See You Later Oscillator (Malcolm Cecil)

I do like to think that I keep up with happenings in the world, at least those that interest & affect me. I mean I have the Internet & it’s all on there isn’t it. Unfortunately a combination with the current corona cull & being a man of a certain age has meant that in the past year there’s been just too much death in the news that has come my way. I was not affected by the recent expiration of a senior member of our royal family, nor by the excessive, often obsequious media coverage as I own a television that has an off switch. I was though surprised & saddened to only learn this week of the passing, three weeks ago, of Malcolm Cecil, a pioneer of & innovator in electronic music &, with his partner Robert Margouleff, more responsible for the introduction of new technology & its potential to mainstream music than anyone.

Londoner Malcolm was born into a musical family in 1937, his mother Edna being well known as “The Queen of the Accordion”. After a first professional gig as a 13 year old drummer he switched to double bass & made the Jazz scene with leading British musicians while backing visiting American stars as part of the resident band at Ronnie Scott’s club in the glittering West End with a daytime job in the BBC Radio Orchestra. An engineering education then a two year stretch in the Royal Air Force as a radar operator extended his interest in & knowledge of the technical side of recording. His understanding of the process led to the first 4-track studio in London which soon had become 16-track & demand for his services in Los Angeles & New York. In N.Y. he was referred to Media Sound Studio where Robert Margouleff was producing sound effects for advertising jingles on a Moog Series III. Galvanised by each other’s enthusiasm, with a whole lot of inspiration, innovation & access to the developing technology “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” was the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, whatever that means T.O.N.T.O., 6 feet high, 25 feet in diameter & weighing a ton, was impressive.

Die or D.I.Y.?: Tonto's Expanding Head Band ‎– "Zero Time" (Embryo Records  ‎– SD 732) 1971

“Zero Time”, an album by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, was released in 1971. Recorded at Media Sound, entirely on synthesizers, the adventure stimulated the duo to create new sounds, grabbed on to tape from the analogue gear before they disappeared & even new gadgets to expand the machine’s range. These soundscapes (a new word back then) were undoubtedly helped by Cecil’s musicality & Jazz background, they had rapidly progressed from “how do you get a tune out of this thing?” to doing exactly that. With its Sci-Fi inspired tracks & psychedelic cover, in the early 1970’s the album was at the front of the stack, along with “Live/Dead” & “Gandharva”, an atmospheric piece by fellow Moog Droogs Beaver & Krause, for pleasant evenings sprawled on a large cushion with a small circle of friends & a microdot tab of L.S.D. each. “Zero Time” did not sell too well but was still noted. When Stevie Wonder asked to meet the pair he arrived carrying a copy under his arm.

Malcolm Cecil, Synthesizer Pioneer, Is Dead at 84 - The New York Times

Stevie Wonder was just 21 & his album “Where I’m Coming From” (1971) had marked a process of establishing his independence from the Tamla Motown organisation & his maturity as a writer & musician. On the majority of the record he had played a synth bass, now he was looking for new sounds on new instruments & his collaboration with the similarly eager Margouleff & Cecil proved to be monumental. With a new contract & full artistic control the quickly recorded “Music of My Mind” (1972) was more than a statement of intent. A critical rather than commercial success it gave the trio confidence to push it along even further. Bob & Malcolm found the sounds that Stevie could hear, setting the controls for the heart of the Funk, Stevie played the instruments while his partners rolled the tape. “Talking Book” (1972), “Innervisions” (1973) & “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” (1974) were expressions of the genius of Stevie Wonder that progressed the sonic palette of popular music. Add in a record by his wife Syreeta & Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” & the trio were on a run. I could select any number of tracks to confirm that & it’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” with its adroit, avant-garde, fat, funky bassline that makes the cut today.

Such success meant that the pair were in demand as programmers, producers & engineers. Cecil set up the synths for Stephen Stills’ “Manassas”, the same on “Good Old Boys” for Randy Newman & Van Dyke Parks’ “The Clang of the Yankee Reaper”, all three favorites round here. It was with the Isley Brothers, a group that had an ear for what’s going on since the world was in monochrome, that the pair added value to a sound that sold on the “Live It Up” & “The Heat Is On” albums. In 1975 disagreements over credit & finance led to Wonder, Cecil & Margouleff going three separate ways. The family Isley stuck with Malcolm & he produced “Harvest For the World”, a song we all know.

