Songs of Innocence And Experience (Soul May 15th 1971)

The Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations of 50 years ago this week was topped by a song that, since its release in January of the preceding year, had spent six weeks at the top of the US Pop chart & become a much covered standard across the full spectrum of popular music. Andy Williams had pushed it into the middle of the road, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos were ready for the Country, three Motown acts had added a little bit of Soul & Elvis Presley recorded it in Nashville before including a show-stopping version in his Vegas act. In 1971 it was the turn of Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul” to release her Gospel-inflected take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the “Aretha’s Greatest Hits” album. An edited single release, the one at #1 on the chart, sold two million copies & won the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the Grammys. We will get to this later.

The Honey Cone – Want Ads – PowerPop… An Eclectic Collection of Pop Culture

Well OK, “Wanted, young man single and free, experience in love preferred, but will accept a young trainee”. I’m sure that in 1971, after seeing Honey Cone perform their big hit “Want Ads”, climbing one place up to #3 on the chart, on its way to a month at #1, I would have been in that long queue. The trio, formed in Los Angeles, had all been 20 feet from stardom for some time. Featured vocalist Edna Wright was introduced to Phil Spector’s operation as her older sister Darlene Love was the producer’s singer of choice. Shelly Clark had been on Broadway as a 7 year old & spent a short time as an Ikette while Carolyn Willis sang on many sessions, joining Edna & Darlene in the Blossoms. They were signed by Holland-Dozier-Holland the great hitmakers who had left Motown & Honey Cone were the first 45 & album releases on their new Hot Wax label in 1969. H-D-H produced the “Take Me With You” LP & the majority of the songs were credited to “Ronald Dunbar & Edythe Wayne”. Dunbar was around the organisation but Holland-Dozier-Holland’s litigation over publishing with former boss Berry Gordy meant that they often used this pseudonym.

The Honey Cone Photo Gallery

This Motown pedigree did not bring instant success, though the singles “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” & “Girls It Ain’t Easy” sound pretty good to me. Honey Cone were not the new Supremes, with strong vocals & direct lyrics they were more like Martha & the Vandellas. A little work was put into “Want Ads” by General Johnson, off of Chairmen of the Board, & Greg Perry, both flourishing with their new mentors, to give the song that Pop-Soul bounce that had proved to be so commercial for the Jackson 5. The group had the sass & the style to be memorable & set the song on the way to the top of the R&B & Pop charts. There was another R&B #1, two more in the Top 10, all three made the Pop Top 30. Honey Cone were big, by the end of 1971, the cover of Jet magazine big. Unfortunately the owners of the label could not match their musical acuity in business & Honey Cone’s further releases were hindered by financial uncertainty before, in 1973, the Hot Wax/Invictus combo folded & so did the group. Honey Cone were a modern, modish girl-group whose influence became more apparent as time passed.

290. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles - The Tears of a Clown (1970) - Every  UK Number 1

A consideration of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles up to 1971 leads to a couple of very long lists, one of the group’s hit records, the other of the songs written for others by the man whose name was at the front. I’ll give you three of each but I will be overlooking songs that were fundamental to the Miracles’ success & to that of their label Tamla Motown. “Shop Around” was, in 1960, Motown’s first million selling record, 1962’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” was covered by the Beatles on their second album & Smokey Robinson was known around the world, the perfect & poignant “Tracks of My Tears” (1965) is one for the ages. Smokey wrote, often with other Miracles, & produced “My Guy”, making Mary Wells the Queen of Motown, “My Girl” for the Temptations & 200 other artists, Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” & I’ll stop there. In 1963 the Miracles, with Claudette, Mrs Robinson, still in the group, were topping the star-studded bill of the Motortown Revue, young Smokey’s audience-rousing energy a surprise as he was the sweetest & smoothest of the label’s artists. 1971 was a strange time for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – I Don't Blame You At All (1971, Vinyl) -  Discogs

Smokey’s association with Berry Gordy, head honcho at Motown, had begun before there was a label. His influence extended beyond being a star performer & a leading creative force. He was vice-president of the company where plans to move from Detroit to Los Angeles were at an advanced stage. With this upheaval & two young children it was known that Smokey intended to retire from performing with the Miracles. Concurrently over in the UK long-time Motown Mod club favourites were reaching a wider audience putting the Elgins & the Isley Brothers on the chart. A 1967 Miracles album track, “Tears of a Clown”, was released in 1970 & reached the top of the UK chart precipitating a US remixed version which provided the group with their fifth R&B #1 & the first time they had topped the Pop chart. It made both musical & business sense for Smokey to keep on keeping on. The follow-up to “Tears…” was at #8 for the third week on this week’s chart. “I Don’t Blame You At All” is a new song, slick, melodic, it invites you on to the dancefloor & is immediately recognisable as the Miracles. When Smokey sings…well!

