TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Number One on the Billboard Best Selling R&B Singles chart for the week ending Saturday, July 26, 1969.
SONGWRITERS: Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Vernon Bullock.
PRODUCERS: Harvey Fuqua, Johnny Bristol.
BACKSTORY: Although it was released in April 1969 and topped the R&B charts that July, “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” was the work of individuals with pre-Motown credentials, dating back ten years. Johnny Bristol wrote songs and recorded for Anna Records, which was formed by Billy Davis and Gwen Gordy circa 1959. As the ’50s morphed into the ’60s, Bristol became affiliated with Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi and Harvey labels – where saxman Jr. Walker was also signed.
When Fuqua moved his labels under Berry Gordy’s umbrella in 1962, Junior & the All Stars became hit-making money-makers for the Soul Records subsidiary, rattling off a series of gritty hits such as “Shotgun,” “(I’m A) Road Runner” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Bristol had particularly close ties to the musician: years earlier, when he and singing partner Jackey Beavers used to perform as Johnny & Jackey at the El Grotto Bar in Battle Creek, Michigan, the house band was Walker’s. “The place was constantly packed,” Bristol recalled in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. “Junior could play blues, jazz, rock and definitely soul.”
While Motown increasingly lived up to its motto as “The Sound of Young America,” reaching more record buyers than ever before, Bristol encouraged Walker to soften his sound and extend his fan base. “Yeah, Junior was a little hesitant. He’s a real ‘Shotgun’ kinda guy, just yell it out. I said, ‘No, Junior, a little prettier, a little warmer.’ And I sang harmony with him.” The demo of “What Does It Take” was cut in 1967; the production was filled out vocally and instrumentally the following year, then was finally made available to record buyers early in ’69 as part of Jr. & the All Stars’ Home Cookin’ album. By April, the track was released as a single – and scaled the charts to become the band’s biggest crossover success since “Shotgun.”
REMAKES: For a track which Motown’s Quality Control Department initially turned down as a 45, “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” has since inspired musicians of surprising variety. Sure, it was predictable that saxophonist Kenny G should remake the tune (in 1986), but it’s less obvious news that B. J. Thomas, Tony Joe White and the 5th Dimension were also motivated to cut it in the early 1970s. As verified by authoritative music site SecondHandSongs.com, there was a reggae retread by Alton Ellis on his 1970 album Mr. Soul of Jamaica, while Dutch saxgal Candy Dulfer tackled it 29 years later, with vocals by Jonathan Butler. The song lived on into the new century, too, with British jazz guitarist Peter White and American avant garde instrumentalist Don Byron both rendering new interpretations in 2006. Evidently, “What Does It Take” had what it took for all of them.
FOOTNOTE: “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” earned Jr. Walker & the All Stars a 1969 Grammy® nomination, their second. The category was Best R&B Instrumental Performance – despite the record’s vocals – and pitted Walker against another soulful saxman, King Curtis, as well as Albert Collins, Richard “Groove” Holmes, and Ike Turner. When the result was announced March 11, 1970, Curtis claimed the crown. It’s unlikely that Jr. was bothered: that same week, his next hit, “Gotta Hold Onto This Feeling” was climbing the R&B and pop charts. Play on!