(Above: Anthrax fights ’em ’till they can’t at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 26, 2012.)
By Joel Francis The Kansas City Star
When Anthrax took the stage for 2010’s Big Four tour with thrash-metal peers Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica, it was the only band without any new material.
Anthrax hadn’t released an album in eight years, which meant its Big Four shows were essentially hit parades. That was fine for the time being, said founding member and guitarist Scott Ian. But the band had bigger things in mind.“We played a greatest-hits set, which was great,” Ian said. “All the shows were great. It just added more fuel to what we were doing.”
What they were doing was preparing new material with lead singer Joey Belladonna for the first time in more than 20 years. Belladonna, the singer from what is considered the band’s classic period, was with the group from 1985 to 1992, when he was replaced by John Bush. Belladonna performed with Anthrax for a tour in 2005 but decided not to permanently rejoin the band.
The ball got rolling again when Ian and drummer Charlie Benante attended Metallica’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2009, and the idea of a Big Four tour was introduced.
“I knew if they were serious about these shows, it would be amazing to have Joey back,” Ian said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. In a way, the 18 months we spent together on tour before helped a lot this time around. We weren’t starting from scratch.”
So in early 2010, Belladonna rejoined the band. With both the band and its fans itching for a new release, the four instrumentalists and Belladonna set to work completing “Worship Music,” an album with a complicated gestation. It was released in September.
The album had originally been scheduled for release in 2009 with short-lived vocalist Dan Nelson. When Nelson and Anthrax parted ways, it was rumored that John Bush, Belladonna’s original replacement, would record new vocals. But Bush wasn’t comfortable proceeding with the band beyond a handful of concerts, and the tapes were handed to Belladonna.
“Joey had all the freedom in the world to change anything he wanted,” Ian said. “Joey worked with producer Rob Caggiano, and then they’d send us MP3s of what they were working on. There were hardly any notes or suggestions. It was an unbelievably smooth process.”
The band had never let the singer work independently done before, Ian said, but he thinks the album benefits from the approach.
“The music is always done first in our band,” Ian said. “In the past with Joey and John, the song would end and it was like the judge’s panel would sit there and nitpick. We now realized this was not a good way to work.”
Anthrax gave Kansas City a taste of its reconfigured lineup in October when it opened for Five Finger Death Punch at the Independence Events Center. Ian said fans can expect more of the same at tonight’s show at the Midland. Much more.
“Now that we’re headlining, that means a much longer set than what we delivered a few months ago,” Ian said.
Fans can expect to hear Belladonna deliver some of the best songs of the John Bush-era in concert, Ian said, but they shouldn’t be concerned about any more games of musical chairs with lead singers.
“Joey is the singer of Anthrax until there is no more Anthrax,” Ian said. “I think it’s been proven beyond doubt this is the band that is supposed to be Anthrax.”
(Above: Tommy James and the Shondells do the hanky panky, or at least pretend to.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Even as it was unfolding, Tommy James knew he had a heck of a story to tell. The intimidating visitors, angry phone calls, mysterious disappearances. Little of it was directed at him, but James knew that could change in an instant if his hits dried up.
James knew the stories were too good to keep, but he realized he needed to stay quiet and let time pass before he shared them. Nearly 40 years later, when James could finally paint the picture, he grasped he wasn’t even the star of his own tale.
“As I was writing, I realized this story is more about Morris Levy than it is about me,” James said. “I could have called it ‘Crimson and Clover’ and talked about the music, but realized if I wasn’t telling the Roulette story I would be shortchanging everybody.”That’s OK, it’s as it should be. People called Morris the godfather of the record business and he was appropriately named.”
In his new memoir “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells,” James recalls his tumultuous, dangerous relationship with Levy, a mafia associate who ran Roulette Records as a mob front.
“I recorded ‘Hanky Panky’ in 1962, but it didn’t become a hit until 1966, when out of nowhere it went to No. 1 in Pittsburgh,” James said. “After that I grabbed the first bar band I could find and took them to New York to sign with a label. We visited everyone, Atlantic, Columbia, and got a yes from them all. The only one we didn’t visit was Roulette. One by one, the labels started to call us back. They all turned us down. They had been told we were Roulette property and to back off.”
