Motown Spotlight - November 2018

Motown Spotlight – November 2018

I’m a little late with this because I’ve not been at my desk for the last few weeks or so, and then there was a delivery hiccup but, hey, we’re here now with this review of Thelma Houston’s mega release featuring her last four Motown albums on one CD package, courtesy SoulMusic Records. Not only are we treated to the full track listings on “The Devil In Me”, “Ready To Roll”, “Ride The Rainbow” and “Reachin’ All Around”, but also bonus titles and extended editions like 1977’s non-album flipside “If You Won’t Let Me Walk On The Water”, and 1978’s “Love Masterpiece” from the “Thank God It’s Friday” movie. Phew…

As you know, Thelma has been performing for over forty-seven years, recorded more than twenty-three albums, and is still wowing audiences with her “Motown Experience”, a ninety-minute tribute to the music of Motown and More. “My show is about celebrating love”, she says. “With the backdrop of Motown, I take you on a passionate journey that will have you singing along from the beginning to the end.” Featuring twenty-plus Motown songs, Thelma takes her audiences on a musical and inspirational journey chronicling her career, and from what I’ve seen on her website, it’s a pretty exciting adventure too. She also pays tribute to Jimmy Webb through the glorious “Sunshower” album and visits her gospel roots. “You are never too old to follow your dreams!” Of course, we’re hoping that one day we’ll get to see this show over here but, for now, she’s committed to performing in America through to the new year.

While at Motown, Ms Houston may not have been given the best material but she certainly turned around any inferior tracks, personalising them by injecting her stylish presentations into the grooves, bringing the songs alive. She easily adapts from ballad to dance, and, believe me, there’s a few monster cuts across these four albums. Disc one, kicks off with “I’m Here Again” – the follow-up to “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, although her duet with Jerry Butler, “It’s A Lifetime Thing” was squashed in between. “At the time that song (“I’m Here Again”) happened I was changing labels [at Motown] and that had an effect” she told me. “It was manufactured to be the same as ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and I didn’t really like it but felt obligated to do it. Then after that was ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ which I thought was a far better song. You think about things like this, try to analyse and figure out why something happens, but in the end you decide no one thing can be blamed.” Other titles to mention are the mesmerising “Baby, I Love You Too Much”, and the absolute highlight “Your Eyes”. A sizzling ballad; an unrelenting emotional experience, which has been high on my playlist since its original release. An awesome song on so many levels.

>Disc two opens with the afore-mentioned “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” (from 1979) leading into a couple of the most compelling songs I’ve heard – “I Wanna Be Back In Love Again” and “Imaginary Paradise” – yet there’s the intoxicating “Lies” and “(I’ve Given You) The Best Years Of My Life”. Of her time with the company, Thelma had few regrets, as she explained while still a signed artist. “They are good to me and have taken a genuine interest in me….and they don’t make me do anything I don’t really want to do. ….I wanted to go to acting lessons, and Motown paid for me to do that. I also wanted to do an album in 1975 for Sheffield Lab and they let me. The album was called ‘I’ve Got The Music In Me’ and I honestly loved doing it.”

I’ve known Ms Houston since the seventies, from our first meeting when we sipped drinks in London’s Serpentine Bar, and to now have her last Motown recordings in one package kinda rounds off that phase in her recording life. As an aside, she looks great and quirky, with her funky hairstyles and glamorous stage gowns. Her cheeky smile and twinkling eyes, and, of course, her voice!

Talking about Ms Houston leads me to the second release I’d like to highlight now – “The Essential Motown Northern Soul” 3-CD set, featuring a staggering sixty-six tracks. As with any compilations like this, it’s a foregone conclusion that fans will have several, if not, the bulk of the tracks. However, for someone like myself this release will save me dipping into other releases like the “Cellarful” series because there’s more than enough here to satisfy my hunger in one listening session. I can quite understand though that some, more in the know than myself, will find this release quite disconcerting, wanting unissued items to replace duplicate titles. It’ll come I’m sure. Obviously I won’t attempt to talk about each title as we’d be here forever and beyond, so will just mention a few.

There’s the familiar titles like the NS Motown anthem, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” which rightly kicks off the adventure, followed by the Four Tops’ “Something About You” and “I’m Grateful”; Tammi Terrell’s “All I Do Is Think About You” and “Give In, You Just Can’t Win”; the Isley Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s Just A Rumor Baby”; The Velvelettes’ “Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I”; Earl Van Dyke and the Motown Brass’ “6 By 6”; The Undisputed Truth’s “You Got The Love I Need”; Thelma Houston’s “I Ain’t Going Nowhere”; Stevie Wonder’s “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”…. you get the picture?

