Shortly, a caravan of stars will join Smokey Robinson on his brand new album, to perform some of the most-loved songs of the past 50 years with their creator.  His duet partners range from modern marquee names such as John Legend and Jessie J to heritage hitmakers such as Elton John and James Taylor.

    But a half-century ago, there was The Temptations Sing Smokey.

    David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams – The Temptations – were arguably the most sublime interpreters of Smokey’s work.  This album is the evidence, offering Kendricks’ feather-light falsetto as doppelganger of Robinson’s own peerless tones, and Ruffin’s honey-and-sandpaper delivery as the epitome of rhythm, blues and soul.

    The album is actually rather like a college graduation celebration, beginning with care-free exuberance (“The Way You Do The Things You Do”) and closing with the slow, emotional realisation that the night’s end means parting company with friends who will never again gather like this.  And yet, as five voices round on that final, melancholy note, everyone in the room is reminded that “(You Can) Depend On Me.”

    The college metaphor extends to the graduation of these five young men, because The Temptations Sing Smokey did mark the Temptations’ transition to the real world.  After the commercial failure of their first seven singles for Motown, Smokey Robinson wrote (with fellow Miracle Bobby Rogers) and produced the breakthrough with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.”  It’s an irresistible sequence of similes – Robinson’s trademark – powered by a swinging band track, topped by Kendricks’ compelling lead.

    No wonder this was their first bona fide hit, an R&B No. 1 in 1964 and a pop crossover triumph.  Welcome to the future, to the demanding round of hit records and follow-ups, of showcase gigs and sell-out tours, of media demands, irreconcilable itineraries and personal challenges.  Welcome to stardom.

    Even so, there are marvellous reminders in this album of the Temptations’ origins, of five mellifluous voices, forged in doowop (“Baby, Baby I Need You”) and sometimes an older, unadorned style (“What’s So Good About Good Bye”).  The ballad “You’ll Lose A Precious Love” is also a throwback to 1950s street-corners, wherein David Ruffin’s lead tears out the listener’s heart while Melvin Franklin’s impossible bass pleads, “Don’t destroy this precious love.”

    Much of this album was recorded at Motown in 1964, as the momentum of record sales gave the group – and Smokey – fresh confidence.  Robinson refits several songs that he recorded with the Miracles (“Way Over There,” “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”) and Mary Wells (“You Beat Me To The Punch”), and in all cases, the Temptations shade them a little deeper.  With “Who’s Lovin’ You,” none can outshine the Miracles’ anguished original, but Ruffin’s religious take comes close, complete with his glide up the register at the song’s end. This is the version, after all, which inspired Michael Jackson’s astonishing revisit five years later.

    And so to the touchstone, the ticket to ride, Smokey’s – and Motown’s – monument for the ages:  “My Girl.”  He brought the song to New York’s Apollo Theatre, where both The Miracles and The Temptations were performing that October.  An iconic photo captures the writer briefing his messengers backstage, with David Ruffin reading what appears to be a lyric sheet.  Later, back in Detroit, Robinson assembled all the elements:  James Jamerson’s opening bass line, Robert White’s ascending guitar figure, sweeping strings shaped by arranger Paul Riser and, above all, the rich cohesion of The Temptations.  Hallelujah!

    The stars were aligned and a future of unlimited opportunities beckoned, just like on graduation night.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Smokey Robinson

    This first week in September, William Robinson returns to the kingdom which unearthed his biggest hit with the Miracles, “The Tears Of A Clown.”

    Welcome back, Smokey, to Britain, where “Tears” is currently used as the signature tune of a BBC-TV sitcom, Boomers, and where your music is forever young.

    But rather than repeat the well-told tale of how “Tears” was turned by a Motown UK employee from an LP track into a world-conquering single, let’s return to the scene of Smokey Robinson’s greatest solo triumph, A Quiet Storm.  This was a confident, conceptual work issued in March 1975 during the same week that its first single, “Baby That’s Backatcha,” was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts.

    There’s a topical note, too.  Smokey has chosen “A Quiet Storm” as one of the duets on his new album, Smokey & Friends, and he performs the song with contemporary star John Legend.

    The celebrated singer/songwriter never seemed to regret quitting the group he led for 15 years, not least because it gave him the time to listen to the music of others.  And what struck Smokey in the mid-1970s was how rhythm & blues was increasingly marching to funky beats, marshalled by Kool & the Gang, B.T. Express, the Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire – all of whom had No. 1 R&B tracks in the 12 months before A Quiet Storm.  Even his Motown stablemates, The Temptations, had danced to the summit with “Happy People” and “Shakey Ground.”

    “So I decided to concentrate on another direction,” Smokey said, “and go completely away from that particular sound.”  The result was this seven-song “power source of tender force,” an album connected from track to track by the sound of a breeze, and undoubtedly influenced by the thematic ’70s work of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Smokey was also refreshed by a cadre of hand-picked players, mostly new to Team Robinson, save for Marv Tarplin, his lifelong guitar partner, and Russ Turner, an arranger who had contributed to his previous LP, Pure Smokey.  “I owe an awful lot,” said Smokey, “to the musicians who were involved, they really got the feel exactly how I visualised it.”

    Listen here, for example, to the undulating bass of Wayne Tweed and the warm woodwinds of Fred Smith, as well as Turner’s fluid keyboards and the colour of James “Alibe” Sledge’s congas and bongos.  This cohesion lifts A Quiet Storm to the heights of Smokey’s creativity of the ’60s, coupled with the fact that he is singing in a lower key than before.  “I knew that I had to change my style to get where I want to go,” he explained.  This evolution is evident on “Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues)” as well as the album’s title track, and both songs – which run to seven minutes apiece – showcase a singer apparently at peace with himself, and the world.

    Marv Tarplin’s fretwork is as identifiable and melodic as ever, and it notably consummates “The Agony And The Ecstasy” and “Wedding Song.”  The latter was written by Smokey for the marriage of Jermaine Jackson and Berry Gordy’s daughter, Hazel Joy, its lyric (“Oh what a beautiful day/To take a vow”) rising to the occasion.  But every pair of newlyweds needs an excuse to hit the dance floor, and so the man who made “Going To A Go-Go” closes the album at a faster clip with “Coincidentally,” windswept by churning synthesizer and funky brass.

    Smokey Robinson’s instincts about music and rhythm were right on time.  A Quiet Storm was not only a landmark album in its own right, but also the inspiration for an American radio format devoted to soul music’s softer side, combined with light jazz.  Created at the Howard University station in Washington, D.C., WHUR-FM, by broadcaster Melvin Lindsey, it was picked up and popularised over the next ten years by more than 100 stations, and credited with helping to break such artists as Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Sade and Peabo Bryson.

    Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson, for a power source of tender force.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    Motown was setting remarkable standards of musical innovation during 1967, when much of this album was committed to tape in the company’s basement Studio A on West Grand Boulevard.  And so Sophisticated Soul is no empty promise.

    Five tracks are written and produced by Smokey Robinson, whose own work continues to reach new levels of excellence.  The lead-off number, “My Baby Must Be A Magician,” is proof alone.  Meanwhile, two songs come from Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, relative newcomers to Hitsville (and they were New Yorkers, to boot) but clearly on a fast track up the firm’s creative hierarchy.

    Forever in the history books as bearers of Motown’s first-ever No. 1 pop hit (“Please Mr. Postman”), The Marvelettes are by this time a trio:  Katherine Anderson, Ann Bogan and Wanda Rogers.  Singing with them on Sophisticated Soul – in some cases, only with Wanda – are the Andantes, Motown’s background vocal queens.

    If stellar songs and soulful singing are this album’s only virtues, they amount to mandatory listening – whether streamed or owned – for anyone interested in Motown.  The extra essence comes from the studio players, whose subtle, intricate musicianship and unerring instincts for clever touches are weaved throughout all 12 tracks, and displayed here perhaps with more clarity than ever.  Examples?  The flute underneath “Here I Am Baby” and, especially, “What’s Easy For Two Is Hard For One,” and the guitar line below “I’m Gonna Hold On As Long As I Can.”  And on “Don’t Make Hurting Me A Habit,” James Jamerson’s bass is, once again, a star.

    But not the only one.  Wanda Rogers (previously Wanda Young, but now married to a Miracle, Bobby Rogers) virtually redefines The Marvelettes with her work here.  The voice seems more mature, the inflections more worldy-wise, the heartache more deeply felt.  On “Destination: Anywhere,” she is a lost soul, even though the rhythm track is resolutely upbeat (and those handclaps!).  After all, as she sings, This old world/Aint got no back door.

    Wanda’s soul is equally transparent on a couple of the Smokey delights, “You’re The One” (originally The Marvelettes follow-up to “Don’t Mess With Bill”) and “Here I Am Baby,” but on both, she is assertive and inviting.  Smokey knows what he wants from the musicians, too.  “Here I Am Baby” percolates with funk – which may been the prompt for James Brown, no less, to have Marva Whitney add the song to her set in the JB touring revue – while the organ bedrock of “You’re The One” is as cool as a menthol cigarette – an obligatory accessory when driving the vehicles (“Two sedans and the latest sports car”) cited in the clever lyric.  In these songs, Smokey seems naturally to capture a female point-of-view, as he did when writing and producing for Mary Wells.  One of his compositions from that earlier time, “What’s Easy For Two Is Hard For One,” gets a fresh, bright coat of paint with The Marvelettes, at a tempo slightly faster than the original.

    Of course, the quintessential Smokey track on Sophisticated Soul is “My Baby Must Be A Magician,” a Billboard Top 20 success in ’67.  He stacks the deck with Marv Tarplin’s mysterious guitar intro, followed by Temptation Melvin Franklin’s unmistakeable bass voice, and then wins the hand with one of his more imaginative couplets:  No rabbit in his hand/No pigeon up his sleeve/But youd better believe.”  Here, the wizard is Robinson.

    But in the world of Northern Soul, it’s “I’m Gonna Hold On As Long As I Can” which steals the show, a thumping workout which has sent thousands to the dance floor over the years.  The studio maestro this time is writer/producer Frank Wilson, one of Motown’s earliest West Coast recruits.  To know that this song was earmarked first for Brenda Holloway is to make many hearts skip a beat – until Miss Ann Bogan starts to sing, and stamps her authority on it:  imperious, commanding, resolute.  It’s the only lead vocal for the newest Marvelette on Sophisticated Soul, but she nails it.  On this evidence, don’t mess with Bogan.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Rick James - Glow - Review

    The concept of Rick James’ eighth album for Motown was that of a boy in search of the “glow,” a fable about his trip into a dark forest.  It seems appropriate that it’s also the title of the musician’s autobiography, published this month.  Just like his work, Rick’s life was quite a trip.

    The punk-funk maestro decided that for Glow, he would record once more like a live band.  “I needed that live feeling and it gave my boys a chance to work close with me again,” he recalled some years after its 1985 release.  The “boys” included members of the Stone City Band with whom he’d made his crowning achievement, 1981’s Street Songs album:  Danny LeMelle on sax, Levi Ruffin Jr. on synthesizer, Tom McDermott on guitar.  He also recruited Val Young, the Detroit singer who had sung background vocals with him on the road, and English drummer Steve “Smile” Ferrone, formerly of Bloodstone and AWB.  “When Steve was around, I seemed to regain something that had been missing,” Rick remarked.

    That much is obvious from the music flowing through Glow, and Ferrone pounds the skins in a manner that’s closer to rock than rhythm & blues.  As usual, Rick James writes, arranges, produces and sings everything on the album, and his distinctive vocals are as fluid and compelling as ever.  The six-minute opener, “Can’t Stop,” which was featured in the blockbuster film Beverly Hills Cop 2, even has hints of Bon Jovi colouring the funk.  It’s also spiced with the stinging guitar runs of Kenny Hawkins, younger bro’ of Bunty Hawkins, lead singer of the Doo Rags, another combo in Rick’s musical menagerie.

    The funk asserts itself on “Somebody (The Girl’s Got)” and “Rock And Roll Control,” while the album’s title track – a Top 5 R&B chart hit – features horn stabs, a mesmerising trumpet solo from La Morris Payne, and even moments of scat singing from Rick.  It achieves what he said he wanted for the album:  “a beautiful live feeling.”  On the power ballad, “Sha La La La La (Come Back Home),” the big drums are back, while there’s flavourful flute from Danny LeMelle on “Moonchild,” a track now revered as a classic slow funk jam.  Even in his most difficult days, Rick knew how to recruit the best players, surely the result of an upbringing by a musically sophisticated mother.

