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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Smokey Robinson - Going To A Go Go

    Two of the tracks on Smokey Robinson’s latest release, Smokey & Friends, appear in their original versions on this 1965 album:  “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Tracks Of My Tears.”  Listen up.

    The entire, 12-track set is a treasure chest of music and metaphors, similes and couplets, heart and soul.  It may be the single best long-player that the Miracles ever made, and perhaps among the top five Motown albums of all time.  So there.

    Reason enough is the opener, “The Tracks Of My Tears,” which Smokey began recording in Detroit on the day that Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated in Washington, D.C.  Presidents come and go, but “Tracks” is forever.  The song was famously sired by the opening riff of guitarist Marv Tarplin, and flavoured by the island melody of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.”  Pete Moore of Smokey Robinson, its co-writer, said that 24-hour access to the Motown recording studio was vital.  “So we went in as soon as we possibly could after writing.  This one was a real rascal, because we wanted to make sure the lyrics were real meaningful.”

    In the 49 years since, no one has doubted the lyrics’ meaning and depth, but the same quality is evident on at least a half-dozen songs on Going To A Go-Go.  What’s also apparent is the innate subtlety of the work:  harmonies (including those of Claudette Robinson) which support and heighten Smokey’s exquisite leads; brass riffs which give texture; drums which underpin the rhythm, not muscle for attention.  Tarplin’s delicate fretwork is Robinson’s partner, not only on “Tracks” but on “Ooo Baby Baby” and “My Girl Has Gone,” a brace of heartbreakers.

    The mood is not entirely sombre.  “From Head To Toe” is almost a gospel rave-up, with handclapping congregation and a brass section vamping like it’s Fat Tuesday in N’Orleans.  No wonder Elvis Costello was motivated to cover it.  “Let Me Have Some” is another cheerful tune, with Smokey mostly singing in harmony with The Miracles, rather than outfront.  The midtempo “All That’s Good” is more seductive, with undulating bass, a piano being played like it’s 3 a.m., and (of course) name-checks for Romeo and Juliet.

    But above all, it is Smokey Robinson’s talent for couplets and contradiction which sets this work apart.  Even its dance-floor contender, “Going To A Go-Go,” is blessed with dazzling internal rhymes: “You’re sure to have some fun/I’m telling everyone/Most every taxi that you flag is/Going to a go-go.”  Another rhythm piece, “In Case You Need Love,” cites lumberjacks, lawyers and locksmiths, but none has the singer’s primary asset (“If you let me make love to you/I could master it/A little bit faster”).  And in the wistful “Choosey Beggar,” Smokey admits his options are limited (“Your love is the only love/To make this beggar rich”) while the melody lingers.

    “My Baby Changes Like The Weather” was almost certainly recorded in California, but Smokey retains lessons learned from his English teacher in Detroit:  “Rain/Rain/Don’t bring me tears and pain/Don’t hang dark clouds over me/A golden rainbow’s all I need.”      

    In common with many great albums, Going To A Go-Go concludes with the twin of its opening track.  “A Fork In The Road” is as tragic and deep as “The Tracks Of My Tears,” warning of mistakes which cannot be rectified, of broken souls which cannot be saved:  “Your paths may never cross again/Make sure you take the right bend.”

    After Smokey finished recording sessions for this album, he had just these 12:  no songs left for another date, no extra tracks for future archivists to pore over.  This is the work, whole and complete, he wanted the world to hear.  And so when colleges and post-graduate courses focus on songsmiths and lyricism, when students yearn to learn (and earn) from such skills, this is The Text, and Smokey Robinson is The Master.

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    Smokey Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Every Little Bit Hurts

    During their early years, the Beatles favoured the music of quite a few Motown artists, but only two were fortunate enough to tour with the biggest rock & roll band of the 20th century.  Brenda Holloway from Atascadero, California, was one:  she guest-starred on their 1965 American concert swing, including the historic performance at New York’s Shea Stadium.  When you listen to the youngster’s debut album, it is clear why she was chosen.

