Into The Groovy (Soul June 1969)

In the Summer of 69 I was 16 going on 17, you know what I mean, & the money in my pocket was not going to match the lifestyle to which I aspired. (I’m joking, none of these things that I do have ever amounted to a “Lifestyle”). My hometown steel plant employed temporary student labour but paid a lower rate to under-18’s so my Dad, a life-long socialist & keenly aware of the exploitative nature of the surplus value of labour, hooked me up with a friend’s construction company. It was my first proper work, the paper route didn’t count, & I loved it. The physical aspect of the job was enjoyable, they let me use the cement mixer, how cool was that? I may have been the butt of the older guys’ banter (there’s no such thing as tartan paint!) but it kept you fit & sharp. The holding folding for the weekend, after Mum had taken her cut (it’s OK, I owed her), well that was the point.

 

Oh yeah, the radio played all day long & there were some good ones about in June 1969. The UK Top 10 included the Beatles, Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson & CCR. The feelgood hit of the summer, the  #1 record on the Billboard R&B chart for the whole of June & most of July, was a song that did it for me then & still does now.

 

 

Image result for marvin gaye too busy thinking about my babyAt the end of 1968 Marvin Gaye had cleaned up, deservedly so, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. A worldwide hit it became the biggest selling single for Motown, a label that was no stranger to the people who handed out gold records. Norman Whitfield had co-written “Pride & Joy” Marvin’s first US Top 10 record. With the departure from the company of ace producing/writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, already well established, he stepped up his game. His work with the Temptations became more ambitious & experimental while for Marvin, re-working songs from his own back catalogue, Whitfield constructed perfect Pop-Soul classics. “Grapevine”, a recent hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, became an ominous cry of betrayal & disbelief while “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby”, originally on a 1966 Temptations’ LP, a joyous declaration of love. You hear that opening “Ah-ah-ha, Oh Yeah” & you know that here comes 3 minutes of happiness. A beautiful record, a consummate follow-up tailor-made to enhance Marvin’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost Soul singers.

 

Marvin Gaye, always a complicated man, was not in a good place in 1969. His early ambitions to emulate his idol Nat King Cole were now outdated as times changed, he had been deeply affected by the onstage collapse & subsequent illness of Tammi Terrell, his partner for a spectacular run of hit duets. His relationship with Berry Gordy, his brother-in-law as well as his label boss, was turbulent. A period of depression & introspection allied to a desire for the greater autonomy that other Soul artists were enjoying realised a flourishing creativity & an individual form of expression that genuinely moved Soul music forward. I’m sorry but if you don’t think that “What’s Going  On” (1971) is a cornerstone of modern American music then it’s unlikely that we could ever be friends.

 

 

Image result for supremes no matter what sign you areSticking in Detroit with Motown at #25 in the chart of June 21st was the latest 45 from the label’s premier female unit. These were unstable times for the Supremes, now known as Diana Ross & the… The drawn-out, messy departure of Florence Ballard, replaced by Cindy Birdsong, affected the group’s popularity. Despite Diane’s star treatment fans held all three of the original members in high regard. The rich seam of smash hits from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line was drying up. In 1968 while “Love Child” became an 11th #1, other singles including  the marvelous H-D-H song “Forever Came Today”, were less successful. Plans for Ms Ross’ solo career were fixed & ready to be given the green light.

 

I liked “No Matter What Sign You Are”, the Age of Aquarius was thing back then. The trio, fixtures on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, give it plenty in their glittery, fringed finery. Diana is lip-synching to her own voice, Mary & Cindy were not needed in the studio where the Andantes took care of the backing vocals. Written by Berry Gordy & Hank Cosby it was intended to be the group’s farewell record but despite this groovy prime-time promotion it did not achieve the success anticipated by the label. Later in the year “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was a more appropriately valedictory choice, the group’s 12th & final US #1 song. The phenomenon that was Diana Ross & the Supremes were now two separate acts.

 

 

Back in the very olden days when I didn’t know much about anything at all (& didn’t need to) I had a strong feeling that I really did like the records made by the Coasters. In 1958/9 the group, based in New York, had 3 UK Top 20 hits with irrepressible, irreverent story-songs, my first experience of cool American humour & probably my initial exposure to Rhythm & Blues. Both “Yakety Yak” & “Charlie Brown” featured  exciting, honking saxophone insertions played by a young Texan establishing himself on the NY session scene. Later, when I became aware of just how good King Curtis was, I wasn’t surprised that he had caught my ear previously.

