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Archive for the ‘Motown’ Category

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.”

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The Supremes – “Stoned Love,” Pop # 7, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“Stoned Love” was the Supremes’ biggest hit of the post-Diana Ross era, and with good reason – it sounds like a throwback to the golden Holland-Dozier-Holland age of Motown.

Motown producer Frank Wilson discovered the song when it was played over Detroit radio during a talent search contest. Amazed to find such a mature work had been penned by a local teenager, Wilson worked with Kenny Thomas, the young writer, and arranger David DePitte before presenting the number to Berry Gordy and the Supremes.

In a narrative repeated so frequently it has nearly become a cliché, Gordy hated the song. The reason for Gordy’s dislike is unclear, but there was concern over the title. Thomas and Wilson insisted the title referred to love with a solid foundation, not drug use. The original title, “Stone Love” supports this claim. Somehow the single was mislabeled “Stoned Love” at the pressing plant and the new title stuck.

Just as they had three years ago when the Doors sang “we couldn’t get much higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show, CBS freaked out over the potential reference and cut the song from the girls’ appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

As usual, the censors paid more attention to the hysteria than the work itself. Wilson’s lyrics call for “a love for each other that will bring fighting to an end/forgiving one another” and challenge for the “young at heart” to “rise up and take your stand.”

The hope-filled lyrics brim with the optimism of youth and could easily turn into treacle. Thomas and DePitte turned them into a great showcase for Jean Terrell’s talents. All elements seem to feed off her emotion, particularly the inspired backing vocals of fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Wilson and Birdsong had been banished from the final recording sessions with Ross and they seem extra happy to be operating as a group again.

From the propulsive snare driving the song, down to the swirling strings and display of voices, the arrangement recalls the Supreme’s finest moments with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Fans seemed to agree, sending the song to the top of the R&B chart an into the pop Top 10. Again, Gordy’s steadfast, initial instinct had been proven wrong.

The legacy of “Stoned Love” lies more with its title than its tune. Angie Stone incorporated it into the introduction on her “Stone Love” album in 2004, just one of many similar titles it inspired. These include “Stone in Love” by Journey and the smilar “Stoned in Love” by UK dance pop artist Chicane. In 2006 Justin Timberlake released the single “LoveStoned.” None of these songs hold a candle to “Stoned Love.”

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

One of pop music’s most unique and amazing properties is its ability to wrap the most heartbreaking lyrics in a bubbly, effervescent melody.

Think about it for a moment. While there are shades and degrees to consider, and this is obviously a simplification, because other types of art usually inhabit only one medium, i.e. words or images, a sad poem or a sad painting typically going to be predominately sad. I’m not saying music is the only art form to convey multiple emotions at once; that’s a ludicrous assumption. But it seems pop music does this a lot easier than most.

Few songs handle the light/dark juxtaposition as effortlessly as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1970 smash “The Tears of a Clown.” The song started out as an instrumental Stevie Wonder wrote with his producer Hank Crosby. Unsure what to do with what Wonder knew was a great track, he brought it to the Motown Christmas party in 1966 to see if Robinson had any ideas. Robinson said hear head a circus in the melody and wrote the lyrics. The finished track appeared as the final song on the Miracles 1967 release “Make It Happen.”

For three years the song lay hidden as a deep cut, ignored by both the label and the band. In 1969, Robinson announced he was tired of touring and being separated from his family. By leaving the Miracles, Robinson reasoned, he could spend more time in Detroit with his family and focus on his role as Motown’s vice president. From Robinson’s perspective, it was a sound plan. The trouble was, the Miracles were one of Motown’s biggest act in Europe and the band had delivered only one Top 10 hit over the last two years. Desperate for new material, Hitsville UK scoured the vaults and back releases and stumbled upon the long-forgotten “The Tears of a Clown.” After giving the song a new mix it was released as a single in February, 1970. The song shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fortunately for music fans everywhere, the song’s success made Robinson reconsider his decision to leave the Miracles. Motown re-released “Make It Happen” with a modified tracklisting as “Tears of a Clown” – even the cover art stayed the same – and Robinson stayed in the Miracles until 1973.

