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Posts Tagged ‘the Supremes’

mama know
Bobby Taylor – “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” Pop # 29, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

North Carolina native Bobby Taylor was working with a trio of Canadian musicians performing Motown numbers in Vancouver when the group caught the attention of Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. The pair excitedly contacted Berry Gordy after hearing Bobby Taylor and the Shades in concert, and Gordy signed the group to his Gordy Records subsidiary.

Unfortunately, the excitement over Taylor’s stage shows failed to translate over records to a wider audience, and the group broke up in 1969 after one album and a handful of lukewarm singles. “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was the group’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 29 on the Pop chart.

Although Taylor’s Motown footprint is shallow, he had a hand in scouting and nurturing several well-known performers. While he was never a member of the Shades – later rechristened the Vancouvers by Gordy – Taylor recalled that Seattle guitarist Jimi Hendrix played with the group on several occasions. Shades drummer Floyd Sneed went on to join Three Dog Night. After booking a local band to open for them in Chicago, Taylor recommended Gordy sign the Jackson 5. He went on to produce the majority of the band’s debut album.

The Vancouver to go onto greatest acclaim, though, was the band’s guitarist. The half-Chinese, Scots-Irish born Thomas Chong co-wrote “Does Your Mama Know About Me” and performed on two more Vancouvers singles before being fired for missing a gig – he was applying for a green card – and becoming a superstar as half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong.

With its sweeping strings and lush orchestration, “Does Your Mama Know About Me” feels more like a Philly soul number than a Motown production. This type of arrangement was used to great effect by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on early ‘70s soul hits like “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Although Gamble and Huff developed their sound independently – though they were no doubt keeping an ear trained on Motown – “Mama” illustrates how Motown continued to be at the vanguard of soul music beyond the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland and its production-line sound.

A forgotten footnote, the only noteworthy cover of “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was performed by Diana Ross and the Supremes and included on their 1968 album “Love Child.”

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syreeta
Rita Wright – “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You,” did not chart

By Joel Francis

Rita Wright is best known by her 1970s stage name, Syreeta. Before she collaborated with – and briefly married – Stevie Wonder, and scored a handful of Adult Contemporary hits with Billy Preston, Wright was a Pittsburgh transplant working as a secretary for Motown. Wright managed to catch the ear of Brian Holland, who signed her to the label. Holland collaborated with Ashford and Simpson – the songwriting team ironically brought in to replace the defected Holland, his brother Brian and their partner Lamont Dozier – on her 1968 debut, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You.”

The song opens with a jarringly dissonant horn line before settling upon Wright’s soft voice. Although her performance is strong, the arrangement betrays the track’s origin as an abandoned Diana Ross and the Supremes cut. Although Ross eventually cut the song as a solo track for her 1971 album “Surrender,” Wright’s version could easily be confused for a lost Supremes track.

Although “I Can’t Give Back” didn’t chart, Wright had a successful recording career. She co-wrote “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” with Wonder and the Spinners’ hit “It’s A Shame.” Her first two LPs, 1972’s “Syreeta” and 1974’s “Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta” are hidden soul gems.

Ross’ version of “I Can’t Give Back” came in the middle of a sort of renaissance for the number. Dusty Springfield covered it in 1970 during the sessions to her follow up to “Dusty In Memphis,” the Philly soul masterpiece “A Brand New Me.” The final lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, featuring vocalist Bobby Tench, put their stamp on the song in 1972.

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Second Emotion

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson was Christmas shopping with fellow Motown songwriter Al Cleveland when Cleveland let slip the malapropism “I second that emotion.” Intrigued, Robinson penned a lyric about a man disinterested in flirting, fishing for long-term love. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of every Kiss song ever.

The arrangement and delivery is relaxed and easy. Never a forceful singer, Robinson lets the horns punctuate his pleas. His vocals are soft and comforting as a pillow, while Miracle Marv Tarplin’s guitar pulls the song over the unusually subdued percussion. There’s no climax or resolution to the number – the horn breakdown in the final moment is as close as we get. It’s almost like Robinson is auditioning the idea.

The song fades before we learn the woman’s reaction, but audiences were delighted, sending “I Second That Emotion” into the Top 5 and earning the Miracles their sixth million-selling single.

Less than two years later, Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations teamed up for a television special and album. “Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptations” featured their interpretation of “I Second that Emotion,” which was a Top 20 UK hit (the single was not released in America). The album marked the debut of new Temp Dennis Edwards, who replaced the troubled David Ruffin. Miracle guitarist Tarplin reprised his role for the all-star revision. The song has a diverse cover life, with performances issued by Jerry Garcia, ‘80s synth band Japan, and “Stand By Your Man” country singer Tammy Wynette.

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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.

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Four-tops-bernadette
Four Tops – “Bernadette,” Pop # 4, R&B # 3

By Joel Francis

Levi Stubbs’ performance on “Bernadette” cements his status as Motown’s greatest male vocalist. The magnificent feats Stubbs laid down on the Four Tops previous pair of singles, “Reach Out” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” reaches an impassioned crescendo on “Bernadette.” Stubbs joy, appreciation and devotion to Bernadette is still making women envy that name and that kind of partner.

