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.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s like being on soul train

Over here in the U.K. we never got to see “Soul Train” on our TVs. There would be an occasional clip on “Top of the Pops” if an act was not coming over to Europe but there has never even been any retrospective compilation of a show which seemed to get all the acts you needed in a very creative period for American black music. I know there was a lot of lip-synching going on & those dancers were all “look at me, look at me” but it looked to be a pretty cool show when we were afforded a glimpse.

The Five Stairsteps, out of Chicago, a family group who were originally arranged in descending order of size & had a kind of Platters deal which was already out-dated. The first single had a Curtis Mayfield written B-side which swung a little more. They tried out a more Motown sound (James Burke did a fair Smokey impression)  before hooking up with Curtis again at his label, Curtom. The next singles were R&B hits, produced by Curtis & often covers of Impressions songs. They would sit really well alongside Baby Huey, Sister Love & Major Lance on a Curtom mix which should exist if it already doesn’t.

“Ooh Child” is the Top 10, gold record moment for the Burke family & what a lovely, optimistic song it is. The boys had been down to the Superfly boutique to get some new threads for their TV appearance. Alohe went for the jumper & slacks combo. She looks and sounds as beautiful as her name. Clarence Jr & James do their bit but this is Alohe’s song…wonderful.

At this time the Stairsteps were handing over the title of “first family of soul” to the boys from Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5. It was of no consequence because the true first family were these guys…

By 1972 the Isley Brothers, Ronald, Kelly & Rudy, had been making records for 15 years. “Shout” & “Twist and Shout” were known to everyone who listened to pop music even if they did not know the original versions. They joined Tamla Motown, made some records that were more popular in the UK than in the US. Man, I hear the intro to “This Old Heart Of Mine”, I am back in that scout-hut youth club & a dancing fool again. Wanting more freedom than Motown would allow they left to write and produce for their own label T-Neck. The first single “It’s Your Thing” cleaned up.

The new sound served them well & 10 more singles used this winning formula. However the brothers were not just listening to James Brown. Covers of songs by Buffalo Springfield, War & Dylan got them airplay outside of the R&B stations. There were some young Isleys around, brothers Ernie & Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper, who were putting the old hands on to these rock tunes. “Pop That Thang” comes from the 1972 LP “Brother, Brother, Brother” the first the new boys played on.

This is a confident performance of the song. The Isleys had made the move from soul to funk and were more popular than ever. They had some new sounds coming & they were ready to shake some action. The next LP “3 + 3” was by the new sextet. It was distributed by Epic & had the weight of major label promotion behind it. The brothers had been around the block & were ready for this new success. In the next 5 years they were one of the biggest black music acts around. I have favourite Isley tracks from all their long career. “Pop That Thang” is da funk with no frills and Ronald’s unmistakable lead vocal…love it…bang, bang, bang !

Gladys Knight, and her Pips, came late to Motown after some success elsewhere. Ms Knight always thought she got the short end of the stick from the label, being given songs that bigger acts had turned down. Her producer, Norman Whitfield, did give her first shake at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” but it was Marvin who had the worldwide hit 2 years later. Whitfield had, in 1969, taken over production of the Temptations. Looking for a piece of Sly Stone’s action he developed a “psychedelic soul” sound. If  “Friendship Train” was rejected by the Tempts then Gladys got lucky this time.

This clip is from episode 1 of the syndicated “Soul Train” . The Pips have hardly pimped their strides but despite the odd leisure wear are as swinging & as dancing as Don Cornelius promises. Gladys is just stunning. The song, obviously linked to “Cloud Nine” & “Papa Was…” benefits from only having the two lead voices & not being over-complicated. The early attempts by Motown at socially conscious lyrics (selling records came first) could be clumsy. By this time they were getting it right. If you want a less pop version of this song check for Whitfield’s extended edition by the Undisputed Truth…suitably nuts.

Gladys brought a country tinge to her music with, among others, a cover of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It”. It proved commercial, when she left Motown for Buddah she mined a very successful seam & became the star Motown never made her.

You know, maybe “Soul Train” was not always all that. In the UK we had the late night “Old Grey Whistle Test”. There are some great highlights from that show but it could often be flat and worthy. You needed a cup of tea, a fat one & some decent music after too many of the episodes. “Soul Train” is not like that in my imagination & from the clips I love to watch.

In the 80s two friends and myself were having the sort of weekend that only the finest pharmaceutical amphetamine made possible. A Friday night/Saturday morning session, a visit to Upton Park to see the Hammers, topped off with a Nigerian christening party. The living room of the house was dark and was now a dance floor. The room was filled with beautiful African princesses dressed in those sparkling dresses you saw in the market and wondered who wore them. The room was moving as one to the fine, fine music. My bug-eyed friend bobbed towards me with a big smile. He leaned into me & shouted “This is like being on Soul Train !”. I laughed because it was as close as we were ever going to get to it.