Personally speaking, I was overjoyed to see “Why Am I Lovin’ You” from Debbie Dean, and from Patrice Holloway “The Touch Of Venus”, while “Can’t Hold The Feeling Back” and “We’ll Keep On Rolling” are included from her sister Brenda. There’s a couple of interesting slices from The Temptations, “A Tear From A Woman’s Eyes” and “Angel Doll”, alongside a few from Gladys Knight And the Pips, including the mesmerising “No One Could Love You More”. No NS compilation would be complete without Chris Clark, so check out “Something’s Wrong” – you won’t be disappointed. Likewise, Barbara McNair’s “It Happens Every Time” – sheer magic. So with Kim Weston, The Monitors, Al Kent, The Supremes, The Dalton Boys, David Ruffin, Tommy Good, among the other featured artists, this is a well-rounded, thoughtful and entertaining release that, I think, will be welcome in any record collection. However, I have one gripe – there’s no accompanying booklet and, as you know, this annoys the hell out of me!

Let’s move on…with an update of the Motown Museum’s expansion project which began filtering through some months ago. Some of the original plans have been scrapped to be replaced by new conceptual designs and ideas. With over 70,000 visitors a year flooding into Detroit to walk the sacred boards in the Hitsville building, it seemed logical to use this historical site in a redevelopment programme. Just recently, Berry Gordy hosted meetings with Suzanne de Passe and Museum officials, including its CEO Robin Terry (Berry’s great niece) because, with the company’s 60th anniversary looming, plans for the 50,000 square foot complex that will be built around and behind Hitsville, need to be escalated. The plan (at this time) includes transforming the West Grand Boulevard site into a contemporary cultural experience, a cutting-edge complex, with Hitsville being the jewel in the crown. After sitting idle for over a decade, the building was, as you’re aware, taken over by Esther Gordy Edwards, who, with tireless dedication transformed it into a museum in 1985. Berry was intent on keeping his company’s legacy alive by different means and, it appears, creating a museum wasn’t a priority for him. However, his mind was changed when he realised just how important it was to preserve the birthplace of his company.

Financial support for the proposed project was initially pledged by conglomerates like the Ford Motor Company, William Davidson Foundation and the DTE Energy Foundation, but now its drawing interest from out-of-state donors. Although Robin Terry was unable to confirm the targeted timeline in an interview with Brian McCollum in the “Detroit Free Press,” she did confirm the philanthropic momentum was growing. “The next six months are game-changing. People are being extremely generous. The work we’ve been doing, these kinds of gifts, they just take time. And now you’ll start to see (the results)” she told McCollum. With promises of a major album campaign and event in Detroit next year, the highlight of the 60th anniversary will be “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” which has been filming since early last year. Directed by the London production company Fulwell 73, the film has Berry Gordy’s total support and input, alongside artists and archive footage.

The heart of Motown may have left Detroit during the seventies, but the city never abandoned one of its biggest assets, and that needs to be preserved, as Robin Terry further said. “There’s a legacy that’s been created here that has had tremendous impact, maybe the most profound in our lifetime, on our culture and this world. ….We have to figure out how to translate this important, authentic Detroit story to (the) next generation.”

As exciting as this is, I have to say – what of the UK?

(My sincere thanks to the Detroit Free Press)

 

Motown Spotlight: July 2017

Motown Spotlight: July 2017

Just as I started planning this Spotlight, an email hit my inbox advertising a hot August night at the Ford Amphitheatre, Hollywood, Los Angeles with Thelma Houston.  Wow!  How amazing she looks – beautiful, quirky and overflowing with fun.  The planned show features ninety minutes of twenty-plus Motown songs that are the backdrop to Thelma’s life, and a little peek-see is available via her website www.thelmahouston.com  and it’s so good. Berry Gordy loves her show, saying “It needs to be everywhere”, while the owner of the jazz club glowed, “I have owned this club for twenty-five years and I have never seen a show like this before.”  The actual hot night is 27 August and the booking office is now open. You lucky Americans: Thelma is a phenomenal entertainer, with a voice to move mountains, and she’s gorgeous. Let me tell you, ladies born during the forties were made to last! Any chance for us in the UK I wonder?

One of the most regularly requested singles on my Saturday evening radio programme on Hailsham FM isn’t by one of Motown’s A-line acts, but rather from an unassuming singer who bypassed the general public through no fault of her own.  I’m talking about Debbie Dean who I’ve mentioned before and who, among other things, recorded the wonderfully upbeat “Why Am I Lovin’ You”, released in February 1968 which bears as much resemblance to the Motown Sound, as chalk does to cheese.  I think it was because of this that it grabbed me, and, of course, in later years, the attention of our beloved Northern Soul fans.  But, who was this Debbie Dean?  Well, during her stay with Motown, information was scarce, and no matter how much journalists like myself scratched around for a few titbits, even asking other artists for a snippet or two about her, nothing was forthcoming. Thankfully that has now changed, and if it’s alright, would now like to spend some time with this lady who really deserved more than she received.  To ensure the composing credits are correct, have consulted two volumes of “The Complete Motown Singles” , while other details I’ve collected over the recent past.

Born Reba Jeanette Smith in February 1928 in Corbin, Kentucky, she moved with her family to Chicago during the fifties. She was the fourth child of Alma and Walter. It’s unclear what persuaded her to pursue the business of music but she performed with  Ralph Marterie and his orchestra early on in her career.  It seems she first started working with Berry Gordy in 1958, so pre-Motown,  when he wrote songs for her, as Penny Smith, and as her group, Penny and the Ekos, signed to Argo Records, including the title “Give Me What You Got”.  Using the name Debbie Stevens, she also recorded “Jerry” for Roulette Records, and in 1959 a version of Rick Nelson’s “If You Can’t Rock Me” for the Apt label, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount. On the personal front, Debbie married celebrity DJ Jim Lounsbury, host of a popular rock ‘n’ roll television show based in Chicago.

