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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS – THE BOSS

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: FOUR TOPS

    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.

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES – LOVE CHILD

    Supremes-lovechild

    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’.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JERMAINE JACKSON – LET’S GET SERIOUS

    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.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: STEVIE WONDER – ORIGINAL MUSIQUARIUM I

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: SYREETA

    Syreeta

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: STEVIE WONDER – MUSIC OF MY MIND

    music-of-my-mind

    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.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS & MARVIN GAYE – DIANA & MARVIN

    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…”

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: STEVIE WONDER – HOTTER THAN JULY

    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.

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS – BABY IT’S ME (EXPANDED EDITION)

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARVIN GAYE – IN THE GROOVE

    Marvin Gaye - In The Groove

    Happy New Year!

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARY WELLS SINGS MY GUY

    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.

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  • ALBUMS OF THE WEEK: MARVIN GAYE – THE ALBUMS 1971-1982

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARVIN GAYE – HOW SWEET IT IS TO BE LOVED BY YOU

    How sweet

    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 Robinson.  Marvin 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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: VARIOUS ARTISTS – RECORDED LIVE: MOTORTOWN REVUE IN PARIS

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: STEVIE WONDER – UP-TIGHT EVERYTHING’S ALRIGHT

    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.

     

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK (PART 2): STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

    STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

    The reviews are coming in.

    Stevie’s Songs In The Key of Life tour is proving to be as powerful and audience-pleasing as the original recorded work, released in 1976 and spread over two vinyl LPs and a four-track EP.  “The music still resonates,” declared Nekesa Mumbi Moody of Associated Press, who called the opening night at New York’s Madison Square Garden “an electrifying concert,” with the crowd roaring and standing on its feet in approval.

    There are unusual moments of time travel, too.  “Isn’t She Lovely,” the first track of the set’s second LP, features a cameo appearance by Stevie’s baby daughter, Aisha Morris.  On the road in 2014, she makes another appearance:  as a grown-up, singing in her father’s band (Aisha is now 39).

    “Isn’t She Lovely” is the eleventh song of the 21-track album, and it perfectly captures Stevie’s spirit of optimism and exuberance, a hallmark of so much of his music.  And if we once again become students of Wonder, his work on Songs In The Key Of Life merits comparison with two other great musicians and songwriters of the 20th century, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

    Optimism was McCartney’s preference during the Beatles’ epochal years, while Lennon leaned towards cold-eyed realism.  Those often-contradictory forces, separately and together, can be heard in Songs In The Key Of Life.  The upbeat ambience of “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” recalls McCartney (“But with a happy song to sing/It never seems as bad”); the drama of “Saturn” is suffused with a perspective similar to that of Lennon (“Truth or happiness just can’t be bought – or sold/Tell me why are you people so cold”).

    Lennon and McCartney had record producer George Martin to give form to their imaginations.  On Songs In The Key Of Life, which Stevie produced, arranged, wrote and composed himself, he has the Yamaha Electrone Polyphonic Synthesizer GX10.  Its extraordinary capabilities are the bedrock of the album, and especially on “Black Man” and “Another Star,” which both run to eight minutes-plus.  The Latin rhythms of the latter are highly percussive, flavoured by the guitar dexterity (and background vocals) of George Benson, and brought to a climax by the incendiary flute solo of Bobbi Humphrey.  On “Black Man” – more politically-charged than any late-period Lennon song – Stevie’s bandmates raise the roof with pounding brass riffs alongside his keyboard wizardry, while the voices from a Harlem theatrical group canonise the men and women of colour who helped shape America.  (When Songs In The Key Of Life was released in ’76, it was the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence.)  Storied New York radio DJ Gary Byrd co-wrote “Black Man,” as he did “Village Ghetto Land.”

    Perhaps the album’s most powerful track is “As,” an anthem about constancy which could easily be named “Always,” for the sweeping chorus which runs in tandem with Stevie’s almighty vocal performance and the multiple tracking of background singer Mary Lee Whitney.  Jazz improvisations add extra impetus, notably those of keyboard guest Herbie Hancock, while Stevie’s growling attack of a mid-song verse is reminiscent of “Living For The City.”

