In May 1965 Tamla Motown started to release records on their own UK imprint. Now we all love a list but the Motown discography really is a thing of wonder. The first three 45s are “Stop In The Name Of Love” (Supremes), “Nowhere To Run” (Martha & the Vandellas) & “Ooh Baby Baby” (Miracles). It’s like…how did they do that ?
The label did take a little time before it became the nonpareil Hit Factory. That first year saw releases by Choker Campbell’s Big Band, crooner Billy Eckstein & rockabilly Dorsey Burnette. I’m sure that these, like others who did not trouble the chart compilers, had merit but they were hardly “The Sound Of Young America”. There were other acts who were around, who even made a significant contribution to the label, but are not considered to be in the pantheon of great Motown artists. And here’s one now.
A new year, a new name for the Elgins who recorded their first Motown release as the Downbeats. The female singer, Saundra Mallett was new too. The band were produced by Holland & Dozier & got first shot at some pretty good songs by the ace team of Holland, Dozier, Holland. Both “Heaven Must Have Sent You” & “Put Yourself In My Place” were Top 10 R&B hits in the USA & were absolute dance floor fillers in the UK. 1966 was an annus mirabilis for H-D-H but I’m surprised that “Heaven” was not held back for Diana, Mary & Flo’ because it is an absolute Motown classic stomper. A 3rd single from their only LP, the lovely “I Understand My Man”, bombed & the Elgins were over by 1967. Thanks then to “Swingin’ Time”, a music show out of Windsor Ontario just across the river from Detroit, for capturing this charming, pure 1966 Motown moment. Five years later the Elgins had hit records in the UK when re-issues of these golden oldies captured the next generation of youth clubs & soul dances. Top stuff !
Brenda Holloway in May 1967, in colour…oh yes ! Berry Gordy Jr signed Brenda to his label when she was just 17. She was from California & chose to remain on the West Coast rather than re-locate to Detroit. This independent streak did not always serve her well but a hit record on her first go around positioned Brenda as the female solo star to replace Mary Wells, the “Queen of Motown” who left the label in 1964. “Every Little Bit Hurts” is an emotional blockbuster of a song, a soul classic. Brenda toured with the Beatles in 1965 but Smokey Robinson gave her Wells’ old songs to record & the hits were not repeated. By the time “Just Look What You’ve Done” was recorded she had her problems at Motown. Her self-determination was regarded as trouble-making & more amenable acts got more promotion. The track, written by Frank Wilson & R. Dean Taylor, is vintage Motown & sold quite well. Brenda wanted more &, in 1968, walked out of a Detroit recording session, returned to Los Angeles & never went back.
To say that Brenda is looking good in this clip is a statement of the bleeding obvious, She was a striking woman & 40 years later she still is. We know because her music has not been forgotten, especially around the UK Northern Soul scene. “Every Little Bit Hurts” has been recorded by Aretha & Alicia. Here in Britain the Spencer Davis Group, the Small Faces & the Clash have paid their respects. After Motown Brenda almost retired. It was the interest from the UK which encouraged a return to performing & a chance to see an artist who made some great records but who’s potential was perhaps never fully realised by the label.
In 1966 Jimmy Ruffin got the break that all singers looked for. His recording of “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” caught the wave of Tamla tenderness & became a world-wide smash. Jimmy had passed on an offer to become a Temptation to his younger brother David. It seemed that he had done the right thing. “I’ve Passed This Way Before” was the next along. The same team of James Dean & William Weatherspoon (without arranger Paul Riser) wrote the song & it made the Top 20 but Jimmy struggled to establish his own identity as a performer. There were diminishing returns for subsequent 45s. In 1970 the Ruffin Brothers made an LP together which can still make you sit up & listen to it’s sweetness & passion.
Jimmy remained at Motown & around 1970 records which meant little in the US became big hits in the UK. This is because Jimmy had not been forgotten. Over here we do try to value quality over the latest bright shiny thing being waved before us. It is also because “I’ll Say Forever My Love”, “Farewell is a Lonely Sound” & “It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved By You)” were all good songs, well produced, that were certainly worth having around. Jimmy Ruffin, like Edwin Starr & others, moved to England because there was money to be made & a greater appreciation of the enduring worth of his music. In this country we can be a little obsessive & excessive with regards to Soul Music. These songs & artists, from a halcyon time for African-American music, deserve to be remembered alongside the pantheon of the Supremes, Marvin, Stevie, Smokey & the rest. It’s a freaky, geeky job but someone’s got to do it.