Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Gladys Knight’

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman,” Pop #9, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Relationship fantasies were nothing new at Motown – Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You” was one of the label’s earliest singles. But Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1971 single “If I Were Your Woman” shows how much Hitsville had grown up during the ‘60s. The song removes the concept from the realm of schoolgirl crushes and infuses it with some serious grown-up desire.

When “If I Were Your Woman” came out the Pips were on a run of three consecutive Top 5 R&B hits, dating back to 1969’s No. 3 “The Nitty Gritty.” The group was determined to keep this streak intact and also bolster their album sales; none of their LPs had cracked the Top 10. They accomplished both. The single went all the way to the top of the R&B charts, and the album – given the same name – lodged at No. 4.

Knight’s smoky, smoldering voice played no small role in that achievement. Listeners who grew up with “Baby Love” no doubt enjoyed hearing love songs that matured with them. Knight sumptuously plays the role of a woman in love with a man trapped in a bad relationship. Knight knows she can make him the man he deserves to be, if only he could muster the strength to walk away … and she could find the courage to confront him face-to-face.

Knight sings with the passion of a woman pouring out her deepest desires to the darkness, a conviction rooted in the comfort of knowing these words will never face the harsh scrutiny of daylight. As the song fades, it is easy to imagine Knight drifting off to sleep as her would-be beau lies awake in bed next to his partner, wondering how he wound up in this predicament. The next time Knight and her man meet, their only exchanges will be furtive glances across the room and brief, awkward conversation punctuated by nervous laughter.

Written by Gloria Jones, Clay McMurray and Pam Sawyer and produced by McMurray, “If I Were Your Woman” inspired several covers. The Jean Terrell-fronted Supremes recorded a version the following year, in 1972. One year later, Jones – better known as the original singer of the song “Tainted Love,” later recorded by Soft Cell, and girlfriend of T. Rex glam rocker Marc Bolan – recorded her own version for her second solo album.

Bonnie Bramlett, formerly known as half of Delaney and Bonnie, followed suit in 1976. The unfairly ignored Bettye LaVette put her stamp on the song on her only Motown album, 1980s “Tell Me A Lie.” Eight years later Stephanie Mills put the song back on the charts, where it reached No. 19 on the Hot Black Singles chart (now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart). That same year found the only male interpretation of the number, when George Michael performed it at Nelson Mandella’s 70th birthday tribute. Somehow people were still shocked when he came out of the closet a decade later.

Most recently, Alicia Keys included the song as part of a medley on her sophomore album, and gave it the stand-alone treatment on her 2005 live album “MTV Unplugged.”

Read Full Post »

(Above: The primitive beauty of unaccompanied fireworks over the national Mall on July 4, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – Soul legend Gladys Knight took the stage staring into a sea of empty seats. It was three hours before show time, and the VIPs with reserved seats wisely avoided the blistering afternoon sun.

Knight, however, was undeterred. “This is a thing we used to call audience participation,” she hollered to the groundlings on the Capitol lawn who arrived hours before to stake a prime spot. Knight drew out each syllable of “par-tic-i-pat-ion” and drew cheers of delight from the exhausted but excited assembly of hundreds.

When Knight launched into a call and response, her words were thrown back with force and a smile crossed her face. After a few volleys, the band pumped the final vamp as she threw up her arms and walked from the stage. The 30-minute mini-set, which included a few instrumental runs through made the risk of heat stroke seem reasonable.

The blazing sun had been replaced with bright stage lights and television cameras when Knight re-emerged shortly after 8 p.m. After a brief welcome by MC Jimmy Smits, American Idol David Archuleta opened the show with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then it was time to get down to business.

The Empress of Soul emerged in a golden gown, flying into “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Knight’s voice was strong in the afternoon, but now she sang with even more soul and emotion. The words are the same, but the phrasing was different and they were delivered with a power has been honed over Knight’s half-century career.