With his own set up at T.O.N.T.O studios, Santa Monica, Malcolm continued to work with Billy Preston then in 1977 began a relationship with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, fellow students at Lincoln University Pennsylvania who, throughout the 1970s had combined Jackson’s Soul-Jazz grooves with Gil’s conscious poetry to create music that was to prove increasingly influential leading to Gil being recognised as a Rap pioneer. When Jackson left “Reflections” (1981) was overall an attempt to make a mainstream record that was not always successful. The album included “B Movie”, a 12 minute long salvo against the trivialisation of US politics, of nostalgia for a past that only existed on celluloid, of the desire for a president who embodied the masculine virtues of John Wayne & the reel to reality of the second-rater Ronald Ray-Gun (sound familiar?). Underpinned by another sensationally groovy bassline, Cecil produced a masterpiece where the music & the message meet in perfect euphony.

Stevie Wonder Remembers 'Genius' Co-Producer Malcolm Cecil - Rolling Stone

Since the first piano lessons at the age of three there had always been music in Malcolm’s Cecil’s life. He was of an age & temperament to have an inquisitiveness to obtain knowledge of developing technology in electronic music & its potential to change recording techniques. Of course he had contemporaries who were making their own contributions & breakthroughs in the field but none were making records that made the charts & sold in their millions. In a pre-digital age where experimentation & innovation was a necessity it was Cecil’s vision & musicality that transformed the squawks & squonks of a machine into a key, now commonplace, development in modern music. A restored, playable T.O.N.T.O. is now in the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta & until his death Malcolm would lecture on & demonstrate his amazing device.

I’ll close with a track by Little Feat from their great “Dixie Chicken” record. I had always assumed that Bill Payne played all the keyboards on their albums but on “Kiss It Off”, a diversion from the group’s developing sultry Country Funk, Cecil’s work, programming & probably playing, transforms Lowell George’s mournful ballad into an atmospheric, experimental treat.

Slow Jams And Stevie (Soul March 6th 1971)

The Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for 50 years ago this week was headed this week by “Mama’s Pearl”, the fifth of six consecutive #1 records by Motown’s teenage sensations the Jackson 5. Family bands were all the rage in 1971 & at #3, down from the second spot on the chart were the Osmonds, five Mormon brothers with an age range from 21 year old Alan to Donny, just 13, whose toothy wholesomeness had made them familiar faces on prime time TV shows starring Andy Williams & Jerry Lewis. Reportedly the song “Guess Who’s Making Whoopie (With Your Girlfriend)” was considered to be too racy for young Michael Jackson so new lyrics were provided by a team of Motown writers. Conversely the Osmonds needed to toughen up if they wanted a share of that teenage heartthrob dollar. Sent to FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals they liked “One Bad Apple”, a George Jackson (no relation) song written with the Jackson 5 in mind. The result was a crossover success on the Pop & R&B charts. Anyway, if you think that the Osmond Brothers are making my selection of Classic Soul then think again.

Down in Alabama they may have been expanding their range into Teen Pop but at #16 on the chart, after three weeks in the Top

Candi Staton – He Called Me Baby / What Would Become Of Me (1970, Vinyl) -  Discogs

10, was a great example of the Muscle Shoals Sound. Candi Staton had sung in a teenage Gospel group before spending most of the Sixties raising her four children. She was in her late-twenties when, in 1968, her husband-to-be Clarence Carter introduced her to FAME. Candi was instantly successful, her first album “I’m Just A Prisoner” (1970) came off the back of two Top Twenty R&B hits & displayed a strong, rich, mature voice to handle the emotional songs, comfortable with the innuendo of the women getting together to talk about men ones. The following year’s “Stand By Your Man” repeated two from her debut while for the new tracks producer/arranger Rick Hall did exactly the job that was needed to establish Candi as “The First Lady of Southern Soul”. The title track, a hit for Tammy Wynette, had been covered by most of Country’s female royalty, only Bettye Swann had added a little bit of Soul. Candi’s take has an insistent bass foundation for the string & brass flourishes & earned her a Grammy nomination.

candi staton and Clarence Carter

He Called Me Baby” is another Country standard . Written by the great Harlan Howard the most well known interpretation was by Patsy Cline for whom Howard had also written “I Fall To Pieces”. Candi’s Gospel, Blues & Country ingredients, flavoured with a classy, building arrangement makes for a plaintive, gorgeous dish of Soul. “Stand By…” is not a record full of Country covers. Once again the studio’s staff writers, George Jackson most prominent, provided strong varied material for their new star. The new FAME gang of studio musicians were finding their feet too, it really is a fine collection. In 1976 Candi’s “Young Hearts Run Free” was a feelgood hit of the summer & other dance floor favourites followed. She may have returned to her Gospel beginnings but young British groups like the Source & Groove Armada were happy to have her guest on their dance records leading to compilations of her earlier work bringing a deserved higher visibility & reputation.

