They Smile In Your Face…(The O’Jays)

The O’Jays, originally a 5 man vocal group from Canton Ohio, came together as teenagers in high school in 1958. They made their first records, as the Mascots, in 1960. For the next 10 years there were regular single releases, 6 LPs, each on a different label. Their music followed the signs of the times, from Doo-Wop through Soul to Funk, always led by the strong, impassioned vocals of Eddie Levert, never finding a distinctive song or sound to capture a wider audience. Bill Isles left before the group’s biggest hit of the decade, 1967’s “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today). Subsequent releases barely troubled the Hot 100 & when Bobby Massey handed in his notice the remaining trio, Levert, Walter Williams & William Powell, were looking for yet another record label. Their next move had people all over the world joining hands & made them one of the most successful groups of the 1970s. “What they do !”

 

 

Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, an ambitious songwriting/production team based at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia, were doing great things for Atlantic Records (“A Brand New Me” Dusty Springfield, “Gonna Take A Miracle” Laura Nyro/Labelle). Atlantic wouldn’t bankroll their plans for their own operation but CBS would & in 1972 Philadelphia International Records was busting out with hit singles & LPs for Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes & the O’Jays. The dramatic “Back Stabbers” is the title track of the O’Jays LP, written by Huff with Gene McFadden & John Whitehead, just two of a very talented team assembled in Philly. It & the uplifting “Love Train” became international hits. Gamble & Huff’s version of modern soul music, sweeping, swooping orchestral arrangements, sweet & still funky, supplanted Motown & Stax as the new Hit Factory of African-American music.

 

“Back Stabbers” is quite an achievement. Besides the 2 smashes the 6 minute long “992 Arguments”, cut to around 2.20 for radio play, & the smooth “Time To Get Down” sounded pretty good on the dancefloor & on the radio. The next time around there was no resting on their laurels, no more of the same formula from the production team. The title track of “Ship Ahoy” (1973) is almost 10 minutes long. Opening with crashing waves & cracking whips the dark & ominous theme is the transportation of slaves from Africa to America. This was 3 years before Alex Haley’s epic “Roots” became a literary sensation.

 

 

The LP is a mix of the political & the romantic. It opens with “Put Your Hands Together”, an exhortation to get on down to the dancefloor & get on up with the positivity. On “For the Love of Money” session man Anthony Jackson contributed a bassline of such definitive, irresistible funkiness that he gained a songwriting co-credit & the enduring gratitude of the listening public. The 9 minute long “Don’t Call Me Brother”, a warning against hypocritical backstabbers, is a dramatic triumph of orchestral  soul arrangement. Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff were responsible for 22 Gold albums. “Ship Ahoy” by the O’Jays is their masterpiece.

Throughout the 1970s the group continued with Philadelphia International & there were 6 more gold or platinum LPs on the spin. There were some fine single releases. “I Love Music” (1975) & “Used Ta Be My Girl” (1978) both reached the US Top 10. The 2 LPs from 1975, “Survival” & “Family Reunion”, are good records which fall short of the dynamism & imagination of their 2 great records.

 

 

The growing influence of Disco, with it’s fuck Art & Politics, let’s dance credo, meant that the message in the music became less pronounced. Kenny Gamble’s lyrics were positive social commentary but often platitudinous. An exception is the urgent “Rich Get Richer”, based on the writings of Ferdinand Lundeberg. In his books about American wealth Lundeberg repeated his theories that America was really a plutocracy managed by oligarchs. Sounds familiar ? This great song is 40 years old !

 

While you’re here please check out the Philadelphia International All-Stars (Including O’Jays Eddie & Walter) & “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”, a compelling classic groove.

 

The combination of the vocal strength of the O’Jays with the multi-talented production team at Sigma Sound Studios carried the soul swing in the early 1970s. In 1977 William Powell unfortunately died from cancer aged just 35. Sammy Strain joined the group & they continued to record into the 21st century. Regular reissues & compilations kept the great songs around, if you hear them on the radio they make you smile. The Philadelphia International anthology is titled “Love Train..”. The O’Jays have their place in the premier league of American vocal groups & that Eddie Levert, boy he sure could sing !