Her voice rises in sharp contrast to Darius Rucker’s, who also sound checked in the afternoon. I realize his laid-back, what-you-see-is-what-you-get charm is a large part of his appeal, but there was very little difference between the run-through and televised performances. Rucker has a fine voice, but I hope he was paying attention.

Barely pausing after “Georgia,” the band hic-cupped into Knight’s 1969 hit “The Nitty Gritty.” Knight used the upbeat number to pay tribute to two of her departed Motown label mates, dropping in a healthy portion of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and a sample of a Rick James number. Then it was time to finish business with her biggest hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which showed no signs of age.

And that was it. Ten minutes, three songs, and she was walking offstage. Afterward people started asking me if it was worth it to trek to the Mall so early and broil for so long. Absolutely. Knight’s presence cemented my attendance, but I likely would have gone anyway. As far back as I can remember, my family always gathered around the television on the Fourth of July to watch the PBS broadcast from the capital. And now, with my parents rooting me on from their air-conditioned living room, I was there.

The performances I remember from growing up were classical and marching band pieces, so the National Symphony Orchestra’s patriotic overture from “George M.” and classical pianist Lang Lang’s solo adaptation of “Stars and Stripes Forever” resonated the most deeply. Once the shock of hearing Sousa’s most famous number without horns wore off, Lang’s performance was quite profound. The lines typically dominated by trombones and tubas was intricate and dissonant, while the familiar piccolo refrain had a ragtime feel.

Although the Capitol lawn is vast, it was easy to forget about the thousands of people standing behind me and the hundreds of thousands gathered behind the stage, on the Mall. In a way, the “Capitol Fourth” broadcast felt like any concert in the park, albeit one with TV cameras and A-list talent. As John Schneider (aka Bo Duke) led a recap celebrating the 30th anniversary of the broadcast, I abandoned the concert grounds and headliner Reba McEntire and to be part of the teeming masses camping around the Washington Monument.

The high-profile event disappeared with every step. The lawns on the Mall were filled with tents, displays and crowds oblivious to the concert behind them. Walking through one block I encountered an expanse of grass filled with multi-colored tents bearing signs like “Yoga and Meditation” and “Free Feast.” The tent most intriguing to me featured live traditional Indian music. The artists onstage were nearly obscured by smoke, and the crowd was sparse, but there were more people dancing than watching.

A block further, I spotted what I thought to be a poetry slam backed by a live drummer. Upon closer inspection it was a different sort of poet, a fevered evangelist in the middle of a passionate altar call. I briefly raised my hand in solidarity and pressed on.

An orange band hovered on the horizon above the Lincoln Memorial when the fireworks started shortly after 9 p.m. Unlike all previous July 4th celebrations I have attended, the carnival of explosions around the Washington Monument burst without accompaniment. The muffled pops and sizzles from each multi-color detonation was met by the collective oohs and ahs of thousands. In place of orchestration, my ears were treated to a kaleidoscope of accents, dialects and languages, punctuated by the occasional far-off siren or barking vendor. It was one of the rare moments in my life when music was rendered completely redundant.

For 20 minutes we stood united by a common gaze in the sky, a diverse collection of tourists from all parts of the map. Although the horde easily exceeded the audience created by the simultaneous emptying of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, the Kansas Speedway and Sprint Center, there was no whiff of anger or danger. Small children danced in front of their strollers as teen-agers texted their friends and old-timers remembered when. It would be poetic to say that when the display ended we all went back to our respective lives, but in reality we all just swarmed to a different location – the subway stations.

Keep reading:

Stuck in a Moment: 9/11 and U2

“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too:” Original Campaign Music

Folkways gets trampled underfoot at renovated Smithsonian

Read Full Post »

Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“I Want You Back” not only introduced America to the biggest post-Elvis superstar in the world. It also kicked off the unprecedented success of a group having its first four singles top the chart, and returned the mojo Motown lost with the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The Jackson 5 – Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie – were famously raised in Gary, Ind. by their ambitious and abusive father Joe. When his sons started showing musical aptitude, Joe Jackson saw them as his ticket out of the Gary steel mills and, after music lessons, sent them out on the chitlin circuit. Their shows caught the eye of Sam and Dave and Gladys Knight, who recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Because Gordy already had one child star with Stevie Wonder, he declined to sign them.

