Doing Our Thing On The Friendship Train (Soul December 1969)

The #1 song on “The Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations” (I wonder what that means) through December 1969 was a valedictory single by Tamla Motown’s most successful artists, indeed one of the biggest groups of the decade. The label were making plans for the 1970’s & those plans included separating Diana Ross from the Supremes.

 

 

Image result for supremes someday we'll be together advertIn fact “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was slated to be the first solo single by Ms Ross. The Detroit trio had enjoyed 11 previous #1 hits on the Pop chart (you probably know them all) but 1969’s releases had not proved to be as popular & that’s no way to say goodbye. “Someday..” was the final 45 to have “Diana Ross & the Supremes” on the label & it added to that list of chart toppers. The Supremes performing “Baby Love” were the first young, stylish African-American women I had ever seen on UK TV. The bespoke hits, provided by Holland-Dozier-Holland, just kept on coming. In 1967 the Modtastic “The Happening” was a sure fire smash by international superstars then troubled & dissatisfied Florence Ballard was ungraciously replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Backing vocals on the records were increasingly provided by session singers & next time out the psychedelicised “Reflections” had Diana’s name as first billing.

 

Related imageDiana, Mary & Cindy, all gussied up & glittery, made their customary appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to promote “Someday…”. It’s poised & polished but the performance lacks producer Johnny Bristol’s ad-libbed interjections of encouragement which added grit, depth & drama to the record. The song is a remake remodel of Bristol’s 1961 original recording with his duo Johnny & Jackey, a much simpler, almost Ska-like affair. It’s an appropriate conclusion to such a remarkable run of success. Diana’s solo debut was coming along the following year & there were rather hopeful plans to make her into a Hollywood star. Mary Wilson continued as the only original member of the Supremes & there’s a run of memorable 45’s to come. Despite all the personal positioning & politics between the women & the label there’s no doubt that the Supremes were not the same without Diana & equally no doubt that they were sensational.

 

 

Image result for gladys knight friendship trainAt #6 on the chart was another Motown act, another female with her name at the front of the group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were an established name, particularly for their impeccably choreographed live performances, before they signed for the label in 1966. Producer Norman Whitfield made good use of Gladys’ urgent delivery for “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me” (a big UK hit), “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” & “The End of the Road” but she never shook the feeling that Motown were not providing the material & promotion that others received. The fantastic, funky “Friendship Train”, assertive & affirming, a different “calling out across the nation” this time, written by Whitfield & Detroit stalwart Barrett Strong, is certainly one from the top shelf. Beautiful Gladys & the equally attractive Pips sang the song when they were the star turn on the first syndicated episode of “Soul Train” in October 1971. A fine start to the show’s 35 year long run.

 

Image result for gladys knight buddah records advertGladys Knight & the Pips remained with Motown when the corporation moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Their records continued to make the Top 10 of the R&B chart. The album featured Gladys’ strong, emotional vocal interpretations of popular ballads. 1971’s “Standing Ovation” included “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, “Fire & Rain”, “The Long & Winding Road” & others while the dead-stone Northern Soul classic “No One Could Love You More” was overlooked. In the final week of 1972 the group released “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the One to Say Goodbye)” a massive hit, their farewell to Motown having refused a new contract & finding the love they deserved at Buddah Records. In 1974 “Neither…” was awarded the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or a Group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were already on a journey to even bigger things aboard the “Midnight Train to Georgia” which won Best R&B Performance on the same night. Woo-Hoo!

 

 

Image result for betty everett been a long timeFurther down those Cash Box listings for December 13th 1969, at #41, was a track by a singer who had been enjoying a revival in her fortunes this year. Betty Everett had left Mississippi for Chicago in 1957 while still a teenager. Her biggest success came in 1964 with the vibrant super-catchy “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” while the more atmospheric “You’re No Good”, “Getting Mighty Crowded” & duets with Jerry Butler established her accomplishments across a range of styles. Betty & Jerry were the crossover stars of Vee Jay, an R&B label whose diversification led them to having the 4 Seasons & the Beatles, the biggest acts around on their roster. The logistics of pressing & distributing truckloads of vinyl & a mountain of cash in the hands of an owner with a weakness for the casinos in Vegas became a recipe for financial chaos & bankruptcy. It would be some time before Betty’s career was back on solid ground.

 

Image result for retro styleFinding a home at UNI “There’ll Come A Time” (1969) is a showcase for Betty’s mature talents. The slower songs aim for & come pretty close to the sophistication of Dionne Warwick while distinctive Chicagoan arrangements, sweeping string & punchy brass, keeps it soulful & the quality high. The title track, co-written by Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites, put Betty Everett back on the R&B chart. “Been A Long Time”, not on the LP, was plucked from the “Ice On Ice” LP by her friend Jerry Butler in partnership with young writing/production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. This fresh, talented pair were breaking on through & this modern uptempo treat is yet another sign that their time was coming.

 

Well, this is the final monthly selection from the R&B charts of 1969. It’s been nothing but a pleasure revisiting these 50 year old tunes, truly from a Golden Age of Soul. My only problem has been that every month great tracks haven’t make the cut. I’ve not taken a look at the charts for the new decade but I’m pretty sure it will be the same mix of classics, rediscoveries & others that are new to me. Looking forward to that.