Morris had the business sense to know a sure thing, and the goons to make sure he got what he wanted. And at that moment he wanted James. Although he was intimidated by Morris, the two men eventually became good friends.
“Morris was more fun than any 10 guys, but doing business with him was a disaster,” James said. “On the other hand, people called Morris the godfather of the record business for good reason. I frequently found myself walking on eggshells around him.”
Levy withheld all royalties, and kept James in the dark about his finances. In fact, since the label was under Federal surveillance, Levy kept three sets of books. When songwriter Bo Gentry realized he wasn’t getting paid for the songs he co-wrote for James, including “Mony Mony,” he started giving his a-list songs to other performers. A call from Levy corrected the situation. When James’ account gave Levy an invoice for the estimated $30 million to $40 million James was owed in back royalties, Levy threatened to send him to the bottom of the river.”
“I was very afraid several times,” James said. “The Morris’ associates were flat-out psychopaths who devoted their lives to the dark side of everything.”
Afraid for his live, James started carrying a gun and staying away from the Roulette offices, fearing retribution from Levy’s partners or, worse yet, becoming a casualty in the mob wars. Yet at the same time, he never refused a weekend invitation to get away with Levy on his upstate New York farm.
“Every time I go to say something nasty about Morris or Roulette, I know there probably wouldn’t have been a Tommy James without them. I always keep that in the back of my mind.
“Morris was an important chapter in my life, no doubt about it,” James continued. “I learned a great deal from him and Roulette about nuts and bolts of the business. If I had been on a corporate label, I would have been handed to a producer and lost in the numbers. I ended up on Roulette with 23 gold singles and 9 gold and platinum albums.”
James left Roulette in 1974 and used what Levy taught him to set up his own label in the late ‘80s, about the same time the government finally caught up with Levy.
“They finally nabbed him on something that seemed pretty minor at the time,” James said. “He got involved in a scheme to rip off a Philadelphia record promoter named John LaMonte. When LaMonte realized what was going on, he refused to pay. When Levy threatened to beat him to a pulp, he went to the feds.”
Sentenced to 10 years for racketeering and extortion, Levy died from colon cancer before serving a day. In 2005, the last of the Roulette Regulars, as Levy’s partners were known, died, clearing the way for the book.
“I’ve been amazed by the response to the book,” James said. “There’s going to be a movie and a Broadway show. There will probably be a couple actors playing me because of all the time involved, but one of the actors we’ve looked at is Val Kilmer, who is a friend of mine.”
Once again, Levy has already beaten James to the punch. The “Sopranos” character Hersh Rabkin, played by Jerry Adler, was based on Levy. Although he has been dead for 20 years, Levy is still an inseparable part of James’ life.
“I miss Morris, strangely enough,” James said. “I have all these mixed feelings about him, and I guess part of me always will.”
(Above: Although forgotten by both jazz and pop historians today, bandleader Paul Whiteman was a major figure in early 20th century music. A central figure in Elijah Wald’s latest book, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll,” here is the trailer for Whiteman’s 1930 film “King of Jazz.”)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Author Elijah Wald has dedicated his past two books to stripping away the legend and mythology surrounding two of music’s most iconic figures, and placing them in the context of their times. In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald demonstrates how Robert Johnson was very much a product of his time, and how his deification was established. Wald’s latest book expands that motif, and bears the inflammatory title “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.”
Wald recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record about some of the themes in his new book and, of course, how the Beatles changed rock and roll.
In the book you talk about how “everything old becomes new again,” and use the Twist to illustrate your point. What are some of the other examples of cyclical trends you discovered?
To be fair, I don’t say everything old can always be recycled. When something new comes along, we tend to look back and find things that seem similar to us. But I think that may be less a recognition of real cycles than a way of making the present seem less strange.
Clearly, things come back, but when they do come back they are different. I’m not sure things are cyclical. It may just be they way we get comfortable with them. When the Twist came around, the way the entertainment industry handled it was to talk with Irene Castle and say “This is like what was happening in 1914, isn’t it?”
Why do you call “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of the ‘20s?
This is really the germ of the whole book. I was reading how people in the people in the 1920s wrote about “Rhapsody in Blue” and noticed how similar it was to what was said about “Sgt. Pepper’s” in the 1960s.