One year later, in 1968, the Jackson 5 were paired with Knight and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were riding their lone Motown hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor and Knight were so impressed by the J5’s performance that they videotaped an audition and send the tape to Gordy to his new home in Los Angeles. Gordy was still reluctant to sign another child act, but relented after watching the tape.

Of course Knight and Taylor received little credit for bringing the Jackson 5 to Motown. The glory went to Diana Ross, who had nothing to do with the quintet or their signing, but received top billing on their debut album, “Diana Ross presents the Jackson 5.”

The arrival of the Jackson 5 draws a sharp line between the Detroit and Los Angeles eras of Motown. Gordy had recently relocated to Los Angeles to start a film career for both himself and Ross, his lover. Although some early J5 songs were recorded at the Hitsville studio in Detroit, Gordy moved the group out to California for grooming.

Gordy copied the songwriting template of the Supreme’s successful “Love Child” to craft “I Want You Back.” He called three of his best writers – Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonso Mizell – to help him retool a song originally intended for either Gladys Knight or Diana Ross as either “I Wanna Be Free” or “I Want You Back.” As on “Love Child,” Gordy billed the collective anonymously. After the defection of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy did not want any more of his songwriters to become “back room superstars.” Known only as “The Corporation,” the team wrote many of the Jackson 5’s early hits.

One of the most infectiously joyous songs in the Motown catalog, “I Want You Back” has been covered several times. Nickel Creek recorded a bluegrass version in 2007, two pop girl groups – Cleopatra and the West End Girls – had international hits with their 1990s interpretations. It was recorded by indie rockers Discovery on their 2009 debut, and performed by British singer Mika, KT Tunstall and even Guns N Roses in concert.

“I Want You Back” was sampled by Kris Kross for their 1992 hit “Jump,” and Kanye West for Jay-Z’s 2001 smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

Read Full Post »

(Above: Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” is one of music writer Bill Dahl’s favorite early Motown songs.)

By Joel Francis

Chances are good that Chicago-based music writer Bill Dahl has penned the liner notes to at least one of your favorite reissues or compilations. Since 1985, Dahl has been commissioned to write the notes for hundreds of blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock collections on both major and boutique labels.

In 1998, Dhal was recognized with a Grammy nomination for his essay on Ray Charles’ sax section included in the “Ray Charles – Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” box set. In 2000, he received the Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. His book, “Motown: The Golden Years” was published in 2001. Dahl’s latest project was co-authoring the amazingly comprehensive liner notes for each of the 12 volumes in the Hip-O Select “Complete Motown Singles” series.

Dahl also writes regularly on his Web site. He recently spoke to The Daily Record via e-mail.

The Daily Record: What was your first exposure to Motown and how did you become interested in writing about it?

Bill Dahl: I started buying quite a bit of Motown vinyl—the Miracles, the Temptations, Jr. Walker, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops—during the early ‘70s as an outgrowth of my record collecting interests, which were expanding rapidly from my original love of ‘50s rock and roll. I was getting into soul, blues, rockabilly, etc., and loving it all (much to the chagrin of my mainstream rock-loving high school classmates, who ragged me unmercifully; I guess I never was much of a conformist).

TDR: What are some of the more interesting stories or facts you learned in researching these liner notes?

BD: One thing that always impresses me is the loyalty the great majority of Motown’s ‘60s artists have to the company and Mr. Gordy to this day. I was fortunate to attend a charity tribute to him a few years ago in LA, and a virtual galaxy of Motown stars performed and paid homage to their beaming boss. Later, all of them trooped up to the stage at the end to sing the old Hitsville fight song!

I’ve found it interesting that several of the better-known songwriting teams had a similar setup to that of Lennon-McCartney—if one wrote it, both names went on automatically. It’s been a pleasure tracking down a lot of the lesser-known acts, including a lot of the Rare Earth label rockers, to get their intriguing stories. They’re too often overlooked and made their own contributions to Hitsville history.