Finding the 'Real' Marvin — Adam White

At #14 on the chart was a vocal quartet who had sung with various Detroit groups before signing to Tamla Motown in 1966 as The Originals. Joe Stubbs, briefly a member was the brother of the more famous Levi of the Four Tops while Freddie Gorman, in 1961 & working as a mailman, had co-written “Please Mr Postman” by the Marvelettes, the label’s first #1 record. With few of their own recordings they provided studio backing vocals to many hits & remained 20 feet from stardom until, in 1969, their friend Marvin Gaye intervened. Marvin wrote & produced “Baby I’m For Real”, a song that would not be out place on “Let’s Get It On”. He showcased all four Originals’ voices & the record was a #1 R&B , Pop Top 20 hit. “The Bells” was a follow up success & the early 1970’s became a very productive period for the Originals.

The Originals – God Bless Whoever Sent You (1972, Vinyl) - Discogs

“God Bless Whoever Sent You” is taken from “Naturally Together”, their second album of 1970. That driving Motown beat may not have been apparent, it’s a slow jam in the smooth romantic style becoming more popular with the success of groups like the Delfonics & the Chi-Lites. Producer Clay McMurray, along with British woman Pam Sawyer provided the songs & the Originals all had fine, strong voices without perhaps a distinctive lead voice to make them discernible from other groups. “The Only Time You Love Me Is When You’re Losing Me” sure sounds like a hit but was not released on 45. The Originals made 8 albums with Motown, surviving, reduced success & line up changes before “Down In Love Town” topped the new Disco chart in 1976 ensuring that they left the label on a high. The group is not always considered in the front rank of the Motown roster but they made good records & they made their mark.

Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder in London, February 3rd, 1966. : beatles

The highest new entry of the week at #44 is one of my favourite Beatles cover versions. This was Stevie Wonder’s first 45 of 1971, the fourth track to be lifted from his “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” LP. Like the title track from that record “We Can…” is sparkling, imaginative & wonderfully sung. Still only 20 years old Stevie was enjoying a fantastic run of great singles & was established as a major artist. More of his own songs were included on the album & he was taking greater control in the studio. His Motown contract came up for renewal on his 21st birthday & he was already recording the more expansive music with an expression of his social conscience that greater independence would allow. In April 1971 the release of “Where I’m Coming From”, produced by Stevie, written by himself & Syreeta Wright, marked that coming of age. It seems that most of Stevie Wonder’s singles are included in these selections of mine. His records certainly all made the R&B chart, they still sound fresh & we know them all. There was much more great music to come & it’s a sure bet that I wont be able to resist those either.

This week’s live bonus is not a contemporary clip. As part of the 2011 Americana Music Awards show Candi Staton stepped out in front of an All-Star band including Don Was, Spooner Oldham & some faces I should be able to put names to & gave a lovely performance of “Heart On A String”. It’s a song from 1969, the B-side no less of “I’m Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’)” that never made it on to her albums of the time. Co-written by, here’s that name again, George Jackson, it’s a perfect slice of Pop Soul that has deservedly been resurrected. The blissful smile of ace guitarist Buddy Miller betrays how happy he is to be playing that Muscle Shoals sound, sharing the stage with the effervescent, still gorgeous at 70, legendary Ms Staton. This makes me happy too.

Getting Down To It (Soul October 17th 1970)

On the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations chart for the 17th of October 1970 there was a new #1 record. “Express Yourself”, the toppermost for the past two weeks, was to be the only time that Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band would attain such heights. Its successor “I’ll Be There” was the fourth time that the Jackson 5 had reached that pinnacle in 1970! The Top 3 was rounded out by another from the Tamla Motown roster. On the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland from the label the Four Tops had adopted a smoother, less urgent style. Of course the inimitable lead vocals of Levi Stubbs were still prominent & popular. Still Water (Love), supplied by producers Smokey Robinson & Frank “Do I Love You” Wilson, was their latest hit.

It’s been a month or so since my last review of the R&B chart of 50 years ago & there are plenty of new records around. The Top 10 is of such high quality that it would be easy to select three from there. Let’s start with one of them & see where it leads us.