    The depth of the album’s second half is apparent in “If It’s Magic,” when Wonder sings a guileless song of love – with one of his most elegant lyrics – and adds only the delicate harp of the late Dorothy Ashby.  This is Stevie’s inner romantic, for all to hear.  (On his current tour, he performs “If It’s Magic” accompanied only by a recording of Ashby’s original track.)  Another hymn is “Joy Inside My Tears,” but it’s dark, mournful, almost funereal.  Wonder can be guilty of excess saccharine on some of his ballads, but not on this.

    He is rather deliberate on “Ebony Eyes,” with its chirpy melody and bright lyric (“She’s the sunflower of nature’s seeds”).  Did Stevie know that “Ebony And Ivory” lay in his future when composing this?

    The cynicism of “All Day Sucker” – this, too, could be a Lennon lyric – is quite a contrast to “Ebony Eyes,” offset by the fierce fretwork of guitarists Ben Bridges, Mike Sembello and Snuffy Walden.  They set this “Day” on fire, reinforcing the riffs, improvising the melodies, burning down the house.  In stark contrast is the next and final track on Songs In The Key Of Life, a subtle instrumental entitled “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” echoing with Wonder’s harmonica and a gentle coda.

    In concert, such an “Easy Goin’ Evening” would defy expectations of a smashing finale, of the crowd’s wish to hail the ambitions of the night and the charisma of its star.  And so Stevie closes his show with “Superstition,” to define his talent as much as any single song in the key of his life.

    On Nov. 24 at the White House, Stevie Wonder is due to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.  This sightless man of extraordinary gifts from Detroit has proved that freedom comes in many forms, “until the day is night and night becomes the day.”  Always, Stevie, always.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK (PART 1): STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

    STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

    Your assignment:  “This is the best album of Stevie Wonder’s career.”  Discuss.

    Those of you fortunate enough to catch the opening date of Stevie’s Songs In The Key Of Life tour in New York on Nov. 6 may already have made up your minds.  The rest of us must refer to the recording, and supplementary material.  Good luck.

    Ten years ago, when Stevie Wonder was honoured with Billboard’s Century Award, he called Songs In The Key Of Life a complete piece of work.  Today, our class will consider the first of its two albums – and remember, students, this was issued in vinyl as a two-LP set, with a four-track extended play (EP) disc.  Everything was produced, arranged, written and composed by Stevie Wonder, and released by Motown on October 8, 1976.

    OK, school is out.  Let’s just consider this for Stevie’s unfathomable talent, and particularly how he navigates two solar systems here.  One is intimate and personal, capturing emotions in “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Ordinary Pain” which everyone experiences.  The other is more worldly-wise, reflecting on how life treats people, with or without their consent, as in “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” “Have A Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land.”

    Arguably, the first three tracks are the most spiritual Stevie has ever sequenced, and with the exception of Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown’s percussion on “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” the musicianship is all Wonder’s.  He was working with a test model of a Yamaha GX10 synthesizer, which allowed him to source multiple sounds, such as strings, brass, keyboards.  On “Village Ghetto Land,” for example, it allowed him to create the string-quartet mood, starkly underscoring the tragedy of the lives depicted.  On “Have A Talk With God,” the track is as restrained as the lyric – and Stevie’s vocal – is philosophical.  (At the New York show, Stevie performed this with a live string section.)

    What’s most striking about “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is the message.  Whether obvious or vague (criticisms which have been made), Stevie’s lyric is as relevant today as when it was written:  “You know that hate’s going around/And it tried to break up many hearts.”  No wonder he performed it, with Take 6, in the aftermath of 9/11, on the telecast, “America: A Tribute to Heroes.”

    But Stevie Wonder always returns from politics to music.  The back-to-back exuberance of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” – although they were on different sides of the original vinyl – is compelling, not to mention commercial.  These were the first singles from Songs In The Key Of Life, and both were No. 1 hits.  Appropriately, he brings in his band (“Go’n Wonderlove!”) on both tracks, including Nathan Watts on propulsive bass, Raymond Pounds on driving drums, and Hank Redd on soaring alto sax.  Also, Steve Madaio (trumpet) and Trevor Lawrence (tenor sax), who had provided the boost to another Wonder chart-topper, “Superstition,” four years earlier.