 

Image result for king curtis instant groove“Instant Groove” was a new entry on the Billboard R&B chart this week at #35. King, Curtis Ousley, had signed with Atlantic & assembled a group of the finest session players in New York. “Memphis Soul Stew” was as succulent as it sounds, each ingredient/instrument successively introduced to the pot, a recipe for a spicy, effervescent brew that few instrumentals could match. “Instant Groove” is exactly what it says on the label. Originally recorded & produced by KC with his “Orchestra” (including young Jimi Hendrix) as “Help Me” for Ray Sharpe in 1966, the following year the “Gloria” inspired riff reappeared on Aretha Franklin’s first LP for Atlantic as “Save Me”. The NYC Funk version features a great bass solo by Jerry Jemmott. He & the other Kingpins, Richard Tee (keyboards), Cornell Dupree (guitar) & Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums) could play any music put in front of them. When they played with King Curtis he brought out their Soul.

 

Image result for king curtisBy 1971 King Curtis was at the apex of his career. In March he & the Kingpins supported & backed Aretha Franklin for 3 concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Live albums of the occasion were released by both artists. “Soul Train”, a new TV programme called when a theme tune was required. The actual John Lennon needed half a pint of horn for a couple of tracks on “Imagine” & KC, who had been on the undercard at Shea Stadium back when Beatlemania was a thing, was the best man for the job. In August of that year, on the steps up to his Manhattan apartment, he became involved in an argument with a couple of drug dealers & was fatally stabbed, he was 37 years old. Tragic.

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Ain’t Nothing But A Houseparty

We got back to the flat on Friday evening, it was the 1980’s we probably watched “The Tube”, a spirited attempt to put “the weekend starts here” energy of popular music back in our TVs. There was a message for us, Tony had rung & left an address for a party in South London that night. Good one, always interested in a party, especially one within walking distance but which of the 2 Tonys of our acquaintance had called?

 

Tony #1 was a Birmingham drug dealer who had crashed with us a couple of years back when he needed to avoid the cops. He became our connection for the best Kashmiri black hash around. Boy that was some Summer, we were very popular among our small circle of friends. Despite smoking more of the stash than we sold & owing money we didn’t have we had parted on good terms. It would be good to see him again, the refreshments would be first class & at least he was not in prison. Tony #2 was a proper acid casualty who stayed at ours when his squats got too weird. He was a freeloader & a little scary for those who didn’t know him but he was harmless, needed help & no-one but us were around to give it. We were no strangers to a squat party, cheap, very cheerful & often a live band rocking out in the basement. Whichever Tony had put us on it, we had no other plans for the night so we were going to a party.

 

 

We showed up, just the 2 of us, on the correct doorstep at around 10.30, suitably hydrated at one of our usual haunts, clutching a bottle of wine, our trusty cassette of “You Dancing ? I’m Asking”, a personal mix of favourites (4 of which are featured here), in a pocket. “We’re with Tony” was a pretty lame opening gambit, inviting “Tony who ?” from the justifiably suspicious woman who had answered the door. Shit, we had not thought this through & a long explanation would not help. We were bailed out when someone we knew bounced up the hallway to  greet us. Oh, it was THAT Tony ! We were in !

 

Tony #3 lived out in Kent & we didn’t see him Uptown much. Always fine company with stories & objects of interest. The only man I have met who has produced a quail’s egg from his coat. While I never told him, his rakishness reminded me of a young Bryan Ferry. I liked him. It was a fine night out, we could do that party guest thing, respectful of the premises, would talk & listen to anyone then drink anything but the wine we had brought. This wasn’t the night that Mitchell woke me up from a very comfortable chair to tell me it was time to go home. I protested that I was having too good a time only to be informed that it was 7.30 in the a.m. & I had been asleep for 3 hours ! This was the night that we were stumbling home on Camberwell’s deserted backstreets & met an equally inebriated Tony #3 looking for our house. He hadn’t said that he needed a place to stay !

