Doing Our Thing On The Friendship Train (Soul December 1969)

The #1 song on “The Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations” (I wonder what that means) through December 1969 was a valedictory single by Tamla Motown’s most successful artists, indeed one of the biggest groups of the decade. The label were making plans for the 1970’s & those plans included separating Diana Ross from the Supremes.

 

 

Image result for supremes someday we'll be together advertIn fact “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was slated to be the first solo single by Ms Ross. The Detroit trio had enjoyed 11 previous #1 hits on the Pop chart (you probably know them all) but 1969’s releases had not proved to be as popular & that’s no way to say goodbye. “Someday..” was the final 45 to have “Diana Ross & the Supremes” on the label & it added to that list of chart toppers. The Supremes performing “Baby Love” were the first young, stylish African-American women I had ever seen on UK TV. The bespoke hits, provided by Holland-Dozier-Holland, just kept on coming. In 1967 the Modtastic “The Happening” was a sure fire smash by international superstars then troubled & dissatisfied Florence Ballard was ungraciously replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Backing vocals on the records were increasingly provided by session singers & next time out the psychedelicised “Reflections” had Diana’s name as first billing.

 

Related imageDiana, Mary & Cindy, all gussied up & glittery, made their customary appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to promote “Someday…”. It’s poised & polished but the performance lacks producer Johnny Bristol’s ad-libbed interjections of encouragement which added grit, depth & drama to the record. The song is a remake remodel of Bristol’s 1961 original recording with his duo Johnny & Jackey, a much simpler, almost Ska-like affair. It’s an appropriate conclusion to such a remarkable run of success. Diana’s solo debut was coming along the following year & there were rather hopeful plans to make her into a Hollywood star. Mary Wilson continued as the only original member of the Supremes & there’s a run of memorable 45’s to come. Despite all the personal positioning & politics between the women & the label there’s no doubt that the Supremes were not the same without Diana & equally no doubt that they were sensational.

 

 

Image result for gladys knight friendship trainAt #6 on the chart was another Motown act, another female with her name at the front of the group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were an established name, particularly for their impeccably choreographed live performances, before they signed for the label in 1966. Producer Norman Whitfield made good use of Gladys’ urgent delivery for “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me” (a big UK hit), “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” & “The End of the Road” but she never shook the feeling that Motown were not providing the material & promotion that others received. The fantastic, funky “Friendship Train”, assertive & affirming, a different “calling out across the nation” this time, written by Whitfield & Detroit stalwart Barrett Strong, is certainly one from the top shelf. Beautiful Gladys & the equally attractive Pips sang the song when they were the star turn on the first syndicated episode of “Soul Train” in October 1971. A fine start to the show’s 35 year long run.

 

Image result for gladys knight buddah records advertGladys Knight & the Pips remained with Motown when the corporation moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Their records continued to make the Top 10 of the R&B chart. The album featured Gladys’ strong, emotional vocal interpretations of popular ballads. 1971’s “Standing Ovation” included “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, “Fire & Rain”, “The Long & Winding Road” & others while the dead-stone Northern Soul classic “No One Could Love You More” was overlooked. In the final week of 1972 the group released “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the One to Say Goodbye)” a massive hit, their farewell to Motown having refused a new contract & finding the love they deserved at Buddah Records. In 1974 “Neither…” was awarded the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or a Group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were already on a journey to even bigger things aboard the “Midnight Train to Georgia” which won Best R&B Performance on the same night. Woo-Hoo!

 

 

Image result for betty everett been a long timeFurther down those Cash Box listings for December 13th 1969, at #41, was a track by a singer who had been enjoying a revival in her fortunes this year. Betty Everett had left Mississippi for Chicago in 1957 while still a teenager. Her biggest success came in 1964 with the vibrant super-catchy “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” while the more atmospheric “You’re No Good”, “Getting Mighty Crowded” & duets with Jerry Butler established her accomplishments across a range of styles. Betty & Jerry were the crossover stars of Vee Jay, an R&B label whose diversification led them to having the 4 Seasons & the Beatles, the biggest acts around on their roster. The logistics of pressing & distributing truckloads of vinyl & a mountain of cash in the hands of an owner with a weakness for the casinos in Vegas became a recipe for financial chaos & bankruptcy. It would be some time before Betty’s career was back on solid ground.