TDR: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Motown?

BD: The goofy and totally unfounded rumors that the mob was involved with the label, solely because a few very competent Caucasians wielded power in the front office. The only color Mr. Gordy cared about was green, so he hired the best person for the job. There were more than a few R&B labels where “da boys” were in up to their eyeballs (no names here), but Motown wasn’t one of them.

TDR: Motown’s big stars get a lot of attention. Who are some of the unheralded Motown artists worth checking out? Were there any long-forgotten gems you discovered as a result of working on the Complete Motown Singles notes?

BD: I remember being amazed by Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” which is on the first Complete Singles box. It sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers meet Hitsville!

Gino Parks’ “Same Thing” (which I knew about already) and several others of his songs are fantastic, as are Singin’ Sammy Ward’s early blues numbers, like “Who’s The Fool.” I love Jr. Walker’s early instrumentals – “Mutiny,” with James Jamerson’s jazz bass solo, is astounding – Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, and some of Little Stevie Wonder’s overlooked early outings. Los Angeles guitarist Arthur Adams’ “It’s Private Tonight,” which came out on Motown-distributed Chisa (it’s on the 1970 box), is the perfect marriage of blues and soul.

TDR: How detrimental do you think Berry Gordy’s favoritism toward Diana Ross was to the label? How much better would Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Kim Weston and Mary Wells have fared otherwise?

BD: It wasn’t detrimental in the slightest; the Supremes made some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s at a time when the British Invasion was otherwise dominating our charts, and Diana Ross had a coquettish mainstream appeal that none of the rest had. Mary Wells ruined her own career by walking away from Motown when she turned 21. Gladys Knight and the Pips were already stars when they arrived at Motown and far bigger ones when they left, though they got even hotter at Buddah. Kim Weston’s Motown career was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, for both better and worse.  And Martha Reeves and her Vandellas had a series of incredible hits, much like the Marvelettes, that made both groups long-term mainstays.

TDR: There has been some disagreement over Tammi Terrell’s involvement on the duet albums with Marvin Gaye that bear her name. Did she return to the studio after her collapse and is that her voice on those songs? What was (Motown songwriter) Valerie Simpson’s role in these recordings?

BD: It’s impossible to say for sure, since Valerie has never admitted any possible lead vocal involvement (Marvin Gaye’s biography stated such unequivocally, but I’d be less inclined to buy in).  I doubt we’ll ever know one way or the other for sure, though Valerie’s role as co-producer and co-writer on many of them was so crucial that Tammi was no doubt channeling her vocal approach when she sang them (if indeed she was on the last couple hits).

TDR: The Complete Motown Singles Collection series ends in 1972. Why stop there? What is your favorite post-1972 Motown single or moment?

BD:  That was the end of the Detroit era—the Golden Years—so it seems like a reasonable place to end it, though you’d have to ask my boss Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music – ed.) there. I’m not sure I have too many post-1972 favorites—I’m very partial to the 1959-72 Motown era we’ve covered on the Complete Motown Singles series—but  Gloria Jones, Yvonne Fair, Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison, and Jr. Walker’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” come to mind.

TDR: In your mind, what was the greatest single factor in the label’s decline? Was it the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the move to Los Angeles, Gordy’s interest in movies or something else?

BD: I don’t think we can accurately say Motown declined, since it’s still a going entity today and enjoyed a ton of hits after 1972. Times change and so do musical tastes, so keeping the same sound in 1972 that sold so well in the mid-‘60s would have been a recipe for disaster. Certainly HDH’s departure was a blow, but that gave other writers and producers more room to create their own soulful magic, like Norman Whitfield. The move to Los Angeles hurt the artists and musicians that chose to remain in the Motor City, and didn’t help the local economy either.

Mr. Gordy’s early ‘70s interest in the film industry made him a lot harder to reach on the phone at the time, much to the frustration of some staffers, but artistically it had a negligible effect since he wasn’t all that active musically by then anyway other than with the Jackson 5.