Thematically, “The Tears of a Clown” mirrors the Miracles’ 1965 hit “The Tracks of My Tears.” Both songs deal with a heartbroken lover masking his/her pain in public. The subject of both songs craves the estranged, but it too proud to share those feelings in all but the darkest, quietest places. Not happy stuff. But while it was impossible to escape the anguish of “The Tracks of My Tears,” listeners could be possibly forgiven for thinking “The Tears of Clown” was little more than a happy romp on the calliope. Wonder and Cosby’s upbeat melody is a perfect antonym for Robinson’s lyrics. One moment poignantly cuts at the heart of the song, however. The arrangement briefly pauses while Robinson confesses “when there’s no one around.” In those tender seconds, his soul is laid bare.

“The Tears of a Clown” was the Miracles biggest hit while Robinson was in the group. Unsurprisingly, several other bands wanted a taste of this success. “Clown” has been widely covered over the past 40 years. The English Beat delivered one of the best interpretations with their 1979 ska adaptation of the song. At the other end of the spectrum are the version cut by LaToya Jackson for her 1995 Motown covers album, and Enuff Z’Nuff’s hair metal reading. Somewhere in the middle lie Phil Collin’s version, included on his “Testify” album, and Petula Clark’s 2000 reading. Early ‘90s Swedish pop duo Roxette also worked the “Clown” melody into their hit “Spending My Time.”

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Jackson Five – “I’ll Be There,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

To say that the Jackson 5’s formula was successful would be a terrific understatement. Three upbeat, bubblegum hits, all penned and produced by Berry Gordy and his faceless Corporation, all No. 1 pop and R&B smashes.

Gordy’s decision to break from the formula for the group’s fourth hit was shocking. Not known as one to mess with a sure thing, Gordy dumped the Corporation and partnered with Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob Wests to craft a ballad that placed Michael Jackson directly the spotlight, and relegated his brothers to a support role.

The result was the J5’s most successful single ever, selling 4 million copies in the United States and cementing the band’s career beyond bubblegum. “I’ll Be There” was also the group’s last No. 1 hit; three more singles ceilinged at No. 2.

Only 12 years old at the time, Jackson dumps more emotion into his delivery than many singers twice his age possess. His clarion call to give love another chance is graceful and penetrating. Gordy positioned Diana Ross as the J5’s mentor – her influence shines in Jackson’s delivery, both in phrasing and tone.

“I’ll Be There” was covered by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz as a duet in 1992. The single was her sixth No. 1 hit, but the less said about her treacly reading the better. More interestingly, it appeared on the fourth album by Southern California punk rockers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in 2003, who frequently recorded ironic covers. “I’ll Be There” graced two other Motown releases. The Temptations recorded a version for their 2006 album “Reflections” and sister La Toya Jackson cut it for her 1995 covers album. Many artists, including Carey, the New Kids on the Block, Jaime Foxx and Ne-Yo and Green Day performed “I’ll Be There” in tribute to Jackson after his death on June 25, 2009.

Michael Jackson performed “I’ll Be There” on all of his solo tours, frequently getting emotional and breaking down mid-song.

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(Above: Marvin Gaye asks for a witness. He gets four go-go dancers.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

For the past 46 years, few have been able to see “ The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 concert film that captured early performances from the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the first major U.S. appearance of the Rolling Stones.

A tangle of legal issues sent the movie to exile almost immediately after it was sent to the theaters. The producer lost his rights and the film was never released on video rarely shown in public. For years fans would read about how incredible the “T.A.M.I. Show” was – particularly James Brown’s appearance, which Rick Rubin once said “may be the single greatest rock and roll performance ever captured on film” – without being able to see it. Thankfully this has finally been corrected. After decades of wrangling, Shout Factory has finally released the “T.A.M.I. Show” on DVD.

After a montage of all the stars arriving over one of the longest Jan and Dean songs ever, Chuck Berry takes the stage. His appearance ties the film back to “Rock Rock Rock” and the classic ‘50s rock and roll films, but halfway through “Maybelline,” the camera swings over to Gerry and the Pacemakers doing their version of the song. It’s a little disorienting at first, and doesn’t completely work, mostly because Gerry is so campy. He’s constantly playing to the camera, and the group clearly doesn’t have Berry’s talent or charisma.

Fortunately, an endless parade of go-go dancers in bikinis is on hand to distract from any lulls in the music. Constantly in motion, the dancers swarm across the stage – often directly in front of the performers – and on platforms in the back. The producers discovered what MTV perfected in the ‘90s with “The Grind:” buxom, gyrating dancers will make even the most execrable music enjoyable.

