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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.”

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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: THE MARVELETTES – SOPHISTICATED SOUL

    THE MARVELETTES – SOPHISTICATED SOUL

    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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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES – GOING TO A GO-GO

    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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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: SMOKEY ROBINSON – A QUIET STORM

    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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  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: BRENDA HOLLOWAY – EVERY LITTLE BIT HURTS

    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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  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: THE SUPREMES

    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!

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MICHAEL JACKSON – GOT TO BE THERE

    MICHAEL JACKSON – GOT TO BE THERE

    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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  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: STEVIE WONDER

    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!

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: THE TEMPTATIONS SING SMOKEY

    temptations-the_temptations_sing_smokey-front

    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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  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: THE MOTOWN MINI

    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!

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS – EVERYBODY NEEDS LOVE

    GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS – EVERYBODY NEEDS LOVE

    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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  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: THE TAMLA-MOTOWN U.K. REVUE

    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!

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARY JANE GIRLS – Mary Jane Girls

    Mary-Jane-Girls-1983-Mary-Jane-Girls-

    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.

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: BOBBY M – BLOW

    rickjames.bobbymilitello-blow

    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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  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: MARY WELLS

    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!

  • ALBUM OF THE WEEK: RICK JAMES – GLOW

    Rick James - Glow - Review

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

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

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

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

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

    BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown

  • STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: MARVIN GAYE

    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!

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