    And so to Glow, the autobiography, written with acclaimed author David Ritz from interviews done before Rick’s untimely death in 2004.  (The musician wrote an earlier autobio, also published posthumously.)  In the new book, Rick describes himself as the engine of a crashed plane.  “When the pieces magically came back together, the engine could work again.  But the fuel was no longer cocaine.  The fuel was something I hadn’t used since I was a little boy.  I’d call it natural energy and natural drive.”  It sounds like Rick James was out of the forest for a while, glowing.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    Martha Reeves, like Smokey Robinson, plainly has chosen to spend the autumn of her years on the road. Both are in their seventies. Yet she is constantly putting on a show, with and without Vandellas, and with, it seems, a particular affection for performing in the United Kingdom.

    Invariably, this never-ending caravan makes the most of her hits. She has plenty to offer:  from “Heat Wave” and “Nowhere To Run” to “I’m Ready For Love” and “Jimmy Mack,” not to mention her anthem, “Dancing In The Street,” anthologised in a recent book.

    It’s time to consider Martha & the Vandellas’ albums. There were nine, discounting the many compilations, and Black Magic is simply one of the two finest. It achieves this largely because of the personal nature of so many of the songs. Not that Martha was the writer, but because – like all great artists – she invests in them such strength and emotion, such power and passion. In short, they have soul.

    Take “In And Out Of My Life,” for instance. Although originally assigned to the Jackson 5, Martha makes it her own: the story of the father of her son. This she confesses in her autobiography, but the listener doesn’t need to know the specifics. The depth of performance is proof enough; no one can sing of darkness like this unless it’s from within.

    You can hear similar emotions in “No One There,” one of the best productions by a Motown journeyman, Johnny Bristol, assisted by an ace arranger, H.B. Barnum  Lyrically, the song is utterly poignant (“Cars that use the driveway/Just to turn around”) and it climaxes with a stunning cascade of layered vocals. Martha lifts the spirit and the tempo in “Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile,” a zesty piece of classic Motown with which, reportedly, Berry Gordy was much involved. The band track takes no prisoners, and the chairman punches Martha’s vocal to the front of the mix.

    Martha’s bracing boldness is also apparent in “Tear It On Down,” from the pens of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. That couple met in church, so no wonder Martha opens the song with a gospel callout: “I wanna sing a song about pride.” It’s fuelled by a driving bass line, and since the arranger is Paul Riser, one assumes this was cut in Detroit. All praise to James Jamerson or Bob Babbitt, whichever of the two masters it is.

    Motown’s California crew, the Corporation, takes charge with two consecutive cuts. “Bless You” borrows the opening guitar signature of “I Want You Back,” then drives ahead with a swinging rhythm track, an infectious chorus and a classic Motown baritone sax break. Logically, it’s followed by Martha’s own take on “I Want You Back,” which almost becomes a different song in her hands and voice:  the longing of an adult, not a child.

    Taken as a whole, Black Magic stands for something else: Motown Records’ departure from Detroit for Los Angeles.  About that move, these are Martha’s metaphors of love and disappointment, of opportunities gained and lost, of tragedy and inevitability: “I’ve Given You The Best Years Of My Life,” “No One There,” “Bless You,” “In And Out Of My Life,” “I Want You Back.”

    Four months after the American release of Black Magic in 1972, Motown went west. It is no wonder that, with raw emotion, Martha Reeves wails: “Even though you’ve decided to go/There is something you just have to know/I desperately/Desperately/Love you so.”

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    Once again, Lionel Richie has hit the road, attracting and exciting audiences with hits from his solo superstardom and from his bountiful years with The Commodores.  Remarkably, it’s been forty years since he and his bandmates experienced their first chart success, with a hot, electro-funk instrumental, no less: “Machine Gun.”

    Even then, The Commodores had been on the Motown roster for three years, honing their skills, striving for their own sound and identity.  They spent a vital part of this woodshedding period on the road as an opening act for the Jackson 5, learning about the give and take of the live circuit.  That’s where the polish and charm you see in Lionel today began.

    The Commodores grew up in the 1960s, baby boomers who gained their college – and musical – education in the celebrated halls of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.  Let’s hear it for students Walter Orange (drums), Thomas McClary (guitar), Milan Williams (keyboards), Ronald LaPread (bass), William King (trumpet), and, of course, Lionel Richie (saxophone).  They coalesced as The Commodores after stints with other bands in and around the university, and then graduated to New York to become clients of manager Benny Ashburn.  He got them gigs at Manhattan nightspots and an album’s worth of studio sessions with Atlantic Records.  But more importantly, he was an acquaintance of the young talent coordinator of a New York club, Suzanne de Passe.  When she was later hired at Motown and tasked with finding an opening act for the Jackson 5, Ashburn suggested The Commodores to her.  This was good fortune, smiling on them.

    And so to Machine Gun, the band’s debut Motown album, mostly recorded in Los Angeles and released in July 1974, as the title tune gained a splash of attention and some R&B chart action.  The fact that all but two of the ten tracks were written by members of The Commodores was another sign that this was a new breed of Motown artists, largely self-sufficient.  That said, producer James Anthony Carmichael played a vital role in developing their talent, sound and distinctiveness, arranging and supervising (with the group) seven tracks.

    “I Feel Sanctified” and “Young Girls Are My Weakness” are the best evidence of that talent.  Both are strong songs, maximised with chunky horns and pneumatic bass lines.  “Sanctified,” produced by Jeffrey Bowen, owes a debt to the Ohio Players, with tight vocals and a great hook.  It also owes something to P-Funk:  Bowen took the tracks from a session with guitarist Eddie Hazel and overdubbed The Commodores.  As for “Young Girls Are My Weakness,” the lyrics may be politically incorrect, but the ladies got their turn when Australian pop star Kate Ceberano cheerfully resexed the song into “Young Boys Are My Weakness” on her 1989 hit album, Brave.

    As for this album’s title track, “Machine Gun” brilliantly showcases the fast-fingered keyboard skills of Milan Williams, on a tune given its title by Motown chairman Berry Gordy.  (The group had originally called it “The Ram”; when de Passe played it for Gordy, he suggested the new name.)  “Rapid Fire,” which Williams also wrote, uses the same instrumental machinery.  His third contribution is “The Bump,” which has less speed, more funk, and the group chanting a disposable dance lyric.  What’s interesting about this track, and another mid-tempo entry, Lionel Richie’s “There’s A Song In My Heart,” is the continuing influence of Sly & the Family Stone, years after their explosive arrival.  “There’s A Song…” is also noteworthy for being produced by Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey, hired southern guns who most likely recorded it in their Muscle Shoals, Alabama base.

    When first inked to Motown in 1971, The Commodores were assigned to in-house songwriters and producers Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones.  “With them being self-contained, you had more control over what you were trying to develop,” recalled Jones in liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 12A.  “That was exciting.”

    She and Sawyer crafted a pair of songs on Machine Gun, namely “The Assembly Line” and “The Zoo (The Human Zoo),” both with lyrics touching on life’s dehumanising aspects (“And they call this civilisation…”) that are more socially-conscious than others on the album.  “Assembly” has gospel flavouring, a mid-point female voice (Jones, perhaps) and a dramatic breakdown towards the end, while “Zoo” features horn riffs reminiscent of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Walter Orange’s powerful percussion.  This second Jones/Sawyer track is melodic, too, which may be why it was chosen to follow “Machine Gun” in the UK, which was a Top 20 hit there.

    And so evolved The Commodores, as Motown and Benny Ashburn worked together to develop the band’s full potential in record sales and concert receipts, at home and abroad.  Machine Gun was just the beginning of the assault.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    Back in the day, when two sides of black-as-night vinyl made up a long-playing record, Gladys Knight & the Pips opened the first side of their debut Motown album with “Everybody Needs Love.”  It is one of the two most seductive songs they have ever recorded.  They chose the other, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me,” to open the second side.

    Gladys glides into “Everybody Needs Love” on a simple bed of bass, drums and finger snaps, decorated with a gentle guitar figure, and the message is soon clear.  “You need someone like me by your side,” she sings, sensuously, over a track which is soft at one moment, soaring the next.  The object of Gladys’ desire in the song seems immune to her charms, but record buyers were not.  “Everybody Needs Love” became the group’s first major hit at Motown, a Top 3 R&B chart-rider and their biggest success since “Letter Full Of Tears” for another record company, six years earlier.

    “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” had a similar effect across the ocean, with Gladys and the Pips capturing the British (perhaps helped by the harpsichord heard throughout).  When she told them to “kiss me long,” they did:  the single became the quartet’s first Top 20 pop hit – anywhere – since joining Motown.

    There would have been sighs of relief at the record company.  Gladys and her Pips – Merald “Bubba” Knight, Edward Patten and William Guest – had signed up in ’66, and their first single stiffed.  Heard here as the album’s last track, “Just Walk In My Shoes” is all rhythm and little melody, but there is so much jet propulsion, so much zest, in the performance that the cold-shoulder is hard to fathom.

    Producer Norman Whitfield tripled the rocket-fuel for this album’s most celebrated track, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” which lifted the quartet into the stratosphere of the Billboard Hot 100.  He had previously laboratory-tested the song on three other Motown acts – The Miracles, the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye – but none was released.  When he enlisted Gladys and the Pips, they made it their own.  The testimony is here, soon after the drums-and-bass opening, pushed on by the piano stabs of Earl Van Dyke, leader of the band.  When the group leads the song to its middle-eight and Mike Terry’s sax blows the roof off the church, the congregation is in full flow:  “Yes, I heard it!”

    And that’s the gift of Gladys Knight & the Pips:  their innate ability to take tempos up or down, to be exhilarating or intimate, to offer listeners a choice between the pew or the boudoir.  “My Bed Of Thorns,” for example, is pure pathos, a Smokey Robinson tale which recalls his early songs of heartbreak with the Miracles.  By contrast, “He’s My Kind Of Fellow” swings like some of the first sides which its producers, Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, cut with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, while “I’ll Be Standing By” flows into the peaks and valleys which songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson often carved out to dramatic effect, melodically and lyrically.

    Gladys’ sensuous voice commands attention throughout Everybody Needs Love, but the Pips are no less essential.  This is evident in a stomping “Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone,” where their doowops flavour the groove, and on “Just Walk In My Shoes,” where they create an ethereal quality in the upper register, as if they’re close to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.

    There’s one other remarkable thing here:  how Motown’s master of the bass, James Jamerson, accompanies the group, taking Gladys by the hand as if a fourth Pip:  strong, dependable…like family.  This is especially true of “Since I’ve Lost You” and “You Don’t Love Me No More” – listen at him! – but apparent elsewhere, too.

    It’s said that the Pips originally outvoted Gladys three-to-one about signing to Motown.  On the evidence of this album, everyone was a winner in that election.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Marvin Gaye - In The Groove

    Although in this case, the year is 1969 and the hottest hit in America is irrefutably Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  It’s been ruling the roost since the middle of December, and will continue that way through most of January.  In a few short weeks, it will be released in the UK, to become Marvin’s first (and only) No. 1 there.

    And so this album, perhaps more than any other issued during Motown’s first decade, stands in the shadow of that particular song.  According to legend, “Grapevine” was only included at the last minute, when quality control queen Billie Jean Brown was assembling a new Marvin Gaye long-player for release in the late summer of ’68.

    But wait, you say, isn’t this album called I Heard It Through The Grapevine?  Yes, indeed, it was – after the explosive success of that song.  Back in August 1968, the LP’s title was In The Groove, and its accompanying single was “Chained.”  So let’s dig a little deeper into, uh, the groove.

    The first three tracks alone qualify this as one of Marvin’s most satisfying ’60s albums, belying the belief that it wasn’t until the ’70s that he became The Master.  What’s also notable is the inclusion of two songs co-written by the singer, and two unexpected shots at recreating the 1959-61 New York sound of the Drifters.

    On “You” and “Chained,” Marvin is pushing his voice to its limit, straining to a point perfectly in tune with lyrics of desperation.  The protagonist of “You” is from the wrong side of the tracks, trying to persuade his lover that, one day, he’ll make the grade, he’ll make it right.  To help, the Funk Brothers under producer Ivy Hunter and the manly background singers are pushing Marvin up the gradient.  “You” was released as a single nine months before In The Groove came out, but it barely – mystifyingly – crossed to the pop Top 40.

    On “Chained,” desperation is an even greater driver, fuelled throughout by a riveting lead guitar riff and rattling drums.  Here, Marvin is also working to make it right, while admitting that he hasn’t been “the perfect guy.”  To biographer David Ritz, Marvin said that the song reflected his current feelings about first wife Anna, as mutual infidelity strained their relationship.  For Frank Wilson, the writer and producer of “Chained,” Marvin’s performance must have been satisfying, with an edge utterly absent from its previous version by Paul Peterson, cut at Hitsville more than a year earlier.  Peterson was simply white bread, star of television’s The Donna Reed Show, and no match for the song.

    (“Chained” has since been rendered by others, including the Jackson 5 on their debut album; by Rare Earth, complete with blistering rock guitar; by under-rated songstress Barbara Randolph; and by Bobby Taylor.  Only Bobby rivals Marvin for intensity, with a five-minute, in-concert rave-up which even includes a snatch of James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.”)