    Every Little Bit Hurts was released 50 years ago this summer.  From the start, it is heart-stopping.  For the revelatory power of Brenda’s voice, it is comparable to the first Atlantic Records album by Aretha Franklin.  Aged 17 when she cut this material, Holloway proves capable of taking a song – whether written by her producers, or the Gershwin brothers, or Smokey Robinson – and owning it.  In fact, songs familiar through previous interpretations become completely fresh through her distinctive, impassioned embrace.  This applies to all three Smokey compositions – the album’s opening track, “I’ve Been Good To You,” “Who’s Lovin’ You” and “(You Can) Depend On Me” – as well as a pair of standards, “Embraceable You” (the Gershwin number) and “Unchained Melody.”

    A perfect example of this talent can be heard in “I’ve Been Good To You,” when Brenda charges her lover with hurting her “so, oh oh, oh” and then holds the note, holding on to the pain.  The moment is so heart-rending that it’s hard to imagine why this man, this fool, is treating her thus.

    This album is not the Motown sound, it is a Motown sound, crafted in California, save for one track, “A Favor For A Girl (With A Love Sick Heart),” which is entirely recognisable as motor city-made.  For everything else, producers Davis (who brought Brenda to Berry Gordy’s attention) and Marc Gordon have created a dramatic setting:  virtually every song is a ballad, underpinned by the compelling piano of Lincoln Mayorga and the alternately sharp or shimmering strings of unknown West Coast musicians.  In fact, one has to assume that Mayorga also arranged the majority of tracks, considering his classical training and his part in one of the most memorable soul ballads of the early ’60s, “Love Letters” by Ketty Lester, which is a twin of “Every Little Bit Hurts.”

    Brenda Holloway had classical training of her own, as a violinist, but her voice is the magnet.  “Every Little Bit Hurts” was her first hit single, an American Top 20 saga of love and despair, so strong that the booking agent for Dick Clark’s 1964 “Caravan of Stars” wanted Holloway on the tour.  (Motown also used that desire to leverage the “no-hit Supremes” onto the bill).

     Every Little Bit Hurts offers other magic moments, such as “Too Proud To Cry,” whose command (“I just want you to see!”) is the emotional match of Aretha, or “Sad Song,” whose brass echoes Brenda’s passion.  Finally, the album is also notable for two of its songwriters.  One is Brenda herself, co-author of “Suddenly” and (with her sister, Patrice) “Land Of A Thousand Boys.”  A relatively small number of Motown artists composed their own material; Brenda would continue the habit, and co-write at least one pop music classic, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”

    The other writer of note is Ed Cobb, a member of white-bread California vocal group the Four Preps.  “Every Little Bit Hurts” is his song, to be forever cited alongside later gems such as “Heartbeat” and “Tainted Love” by Gloria Jones, and “Dirty Water” by the Standells.  A versatile songsmith, to say the least.

    All 12 tracks of Every Little Bit Hurts open Brenda Holloway’s The Motown Anthology, a thorough panorama of the singer’s extraordinary talent, including her later singles and much previously unreleased work.  But be warned:  on almost every little bit of song, Brenda hurts.

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    The Supremes - EMI Archive - Photo

    The Supremes in London, October 1964.  On their first promotional trip to the UK, the group poses for pictures in the garden opposite the headquarters of EMI Records in Manchester Square.  From left are Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.  Their single, “Baby Love,” becomes Motown’s first No. 1 in Britain the following month.

    The autumn of ‘64 lifted the spirits of Motown Records in Detroit and of EMI Records in London.  Not only were The Supremes enjoying their second, successive chart-topper at home with “Baby Love,” but it was also apparent that there was an overseas appetite for their music.  The British company was particularly thrilled, since Mary Wells’ “My Guy” was a Top 5 UK success in the summer, following initially lacklustre sales of the Motown output.  EMI made its deal the previous year to release the Detroit firm’s music in Britain.

    Arriving in London early in October, The Supremes embarked on a tightly-packed schedule of promotional work, beginning with the BBC Light Programme’s Pop Inn and Top Gear shows, followed by television’s Top of the Pops, Ready Steady Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars.  Diana, Mary and Florence also appeared on the Eamon Andrews TV talk-show, and performed for the Light Programme’s Saturday Club.  The Top of the Pops team also agreed to film “Come See About Me,” The Supremes’ intended follow-up to “Baby Love,” for use at a later date.

    The Supremes were first American female group to have a No. 1 record in the UK during the 1950s and early ’60s.  In addition, “Baby Love” was one of only four U.S. tracks to reach the top in 1963-64 – such was British music fans’ appetite for home-grown music by the Beatles and many others in the so-called “beat boom” of the time.