 

 

We threw a mean open house ourselves. Of course we spent too much time on the music. 6 hours of all killer no filler takes a lot of planning & heated discussion then guests have the front to talk to each other. Still the big room was always jumping by midnight & not a minute of Sting or the Police to be heard. Our big flat was rammed on a New Year’s Eve when we had only invited those who called us (you didn’t call then no invite) & people we met that night down the pub. We had just cleared the debris when our housemates returned from Amsterdam. We told them we had a few people round but they probably sussed out the runnings when everyone who came around for the next 3 months mentioned that they had missed quite a night.

 

In the late 1980’s the young Irish groovers who I worked with knew of a party most weekends. My new girlfriend was most taken by this raucous company, their all-nighters fuelled by whisky, amphetamine & my mate Scot determined to break on through to the other side. There were some outstanding warehouse parties when we were hanging with Armoury 88, a loose collective of DJs. The best nights were when no-one was playing out & we were back at their flat in Wandsworth, the old Jamaican guys chatting over some dub plates. Come on down it’s dancing time.

 

 

Clive’s parties lasted the whole weekend so I usually reserved a room in his large suburban house. It was at one of these that I last saw Tony #3. He & his lovely Pre-Raphaelite wife (apologies, her name escapes) had arrived early & he had partaken of the available goodies before anyone else had taken off their coats. The kitchen became a no-go area as his impression of a dog, barking & crawling around on all fours, was irksome & embarrassing. The next morning, rather than face the walk of shame he had sharply scarpered back to Sevenoaks & it was some time before anyone saw his cold, wet nose again. Hey that’s what happens when the cocaine is free. I was not too bothered by his antics, there’s always someone who peaks too early & I was glad that this time it wasn’t me because, you know, sometimes it was me ! Anyway, like many of the similarly stupified, his bark was, I’m sure, worse than his bite.

 

OK, where’s your icebox ? Where’s the punch ?

 

 

 

Marvin Gaye (the duets)

I can’t muse upon Motown without thinking of the duets recorded by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. There are other man/woman duets which I rate as highly. Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood’s, “Some Velvet Morning” has a mystery, an otherness. “Love Hurts” in the hands and voices of Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris  is melancholy beauty defined. The songs of Marvin & Tammi are joyous, potent & young, everything you want from cheap popular music. They make me happy.

The songs have the same effect on others. Whoever has enhanced the sights and sounds of this clip has done us all, and the song, a big favour. Marvin was Motown’s biggest male star but not the happiest. He had come from the church and was looking to go to cabaret. His idol was Nat “King” Cole, Marvin wanted to croon. Tammi was not a star at all. The care he shows for the young Mod girl, helping her through the nonsense of record promotion, adds to the already immense charm and chemistry of their songs. I am not going to dwell on the tragedy of her collapse while onstage with Gaye in 1967. That and her failure to recover (she died, aged 24 in 1970) contributed to a new maturity on Gaye’s part. His subsequent recording of the best LP recorded in the history of popular music, “What’s Going On”, stands as a fine tribute.

A young couple (later married) Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, wrote the songs. It is their dual voices which make the songs so effective. They are written to be sung as duets. Reliable sources have said that Simpson sang on the later records as Tammi was too ill to record. Others, around at the time, have challenged this. I really don’t care. This was released as Marvin & Tammi & that’s how I first loved it. “Good Lovin” was not a big hit in the UK, the inferior “Onion Song” made a bigger impression. This song is such a personal favourite.

The record label were eager to put the “King and Queen of Motown” together. Marvin was not as enthusiastic. When he finally agreed there were delays for the producers, Ashford & Simpson (their last job for Motown). The record was released in 1973. The stories from the making of the record are very funny. The pair were not the best of friends and both possessed a sizeable ego. Not surprisingly I take Marvin’s side in most of the arguments. If he needed a joint or two to ease his voice then…& why is the LP not titled “Marvin & Diana”?

The producers only had two songs for the couple. They turned to a new hit factory over in Philadelphia for two songs which had already been hits. Thom Bell & Linda Creed wrote “You Are Everything” a hit for the Stylistics. The song is not a duet rather a song they sing together. Marvin was no-ones backing singer & rose to the occasion for his performance. He joins Diana for the first chorus and then sings the second verse himself. I still find this to be one of the loveliest, most affecting vocal performances I have ever heard. Marvin is really trying on this one.