    “I Wish” was among the last songs recorded for the album; Wonder said he wrote it during a Motown picnic in summer ’76, then went right into the Crystal Industries studio in Los Angeles to cut the track.  Probably the earliest piece of work here is “Contusion,” an exciting, abrasive jazz-rock instrumental which Stevie first laid down in December 1973 at the Record Plant, also in Los Angeles.  Michael Sembello’s stinging guitar runs are particularly memorable.

    “Pastime Paradise” has a seductive, neo-baroque rhythm, and an ambiguous lyric.  Is this about historic prejudice seen through rose-coloured glasses, or the brutal reality of contemporary race relations?  Layer upon layer of vocals are gradually stacked through the song, culminating in a Hare Krishna chorus, provided by the West Los Angeles Church of God Choir.  It’s to the credit of California hip-hop artist Coolio (with L.V.) that he chose this challenging piece of work to adapt, update and take to the top of the charts in 1995.  

    “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain” are striking contrasts.  The first has an inviting flow, in tune with the seasons it cites, with a delicate, near-falsetto turn by Stevie Wonder; the second is deceptive, beginning with one side of a lover’s story, almost wistfully.  When the other partner – voiced by Shirley Brewer – starts to reply, the vibe turns angry, accusatory and utterly compelling:  “You’re cryin’ big crocodile tears/Don’t match the ones I’ve cried for years.”  Sembello and Redd again join Wonder on the track, and among the background vocalists who make the pain far from ordinary are Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams and Lynda Laurence.  This is a dramatic, protracted climax to the first movement of Songs In The Key Of Life.

    Are you listening, class?  Let’s resume the discussion next week – and don’t forget your homework.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: STEVIE WONDER – IN SQUARE CIRCLE

    STEVIE WONDER – IN SQUARE CIRCLE

    Stevie Wonder is running late.

    It’s the CBS telecast of the 1985 Grammy awards, and the Motown superstar is due to perform “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from his soundtrack for The Woman In Red – but he is nowhere to be found in the show’s Los Angeles venue, the Shrine Auditorium. The clock counts down, the producers’ blood pressure counts up. Finally, a mere 15 minutes before he is due on stage, Stevie arrives.

    The show’s producers were in double jeopardy. Not only was the musician set to sing his Grammy-nominated hit, but also to take part in a theatrical, four-way synthesizer jam with three fellow masters of the keyboard, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones and Herbie Hancock. The centrepiece of the performance was to be a new, as-yet-unreleased Wonder song, “Go Home.” In the event, the quartet rocked the Shrine, delivering a splashy rendition of the tune (plus snatches of Hancock’s own “Rockit” as well as the national anthem) on a three-tiered stage riser, surrounded by 15 keyboards.

    Wonder’s solo recording of “Go Home” is a highlight of 1985’s In Square Circle, his first studio album since Hotter Than July, five years earlier. The track is percussive, powerful, determined, with a peerless mix of synthesizers and drums – all played by Stevie, of course. Adding a punch of brass are Larry Gittens on trumpet and Bob Malach on sax, musicians who had recorded previously with him. No surprise that “Go Home” was a hit single, and No. 1 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart, to boot.

    In Square Circle was issued in September, by which time it had been a busy nine months of ’85 for the musical titan from Detroit. Soon after the Grammy telecast, Wonder collected an Academy Award for “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and then was named “Artist of the Decades” – plural, of course – by America’s music retailer organisation, NARM. He accepted the latter recognition in person at the trade group’s convention in Florida, and returned the favour with a live performance of more pre-release music from In Square Circle.

    “Part-Time Lover” is the first of the album’s 10 songs, just as it was the first single. At the time, Wonder called it a cross between the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It certainly has their verve, delivered by Stevie towards the upper limit of his vocal range, and shadowed by several star guests. Most notable among these is the late Luther Vandross, whose almost-stuttering contribution is subtle but distinctive. Other background voices include Wonder’s first wife, Syreeta Wright, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey. And for the record, “Part-Time Lover” was the superstar’s ninth No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

    Much of In Square Circle takes a fast tempo, from “Never In Your Sun” (with an inviting harmonica solo) and “I Love You Too Much” to “Stranger On The Shore Of Love” (Stevie on accordion!) and “Land Of La La.” On the first three, Wonder is the sole musician; on the fourth, he recruits guitarists Ben Bridges and Rick Zunigar. Both have toured with him, and Bridges’ fine texture can also be heard throughout Stevie’s masterpiece, Songs In The Key Of Life.