TDR: Ultimately, what do you feel is Motown’s greatest and most lasting impact on music today? Why?

BD: As the top indie label of the ‘60s, Motown turned the industry on its ear. There had been successful African-American owned record labels prior to Motown—Duke/Peacock, Fire/Fury, and Vee-Jay come to mind—but none were so monumentally successful. Gordy’s mantra of making R&B attuned to pop sensibilities had never been pulled off so convincingly. He also did a masterful job of delegating authority in the A&R department. It sounds like a cliché to say these classic recordings will never die, but they won’t.

TDR: Now that this project is over, what is your next venture? Are there any more Motown projects on the horizon?

BD: There are no Motown projects immediately scheduled, but I wrote the notes on Reel Music’s CD reissue of Jimmy Ruffin’s fine “Ruff ‘n Ready” Motown LP, complete with a fresh in-depth interview with the gracious Mr. Ruffin, which is just coming out.

I’m hoping and praying that Rhino Handmade finally releases the wonderful Wilson Pickett boxed set that it’s been sitting on for more than two years. A recent proclamation on the label’s website says it’s been scheduled. I wrote a huge track-by-track essay for it, much like the ones in the Motown boxes. It’s got everything he did for Atlantic on it and plenty more. Interestingly, the Funk Brothers played on Pickett’s first solo platters for Double L, a fact scantily documented before I started doing research for this box.

Keep reading:

Music essays and reviews by Bill Dahl

More features and interviews on The Daily Record:

Former NBA player at home in KC music scene

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Hail Death Cab

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Out of the Tar Pit Back Onto the Stage

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

Read Full Post »

256489
Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield had finally triumphed. His fourth attempt at recording “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had finally made it past Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meetings and triumphed at the top of the charts. Now, just over a year later, he wanted to release an earlier version of the song recorded by Marvin Gaye. Label honcho Berry Gordy had denied Whitfield’s request to release Gaye’s “Grapevine” before Gladys Knight had a hit with the song. His stance would not change. Whitfield was successful, however, in getting the song inserted on Gaye’s “In the Groove” album. Just as he had hoped, listeners started requesting “Grapevine” and DJs clamored for Motown to release the song as a single. Finally released in late October, 1968, “Grapevine” shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, outselling Knight’s version and becoming the biggest-selling Motown single to date. The song was so popular, Gaye’s album “In the Groove” was renamed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The path to getting the song recorded wasn’t much smoother. Whitfield spent a month recording the backing track with the Funk Brothers, Detroit Symphony and backing vocal group the Andantes. During these sessions, Gaye and Whitfield started to argue over the vocal arrangement. Whitfield, who worked primarily with the Temptations, wanted Gaye to sing above his natural ranges, as David Ruffin did on the Tempt’s hit “Ain’t To Proud To Beg.” Gaye initially resisted, but finally gave in. The combination of Gaye’s rasp and the Andantes convinced Whitfield he had a hit. Now he had to persuade Gordy.

Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” bears little resemblance to the song Knight took to No. 1. The defining organ line in Gaye’s arrangement barely appears in Knight’s version. Her reading was all about funk and atmosphere; Gaye’s speaks directly to the lyrics. His strained voice is haunting and filled with pain. And while the emphasis is placed on the strings, check out the great interaction between the bass and drums and the great drum sound. It almost sounds tribal.

This reading of “Grapevine” has become the definitive version, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of other artists from trying their hand. Hoping to strike lightning thrice, Whitfield gave the song to the Temptations, who included it on their 1969 album “Puzzle People.” In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival released a blistering 11 minute version that featured lots of fretwork and jamming from the usually concise quartet. Talk-box titan and funkmaster Roger Troutman took the song back to No. 1 on the R&B charts with his 1982 cover. The song was also famously co-opted by the California Raisins (and sung by former Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles) in 1986.