    Between the darkness of “You” and “Chained,” there is “Tear It On Down,” a bright, irresistible piece of crossover candy from Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.  It’s as perfect as Marvin’s Ashford/Simpson duets with Tammi Terrell, sweetened by a catchy guitar riff and bouncing bass lines.  Maybe this should have been the first 45 from In The Groove.

    There’s also a momentary hint of Marvin & Tammi’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” in the opening of “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.”  Marvin sings this with a lighter touch than Levi Stubbs in the Four Tops’ original, but Ivy Hunter (who produced theirs and Marvin’s version) keeps the track fluid.  In addition, the Tops haunt “Every Now And Then,” where Marvin’s closing plea recalls the playout of “7-Rooms Of Gloom.”

    Those interested in further analysis of Marvin’s relationship with Anna can turn to “At Last (I Found A Love)” and “Change What You Can,” which credit the couple as songwriters, together with Elgie Stover.  Marvin’s musical mentor, Harvey Fuqua, co-produced both tracks, which are stronger on performance and lyrics than melody.  At least in “At Last,” Anna – assuming it is she – is the apple of the singer’s eye.

    In The Groove’s other matching pair is “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and “There Goes My Baby,” two hits first cut by the Drifters for Atlantic Records with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  Motown’s go-to producer in New York, Mickey Gentile, has this assignment with Marvin, and he effectively recreates the subtle rhythms and swirling strings of the originals.  For his part, Marvin is faithful, even restrained, but his vocal aim is true.  Gentile deploys female background vocalists, conjuring up speculation that one of them might be Cissy Houston or Dee Dee Warwick in session-singer mode.

    And so to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  As one of the two or three mightiest Motown recordings ever made, it needs no description here, no recap of its virtues.  Perhaps only a reminder that, after its rejection in a 1967 quality control meeting as a candidate for single release, producer Norman Whitfield was determined to have Marvin’s version – voodoo drums and all – available in some form or other.  That the song had subsequently been a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips gave him some traction in 1968, and because of that name value, Billie Jean Brown agreed to add “Grapevine” to In The Groove.  After “Chained” had run its course as a 45, disc jockey E. Rodney Jones at Chicago’s WVON spun “Grapevine” from the album during a record hop, and the crowd went crazy.  “I put it on the air here last night,” Jones told Motown marketing man Phil Jones, “and the phones lit up.”

    Around the world, the lights have stayed on ever since.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Marvin Gaye - How Sweet It Is

    It is the sound of growing confidence.

    Fifty years ago this week, the title track of this album was climbing the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100, on its way to becoming Marvin Gaye’s biggest single success to date.  He had already enjoyed four – count them, four – Top 20 hits in ’64, including two with other tracks contained here:  “You’re A Wonderful One” and “Try It Baby.”

    Marvin was not the only one in good spirits.  Fellow Motown artists the Supremes were now in possession of back-to-back No. 1 singles, and their third was climbing the charts ahead of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”  By the end of 1964, the company had a dozen of Top 20 crossover hits to its credit that year, its best showing so far.  There was plenty of cheer at that Christmas party.

    Few albums by any singer, anywhere, open with such a cracking quartet of songs as this.  The joy is partly in the contrast:  “You’re A Wonderful One” and “Baby Don’t You Do It” are high-speed, machine-tooled tracks which couple Marvin’s throaty attack with steel-tipped instrumental work.  It’s impossible to hear them and stand still.  Meanwhile, “How Sweet It Is” and “Try It Baby” are late-night cocktails of rhythm & blues and, yes, jazz.  Listen to the swinging piano – either Earl Van Dyke or Johnny Griffith – on both, not to mention the trumpet solo, perhaps rendered by local jazz legend Marcus Belgrave, on “Try It Baby.”  We know that the song’s writer and producer – the boss, Berry Gordy – is a major jazz fan, but these are almost too cool for the room.  Marvin, the would-be Nat “King” Cole of his generation, must have been in his element.  The same applied to the Funk Brothers, Motown’s studio band, many of whom were jazz cats.

    Marvin may not have enjoyed so much the demands on his vocal cords from producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier on “Baby Don’t You Do It.”  In fact, you can feel the singer’s pain (“Better keep on keeping on”) over the rocking drums and the high-pitched Andantes, and the lyrics are almost suicidal.  Don’t jump, Marvin!

    The growing confidence of the singer and his record company is apparent well beyond the first four tracks.  “Stepping Closer To Your Heart” is cool and restrained at the start, and then, suddenly, it’s a no-holds-barred foot-stomper, complete with organ swells and pumping drums and bass.  This Jekyll & Hyde delight is written and produced by Marvin and his mentor, Harvey Fuqua, so they can’t claim to have been under duress.

    Marvin co-writes another track, “Need Your Lovin’ (Want You Back),” but it’s something of an R&B throwback, melding percussion and pumping bass with piano licks and a gruff male chorus on echo – presumably, the Love-Tones.  (On “Try It Baby,” the Temptations sing background vocals, uncredited)  The lyrics of “Need Your Lovin’” are about as cheerful as those of “Baby Don’t You Do It,” but the overall outcome is engaging.  Equally so is the ballad “Forever,” where Marvin sounds younger than normal, as if he’s striving to return to the 1950s ambience of the Moonglows, albeit that the backing vocals are female.  The song was first cut at Motown in 1962 by the Marvelettes, and this version employs the same backing track.

    With the Funk Brothers behind him, and a fine selection of songs, it is Marvin’s voice that is the star throughout this album:  seducing, crooning, swooping, sighing.  Berry Gordy knew the man’s extraordinary capabilities, which is doubtless why he put up with Marvin’s tendency to go off the reservation, even in the early days – by proudly displaying his reading material to journalists, for example:  a selection of the works of black militant Malcolm X.

    The conventional wisdom is that Motown albums during the first half of the ’60s comprised hit singles and plenty of filler.  How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You, released in January 1965, gives the lie to that view.  Sample the progressive feel of Mickey Stevenson’s “No Good Without You,” with widescreen sound, imaginative piano riffs and subtle brass; it is also the only track here with strings.  Recorded in August 1964, just two weeks after the sessions for “How Sweet It Is,” it is complex and compelling.

    Also a surprise is “Now That You’ve Won Me,” another after-midnight ballad, cut at a session more than a year earlier with writer and producer Smokey RobinsonMarvin delivers, of course, but it’s a moodier song than many written by the leading Miracle, with female background vocals where one might have expected males.

    This, the fourth studio album of Marvin Pentz Gaye’s Motown career, was the first to reach the R&B charts – but that’s simply because Billboard did not publish an R&B album ranking before January 1965.  The singer’s influence was already being felt far and wide:  a couple of the songs, including “Need Your Lovin’ (Want You Back),” were even covered by such British bands as the Small Faces and the Who.  It was a sign of things to come:  James Taylor’s 1975 remake of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” was one of his biggest hits, and the Band’s rendering of “Baby Don’t You Do It” figured in their filmed concert and documentary, The Last Waltz.

    Motown may have had to do some waltzing of its own when “How Sweet It Is” first hit the radio airwaves and the charts.  Those four words were widely known as a catchphrase featured on television in The Jackie Gleason Show by the star comedian, who first became popular during the 1950s in The Honeymooners.  Gleason, or the lawyers at CBS-TV, were reportedly not happy with what was seen as exploitation of a signature slogan by others, but whatever occurred, it did not derail another mighty hit for Marvin.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Marvin Gaye - Moods of Marvin Gaye

    As Motown’s commercial and creative horizons expanded during the mid 1960s, the company devoted more care and attention to the caliber of its album output.  This was especially true of its prime acts, notably the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye.

    Nothing exemplifies that evolution than Moods of Marvin Gaye, released in May 1966.  Its first half offers the most explosive, exciting quarter-hour of music you’re likely to hear from any Motown long-player of the period.  Moreover, five of the six tracks, which formed the opening side of the original vinyl LP, were released as the A side of singles, and four were created by Smokey Robinson, working with the star he nicknamed “Dad.”

    Marvin was hungry for a hit, according to Smokey’s autobiography, Inside My Life.  “Marv Tarplin had whipped up an especially nasty riff, a hot hook that took off the top of my head.  I’ll be doggone! I thought to myself, mesmerised by Marv’s music.”  Robinson and Tarplin, the Miracles’ guitar maestro, cut the track one day after they did the same for “The Tracks Of My Tears.”  Talk about smokin’!

    Those back-to-back sessions took place in January 1965, when Robinson was at the peak of his creativity.  “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Take This Heart Of Mine” and “One More Heartache” – steel-tipped, up-tempo floor-fillers – show the increasing sophistication of his lyrics and his production skills.  Listen to how the background vocals reinforce or drive the hooks over the rocking rhythm tracks of the Funk Brothers (and Tarplin).  On “Ain’t That Peculiar,” in particular, the Andantes heighten the drama of Marvin’s desperation:  “Pain/pain/pain/pain,” they echo.  “Tears/tears/tears/tears.”

    Gaye himself has never sounded so close to the edge, whether that’s the limit of his vocal range or his sanity:  “The things you say and do/Are designed to make me blue,” he wails, laying emphasis on the word “designed” that sounds like a hole in his soul.  On “One More Heartache,” Tarplin’s blistering guitar pushes the singer forward.  On “Take This Heart Of Mine,” the only thing locked down is James Jamerson’s bass line.  Marvin knows he’s adrift in déjà vu:  “My remedy is older/Than the tale of Jack and Jill,” he declares, leaning on a trademark Smokey simile.

    But Robinson doesn’t get all the action on Moods Of Marvin Gaye.  Motown’s power trio, Holland/Dozier/Holland, delivers three compelling tunes, including “Little Darling (I Need You)” and “Your Unchanging Love.”  The latter, in addition to Marvin’s ebullient performance, is notable for colourful piano work and what sounds like Jamerson on stand-up bass.

    “Your Unchanging Love” is also in the history books as the track which Berry Gordy chose for single release in mid-1967 over another, much newer Gaye track submitted by producer Norman Whitfield:  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  The decision occurred during one of Motown’s weekly “product evaluation” (or quality control) meetings.  Norman later claimed that those present voted for “Grapevine” by “something like 37 to 3.”  But one of the three was Gordy.  “It was like I came up with this mystical, magical thing out of nowhere,” said Whitfield, “and it was like, ‘Well, do we nourish the up-and-coming guy or do we continue to deal with our blue-chip people?’ ”

    When issued as a 45 that June, “Your Unchanging Love” was a modest crossover success.  When “Grapevine” finally appeared, it was as an album track on 1968’s In The Groove, before radio airplay forced Motown to ship it as a single – when it swiftly became the firm’s biggest-selling hit to date, with seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.

    Whoever assembled Moods Of Marvin Gaye must have thought that listeners needed a break after the locomotion of side one.  “Night Life” leads the second side as a late-night jazz turn – slow, moody and bluesy in Marvin’s hands, and those of producer Bobby Scott.  The Motown star had called Scott, a singer himself and a songwriter, to help him cut some ballads the way he wanted:  more Frank Sinatra than Ray Charles.  Still, it’s a mesmerising performance, made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that its co-author is the country music maven, Willie Nelson.

    The irony is that Marvin had someone closer to home who could bring out his inner balladeer:  Harvey Fuqua, the man who discovered his talent and took him to Motown.  This album’s closing two tracks are Fuqua-produced.  The jazzy “I Worry ’Bout You” was previously cut by Etta James (Fuqua himself had recorded duets with her at Chess Records), while “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” fuses late-night brass and bass with cocktails.  “Joe,” croons Sinatra…sorry, Marvin, “You’d better give me that whole darn bottle.”

    Fortunately, Moods Of Marvin Gaye – when heard as a whole – makes it clear that Marvin Gaye stood in nobody’s shadow.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Temptin' Temptations


    Perhaps more than any other, 1965 was the year when the five Temptations were as one.  When the impossibly pure harmony of their voices was fused with soul and style, with peerless choreography and some of the finest material created by Smokey Robinson, all to deliver the success and stardom for which these five young men yearned.  All for one, and one for all.

    “Everything seemed to happen in 1965,” declares group founder Otis Williams in his autobiography, Temptations, “and things moved in a flash, so it’s hard to find any benchmark.  It was that year, though, when it struck me and, I’m sure, the rest of the guys, that we were bigger than we ever dared imagine.”

    Temptin’ Temptations proves why, qualitatively and commercially.  Released in November ’65, it showcases not only the distinctive voices of tenor David Ruffin and high tenor Eddie Kendricks, but is also a reminder of baritone Paul Williams’ underrated talent, all combined with six superior songs from Smokey, and another half-dozen sourced from Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland, Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter.