    This album’s most memorable ballad is “Overjoyed,” originally intended for Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants film soundtrack, but deferred until now. The melody is memorable, the track unusual for its sound effects: crickets, pebbles in a pond, twittering birds. Here, Wonder also recruits two masters of their craft, long-time Motown string arranger Paul Riser, and jazz guitarist Earl Klugh.

    The climax of In Square Circle is “It’s Wrong (Apartheid),” Wonder’s angry indictment of South Africa’s racist order, still in force at the time. The track’s powerful, tribal drumming fuels the indignation of the lyrics: “The wretchedness of Satan’s wrath/Will come to seize you at last.” Recalling his use of the Zulu language on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing” nine years earlier, Wonder weaves a dramatic African chorus throughout this song, voiced in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s native languages. The call-and-response is almost biblical, in tune with the sentiments expressed.

    Although Stevie Wonder had written “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” more than two years before, it was surely pre-ordained for In Square Circle. After the musician invoked the name of Nelson Mandela on the Oscar telecast earlier in ’85, the South African government banned his music on the country’s airwaves.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JACKSON 5 – GREATEST HITS

    Jackson 5 - Greatest Hits

    After the Indiana brothers’ first two, extraordinary years in the spotlight, this platinum package was a momentary pause, a chance to reflect, before they resumed their place on music’s merry-go-round.

    Motown released the Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits in December 1971, with pride.  It offers no fewer than seven Top 10 tunes, including four which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100:  “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.”  These made history; it was the first time that any act had hit the summit with their first four charted 45s.  What’s more, all but two of the album’s eleven tracks were produced and arranged by The Corporation, comprising four ace Motown songwriters and producers:  Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and – the boss – Berry Gordy.

    The hits need no further introduction, although the backstories may be less well-known.  With “I Want You Back,” Freddie Perren knew that the song went up to a high E flat.  “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has really got to sing high to get this.’  I was worried about that more than anything else.  Michael wasn’t as outgoing or playful as the other guys.  He would just stand there, we were singing the song, and all the time I was showing it to him, I was thinking, ‘Can he reach these notes?’  Finally, we took a try at it, and he just hit it the first time.”

    The Corporation did much writing and rewriting.  “Where a song may have had two verses,” said Perren, “we may have written eight or ten.  We would go to Berry Gordy and he would tell us what to do.  Most people think he’s just an executive, but he’s a great writer.”

    The co-author of “I’ll Be There,” the Jackson 5’s fourth No. 1 and their first chart-topping ballad, was Willie Hutch, a singer and writer who had been associated with Motown in California for some years.  “Mr. Gordy liked the title and the track,” said Hutch, “but he didn’t like the song.”  Hutch was asked by producer Hal Davis to rework it with him.  The pair did so one night at Hutch’s house, around 4 a.m.  “Willie’s wife was mad at me,” said Davis, “but I work late.”  By 8 a.m., the two were at Gordy’s house with the rewrite.  “Berry listened for about 15 minutes,” according to Hutch, “and said, ‘OK, that’s a smash.  Set up studio time for 1 o’clock’.”

    Another prime J5 ballad on this album, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” was also produced by Hal Davis, who said the group wasn’t yet comfortable with ballads when he cut it.  Nor, apparently, was the Motown A&R executive who felt the song was too adult for single release.  Davis’ response was to play it at ear-splitting volume next to Berry Gordy’s office.  The boss couldn’t help but hear.  “He came out of his office and said, ‘Stop, that’s a smash’.”  The single was soon put on the schedule, although when released, it stopped one rung short of No. 1.

    “Mama’s Pearl,” as jet-propelled as the first three J5 chart-toppers, was another No. 1 lockout – in that case, by a Jacksons soundalike:  the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple”– while “Sugar Daddy,” their eighth Motown single, hit the Top 10.  The latter made its album debut in Greatest Hits; it was not included on any of the group’s previous LPs. 

    There are Philadelphia flavours in “Never Can Say Goodbye” and this album’s closing track, “I Found That Girl,” inasmuch as the Jacksons’ vocals recall the work of the Delfonics, a symphonic soul trio brought to recognition by producer/writer Thom Bell.  “I Found A Girl” also features the compelling lead of a 15-year-old Jermaine Jackson, while “Who’s Lovin’ You” is memorable for Michael Jackson’s stunning, note-holding finale.  Both of these songs were originally flipsides of J5 singles, but charted in their own right. 