    “Baby Love” may have been the first Motown recording to reach the summit in Britain, but it was the previous October when the first of the Detroit company’s songs hit No. 1:  Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ version of “Do You Love Me.”  That was written by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and originally cut by the Contours.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!



    Months before Motown Records left Detroit for Los Angeles, the company released Michael Jackson’s first solo album in January 1972:  Got To Be There.

    Michael was already there:  California, that is.  Berry Gordy had shipped him and his siblings out west soon after the company finalised their recording contract in 1969.  Now, more than two years after their breakthrough hits, the Jackson 5 remained one of the hottest attractions in entertainment, consistently powered by Motown’s blue-chip songwriters and producers, including Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and The Corporation.

    The youngsters were also basking in the reflected glory of their own Saturday morning cartoon series, The Jackson 5ive, on ABC-TV, and a network special, Goin Back To Indiana, aired in September 1971.  Meanwhile, the inner sleeves of the group’s LPs of the time featured a cornucopia of merchandise, such as “Michael’s Personal Soul-Mate Kit” and “Michael’s Giant-Size Photo Poster,” both $2.25 apiece, including postage.

    Into this environment came the 13-year-old’s solo set, amid talk of Motown striving to replicate Donny Osmond’s success outside the Osmonds, who were also hugely popular at this time.  The title track arrived first as a single, a pitch-perfect ballad polished to a high sheen by Davis.  “Berry said, ‘Hal’s the only one who’s able to take funk and put class with it, with the strings, and yet keep that pulse,’ ” the late producer once claimed.  “Got To Be There” proved him right, although it was held out of No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by Sly & the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes and the Chi-Lites.

    What’s notable about most of this album is Michael’s habit of beginning a song quietly – almost immaturely – but then driving it to a climax of adult desperation.  “Dont leave me, girl, he cries at the close of “Girl Don’t Take Your Love From Me.”  “Come on back, he pleads towards the end of “Maria (You Were The Only One),” before the song vamps into a blistering chorus of “You Keep Running Away,” first recorded by the Four Tops.

    The mood is brighter on “Rockin’ Robin,” reviving a 1958 hit by Bobby Day.  It’s also a brotherly match with another Day remake, “Little Bitty Pretty One,” which was released by Jackson 5 soon after Michael’s birdsong.  Both were produced by Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino, who were later responsible for the group’s chrome-plated “Dancing Machine.”  When the Jackson 5 were in London in 1972, Michael performed “Rockin’ Robin” with his brothers – not alone – on TV countdown show Top of the Pops.

    The Brits were partial to still another track on Got To Be There:  Michael’s calm-then-desolate interpretation of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”  Bill’s original was not a UK hit, so Jackson’s note-holding tour de force became a Tamla-Motown single – and a Top 10 success – there in September 1972.

    In America, the third and final single from the album was “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” with Michael soaring above a compelling fusion of strings and rhythm, devised by James Anthony Carmichael.  The mix anticipated arranger Gene Page’s work with Barry White, as did (according to Hal Davis) the track’s opening notes played on a rocksichord.  Davis felt he never received the credit for that foresight, but more importantly, he delivered a solo Michael Jackson to sales charts worldwide.  Got to be there.

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    Stevie Wonder - EMI Archives

    Stevie Wonder at the Cumberland Hotel, London, January 1966.  The 15-year-old is in the UK to promote his current release, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” and to play a number of concert dates.

    The onetime “12-year-old genius” has been travelling abroad since he was 13.  Over the past 51 years, in fact, Stevie Wonder just may be the Motown superstar with the most miles logged to London and other parts of the UK.  The snapshot above finds him in the Cumberland Hotel, near the headquarters of EMI Records, Motown’s British licensee.  On Thursday, January 20, 1966, EMI held a press reception for the visitor.

    In fact, it was Stevie’s second stay at the Cumberland.  The previous year, he and a caravan of other Motown stars – including The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & the Vandellas – were accommodated there at the start of the Tamla-Motown Revue’s 1965 tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

    The visit in ’66 evidently paid off.  “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” became Stevie’s first British chart success, and Tamla-Motown’s first Top 20 hit of the year.  Since then, the musician has toured and visited consistently.  During his 1969 UK itinerary, he was supported by the Foundations, the Flirtations and the Coloured Raisins.  In 1970, he played a two-week season at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, which was recorded and released as an album.  In 1980, he came to perform songs from his Hotter Than July album (that time, he stayed at the hipper Montcalm Hotel, not far from the Cumberland).  Other tours occurred in 1992 and 2005, while in 2014, he headlined the Calling Festival on glamorous Clapham Common.