Blues & Soul 44/ October 9 1970

At #9 on the chart, climbing 5 places, the Philadelphia trio the Delfonics were enjoying a run of hits. William Hart & his brother Wilbert had been in vocal groups since high school. An introduction to young producer/arranger Thom Bell led to a contract with Cameo-Parkway & a couple of 45s. On the demise of their label a move to the new Philly Groove gave Bell the freedom to realise his vision. Their next single “La-La (Means I Love You)”, released in January 1968, crossed over into the Pop chart, sold a million & placed the Delfonics in the vanguard of a new effortlessly smooth, pristine, symphonic Soul. Over the next 4 albums Bell developed his fastidious orchestrations of songs written by himself & William Hart. William’s falsetto leads over a dramatic, melodic backdrop blew our minds on succeeding hits & they were very soon the favourite of Ms Jackie Brown from the film of the same name.

“When You Get Right Down To It” is the fourth song from the group’s eponymous 1970 LP to make the R&B chart. “The Delfonics” is an album of such quality that the truly majestic “Delfonics Theme (How Could You)” was almost overlooked. The “La-La…” record (1968) has the shock & the thrill of the new. Now Bell could bring confidence & imagination to a proven hit sound providing a showcase for his & the group’s talents. “When You Get…” is the only one of the 10 tracks not written or co-written by Bell & Hart. The songs of Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill had progressed popular music in the 1960s. “On Broadway” (the Drifters), “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (the Animals) & “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Righteous Brothers) are just three. I’ve missed out the Crystals & the Ronettes, it’s a long list. Mann’s new song was in good hands & it’s a gentle, beautiful noise.

Just one place lower,at #10, is a record by Bobby Byrd. Bobby worked for James Brown whose own rapidly rising “Call Me Super Bad” would enter the Top 10 the following week. It hadn’t always been this way, way back in the 1950s Bobby had met James when the future “Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk” was serving time in juvenile prison & the Byrd family had sponsored his parole. Byrd’s band was called the Flames by the time James joined, initially as a drummer then singing. The label of “Please, Please, Please” said “James Brown & the Famous Flames” which displeased the other members but that was the way it stayed when the record sold over a million copies. After a brief split the Flames & Bobby rejoined Brown & stayed for over a decade, partners in a production company, singing backing vocals, carrying James’ cape & recording his own singles through the 1960s.

1970 King Promo 45: Bobby Byrd I Need Help (I Can't Do It Alone) Pt. 1/I Need  Help (I Can't Do It Alone) Pt. 2 – The James Brown SuperFan Club

In 1970, after a break for a couple of years Byrd returned to Brown’s set up when the singer’s band had left over the same financial disputes experienced by the singing Famous Flames. The pair quickly hired the young Collins brothers, Bootsy (bass) & Catfish (guitar), who alongside trombonist/arranger Fred Wesley brought an energy & drive to the Funk which maintained James’ popularity & his reputation as an innovator. Bobby co-wrote & can be heard on Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” & “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”. The new band, the J.B.’s, continue that same brio & groove on “I Need Help (I Can’t Do It Alone)” with Brown shouting encouragement in the background. James had always produced tracks for Bobby, his female singers & his band. They are companion pieces to whatever he had going on at the time & are often great records, not all of them were as successful on the chart as this one. The following year Bobby released “I Know You Got Soul”, extensively & memorably sampled by Eric B & Rakim on their landmark debut “Paid In Full”. Over a 21 year long professional relationship Bobby Byrd & James Brown…they got it!

Signed, Sealed & Delivered by Stevie Wonder (Album, Soul): Reviews,  Ratings, Credits, Song list - Rate Your Music

Over the past 55 years Stevie Wonder has recorded many, yes many, songs that remain significant in Soul music. “Heaven Help Us All”, at #40, the highest new entry on this week’s chart from 50 years ago is one of them. In 1965, still only 15 years old, Stevie dropped the “Little” from his stage name & confirmed the “Wonder” with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, straight from the fridge, a new deeper voice & the first single on which he had a co-writing credit. In 1970 Motown released 2 “live” records, fine collections but I can’t imagine that many of his young Mod fans made it to the Talk of the Town, a cabaret club in that London. The “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” album was a step forward, the title track, “We Can Work It Out”, one of the best Beatles covers, “Heaven Help Us All” & others. Written by Motown staffer Ron Miller, a man with the knack who had previously provided Stevie with songs, “Heaven Help…” reflected the singer & Soul’s growing social conscience. Live appearances on US TV by Motown artists could suffer from the backing band not being the Funk Brothers. No problem here as Stevie’s impassioned Gospel-inflected vocal bring it all on home. When, at around 2.54, he screams & flashes the peace sign on the prime time “Johnny Cash Show”… Ah man!