    The homecoming tale of “Goin’ Back To Indiana,” meanwhile, is the title tune from the Jackson 5’s first network TV special, broadcast towards the end of 1971.  Guests on the show included Bill Cosby and basketball superstar Rosey Grier, and the J5 performed several of their hits and a couple of Sly & the Family Stone songs.  Naturally, Motown released the soundtrack album.

    Greatest Hits spent 41 weeks on the Billboard album charts in 1972, as the Jackson 5 spent another action-packed year of hard work in the studio and on the road, at home and abroad.  This included their third national US tour (with a January fundraising concert in Atlanta for the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change) through the summer.  Then, the brothers embarked on their first European swing, with an October appearance at the Royal Variety Performance show in London.

    While staying in the British capital, the Jacksons were besieged in the Churchill Hotel by hundreds of fans.  What to do?  Why, stage an impromptu concert on the roof, of course, playing some of their greatest hits.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: THE COMMODORES – MACHINE GUN

    THE COMMODORES – MACHINE GUN

    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.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS – SURRENDER

    DIANA ROSS – SURRENDER

    During the first two years of the “Can Diana Ross make it on her own?” show, the Motown superstar enjoyed just one out-and-out smash in America:  the almighty “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which climbed to No. 1 in Billboard in September 1970.

    The British, on the other hand, bestowed four consecutive Top 10 singles upon Miss Ross during the same period, including a different No. 1, “I’m Still Waiting.”

    Two of that quartet of hits, “Remember Me” and “Surrender,” are present and correct in this, Diana’s third studio album, released in 1971, while “I’m Still Waiting” is a bonus contained in the later, “expanded” version.

    Now that logistics are out of the way, let’s consider the power and the glory that is Surrender – testimony to Diana’s supreme talent, and the considerable creativity of the album’s writing and producing team, Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford.

    Valerie gets right down to business on the opening track, pounding her piano with one-note repetition in sync with the snare-and-bass-drum lockstep of Uriel Jones.  Within 30 seconds, Diana’s powerful voice brings the song to a climax, aided by the sophisticated strings, percussion, brass and background vocals that prove to be the hallmarks of this album.  She wants it all, and in less than three minutes!

    That said, Surrender is an endearing mix of Diana both in command and vulnerable.  She dictates the terms of a relationship in the title track – boy, does she – as well as in “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You,” “I’m A Winner” and “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)?”  Even in the tale of deceit that is “Did You Read The Morning Paper?,” she’s the boss, offering to lend the unfaithful lover her copy of the newspaper, and demanding on the fade:  Where do we go from here?

    Yet on “Remember Me,” she is plaintive, as Nick Ashford’s lyrics make it clear that Diana’s lover is destined for higher things, and as she wistfully pleads not to be forgotten.  On “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” she sounds lost in an echo chamber at the start, although her dramatic persona soon asserts itself as the tale spins on.  Here, Ashford and Simpson are clearly aiming to replicate the widescreen power of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which they shaped into that American chart-topper for Diana the previous year.  At more than five minutes of running time, it is an epic, but deceptive.  Listeners are led to the foot of the mountain three times, only to find Diana reluctant to climb until the third.  A similar, delayed climax worked on “Mountain,” but when released as a single, “Reach Out” couldn’t match those same chart heights.

    Nonetheless, Ashford and Simpson – Diana Ross sherpas, if you’ll forgive the continuing metaphor – are the best in the business, and Surrender is a fine piece of mountaineering.  They stretch the limits of her voice, knowing that it can rise to the challenge, whatever the tempo.  And the pair, in turn, enlists the most capable backpackers, such as Paul Riser, who is never better represented than here, his string and brass arrangements broadening the horizons of almost every song.

    Equally, the rhythm team lays down a bedrock of sound and synchronicity that is beyond belief.  Where does James Jamerson get the rocket fuel for his bass lines?  How many hands does Eddie “Bongo” Brown actually have?  It can’t be two, based on the percussive evidence of this album.  (Riser mostly recorded the strings and brass in New York, while the rhythm tracks are unmistakeably welded in Detroit.)