 

 

 

 

Hey, Y’all Prepare Yourself (The Spinners)

The Spinners, a 5 piece vocal group from the Detroit suburbs, was formed by school friends in the mid-1950s. There were some personnel changes before their first record, “That’s What Girls Are Made For”, was a US Top 40 hit in 1961. Through the next decade they were in the Tamla Motown orbit which made the sound of Detroit a wonder of 1960s popular music. In 1972 a change of record label & a move to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia produced immediate success, a string of hit singles, 5 consecutive gold LPs & being chosen as the opening turn at the 1975 Grammy Awards ceremony.

 

 

Holy Moly ! How great is that ? The Detroit Spinners, as they were known in the UK to avoid confusion with a cable-knit sweatered folk group, made their early records, Sam Cooke-influenced pop R&B, with Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label. Harvey’s  lead vocal on The Moonglows’ Doo Wop classic “Ten Commandments of Love” is something to hear. He ran his labels with his wife Gwen, sister of Berry Gordy, the founder of Tamla Motown. When the couple moved across to the more successful branch of the family business they took their acts along too. The Spinners were never able to break into the Motown A-team. Their 1965 Top 40 hit “I’ll Always Love You” is a Funk Brothers’ formula floor-filler (so it’s a cracker) but they never received the Temptations treatment, working with a number of  staff producers, playing down the bill on the star-studded Motortown Revues. The 2nd of their Detroit LPs, on the subsidiary VIP label, included the first track that Stevie Wonder produced for another act. “It’s A Shame” was a Top 20 hit in the US & the UK  raising the group’s profile just as their contract was ending &  life after Motown was being considered.

 

The Spinners transferred to Atlantic in 1972. 4 of the group, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson & lead vocal Bobby Smith had been around from the very beginning. They had adapted to the many changes of style & fashion in African-American vocal groups, were a consummate, smooth professional act. After a decade of sporadic success they were about to find their place in the spotlight & they were ready to make the most of it. Thom Bell had set the benchmark for sweet, symphonic soul with the Delfonics. Together with producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff his arrangements for the horns & strings of the Sigma Studios house band MFSB made Philadelphia a new hit factory for the new decade. With his associate Linda Creed, Bell established the Stylistics at the forefront of the city’s lush but still funky proto-Disco sound. Hooking him up with the Spinners was a very smart move.

 

 

G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame”, stayed with Motown as a solo act. He recommended his cousin Philippe Wynne as his replacement. Phil is the guy taking the Grammys to church on “Mighty Love”, his urgent, individual voice lifted the Spinners to another level, his ebullient stage presence gave the group a distinctive edge that they had perhaps lacked. Thom Bell’s studio craft, using Wynne & Bobby Smith on lead, ensured that after the success of the “Spinners” LP & “I’ll Be Around”, the group’s 1st million selling single, the world-class pop-soul kept on coming. When “I’ll Be…” was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Group Performance it was alongside “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (The Temptations), “I’ll Take You There” (Staples Singers), another Philly hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Harold Melvin/Blue Notes) & “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Gladys Knight/Pips). The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” didn’t even make the list ! The Golden Age of American Soul music was not over yet.

 

It’s a strain to select just 3 highlights from the Spinners’ winners. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”, you know that one. The rather sublime “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was recently highlighted on The Blue Moment, Richard Williams’ fine blog. On a live version of  “How Could I Let You Get Away” Phillipe sings impressions of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding & Al Green, perfect soul-cabaret. At the 3 day festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held to promote the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (see the movie “Soul Power”) the band tore the place up. Bell hooked them up with Dionne Warwick & “Then Came You” became their only US #1. You know where to find all of these. The live clips are fine, the guys dance up a storm & do the thing they had been doing for 20 years. However capable the backing band, it’s tough to match the shimmering gloss of the studio versions.

