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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The Temptations:The Classic Five (1966-68)

After leaving university I took a job in a drop forge, banging the crap out of hot metal. That’s what they used to do in the Midlands industrial crucible the Black Country. The place was noisy, dirty & you counted your fingers after every shift but I’d spent my summers working in a noisier, dirtier steel works, I knew the game. The men & women I worked alongside, despite their sometimes impenetrable accent, could not have been more welcoming of an overeducated longhair (that would be me). When Keith heard that I was saving for a proper top of the range stereo system he showed up the next day with some spare gear & insisted that I took it until I was sorted. Keith had 5 years on me, he was married & held a black belt in Karate. He had been a skinhead, a top man in the Wolverhampton Wanderers crew. Before that he was a Mod, a young kid not a Face. His own “Quadrophenia” moment came when he got out of his brain on the 5.15 to Birmingham & joined his tribe to witness a performance by Tamla Motown sensations the Temptations.

 

 

For a young, blocked-on-blues Mod around 1968/69 a Temptations concert must have been the epitome of Cool. 5 very sharp dressed men moving in perfect synchronization, delivering hit after perfectly crafted hit, was a very fine musical experience. 20th century American music has a tradition of harmony vocal groups through gospel, blues, jazz, country, rhythm & blues, doo-wop & pop.  The music made by the Temptations defined the new vocal group sound, music that was made 50 years ago but can still be considered modern. The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, The Blind Boys of various Southern States, are held in high regard but every male vocal group, boys or men, since the 1960s have aspired to emulate & been compared to the Temptations.

 

“Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” is the 3rd of 4 singles in 1966 that all became #1 R&B records. Since 1964 the group had been producer/writer Smokey Robinson’s boys. “Beauty…”, their biggest hit since 1964’s “My Girl”, was preceded by “Get Ready”, falsetto lead vocal by Eddie Kendricks, the last of Smokey’s run & by “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, a David Ruffin led song produced by Norman Whitfield who was handed the keys to the studio & kept them until 1974. Ruffin had joined in 1964 to complete the “Classic 5” line-up. The other Temptations, Otis Williams, Paul Williams & Melvin Franklin all took their turn as lead on album tracks but it was the double whammy of Ruffin & Kendricks, 2 great soul voices who established the group as Motown’s & the USA’s top vocal group.

 

 

The hits just kept on coming but there was trouble ahead. As the Supremes became “Diana Ross & the…” one member of the group imagined that “David Ruffin & the Temptations” was a possibility. David’s growing separation from the others, his erratic behaviour not helped by a taste for cocaine, led to a messy & litigious departure in June 1968. His replacement Dennis Edwards was not sure of his place when Ruffin showed up at the group’s shows & joined them onstage. Eventually there were 2 solo LPs, still on Motown, in 1969 but a completed record was shelved by the label & David Ruffin never became the major star that he should have been.

 

The lyrics of “You’re My Everything” (1967) were written by Rodger Penzabene, a new, young recruit to Motown. The song honours his wife but he was heart-broken when he discovered she was having an affair. 2 great songs, “I Wish It Would Rain” & “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” came out of this upset, both perfectly interpreted by Ruffin’s anguished vocal, both #1 R&B hits. On New Year’s Eve 1967 Penzabene shot himself & died aged just 23, a poignant footnote in Motown’s history & a tragic end when there was surely so much more to come.

 

 

Norman Whitfield began to exercise more control over the group’s material & in 1968 “Cloud Nine” was the first of his innovative “psychedelic soul” experiments to be released. The single was successful but the Temptations were not fully convinced of the move away from their blockbuster ballads to the Sly & the Family Stone-influenced soul underground. They continued to release more mainstream LPs, 2 with Diana Ross & the Supremes, live from prestigious nightclubs in New York & London, even a Christmas record. Whitfield continued to work with the Temptations until 1973 by which time only Otis & Melvin remained from the classic 5. There are some terrific songs, more big hits from this later period…another time. These Ruffin/Kendrick led classics, a greater Motown maturity after the early hits, are the ones that did it for me then & still do.