    Stevie Wonder’s first U.K. trip occurred in December 1963, when he was passing through London after a two-week stint at the Paris Olympia, on a bill with Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles, among others.  Before heading home for Detroit, he appeared on TV’s Ready Steady Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Motown Mini-1

    To promote Tamla-Motown’s latest LP releases in the UK during January and February 1969, EMI Records launches a competition with a British Motor Corporation Mini as the first prize.  To qualify, contestants must buy one of the new releases and compile a British Motown Chartbusters LP.  The winner is Bert Smart of Rayleigh, Essex.

    Motown Records enjoyed a prosperous 1968 in Britain, its strongest market outside the US.  The hit factory had opened the year with Top 10 UK chart ratings for the Four Tops’ “Walk Away Renee,” and closed it with an eight-week Top 10 run for the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” the reissue of a single first released two years earlier.  In addition, “Greatest Hits” by the Tops and Diana Ross & the Supremes were among the country’s best-selling albums in ’68.

    To keep up the momentum into 1969, EMI launched a competition for music fans:  “Buy a new release Tamla album, Win a Motown Mini.”   The car came with radio and tape machine, and there were 20 consolation prizes of five Tamla-Motown albums of the winners’ choice.  Contestants received an entry form when they bought one (or more!) of the company’s January and February releases, which included titles by the Four Tops, The Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye.  The competition called for contestants to compile a 12-track Motown Chartbusters LP from a choice of 20 tracks.

    First prize winner Bert Rayleigh not only drove away with the Motown Mini that March, but he also got to meet Stevie Wonder, who attended an EMI reception in London to make the presentation.  There was even a prize (a portable TV set) for the retailer who sold Bert the LP which made him eligible for the contest.  That lucky record dealer was the late Ken Whitmarsh, manager of HMV’s Oxford Street store, and Stevie made the prize presentation to him, too.

    Unfortunately, the list of 12 chartbusting Motown tracks which netted the Mini are lost to the mists of time.  Where are you now, Bert Rayleigh?

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Motown Invasion - Tamala - Britain

    The Miracles, The Temptations, Martha & The Vandellas and The Supremes in London, March 1965.  They are pictured at Marble Arch a few days before the start of the Tamla-Motown concert tour of the U.K.  The Temptations are not part of the roadshow, but have come to town to promote their latest single, “It’s Growing.”  From left are Rosalind Ashford, Betty Kelley, Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin (hidden), Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, Otis Williams, Bobby Rogers, Melvin Franklin, Ronnie White, Paul Williams, Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson.  Stevie Wonder and the Earl Van Dyke Six are on the tour, but not shown here.

    With 1964 as the year when Motown Records made its international breakthrough with hits by Mary Wells and The Supremes, Berry Gordy Jr. wanted to raise awareness of his company’s brand and unique sound, as well as its artists.  Up to then, Motown’s music was released in Britain on the Stateside label, part of EMI.  Gordy persuaded EMI to set up the Tamla-Motown label, combining the names of two of Gordy’s U.S. imprints, and the launch was set for March 1965.

    To support the unveiling of Tamla-Motown, Gordy arranged for a U.K. concert tour of four of his prime acts – Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles and The Supremes – to play in 20 cities in England, Scotland and Wales during March and April 1965.  Backing the stars were the Earl Van Dyke Sextet, and British hitmaker Georgie Fame was added to the line-up for extra boxoffice appeal.

    The tour was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment.  However, it proved to be an important milestone in Motown’s international rollout, raising awareness of the label and its extraordinary stable of talent, and laying the groundwork for the years ahead, when audiences in Europe and elsewhere would come to know – and buy – the music of Hitsville U.S.A.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!



    Think Miley Cyrus, to the power of four.

    Back in 1983, even before Madonna chose to be explicit, there were the Mary Jane Girls.  The video for “Candy Man,” the opening hit from this, their debut album, leaves little to the imagination.  But there is artistry on offer – lead singer Joanne (JoJo) McDuffie’s inviting, soulful voice – as well as the candy:  Cheri (the “valley girl”), Candi (the “vamp”) and Maxi (the “dominatrix”).