    The five singers opened 1965 in style.  “My Girl” was a No. 1 R&B success in January, crossing in March to the peak of the pop charts alongside Zombies, Pacemakers and Beatles.  After a more modest seller, “It’s Growing,” the Temptations’ third hit of the year was this album’s opening track – and arguably its most compelling.  “Since I Lost My Baby” is almost three minutes of desolation, with Ruffin’s haunting lead caught in an endless loop of loss, reinforced by ascending piano and bass lines, and a cascade of strings.  Seamless harmonies – and Melvin Franklin’s unmistakeable bass interjection (“Oh yeah”) – double-down on David’s dismay, while offering listeners the purest example of the Temptations’ togetherness.

    There is nothing else on Temptin’ Temptations as lyrically downbeat as “Since I Lost My Baby,” although “Just Another Lonely Night” comes close.  The group coalesces around featured vocalist Paul to echo his sorrow, an effect also achieved by the band track’s vibes and brass.  The song was written and produced by Stevenson and Hunter, who were also responsible for “Born To Love You,” a foot-stomper with a more optimistic outlook, fronted by Eddie Kendricks.  Even so, listen out for David’s second-half squall (“Don’t you believe!”) and the hint of another Ruffin – Jimmy – on the session.

    The Temptations’ fourth hit of ’65 was “My Baby,” an uptempo tune in which David Ruffin – thankfully – returns to happiness, extolling a lover’s virtues with the help of stacked harmonies from his compadres.  As a single, the flipside of “My Baby” was “Don’t Look Back,” an R&B hit in its own right and another of this album’s enduring copyrights.  Here, Paul Williams displays his formidable skill across a Smokey Robinson lyric that concurrently calls upon the rest of the group in back (“The past is behind you/Let nothing remind you”).  Otis Williams remembers a part in their concert routine “where we all fanned out across the stage slick as water, leaving Paul in the center.  At that point, he’d start breaking the song down and really milking it as only he could.”  Amen.

    But if Paul could milk, Eddie could deliver.  His exquisite falsetto takes centre stage on “I’ll Be In Trouble” and “The Girl’s Alright With Me,” coupled to fine effect as a 1964 single.  The latter track serves to spotlight Motown’s studio crew, too, with a rollicking pianist (Earl Van Dyke, perhaps, or Johnny Griffith) and a drummer (if not Benny Benjamin, then Uriel Jones or Pistol Allen) pounding every corner of the kit.  This was also producer Norman Whitfield’s initial release with the Temptations, two years before “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” earned him first choice in that role.

    Kendricks commands on still more material here, including “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue),” “You’ve Got To Earn It” and “I Gotta Know Now.”  He swings with “Everybody Needs Love,” while throwing a catch to Melvin Franklin towards the tune’s close, and takes a rather old-fashioned turn with “You’re The One I Need.”

    But at this point in the Temptations’ career, the lead vocalist on any particular number was only one of five siblings of song, untouched by the future’s dissent and departures.  Unity underpins Temptin’ Temptations – that, and a record company still shaping “The Sound of Young America” into a force for civil harmony, too.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Diana Ross - The Boss

    In some respects, this is an album in the shadow of another.

    Diana Ross’ 1980 release, Diana, made with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, is rightly revered, but 1979’s The Boss is as sharp, sophisticated and sassy as its successor:  an entirely whole, cohesive piece of work shaped by another pair of remarkable songwriters and producers, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

    This is apparent from the opening track, “No One Gets The Prize,” as it makes the jump to lightspeed from the deceptive, down tempo swell of its intro, driven by bursting brass and a rocketing rhythm section.  Diana brings forceful vocal drama to a tale of rivalry between friends, with one of the most adult lyrics she has ever sung (excerpt: “She schemed and dreamed and told him dirt…I told him all the boys she’d hurt”).  It’s almost Shakespearean, with ethereal harmonies behind her like a witches’ chorus, passing judgement, forcing her to admit, “She lied/I lied/We lied.”

    The next act, “I Ain’t Been Licked,” is just as compelling.  This is the story of a comeback — the lady herself has had a few — underpinned by another mature lyric, and high-energy backing vocals from the gospel according to Nick and Val.  Indeed, Ashford’s piercing, utterly distinctive falsetto adds to the momentum.  This is rhythm & blues born of gospel, the same profound union as, say, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness,” sixteen years earlier.

    Diana stays close to church for “All For One,” one of the album’s two ballads, and sways to a climax which declares “We’re all God’s people/Under the sun.”  She has seldom sounded so engaged, and the only surprise is that the song hasn’t entered her in-concert repertoire: it has all the arm-swaying audience appeal of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”  The other ballad on The Boss, “I’m In The World,” showcases an impassioned Diana once again, and sympathetic piano work by Valerie Simpson.

    The singer and the songwriters aim more explicitly for the charts with “It’s My House,” an undeniably catchy tune built on woodwind and brass. Like the melody, the lyric is rather obvious (“You say you want to move in with me”), but that reinforces why it was a Top 10 hit in the UK when released there as a single.  “Once In The Morning” also plays to the gallery (“Seven, when I rise/Eleven, close my eyes”) and leaves little to the imagination, but Diana sings her heart out, and so does Nick Ashford, in back.

    Nick and Val always recruited fine musicians for their work, most often in New York, and The Boss is no exception.  Michael Brecker, for instance, delivers a magnetic sax solo during the second half of “Sparkle,” while others in the crew (including guitarist Eric Gale and bassman Anthony Jackson) play with equal feeling.  Other longtime Ashford & Simpson associates are also present, such as background singers Ullanda McCullough and Ray Simpson, keyboardist Ray Chew and arranger Paul Riser.

    As the album’s title track, “The Boss” is its center of gravity, its north star.  The thumping metronome rhythm meshes with rattling percussion, fluid bass and rhythm guitar lines, and uplifting brass to give Diana a platform from which to soar and, yes, to wail.  This is among her finest recorded performances, tailored knowingly to the clever lyric (“A guide in my pocket for fools, follies and fun”) and she knows exactly where to place the emphasis, where to ad lib, where to pause.  She is The Boss.

    With Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Diana demonstrated a willingness to push aside complacency, to push herself musically, to reclaim a musical edge which superstardom can sometimes dull.  But before that, Nick and Val put her in the mood.  They ain’t been licked.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Four Tops

    “The Four Tops are a capable crew with good harmonic effects and a listenable tune assortment.”

    This judgement appeared in show-business bible Variety during November 1962, when the Tops were part of “Step Lively,” an all-black cabaret show playing in Brooklyn, New York.

    Fast forward to early 1965.  Four Tops debuts on Billboard’s Top LPs chart, following the group’s first Top 10 crossover hit, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” and the release of their third Motown single, “Ask The Lonely.”  The album will spend six months on the best-seller lists.

    Talk about stepping lively.

    Motown transformed Detroit sons Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton, Abdul “Duke” Fakir and Renaldo “Obie” Benson from a modulated harmony act with years of nightclub experience singing jazz and standards into the most commanding and dramatic pop/soul vocal group of their time.

    The men most responsible were, of course, Holland/Dozier/Holland, the songwriters and producers who were electrifying and redefining Motown’s output in 1963-64.  When teamed with the Tops, the result was the one-two power punch of this album’s opening tracks:  “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile).”  Over an ironclad bassline and repeating piano figure, H/D/H ratchet up Levi’s baritone – with a tenor’s range – from melancholy to desperation, from mournful to near-suicidal.  They tap the Tops for background harmonies, too, but shrewdly meld these with the sharp-edged sound of the Andantes, Motown’s studio angels.

    This marriage of unhinged lead and extreme harmonies is like nothing else at Motown, and H/D/H extend the union with “Without The One You Love.”  It was the follow-up 45 to “Baby I Need Your Loving,” and it’s virtually the same song, but backwards.  No matter:  the drama is even greater, the singer’s agony more deeply felt.

    Fortunately, H/D/H and other producers dial down the derangement for the balance of the album, presenting a clutch of unforgettable ballads, occasionally offset by an upbeat moment.  “Where Did You Go” is a song of loss, accentuated by its hook (the Tops repeat the title) and plenty of echo on the lead.  “I looked up and down every street…”  Of course you did, Levi.

    He is just as lonely on “Sad Souvenirs,” with the Tops and the Andantes stepping up the vocal scale, amid cymbal crashes.  On “Don’t Turn Away,” he is pleading with his lover, framed musically by piano, vibes, brass and tambourine.  These songs were written and produced by Mickey Stevenson (with Ivy Hunter on the second), the Motown A&R director whom Berry Gordy instructed to sign the Tops after catching them on a late-night TV show and being reminded of their talent.

    Mickey initially worked with the quartet on an album, Breaking Through, to showcase their jazz harmonies and skill with standards, but the release was scrapped circa 1963 when he and Gordy realised its commercial prospects were poor.  The material eventually came to market in 1999 via Motown’s “Lost and Found” archive series.

    The record company’s first hitmaker, Marv Johnson, also toiled with the Tops in ’63, writing and producing “Left With A Broken Heart.”  Here it is, a post-midnight ballad with warm harmonies and an organ sound reminiscent of Smokey Robinson’s early recordings with Mary Wells.  More unusual is “Teahouse In China Town,” with an Oriental-sounding piano riff and passionate lines about an attractive girl and, yes, a cup of tea.

    “Your Love Is Amazing” is a rare moment of sunshine, when Levi’s joyous tones and shouted asides anticipate the pleasures of “I Can’t Help Myself” to come later in 1965.  On this track, the Andantes are not as audible; the men do the work.  Meanwhile, on “Call On Me,” Levi steps aside to let the Tops’ vocal arrangement maestro, Lawrence Payton, take the lead.  The mood is still downbeat, but at least the pianist in back is playing his heart out.

    If “Baby I Need Your Loving” put the world on notice that the Tops were a force of nature, “Ask The Lonely” showcases their maturity in “a story of sadness/A story too hard to believe.”  Levi, Lawrence, Obie and Duke were older than most on the Motown roster, and when they warned of pain and loss, it felt all the more authentic.  This is still “The Sound of Young America,” but its soul is showing.



    The times, they are a-changin’.

    Love Child came into this world during the final weeks of 1968, as the album’s title track knocked the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from the peak of the Billboard Hot 100.  It had proved to be a most tumultuous year in America, not least because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and continuing involvement with the war in Vietnam.

    Motown was experiencing change, too.  The architects of the Supremes’ success, Holland/Dozier/Holland, had departed amid a flurry of litigation, and the record company had moved its headquarters to downtown Detroit from West Grand Boulevard.  What’s more, the Supremes’ previous single, “Some Things You Never Get Used To,” had been their lowest-charting release in years.

    Berry Gordy was determined to recapture the public’s love for his premier girl group, and show that his business was not terminally damaged by the H/D/H exit.  He put some of his most capable songwriters – Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor, Deke Richards and newbie Pam Sawyer – to work as a team, locked away in a plush Detroit hotel until they came up with the result he wanted.  According to the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 8, the out-of-wedlock idea came from Sawyer, then everyone, plus arranger/producer Hank Cosby, set about shaping it into a complete song, sanctioned by Gordy.  Once finished, “Love Child” was swiftly recorded and sent to market.  In three weeks, the single soared into the Billboard Top 10, soon followed by its claim on the crown.

    Diana Ross & the Supremes were back where they belonged.

    Quality control did not rest.  Aside from its barnstorming title song, the performances, material and production values throughout this album stand tall against Motown’s prolific output of the late 1960s, with Diana’s voice especially forceful and mature.  The musicianship is equally blue-chip, and the only disappointment is that the album jacket contains no backroom credits except for the songwriters.  The guitar, bass and percussion work merits special mention, as do the stunning arrangements, some of which were doubtless done by Paul Riser.  For example, listen to “Keep An Eye,” and you’ll hear a tambourine like a rattlesnake and a hi-hat like a viper – the perfect accompaniment for a song about betrayal.  Diana Ross must have been impressed:  she re-recorded it for her first solo album, a couple of years later.

    “Keep An Eye” is one of three compositions by Ashford and Simpson on Love Child, and they sing behind Diana, as do the Andantes on other tracks.  Gordy was so determined to return lustre to the Supremes’ reputation that, if Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong weren’t available (in the case of “Love Child,” Mary was on vacation when it was recorded) or considered essential for a particular session, it went ahead without them.  Fans of the group might have suspected as much, but given an album as strong as this, the focus was on the music, not the line-up.