 

 

“Wake Up Susan” was not the biggest hit but is a personal favourite. It’s an uptempo, sweet 3.22 minutes, a Friday, 5 to 5, the weekend starts here, crackerjack that never misses. In 1977 Phillipe left the group for a solo career. “Starting All Over” is a self-produced LP, his own songs with Philly’s & New York’s finest musicians, which failed to find an audience. He hooked up & toured with Funkadelic which seemed unlikely but Wynne had sung with Bootsy Collins back in the day. He sang on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” & George Clinton produced the “Wynne Jammin'” (1980). The voice is still a lovely thing but even the best songs still serve as a reminder of just how good the Spinners were. Unfortunately Philippe suffered a heart attack onstage in 1984 & a great talent was lost at just 43 years old. This is him in full P-Funk flow…

 

 

Of course the Spinners kept on keeping on with replacement John Edwards. They stuck with Thom Bell until 1979, their version of “Are You Ready For Love”, recorded by Elton John on a visit to Sigma Sound, is a disco-tastic delight. The group’s biggest later hits were crossover revivals of old hits by the 4 Seasons & Sam Cooke. Those 4 life-long Spinners remained with the group for 50 years. Billy Henderson left in 2004 when he had asked his lawyers to investigate their financial affairs. Both Pervis Jackson & Bobby Smith, a consummate singer & frontman, were members until they passed away in 2008 & 2013 respectively. Now Henry Fambrough remains as the keeper of the flame. The Spinners remained a popular & welcome live act, a great show with oldies that were truly golden from that time when they were one of a kind.

Through Our Voice The World Knows There’s No Choice (Curtis Mayfield)

Curtis Mayfield had a good 1960s. He & his boys from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green hood, the Impressions, had a run of 7 successive Top 20 hits with graceful gospel-soul songs of elevation & empathy. Over at Okeh Records Curtis learned about making records from 2 accomplished talents, producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate. This prolific trio cultivated a crop of Chicago artists which included Jerry Butler, Major Lance & Walter Jackson. They styled some snazzy, bespoke soul for these singers, at the outset catching whatever commercial way the wind blew before gaining the confidence to set their own course.

By 1968 Curtis had founded, with associate Eddie Thomas, his own record label, Curtom. His best songs for the Impressions, “People Get Ready”, “It’s Alright” & the sublime “I’m So Proud”, were modern hymns, endorsing & encouraging the positivity of Martin Luther King  & the Civil Rights Movement. Now Dr King had been murdered by racists, the war in Vietnam had become, in his words “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Expectations of civil & economic progress remained unfulfilled. At the beginning of a new decade Curtis Mayfield left his group & began a solo career. He was 28 years old, he had something to say about America & his eloquence was matched by his vision for the music that would accompany the message.

“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go “…Hot Damn ! The opening track of “Curtis” is an apocalyptic symphony. An everything including the kitchen sink drama almost 8 minutes long, the Book of Revelations for Jah’s sake. This first solo LP, “Curtis”, came in like gangbusters & kept on keeping on. Curtis was so ready for his new artistic freedom. Whether he was using a full orchestra to elegant effect or allowing “Master” Henry Gibson to drive the songs along with his sensational congas, everything was in the right place at the right time. There are still romantic songs, there’s the poetic “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & not a wasted note in 8 minutes 40 seconds of “Move On Up”. The “Sgt Pepper’s” of 70s Soul ? You decide. Both singles were severely edited for the radio, not an improvement.

In 1971 you had to be either legendary or the Jackson 5 to score a #1 R&B LP. “Curtis” swapped this spot with Isaac Hayes before Aretha had 5 weeks there. Marvin’s  “What’s Going On” prevailed for 8 weeks before  Hayes returned with “Shaft” for an amazing 3 months at the top. Stuff I still listen to. It had taken a while for the longer form record to stand predominate in R&B. In 1969 Isaac Hayes’ ” Hot Buttered Soul”, just 4 expansive tracks, was a landmark in terms of sales & creative artistic control. Curtis Mayfield, with his own Curtom studio, was right on for this & ready to get busy.