    The father of MJG was Rick James.  His first album for Motown Records contained “Mary Jane,” a song praising the virtues of…well, you know.  Once he became a major star, Rick assembled a stable of artists to his specifications, including MJG.  “I didn’t think there were any black female ensembles that made any sense,” he told Billboard, contending that since the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Ronettes and the Supremes, there was a void.

    Less of a void, more of an opportunity – and one which George Clinton had also noted.  In 1978, Parlet and the Brides of Funkenstein were girl-funk detachments from his Parliament/Funkadelic army.  And from the Prince camp in ’82 came Vanity 6, to Rick’s irritation.  According to his newly published autobiography, Glow, he mentioned his idea to a Prince associate, only to see it given shape in Vanity 6.

    Nevertheless, Rick James was proud to groom, polish and unwrap Mary Jane GirlsThis is fine confectionary, full of fun and funk.  Anchoring the album is JoJo (plus backup queens Maxine and Julia Waters), mixed with sugar from Cheryl Ann Bailey (Cheri), Candice Ghant (Candi) and Kimberly Wuletich (Maxi).  At the hard centre of the eight-song set are the musicians of Rick’s own band, notably Levi Ruffin Jr. on synthesizers, Tom McDermott on lead guitar, and Danny LeMelle on sax.  That Rick wrote, arranged, produced and played on the entire album is clear – he sings on “Prove It,” too – but in a manner which allows MJG their own identity.

    There are sweet harmonies throughout, whether on the “party side” (as the first four songs were called on the original vinyl) or the “cool out side” (the second four).  Lyrically, the most mature is “On The Inside,” with a musical mood recalling 1960s R&B hitmaker Billy Stewart channelled by GQ, the rhythmic harmony group popular at the dawn of the ’80s.

    The most memorable flavour?  “All Night Long,” thanks to JoJo’s seductive vocals and the undulating bass of Oscar Alston (or perhaps that’s Rick himself).  It scored in the U.S. on the R&B and dance charts, and was a Top 20 pop hit in the U.K.  To make sure that any reserved Brits got the message, the Mary Jane Girls performed on the nation’s top-rated Top Of The Pops TV show with semi-naked, caged male dancers, writhing in rhythm.

    Moreover, the “All Night Long” groove developed into “one of the most-sampled I’ve ever done,” declares Rick in Glow.  Among those who made the flavour last were the Black Eyed Peas, Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z and another Mary Jane:  Blige, that is.

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    From Buffalo, Rick James roamed across the landscape of rhythm, rock and soul in the 1980s, with a prodigious output of his own soulful work as well as that of associated talent:  the Stone City Band, the Mary Jane Girls, and Val Young, all signed to Motown Records.  Rick’s stature after the double-platinum success of his Street Songs album was such that he was also able to work with artists signed to competing labels, such as harmony vocal combo Process & the Doo Rags and comedian-cum-singer Eddie Murphy.

    In 1981, Rick’s patronage extended to Bobby Militello, a musician he once called “one of the best tenor sax players living,” who also came from Buffalo, New York.  “I would go to see Bobby whenever I could,” Rick said, namechecking Mulligan’s (what else would a jazz club be called?) where Militello jammed in his hometown.  Soon, the punk-funk master persuaded Motown of those virtues, and the outcome was this ’82 album, Blow, which was doubly branded Rick James Presents Bobby M.

    Militello was musically sophisticated and versatile, playing clarinet, flute and all manner of saxophones: alto, tenor, soprano and baritone.  His talent is clear in this eight-track set of (mostly) jazz-fusion, a combination born at the dawn of the 1980s.  Indeed, Rick brought on board one of the genre’s founding fathers, drummer Lenny White of Return To Forever, to co-produce Blow with Militello, and invited some of his friends to play, including Marcus Miller on bass and Bernard Wright on keyboards.

    Bobby M storms out of the gate on “Alto Man,” the album’s blow-hard opening number, and maintains the pace on its title track, with a vibe reminiscent of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.”  Bernard Wright’s moog glows during “How Do You Feel Tonight,” complementing Militello’s punchy sax and Kelly Curtis’ sparky vocals, and then Bernard turns to acoustic piano for the mellow mood of “A Little Song For You.”  Perhaps with an eye to radio airplay, graceful Jean Carn is recruited to sing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” over Bobby’s fluid sax.  (As a single, it hit the R&B charts.)  On “Redliner,” Militello picks up the flute to further display his proficiency.