(In the 1920s) everyone was saying how until now jazz was a lot of noise and music for rowdies and kids, but now this had turned it into a mature art form. This is exactly what happened with “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Leonard Bernstein said he was excited about it and Lennon and McCartney were compared to Schubert. Just as “Rhapsody in Blue” created a respectable thing that could still be called “jazz,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” created something respectable that was still considered rock.
Who was Paul Whiteman and what was his impact on music? Why has he largely been forgotten today?
I spend a whole chapter in the book on this, but in a nutshell, Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s. He was the man who transformed the perception of jazz from noisy, small groups into large orchestras who played not only fun dance music, but also at Carnegie Hall.
I think Whiteman is largely forgotten because he didn’t swing by and large and was resolutely white. We have understood the history of jazz to largely be a history of African-American music. Whiteman tried, for better or worse, to separate jazz from that heritage.
In many ways, the 1940s parallel today, in that there is fear new technology will usurp the traditional way artists got paid. Then it was a fear of jukeboxes and radio’s reliance on pre-recorded music and today, of course, the dominant issue is digital piracy. What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve observed between these two decades?
The huge difference is that all the things we talked about in the ‘40s did involve musicians getting paid, just different musicians. It was R&B and country musicians getting paid instead of big bands. A lot of people previously neglected became huge stars.
What’s happening now is really dangerous, in terms of musicians continuing to be able to make a living. It is exciting, in terms of everyone being able to make their music available to millions of listeners, but it is getting harder and harder to make a living in music. It’s more like a lottery – win and become a star or lose and go on to something else.
There are skills you develop as a professional musician that we’re seeing less and less of because people don’t perform as much. Everyone in my book went through an apprenticeship playing seven nights a week for four or five hours a night. Those opportunities no longer exist. There’s no way to build those kinds of skills today.
Explain the difference between hot and sweet combos. Why have the hot survived while the sweet are dismissed?
A lot of people will say this is a false dichotomy. Everyone played some sweet and some hot, but the best way to explain the difference to people of my generation is to go back to the British Invasion. In the U.S., we thought of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as belonging to the same genre. In England, however, the Beatles were called pop and the Rolling Stones were called R&B, and it’s easy to understand why.
The way we look at it today, hot bands played for boys who were into music as fans and listeners, while sweet bands were for sappy girls. That’s not the way I would phrase it, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Women have always been the determining pop buyers, because they like to dance, but men have always been the main critics. In any case, in the 1930s the two extremes were Guy Lombardo on the sweet end and Count Basie as hot, but most bands were in the middle.
One reason the hot bands live on is because by and large the only people listening today are jazz fans and they always liked the hot bands better. There’s also the racial component I mentioned earlier. I don’t disagree that what is exciting in American music was largely taken from African-American music—I would argue that it’s more complicated than that, because they are always interchanging, but as a listener I am certainly more excited by Basie than by Lombardo. As a historian, though, I am interested in both, and well aware that in their era Lombardo was far more popular.
What is the connection between swing and rock and roll?
It was the hot dance music, youthful, noisy dance music. We think of these worlds as separate, but a lot of the same musicians crossed over. The first house band for Alan Freed’s rock party was the Count Basie Orchestra. Bill Haley and the Comets all did their apprenticeships playing swing. Musically, there was a lot of overlap.
How did the success of the Beatles and other late-‘60s rock bands segregate the music industry? What are the lasting effects of that segregation?
Two things happened at once. One, the Beatles arrived when the industry was moving very heavily toward black music. The myth is the Beatles rescued us from Frankie Avalon, but they really rescued us from Motown and girl groups. If you look at the charts, black groups had so completely taken over, they actually stopped having separate charts.
The Beatles and British Invasion bands were exciting, but their rhythm sections were old fashioned. In a world of Motown and James Brown they played archaic styles. Black kids were not much interested in the British bands, because they weren’t as much fun to dance to—and it was not just black kids, but everyone who was dancing to Motown, which included a lot of white kids, especially white girls.
At the same time, the discotheque craze was hitting, so people didn’t have to have live bands. The lasting effect of that is that you no longer had to have one band who could play every style of music. Before you couldn’t have a band play only black or white music, because people wanted to dance to and hear the full range of current hits. In the ‘60s, though, you could have one band only play one kind of music, because when you wanted to hear a different kind you could just change the record.