 

 

Hey, Y’all Prepare Yourself (The Spinners)

The Spinners, a 5 piece vocal group from the Detroit suburbs, was formed by school friends in the mid-1950s. There were some personnel changes before their first record, “That’s What Girls Are Made For”, was a US Top 40 hit in 1961. Through the next decade they were in the Tamla Motown orbit which made the sound of Detroit a wonder of 1960s popular music. In 1972 a change of record label & a move to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia produced immediate success, a string of hit singles, 5 consecutive gold LPs & being chosen as the opening turn at the 1975 Grammy Awards ceremony.

 

 

Holy Moly ! How great is that ? The Detroit Spinners, as they were known in the UK to avoid confusion with a cable-knit sweatered folk group, made their early records, Sam Cooke-influenced pop R&B, with Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label. Harvey’s  lead vocal on The Moonglows’ Doo Wop classic “Ten Commandments of Love” is something to hear. He ran his labels with his wife Gwen, sister of Berry Gordy, the founder of Tamla Motown. When the couple moved across to the more successful branch of the family business they took their acts along too. The Spinners were never able to break into the Motown A-team. Their 1965 Top 40 hit “I’ll Always Love You” is a Funk Brothers’ formula floor-filler (so it’s a cracker) but they never received the Temptations treatment, working with a number of  staff producers, playing down the bill on the star-studded Motortown Revues. The 2nd of their Detroit LPs, on the subsidiary VIP label, included the first track that Stevie Wonder produced for another act. “It’s A Shame” was a Top 20 hit in the US & the UK  raising the group’s profile just as their contract was ending &  life after Motown was being considered.

 

The Spinners transferred to Atlantic in 1972. 4 of the group, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson & lead vocal Bobby Smith had been around from the very beginning. They had adapted to the many changes of style & fashion in African-American vocal groups, were a consummate, smooth professional act. After a decade of sporadic success they were about to find their place in the spotlight & they were ready to make the most of it. Thom Bell had set the benchmark for sweet, symphonic soul with the Delfonics. Together with producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff his arrangements for the horns & strings of the Sigma Studios house band MFSB made Philadelphia a new hit factory for the new decade. With his associate Linda Creed, Bell established the Stylistics at the forefront of the city’s lush but still funky proto-Disco sound. Hooking him up with the Spinners was a very smart move.

 

 

G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame”, stayed with Motown as a solo act. He recommended his cousin Philippe Wynne as his replacement. Phil is the guy taking the Grammys to church on “Mighty Love”, his urgent, individual voice lifted the Spinners to another level, his ebullient stage presence gave the group a distinctive edge that they had perhaps lacked. Thom Bell’s studio craft, using Wynne & Bobby Smith on lead, ensured that after the success of the “Spinners” LP & “I’ll Be Around”, the group’s 1st million selling single, the world-class pop-soul kept on coming. When “I’ll Be…” was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Group Performance it was alongside “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (The Temptations), “I’ll Take You There” (Staples Singers), another Philly hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Harold Melvin/Blue Notes) & “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Gladys Knight/Pips). The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” didn’t even make the list ! The Golden Age of American Soul music was not over yet.

 

It’s a strain to select just 3 highlights from the Spinners’ winners. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”, you know that one. The rather sublime “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was recently highlighted on The Blue Moment, Richard Williams’ fine blog. On a live version of  “How Could I Let You Get Away” Phillipe sings impressions of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding & Al Green, perfect soul-cabaret. At the 3 day festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held to promote the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (see the movie “Soul Power”) the band tore the place up. Bell hooked them up with Dionne Warwick & “Then Came You” became their only US #1. You know where to find all of these. The live clips are fine, the guys dance up a storm & do the thing they had been doing for 20 years. However capable the backing band, it’s tough to match the shimmering gloss of the studio versions.