Read Full Post »

Cloud 9
Temptations – “Cloud 9,” Pop # 6, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations kicked David Ruffin out of the group in 1968, they cleaned house. Free of their troubled lead singer and his drug dependence and egocentric demands to rebill the quintet “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” founding member Otis Williams decided the psychedelic stylings of Sly and the Family Stone were the sound of the future. Although producer Norman Whitfield was reluctant to change the band’s sound with something “that ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy,” he eventually relented.

The wah guitar and flat cymbal sound that opens the song was completely unlike anything Motown had issued before. Instead of featuring one vocalist, the number finds all five Temptations passing the lead around. Williams and Whitfield’s early interest in Sly and the Family Stone is betrayed by the arrangement, which mirrors the San Francisco group’s No. 8 hit, “Dance to the Music.”

The lyrics also hit on what would become another touchstone of the post-Ruffin Temptations. The socially conscious themes of poverty, abuse and danger in the urban core would be repeated in the hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and several other album tracks.

Williams has denied that the songs glorifies drugs as an escape to the world’s problems. For him, the key line is when Eddie Kendricks explains that cloud nine is “a world of love and harmony.”

“Cloud 9” brought Motown its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. The new category was just in its third year and had previously been awarded to Ramsey Lewis and Sam and Dave. The song paved the way for later psychedelic hits “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack.” These songs placed the Temptations on the vanguard of soul music and helped clear the way for Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and the funk movement of the 1970s.

“Cloud 9” was run through the Motown stable and covered by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Edwin Starr. Meshell Ndgeocello performed the song live in the excellent Funk Brothers tribute/documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The song has also been covered by reggae artist Carl Dawkins, Latin musician Mongo Santamaria and Rod Stewart.

Read Full Post »

for once
Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life,” Pop # 2, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

“For Once in my Life” was less than two years old, but already practically a staple by the time Stevie Wonder’s cover was finally released in October, 1968.

Jean DuShon recorded the original version for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in 1966. Although the label failed to promote the single, it still managed to reach the ears of Berry Gordy. He was not pleased to learn that Motown composer Ron Miller had written the number for a performer outside of the Hitsville stable. Gordy demanded Miller let a Motown artist record the number and he promptly gave it to Barbara McNair for her 1966 album “Here I Am.” Best known as an actress who appeared on “Mission: Impossible,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Dr. Kildare,” McNair’s version sank without a trace.

Gordy wasn’t done with the song, though. In 1967 he gave it to the Temptations as a showcase for baritone Paul Williams. Their downbeat interpretation was one of the highlights of a 1968 television special with the Supremes.

Tony Bennett released his version of “For Once in My Life” the same time the Temptations were staking claim to the tune. Bennett’s reading was a crossover hit, lodging in the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart and peaking at 91 on the pop chart. The title song of his 1967 album, it became one of the crooner’s signature numbers.

So the public was more than familiar with “For Once in My Life” by the time Wonder’s version hit the streets. Arriving a year after Bennett’s version peaked, Wonder’s interpretation became the most successful and definitive reading of the song. Like many great songs, however, this one almost didn’t get released.

Wonder recorded his vision of “For Once in My Life” the same summer the Temptations cut the song. Wonder’s upbeat arrangement stood in sharp contrast to the Temptations’ soulful balladry, and Gordy preferred the Tempts’ reading. After a year of pleading and cajoling, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department finally talked Gordy into allowing Wonder’s version to be released as a single. The result, of course, was a No. 2 single (held out of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”) that became the title track of Wonder’s tenth album.

Sonically, it’s hard to believe this song hails from 1968. The production and arrangement sounds like a throwback from the Holland-Dozier-Holland heydays of 1966. The big strings and Wonder’s vocals are front and center in the mix with the drums pushing the entire arrangement. The strings and horn tiptoe just shy of being bombastic, and a great piano line snakes along the bottom of the mix. Wonder’s harmonica makes the most of its verse-long solo, nimbly improvising on the melody like a jazz horn. The backing vocals are a little corny, but they are redeemed by Wonder’s best vocal performance to date. Wonder wasn’t yet 18 when he recorded this song, but there is a confidence in his delivery and phrasing that shows how much he’d grow since “Uptight” was released the summer before.