In the epilogue you discuss how rock and dance music gradually began playing to divergent audiences. Do you think they will intersect again?
Today we don’t have bands that have to play anything, period. It’s a sad reality that if you listen to hit records – or even records that aren’t hits, by little-known, local performers – the number of records where the group on the album plays regularly is vanishingly small. The number of hits that can be recreated without recordings is virtually none.
Don’t get me wrong; hip hop couldn’t exist in a world where you had to play everything live and I think hip hop is exciting. Overall, however, the world of live music is becoming extinct. There are certainly plenty of people for whom live music is important, and I’m sure there always will be, but they are increasingly a minority.
(Above: Blues guitarist Freddie King was one of several King artists to get pinched when James Brown’s career started taking off.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Jon Fox Hartley is the author of the book “King of the Queen City” about King Records in Cincinnati. From 1943 to 1968, King was the home of James Brown, Freddie King, Grandpa Jones and countless other musicians. While other independent labels of the time concentrated on one type of music, King founder Syd Nathan wanted to produce “music for the little man” in all genres.
Fox , a native of Dayton, Ohio who now lives in California, recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record over the phone.
In the book, you make the case for several forgotten artists, such as Henry Glover, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and the Dominoes. These pioneers made important contributions to music, but have been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why do you think they have been overlooked and haven’t received the recognition they deserve?
I think the first reason is that they’re all dead and have been for several years. Because of that, there’s no one to go to award shows and remind people they haven’t been elected. Also, because of the haphazard status of King reissues, records on King weren’t as available and presented as well as those on other labels. Finally, while all of these artists had pop success, they weren’t pop artist with large audiences. They were niche artists.
I would think that Wynonie Harris has a pretty good shot at getting in (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Henry Glover’s daughter has talked to me about putting together some kind of campaign to get Henry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Country Music Hall of Fame.
In the book you also make the case for “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song. Why do you believe “Good Rockin’” that title over “Rocket 88”? How does acknowledging “Good Rockin’,” which was recorded in 1948, change our perspective of the landscape of early rock and roll?
It’s funny, because I made this argument in the book but hadn’t thought I’d have to explain or defend it. Right before the book came out, my wife says “You know you’re going to have to talk about that.” And she was right, because everyone has asked.
It’s a backwards process. You start with a song acknowledged as rock and roll, like “Rocket 88.” Then you break down the attributes that make it rock as opposed to jump blues or country. There’s a certain beat, a certain attitude and the subject matter of the lyrics aimed at kids. There’s also the aggressive, hyper-charged vocals. Once you have those attributes of what makes a song rock and roll, you can apply them to other songs and see if they measure up.
For me, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” makes a strong case. It was the first post-war song to use “rockin’” in the sense of having a good time. “We’re going to party tonight.” It was also one of the first songs to be bought and listened to by white teenagers. The trend crested in the ‘50s, but as early as late ‘40s, white kids were buying these songs and listening to them on the radio.
If you take “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song over something by Bill Haley and the Comets or Elvis Presley or Jackie Brenston, it changes our understanding that rock and roll was something brand new that popped on the scene fully formed. It coincides with the evolution of a lot of things reflected in the music people in the upper South and Midwest heard on radio stations out of Memphis and Nashville. You’d hear country, gospel, jump blues, R&B and country boogie on those stations. Then you realize everything that went into rock and roll wasn’t a market creation so much as young people coming of age hearing the music of the ‘40s and synthesizing them.
Describe King founder Syd Nathan. What kind of a person was he? How did he live? How did his personality compare to other independent label owners of the time like, say, Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy?
When I talked to people about Syd Nathan, the word that invariably came up was “character,” as in He was a real character. He was kind of like someone out of a short story. He was tight with a penny, but generous sometimes. He was ahead of the race line culturally and politically, but could tell the crudest racist joke. He was a fun guy but abusive and could push people to the brink of mayhem.
A lot of people got mad at Syd Nathan, but few stayed mad at him. He was gregarious and loved to be surrounded by people. He was the guy holding court in the corner booth at the bar.
