The Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations of 50 years ago this week was topped by a song that, since its release in January of the preceding year, had spent six weeks at the top of the US Pop chart & become a much covered standard across the full spectrum of popular music. Andy Williams had pushed it into the middle of the road, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos were ready for the Country, three Motown acts had added a little bit of Soul & Elvis Presley recorded it in Nashville before including a show-stopping version in his Vegas act. In 1971 it was the turn of Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul” to release her Gospel-inflected take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the “Aretha’s Greatest Hits” album. An edited single release, the one at #1 on the chart, sold two million copies & won the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the Grammys. We will get to this later.
Well OK, “Wanted, young man single and free, experience in love preferred, but will accept a young trainee”. I’m sure that in 1971, after seeing Honey Cone perform their big hit “Want Ads”, climbing one place up to #3 on the chart, on its way to a month at #1, I would have been in that long queue. The trio, formed in Los Angeles, had all been 20 feet from stardom for some time. Featured vocalist Edna Wright was introduced to Phil Spector’s operation as her older sister Darlene Love was the producer’s singer of choice. Shelly Clark had been on Broadway as a 7 year old & spent a short time as an Ikette while Carolyn Willis sang on many sessions, joining Edna & Darlene in the Blossoms. They were signed by Holland-Dozier-Holland the great hitmakers who had left Motown & Honey Cone were the first 45 & album releases on their new Hot Wax label in 1969. H-D-H produced the “Take Me With You” LP & the majority of the songs were credited to “Ronald Dunbar & Edythe Wayne”. Dunbar was around the organisation but Holland-Dozier-Holland’s litigation over publishing with former boss Berry Gordy meant that they often used this pseudonym.
This Motown pedigree did not bring instant success, though the singles “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” & “Girls It Ain’t Easy” sound pretty good to me. Honey Cone were not the new Supremes, with strong vocals & direct lyrics they were more like Martha & the Vandellas. A little work was put into “Want Ads” by General Johnson, off of Chairmen of the Board, & Greg Perry, both flourishing with their new mentors, to give the song that Pop-Soul bounce that had proved to be so commercial for the Jackson 5. The group had the sass & the style to be memorable & set the song on the way to the top of the R&B & Pop charts. There was another R&B #1, two more in the Top 10, all three made the Pop Top 30. Honey Cone were big, by the end of 1971, the cover of Jet magazine big. Unfortunately the owners of the label could not match their musical acuity in business & Honey Cone’s further releases were hindered by financial uncertainty before, in 1973, the Hot Wax/Invictus combo folded & so did the group. Honey Cone were a modern, modish girl-group whose influence became more apparent as time passed.
A consideration of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles up to 1971 leads to a couple of very long lists, one of the group’s hit records, the other of the songs written for others by the man whose name was at the front. I’ll give you three of each but I will be overlooking songs that were fundamental to the Miracles’ success & to that of their label Tamla Motown. “Shop Around” was, in 1960, Motown’s first million selling record, 1962’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” was covered by the Beatles on their second album & Smokey Robinson was known around the world, the perfect & poignant “Tracks of My Tears” (1965) is one for the ages. Smokey wrote, often with other Miracles, & produced “My Guy”, making Mary Wells the Queen of Motown, “My Girl” for the Temptations & 200 other artists, Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” & I’ll stop there. In 1963 the Miracles, with Claudette, Mrs Robinson, still in the group, were topping the star-studded bill of the Motortown Revue, young Smokey’s audience-rousing energy a surprise as he was the sweetest & smoothest of the label’s artists. 1971 was a strange time for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
Smokey’s association with Berry Gordy, head honcho at Motown, had begun before there was a label. His influence extended beyond being a star performer & a leading creative force. He was vice-president of the company where plans to move from Detroit to Los Angeles were at an advanced stage. With this upheaval & two young children it was known that Smokey intended to retire from performing with the Miracles. Concurrently over in the UK long-time Motown Mod club favourites were reaching a wider audience putting the Elgins & the Isley Brothers on the chart. A 1967 Miracles album track, “Tears of a Clown”, was released in 1970 & reached the top of the UK chart precipitating a US remixed version which provided the group with their fifth R&B #1 & the first time they had topped the Pop chart. It made both musical & business sense for Smokey to keep on keeping on. The follow-up to “Tears…” was at #8 for the third week on this week’s chart. “I Don’t Blame You At All” is a new song, slick, melodic, it invites you on to the dancefloor & is immediately recognisable as the Miracles. When Smokey sings…well!
Way back then my best friend & I were a couple of teenage music geeks who bought the weekly “Record Mirror”, the only place we could scan the US Top 50 charts for records that we could expect to cross the Atlantic in a month or so. A name we often saw, if not in the chart then in the new releases or “bubbling under”, was Bobby “Blue” Bland. We didn’t hear much of Bobby’s music, if it did get radio play then the show would be way past our bedtime & that smoky dive bar where they played the Blues existed only in our imaginations or a future Tarantino movie. The little we did hear sounded to our young ears a little restrained, even old-fashioned. The energetic Soul sounds of young America coming out of Memphis & Detroit were much more our glass of Dandelion & Burdock. I know, I was so much older then.
Bobby Bland was part of an earlier generation of Memphis musicians, the Beale Streeters, who included Johnny Ace & B.B. King. He first recorded in 1951, finding success six years later when signed to Duke Records where he stayed for 20 years. The head of Duke, Don Robey’s, business practice included a tight control over publishing which led to his alias Deadric Malone being credited as the writer of many songs. Bland, disadvantaged by his illiteracy, was signed to a contract which paid reduced royalties consigning him to an arduous touring schedule to earn his living though the singer, aware of limited opportunities for an uneducated Black man, held little resentment towards Robey. Through the 1960s Bobby enjoyed consistent success on the R&B chart with only rare crossover on to the Pop listing. I can point you towards “I’ll Take Care Of You”, “Lead Me On” & “Turn On Your Lovelight” while his string of hits, with sophisticated arrangements by Joe Scott which added colour while Bobby sang the Blues without overwhelming a unique voice, is a formidable body of work. “I’m Sorry”, the highest new entry of the week at #44 is the latest of these fine songs.
Bobby Bland’s instrument was his voice, maturity & fine tuning adding a guttural growl to his rich sensual sweetness. He sang songs about the yearning for, the finding & the losing of Love with an impeccable emotionality, a sophistication & a comprehension that was unmatched. His brand of urban Blues, songs of experience, did not always have wide appeal but the more life you lived the more you understood & identified with this music for grown-ups. A move to a bigger label, with a wider choice of material & better promotion combined with repackaging of his Duke years brought a greater appreciation & recognition for Bobby, He truly was “The Voice”.
For this week’s live clip it’s back to that #1 record. Over the weekend 5th-7th of March 1971 Aretha Franklin played three explosive concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Backed by King Curtis’ super band, Billy Preston, the Memphis Horns & the Sweethearts of Soul Aretha mixed her back catalogue with contemporary hits in a dramatic, landmark live performance. There are, as far as I am aware, 564 versions of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, none of them are better than this one.