Better Late Than Never (Motown Hits)

In March 1965 a series of 6 four track EPs marked the establishment of the Tamla Motown label in the UK. Previous releases had been through London American, Fontana, Oriole & finally Stateside. The assembly line at Hitsville USA in Detroit was sustaining 5 subsidiaries, Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul & V.I.P. The same writer/producers, the same musicians, a unique & successful operation, “the Sound of Young America”. There were 43 singles on the new label in the first 9 months. They couldn’t all be chartbusters, weren’t all by the great stars of the roster. Sometimes it took a little longer for the record buying public to catch on to some of the gems from Tamla Motown.

 

 

Image result for isley brothers soul on the rocks“This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers was the #1 record of my youth club years (that’s the ones immediately before I could get served in pubs). The debut Motown release for the Brothers, January 1966 in the US, March in the UK, it was their only Top 20 hit in the US for the label & scraped into the Top 50 over here. If you were not already out on the floor then you certainly were before Ronald started singing. Over two years later the song was still being played in the great Soul/Ska sets I attended in the upstairs rooms of bars. A re-release saw it become a Top 3 hit, another smash for the crack Holland-Dozier-Holland unit. Trouble was, for Motown, the Isley Brothers had already left the label before this success.

 

“The Isleys’ wild call & response songs “Shout” & “Twist & Shout” had been picked up by the British Beat Boom & the group were a little too rugged for the sophisticated Detroit sound. The first LP for Motown had heavy involvement from H-D-H but 3 of their songs were a little second-hand having already been hits for others. On the “Soul on the Rocks” LP (1967) the A Team were absent & , while talented people were around to produce, the Isleys were dissatisfied with with the material & promotion they received. Motown went back to an old hit “I Guess I’ll Always Love You” & it did well again. “Behind a Painted Smile” had not been considered as a single in 1967. By May 1969 it & other stomping Isley tracks were favourites in the Soul clubs. This dense, dramatic classic, a perfect blend of impassioned vocals & the driving Funk Brothers rhythm section (James Jamerson, Benny Berrigan ?), Joe Messina’s fuzz guitar became a Top 5 hit. The Brothers Isley were more popular in the UK than at home until “It’s Your Thing”, on their own T-Neck label, scored their biggest sales yet. A couple of years later resistance was futile as their expanded family band just took over.

 

 

Oh yes ! The Elgins only got the one shot at Motown. The LP “Darling Baby” (1965) was produced by Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier, again featuring song’s by Detroit’s most talented songwriting trio with 4 covers of Atlantic hits as the filler. The title track & “Heaven Must Have Sent You” were R&B hits but there was to be no second LP from the group. In 1967 singer Saundra Mallett Edwards left the group & though she was replaced just look at the clip, from “Swingin’ Time” & you will see why she was missed. “Swingin’ Time” was a music show out of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. They got some great Motown acts as guests & the surviving Y-tube clips are worth searching out.

 

Image result for the elgins heaven must have sent youBy 1970 columnist Dave Godin had identified a North-South divide in UK Soul fans. While Funk began to carry the swing in the USA “Northern Soul” fans were more interested in crate-digging for obscure uptempo dance records from the mid-60’s. In 1971 the 6 year old “Heaven Must Have Sent You” was re-released, broke out of the clubs & was a Top 3 hit. In the Spring of 1971 Stevie Wonder released “Where I’m Coming From”, Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”, Diana Ross, no longer a Supreme, was filming “Lady Sings the Blues” & plans for Motown to leave Detroit for Los Angeles were in advanced stages. The success of “Heaven Must…” showed that the public still wanted to dance & sing along to those classic Holland-Dozier-Holland, themselves no longer with the label, songs OK…♫ I’ve cried through many endless nights, just holding my pillow tight. Then you came into my lonely day, with your tender and your sweet ways. ♫ Smashing !

 

 

 

Image result for r. dean taylor there's a ghost in my houseCanadian R Dean Taylor signed for Motown as a songwriter & recording artist in 1964. The records didn’t go so well but writing credits kept his name in the frame. There was a Marvelettes track with Norman Whitfield, a Brenda Holloway A-side with Frank Wilson. In 1967 “7 Rooms of Gloom” was the 4th single from the 4 Tops greatest LP “Reach Out”. It was the B-side, “I’ll Turn to Stone”, with the credit Holland-Dozier-Holland-Taylor (that’s good company to keep), which became a dancefloor favourite. A dramatic self-produced single from that year, “Gotta See Jane”, written with Brian Holland, failed at home but reached the UK Top 20 in 1968. With the departure from the label of the great trio Motown’s production staff had to step up to keep the hits coming. Taylor had co-credits on two singles by Diana Ross & the Supremes, “Love Child”, a #1,& “I’m Living in Shame”. You know more R Dean Taylor songs than you thought you did.

 

In 1970 R Dean moved to Rare Earth, a label Motown set up for white artists. He scored with “Indiana Wants Me” an odd song about a murderer chased & caught by the police. It was his only US success but we hadn’t finished with him yet in the UK. Back in 1966 he had recorded “There’s a Ghost in my House”, another track with that impressive H-D-H-Taylor credit. Another irresistible Motown stomper that went missing at the time, it became a staple of Northern Soul DJ sets & reached the Top 10 in 1974. That’s 3 Top 20 hits for R Dean Taylor, an individual Motown talent.

 

All 3 of these songs were resurrected by the Northern Soul scene but you didn’t have to be a regular at the Casino or the Twisted Wheel to appreciate & enjoy them. The scene was big in the early 1970’s, these rediscovered breakout hits received wider radio play & sold to a bigger audience. We were listening to Sly, Marvin, the Isleys, Funkadelic, the new sounds of Black America but the fact remained that you could not beat a bit of classic Tamla Motown to make your weekend go better.

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Mo’ Motown. Clean Out Of Sight.

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.