In talking to people who worked for and knew Syd Nathan, everyone respected him. Everyone had Syd stories. It is rare to find anybody who will badmouth Syd Nathan these days. I think that’s partly out of nostalgia, but I also think on a day-to-day basis he was probably a real good guy.
There are several stories about Syd’s anger, but I think he used those temper tantrums in the studio to get results out of people. He was trying to get the artist fired up. If he thought there was a spark missing from the performance, he would pick a fight to get the artist fired up. I think these fights were calculated, because Syd never held a grudge and no one stayed mad.
Compared to Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy, Syd Nathan was certainly more expansive musically than either man. He didn’t want to limit himself to one style of music; he wanted to try it all.
I really don’t know this for sure, but I think Syd was probably a little more progressive on race matters than Leonard Chess. I often thought of this while researching the book. At King, Henry Glover would write songs, play on sessions and produce. He was a highly valued vice president of the company. At Chess, Willie Dixon filled many of the same roles, but his day job was as a janitor at Chess.
I had long heard a rumor that during World War II Nathan had 30 or 40 Japanese-Americans working for him. I thought that was unusual because on the West Coast these people were being sent to internment camps.
Well I asked somebody who knew Syd at a book signing. He told me Syd was working with a religious political action group trying to relocate people about to be interred. Syd accepted about 30 to 40 families. They were American citizens, but if they’d stayed at home they would have been locked up. Syd moved them all to Cincinnati where they lived in an apartment complex on the bus line so they could come in to King and work each day.
Most labels find one niche and exploit it. Why do you think King was so successful in so many varied genres?
I think they were successful because they wanted to be and weren’t afraid to try. Syd realized he could make more money if he didn’t specialize in one kind of music, but did a lot of different things. Before the days of record stores, only two or three shops in a town would sell records back in the corner. They’d sell what they got from wherever. Syd saw that specializing was leaving money on the table so if they wanted gospel, he had gospel records for them. Same thing for blues, country, R&B, whatever.
Syd also realized that the song sold the record more than the style or performer. If he thought a song was good, he’d record it in several different styles. Once in a while he was right, and the same song was a hit on the country and R&B charts by different performers.
Once the major labels smelled money and figured out what King and other independent labels were doing they would swoop in and take it away. Syd knew the more diverse he could make King the more control he would have and the more success was guaranteed.
One often hears of a hit record ruining a company, like the Beatles and Vee-Jay. How was King able to sustain the massive popularity of James Brown? Did Brown’s success come at the price of other artists on the label?
To answer the last part first, yeah, Brown sometimes hurt other artists. Freddie King was very vocal about why he left King. One of his reasons was that all the promotional muscle and ad money went to James Brown. There were certainly others who felt his success came at their expense.
King built a huge infrastructure in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They had their own pressing plant and printing facilities to make covers; the studio was in house. The infrastructure took a certain amount of volume to make it profitable.
Right about the time they got it perfected in the mid-‘50s, business started to fall off. But just as the market started to decrease, along comes James Brown. Here was an infrastructure dedicated to James Brown, because frankly there weren’t many other artists left.
Had James’ success hit at a busier time, he might have swamped them. Other labels might not have been able to keep up with demand or gotten paid. That wasn’t a factor at King because they controlled their pressing. If they needed 100,000 James Brown records shipped out, they could get it done. They didn’t have to stand in line like other labels did.
In one of the last chapters you discuss the difficulties King supporters have faced in trying to get the label complex the landmark recognition it deserves. Other than the unveiling of a plaque in 2008, why has King yet to be recognized by the city of Cincinnati?
Again, I think this is in part because the principals are all dead or moved away a long time ago. There’s no real physical presence. The ice house complex (the former King building) is an ugly building in an industrial facility in a funky part of town. With the label’s move to Nashville in the ‘70s, there’s nothing to memorialize. About the only thing to do is put something on the building, and now they’ve got that done.
People have been trying for years to get something done with the old facility. A group at Xavier University in Cincinnati is the latest to try. They want to build a King museum with a recording studio and training facility for youth. We’ll see how this goes. It seems something like this gets proposed every 10 years.
The important thing about King is the spirit of it and I don’t know how to memorialize that. King was never about the facility, it was the spirit and idea of making records.
(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.