    Rick James, whose own musical upbringing was deep and wide, said that Bobby M reminded him of jazz saxman Cannonball Adderley, perhaps the ultimate tribute.  “But to hear him blow – he’s in a class all his own,” said Rick, even disclosing his own band’s saxophonist, Danny LeMelle, started practicing again after hearing Militello.

    Bobby appreciated all of Rick’s rooting for him, not least the showcase at upscale Beverly Hills club Daisy’s, to which the Motown superstar invited Stevie Wonder, Robin Williams and O.J. Simpson, among others.  Bobby’s first love may have been bop, but he owed one to the master of punk-funk, and Blow he did that night.

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    Mary Wells - Proud - EMI Archives

    The singer of “My Guy” had many fans in Britain, not least the Beatles, but perhaps the most devoted was Dave Godin, a telephonist from Bexleyheath who started the Mary Wells Fan Club & Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society (TMAS) in 1963.  He even saved stamps from members’ letters in aid of a muscular dystrophy charity, because Mary Wells was diagnosed with a similar condition when young.  Godin’s passion was recognised at Motown in Detroit, and TMAS played a key role in helping Berry Gordy understand how his artists’ popularity was extending beyond American borders.

    Godin was ecstatic when Mary’s “My Guy” became the first Motown single to hit the upper echelons of the British charts in June 1964.  She travelled to the UK later that year to join her other great fans, the Beatles, as guest star on their 27-date autumn tour.  It was promoted by the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, and Arthur Howes, who later staged the Tamla-Motown package tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

    Mary Wells, interviewed by Bill Harry of Mersey Beat magazine in Manchester in October ’64, was enthusiastic about her patrons, and about the music of Dusty Springfield.  That day, Harry also spoke about Mary to John Lennon, who said he had a song to suit the Motown star.  Nothing ever came of it, although Mary did later record an album of well-known Beatles material.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!


    Rick James - Glow - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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    Marvin Gaye-12823-15

    Marvin Gaye in Covent Garden, London, February 1981.  His final LP for Motown, In Our Lifetime, was released the previous month.  Marvin recorded a substantial part of the album at the Odyssey and AIR recording studios in 1980, when he was living in London.

    Almost a decade after “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Europe played a significant role in the final, fraught years of Marvin Gaye’s unique career.  U.K. concerts during the mid-1970s at the Royal Albert Hall and the London Palladium bestowed on British fans the rare opportunity to see him perform on stage.  Marvin found solace in the city when he became a troubled man at the hands of his personal demons, and the U.S. tax authorities.  There is perhaps no better illustration of that peace than the photo above, taken in a part of London where markets have existed since at least the 17th century.

    European impresario Jeff Kruger helped to support Marvin financially during this period, when the singer lived near to Marble Arch.  There, close to Odyssey Recording, he shaped and reshaped songs with members of his band, and Odyssey engineer Nick Patrick.  “It was amazing how Marvin worked while his entourage carried on conversation,” Patrick told Universal Music’s Harry Weinger years later for a special Motown reissue of material from those sessions.  “Everybody loved Marvin,” said Sharon Davis, Motown’s U.K. press officer at the time, “but every day was mayhem.”

    Marvin Gaye subsequently left London for his well-documented exile in Belgium.  In Ostend, he began crafting the songs, including “Sexual Healing,” which formed the singer’s comeback.  But the few who knew Marvin first-hand in the British capital during those days will never forget the experience.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!



    During the height of Watergate, the worst political scandal in American history, arrived Stevie Wonder’s seventeenth studio album, with one explicit song about promises not kept, and at least a couple of others about justice.  “The best way to get an important and heavy message across is to wrap it up nicely,” said the musician once.  “With songs, I’ve found out, it’s better to try and level out the weight of the lyrics by making the melody lighter.”

    “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” was the first single, the opening shot from an album released 40 years ago this month – and two weeks before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974.  The track’s engines are synthesiser riffs and pumping brass, and Stevie’s indictment of politicians comes complete with powerful background vocals from the Jackson 5.  Associate producer Bob Margouleff remembered Michael arriving to do this at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, with his tutor.