Call Answered: Mark Arthur Miller: "SOUL SEARCHING" at The Triad Theater  NYC — Call Me Adam
A Wonder & Ron Miller

Subsequent to this Stevie asserted himself against his label, took over production duties & 1971’s “Where I’m Coming From” was solely written by himself & his new wife Syreeta. On his coming of age, with full artistic control, this led to “Music of My Mind” & “Talking Book” in 1972 & he was unstoppable. Stevie was driving the car, choosing the route & we were happy to learn from him & go along for the ride. It’s a debate point as to when Stevie Wonder’s imperial phase began but certainly “Heaven Help Us All” stands as a signpost of things to come. In 1977 Tamla Motown released a well-compiled three album retrospective of Stevie’s career up to 1971. That first thing in the morning slouch from the bed to the kettle, to the turntable, finding Side 6, Track 1 of “Looking Back/Anthology”, put a little love in your heart & more of a spring in your step. “Heaven Help Us All” did it then & still does.

This week there were two new tracks from Stevie Wonder. It’s a problem that 50 years on we still need songs about racial injustice. Stevie was never going to ignore the events of 2020 & if I want to hear from anyone then he’s certainly that one. The toe-tapping Go-Go groove of “Can’t Put It In The Hands Of Fate” includes Busta Rhymes & three other rappers who I’m much too old to know much about. I love it. “You say that you believe in all lives matter. I say, I don’t believe the fuck you do”… Ah man!

Random Notes (August 2017)

OK, Summer break’s over… back on your head ( the punchline to a very old joke). Recently the going got weird so, as any fool knows, the weird turn Pro. As Life took a turn written by a Russian existentialist the blog took a back seat. Touting my favourite music seemed to be an inappropriate gewgaw but, y’know, I like doing it & I’ve certainly not stopped listening. Right, as Fyodor Dostoevsky used to say, “What the fuck”…Is this thing on ?

 

 

Single of the month is this glorious racket from Cleveland’s finest Pere Ubu. It’s been quite some time since I saw singer David Thomas & his crew perform music from the future at the Russell Club/Factory in Manchester. Those first two records from 1978, “The Modern Dance” & “Dub Housing”, angular, challenging post-Punk collections were so outstanding (& still sound great) that any music the group has released since merits consideration. Breaks have been taken, the line up has changed while David Thomas abides. In 1989 “Waiting For Mary” was one of the songs of that year, showing that the avant-garage experimentation combined with the ability to rock was a fine blend.

 

Image result for pere ubu monkey bizness“Monkey Bizness” is a taste of something fine from the upcoming LP “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo”. The video features the classic 1990s “Funhouse” pinball machine, a little complicated for my old-school arcade taste but still a quality table. I’ll be looking forward to hearing the rest of the record, Ubu’s first since “Carnival of Souls” (2014), in September. A young person walked in while I was enjoying this track at high volume & wondered what the heck was going on…that’s good right ?

 

This month, like most everyone I know, I handed over some of my hard-earned to the local multiplex & they let me see “Dunkirk”. Christopher Nolan has always been worth the money since the low budget “Following” (1998) & the startling “Memento” (2000). He makes blockbusters now but his version of a previous British exit from continental Europe (a retreat which like most of our defeats has been portrayed as heroic) was never going to be a Speilbergian war epic. We got a sparse, impressionistic cinematic experience, emotionally anchored by a restrained performance by Mark Rylance as the middle-aged captain of a small rescue boat, which I found immersive & enjoyable.

 

 

Image result for goon last of the enforcersI was not going to miss the return to the screen  of Doug “The Thug” Glatt the pugilistic protagonist of “Goon” (2011). Any Ice Hockey (as we Europeans call it, to distinguish it from an entirely different sport played on grass) movie will be compared to “Slapshot” the 1977 comedy/drama directed by George Roy Hill & starring Paul Newman, one from the top shelf of sport films. Glatt (Sean William Scott) is no Reggie Dunlop. His not-too-bright amiability, his talent to hit somebody/anybody giving him somewhere he belonged, made for an endearing & enjoyable story.