    If betrayal is in the air, “How Long Has This Evening Train Been Gone” is equally sublime on that score.  A sinister piano yields to an impossibly fluid bass line as Diana’s dismay (“How could the guy just up and leave me?”) becomes apparent.  On “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” the question appears to be about race, as the singers – mostly Diana – tackle the controversial ballad that was a hit earlier in ’68 for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.  It’s more plaintive than the original version, but no less intriguing.  Chinese-American co-writer Tommy Chong, the future stoner comedian, is on record as saying the lyric is based on his experience with his African-American wife.  Call it music’s variation of a theme essayed the previous year in Sidney Poitier’s hit movie, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

    The mood on Love Child is not all serious.  An upbeat “Honey Bee (Keep On Stinging Me)” is as infectious as any of the Supremes’ earlier big hits, complete with midpoint sax solo.  “You’ve Been So Wonderful To Me” is lighter, fluffier but highly appealing, and Smokey Robinson’s “He’s My Sunny Boy” has an impossibly catchy hook and a lyric as smart (“My cloudy days have been de-clouded”) as almost anything he’s written.  “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’” keeps the mood bright, just as it did when previously cut by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

    This album’s Fifty Shades Of Grey moments come in the form of “Chains Of Love” and “I’ll Set You Free.”  Above a palpitating bass line, the background singers on “Chains…” call out “tighter, tighter” while Diana wails “lock it up/lock it up/lock it up” – her heart, presumably.  “I’ll Set You Free” maintains the commanding pace, with Diana’s lead and the backing vocals unusually upfront in the mix.  (Another version can be found on 2008’s Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities.)

    The finale of Love Child is as compelling and catchy as anything else here, with an unusual story, to boot.  “Can’t Shake It Loose” was first recorded circa 1966 by Pat Lewis for Golden World Records, one of Motown’s rival, albeit small, independent labels in Detroit.  The song’s authorship is attributed to, among others, Joanne Jackson, the wife of Golden World’s owner, as well as George Clinton, the future high priest of P-Funk.  Clinton claims he heard the song’s title used as a catch-phrase by Detroit radio diva Martha Jean the Queen; he evidently liked it so much that he had Funkadelic cut “Loose” in 1969.

    All that said, the Supremes work “Can’t Shake It Loose” for everything they’ve got, and – since Berry Gordy had bought out Golden World by the time this album was made – the songwriting income stays in-house.

    Even in changing times, dollars keep a-flowin’.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Jermaine Jackson]

    “Life without the brothers was a reality check.”

    So declared Jermaine in his intriguing 2011 book about life as a Jackson, You Are Not Alone: Michael, Through A Brother’s EyesJermaine made his own decisions about career and family in 1976, staying at Motown when his siblings departed for CBS Records.  Since he was married to Berry Gordy’s first daughter, Hazel, this was not entirely a surprise.

    The “reality check” gave Jermaine plenty of choice when it came to recording his post-Jackson 5 work at Motown.  Among those writing and producing partners were Hal Davis, Michael Lovesmith, Jeffrey Bowen, Suzee Ikeda, Stevie Wonder and, of course, Berry Gordy himself.

    Let’s Get Serious is the highpoint of those years, and its title track – produced, arranged and co-written by Stevie – was as commercially successful and creatively satisfying as anything from post-Detroit Motown.  In 1980, the single was a Top 10 crossover hit in the US and the UK, and No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles charts for six weeks.

    Like so much of Stevie’s work, “Let’s Get Serious” stands time’s test.  Thirty-five years have not dimmed the song’s pneumatic energy, nor Jermaine’s vocal joie de vivre.  Co-writer Lee Garrett once explained that Stevie played the track (“nothing else”) to him.  “I listened and listened, and all of a sudden it hit me, and I started jumping up and down, singing ‘let’s get serious.’  [Stevie] wrote most of the words and stuff.”

    Jermaine was captivated.  “That record?  I still ask myself how did he come up with certain grooves and certain feels and stuff,” he said.  “To record that…we did it over 15 times, and we recorded it here, there and everywhere.  Again, he wanted it a certain way.”  That certain way featured Stevie on keyboards (synthesizer, piano, Fender Rhodes) and drums, accompanied by his stalwart sidemen Ben Bridges on guitar – listen to his unyielding fretwork throughout eight minutes of the unedited album track – and Nathan Watts on bass, among others.  Adding a mighty percussive drive on congas is Earl DeRouen, whose Motown credentials include playing on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album and co-authoring “Right On” with the singer.  Stevie’s own, brief vocal appearance on “Let’s Get Serious” adds luster, without upstaging Jermaine.

    Wonder’s work on two further Let’s Get Serious tracks is far more mellow:  a midtempo ballad, “You’re Supposed To Keep Your Love For Me,” with a meandering melody that’s unmistakeably Stevie, plus some sly harmonica, and “Where Are You Now,” a understated finger-snapper which mixes drifting strings with light touches of brass, both synthesizer-sourced.  Jermaine wisely chooses feather-light vocals for both, as he does on “We Can Put It Back Together,” co-written with spouse Hazel and reminiscent of the best Jackson 5 ballads.

    Stevie’s three tracks aside, Jermaine is the producer of Let’s Get Serious, powering the album with his own virtuosity on bass and keyboards, and writing rhythm, horn and string arrangements with Don Peake, who played guitar on Jackson 5 hits.  Another blue-chip musician from J5 sessions, Joe Sample of the Crusaders, is on keyboards, while a couple more Stevie associates join the party:  Ollie Brown on drums and Greg Phillinganes on keyboards.  Hazel Jackson and Suzee Ikeda are among the background vocalists.

    This skill and experience really shines through on “Burnin’ Hot,” “You Got To Hurry Girl” and “Feelin’ Free,” and sets the album in its historical context, too.  The first of the three puts Jermaine in Studio 54, with a disco-driven falsetto vocal that’s as surprising as it is compelling (“Burnin’ fever/You give me fever”).  There’s a slight debt to Sylvester, but everything stands – and dances – firmly on its own two feet.  Meanwhile, “Feelin’ Free” deceives the listener with a melancholy intro which bursts into a neo-Latin rumba, only to be stripped back to a sparse vocal-and-rhythm framework which is pure Prince, who was ruling the charts only a few months earlier with “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

    Finally, judging by “You Got To Hurry Girl,” Jermaine was also listening to other high priests of the late 1970s while making this album:  Chic.  If you’re going to stand on anyone’s shoulders, why not the electrifying rhythm guitar riffs and finger-popping bass lines of Nile ’n’ ’Nard, not to mention Chic’s stabbing strings?  “You Got To Hurry Girl” carries it off with confidence.

    “I’ll never forget the time when my brothers and I first came [to Motown],” said Jermaine. “I felt it was an important time in our life, because somebody cared about what we were doing, gave us an opportunity to sing for the world, and I feel that’s very special.”

    Special, and serious.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Stevie Wonder - Original Musiquarium 1

    No “ands,” “ifs” or “buts.”  It’s magic.

    On February 16, several generations of musicians pay tribute to Stevie Wonder, his musicianship and his body of work in a two-hour special for broadcast on America’s CBS-TV network, Songs In The Key Of Life – An All-Star Grammy Salute.  Among them:  John Legend, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Tony Bennett, Annie Lennox, Pharrell Williams and Beyonce.  There was a sneak preview on the recent 57th annual Grammy awards show, when Usher performed his interpretation of “If It’s Magic,” from Stevie’s Songs In The Key Of Life album.

    Three songs from that multi-platinum masterpiece – “I Wish,” “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely” – can also be found in Original Musiquarium I, a two-LP assembly of Wonder’s greatest hits first issued in 1982.  It contains recordings made during a 10-year period from 1971, which was when Stevie turned 21 and gained complete creative control over his future work.  Four of the songs were previously unheard until Musiquarium:  “Front Line,” “That Girl,” “Ribbon In The Sky” and “Do I Do.”  Each of the quartet was placed on a different side of the original vinyl set.

    If Stevie Wonder had recorded and released “Front Line” at the height of the Vietnam War, there would have been ructions.  It’s one of his most explicit and political songs, as powerful as any of the era’s anti-war anthems, and just as blunt as “Living For The City” in its depiction of lives disadvantaged by circumstance and color (“But now I stand at the back of the line when it comes to gettin’ ahead”).

    Of course, Stevie was but a teenager when the conflict in Southeast Asia was polarising America, and “Front Line” did not appear until long after the war’s end.  Then again, the message is as timeless as war itself, and might just as well apply to Afghanistan or Iraq or…the next one.

    “That Girl” contains timeless messages, too, about love and longing.  The first track released as a single from Musiquarium, it pushes forward at a magnetic, midtempo pace, complete with cresting chorus and inviting harmonica solo, which picks out the melody of the verses.  Stevie is under the sway of the woman he’s singing about (“That my mind, soul and body needs her”) just as record buyers proved to be under his sway:  the single spent a remarkable nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard soul charts in ’82.  Naturally, he plays every instrument.  “For something like ‘Sir Duke,’ ” Stevie told an interviewer at the time, “I saw musicians and I just went about getting them, but for something like ‘That Girl,’ you just basically do it yourself.”

    On “Front Line,” Stevie augments his synthesizers and drums with the bottomless bass of Nathan Watts and the piercing lead guitar of Ben Bridges to create an atmosphere as intense as the lyric.  At the other end of the musical spectrum is “Ribbon In The Sky,” where Bridges picks up an acoustic guitar while Wonder offers blissful balladeering and a rare piano solo.  (This song also carries a 1972 publishing date, with the suggestion that it was first created while Stevie was making his album, Talking Book.)

    For “Do I Do,” the Motown superstar recaptures the zest of “Sir Duke” and recruits another of music’s pioneers, this one on trumpet:  “I have the pleasure to present on my album, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie.  Blow!”  Gillespie, Wonder and more than 20 other musicians collude in a 10-minute, jazz-rooted rave-up which only just missed repeating the No. 1 status of “That Girl” when issued as its follow-up.  Do I Do, like the other new recordings on Musiquarium, was mostly recorded at the Wonderland studios in Los Angeles.

    But wait, you say, isn’t this supposed to be a greatest hits package?  Yes, it is, notwithstanding Stevie’s declaration on the album artwork that he sees “the past as only a positive challenge to the future.”  Beside the quartet of songs outlined above, there are no fewer than ten Top 5 masterpieces on tap, including five which topped the Billboard Hot 100 during the 1970s:  “Superstition,” “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “I Wish” and “Sir Duke.”

    Moreover, Stevie took the opportunity to sequence the tracks on this compilation in a way which only added to their stature.  Thus, the pile-driving force of “Superstition” flows seamlessly into the synthesizer funk of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and then arrestingly into the outrage of “Living For The City” and “Front Line.”  In the set’s original vinyl form, these four songs could be called the “angry” side, just as the following four are love-themed.

    Meanwhile, the impossibly infectious “Sir Duke” is musical kin to the joyous, Jamaican-inspired rhythms of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” just as Stevie’s experiences of childhood (“I Wish”) and fatherhood (“Isn’t She Lovely”) are a perfect juxtaposition.

    Magic, without a doubt.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    Amid the homage and the hoopla surrounding Stevie Wonder during this Grammy season, it is a tragedy that Syreeta Wright is not alive to observe, enjoy and share the experience.

    For this was the young woman (although a few years older than he) whose spirit and talent helped Stevie to blossom beyond the confines of the Motown machine.  The proof lies within:  Syreeta is one of the most compelling and underrated works of Wonder.  He wrote six of this 1972 album’s nine tracks, three with Syreeta, and produced the entire set, together with synthesizer maestros Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff.

    By creating music for and with Syreeta, Stevie sharpens his focus, hones his skills and disciplines his distractions.  Everything that is unique and extraordinary about this musician is here, in the service of another.

    Wonder and Wright met at Motown, where she had begun to make recordings (1968’s ambitious “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You”) under the wing of writer/producer Brian Holland, and where she also worked as a secretary.  In 1969-70, Syreeta co-authored two of Stevie’s early accomplishments as a producer, his own “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and the Spinners’ “It’s A Shame.”  The couple’s partnership extended to romance:  they married in September 1970, then created all the songs on Where I’m Coming FromWonder’s first album full of adult promise and steely self-determination.

    Syreeta begins with the blessings of this union.  “I Love Every Little Thing About You” takes flight on an infectious, burbling synthesizer riff (tendered by Stevie, of course) and Syreeta’s joyful singing.  He chuckles and squeals, she responds in kind (“What’cha gonna do about that, brother?”) and the outcome is bright and playful – more so than Stevie’s own version, on his Music Of My Mind album.  The same exuberance is present in “Baby Don’t You Let Me Lose This” and “Keep Him Like He Is,” the latter gaining extra warmth and buoyancy from synthesized strings and the rhythms of guitarist Buzzy Feiton.

    Feiton’s stand-out fretwork returns on “Black Maybe,” adding light and shade to the processed vocals, which find Syreeta essaying an intriguing lyric (“Maybe your real color I’ve never seen”).  Elsewhere, strings from Cecil and Margouleff’s Moog synthesizer lend weight to two haunting ballads, “What Love Has Joined Together” from the Smokey Robinson catalogue, and “How Many Years.”  In the second of these, Wonder’s production focuses on Syreeta’s considerable vocal skill, sweet and sensitive at the start, powerful and sustaining at its close.  There are no tricks here, just crystal-clear singing and heart-breaking lyrics (“Why must I only touch you in my dreams?”).