 

 

“Wake Up Susan” was not the biggest hit but is a personal favourite. It’s an uptempo, sweet 3.22 minutes, a Friday, 5 to 5, the weekend starts here, crackerjack that never misses. In 1977 Phillipe left the group for a solo career. “Starting All Over” is a self-produced LP, his own songs with Philly’s & New York’s finest musicians, which failed to find an audience. He hooked up & toured with Funkadelic which seemed unlikely but Wynne had sung with Bootsy Collins back in the day. He sang on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” & George Clinton produced the “Wynne Jammin'” (1980). The voice is still a lovely thing but even the best songs still serve as a reminder of just how good the Spinners were. Unfortunately Philippe suffered a heart attack onstage in 1984 & a great talent was lost at just 43 years old. This is him in full P-Funk flow…

 

 

Of course the Spinners kept on keeping on with replacement John Edwards. They stuck with Thom Bell until 1979, their version of “Are You Ready For Love”, recorded by Elton John on a visit to Sigma Sound, is a disco-tastic delight. The group’s biggest later hits were crossover revivals of old hits by the 4 Seasons & Sam Cooke. Those 4 life-long Spinners remained with the group for 50 years. Billy Henderson left in 2004 when he had asked his lawyers to investigate their financial affairs. Both Pervis Jackson & Bobby Smith, a consummate singer & frontman, were members until they passed away in 2008 & 2013 respectively. Now Henry Fambrough remains as the keeper of the flame. The Spinners remained a popular & welcome live act, a great show with oldies that were truly golden from that time when they were one of a kind.

Whoo- Hoo ! Does Gladys Knight Have Pips ?

By the time Gladys Knight & the Pips signed for Tamla Motown in 1966 the family group were an established live attraction with 2 US Top 20 hits to their name. Gladys had 2 small children, her husband was the group’s MD. They were ready to take care of their own business &  independence was not always a good fit with Berry Gordy’s Motown manifesto. A case can be made that they did not always get a fair shake at the Detroit label. The Pips were never at the front of the queue for the sure-fire hit songs from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line, their records were released on the label’s Soul subsidiary. They knew what worked & worked what came their way. Their breakthrough hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, in 1967 was TM’s biggest selling 45 to date. Their last hit for the label in 1973, the Grammy award winning “Neither One of Us” made #2. In between they made some music which sits comfortably alongside the headline acts on any Motown anthology.

 

 

This clip is, despite the sound quality, pretty special. Shot in 1970 on a hospital ward for soldiers wounded in Vietnam, Gladys looks stunning & sings wonderfully. The Pips, brother Merald, cousins William & Edward, look sharp & dance up a storm. There’s a rocking band over in the corner so let’s do the show right here. The healing power of music. I feel better watching a film of it over 40 years later.

Of course “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is Marvin Gaye’s song now. Producer  Norman Whitfield had co-written it with Barrett Strong then recorded versions with Smokey Robinson & Marvin which didn’t pass Motown’s weekly quality control meetings.(Must have been a good week !). It was a faster, more urgent take on the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips that was released & became a hit. This was the style favoured for their singles, in fact an earlier song, “Take Me In Your Arms & Love Me, a hit in the UK, was edited for a US LP because it was too darned hot ! Motown were moving to the West Coast, busy making Diana Ross a movie star & bigging up the Jackson 5. The label missed that Gladys & the Pips’ smooth take on songs with a country feel,  Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” & the hit “Neither One…”  was bubbling up & breaking through.

 

 

Leaving Motown was the best thing that ever happened to the group. At Buddah there was better promotion, a greater freedom to choose their own material, a growing maturity & sophistication & Gladys blossomed as a singer & as a star.”The Empress of Soul” led her group to a run of Top 5 singles & gold record sales for their LPs. “Neither One Of Us” had been written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly & “Imagination”, the first post-Motown LP employed 5 more of his songs. This music was not the earthy country soul of Muscle Shoals & the Southern USA, it was the Sound of Young America growing up with its audience. An audience that had always liked Gladys Knight & the Pips.

On one of Weatherley’s songs “Midnight Train To Georgia” (originally “Midnight Plane To Houston”) Gladys’ swelling vocal is complemented by perfectly arranged backing vocals from the Pips. This is the group’s signature song & while I like to stray from the beaten path on these things I know a classic when I hear one. “Midnight Train…” has got to be included here. The group was riding high. At the 1975 Grammy awards they were impressive & charming when they sang the nominees for Song of the Year. “And the Pips” appeared on the short-lived Richard Pryor TV show performing backing vocals with an empty microphone stage left.