Way back then my best friend & I were a couple of teenage music geeks who bought the weekly “Record Mirror”, the only place we could scan the US Top 50 charts for records that we could expect to cross the Atlantic in a month or so. A name we often saw, if not in the chart then in the new releases or “bubbling under”, was Bobby “Blue” Bland. We didn’t hear much of Bobby’s music, if it did get radio play then the show would be way past our bedtime & that smoky dive bar where they played the Blues existed only in our imaginations or a future Tarantino movie. The little we did hear sounded to our young ears a little restrained, even old-fashioned. The energetic Soul sounds of young America coming out of Memphis & Detroit were much more our glass of Dandelion & Burdock. I know, I was so much older then.

RIP Bobby "Blue" Bland - Sing Out!

Bobby Bland was part of an earlier generation of Memphis musicians, the Beale Streeters, who included Johnny Ace & B.B. King. He first recorded in 1951, finding success six years later when signed to Duke Records where he stayed for 20 years. The head of Duke, Don Robey’s, business practice included a tight control over publishing which led to his alias Deadric Malone being credited as the writer of many songs. Bland, disadvantaged by his illiteracy, was signed to a contract which paid reduced royalties consigning him to an arduous touring schedule to earn his living though the singer, aware of limited opportunities for an uneducated Black man, held little resentment towards Robey. Through the 1960s Bobby enjoyed consistent success on the R&B chart with only rare crossover on to the Pop listing. I can point you towards “I’ll Take Care Of You”, “Lead Me On” & “Turn On Your Lovelight” while his string of hits, with sophisticated arrangements by Joe Scott which added colour while Bobby sang the Blues without overwhelming a unique voice, is a formidable body of work. “I’m Sorry”, the highest new entry of the week at #44 is the latest of these fine songs.

Bobby Bland’s instrument was his voice, maturity & fine tuning adding a guttural growl to his rich sensual sweetness. He sang songs about the yearning for, the finding & the losing of Love with an impeccable emotionality, a sophistication & a comprehension that was unmatched. His brand of urban Blues, songs of experience, did not always have wide appeal but the more life you lived the more you understood & identified with this music for grown-ups. A move to a bigger label, with a wider choice of material & better promotion combined with repackaging of his Duke years brought a greater appreciation & recognition for Bobby, He truly was “The Voice”.

For this week’s live clip it’s back to that #1 record. Over the weekend 5th-7th of March 1971 Aretha Franklin played three explosive concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Backed by King Curtis’ super band, Billy Preston, the Memphis Horns & the Sweethearts of Soul Aretha mixed her back catalogue with contemporary hits in a dramatic, landmark live performance. There are, as far as I am aware, 564 versions of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, none of them are better than this one.

Holland, Dozier, Holland – After Motown

Tamla Motown’s modus operandi has been compared to the mass production lines of the auto factories of the company’s home city, Detroit. Such was the expertise & efficiency of all aspects of Motown that their bright & shiny product, “The Sound of Young America” had soon sold exactly 2.5 gazillion records.  Previously both singers & songs were here today, gone tomorrow but a new industry was being forged. The young creative artists saw that this music thing could be a career. The rules were being  made up as they went along but , somewhere, there was a big pile of money.  In the Summer of 1967 the Motor City was burning after 5 days of riots. Around the same time there were members of Berry Gordy’s Tamla tribe who were looking to get their share & to get paid.

The composers/producers, Lamont Dozier & brothers Eddie & Brian Holland were a very potent triple threat. They wrote an incredible 25 #1 hits & in 1967 were disputing the royalties they had received. The split with Motown was a messy one. The trio staged a work slowdown & left in 1968 to work for Holland-Dozier-Holland Productions Inc. By 1969 their 2 labels, Hot Wax & Invictus, were back on the charts.