    And that is another hallmark of Syreeta:  it is suffused with sorrow as well as joy, most likely the result of the couple’s by-now fracturing personal relationship.  “For me,” she once told writer David Nathan, “the album was about my hope that maybe we could salvage our marriage.  A lot of vocals are coming from that space.”

    The most melancholy track is another cover, of Lennon & McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home.”  As he did with the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” on his Signed, Sealed & Delivered LP, Wonder offers a variation on the original, and encourages Syreeta’s strength as a singer to offset his own, vocoder-shaped (and slightly distracting) vocal underlays.  To their credit, the couple leaves alone the lyric’s Englishness:  “she” is still leaving home to meet “a man from the motor trade.”

    Whatever their marital ups and downs, Stevie and Syreeta save the best for last.  “To Know You Is To Love You” is as fine as Wonder’s finest work, six minutes of drama and dark delight.  His is the first voice heard amid subtle keyboards and percussion, then she takes the lead on subsequent verses, above swirling, synthesized strings and more of Buzzy Feiton’s fierce lead guitar.  A lesser singer would be overwhelmed; Syreeta is not, nor is she afraid of letting the song close with an extended guitar and keyboards face-off.  Stevie subsequently produced a fine cover version by B.B. King, but this is the standard bearer.

    Syreeta Wright died of cancer in 2004, a loss made more acute by the consistently high quality of her work after Syreeta and its follow-up, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta.  Her patron and former husband deserves every moment of his legacy’s current celebration, but let’s remember that once upon a time, Syreeta was a key to the songs of his life.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown



    This is the sound of freedom and ambition.

    It’s also a much-acknowledged milestone in Motown history, a marker for when this most extraordinary individual became an adult in law and in music.  Stevie had turned 21 on May 13, 1971, disavowing his existing contracts and determined to shape his own future.  By the time this album was released the following March, he had renewed his Motown deal, but with more control over his work than ever before, and better terms of business.

    First, though, there was the music of his mind.

    “He was bursting,” said Malcolm Cecil, one of the two studio experts who helped Stevie to harness his imagination and creativity in the summer of ’71.  British-born Cecil, formerly a mainstay of the U.K. jazz scene, and his studio colleague Bob Margouleff, an American, were working at New York’s Mediasound studio in the late spring when Wonder came calling, intrigued by sounds he had heard on an album by TONTO’S Expanding Head Band.  This featured a synthesizer built by Cecil, an experienced musician/technician who was chief engineer at Mediasound.  It was the Friday evening of the Memorial Day weekend, by Cecil’s account, and everyone had gone for the holiday.  “So I call Bob and say, ‘Get over here, Stevie Wonder is here and he wants to play with the Moog [synthesizer].’ ”

    The two men began running through its capabilities for their visitor, who asked whether they could record the occasion.  “I put up a new reel of tape to start the whole thing off,” recalled Cecil.  “[Stevie] starts to put down a piano track, and then says, ‘Can you get a bass sound out of this thing?’ ”  And so it began:  Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff worked all day that Saturday, came back on Sunday and by 3:00am on Monday, “we had 17 songs in the can,” said the Briton.

    Stevie’s prolific enthusiasm is captured in every track of Music Of My Mind, from the moment he calls “Play!” on the album’s opening track, “Love Having You Around.”  His mastery of musical instruments since childhood equips him to exploit the many capabilities of the synthesizer, both Mediasound’s Moog and Cecil’s TONTO device, magically stacking keyboard riffs, runs and flourishes alongside analogue drums, bass and harmonica, and, of course, his vocals.  The result is playful on “Sweet Little Girl,” melodic on “Happier Than The Morning Sun,” and gloriously funky on “Keep On Running,” an extended synth workout taken at a furious tempo.

    All the song lyrics are very personal, as if they are overheard private conversations – presumably a reflection of Stevie’s relationship with Syreeta Wright, a Motown artist and former company secretary, whom he married in 1970.  Perhaps the songs’ intimacy is helped by the fact that he could express himself more directly with the tools tendered by Cecil and Margouleff.  (The two are credited as associate producers of this album, as well as with engineering and Moog programming.)  It is generally assumed that “Superwoman,” a subtle tune also graced by Buzzy Feiton’s guitar, is about Syreeta, but the sentiments are less than 100% complimentary.  “I Love Every Little Thing About You” seems to be a more positive hymn to his wife, catchy and warm, a sign of future charmers to come, such as “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”

    On other tracks, Stevie is evidently enjoying the use of technical tricks and toys, including the talk box on “Girl Blue,” a percussive piece of melancholy, flavoured by Wonder’s harmonica.  For most of his recording career before Music Of My Mind, Stevie relied on in-house talents at Motown:  for example, arrangers Paul Riser, Jerry Long and David Van DePitte, all involved with his previous album, Where I’m Coming From.  Malcolm Cecil remembered the star explaining how he would have to communicate his intentions to those arrangers and musical director Gene Kee.  “He said, ‘The whole thing is too far away from my original idea.’ ”

    Now the accomplishments are Stevie’s, first and foremost, as he augments the instruments long under his control – drums, harmonica, bass, clavinet – with the new keyboard wizardry enabled by Margouleff and Cecil.  If there are jagged edges or indulgent digressions, put it down to the joy of discovery.  Mostly, the mood and momentum is fresh and exciting, right through to the album’s closer, “Evil,” a dark, resonant ballad which builds to a choral climax.  Cecil remembered this as one of the tracks recorded over that Memorial Day.  “A lot of those heavy things were all done on that weekend.  They were just flowing out of him.”

    For the next three years, Margouleff and Cecil continued to work with Stevie’s flow, as the Motown maestro defined and then refined his adult genius on Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale – a remarkable burst of music and creativity seldom matched then, or since.

    First, though, listen to the sound of freedom and ambition.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Diana & Marvin

    Thirty years ago, Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye were reunited in spirit and song.  On the first day of 1985, MTV Networks launched Video Hits One (VH-1), a “adult contemporary” companion to its main U.S. music channel, debuting with Marvin’s inspirational performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the NBA’s 1983 All-Star Game, then seguing into Diana’s emotional tribute to the late singer, “Missing You.”

    Sometimes I’ve wondered,” sang Diana, “I didn’t understand/Just where you were trying to go/Only you knew the plan.”

    Diana & Marvin was recorded in Los Angeles during 1972, when Motown moved its headquarters there, and as its princess and prince became involved with Hollywood:  Diana with her starring role in Lady Sings The Blues, Marvin with his soundtrack work for Trouble Man.  Berry Gordy knew the plan.

    According to biographer David Ritz, Marvin had foresworn duets with anyone after Tammi Terrell’s death.  But he saw this liaison as an opportunity to further assert his primacy in the court of King Gordy, after the personal and professional triumph of What’s Going On.

    Berry steered the album as its executive producer, but took the reins personally to produce its most compelling track, “You’re A Special Part Of Me.”  The responsibility for much else fell to Hal Davis, Motown’s West Coast stalwart, although the single most powerful moment of the entire album – the opening verse of “Pledging My Love” – was in the hands of one-quarter of the Four Seasons, Bob Gaudio, then newly signed to Motown.

    Recording this album, Diana found Marvin’s modus operandi to be challenging: specifically, his tendency to smoke joints (and enjoy wine) while recording.  She was pregnant with her second child, and reportedly did not want to jeopardise the baby’s health.  After initial sessions together, the artists opted to record their parts separately.  Recording technology facilitates togetherness, and you wouldn’t know from listening that the two superstars were not often face-to-face when singing.  Besides, as an early Motown slogan declared, “It’s what’s in the grooves that count.”

    “You’re A Special Part Of Me” is the perfect mix of these two most distinctive voices, overlaid with warmth and intimacy, stirred by James Carmichael’s sympathetic arrangement, bringing the song and the singers to a harmonious, powerful climax.  Marvin’s vocal swoops and interjections (“Talk to me!”) recall his fine work with Tammi, and the only flat note is that this track, when released as a single, failed to reach the Top 10 of the pop charts.

    Actually, what’s also a surprise is the number of cover versions:  two from the Philadelphia songbook, “You Are Everything” and “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” and one from the inventory of the wicked Wilson Pickett, “Don’t Knock My Love.”  That said, there is nothing wrong with the choice of the Philly favourites, whose originals were produced and co-written by Thom Bell for the Stylistics.  Marvin and Diana are vocally engaging, and the arrangements are close to Bell’s smooth, sophisticated template.  Moreover, “You Are Everything” found favour in Britain, where this interpretation was a Top 5 success, while the album stayed on the charts for almost a year.  (In the U.S., Diana & Marvin had that same sales longevity, although it peaked short of the Top 20.)

    “Don’t Knock My Love” races along with pumping brass and rhythm while Diana and Marvin pitch in with gusto, but it lacks the grittiness of Pickett’s version, with which it must inevitably be compared.

    By contrast, the opening of “Pledging My Love” is absolutely stunning.  Marvin summons all the power, soul and drama at his command, and time is suspended for 52 seconds.  To her credit, Diana stands aside for this tour de force, then comes in to solo and duet, with what sounds like a heavenly chorus in back.  (The song itself is one of rock & roll’s seminal works, first recorded by the late, great Johnny Ace; it was his biggest hit, after the singer tragically killed himself in a backstage game of Russian roulette.)  “Make this fire in my soul/Forever burn.”  It will, Marvin, it will.

    Melancholy is present on “My Mistake (Was To Love You),” with the prince reaching for his upper register, as he does on other tracks.  Equally moving is “Just Say, Just Say,” with delicate harmonies supported by a classy, Paul Riser arrangement.  The song was written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and is said to be among their last productions at Motown.  Diana and Marvin make it their own.  “All I want to hear, all I want to feel,” he persuades, “is your voice.”

    If the two singers weren’t in the studio together when singing “Include Me In Your Life,” it’s hard to tell, judging by the vocal togetherness and trade-offs.  “Darling, darling, darling/Include me in your life,” invites Diana, while Marvin counters joyfully with “You know I’m just a stubborn kinda fellow.”  On “Love Twins,” they also harmonise to fine effect:  “Let people say/You won’t see one without the other.”

    Released in October 1973, the first edition of Diana & Marvin comprised ten tracks, while a 2001 reissue added a further four.  The most attractive of these is “I’ll Keep A Light In My Window,” originally part of an album featuring various Motown artists, issued in tribute to Berry Gordy’s late father, “Pops.”  Diana and Marvin’s performance is uplifting, tinged with gospel.  The track was co-written and co-produced by Leonard Caston, a former Chess Records artist who later worked at Motown.  His curriculum vitae there includes an album, Caston & Majors, which contained “Light” in its first incarnation.

    Among the other Diana/Marvin tracks on the reissue were “Alone,” a piano-led ballad which sounds as if it, too, belongs in church, and “The Things I Will Not Miss,” a song taken from the 1973 movie remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 classic drama-fantasy, Lost Horizon.  Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote songs for the update, with overtones of Broadway.  Diana carries the load here, with Marvin in soft voice, almost speaking rather than singing, and there are moments when it’s hard to believe that it is he.  Berry Gordy’s decision to omit the track from the original Diana & Marvin seems prudent in retrospect, even if it offers insights into the challenges which he – not to mention his stars – faced in making the plan.

    “Sometimes I’ve wondered, I didn’t understand/Just where you were trying to go…”


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Stevie Wonder Hotter Than July

    “Join me in the observation of January 15, 1981 as a national holiday,” declared Stevie Wonder on the inner sleeve artwork of this album, when it was originally released in September 1980.  Next to the invitation was Stevie’s thumbprint.

    Thirty-four years later, it’s worth noting that the date was not always an occasion to honour Rev. Martin Luther King, and to observe that Stevie was among a determined group of people who helped make the federal holiday happen.  He did so alongside the civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Rep. John Conyers, the congressman from Detroit who introduced the relevant legislation as far back as 1968.  The bill was eventually signed into the U.S. statute books in 1983 by President Reagan, after a resolute lobbying campaign which included huge rallies in Washington, D.C., with Stevie’s participation.

    And this, of course, is the album which features his musical call for that holiday, “Happy Birthday.”  The song remains as irresistibly catchy as it was in 1980, with an exuberant vocal over an undulating track played solely by Stevie on keyboards (mostly synthesisers) and drums, with uncredited backing vocalists chanting the song’s all-important sentiments.

    But Stevie was – and is – smart enough as an entertainer to know that people will support a cause if celebration, not recrimination, is made its motif – and if the message is not pushed down their throats.  “Happy Birthday” was neither the lead track on Hotter Than July, nor released as a 45 in the U.S.