 

 

In 1974 they recorded a soundtrack LP for the film “Claudine” with the great Curtis Mayfield. The film starred Darth Vader & Diahann Carroll (oh my !). Carroll hooked a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a welfare mother of 6 children. It was not a typical blaxploitation movie. No superfly, black private dick risking his life for fellow man across 110th St. For the soundtrack Gladys & the Pips’ smooth assurance meets Curtis’ Chicago funk & lyrical social commentary to create, in my opinion, the best LP of a long career. Over on “Soul Train” they know that they have got it going on with “On & On”, the Pips getting down with their bad selves & no-one to edit beautiful Gladys now. Even the normally self-absorbed dancers know that they are in the land of the good groove. Fantastic.

At the time these records were made I liked more ham-hock in my cornflakes when it came to African American music, some funk in the trunk. Now I watch the clips & they make me smile. A class act at a time when Soul music was moving towards disco & the mainstream. Gladys went on to continued success with the Pips & as a solo artist. That’s a lot of music to sort through. A good start would be to compare those 7 years at Motown with the hits in the 3 years after 1973. You may not be able to decide which you prefer but you will have a damn good time trying.

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 !

Extra Extra Read All About It (Edwin Starr)

Edwin Starr is rightly remembered for his one prodigious hit record. “War” (1970) is a landmark single, its assertive energy & steadfast message makes it distinct in a tsunami of Detroit soul. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations on the “Psychedelic Shack” (that’s where it’s at !) LP, Motown boss Berry Gordy was reluctant to release the track as a single but did put producer Norman Whitfield on to a re-recording with Edwin. Over 40 years later it is part of the culture. “War ! What is it good for ?” We all know the answer to that.

Edwin was based in Detroit but did not join Motown until 1968 when the Ric-Tic label was acquired by its bigger neighbour. It was at Ric-Tic he made the 45s that established a big reputation in the UK. Songs that even now make men of a certain age ignore their arthritic hip & wonder if their old dexedrine dealer is still around. First “(S.O.S.) Stop Her On Sight ” then “Headline News” just smacked it for anyone near a dance floor. I thought they were Motown jams, surely some of the Funk Brothers were moonlighting on these tunes. They certainly fit right in with “This Old Heart Of Mine”, “Third Finger Left Hand”, “My Guy”, that great smooth, smart & sassy early stuff

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The hook up with Motown was an immediate charm. The title track of the LP “25 Miles”, a flagrant lift of “Mojo Mama” was a US Top 10 hit, the follow up, “I’m Still A Strugglin’ Man” bombed but…it’s great. Hitsville’s second wave of writers & producers, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Paul Riser & others contributed but it is Edwin’s powerful & exuberant vocal stylings that work the trick. Of course a worldwide hit like “War” seriously raised the stakes & I’m not convinced that the label reacted to this success too well. There must have been more appropriate songs to cover than “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” but it was 1970, an album was needed pretty sharpish & that song was everywhere. Significantly Edwin, who had composition credits on most of his singles, had just one co-credit on this rushed LP.

Edwin followed the funk flow. “Stop The War Now” is a pretty obvious successor to the big hit. It has its appeal because “War” still comes around & this one has been forgotten. In 1974 he got his very own blaxploitation soundtrack. The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was by ace producer/writers Freddie Perron & Fonze Mizell. Starr just blasted it with “Big Papa”. This was the last LP with Motown & it was some time before, in 1979, his records were getting heard again. “Contact” was a #1 Disco song in the US. This & “H.A.P.P.Y Radio” were both Top 10 in the UK, a country that Edwin now called home.

By 1973 the singer was spending more time in England where the Soul scene was still running hot. Northern Soul honoured the perquisition of obscure riches but Edwin’s gems needed little excavation. In 1968 a double header re-issue of “S.O.S.”/”Headline News” was a chartbound sound, bigger than before. His music was a gateway into a whole scene going on across the country. In the USA, with no backing from his label, he was facing travelling around a big country as a golden oldie. In Britain he was possibly the biggest attraction on a club circuit where audiences knew stuff about his songs that he had forgotten.