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team that wrote and produced the previous two Tops singles once again employ the same lush orchestration, wrapping Stubbs’ urgent vocals in insistent strings, soaring background vocals and their signature propulsive snare drum.

“Bernadette” was the Tops last Top 10 hit until “Keeper of the Castle” took off in 1972. Perhaps coincidentally, “Bernadette” was also the Tops next-to-last collaboration with Holland-Dozier-Holland. The HDH-Four Tops swan song “7-Rooms of Gloom” hit No. 7 on the R&B charts in the summer of 1967.

Although Holland-Dozier-Holland had a handful of hits with Diana Ross and the Supremes before they left Motown in early 1968, “Bernadette” marks the last appearance by the incredible songwriting and production trio on the “Hitsville U.S.A.” set.

After Holland-Dozier-Holland departed, Berry Gordy placed all his best songwriters on Diana Ross and the Supremes and other pet artists like the Jackson 5. Groups that weren’t assigned to a producer – as the Temptations were to Norman Whitfield – floundered as the Hitsville transitioned. Many groups, including increasingly ignored girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas and the Marvelettes never regained their former glory.

As free agents, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team continued to turn out hits like Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and “The Day I Found Myself” by Honey Comb, but neither HDH nor Motown were ever as good again after they parted ways.

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Supremes_You_cant_hurry_love

The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The bouncing bassline that opens this song is courtesy of James Jamerson, the same man who delivered the delightful and legendary three-note thump that introduces “My Girl.”

The intro to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s masterpiece “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a lesson in how to build a Motown hit: Start with the bass and percussion, add some horns (or strings) and then have a pretty voice jump into a catchy verse.

Diana Ross may not have had the prettiest or best female vocal on the Hitsville roster, but by 1966 she had the most recognizable one. And for once her thin tone actually works in her favor. Ross’s voice perfectly conveys the naivety and innocence of a lovelorn girl trying to be patient – “remember mama said,” she sings – to little avail. Ross would seldom reveal so much of herself in song again, hiding behind “big” vocals a la “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

When this song was recorded, Ross was little more than a year away from getting top billing and four years removed from going solo. Even still, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are little more than anonymous backing singers in the mix. Although the track is as perfect as a song can be, it’s a shame their talent wasn’t given greater prominence.

While this song may be held up as Exhibit A by haters who think Motown is too slick and soulless, it is also testament to how smoothly the Motown assembly line was working. The song was recorded in just two sessions. Presumably the Funk Brothers laid down everything but the vocals at the June 11, 1966 session and the Supremes added their vocals at the July 5 session. Little more than three weeks later, the single was on the radio. By September, only three months after initial recording, it sat at No. 1 and earned the trio a high-profile performance on the Ed Sullivan show.

“You Can’t Hurry Love” had a renaissance in the 1980s. Phil Collins took it to the Top 10 in 1982, the same year the Stray Cats put it on the flip side of “Rock This Town.” Whoopi Goldberg sang it in her 1986 film “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and former Jimi Hendrix/Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles sang it as the voice of the California Raisins (which, sadly, was the first version The Daily Record heard and its non-oldies radio introduction to classic R&B).

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isleys

Isley Brothers – “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You),” Pop #12, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

For the most part, Motown’s talent during its heyday was home-grown. Martha Reeves was a Hitsville secretary, Stevie Wonder was a kid pestering the Funk Brothers for lessons, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson were part of Berry Gordy’s extended family and Diane Ross and her friends stopped by every day after school to pester staff for an audition.

In short, talent came to Motown, not the other way around.

Of course that mindset quickly changed when the Isley Brothers hit the free agent market in 1965. The brothers made their name with 1959′s “Shout!” (recorded for RCA) and 1962′s “Twist and Shout” (recorded for the Wand label and covered by the Beatles). But after bouncing between those two labels and the failure to establish their own imprint, the Isley Brothers were looking for a new home. Berry Gordy was all too happy to welcome them to his fold.

The Isley’s Motown debut, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) was their biggest success so far. Holland-Dozier-Holland definitely applied the Motown sound to their number. The drums lead the mix, and the string section sounds more like the Four Tops than the Isley Brothers’ gritty urban soul. The brothers had never sounded so slick before, but the results couldn’t be argued with. The song is infectious, fun and impossible to listen to without breaking into smiles or dance.

Unfortunately, the Isley-Motown marriage didn’t last long. Despite releasing two more albums, the group couldn’t find a follow-up hit and complained of being fed inferior, cast-off tracks. They had a point: “This Old Heart” was originally intended for the Supremes. The brothers left Motown in 1968 and signed with Buddha before finding long-term success with Epic.

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motownnew

Above: Part of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating 50 years of Motown Records. The exhibit is open all year. (Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

By Joel Francis

It may seem hard to believe, but “the sound of young America” is 50 years old.

To celebrate a half-century of Motown records, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is hosting a new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50,” all year in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall.

“It’s an obvious anniversary, one we should do something about,” said Howard Kramer, director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “Lots of labels have anniversaries, but Motown still rings wide and true.”