    The album’s opening single was “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a reggae rave-up and tribute to the genre’s lion (“Marley’s hot on the box”) with sufficient riffs of brass, organ and drums to last until the break of dawn, plus an effective splash of echo added to Stevie’s voice.  In Kingston, he and Marley had jammed together in 1975, and again in the U.S. during ’79.  The Jamaican was supposed to open for Wonder on his 1980 U.S. tour, until illness intervened; booked in his place was Gil Scott-Heron.  Marley, who would have been 70 this February 6, succumbed to cancer in May 1981.

    The clever construction and universal lyric of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” ensured the track’s global popularity, and it remains one of Stevie’s most-played songs to this day.  One night a few weeks before the release of Hotter Than July, he jammed until dawn as a DJ at a London club, according to biographer Sharon Davis in Rhythms Of Wonder.  Among Stevie’s staff then was a Briton, Keith Harris, who used to keep him primed with the latest reggae releases.

    Stevie is in fine form throughout Hotter Than July, including a playful “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” with its faux-Nashville feel (including steel guitar) and infectious chorus.  Another piece of fun is “Do Like You,” a rhythmic tale of Stevie’s young son, Keita, and his dancing ambitions, while the album’s lead-off track, “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” is a forceful mix of rock guitar and brass underneath a powerful vocal performance.  “If you really, really want me,” Stevie commands, “you’ve got to give me your best.”

    Two ballads temper the heat of Hotter Than July.  “Rocket Love” puts its subject on a pedestal, built from warm synthesiser notes and spiralling strings arranged by longtime Motown studio maestro, Paul Riser.  “Lately” is a slow, tender tune with Stevie playing only piano and bass synthesiser, singing a melancholy account of suspected infidelity.

    “All I Do” is intriguing.  A polished, hi-hat-driven tune, it fits smoothly into the contemporary sound of Stevie, but has origins going back at least 15 years, when he and mentor Clarence Paul, with Morris Broadnax, wrote it.  The song was also recorded (as “All I Do Is Think About You”) around that time, by Brenda Holloway and Tammi Terrell.  The latter’s take is straight-ahead, period Motown, cut in late ’65 although unissued until 2010’s Come On And See Me, a complete set of Tammi’s solo work.  What distinguishes Stevie’s version here is the lyric, endearingly simple and slightly old-fashioned.

    Among the stellar support players heard on Hotter Than July are many of Stevie’s longtime associates:  Nathan Watts (bass), Hank Redd (saxophone), Ben Bridges (guitar) and Larry Gittens (trumpet).  Background vocalists include some stars in their own right – Michael Jackson and two of the O’Jays on “All I Do,” the Gap Band’s Ronnie and Charlie Wilson on “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” – but they don’t upstage Stevie.  Neither does his former wife Syreeta, present harmoniously on “As If You Could Read My Mind.”

    If “Happy Birthday” decorates an important cake with a bright chorus, “Cash In Your Face” tackles its tale of discrimination with tough keyboard riffs and reinforced funk.  This is unvarnished Wonder, drawing on the experience of a friend whose money may have been the right shade of green, but whose face was not a welcome hue.  The song is shaped as a two-way conversation between a would-be apartment tenant and an excuse-making landlord, serving as a musical reminder why nations need leaders like the preacher from Atlanta, Georgia.

    Stevie Wonder  is always optimistic, of course, and what he sang about and sought in the early 1980s has since been delivered:  “And we all know everything/That he stood for, time will bring/For in peace, our hearts will sing/Thanks to Martin Luther King.”

    Happy birthday.


    Diana Ross - Baby It's Me

    There has surely never been a Diana Ross album populated by as many of the recording industry’s blue-chip players as this one.

    The diversity and depth of the musicianship and the songs might have overwhelmed a lesser star.  But by 1977, when platinum producer Richard Perry was commissioned to make Baby It’s Me, there was no mountain too high for Motown’s femme fatale.  Together, the pair turned in ten tracks aglow with fine performances and the highest production values, drawing on material from Stevie Wonder, Melissa Manchester, Bill Withers and Carole Bayer Sager, among others.

    The musicians included golden guitarists Ray Parker Jr. and Lee Ritenour, keyboard kings Tom Snow and Michael Omartian, sax supremo Tom Scott, and most of the members of Toto, who were perhaps the most called-upon studio session men of the 1970s.

    For students of Classic Motown, the most compelling tracks may be those where Diana’s roots are revisited:  the highly rhythmic title song, in which the déjà vu sounds like the Supremes crossed with the Pointer Sisters; “Gettin’ Ready For Love,” with a hook that would do Holland/Dozier/Holland proud; and “Top Of The World,” with all the brightness of “Baby Love” and some very zippy strings.  (Motown aficionados might also spot Jack Ashford’s name in the background credits; this longtime Funk Brother plays percussion on several tracks.)

    Diana is in fine voice, confident and committed, whether offering the adult R&B of “Your Love Is So Good For Me” or the perky pop of “All Night Lover.”  She sounds more vulnerable in “Too Shy To Say,” a song from Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale.  Here, the mood is tender and gentle, blessed with lush strings under composer/arranger Del Newman, a London workmate of Elton John, Paul McCartney and Cat Stevens.

    The string arrangements on two further tracks, “You Got It” and Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” recall the widescreen soul of Motown producer Norman Whitfield – in this instance, created by Gene Page, the man who helped to give Barry White a set of keys to success.

    The finale of the original Baby It’s Me was Melissa Manchester’s “Come In From The Rain,” a ballad bellowed by many, but performed by Diana with subtlety and soul.  It’s a fitting climax, although here it serves as a rest stop, before the expanded edition lets loose a further, fascinating 11 tracks from the Ross/Perry project.

    Reissue producers Andy Skurow and George Solomon have recruited Perry himself to recall for liner notes the circumstances and the execution of Baby It’s Me.  “Berry Gordy called me,” he explains, “and asked if I would like to work with Diana.  He loved the album I had done with Martha Reeves a few years earlier and wanted me to get the same vibe going for Diana.”  Perry goes on to reveal much more about how he worked with the singer, and what shaped the outcome.

    Baby It’s Me fell short of everyone’s commercial expectations on first release, yet it is clear that Diana enjoyed the experience – and freedom – of picking songs, and collaborating, with a craftsman of Perry’s calibre.  During much of her first decade at Motown, her repertoire originated in-house.  On this album, the writing sources were many, not only those named above, but also (on the bonus material) the Prince of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint; the British rocker, Peter Frampton; and Donald Dunn, the onetime bass foundation of Stax Records’ Booker T & the MGs.

    More than fifteen years after signing with Motown, Diana Ross had earned the freedom to choose the company she kept, and the titles of her albums.  Literally or metaphorically, no one can argue with Baby It’s Me.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Sun- Mary Well

    “Tomorrow is gonna be the day/Tomorrow I’m gonna find a way.”

    Judging by these lyrics from this album’s inviting fourth track, “Does He Love Me,” Motown’s first superstar was determined to make the future bright.  The song asks a leading question; the singer wants to be optimistic about the answer.  She will make him love her.

    Mary Wells turned 21 just a few weeks before the mid-1964 release of this LP, named after the biggest hit of her career.  She was recently married to a man who understood the world in which she lived:  singer Herman Griffin, himself once signed to Motown.  And she was basking in the glow of being named as a favourite of the biggest band in the world, the Beatles.  What’s more, Mary shared the Top 5 of the Billboard charts with the Liverpudlians during that most exciting time, and she went on to reach the No. 1 slot with “My Guy.”

    That song stands tall in this 12-track collection of recordings made in 1963-64.  It’s a monument to the talent of songwriter/producer Smokey Robinson, and a milestone for Motown, as its biggest crossover success since Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Part 2)” in 1963.  Mary and Smokey became the epitome of the excellence and the promise of the young record company, building on the hits he previously wrote and produced for her, including “Two Lovers” and “You Beat Me To The Punch.”

    From the imaginative “Canadian Sunset” motif of the song’s intro to the cool, jazzy, walking bass of the outro, “My Guy” is perfect pop music, and Mary’s confident, soulful singing makes it so.  “He’s my ideal/As a matter of fact.”

    Smokey also owns this album’s opening track, “He’s The One I Love,” and its fifth, “How? When My Heart Belongs To You.”  Both are soft, swaying songs, sashaying along with light percussion and Mary’s upper-register.  She and Smokey prefer to seduce listeners, not to order them around.  Even the brass section in “How?” is subtle.

    If Smokey was the quiet storm of Motown’s first five years, the triumvirate of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier was about to become a hurricane.  During the second half of ’64, their work with the Supremes – achievements which are now part of music business legend – was to eclipse everything that Motown had experienced before.  The two HDH tracks on this album hint at that future.  “Whisper You Love Me Boy” and “He Holds His Own” are clever, catchy and lyrically engaging songs.  The first is a finger-snapper, the second a dramatic ballad.  Mary does both justice, as do the Supremes when they record them later.

    The second half of Mary Wells Sings My Guy is devoted to a half-dozen standards, all produced by Motown’s A&R director, Mickey Stevenson.  In fact, Berry Gordy had planned an entire LP by Mary of such songs under the title of Second Time Around, and recording sessions for this took place in early 1963.  However, according to Stu Hackel’s liner notes for a 2012 Mary Wells package, Something New: Motown Lost & Found, the project was scrapped when Gordy changed his mind about its commercial potential.  “Motown’s leader still sought to broaden Mary’s fan base, however,” explained Hackel, “and assigned Mickey to produce an entire side of standards for her My Guy LP.”

    The results range from the swing of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and the punch of “At Last” – check the pungent sax solos on both – to the bossa nova of “If You Love Me, Really Love Me.”  The first of these demonstrates that Mary was more than capable of “selling” a nightclub audience, and it would have been a fine opening number had she ever performed at the Copacabana.

    Not everything works quite so well.  “You Do Something To Me” requires more vocal strength than Mary can summon on this occasion, while “I Only Have Eyes For You” seems to be a mismatch of styles ancient and modern.  But these are faults which tuition, training and perseverance – not to mention Gordy’s unyielding determination to bring out his artists’ full potential – could have fixed.

    That is, if Mary Wells had stayed at Motown.  At age 21, encouraged by husband Herman, the songstress shopped around for a better deal elsewhere, eventually joining 20th Century Records in late 1964.  Gordy and his team were disappointed, even aggrieved, after all the work put into Mary’s career, but soon found another cause for their energy and commitment:  the Supremes.

    Mary was never again to scale the heights of success and popularity that she experienced at Hitsville U.S.A., but “My Guy” – later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – is a worthy memorial.  In millions of hearts and minds, she will sing it forever.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Marvin Gaye Albums edit

    These are the albums widely regarded as defining the artistry and talent of Marvin Gaye, assembled here in a single digital package unimaginable when he made them.

    Through tragedy and conflict, Marvin earned the freedom to create music of his choosing and to his timetable.  The 1970 death of Tammi Terrell robbed him of the incentive to create music according to the Motown rulebook – a text which had served him well to that point.  Marvin was a maverick even in the early years, but his depression over Terrell’s death was darkened by stories from the Vietnam War, told to him by his brother Frankie, who served in the U.S. forces there.

    Marvin ached to express his feelings about the world’s woes and misplaced priorities, and despite initial conflict over the work with Motown founder Berry Gordy, he did so in 1971’s What’s Going On.  It is a collaborative effort, not least because the singer could not read or write music; those who help in giving shape to his vision include arranger David Van DePitte and such co-writers as James Nyx, Al Cleveland, the Four Tops’ Renaldo Benson and Marvin’s spouse, Anna.  There is also an unusual blend of musicians, favoured by the singer and Van DePitte, including jazz drummer Chet Forest and saxophone player Eli Fontaine, whose alto opens the masterwork. Gaye plays piano and layers his vocals through a gospel of timeless relevance – songs which, more than 40 years later, have lost none of their musical or spiritual power.

    Marvin took a diversion for the 1972 album which followed What’s Going On, in the form of a soundtrack for a “blaxploitation” picture, Trouble Man.  The cool, percussive title track remains one of the artist’s most subtle, atmospheric pieces of music – more sophisticated than the film – and the balance of the score leans to jazz, but with some orchestral passages where, as with What’s Going On, Marvin draws on the skill of collaborators, including arranger Dale Oehler.

    For the third album here, 1973’s Let’s Get It On, Marvin turns to the elevated and the explicit for inspiration, and to a veteran record producer, Ed Townsend, for the first four tracks, comprising side one of the vinyl LP.  (The second side, with tracks 4-8, was built on sessions begun in Detroit.)  Having fallen for a new love, Marvin holds little back lyrically, and nothing musically.  As before, he depends on a seasoned crew of session players to create the languid grooves, and turns to unusual sources – his wife, his sister-in-law – for a couple of the songs.  Arguably, the ballads, such as “Distant Lover,” are as memorable as the get-downs, but the virtues of Marvin’s versatility lie in the choice.