Edwin Starr stayed around for 30 years living in Nottingham at the time of a fatal heart attack in 2003.  That revival in 1979 was hitched to the Disco bandwagon but so was all pop music at that time. I am sure that he got knocked about by the music business. He helped to write hit songs that continued to find a market. I hope that the royalties found their way to him. Tamla Motown never properly supported a popular, distinctive singer, preferring singles with a touch of novelty to artistic development. In the UK he was more than valued. A lot of fans got  to meet him, DJs & promoters hung out with him. I have never heard or read a bad word about Edwin Starr. A younger generation of artists often called to remix old tunes & to record new ones.

He was more than a singer whose biggest hit was in the olden days. We value classic music round here & Edwin was a Soul Master. A proper compilation of his songs goes long on quality. Here is Track 1, “Agent Double-0 Soul” a pop hit from 1965. It was written & sung by a young, sharp, handsome Starr at a time when Jackie Wilson was the sweetest feeling around. It was a great beginning.

I’m Not In Love With T-T-T-Twiggy (Ready Steady Go !)

In 1959 the Royal Cinema, you know it, on Gilliatt St, near my Nana’s, stopped showing films because everyone was at home watching TV. I think it was that year that my family rented our first set. I wonder what we pointed our furniture at before that. The Royal became the Star Bingo Club, a new thing allowed by an Act of Parliament which liberalised gambling. There were lots of new things at the beginning of the decade… a Labour Government, the Twist, bouffant hairdos (well, ding dong !). Philip Larkin knew the score…

” Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP”. (Annus Mirabilis)

Yeah Man ! The Mersey Beatles, they certainly felt like a big new sexy noise for a big new post-war baby boom teenage bulge. That’s why a queue sinuated around the Star Bingo Club on a Saturday afternoon waiting for the “Teen Beat” music session to start. Live bands, records & soft drinks for the under 18’s. All down the line the juveniles, delinquent or otherwise, were chatting about the previous night’s TV programme which brought the best of the new British Beat to a living room near you.

“Ready Steady Go !” began in August 1963. The Stones first single “Come On” was still in the Top 30, the Beatles released “She Loves You”. The commercial & creative surge in British music had not been well served by the 2 TV channels (really !). Groups were shoe-horned awkwardly into light entertainment shows between the  juggler & the mother-in-law jokes. The BBC’s flagship music show played records at a “Juke Box Jury” of 4 know-nothings who decided “hit” or “miss” &…erm…that’s all. RSG surrounded the music with its young, fashionable audience, capturing some of the excitement & informality that a TV studio/schedule still often deflates. This stuff caught on. The Fab Four appeared in October (Paul judged a miming contest !) & the show got its highest audience when they took over the show in March 1964. This clip has received a sound upgrade but “You Can’t Do That” is so good it should be heard at its best. John’s finest Arthur Alexander style songwriting , George’s shiny new Rickenbacker 360 Deluxe 12-string…a B-side as well.

I missed all of this. The vagaries of regional scheduling meant that, in my provincial backwater, the early Friday evening show did not come around until after 10.30 & that was…after my bedtime…hours after! These new bands from that London, the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, the Kinks, playing the Thames Delta Blues, I would not get to see them until they made the charts. The BBC opted for quantity over quality with a new music show based on sales. The discourse on the concourse about “5-4-3-2-1”, the theme tune, or about that group who smash their instruments (the what ? The Who !)  sounded so exciting, proof that the real fun only started when the kids were asleep. Something was happening in 1964, the RSG crew had a handle on what it was. The young production staff ditched the lip-synch & ran with a new national early evening slot which meant that I could finally see the thing.

The first young Modernist magpies about town favoured Italian fashion, New World rhythms, French cigarettes & philosophy. By 1964 Mod was more about dressing sharp, looking good on the dancefloor & while knocking over the local chemist looking for the pharmaceutical amphetamine or giving a rocker a kicking on a Bank Holiday, your getaway scooter waiting. The symbols of the next big youth movement were in place…you’ve seen “Quadrophenia”. “Ready Steady Go !” made the move from Mersey Beat to Mod giving impetus to its spread out of London up the new motorway system to the rest of the UK. I know, those original Mods viewed this dilution & subsequent commercialisation as the end of it all but, in the mid-60s, provincial British youth were better dressed, with better haircuts, than they had ever been.