    The details of Ashford and Simpson’s songs and studio strategies are laid out in the illuminating liner notes of the expanded edition of Surrender, together with the tale of “I’m Still Waiting.”  That most melancholy of Diana’s A sides is like the album’s adopted child – at least in Britain, where BBC disc jockey Tony Blackburn’s relentless airplay turned what was an album track (from Diana’s second LP) into a No. 1 single.

    After that, Motown’s British partner, EMI Records, added “I’m Still Waiting” to Surrender, even though the hit was written and produced by Motown’s Deke Richards, not Ashford and Simpson.  But Deke knew how to bring out the best in Diana Ross, too, especially her vulnerable side:  “Wait patiently for love/Someday it will surely come.  The only mystery is why American music buyers didn’t surrender to the same extent as their British cousins, who made “Waiting” a hit on three separate occasions.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DIANA ROSS PRESENTS THE JACKSON 5

    DIANA ROSS PRESENTS THE JACKSON 5

    Like the per-minute revolutions of a seven-inch single made of vinyl, the past 45 years have spun by.

    On October 2, 1969, the masterpiece that is “I Want You Back” was complete. The recording was transferred to an acetate. And while preparations were made for its release, the team involved had time to consider their handiwork before the history of popular music gained a new chapter: The Jackson 5.

    Today, it is a familiar text, both magic and tragic. There is almost nothing about Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and Tito that has not been written, rewritten, exaggerated or distorted. Only the music remains as it once was.

    Welcome to Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5.

    Because “I Want You Back” was vaulting into the Billboard Top 10 as this album was issued in December 1969, the hit was always going to define – even overshadow – the complete set. Even so, few listeners can have been prepared for the opening number, when an American institution, Walt Disney, meets an American subversive, Sly Stone. Ten seconds into “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” eleven-year-old Michael Jackson is testifyin’ like no rock & roll adolescent since Frankie Lymon, over a track which pumps with the relentless rhythm of the Family Stone. The song may come from one of Uncle Walt’s 1940s movies, but we’re not in Disneyland anymore.

    It was a Motown stalwart, Hal Davis, who produced “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” just as it was a Motown superstar, Diana Ross, who was drafted to endorse The Jackson 5 for PR purposes. And the centre of gravity? The extraordinary singing of Michael Joe Jackson, with energy befitting his years but with instinct, timing and soul beyond them.  Consider another track, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” where he and the group echo not the plaintive Smokey Robinson original, but the drama of David Ruffin’s version with the Temptations. In this tour de force, Michael is encouraged and guided by Bobby Taylor, the man who really discovered the Jackson 5 in 1968, playing at Chicago’s Regal theatre.

    In fact, three-fourths of this album is the hands of Taylor, produced in Detroit with a bluesy edge that’s in contrast to the razor-sharp polish of the songs cut in California. He has the Jackson 5 step up the tempo of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” from the Temptations’ original, and take “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” down from that of the Four Tops. The latter is a brave choice, succeeding because Taylor makes Michael melancholy, not desperate, and because he assigns lyric lines to other Jacksons, emphasising the brotherhood of their voices.

    “You’ve Changed” is a brassy remake of a song which the five first recorded in Gary, Indiana, for Steeltown Records. Here, Michael’s performance seems age-appropriate, with endearing references to the “shaggy, shaggy dress” and “kissable lips” of the girl in question. An unexpected delight is “Can You Remember,” a smooth soul ballad first recorded by the Delfonics. Taylor retains the billowing breeze of the Philadelphia original, but gives Michael room to soar above his siblings’ harmonies.

    When Berry Gordy shipped The Jackson 5 out West to polish and groom them for prime-time, he assembled a songwriting/production team dubbed The Corporation, comprising himself, Deke Richards, Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell. “I Want You Back” is their jewel, with an electrifying piano glissando played by the late Joe Sample, the guitars of David T. Walker, Louis Shelton and Don Peake providing an unforgettable rhythmic flow, and the bass of Wilton Felder locking down the foundations.  (The track was cut and recut a number of times, so the exact line-up of the musicians on the released version may never be known.)

    In the notes for 2009’s Come And Get It: The Rare Pearls, a set of previously unissued Jackson 5 tracks, Deke Richards wrote that Michael was like a sponge, absorbing everything around him. “He could take a part I had given him and sing it right back to me; he would also give me a line that was better than the one I gave him.”