At the age of thirty-two, the red haired Reba Smith joined Motown, becoming Berry Gordy’s first signed white artist. Many believed that Mike Powers, and Nick and the Jaguars, the surfing rock group from Pontiac, Michigan, were his first white act but that was a one-off deal to release “Ich-I-Bon”, a previously recorded instrumental on the Tamla label in May 1959.  As the single bombed, no contract was offered them.  As for Yugoslavian-born Mr Powers, the credits on “Teenage Sweetheart” read a Rayber Production which Berry placed it on the Zelman label, a name he’d made up, and a label he presumably owned. I am digressing…. back to the lady in question. Her first recording was an ‘answer’ record to The Miracles’ “Shop Around” titled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”. This was the brainchild of Berry’s sister Loucye,  penned by her, Berry and Smokey Robinson, and featured The Miracles on support vocals no less! Released, under the name Debbie Dean, on the Motown label in February 1961, and despite its novelty angle, it failed to catch record buyers’ attention but did have longevity, representing a small niche in the company’s growth.  Next out was the  much misspelt “Itsy Bity Pity Love”, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums, and influenced by the hit-making pop singer Brenda Lee.  Penned by Janie Bradford and Popcorn Wylie, it was issued August 1961, but followed the same fate as its predecessor.

It’s assumed Debbie didn’t really fit in with the other female acts on the roster being that much older, but Berry Gordy persevered because he felt she could carry Motown into the lucrative pop world, thereby opening the door for his other acts.  A little misguided perhaps, but at least it got Debbie into the recording studio.  Her final single “Everybody’s Talking About My Baby”, written by Berry and featuring the only recorded performance of The Paulette Singers, was released in November 1961.  Again, it followed the fate of her predecessors, so a despondent singer left Motown in 1962.  However, Ms Dean was destined to return.

From Motown, she returned to the public arena, moved to Los Angeles and started performing in Southern California. She recorded “Don’t Bug Me Baby”, in a one-off deal with Sue Records during 1964. For this she chose the name Debra Dion. Two years later, using the same moniker, she recorded “Take My Hand” for Treva Records.  She hooked up with Deke Richards who, I believe, performed with The Deacons, and occasionally supported Ike and Tina Turner.  More importantly, he was the key to Debbie returning to Motown. As a member of the company composing/producing team known as The Corporation or The Clan, he was always on the look out for new writers.  When he learned her past history with the company, he persuaded her to re-join them. Although the intention wasn’t for Debbie to record again, when she co-wrote “Why Am I Lovin’ You” with Deke Richards (Dennis Lussier), they decided to cut it on her but, for some reason, a year passed from recording it to releasing it during February 1968 on the VIP subsidiary.  Once again, the single caused only a minor flutter sales wise, but thank god for us in the UK.  We adopted the song as a Northern Soul item despite only a few DJs owning a copy.  Stock copies were limited, the promotional discs even less – and the single wasn’t British-released.  I’m thinking that whoever owns a copy (including myself) they should wrap it in cotton wool and place in a vault.  Now, of course, it’s in the public domain on one of “The Complete Motown Singles” box sets.  It appears a second single, “You Asked Me” was scheduled but canned. However, that wasn’t the end of her Motown career because she flourished as a songwriter, usually with Deke Richards, to pen “Why Did You Leave Me Darling” for The Temptations,  “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Edwin Starr’s “Backyard Lovin’Man”, among other titles.  Unfortunately, this appears to be the end of my research, except that it has a sad ending because Debbie Dean died during February 2001 in Ojai, Ventura County, California.  Had hoped I’d find more to share with you, but sadly couldn’t.  Still, better than nothing aye.

I’m delighted to say “Chasing Motown” written by M. J. Critchley is now available. It’s his personal view of the company, lavishly presented in full glossy colour where many of the featured pictures are personal so not seen before in the public domain.  As I’ve known Mike since the sixties, it was a huge thrill for me to follow his journey involving meeting a whole host of artists like Brenda Holloway, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (well nearly!), Edwin Starr, Bettye Lavette, The Velvelettes, Kim Weston, Gloria Jones, and so many more.  Alongside his chats with artists, he allows us into his personal life, his extensive travelling often in pursuit of the acts he loves so dearly – many of whom adopted him as a personal friend and a welcome guest to their homes –  and the upsets and highs that accompany this crazy world of music.  Early Motown is extensively covered, and discovering those glorious sounds from Detroit is well documented. So, yes, Mike’s book is a rare gem. Now you need details – via email, mikecritchley@talk21.com or his website, mjcritchley-chasingmotown.com.  Price £22 + p/p £3.40.   On a personal note, thank you Mike for the name checks, and we did share a few adventures didn’t we?

Well, that’s the lot for this month. Thank you for your continued support because without you, there wouldn’t be me.