TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Enters the Top 5 of the U.K. charts for the week ending Saturday, September 18, 1971.
SONGWRITERS: Kathy Wakefield, Leonard Caston.
PRODUCER: Frank Wilson.
BACKSTORY: The chart peak on the Billboard Hot 100 for “Nathan Jones” – the fourth single by the post-Diana Supremes – was No. 16, achieved in mid-June 1971. When the record was released in the U.K. two months later, it soared into the Top 5. In fact, the “new” Supremes were arguably more popular across the Atlantic than at home during that decade. Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong secured five consecutive Top 10 hits in Britain from 1970-72; their equivalent Top 10 count in the U.S. was two.
When Touch, the trio’s album containing “Nathan Jones,” was issued in the summer of ’71, the transatlantic connection continued. “If you think it strange that I am writing liner notes for the Supremes’ album,” declared none other than Elton John, “then all I can say is that I am probably their original British fan.” He added, “Imagine my excitement when I not only received an advanced copy of this – their new album – but was also asked by Jean, Mary and Cindy to write the notes. (I felt as if I had really ‘made it’.)”
There was at least one other Brit involved in Touch: songwriter Pamela Sawyer, who penned – with producer Frank Wilson – the album’s title track and three other songs, and a fourth with Gloria Jones.
But the helmsmen of “Nathan Jones” were most definitely American: producer Frank Wilson and arrangers Jerry Long and David Van DePitte. Wilson supervised what Mary Wilson (no relation) called the record’s “unorthodox blues-based structure and unison lead singing.” She explained, “As with almost everything Frank did for us, we loved this the minute we heard it. The psychedelic electric guitar and electronically treated vocals made ‘Nathan Jones’ a great, unique record.”
“It was a difficult song to record,” Cindy Birdsong added in an interview for Goldmine magazine. “We sang off the beat and it was hard to get all three of us to come in on it at the same time. [But] whenever I heard it, it makes me want to dance.” She evidently wasn’t the only one, on either side of the Atlantic.
REMAKES: What, more Brits? Indeed, the most successful update of “Nathan Jones” belongs to the most-charted female group in the U.K., Bananarama. The trio recorded the song in 1987, and it became their twelfth Top 20 single at home (in America, they enjoyed only three major hits). In addition, this was Bananarama’s second U.K. success with a Motown tune; in 1982, they reached the Top 5 with “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” originally cut by the Velvelettes. As for “Nathan Jones,” it was remade by two other name acts in the ’80s, namely the late Paul Davis on his album, Cool Night, and Nicolette Larson on her long-player, All Dressed Up & Nowhere To Go.
FOOTNOTE: The “electronically treated” vocals of “Nathan Jones” which Mary Wilson mentioned were the work of producer Frank Wilson and engineer Russ Terrana. According to the latter’s brother, Ralph, in his book The Road Through Motown, the original thought was to feature the “phasing” technique on a different song by the Supremes which Russ and Wilson were then mixing. “When he called Frank in to listen to the idea,” wrote Ralph Terrana, “a completed mix of ‘Nathan Jones’ was still on the two-track, so rather than take that tape off and replace it with the song he had in mind, he used that particular song to demo the effect. He and Frank were blown away by what they heard, so ‘Nathan Jones’ got the goods.”