 

This time around writer Jay Baruchel directs, the humour is still coarse, the exposition broad. In “Goon: Last of the Enforcers” Doug is now married to Eva (the lovely Alison Pill), too punched out to play with his oddball teammates on the Halifax Highlanders, replaced by Anders Cain (Goldie & Kurt’s boy Wyatt Russell who seems to have been busy since that gaming episode of “Black Mirror”). He turns to old rival Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber, the great Ray Donovan, excellent as another washed-up brawler in the capable biopic “Chuck”) for help. The violence is gratuitous, the story often sentimental but it was good to spend time in Doug’s company & to see how he is getting on. I’ve seen the film described as “hockey-flavoured comfort food” & sometimes that’s just the refreshment you need of an evening.

 

 

 

Image result for syreeta albumOf course it’s never all new stuff round here & the LP I have mainly been listening to this month is a classic from 1972. Syreeta Wright married Stevie Wonder in 1970. Together they wrote the songs for “Where I’m Coming From” (1971) Stevie’s first step towards independence from Motown, the beginning of a decade of musical brilliance. The marriage lasted just 18 months but they worked together on “Syreeta” (1972) her debut LP. The hook up with Tonto’s Expanding Headband (Robert Margouleff & Malcolm Cecil) brought new synthesizer textures to the music & they are around for this record. Some of the tracks are a little sweet, it’s not Deep Soul & it’s not Detroit, more a modern Soul similar to Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” (1974) Related imageanother LP that Stevie & his crew worked on. The charming opening track “I Love Everything About You” sets the standard while the closer,the scorching Funk throb of “To Know You is to Love You”, is good enough to stand with the many great tracks created by Wonder. The pair collaborated on a more commercial follow up which made a bigger impression but, this month at least, I’m going with “Syreeta”.

Growing Up In Public (Stevie Wonder)

On alternate Saturdays, my school bussed a number of sports teams to other schools in the county. Despite fraternal intentions parochial rivalries were played out on the playing fields of Lincolnshire. Sport, as George Orwell wrote, is “war minus the shooting”. The back of the coach was strictly for the big kids, the 16 year olds on the football team. As this was January 29th 1966 they were young Mods, sharp & smart. I was 13 & my mum still bought my clothes. She thought that Ben Sherman was a Scottish mountain. I was there by default , making my first & only appearance for the chess team ! They really could not find anyone else dumb enough to press-ganged into giving up their afternoon. My skirmish for the honour of  our alma mater would take place in a musty hut posing as a school library.

Any road up, I got to share oxygen with the cool cats. The song they sang, on the journeys there & back, while they were giving a lesson in how to play the beautiful game to a bunch of young farmers, was brand new, a chartbound sound but not  just yet. Back then I still held a song’s chart position in some regard. I had more than a suspicion that “Michelle” by the Overlanders was a piece of opportunistic mush but, hey, it was #1, it was top of the pops. “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder brought into focus the idea that the best records around did not necessarily sell the most. “Baby, ev’rything is alright, uptight, clean out of sight.”

In 1963 the UK was busy with our own Beat Boom & we had missed “Little” Stevie Wonder’s smash US hit “Fingertips”, a live, wild & wonderful harmonica hullabaloo from the Motortown Revue (with Marvin Gaye on the drums). “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius” was a #1 LP in the USA. It followed “Tribute to Uncle Ray”, an attempt by Tamla Motown to link their artist with another blind African-American musician. The miniature moniker was dropped but a set of lounge singer standards was inappropriate  while “Stevie at the Beach” just sounds wrong. “Uptight”, his 5th release, was a big step forward. Stevie contributed to 5 of the songs including the surging, stomping title track. This time around the covers included an assertive, swinging version of Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind”, a Top 10 hit single.

Stevie, just 15 years old, came to Britain to promote “Uptight” & became a permanent part of the Motown manifesto, a key contributor to the Sixties soul scene. His singles were not the label’s biggest hits but, with the assistance of producer/mentor Clarence Paul & of Hank Cosby, there was a consistency  & quality about his releases. With 6 LPs in 3 years there were still a number of syrupy ballads, ill-judged covers & even a 1966 Xmas album (soon be time to dig that one out). 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her” was as perfect a two and a half minutes of pop-soul rush as you could wish for. The following 45s were classic too. “I Was Made…” was co-written by Stevie’s mother, Lula Hathaway. It’s easier to stand your ground against experienced producers when your mum has got your back.