    Messages and melodies are mixed and matched throughout Fulfillingness’ First Finale, reinforced by Stevie’s extraordinary versatility (he played most instruments).  But it has a profound, reflective mood:  no surprise, considering his near-fatal auto accident the previous August.  Even the artwork depicts levels of awareness, whether musical or spiritual, and adds retro images of Stevie’s bow-tied younger self, as well as John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the Motortown Revue tour bus.  In the album’s first track, “Smile Please,” Stevie asks:  “Why must my colour black make me a lesser man?”  In “Too Shy To Say,” a ballad underpinned by pedal steel guitar, Stevie is accompanied on acoustic bass by one of Motown’s former in-house musicians who helped to educate him as a teenager, James Jamerson.

    The sombre tone of several songs contrasts with the carefree vibe of “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” the album’s second single, with its impossibly infectious rhythms and sly harmonica blasts (“Can I play?”).  There’s also Stevie’s harmonica on “Creepin’,” and background vocals by Minnie Riperton, whose Perfect Angel album he was co-producing that same year.  Elsewhere, another singer in back is Deniece Williams, before she voiced hits of her own.  The Brazilian samba of “Bird of Beauty” is undeniably upbeat, but again the lyrics suggest a more thoughtful Stevie, post-accident:  “There is so much in life for you to feel…”

    “They Won’t Go When I Go,” the only track with a co-writer, Yvonne Wright, finds the musician in a dark, intense place, with a notably dramatic edge to his voice.  Stevie takes his art seriously, but alludes to the fragility of life, with elegiac references to sorrow, pain and destiny.

    “We spent a lot of time figuring out what would work after which song, what tempos would work, blending them together,” said associate producer Malcolm Cecil.  “Stevie had the final say.”  But the last word really went to his fans, who propelled Fulfillingness’ First Finale to the top of the album charts in September ’74, and gave Stevie Wonder his first No. 1 album since The 12 Year Old Genius Recorded Live in 1963.  Oh, and let’s not forget Grammy voters.  Stevie earned five of those statuettes for this set, including album of the year.  Smile, please.

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    I Heard It Through The Grapevine

    Songs can live many lives, in the company of countless singers and musicians, but only a handful ever become as immortal as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  In the U.K., the sublime voodoo of Marvin Gaye’s interpretation has become “The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song,” at least according to a TV special of that name broadcast on 6th July.

    “Grapevine” evidently has Britons under its spell in 2014, just as it did 45 years ago, when Marvin first spent three weeks at No. 1 with the track, and again in 1986, when a reissue climbed into the Top 10.  Meanwhile, the song has been performed by artists as different as Gladys Knight & the Pips, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fairport Convention, the Slits, Roger Troutman and the Kaiser Chiefs.

    At Motown Records, the writers of “Grapevine” were Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield.  “I came up with a little idea on the piano, the bassline figure,” Barrett once recalled, “and we thought it was such a great idea.  I had thought of this title because I’d heard people say it so much – but nobody had ever written a song about it.”

    What happened next is now a familiar tale.  Whitfield produced the first “Grapevine” (by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, in 1966) but it was not released then.  The following year, he cut it with Marvin Gaye.  Motown boss Berry Gordy didn’t approve of that version, so a persistent Whitfield turned to Gladys Knight & the Pips.  Their boisterous, gospel-rooted workout of the song charged to the top of the U.S. charts.  Whitfield was grateful, but still believed in Marvin’s anguished fusion of dark and light, lobbying for it to be included in an album, In The Groove.  Game over:  in a heartbeat, radio airplay forced Motown to release Marvin’s track as a single, and America surrendered in late ’68.  The record spent seven weeks at No. 1 there, soon to be followed by the U.K.

    Whitfield said he and Strong had taken “a lot of time, a lot of pain and strain” to create their masterpiece.  “I believed every word of the song,” Marvin told biographer David Ritz, but he fought with the producer.  “He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to.”  Adding to the magic were three masters of percussion in the Motown house band:  Uriel Jones, laying down the beat; Richard “Pistol” Allen casting a spell with his tom-toms; and Jack Ashford, rattling on a tambourine like a cobra.