Wonder had far from the final word on the song. Gordy’s old boss Jackie Wilson released a cover that tried to split the difference between the Bennett and Wonder arrangements as a single to compete with Wonder. His version stalled at No. 70 on the cart. Ella Fitzgerald performed the song in concert throughout the summer of 1968 with an arrangement based on Bennett’s version. The following year, Frank Sinatra included his reading on the “My Way” album. In the twilight of his career, Sinatra revisited the song with Gladys Knight and Wonder for the 1994 “Duets II” album. Wonder returned to the song a dozen years later, sharing vocal duties with Bennett for Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” recording.

An enduring classic, “For Once in My Life” was covered by rocksteady singer Slim Smith in1969, recorded by James Brown in 1970 and translated into German by Stefan Gwildis in 2005. The song has also popped up on “Oprah,” “American Idol” and countless other television shows and films.

Read Full Post »

ain't nothing
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Pop # 8, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s first album together, “United,” was a smash that spawned three Top 5 R&B hits and turned Gaye into a soul superstar. A follow-up was inevitable. In March, 1968, less than three months after the release of their previous single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” announced the fruits of the duo’s new collaborations.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is more of a Brill Building pop song than a soul number. Each singer gets two brief verses, but the heavy emphasis is on the chorus, which is usually repeated. There is a touch of Carol King’s phrasing in Terrell’s verses and the piano line – particularly the bit that introduces the first verse owes to King’s style. Although the structure is deceptively simple, the song works because the hook allows the complementary voices to dance. The clever bridge also surprises up the verse-chorus structure.

The song is definitely outside of the Motown paradigm, but Gaye’s voice , especially the soulful moans that appear after the drums and bass introduce the song, let the listener know we’re still deep in Motown territory.

Sadly, “Real Thing” was the next-to-last “real thing” Gaye and Terrell worked on together. In October, 14, 1967, following the completion of the No. 1 R&B hit “You’re All I Need To Get By,” Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms while performing at college homecoming in Virginia. Doctors diagnosed Terrell with a brain tumor and her days as a singer and performer were over.

Gaye completed the pair’s second album, “You’re All I Need,” by overdubbing his voice to Terrell solo recordings, a trick reprised on the duo’s third and final album, “Easy.” Largely present in name only, “Easy,” found Valerie Simpson standing in for Terrell on all but two albums. “Easy” spawned three Top 20 R&B hits, but nothing as influential or wonderful as “Real Thing.”

When Terrell died at age 24 on March 16, 1970, Motown released her final “duet” with Gaye in tribute.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” has been a go-to duet for 40 years. Diana Ross and the Supremes were the first to capitalize, recording a version with the Temptations in 1969. The following year the Ross-relieved Supremes cut another version with the Four Tops. The Jackson 5 included their cover on their 1972 album “Lookin’ Out the Windows.” Aretha Franklin recorded a rare solo version of the song in 1974.

Other performers to record “Real Thing” include Donny and Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Vince Gill, Elton John and Marcella Detroit, and Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. Michael McDonald and Boyz II Men also included interpretations of the number on their Motown tribute albums.

Read Full Post »

rain
The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“I Wish It Would Rain” had been out less than two weeks when songwriter Roger Penzaben took his life on New Year’s Eve, 1967. The heartache and melancholy Temptation David Ruffin poured into his singing was Penzaben’s story.

In the spring of 1967, Penzaben caught his wife in an affair. Unable to cope with the pain and betrayal, Penzaben dumped his feelings into the lyrics. Producer Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who had previously teamed on Tempts’ classics EX.

The song opens with a few stately piano chords before Ruffin takes over. Backed only by a tambourine, it’s practically a cappella. Ruffin’s voice drips with so much sorrow that it’s hard to believe just three years prior he had “sunshine on a cloudy day.”