A 1968 “Greatest Hits” collection marked the end of Stevie’s musical adolescence. Tamla Motown were reluctant to change a winning formula so an instrumental LP was released on a different label, Gordy, under the name Eivets Rednow. “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” is a flexing of his musical muscles, A spare arrangement features the Hohner clavinet keyboard now favoured by our young man. The song builds to a crescendo & Stevie’s soul shouting. I loved this more rugged sound, so did the Jackson 5 who gave it the full Motown makeover while the Rolling Stones recognised a song built around a great rumbling riff. Here the “Hollywood Palace” band are no match for Detroit’s Funk Brothers but Stevie rocks out on prime time TV.

The next year saw Stevie taking on more production duties while still giving Motown what they wanted. The  “My Cherie Amour” LP has a fair share of easy listening including the title track & a song from the musical “The King & I”. The 2 live LPs from 1970 have a touch of cabaret about them too. Stevie Wonder turned 20 in that year, of course he was taking notice of  the funkification of Soul, of a growing concern with social issues in both lyrics & in a wider context. “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” opens with 4 tracks displaying his growing range & creativity. “Never Had A Dream Come True” develops his ballad style, there would be more like this. “We Can Work It Out” is an electric version, side 1 track 1 of any Beatles cover mixtape worth its soul. The title track is followed by “Heaven Help Us All” written by long-time contributor Ron Miller. “Heaven…” is another song with a slow build & the most conscious of  Stevie’s work to date, tougher than “Give Peace A Chance” but still a song of hope. On “The Johnny Cash Show” Stevie’s fro is starting to grow & he has ditched the smart suits for a more pimped look. Pity they didn’t get the sleeves finished for that blue costume.

In 1970 Stevie married fellow Motown artist Syreeta Wright &, as his contract came towards its end, to consider a life beyond Motown.

“Where I’m Coming From” (1971) was handed to Motown as a done deal. If he was going to stay with the label then change was gonna come. All the songs are written by Stevie & Syreeta & it is self-produced. In the same year Motown’s other male solo star, Marvin Gaye, released “What’s Going On”, a mature soul masterpiece. “Where…” is not as focussed as that LP Stevie was not yet 21 & was still experimenting. “Do Yourself A Favor” is a slab of irresistible funk, “If You Really Love Me” a Top 10 hit & “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” a heartbreaker that Wonder sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral. This is some coming-of-age record.

Stevie Wonder was now ready to enter what a good friend calls his “Imperial” phase, a blaze of creativity & fulfilled talent stretching across albums of  such quality that match the work of anyone in popular music. I love that music, it’s what I reach for when I need a little Wonder in my life. In the live clips shot around 1972 Stevie is grooving to his inner rhythm, playing with his band & obviously enjoying his new freedom. I do find the period when he was leaving “Little” Stevie behind, trying out new things, breaking free of the commercial constraints of his label, absolutely intriguing. It did not all work but the 3 tracks here are classics which sit comfortably with the music that was to come.

Oh yeah, that chess match. I won it in a canter (then retired undefeated) before mooching over to watch the older guys with the style win their game. I was no grandmaster but I was a little flash !

That Girl Can Sing (70s Soul)

In 1970 Willie Mitchell took over the output of Hi Records in Memphis. His production talents & his nonpareil house band made Al Green one of the biggest soul stars of the early part of the decade. While O.V. Wright was not on his label Mitchell made some definitive Southern soul with the singer. Another protegé, Syl Johnson, released some fine tunes that sound like impressions of Green. It was his female star, Ann Peebles, who made the most distinctive records of this time that were not by “the Prince of Love”.

Ann is known for her biggest hit “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, covered by many artists of taste & for “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. “Rain” was sampled in 1997 by the always interesting Missy Elliott. From 1969 to 1975 she collaborated with Willie & made a run of great records which all have the unmistakable feel and precision of the Hi house band, the 3 Hodges Brothers, Al Jackson Jr & the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson & Andrew Love). “Beware” is from 1975. There will be no more of these gems. A collection of Ms Peebles’ work, including B-sides if possible is a lovely thing.

From a year earlier Syreeta’s “Spinnin’ & Spinnin'” is from 1974’s LP “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta”. The couple were divorced in 1972 after an 18 month long marriage. They continued to work together, This is the 2nd record that Stevie produced for her &  all the songs are either his or are co-written with Syreeta. It is a delightful record, Stevie had produced “Perfect Angel” for Minnie Riperton (Oh My !) in this year & there is a similar lightness of touch. He was also working on “Fulfillingess’ First Finale” at this time & Syreeta’s record fits right in there with his unbeatable music of the first half of the 70s.