RSG’s dance lessons & fashion tips were stiff & lame but there was just so much exciting new music around & whoever was booking the turns or picking the sounds was making plenty of good decisions. In March/April 1965 a roster of Tamla Motown artists had toured the UK to sparse audiences. RSG, prompted by producer & fan Vickie Wickham, filmed an hour long special “The Sound of Motown” featuring Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, 14 year old Stevie Wonder, the Temptations &, Motown’s only UK Top 20 act, the Supremes. Wickham’s best friend Dusty Springfield hosted the show. Dusty had been in a faux-folk trio, recorded overdramatic Euro-pop ballads but she had a heart full of soul & she was sheer class. The show was a blast of energy, a blur of hand clapping, foot stomping, funky butt Detroit Soul. We were able to match some faces to some tunes. Tamla Motown was here to stay.

This wonderful clip, Dusty getting some help on “Wishin’ & Hopin'”, her Bacharach & David US Top 10 hit, from Martha Reeves & the Vandellas is what live music TV can be & rarely is. Dusty & Martha seem to have been left to work it out for themselves & are liking what they have done. The gospel boost to finish makes for a unique performance by the Righteous Sisters.

The groups at “Teen Beat” was the first live music I saw. I think that I was a little underwhelmed at first, it was hardly the Swinging Blue Jeans was it ? Now I remember them as good bands from around the North of England who were ahead of those Top 20 fans. The reference point was the first LP by the Rolling Stones, released in April 64 (May in the US as “England’s Newest Hit Makers”). They all played approximate versions of “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” & surprisingly the soul-jazz groove of Phil Upchurch’s “You Can’t Sit Down”. Y’know if you saw a young bar band playing these songs tonight you would be impressed with their good taste. That was then, 1966 was Now ! & every group was expected to play some new songs.

“Knock On Wood”, “Hold On I’m Coming”, “Mr Pitiful”, this was the new canon. Motown was perhaps a touch too much what with the harmonies & the choreography…at the same time. The music made at Stax Records  was raw, even more basic when there was no horn section, just 4 young energetic kids could fill the dance floor with  these tunes. In September 1966 RSG handed over the show to the label’s figurehead Otis Redding. It was a case of light the blue touch paper & retire to a safe distance as Otis, backed by the Bar-Kays, made a compelling case to be considered as the most exciting act in music. Blue-eyed soul Brits, Chris Farlowe & the great Eric Burdon were invited along & joined in this clip of the closing “Shake”, Sam Cooke’s soul stormer. Eric never looked happier & rightly so. Years later I carried a video tape of this show around, ready to share the greatest 30 minutes of music TV ever. When Stax brought their tour to the UK there were full houses everywhere because people wanted a bit of what they had seen on RSG.

Then, in December 1966, the plug was pulled. Mod probably was past its sell-by-date, the Beat Boom was over but British music was as vibrant in 1967 as it had ever been. The commercial TV network were having none of it, having cancelled the other music show “Thank Your Lucky Stars” in June. Just 2 weeks before RSG ended the UK TV debut of Jimi Hendrix tore up the rule book & knocked us sideways. I had seen the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, for the first time on the show, I was going to have to dig a bit deeper to see the Doors or Jefferson Airplane because ITV would be not be helping. I would too, no longer get my weekly fix of Cathy McGowan, the Mod Dolly Bird next door who so successfully replaced the stiff DJs for hire with a naturalness, an enthusiasm & well, take a look, we were all a little in love with Cathy.

Mo’ Motown. Clean Out Of Sight.

In May 1965 Tamla Motown started to release records on their own UK imprint. Now we all love a list but the Motown discography really is a thing of wonder. The first three 45s are “Stop In The Name Of Love” (Supremes), “Nowhere To Run” (Martha & the Vandellas) & “Ooh Baby Baby” (Miracles). It’s like…how did they do that ?