 

Image result for retro styleFinding a home at UNI “There’ll Come A Time” (1969) is a showcase for Betty’s mature talents. The slower songs aim for & come pretty close to the sophistication of Dionne Warwick while distinctive Chicagoan arrangements, sweeping string & punchy brass, keeps it soulful & the quality high. The title track, co-written by Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites, put Betty Everett back on the R&B chart. “Been A Long Time”, not on the LP, was plucked from the “Ice On Ice” LP by her friend Jerry Butler in partnership with young writing/production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. This fresh, talented pair were breaking on through & this modern uptempo treat is yet another sign that their time was coming.

 

Well, this is the final monthly selection from the R&B charts of 1969. It’s been nothing but a pleasure revisiting these 50 year old tunes, truly from a Golden Age of Soul. My only problem has been that every month great tracks haven’t make the cut. I’ve not taken a look at the charts for the new decade but I’m pretty sure it will be the same mix of classics, rediscoveries & others that are new to me. Looking forward to that.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Detroit dream girls (the supremes)

The Supremes’ story is now part of pop music’s DNA. The promotion of Diana Ross at the expense of her friends. The reaction of Florence to this marginalisation leading to her being dumped from the world’s leading female act & to a sad demise. It has become one of the folk tales of the 60s. Like the Beatles in Hamburg, developing a self-belief & a sound that would affect the world or the separation of Brian Jones from the group that he thought he led, it has been told & re-told from many different perspectives. We think we know the “truth” of these stories. We don’t need Carl Jung to come over & explain to us how a culture develops it’s own myths & legends.

Well…”Forever Came Today”. What a great pop single this is. The third single released as Diana Ross & the Supremes burns with a slow fuse before building to a fine dramatic climax. The “Reflections” LP introduced a touch of psychedelic soul to the hit sound but this track eschews the gimmicks and excess of the title track. The restraint of the arrangement, in the verse the electric piano is joined by a tambourine as a lead instrument, adds to the power of the song.

These were turbulent times at Hitsville & not just for the Supremes. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the writers responsible for the group’s amazing run of winners (10 #1 hits) were unhappy. They slowed their song production & were planning a future away from Motown. “Forever” was the last 45 they wrote for the girls. Recorded in 1967, released early in 1968, it was the first record of their’s to miss the top 20 since their success had begun & the first record to use session singers in place of the harmonies of “and the Supremes”. By the end of 1968 the Supremes were back in the top 10. Lamont Dozier & the Holland brothers had left Motown in a blizzard of suit & counter-suit.

There are clips of the Supremes promoting their world-wide smash of the 1967  summer of love, “The Happening”, with Florence. In others Cindy Birdsong (wonderfully, her real name) had tip-toed into her place. Two singles later Ed Sullivan was introducing Cindy as part of a group who promoted all their releases on Sullivan’s prime time TV show. The group always had their best new frocks on for these performances. Anyone who wants a view of the range of 60s fashions only has to check on the Supremes’ photos. Whether dressed like Vogue models or in more “street” clothes they were never less than immaculate.

The performance shows how Diana was now the focus. Her ambition can be criticized but she could sure sell a song. However, the Sullivan house band are not the Funk Brothers. This absence of groove makes for a pretty insipid result & perhaps influenced the song’s eventual sales. I have included this clip because it shows Mary Wilson at her best despite the exclusion from recording & the absence of her chidhood friend.

The Supremes first came to the UK on the back of a 2nd hit with “Baby Love”. They appeared on Top of the Pops in quite low cut dresses & made an immediate impression on my young self. I had never seen beautiful, young Afro-American women on British TV before. It was Mary who made the biggest impression. Francoise Hardy, Monica Vitti, Julie Christie, for myself  Mary Wilson joins that list of great 60s beauties. Diana can smile & over-emote , she can take the majority of the camera shots. Show me a clip of the Supremes in the 60s & I only have eyes for Ms Wilson…and there ain’t nothing I can do about it !

I have been looking around for a clip to show just how good the Supremes could be. The early appearances are in black and white. They often sang live with a white bread band making little effort to emulate the sound of the record because that would be impossible. I have settled on the breathless rush of “You Can’t Hurry Love”,often copied but never bettered. This is another great pop record from Tamla Motown.