And that’s why they were called HOT pants ! In 1970 the beautiful Freda Payne hit the Top 3 in the US with “Band of Gold”. HDH had sued Motown & had been met by a counter suit which took almost 10 years to unscramble. “Band of Gold” is credited to Ronald Dunbar & Edythe Wayne…yeah right. Ms Wayne was a pseudonym adopted by HDH as they were prevented from using their own names in the dispute. The record was a UK #1 hit for 6 weeks & I remember getting a little tired of it at the time. Not now, it’s a floor-filling stomper of an absolute Motown vintage. The Supremes must have been thinking “Hey, that should be our song !”

In a converted Detroit cinema HDH & other talented writers attempted to replicate Motown’s success. Freda Payne had another US Top 20 hit with the anti-Vietnam war song “Bring The Boys  Home”, banned by American Forces Network at the time & still rarely heard, it’s that good. The record was made by a team which included General Johnson, a man who was getting a second chance with Invictus & was giving it his best shot.

General, I have just discovered, was writer & singer on “It Will Stand” a 1961 hit for the Showmen. Listening back it’s “Well, of course he was”. It’s a truly uplifting song…this or Jonathan Richman’s cover will set you right up for any day you start with it. He hooked up with producer Greg Perry & brought his new band to the new label. The Chairmen of the Board had some hits, more in the UK than the US, but were around in the years between those 60s TV pop shows & “Soul Train”. Surprisingly this odd clip of “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling On A String” is the only one I can find of them on the Y-tube. It’s a good song but the film is funny rather than funky, cheesy when it needs to be greasy. Hell, it’s a proper single, another irresistible call to do the funky chicken or whatever elese was the current thing.

Their first & biggest hit was “Give Me Just A Little More Time” , an Edythe Wayne original (I do hope that there is a real Ms Wayne) produced by HDH  & recorded using the Funk Brothers who were moonlighting from Motown for their old buddies. There were successes over on the sister label Hot Wax. In 1971 the hottest female group in the US were a trio from Los Angeles & the first signing to the label.

Hmm-hmm…”Want Ads” by Honey Cone. Well hello Ms Jackie Browns ! “Wanted, young man single and free. Experience in love preferred, But will accept a young trainee”. Well I was in that, presumably long, line…still waiting. The trio, Edna, Carolyn & Shelly, had experience in Los Angeles girl groups (Edna Wright is the sister of the incomparable Darlene Love, Phil Spector’s voice of choice on many songs). They got together in 1969 & were the first signing to Hot Wax. 1971 was their year, gold records & “Want Ads” at #1. It is a perfect update of the Motown pop-soul formula, sparring with “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 as the twin peaks of a turn of the decade, feelgood hit. Not quite disco yet but you know that a change is gonna come. The song was written by Perry, Johnson & engineer Barney Perkins, I would be surprised if Ms Edythe Wayne did not contribute. By 1973 the Honey Cone hits has stopped but so had Holland, Dozier, Holland’s plans for their own independent label.

It must have been difficult for the artists to become businessmen. HDH could hire capable people to manage their affairs but a hit single generates a heap of money very quickly. Getting & keeping a share of this heap can be a difficult thing. In 1973 Hot Wax folded with debt & cash flow problems while Invictus signed a distribution deal with Columbia. Of course we know now that Columbia’s fortune tellers had presciently predicted that pop music would come to be dominated & shaped by music made by black artists. HDH joined the other 2 prominent black independent labels, Stax & Philadelphia International as lambs lying down with the lion. By 1976 the entertainment titan, motivated by the dollar bill rather than creativity, had pressurised & controlled distribution, subsumed or cherry picked from the 3 famous labels. Conspiracy theory ? Hey sue me…I have no money.

For some time the Tamla triumvirate separated when Lamont Dozier pursued a solo career. He was replaced but Holland, Beattie, Holland ?…Nah. When Invictus finally folded in 1977 HDH Records came around & control over the valuable back catalogue was established. As Pop left behind its juvenescence there was a rush to bestow lifetime awards & to establish Halls of Fame. Not a one, Rock, Soul, any kind of music you got, was able to overlook the lasting, still amazing, contribution made by these 3 outstanding talents.