The label did take a little time before it became the nonpareil Hit Factory. That first year saw releases by Choker Campbell’s Big Band, crooner Billy Eckstein & rockabilly Dorsey Burnette. I’m sure that these, like others who did not trouble the chart compilers, had merit but they were hardly “The Sound Of Young America”. There were other acts who were around, who even made a significant contribution to the label, but are not considered to be in the pantheon of great Motown artists. And here’s one now.

A new year, a new name for the Elgins who recorded their first Motown release as the Downbeats. The female singer, Saundra Mallett was new too. The band were produced by Holland & Dozier & got first shot at some pretty good songs by the ace team of Holland, Dozier, Holland. Both “Heaven Must Have Sent You” & “Put Yourself In My Place” were Top 10 R&B hits in the USA & were absolute dance floor fillers in the UK. 1966 was an annus mirabilis for H-D-H but I’m surprised that “Heaven” was not held back for Diana, Mary & Flo’ because it is an absolute Motown classic stomper. A 3rd single from their only LP, the lovely “I Understand My Man”, bombed & the Elgins were over by 1967. Thanks then to “Swingin’ Time”, a music show out of Windsor Ontario just across the river from Detroit, for capturing this charming, pure 1966 Motown moment. Five years later the Elgins had hit records in the UK when re-issues of these golden oldies captured the next generation of youth clubs & soul dances. Top stuff !

Brenda Holloway in May 1967, in colour…oh yes ! Berry Gordy Jr signed Brenda to his label when she was just 17. She was from California & chose to remain on the West Coast rather than re-locate to Detroit. This independent streak did not always serve her well but a hit record on her first go around positioned Brenda as the female solo star to replace Mary Wells, the “Queen of Motown” who left the label in 1964. “Every Little Bit Hurts” is an emotional blockbuster of a song, a soul classic. Brenda toured with the Beatles in 1965 but Smokey Robinson gave her Wells’ old songs to record & the hits were not repeated. By the time “Just Look What You’ve Done” was recorded she had her problems at Motown. Her self-determination was regarded as trouble-making & more amenable acts got more promotion. The track, written by Frank Wilson & R. Dean Taylor, is vintage Motown & sold quite well. Brenda wanted more &, in 1968, walked out of a Detroit recording session, returned to Los Angeles & never went back.

To say that Brenda is looking good in this clip is a statement of the bleeding obvious, She was a striking  woman &  40 years later she still is. We know because her music has not been forgotten, especially around the UK Northern Soul scene. “Every Little Bit Hurts” has been recorded by Aretha & Alicia. Here in Britain the Spencer Davis Group, the Small Faces & the Clash have paid their respects. After Motown Brenda almost retired. It was the interest from the UK which encouraged a return to performing & a chance to see an artist who made some great records but who’s potential was perhaps never fully realised by the label.

In 1966 Jimmy Ruffin got the break that all singers looked for. His recording of “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” caught the wave of Tamla tenderness & became a world-wide smash. Jimmy had passed on an offer to become a Temptation to his younger brother David. It seemed that he had done the right thing. “I’ve Passed This Way Before” was the next along. The same team of James Dean & William Weatherspoon (without arranger Paul Riser) wrote the song & it made the Top 20  but Jimmy struggled to establish his own identity as a performer. There were diminishing returns for subsequent 45s. In 1970 the Ruffin Brothers made an LP together which can still make you sit up & listen to it’s sweetness & passion.

Jimmy remained at Motown & around 1970 records which meant little in the US became big hits in the UK. This is because Jimmy had not been forgotten. Over here we do try to value quality over the latest bright shiny thing being waved before us. It is also because “I’ll Say Forever My Love”, “Farewell is a Lonely Sound” & “It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved By You)” were all good songs, well produced, that were certainly worth having around.  Jimmy Ruffin, like Edwin Starr & others, moved to England because there was money to be made & a greater appreciation of the enduring worth of his music. In this country we can be a little obsessive & excessive with regards to Soul Music. These songs & artists, from a halcyon time for African-American music, deserve to be remembered alongside the pantheon of the Supremes, Marvin, Stevie, Smokey & the rest. It’s a freaky, geeky job but someone’s got to do it.