The understated strings and arrangement bear the hallmarks of Motown’s classic Holland-Dozier-Holland productions. It’s hard to believe that in less than a year, Whitfield and the Temps would be on the vanguard of the psychedelic soul movement.

It’s also hard to believe that “Rain” was Ruffin’s next-to-last single as a Temptation. Ruffin’s cocaine addiction and insistence that the group follow Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross’ leads and  be renamed “David Ruffin and the Temptations led to his firing in the summer of 1968. When the Temps again cracked the pop Top 10 with “Cloud Nine,” both Ruffin and Whitfield’s traditional arrangements were long gone.

Shortly before the Tempts debuted their psychedelic sound, Gladys Knight and the Pips took gave “Rain” an encore lap that reached Nos. 41 and 15 on the Pop and R&B charts, respectively. In 1973, Marvin Gaye recorded a funk version that was released as the b-side of his No. 1 hit “Let’s Get It On.” That same year, British slopsters The Faces had a U.K. hit with their interpretation. Aretha Franklin and hair metal band Little Caesar have also recorded versions of this miserable masterpiece.

Read Full Post »

grapevine
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 2, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Unlike nearly every other soul singer at the time, Gladys Knight didn’t want to go to Motown. She was (rightly) worried she and her group, the Pips, would end up playing second fiddle to Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the Pips were a democracy. When the rest of the group voted to migrate to Hitsville, Knight reluctantly acquiesced.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a thrice-heated leftover when Norman Whitfield presented his song to the group in 1967. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles cut a version the previous year that didn’t make it out of Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. A second Miracles recording of “Grapevine” was buried as an album cut on 1968’s “Special Occasion” LP.  The Isley Brothers were rumored to have recorded a version during their brief stint on the label, but no recording has surfaced to date. Several Motown scholars believe a recording session with the Isleys to cut “Grapevine” was scheduled, but then cancelled.

This is likely the case. In 2005, Motown released the two-disc clearinghouse “Motown Sings Motown Treasures.” This incredible and enlightening collection presented many recordings – Kim Weston performing “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Supremes doing “Can IGet A Witness,” and the Miracles original, unissued version of “Grapevine,” among others – previously locked in the vaults. It seems unlikely that the Isley Bros. version of “Grapevine,” if it exists, would have been omitted from this collection.

Although it wouldn’t be released for another year, Marvin Gaye had also cut his reading of “Grapevine” by the time the Pips were hearing Whitfield’s pitch.

Whitfield’s latest “Grapevine” arrangement was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Whitfield’s desire to “out-funk” Franklin. It’s clear from the great snare-and-cymbal intro that Whitfield was on to something new. Motown had been a lot of things until that point, but it had rarely been so overtly funky. In the coming years, Whitfield would help place Hitsville at the epicenter of psychedelic soul. This recording was one of the first steps down that path.

Whitfield’s attempt to out-do the Memphis soul sound Aretha was getting from Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler was buoyed by Knight’s singing. The gospel background isn’t as obvious in Knight’s delivery, and her voice is a little earthier than Franklin’s, but Knight’s vocals can soar just as high. In fact, the song is little more than drums, piano and Knight’s powerful voice until a scratch guitar enters during the first chorus.

Stealing a page from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production book, the tambourine is mixed front and center. The instrument serves as a tractor, dragging the entire song it its wake. The signature organ line that introduces Gaye’s chart-topping “Grapevine” makes a cameo on the piano about a minute into the song. The saxophone solo bisecting the song is a straight-up homage to King Curtis, the Memphis soul legend. Even the juiciest gossip is rarely this much fun.

The fourth time was the charm for Whitfield, as the Pips’ powerful “Grapevine” finally made it past Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. That didn’t guarantee label support, though, as Knight was forced to rely on her DJ connections to promote the song. When “Grapevine” finally caught on, it caught fire holding the top spot on the R&B chart for six weeks and stalling behind the Monkee’s “Daydream Believer” at No. 2 on the pop chart. Although it was Motown’s best-selling single to date, the “Grapevine” story was far from over.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 320 other followers