Hot Stuff, Can’t Get Enough (Soul June 12th 1971)

50 years ago this week the great writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland were having it their way on the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations chart. No longer employed by Tamla Motown, still working in Detroit with their Hot Wax/Invictus labels, two of their records were in the Top 4. “Want Ads” by Honey Cone was still toppermost of the poppermost & had been for a month while at #4 was a song that had been released as the b-side of the million selling “Somebody’s Been Sleeping” by 100 Proof (Aged In Soul). Not wanting to put the brake on those sales “She’s Not Just Another Woman”, an urgent drum-propelled slice of pure Detroit Soul & an obvious hit, was re-released under the name 8th Day, a made-up name for a band that didn’t exist. H-D-H were better at making hits than doing business. At #2 the Wicked Wilson Pickett was enjoying his biggest success since 1967 with “Don’t Knock My Love” while the fastest rising record on the chart, this week’s #3, was a record that if you hear it this weekend you will smile & “Get Dancin'” like Disco Tex & the Sex-O-Lettes just like all those record buyers from 50 years ago.

In May 1970 the spectacularly named Wardell Quezergue, a stalwart musician/producer of the New Orleans scene, borrowed a school bus to drive five artists the 200 miles to Jackson, Mississippi where he had made a deal to use the Malaco studio & the musicians who worked there. “Groove Me” by King Floyd was another b-side that was brought to the attention of Atlantic Records after local airplay. National distribution & better promotion made it the final #1 R&B record of 1970. Other labels showed interest in what Wardell had been up to & Tim Whitsett, head of publishing at Stax & a Jackson man, picked up a track from the session for release. This was “Mr Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, “who do you think you are?”, you know it.

Jet magazine August 12, 1971 Jean Knight | eBay

Jean Knight, from New Orleans, had recorded locally without much success & was working in Loyola University’s cafeteria when she was given the chance to work with Quezergue. “Mr Big Stuff” was an instant super smash, a month at the top of the R&B chart, #2 on the Pop listing, double platinum sales (that’s big numbers) & a Grammy nomination. This & the King Floyd record had the slip & slide of the Big Easy sound then added a clear funky punch, even slickness, that sounded very modern. “Mr Big Stuff” is a Stax favourite but it definitely ain’t from Memphis. They made Malaco’s reputation as a place to be & influenced the new Disco music coming out of TK Studios down in Florida. The success of the single led to a very engaging album of the same name, all original songs, no cover version filler. There are some big productions, the studio had the money, but it’s best when guitarist Jerry Puckett, bassist Vernie Robbins & James Stroud on drums are confidently doing their thing. Jean Knight didn’t make another album for a decade & though she did chart again she is remembered as a one-hit wonder & what a hit it is. “Mr Big Stuff” has been a fixture of sets by the UK’s premier DJ Norman Jay since his early “Shake & Fingerpop” times because he knows that it’s a dead stone dance floor filler.

Jet - February 4, 1971 | Jet magazine, Ebony magazine cover, Ebony magazine

Two versions of the same song were on this week’s Top 10, one by the teenage Soul sensations of the day, the other by a man who was discovering a new mass market for albums by a black artist. The Jackson 5’s version of “Never Can Say Goodbye”, a song written Clifton Davis, a songwriter working at Motown West, Los Angeles who later was more visible as an actor, was slipping to #9 having been at #1 for two weeks. Two places higher was a very different take by Isaac Hayes. When, in 1969, Stax found themselves at the wrong end of their deal with Atlantic & lost the rights to their back catalogue it was all hands on deck to provide new material. It was Hayes, best known for his writing partnership with David Porter & their great songs for Sam & Dave, who gave the label the hit they needed with his “Hot Buttered Soul” album. There were just the four tracks on “H.B.S.”, the modern classics, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” & “Walk On By” by Bacharach & David were 18 & 12 minutes respectively. Isaac had an ear for a great song then adapting it to an expansive arrangement over a steady groove & his deep authoritative voice. It was a formula that worked & it’s how he rolled on the two subsequent albums released in 1970. The 45s were not major hits but Stax were shipping long-playing discs by the lorryload.

Sasa of In Flagranti - Dalston Superstore

Isaac kept himself busy in 1971. “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the first track to be released from November’s double album “Black Moses”. This time the cover versions, interspersed with “Ike’s Raps”, included Curtis Mayfield & Kris Kristofferson. It’s a monumental work, a little stretched but the arrangements are original & all the elements that made his music so successful are present & in the correct place. A reduced by 90 seconds “Never..” was his biggest single yet, it’s a durable song, both a Discofied Gloria Gaynor (1974) & the High Energy of the Communards (1987) enjoyed hits with it. But hold on, Isaac was working on something else. In June 1971 his soundtrack to “Shaft” was a major factor in taking Blaxploitation movies uptown. The theme track was a #1 Pop hit as was the album, Isaac was dealing with Oscars, Grammy awards & major international recognition.

45cat - The Stylistics - Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) / Stop, Look,  Listen (To Your Heart) - Avco Embassy - USA - AVE-4572

Earlier in 1971 the debut single by the Stylistics from Philadelphia had made the R&B Top 10. “You’re A Big Girl Now” has a slightly clunky construction, a cheesy organ riff & distinctive, if idiosyncratic, drums. It’s great. For the album their label sent them to the local Sigma Sound Studios where Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & Thom Bell were finessing a sweet Soul sound that became associated with the city & an influence on the development of popular music. Thom Bell had realised a shared symphonic soul vision with the Delfonics. Now he & his lyricist partner Linda Creed prepared eight new songs, custom built for their Stylistics project, four of which would join “You’re A Big Girl…” in entering the R&B Top 10. Rising four places to #27 was “Stop, Look (Listen to Your Heart)”, the first we heard of the way that the Philly Sound was headed.

The Stylistics - the Original Debut Album — The Stylistics | Last.fm

Bell employed the startling soprano voice of Russell Thompkins Jr as lead on all of the album tracks. The other stylists, Airrion Love, Herb Murrell, James Dunn & James Smith were around but, according to those who were too, it’s said that backing vocals were the work of the Sigma Sound crew. The studio band, soon to be world-known as MFSB, provided the gentle, lavish, string-laden grooves. The other cuts from the album were “You Are Everything”, “Betcha By Golly Wow” & the ambitious “People Make the World Go Round”. We know them all & after that run the group were established as a leading vocal group. There were to be two more albums from the Bell/Creed/Stylistics combination, more hits with Russell’s voice making them instantly recognisable. The City of Brotherly Love was making serious Soul Music waves. It will be impossible not to include more music from Philly in my selections from the next few years.

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!

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.