 

 

 

 

 

Temptations Bout To Get You (Soul March 1969)

`OK, the Billboard R&B chart from 50 years ago. The first two weeks of the month found James Brown, “Soul Brother Number One”, “Mr Dynamite” or, my favourite,” the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk”, enjoying yet another #1 record. “Give It Up Or Turnit Loose” marked the 8th time he had made the top of the R&B chart & there were to be 9 more,  incredible. The next chart toppers were The Temptations & “Runaway Child Running Wild” was their 9th single to do so. A striking thing about the listings for the 22nd of March was that at #2 was a singer who had played a major part in the previous success of the Motown vocal group.

 

 

Image result for david ruffin magazine coverThe authentic star power of David Ruffin, a man comfortable in the spotlight, & the dramatic swirling “My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)”. David was fired by the Temptations in June 1968. The story of the split has been told by many sides (books of varying quality, an awful TV movie) & he never comes out too well in the telling. Money, drugs & ego are all well & good but do tend to be a volatile mix. Wanting to alter the name of the group to “David Ruffin & the…” was never going to fly with the 4 other members who had all been Temptations longer than he had. He was the featured vocalist on “My Girl”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” & others you know, so that’s who he is, a great talent & he had made his contribution.

 

Image result for david ruffin magazineAfter an awkward standoff between David, who announced he was fronting a new group, & Tamla Motown blocking appearances by them, he signed to the label as a solo artist. The whistles & bells were pulled out for the debut single & “My Whole World…” is from the top rank of Motown Chartbusters. The subsequent LP is a great showcase for Ruffin’s unique rough-hewn voice, earthy, still sweet & never too harsh. There are plenty of echoes of past glories, songs & stories of thwarted & lost loves, though not by Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield. The label’s fabled quality control could have insisted on a little more work on them. Things were changing in Detroit, Marvin & Stevie were taking control in the studio, Whitfield & the Temptations had their “Psychedelic Soul”. A little extra was needed now & the next 45 from the record, “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved”, was not as successful.

 

 

Eugene Record had been plying his musical trade in Chicago for a decade. His group, the Hi-Lites became the Chi-Lites & the patronage of producer/label head Carl Davis placed his compositions with other artists from the Windy City. Eugene had co-written & produced the hit instrumental “Soulful Strut” for Young Holt Unlimited & March 1969 was the month that things really started going right for him. At #10 “Give It Away” was the first hit for the Chi-Lites. They were able to maintain this success &, a couple of years later, were right up there with those new groups from Philadelphia. This wasn’t the only reason for celebration. A couple of rungs higher, at #8, was another of Eugene’s songs.

 

Image result for betty everett there'll come a timeBetty Everett made enough of an impression between 1963-65 for her label Vee Jay to issue a “Very Best of…” LP. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)”, that’s the one that everyone knows but there were other notable ones, popular Soul dance hits, delicious duets with Jerry Butler. Vee Jay’s financial troubles left her stranded & it wasn’t until 1969 that she could do it properly again. The lush, swaying “There’ll Come A Time” & the rest of an album packed with good tunes & arrangements, shows Betty to be assured, effortless & versatile. She may not have been as distinctive as some of the more prominent female singers of the day but she did everything with class & caught your attention every time.

 

 

The highest new entry this week was “I’ll Try Something New”, the second single from the high profile (a TV special!) collaboration by Diana Ross & the Supremes & those Temptations again, in at #23. There were other entries from big hitters Gladys Knight & the Pips, Aretha Franklin & Sam & Dave. You got me when it comes to Debbie Taylor, Vernon Garrett, Laura Greene & Johnny McKinnis but I’m getting on it. All very good I’m sure. In at #44 was another enduring, talented vocal group & I never miss a chance to listen to the Dells.

 

Image result for the dells hallways of my mindAfter having their first hit in 1956 the five piece Dells barely troubled the charts while establishing a reputation as a live act. Signing with the Chicago label Chess they were matched with songwriter/producer Bobby Miller, the outstanding, innovative arranger Charles Stepney & their fortunes changed. The guys in the backroom brought the best out of the powerful baritone of Marvin Junior, the startling range, from tenor to falsetto, of Johnny Carter & three others who had known just how the backing vocals went since the days of Doo-Wop.  The uptempo, uplifting “Hallways of My Mind”, an intoxicating Chi-town mix of brass, strings & voices, is from a chain of fine records, Soul belters, last dance smoochers, imaginative takes on the  classics. Whatever the Dells turned their voices to worked. I have an e-friend who rates the Dells alongside any of the great American vocal groups & she’s not usually wrong about most things.

 

A couple of years later Bobby Miller moved across to Tamla Motown to ride shotgun on the next record by David Ruffin. David had become something of a problem for the label &, in 1971, a perfectly good collection of songs, all sequenced & with a catalogue number, was shelved. (It wasn’t released for over 30 years). The resulting eponymously titled LP, his third, matched his voice with tailor-made material that did justice to Ruffin’s growing maturity. See what I did there, I finished this thing by bringing it back to the beginning. I don’t just make this stuff up as I go along y’know, I said I don’t just…