    Material drawn from all three of the above albums comprise this set’s fourth, a live recording from a 1974 show in Oakland, Los Angeles.  By then, Marvin had more freedom than ever in terms of creating music, but he still feared and hated singing in concert.  Once on stage, however, he always seemed to rise to the occasion, which is evident in every track on Marvin Gaye Live! – even the “Fossil Medley” of his 1960s hits, rendered with ebullience.  A live excursion for two tracks from What’s Going On is memorable, but the overall highlight is “Distant Lover,” rightly identified by David Ritz, author of the singer’s biography, Divided Soul, as superior to the studio original.

    If being on stage was anathema to Marvin, you wouldn’t know it from his second live album of the decade, either:  Live At The London Palladium, a double album released in 1977, the year after I Want You.  The star seems to revel in the British audience’s adoration, and evidently regrets the 12-year lapse since his last visit to London.  His early hits are fossilised once again, but Marvin is in fine voice, so even these flashes from the past are alive with energy and enthusiasm.  He also benefits from a supercharged backing band, most notably bassist Gerald Brown, and an engaging “stand-in” – Florence Lyles – for the late Tammi Terrell on such electric duets as “You’re All I Need To Get by” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

    The original, fourth side of Live At The London Palladium contained Marvin’s riposte to the demands of disco.  “To me, there are two types of dance tunes, disco and funk,” he said at the time.  To the latter group, unquestionably, belongs the 12-minute tribal chant that is “Got To Give It Up,” cut in Los Angeles just before Christmas ’76 with engineer/producer Art Stewart.  It was a commercial triumph:  when released as a single, it became Marvin’s third No. 1 on the pop charts.

    A Los Angeles recording studio is the scene of the triumph that is I Want You.  This is little short of a spiritual union between Marvin and Leon Ware, a singer/writer with a pedigree dating back to the late 1950s, when as a teenager, he was produced by Berry Gordy.  Years later, Gordy’s enthusiasm for “I Want You,” which Ware co-wrote, led him to propose a hook-up with Marvin.  Ware had recorded the backing track himself, and much else besides, when Gaye took to the idea of a collaboration.  “For him to do that many songs of mine, hey, I didn’t care about me not putting my album out,” said Ware.  Sensuality oozes from every silky second of music in this, Marvin’s first studio album since Let’s Get It On.

    If I Want You was dedicated to Marvin’s second wife, Janis, then Here, My Dear belongs to his first, Anna.  She was his motivator in the growing years at Motown, a task doubtless helped by the fact that she was Berry Gordy’s sister.  But by 1975, their tempestuous wedlock had brought the couple to acrimony and divorce.  In settlement, Marvin agreed to turn over to Anna the financial proceeds of a new work, Here, My Dear.  It is highly personal, and perhaps the most complicated of all his albums, ranging from the depths of “Anger” to the self-awareness of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.”  Marvin’s earlier studio collaborator, Ed Townsend, was involved, as were musicians familiar from his young days in Detroit to later times in Los Angeles.  The most accessible track?  “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” a piece of funk – not disco – issued by Motown as a 12-inch, vinyl single in 1979.

    The inner conflicts of Marvin Gaye at Motown came to a climax with his final release, 1981’s In Our Lifetime?  With his personal and professional life close to shambolic by this time, he had intended much of the material to yield a throw-away party album called Love Man.  And yet, although exiled first in Hawaii, then in London, Marvin tapped into a vision of the future, and began refashioning the songs into something deeper.  Before finishing this to his personal satisfaction, however, Marvin saw his tracks appropriated by Motown for release as In Our Lifetime?  “Funky as the devil yet strangely inspirational, the songs resonate as both prayers and party tracks, the bizarre record of an artist trying to impose aesthetic order on a life turned chaotic,” David Ritz later wrote.

    Tragedy and conflict, artistry and talent.  In other words, Marvin Gaye – The Albums 1971-1982.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Motortown Revue edit for website

    “It’s really wonderful being here,” says a slightly breathless Smokey Robinson.  “I only wish that I could speak French, so that I could let you know how wonderful it is.”

    And so the Motortown Revue arrives in Paris, as the final date of an ambitious overseas tour – mostly of England, Scotland and Wales – featuring the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes, backed on this live album by the Earl Van Dyke Sextet.

    Listen, for example, to Stevie pitching “High Heel Sneakers” and “Fingertips” to the Parisians, with harmonica playing as exciting as anything he’s ever recorded in concert, and you’re hearing music history in the making.  Van Dyke’s combo is in sparkling form, too, with Tony Newton’s bass virtuosity a particular stand-out, while the locals in the brass section recruited for the occasion are no slouches, either.

    This is an engaging, 12-track snapshot of that show, which took place on April 13, 1965 at the City of Lights’ legendary Olympia concert hall.  Motown released the LP in the U.S. six months later, with producer Robert Gordy editing and resequencing the performances.  (For the U.K. tour and in Paris, the Miracles top the bill, bringing out the entire troupe to close with a rip-roaring “Mickey’s Monkey.”)

    Back in Detroit, it is decided to make Stevie the album’s closing, and no wonder.  Not only is he in top form on the tracks mentioned above and a soulful take on “Funny How Time Slips Away” with his mentor, Clarence Paul, but also the 14-year-old is making a triumphant return to the Olympia.  In 1963, he was the first Motown artist to perform abroad, as part of a two-week Christmas engagement at the hall, with various American, British and French artists.

    Here, the album offers a memento of “Les Supremes” as they were becoming worldwide stars, robustly turning out “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Baby Love” – check out Diana Ross’ pure vocal clarity in the latter song’s opening seconds – and a showy version of “Somewhere” from West Side StoryDiana even plugs There’s A Place For Us, the Supremes’ forthcoming album featuring the Broadway tunes.  Except that the LP is not released in 1965 as planned (it finally steps out as a special edition in 2004).

    Tamla-Motown was the brand which Berry Gordy used abroad for his company, beginning in ’65, so the Olympia MC introduces Smokey Robinson as singer, songwriter and “Tamla-Motown vice president.”  The Miracles deliver their then-current single, “Ooo Baby Baby,” with their leader in exquisite voice – at the end of a 22-date tour, no less – and with fine harmonies.  The group’s five-minute take on “Mickey’s Monkey” is slightly ragged, playing to an audience which can hear and see it, but their on-stage voltage is unmistakeable.

    Martha & the Vandellas were the opening vocal act on the 1965 tour, but on this album, they rate as the third act in.  The trio is operating at full soul power:  with Martha’s vigorous lead, they put three songs through their paces, including “Nowhere To Run” and Pete Seeger’s “brotherly love” essay, “If I Had A Hammer.”  Funk Brothers Robert White (guitar) and Jack Ashford (vibes) seem determined to be heard, too, and on “Dancing In The Street,” they are.  It’s the Motortown Revue at its finest.

    Earl Van Dyke’s crew comprises himself (on keyboards), White, Ashford, Newton, Bob Cousar (drums, although he was equally known back home as a trombonist) and Eli Fontaine (sax).  Berry Gordy was not willing to allow master drummer Benny Benjamin and bass king James Jamerson out of the Motown studio for the tour, but Cousar and Newton acquit themselves well.  The sextet crack open the album with a crisp instrumental swing through “Too Many Fish In The Sea,” featuring a solo by saxophonist Fontaine, whose alto will later pass into legend as the opening riff of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

    Fans in Europe who were fortunate enough to see this roadshow still talk about its energy, its magnetism, its inspiration.  Given the line-up of singers, musicians and songs, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, indeed. Here, it is preserved for posterity.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown


    Stevie Wonder - Uptight (Everythings Alright) no border

    And so the second age of Wonder begins.

    “I had exclusive production on Stevie,” said the late Clarence Paul, his musical mentor at Motown, “but we were cold.  I didn’t have no hits, and I couldn’t think of nothing.  He couldn’t think of nothing, so they brought that tune to me.  And I told them, ‘If it sounds like a hit, yeah, go with it.’”

    “That tune” is 1965’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” the explosive 45 which put the wider world on notice that Stevie Wonder was, firstly, no longer little, and secondly, no one-hit (ahem) wonder.  “They” are Sylvia Moy and Hank Cosby, Paul’s fellow songwriters and producers at Motown.  (Sylvia was only the second female producer there, after “Miss Ray,” Berry Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma.)

    Moy said that she volunteered to work with Stevie when others did not wish to, because his voice – that of a 15-year-old at the time – was changing, and his commercial prospects were uncertain.  Nothing since his 1963 No. 1, “Fingertips,” had seriously cracked the charts.  In reviewing material with Wonder, Moy picked up a phrase he had (“Everything is alright, uptight”) and suggested that they shape it into a song.  Stevie laid down the chords, she worked with the vocal melody, and Cosby charted the arrangement.  The intro’s high-voltage guitar may have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a hit that summer, or it certainly sounds that way.

    Released on November 22, 1965, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” was more than a hit single.  It became one of the musician’s signature songs, one he would play in concert with glee, even years after creating his most celebrated body of work in the 1970s, a/k/a the third age of Wonder.  Its lyric is full of memorable lines, such as “No football hero or smooth Don Juan/Got empty pockets/You see, I’m a poor man’s son,” and its performance is irresistible.

    At least four more tracks combine the rhythmic power and sparkle of “Uptight,” pumped in the studio by the Funk Brothers, and accelerated by Stevie’s exuberance.  “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby” drives even faster, with Benny Benjamin rolling around his snare and tom-toms like a man aiming for a speeding ticket, while “Ain’t That Asking For Trouble” and “I Want My Baby Back” offer the relentless bass of James Jamerson underneath Stevie’s excitement (“ha-ha-ha-ha-yeah!”).

    “Music Talk,” recorded months before “Uptight,” is a tribute to the Funks (“Everybody seems to be playing with a lot of soul”) with shout-outs to high-stepping trumpets, trombones and saxophones.  One of the song’s co-writers is Ted Hull, Stevie’s partially-sighted tutor for all the years of his formal education.  Hull accompanied the teen on the 1965 Tamla-Motown Revue tour of the U.K., where “Music Talk” was the popular B side of “High Heel Sneakers,” the single before “Uptight.”

    Two more Hitsville stompers add weight to the album:  “Contract On Love,” recorded when Stevie was 12 (hence, the higher pitch) but no less exciting for that; and “Teach Me Tonight,” a lively duet between Stevie and – uncredited – Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs Jr. that Tin Pan Alley lyricist Sammy Cahn could not have imagined.  It’s about an education in love, and the teacher is assumed to be a different gender to the pupil.  That it works here as a bromance-in-song is due to the fun that Stevie and Levi, and the other Tops in the back, evidently had in recording it.

    “Love A Go Go” and “Pretty Little Angel” are this album’s anomalies.  The first is a lightweight but attractive midtempo outing, notable mainly for use of the brass motif from “Dancing In The Street.”  It was authored by associates of Clarence Paul and Mickey Stevenson;  co-writer Beth Beatty penned material for Mickey’s wife, Kim Weston.  “Pretty Little Angel” is a throwback to the Brill Building sound of the early 1960s, with a melody and string arrangement straight from a Bobby Vee hit.  Save for Stevie’s distinctive voice, it doesn’t even sound like a typical Motown record.  Charming, to be sure, but the gap between it and, for instance, “Music Talk” is as wide as the Grand Canyon.

    Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” is a stand-out here in terms of performance and song choice, a political statement of the kind usually kept at arm’s length by Motown – and not sourced from its in-house writers, either.  Stevie cut an unvarnished version as early as 1963, but it stayed in the can at the time.  In January 1966, he and Clarence Paul rerecorded the song with the latter adding interjections, as if in church.  “We did it on stage a lot,” said Clarence, “and the requests were the reason Stevie went in and cut it [again].”   The track lopes underneath them, and closes with a “la-la-la-la” outro that belies the depth of the lyric and its civil-rights overtones.  “Too many years have gone by now already, Stevie,” sings Clarence, in a counterpoint of supreme understatement.

    As if there were not enough highlights, the album offers one more at closing.  “With A Child’s Heart” is yet another “Are you sure this is Motown?” moment, closer to the piano-and-strings melancholy of, say, Billy Stewart’s work at Chess Records.  Stevie’s midway harmonica solo is poignant, especially since we, as listeners, know that this maturing musician’s adolescence is slipping forever into the past.

    Then again, we also know of Stevie Wonder’s impossibly exciting future, of songs in the key of a remarkable life, and of an honour bestowed by a historic president.  From 2648 West Grand Boulevard to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is quite a journey – and everything’s alright.


    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown

sign-up to get all the latest news & information delivered via email.
become a VIP today >