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.
At 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 His early ambitions to emulate his idol Nat King Cole were now outdated as times changed, he had been deeply affected by the onstage collapse & subsequent illness of Tammi Terrell, his partner for a spectacular run of hit duets.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.
Sticking 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.
“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.
By 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.