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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It’s A Family Affair (The Isley Brothers)

On the long ago, momentous, Xmas Day that Santa kindly brought me a record player he also provided two 7″ vinyl discs by the most popular beat combo of the day, the Beatles. The 4 track “Twist & Shout” EP was matching the sales of that single about holding someone’s hand. Surely no vocalist had ever matched the wild drive & urgency of leather-lunged John Lennon on the title track. Wasn’t this powerful energy an innovatory part of the the sound that was taking over the world ? Of course the Fab Four’s music introduced my generation to the rock & roll originators. Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, they were from the olden days of the 1950s. On the first LPs their Mop Top take on Motown opened a lot of doors for Detroit’s soul label. it was no archaeological stretch to unearth the original Twisters & Shouters.

The Isley  Brothers’ first successes made them the Sultans of Screech & they were then always around. The trio were not always consistent hit makers but  now & again they found themselves at the cutting edge. A talent for reinvention, to react to the changes in music, has become a requisite for long term commercial success. The Isley Brothers knew this before many others did. It was 10 years after the Beatles covered their song that the group’s new sound struck gold records & brought a rich funk/disco vein that they were able to mine for the rest of the 1970s.

album-3-3 Here come the incredibly expanding Isley Brothers. Ronald, Rudy & O’Kelly, the original trio are joined by 2 more brothers Ernie & Marvin along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper. So, “3 + 3” geddit ? “That Lady” is the opening track of the 1973 LP which put the group back into the US Top 10 for the first time since 1969. Then “It’s Your Thing”, the first single on their own T-Neck label, had socked it to Berry Gordy & Motown. The Isleys made some classic Motown records but were, they felt, never given a fair shake. Independence, success & confidence led to more than 10 LPs in 4 years, that’s a whole lot of variants on “things” & “thangs”. The records before “3 + 3” had included the junior Isleys & there had been a gradual move to this new sound. Now, with the marketing might of Epic behind the group for the first time a lot more people got to hear it & a lot more records got sold.

“That Lady” is a reworking of a 1964 Isley song. Back then the trio were copying the Impressions but now they could unveil a couple of new weapons while still keeping it in the family. The influence of Jimi can be heard in the funk of the time but Brother Ernie had a direct line to the source when Hendrix had lived in the Isley house while gigging with the group. Now the 21 year old was ready to wail, a black guitar hero bringing the rock to the funk. Chris jasper was on to the ARP synthesizer thing. He hooked up with Malcolm Cecil & Robert Margouleff, programmer/engineers who had worked so effectively with Stevie Wonder. The Isley Brothers had been in music for 15 years & they were bang at the front of it with this record.

“3 + 3” included covers of tunes by James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Seals & Crofts. The group made it there thang to turn soft rock melodies into quiet storm soul ballads. They had full LPs of this, a 10 minute long version of a Carole King song ! For an audience unfamiliar with the group but who knew the songs it was a wrinkle that appealed. Now I have no great beef with this side of the sound, Ronald Isley stepped up & showed himself to be a great & distinctive vocalist on these tunes. I just think that the song choice leans towards the cheesy & I do have a serious problem with the still-around “Summer Breeze”. I mean, come on, here is the worst excess of hippy-dippy nonsense, a mush-minded meaninglessness. I am no neurological expert, I am not prepared to ask Mr Google. I am pretty sure that there are, never has been, never will be, any such thing as “the jasmines of my mind”. Bah !

“Hello It’s Me” seems to be a more imaginative selection, a Todd Rundgren song, the only cover on 1974’s “Live It Up”. In the early 1970s Todd wrote a lot of songs that could have, maybe should have, been hits. The Isley Brothers were sussed enough to know this. Here on “Soul Train” Ronald knows that he has work to do, that people are listening to his slow songs on national TV & he wins in a canter. “Hello” is the best of the Isley ballads.

It was the slabs of funk what did it for me. There was an LP a year, 1975’s “The Heat Is On” was a #1 album, black groups just didn’t hit that market. Each record had a couple of variations on a theme by Ernie that just hit the spot & kept on going into Part 2. “Live It Up”, “Fight the Power”, “The Pride”…it’s a great & longer list… especially “Fight The Power”. Man, this was before the 12″ extended mix. Some 10 minute jam of these songs would have been solid. The brothers had always tended to stick with what worked. By 1978, with disco ubiquitous & Ronald’s sexed-up ballads a little complacent, they had perhaps been to the well too often. There were still platinum records though & the Isleys were still one of the world’s biggest bands.

“Harvest For The World”, prelude & all, opened the 1976 LP of that title. I know that the uncomplicated, catch-all lyrics have a touch of “I believe that children are the future” about them but come on…this is a perfect pop-soul anthem, anthemic & uplifting. The Isley brothers had a worldwide audience at this time. A slice of social-conscience was surely better than being growled at by the Walrus Of Love or slimed by the Stylistics (post-Philly). “Gather every man, gather every woman. Celebrate your life, give thanks for your children”…a great record.

Just before the release of “3 + 3” the Isley Brothers released a “Greatest Hits” LP, a fantastic collection of  their work on their own T-Neck label. Earlier Motown had a “Best Of” from the group’s years on that label. The three original brothers had already compiled a seriously impressive body of work. Then along came the next generation of the family & new blood brought new inspiration & energy. Now there were “Ultimate”, “Essential” even “Definitive” collections with a whole shedload of new hit records to be collated. For a few years there the Isley Brothers were as good as gold.

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.