One of the largest items on display is the upright bass Funk Brother James Jamerson played on all his Motown sessions until 1963. It’s the instrument heard on “My Guy” and “Heat Wave.”

“A lot of people maintain the key to Motown was the rhythm section: The snap of the drums, the gorgeously intricate bass line and then the percussion laid over the top,” Kramer said. “Jamerson was the primary bass player. He carried the weight of those recordings.”

Of particular interest to Kramer are four posters promoting Motown concerts. Two of the posters advertise Motown Revue shows, which featured several of the labels artists on the same bill.

“For the 1963 revue, Stevie Wonder was the headliner.Usually the person with the biggest hit at the time was the headliner, and in this case he was riding ‘Fingertips, Part 2,’” Kramer said. “It’s interesting to see both who’s on top and the volume of artists (on the bill). It’s also interesting to note that for the 1968 Motown Revue shows at the Fox Theater in Detroit, they played 9 or 10 days in a theater that seats 5,000.”

Together, the posters span five years and a range of venues from a high school gym to a civic sports arena.

“These posters give you an idea of the breadth of places Motown performers were playing,” Kramer said. “They’d play arenas, high schools, theaters and also posh nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York,” Kramer said. “They played every possible circuit.”

Other items in the exhibit include the dress Supreme Mary Wilson wore for the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show after the departure of Diana Ross, the outfit and glasses Stevie Wonder wore for his halftime performance at the 1999 Super Bowl and a stage costume worn by Miracle Bobby Rogers in the 1970s.

“Rogers’ suit is an example of the over-the-top clothing vocal groups wore at the time,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason for this to have been made except for a performer. This is not street wear.”

Thanks to a loan from the Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, many of the artifacts have never been displayed before.

“A lot of Motown stuff didn’t make it past the original era,” Kramer said. “The only item we’ve shown before is Rick James’ bass.”

For many of the Motown session musicians, playing for Hitsville was just another gig. But 50 years later, the notes they laid down still resonate.

After 50 years and several generations Motown is still a staple of radio, music, movies, television, commercials,” Kramer said. “That’s part of (label founder Berry) Gordy’s vision to make the music palatable to all ages.”

To learn more about museum hours and ticket information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

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Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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kim-weston

Kim Weston – “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While),” Pop #50, R&B #4

By Joel Francis

Kim Weston is best remembered as Marvin Gaye’s duet partner on “It Takes Two,” but she did manage to score a few chart hits on her own. (Like seemingly every Motown hit of 1965) “Take Me In Your Arms” was written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. It was Weston’s most successful solo effort.

Weston faced the same obstacle that confronted every female Motown singer post-1964: She wasn’t Diana Ross. While label founder Berry Gordy was busy obsessing over Ross and the Supremes, Weston’s husband, longtime Motown A&R man Mickey Stevenson, was pouring the same energy into his wife. Unfortunately, the Motown machinery didn’t quite know what to do with her. Weston’s body wasn’t built for the dresses Gordy had designed for his female stars and Gordy’s sisters, who also worked at the label, grew resentful of all the time Stevenson spent grooming his wife. Aside from her tenure as Gaye’s duet partner, Weston was always a second-tier vocalist for the label.

After writing epic, sweeping arrangements for the Four Tops, the score for this number is pretty straightforward. There are no strings or horns. In fact, the entire song rests in the strength of the Funk Brothers rhythm section. “Rock Me” is the operative phrase from the title. The tambourine and drums pushed in the listeners face while equally strong guitar and piano work buried in the mix. Weston’s powerful singing drives everything home. If you’re feet aren’t moving 10 seconds into this number call the doctor, there’s something wrong.

The song was back on the R&B charts just two years later courtesy of the Isley Brothers. A different set of brothers, the Doobie Brothers rode the song to No. 11 on the pop chart in 1975. Blood, Sweat and Tears also covered the song on their 1971 album “BS&T 4.”

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882867

Martha and the Vandellas – “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things),” Pop #70, R&B #22

By Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas didn’t do many ballads. Their best-known songs – “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere to Run” – are all relentlessly upbeat. Despite the drastic change in tempo, the three songs above share at least one similarity with “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)”: They were all written by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The HDH team really came into its own in 1965, the year “Love” was released. Rare was the week that one or more of their songs wasn’t found near the top of the charts. This number, however, was a rare misstep for the team.

Martha Reeves turns in a fine vocal performance, but the song never really ignites. The number never peaks. Once Reeves’ voice enters, everything just kind of sits there until the fade-out. Although the trio wrote captivating arrangements for “It’s the Same Old Song” and “I Hear a Symphony,” the arrangement here isn’t anything to write home about. The drums are prominent in the mix, but aren’t really saying anything. Likewise, one gets the impression the strings were just added to make the mix more full. Finally, the lyrics are solid, but don’t expose anything not given away in the title.

“Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” never ignited with other artists, either. Berry Gordy tried to farm the song off to a couple other Motown artists, most notably the Supremes. The results of Kim Weston’s adventures with the tune languished in the Motown vaults until the historical reissues of 2005.

That said, it is never wise to write off a Holland-Dozier-Holland number, especially from this era. In the right hands, the song could be a surprising hit today.

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