli Fontaine, Robert White, Bob Cousar, Tony Newton, led by their leader, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke.  Not surprisingly, Berry Gordy wouldn’t allow his two most valued musicians, drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson, to tour. They stayed in Detroit to head up the remaining musicians, to keep recording sessions flowing in the artists’ absence. Martha Reeves was happy with this new concept. She still had an ace up her sleeve.  By the way, The Temptations, who weren’t on the Revue, were already in Britain on a promotional trip, and returned to Detroit following the show’s taping. Stevie Wonder was also in town prior to the Revue arriving, while Gordy’s most in-demand soloist Marvin Gaye was unable to join them due to a serious viral infection.

Originally, called Dusty Springfield Presents The Sound Of Motown, it was during production abbreviated to The Sound Of Motown, although the concept remained untouched.  Music journalist, Bob Dawbarn, who attended the rehearsals at the Wembley studio wrote “It was the usual shambles as the fast-moving show was assembled. With artists streaking like greyhounds in and out of dressing rooms for quick costume changes and sweating cameramen given only seconds to switch from one group to the next.”   Supremes, Florence Ballard told him – “We’ve brought fourteen changes of costume on this trip. The big problem is sizes.  Finding something that we all liked, that will look right in all our sizes.”  However, Bob’s immediate impression was one of complete and polished professionalism of the participating artists which, he wrote, “makes some of our miming monsters look the rank amateurs they really are.”

The acts worked for twelve hours solid at the studio, with no retakes, singing live to pre-recorded tracks although upon viewing it did seem Earl Van Dyke’s musicians were also playing in the moment.  The studio itself was more like a large industrial yard and looking at a picture of it now, showing all the acts for the finale, there was scaffolding to one side of the studio, the audience seated on the other, with a backdrop of the artists’ names littered across the skyline of Detroit. Immediately in front of the backdrop was a raised area for the dancers which stretched from one side to the other; in front of this, the musicians, who looked out onto the huge space in front of them. On this particular picture, Martha and the Vandellas were next to The Temptations and Dusty on one side, in the middle The Miracles and Stevie Wonder, and on the other side The Supremes.  Scattered around them were cameramen, steering cumbersome equipment, varying in size.

However, although the running order was planned in advance, it became apparent that as rehearsals progressed Berry Gordy was calling the shots. Martha Reeves, who was Dusty’s first choice, noticed these changes, as she recalled in her autobiography “Dancing In The Streets”. “I took offence when Berry began moving acts around until The Supremes were in a co-starring position.  The Supremes didn’t even know Dusty but suddenly they were incorporating a cover version of Sam Cooke’s ’Shake’ to supply them material for an additional spot.”  She also commented that The Supremes’ records were just starting to sell in Britain, while she and the Vandellas had toured once before, cementing a solid fan base, therefore her group should have been awarded the extra spot.  She told Berry of her feelings and balked at his response which went along the lines of that The Supremes were on the top rung of the ladder and Martha and the Vandellas were on the lower one. “My disappointment showed clearly on my face and in my voice. As we lined up for the finale, I was directed by the producers to a spot where the camera did not reach.  Standing off to the sidelines for the finale, I must have looked real ugly because I was so sad and hurt.”

However, what Martha didn’t realise at the time, because the comments came from the television viewers, her duet with Dusty on “Wishin’ And Hopin’” was voted as one of the programme’s highlights, even to this day.  “I could see Diane in the wings eating her heart out because she hadn’t been chosen to do it,” Martha further wrote in her book. “On another number (‘Can’t Hear You No More’) we also sang backup for Dusty.”  I’ve just watched a video of “Wishin’ And Hopin’” and smiled because  Dusty is gooning around part way through the song, which I suspect, is a reaction to being plagued by nerves.  In her book “Dreamgirl”, Mary Wilson wrote that she enjoyed working with Dusty.  “Her and the crew treated each one of us like a star, but it was clear that Martha and the Vandellas were their favourites.  That was okay. I always thought there was room for all of us at the top.”

Once the cameras had rolled for the last time and the programme was in the bag, the Motowners  headed for a party hosted by singer Dana Valery in Holland Park.  There they joined Vicki, Dusty and her brother Tom, members of the Rolling Stones, Madeline Bell, Sandie Shaw, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, among others. A who’s-who in British music, all wanting to bask in Motown’s magic.

So, it’s now the evening of 28 April and The Sound Of Motown is about to start.  And one by one, we’re introduced to the Sound of Young America on a whistle-stop tour of classic songs, iconic dance routines and lifetime memories.  We salivated to Martha and the Vandellas with “Heatwave”, “Nowhere To Run”, “Dancing In The Street”;  The Supremes and “Baby Love”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go”.  We loved The Temptations impeccable choreography while performing “My Girl”, “It’s Growing”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, while soaking up The Miracles’ smooth deliveries on “Ooo Baby Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”. Little Stevie’s “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues” and “Kiss Me Baby” was compulsive viewing as, in one instance, he performed on top of a pedestal without falling off.  Then, before you can catch your breath or believe your eyes, the finale “Mickey’s Monkey” with all acts singing and dancing, rounded off this once-in-a-lifetime programme, in true Motown style!   “The actual sound of Tamla Motown is always distinctive and unmistakable” said Dusty at the time. “The music is light, lifting but strong..and never boring. The songs are excellent and because of this many have become standards.  The artists are as exciting as their records. All professional and knock-out performers. There’s the phenomenal Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas.  Their ‘Heatwave’, ‘Live Wire’ and my all-time favourite ‘Dancing In The Street’ make them one of the most exciting acts I’ve ever seen.”

As time passed fans were desperate to own a copy of the programme, but nothing seemed to be available either legally or not. Dave Clark International bought the rights to the programme and it appears refused, for some reason, to make it commercially available. Then in 1985, “Ready Steady Go! Special Edition” was released, featuring The Sounds Of Motown including a clumsy insert of Marvin Gaye singing two songs, “How Sweet It Is” and “Can I Get A Witness”.  Until 2018, Dave Clark retained the rights, whereupon it was announced that BMG Rights Management had acquired ancillary rights to the whole Ready Steady Go series which I’m assuming, includes the Motown special.  Could it be a re-issue is on the horizon?

There’s much more that could be written about this extraordinary time in Motown’s British history, and the programme that’ll always remain a highlight, but I just thought an overview of how/where/when it came about might be of some interest. Sure, I realise I’ve neglected the actual Revue, so maybe we’ll get to this another time.

As always, thank you for being with me this month and, believe me,  there’s loads more coming your way this year.

Watch the entire show on YouTube…

Motown Spotlight, April 2017

Motown Spotlight, April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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