Well, I’m too old to make a fool of myself on a dance floor but in Chaka Khan’s case I may make an exception. “Once You Get Started” is a 1975 single from “Rufusized” the 2nd of 6 Top 20 LPs in the US. The band had gotten started with a hit “Tell Me Something Good” written for them by Stevie Wonder. The “& Chaka Khan” was added for the 2nd LP. You can see why. The young & beautiful Chaka was compared to Tina Turner & Aretha, she was a star. In 1978 her first solo LP included the Ashford & Simpson written smash “I’m Every Woman” but she did return to Rufus to record with them. A final recording session with the band produced “Ain’t Nobody”, a prized possession for anyone who had the 12″ vinyl single. Then it was off to Prince for “I Feel For You” & deserved legendary status. Watch the clip again…she’s great.

In the late 70s the sweet soul drifted into Disco &, I feel, some individuality was lost. I mean Donna Summer was good but…It was soon impossible to go a whole day without hearing something by the Bee Gees &, Jah knows I tried. These lip-synch clips from a Dutch TV programme are a high quality chance to hear some great music & see some great artists in their prime.

More Motown Memories

I was looking through the discography of  Tamla Motown’s UK releases…because a man loves a list…”Hitsville USA” indeed. There are so many stone dead classics, now part of our musical DNA. The Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, hit record after hit record. There are other great releases which did not make the same golden impression but were from the same Motown stable of producers, writers and musicians and are of the same high quality. Here are just three which I have been able to select with no great brain strain on my part.

The Marvelettes were early successes for the label. In 1961 the unforgettable “Please Mr Postman” (covered by the Beatles, no less) and the totally forgettable “Twistin’ Postman” were hits. By the mid-60s they had been eclipsed by other female groups but in 1967 they struck an artistic and commercial seam which brought more success. “My Baby Must be A Magician”, written and produced by Smokey Robinson, was the group’s third Top 30 record of the year. It’s a great smooth Smokey song, Melvyn Franklin off of the Temptations booms the introduction then Marv Taplin does something with a guitar that you have to be in the Magic Circle to know how it’s done.

The Internet Oracle, Wikipedia, tells us that the Marvellettes quit  in 1970. In the early 80s I saw three ladies of a certain age perform as the group in support of Graham Parker & the Rumour at the Hammersmith Palais in London. Now I have no idea if any of these songstresses were Wanda Rogers, the lead singer on “Baby” or indeed if any of them had ever even been to Inkster, Michigan. The group performed “Postman”, “Don’t Mess With Bill”, “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, “When You’re Young & in Love”…all the hits. No-one cared who they were and showed their appreciation of a fine act.

You do not get to see live, in colour, performances of Motown acts very often. This clip of Junior Walker & the All Stars is wild and astonishing. The signature of the “Sound of Young America” was soul with sophistication but Junior, older than the other stars, was straight gutbucket R&B. The shouting sax player hit big with “Shotgun” and the hits just kept on coming. He would Walkerize songs from the Motown catalogue and in the dancefloors of UK mod clubs were jammed when they were played. The records are not as rugged as we see him here. The British audience are open-mouthed as they get to see such a great American soul act.

It’s a treat to see the Ram Jam Club too. I have Cockney friends who never tire of telling of the time they saw Jimi Hendrix play in this Brixton dive. I frequented the same venue in the 80s when it had transformed into the “Fridge”. It was an innovative and popular hang-out but the old Mods would always crack on about the old days being better than the todays. Looking at Junior Walker and the All Stars tearing up the place they may have been right.

“I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” is the 1968 debut 45 for Syreeta Wright. Written by the team of Ashford and Simpson who’s songs were so wonderfully interpreted by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. (On this one they were assisted by Brian Holland, one of the amazing brothers). It was not a hit and Syreeta did not make too many records for a while. What she did do was fall in love and marry Stevie Wonder. They wrote hit songs together at a time when Stevie was distancing himself from Motown and feeling his way towards a more mature sound which was to pretty much take over the world. The marriage did not last but the couple worked together on 2 Syreeta solo LPs which are fine companions to Stevie’s great run of recordings in the early 70s.

I was on to Syreeta from the beginning because this fine single was released under the name Rita Wright and…that was my mother’s name ! What else could I do ?