Well…here we are then. It’s the aforementioned Henry Gibson on congas, Joseph “Lucky” Scott rocking the bass & some other very cool cats. How about that band ! Curtom Records was rocked by the premature death of Baby Huey in 1970. Just 26 years old, already a Chicago legend, Baby H was ready for national success. There were other productions, Mayfield made a final record with the Impressions, but it was his own work that was getting heard. “Curtis/Live!” (1971) is a double LP recorded at the small Bitter End club in New York, a perfect blend of his past with the present. From “Gypsy Woman” to “If There’s A Hell…”, it’s all Curtis & it’s all good. In the same year “Roots” was a set of new material including “We Got To Have Peace”. I don’t know if these songs were from a stockpile or if they were all new. Whatever the case this was a major creative outpouring.

Curtis was never going to shake off his religion, his romance & uncomplicated emotional exposition. I have seen his viewpoint described as “middle brow”, of being that of the “Black middle class”. I think this is meant as a criticism.Curtis may never have been down with Amiri Baraka “up against the wall motherf***er” or as raucous as the Last Poets but I’m sure he was a supporter of the Panthers 10 Point Programme just as he would endorse anything which helped black people move on up. There could be an element of love being the answer, of children being the future but Curtis was about self-advancement, about a brother helping a brother, being an achiever not a victim. If you are too cynical for those things then you are too cynical.

Curtis’ next move was perfect as a musical choice & as a business option. In the early 1970s blaxploitation movies were reaching beyond Quentin Tarantino & the urban black target audience. Whether it was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” or, more likely “Shaft”, both from 1971, which set the trend, these films needed a funked-up soundtrack. “Super Fly” (1972) is the story of a cocaine dealer’s one last score, a $1 million deal for his pension. It’s a gritty, grainy, low-budget movie which anticipates Scorsese’s kings of New York  & the street-smart soliloquies of Rap. “Super Fly” made money, it was an influential film which was helped  then outgrossed by Curtis Mayfield’s perfect soundtrack.

“Super Fly” the record brought Curtis to a whole new audience. It topped the national charts, included 2 million-selling Top 10 singles. Curtis was not about the glorification of drug culture & was reticent about taking on the project. Of course he would never abandon long-held & heartfelt principles but the discipline of composing to a fixed brief & a deadline worked a treat. So, the title track, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Pusherman”, “Little Child Running Wild” ah… it’s a list & I could include the whole LP. Here, have another…

In the last clip Curtis is playing bigger gigs now. He is in the Premier League of R&B, Grammy Awards & more money than he could spend according to Jet magazine. There is a little loss of subtlety in having to please a larger audience but there is still an individual voice with something to say, a great band & some of the sweetest soul music ever made.

 

 

Holland, Dozier, Holland – After Motown

Tamla Motown’s modus operandi has been compared to the mass production lines of the auto factories of the company’s home city, Detroit. Such was the expertise & efficiency of all aspects of Motown that their bright & shiny product, “The Sound of Young America” had soon sold exactly 2.5 gazillion records.  Previously both singers & songs were here today, gone tomorrow but a new industry was being forged. The young creative artists saw that this music thing could be a career. The rules were being  made up as they went along but , somewhere, there was a big pile of money.  In the Summer of 1967 the Motor City was burning after 5 days of riots. Around the same time there were members of Berry Gordy’s Tamla tribe who were looking to get their share & to get paid.

The composers/producers, Lamont Dozier & brothers Eddie & Brian Holland were a very potent triple threat. They wrote an incredible 25 #1 hits & in 1967 were disputing the royalties they had received. The split with Motown was a messy one. The trio staged a work slowdown & left in 1968 to work for Holland-Dozier-Holland Productions Inc. By 1969 their 2 labels, Hot Wax & Invictus, were back on the charts.

