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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Whitfield’

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4.

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

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Rare Earth – “Get Ready,” Pop # 4, R&B # 20

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Motown’s signing of Rare Earth in 1968 was the sign of a label attempting to spread its wings. Although Rare Earth wasn’t the first all-white rock group signed by to Motown (that would be the Messengers in 1967), it was the most successful.

“Get Ready” was the Earth’s second and biggest single. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1966 when it rose to No. 29. It was written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles. When the Temptations version of “Get Ready” failed to chart high enough, Robinson passed production reigns of the group over to Norman Whitfield.

But that was four years ago, before the psychedelic movement and power trios started stretching songs to fill an entire album side. Which is exactly what Rare Earth did to “Get Ready.” Modeled after their show-closing performances, the song reached more than 21 minutes and packed the entire second side of their Motown debut.

The quintet lobbied label honcho Berry Gordy to release the song as a single, but given the song’s length he balked at the proposition. Finally, a three-minute edit was released in February, 1970 and the song shot up the chart.

Despite the genre transplant, “Get Ready” emerged relatively unaltered. The horn line was replaced with electric guitar, and faux crowd noise was added. The biggest change was Pete Rivera’s gritty white soul vocals replacing Eddie Kendricks’ tough falsetto. A saxophone solo by Gil Bridges closes the number.

The song became a staple not only for Rare Earth and the Tempts, but was a sort of label warhorse. It was included on albums by the Supremes, Miracles, Smokey Robinson on his own, and again by the Temptations in 1991.”Get Ready” was also covered by pop-punk band Ash, the Scottish folk band the Proclaimers and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas, who later turned it into a full-blown cover for their singer Fergie on her solo album.

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The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

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(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”

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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.

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