When You Need A Hand To Hold, Darling, Reach Out (Four Tops)

The Northern Soul scene in the UK has prolonged the careers of artists who would struggle to call what they used to do a career. There has though been a tendency to value rarity as much as quality.  Only 250 demo copies were pressed of Frank Wilson’s Motown 45 from 1965. it is a fine record but £25,742 ($40,000) for a copy ? I’ve got it on CD ! Many great tracks have been excavated & played out by DJ obsessives but I find it does help to get back to where you once belonged. To renew contact with the soul greats, the artists who’s music put the bug in your ear & led you down the road to infatuation. Here’s four of them now.

In 1965 “the Sound of Young America” started out of West Grand Boulevard, Detroit (Hitsville USA) & spread to the rest of the world. For 3 consecutive years the Four Tops had 4 hit singles. The group were not too young, they had worked together for a decade & were all coming up to 30. They were though the epitome of the Motown sound. Holland-Dozier-Holland…check, the Funk Brothers’ indefatigable insistence that we should dance…check, as Marvin sang, a “Pride & Joy”, yup, it was all there. The first hit, the impassioned “Baby I Need Your Loving”, was pinched in the UK by some Mersey magpies. The subsequent run, which included “The Same Old Song”, were left alone, any approximation of these perfect, floor-filling stompers would just be gimpy. Their records only reached the lower Top 30 over here but were the toppermost in every club in the country.

What a clip this is. The Tops, Duke, Obie, Lawrence & Levi, are smart casual here, instead of the usual matching band uniforms, they look the better for it. There’s an off-the-cuff feel about the presentation, certainly compared to the precisely drilled choreography of the Temptations. Of course Levi Stubbs is lead vocal, centre stage but he’s happy singing & dancing with his boys. Sugar pie, honeybunch, this song just flows with a simple, urgent logic.This is how a great pop song sounds & I have to smile, I can’t help myself.

In 1966 Motown & the Four Tops went into overdrive. There was a lot of competition but “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was not just a great soul song, it was alongside “Good Vibrations”, “Sunny Afternoon”, “Eleanor Rigby”, stuff like that. The group were #1 in the world & they consolidated their primacy with a run of subsequent 45s which were, as I believe the young Americans say, awesome ! I remember a friend, a vocalist of ability who has made his own albums, hearing “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” for the first time & being stopped in his tracks. I could have picked any of these hits but “Bernadette” just never pales, the pause before Levi returns for the fade-out…perfect. Here the boys are suited & booted, smart guests in American lounges of a Sunday night. It’s Levi’s show now, the songs’ pleading lyrics encouraging him to strain his powerful tenor voice. The backing vocals were lower in the mix & Levi Stubbs can be remembered as a great male Motown voice with Marvin, Smokey & David Ruffin.

In 1967 H-D-H, left Motown. The band needed new writers & new producers. The Temptations headed off to psychedelic soul but that was never going to suit the Tops. There were different producers, including the very same Frank Wilson. A new policy of taking new, classy pop songs by young writers brought them hit versions of Left  Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” & Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter”. The band were making some classy cabaret soul, Levi could ease off & still deliver a world class vocal. Now the hits were bigger in the UK, “Do What You Gotta Do” (1969) is a Jimmy Webb song, an early one from when the young tunesmith would write true stuff down in songs. Nina Simone recorded the definitive version of this song but Levi does his thing &, while it may be from the middle of the road, he does it well.

The band left Motown in 1972 & they did have a few more hits. Man, they had a lot of credit in the bank after a decade of success. If you didn’t rate Levi Stubbs then you were wrong (Feed Me Seymour ). The 4 friends continued to perform together until 1997, welcome all over the planet. Only the unfortunate death of Lawrence Payton broke the sequence. Now Duke Fakir is the only surviving member but when you play those Motown records they are all still around.

I am not posting this without including this performance at the RFK Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13 1985. While Phil Collins was being tiresome on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day. While Queen’s (spit !) posturing pantomime pomp-rock pretence embarrassed us all. The Four Tops appeared at Live Aid (between the Hooters & Billy Ocean !) & they were this brilliant.

 

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 ?