And that’s why they were called HOT pants !(Ah, Warner Chappell have removed the clip from the Tube) In 1970 the beautiful Freda Payne hit the Top 3 in the US with “Band of Gold”. HDH had sued Motown & had been met by a counter suit which took almost 10 years to unscramble. “Band of Gold” is credited to Ronald Dunbar & Edythe Wayne…yeah right. Ms Wayne was a pseudonym adopted by HDH as they were prevented from using their own names in the dispute. The record was a UK #1 hit for 6 weeks & I remember getting a little tired of it at the time. Not now, it’s a floor-filling stomper of an absolute Motown vintage. The Supremes must have been thinking “Hey, that should be our song !”

In a converted Detroit cinema HDH & other talented writers attempted to replicate Motown’s success. Freda Payne had another US Top 20 hit with the anti-Vietnam war song “Bring The Boys  Home”, banned by American Forces Network at the time & still rarely heard, it’s that good. The record was made by a team which included General Johnson, a man who was getting a second chance with Invictus & was giving it his best shot.

General, I have just discovered, was writer & singer on “It Will Stand” a 1961 hit for the Showmen. Listening back it’s “Well, of course he was”. It’s a truly uplifting song…this or Jonathan Richman’s cover will set you right up for any day you start with it. He hooked up with producer Greg Perry & brought his new band to the new label. The Chairmen of the Board had some hits, more in the UK than the US, but were around in the years between those 60s TV pop shows & “Soul Train”. Surprisingly this odd clip of “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling On A String” is the only one I can find of them on the Y-tube. It’s a good song but the film is funny rather than funky, cheesy when it needs to be greasy. Hell, it’s a proper single, another irresistible call to do the funky chicken or whatever elese was the current thing.

Their first & biggest hit was “Give Me Just A Little More Time” , an Edythe Wayne original (I do hope that there is a real Ms Wayne) produced by HDH  & recorded using the Funk Brothers who were moonlighting from Motown for their old buddies. There were successes over on the sister label Hot Wax. In 1971 the hottest female group in the US were a trio from Los Angeles & the first signing to the label.

Hmm-hmm…”Want Ads” by Honey Cone. Well hello Ms Jackie Browns ! “Wanted, young man single and free. Experience in love preferred, But will accept a young trainee”. Well I was in that, presumably long, line…still waiting. The trio, Edna, Carolyn & Shelly, had experience in Los Angeles girl groups (Edna Wright is the sister of the incomparable Darlene Love, Phil Spector’s voice of choice on many songs). They got together in 1969 & were the first signing to Hot Wax. 1971 was their year, gold records & “Want Ads” at #1. It is a perfect update of the Motown pop-soul formula, sparring with “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 as the twin peaks of a turn of the decade, feelgood hit. Not quite disco yet but you know that a change is gonna come. The song was written by Perry, Johnson & engineer Barney Perkins, I would be surprised if Ms Edythe Wayne did not contribute. By 1973 the Honey Cone hits has stopped but so had Holland, Dozier, Holland’s plans for their own independent label.

It must have been difficult for the artists to become businessmen. HDH could hire capable people to manage their affairs but a hit single generates a heap of money very quickly. Getting & keeping a share of this heap can be a difficult thing. In 1973 Hot Wax folded with debt & cash flow problems while Invictus signed a distribution deal with Columbia. Of course we know now that Columbia’s fortune tellers had presciently predicted that pop music would come to be dominated & shaped by music made by black artists. HDH joined the other 2 prominent black independent labels, Stax & Philadelphia International as lambs lying down with the lion. By 1976 the entertainment titan, motivated by the dollar bill rather than creativity, had pressurised & controlled distribution, subsumed or cherry picked from the 3 famous labels. Conspiracy theory ? Hey sue me…I have no money.

For some time the Tamla triumvirate separated when Lamont Dozier pursued a solo career. He was replaced but Holland, Beattie, Holland ?…Nah. When Invictus finally folded in 1977 HDH Records came around & control over the valuable back catalogue was established. As Pop left behind its juvenescence there was a rush to bestow lifetime awards & to establish Halls of Fame. Not a one, Rock, Soul, any kind of music you got, was able to overlook the lasting, still amazing, contribution made by these 3 outstanding talents.