    The evidence is equally clear in Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, four decades after Richards and Berry Gordy left a Hollywood mixing room, finally satisfied with the sound of “I Want You Back.” The two men, Richards recalled, “walked out of the studio that night like two school kids who had just passed their final exam.”

    Ain’t no school like Motown.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: THE FOUR TOPS – ON TOP

    THE FOUR TOPS – ON TOP

    Upon its original release in the second half of 1966, this album contained the future and the past.

    Devotees of the Four Tops – Levi Stubbs, Renaldo Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton – and their early work at Motown already knew of the group’s capabilities.  This was evident throughout ’65, from the depths of despair (“Ask The Lonely”) to the heights of happiness (“I Can’t Help Myself”).  Now, in a new year, the Tops were to scale new peaks.

    “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” hinted at the future.  It was the group’s first 45 of ’66, and the most ambitious construct to date by the Tops’ primary architects, Holland/Dozier/Holland.  Today, as almost 50 years ago, it is a nightmare in song, the desperate articulation of a dream the singer does not want to believe.  The waves of sound – a dark piano, James Jamerson’s haunting bass, the tinnitus of vibes and strings – are pressed together with Levi’s lead vocal, pushed to the edge of his range.  The result is an unsettling drama, deeper and broader than HDH’s previous productions with the Tops, the first step towards their towering work to come.

    “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” which precedes “Shake Me…” on this album, is equally dramatic, another signpost of achievements ahead.  With the song’s co-writer, Stevie Wonder, on drums, the band track thunders like a subway train beneath your feet.  But it’s Levi who is driving this machine, his commanding lead above the background rumble, taking an upbeat lyric to its natural climax.  The power of the Tops’ four-part harmonies is also perfectly captured here, without the high edge of the Andantes, often employed by HDH on their other recordings.

    Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, as the album’s overall producers, were wise to place “Shake Me…” and “Loving You…” in the middle of the original vinyl LP’s first side.  They must have realised the importance of reassuring Tops’ fans with conventional Motown:  the optimistic “I Got A Feeling” as the opening track, the lyrically-downbeat but danceable “There’s No Love Left,” as the closer.  (On the latter, Levi is resigned to heartache; on another version of the song, by the Isley Brothers, they are deranged by it).

    After the future, the past.  Side two of On Top is another time and place.  This is not Studio A at Hitsville; these are the lounges of Las Vegas or the Catskills.  Once, the Four Tops crooned the output of Tin Pan Alley for nightclub audiences of diners and drinkers, or opened for big-band singer (and bandleader) Billy Eckstine in venues around America during the 1950s.  Once again, they inhabit that milieu, with five songs and four-part harmonies faithful to their roots as the Four Aims.  True, most of the compositions come from the ’60s, such as “Matchmaker” (from the musical Fiddler On The Roof) and, of course, Paul McCartney’s “Michelle.”  But because of their hungry years and their discipline, the Tops glisten and shine.  Seldom has the bossa nova of “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars” sounded so pristine and pure, or “Bluesette” so enticing.  Levi occasionally steps to the front, as with a few, mournful lines of “Michelle,” but for the most part, these are the Tops together:  seamless and sophisticated, in perfect harmony.

    For those forever in thrall to Classic Motown, it may be tough to hear the Tops this way.  But it was precisely because of their history, their experience, their adulthood, that they could deliver the innovations of Holland/Dozier/Holland, and were equipped to take the death-defying leap to the future of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette.”  Nothing could intimidate them.  And, of course, when Berry Gordy wanted his artists to dazzle in the Copa, the Four Tops were to the manner born.

    There is a footnote.  Was the Quality Control team, or Mr. Gordy, worried about listeners’ reaction to the sounds of yesterday, perhaps at the expense of tomorrow?  Step forward, the ever-dependable Smokey Robinson, providing one of his most-underrated songs, “Then,” co-written with fellow Miracles Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers, to close the album.  It’s a mid-tempo ballad tailor-made for the melancholy which Levi evokes when singing within his range, coupled with lyrics as fine as Robinson’s best:  If Columbus never sailed the sea/If Longfellow never wrote a rhyme/If leaves have never grown upon a tree/And if the sands have never told the time. 

    This is the Four Tops on top, soon to reach out.

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARTHA REEVES & THE VANDELLAS – BLACK MAGIC

    MARTHA REEVES & THE VANDELLAS – BLACK MAGIC

    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

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