    No wonder some think “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is the Devil’s work.  And perhaps that’s why the song lives on, stealing hearts and souls across the decades.  I bet you’re wondering…

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    Four Tops-1589-41583-5

    The Four Tops at the Royal Albert Hall, January 1967.  Prior to rehearsals for their concert there, the group greets Brian Epstein, promoter of their UK tour, and another London visitor, singer Del Shannon.  From left are Tops members Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Lawrence Payton and Abdul “Duke” Fakir, with Epstein, second left, and Shannon, second right.  Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs Jr. is not shown.

    It was May 1965 when the Four Tops paid their first promotional visit to the U.K., meeting journalists and disc jockeys, and plugging their new single, “I Can’t Help Myself,” on radio and TV.  But their real impact came the following year, when Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, promoted a series of Sunday-night concerts at the Saville Theatre in London.  The Tops were booked for November 13, 1966.

    Come the night, the hippest people in the capital, as well as scores of diehard Motown fans from across the country, filled the Saville.  It helped that “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was then occupying the peak of the British charts.  The Tops did not disappoint, putting on a performance to raise the roof:  soulful, charismatic, energetic, with lead singer Levi Stubbs fulfilling every expectation, delivering every electric moment of their repertoire.

    Little wonder, then, that Epstein brought the Four Tops back early in 1967 for a nationwide U.K. tour, and this time, the London venue was larger:  the Royal Albert Hall.  It was another show-stopping night, with a roaring, quasi-religious crowd showing as much love, if not more, towards the group than they were accustomed to receiving back home.  And yes, there were a couple of Beatles (Paul, George) in the audience.  They couldn’t help themselves.

    Click here to see this and many more newly uncovered Motown images – part of Proud Gallery’s London exhibition, Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!

  • Album Of The Week: Mary Wells – Bye Bye Baby

    Mary Wells Bye Bye Baby

    “Bye Bye Baby,” the title track of the first album released on the Motown label, displays all the chutzpah of a 17-year-old girl who once sang the song in front of company founder Berry Gordy at a Detroit nightclub, when he told her to.

    It’s one of the best-known tales in the history of Hitsville U.S.A., as Motown called its Detroit HQ. Mary Wells wrote the song herself, enlisting the help of producer Robert Bateman to get it to Gordy. They met at the 20 Grand nightspot, and the Motown boss commanded her to perform it, right then and there. Mary “nearly died of fright,” as she wrote on the original LP sleeve notes (or as she told the writer of those notes, at least). Fortunately, “Bye Bye Baby” was good enough to withstand the pressure.

    This entire ten-track collection captures the essence of Motown Records’ invigorating rhythm & blues circa 1960-61, engagingly unpolished in parts. It’s quite a distance from the more sophisticated rhythms of Mary’s “My Guy,” four years later, but no less authentic. And “Bye Bye Baby” is also notable for the urgent throatiness of her performance, the result of 22 takes in the studio.

    Mary’s sound here is mature, considering the singer’s age. This adult quality is equally evident on “Come To Me,” a song Gordy wrote for and with his first successful artist, Marv Johnson. Mary hits lower notes than Johnson on another track, “I Love The Way You Love,” which he made into a transatlantic Top 40 hit in 1960.

    Two tunes anticipate Mary’s future. Both were composed by Smokey Robinson, and initially cut by his group, the Miracles. On the first, “Shop Around,” Mary retains the spoken intro and maternal advice of the original, but sings deeper than Robinson. The second, “Bad Boy,” is attractive for the stand-up bass and brushstrokes of its introduction, then Mary changes the gender of the protagonist. (The Miracles cut it as “Bad Girl.”)

    Soon, Smokey found Mary to be the perfect vehicle for his songs and growing production skills. After her second single, “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” (included here), he turned the young singer into Motown’s first female star with hits such as “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “My Guy.” You’ll find the full story in Peter Benjaminson’s 2012 book, Mary Wells.

    This album closes with four engaging ballads, one of which (“Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide”) was also recorded by Marvin Gaye as his debut single on Tamla Records. Berry Gordy wrote it, naturally – and it’s the only song here to close cold (with a bluesy guitar flourish) rather than fade.

    “Bye Bye Baby” marked another Motown milestone:  not only was it the first success for Mary, it was also the first hit for the Motown label itself, separate from Tamla and Gordy, the company’s other U.S. imprints. And the Motown logo on Mary’s original LP sleeve featured a motor car, not the better-known map of Detroit. There was a distant time when the city was celebrated for automobiles, instead of music.

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