The showgirls hog the camera during the first number of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ set. Fortunately, lens eventually pulls back on the second number, and the quartet delivers the first great performance of the night. Robinson drops down, jumps up and throws his entire spirit into an extended “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” That energy carries into “Mickey’s Monkey,” that has everyone onstage and in the crowd dancing. Marvin Gaye continues Motown’s strong showing with a great “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” For “Can I Get a Witness” he performs away from the band, flanked by two shimmying girls.

Director Steve Binder isn’t shy about cutting to the junior high and high school students in the audience screaming in delirium. One long shot accidentally allows a glimpse of policemen in helmets patrolling the aisles. There was clearly a hard line on the level of excitement that could be displayed.

It’s hard to believe Lesley Gore was the biggest star on the bill at the time, and that she didn’t become an even bigger star later. Gore dutifully performs her best-known songs, the No. 1 “It’s My Party” and its Top 5 sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but her poise, grace and presence suggest she should have had a much longer career. Gore It’s too bad she couldn’t keep up with the harder, psychedelic edge rock music was about to take.

Several of Gore’s songs are captured by a camera that looks like Vaseline has been smeared over the lens. In the commentary track, Binder said that was exactly what was done. He either couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to outfit the rigs with soft focus capability, so they went with this bargain basement substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like Gore is singing through a funhouse mirror.

Jan and Dean, the evening’s MCs, kick off the surf portion of the show, but they are outmatched by the Beach Boys, who follow. Jan and Dean’s harmonies seem thin and the skate-board-in-a-guitar-case trick can’t hold up to the Boys’ rich voices and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. The performance was filmed months before Wilson’s nervous breakdown forced him off the road. Here he looks completely at ease and happy.

After the movie’s initial run, the Beach Boys’ manager demanded his client’s four-song set be removed. When the inevitable “T.A.M.I. Show” bootlegs popped up, the Beach Boys were usually missing. This DVD finally restores the lush “Surfer Girl” and the freedom of “I Get Around.”

The film treads water through the Dakotas, Supremes and Barbarians until – finally – we get to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Honestly, there’s nothing he does here that wasn’t captured on the incredible “Live at the Apollo” album one year earlier. This, however, was his first major show in front of a white audience. It also gave fans the opportunity to see Brown work his magic in addition to just hearing it.

The Flames are razor-sharp as Brown kicks into “Out of Sight.” Showing his penchant for adventurous covers, Brown resuscitates Perry Como’s hit “Prisoner of Love.” He then directs the Flames into “Please, Please, Please” and the place goes nuts for the now-infamous cape routine. Brown’s pants, which were clean before the song, are scuffed and dirty at the knees from all the times he falls down (only to pop right back again.) During “Night Train” he does this crazy dance on one foot where he manages to wriggle across the stage. Not only does he not fall down, but he looks impossibly smooth.

In his commentary on the “T.A.M.I. Show” trailer, director John Landis, whose entire seventh grade class scored invites to the taping, said the Rolling Stones “were kind of boring after James Brown.” He’s right. The Stones open with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” an odd choice considering Berry was onstage earlier. They don’t start to live up to their hype and billing until the terrific “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now.”

It’s difficult to watch the early Stones without picturing the lazy spectacle they’ve become. There is a hunger in these songs and Mick Jagger is genuinely working to win the crowd’s approval. It’s odd to see Brain Jones so alive and so happy. It seems he was born with those omnipresent bags under his eyes that just grew sadder and deeper until the lids above closed forever.

But that was still several dark years off. The “T.A.M.I. Show” is a celebration that despite some dated production techniques and material still feels vibrant. It’s a peek behind a curtain to a world where artists from not only all over the world, as the song goes, but all genres, could party together on the same stage. In a way, it was a precursor to the weekend festivals that would pop up at the end of the decade and have resurfaced to dominate the summer musical landscape again today.

Keep reading:

Talking James Brown and King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Below: The Beach Boys get around.)

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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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Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

This was the moment. For years, Berry Gordy had been grooming Diana Ross to become a star. First he pushed the hesitant child to the forefront of the Supremes, then elevated her to top billing. Now she was on her own.

Ross’ first single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was a respectable Top 20 hit. For anyone else, it would have been a brilliant success. But at Motown, and especially for Ross, Top 20 was not good enough. She had to top the charts.

For her follow-up effort, Gordy turned to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who also penned “Reach Out.” Instead of writing a new number, however, the pair reached back to a song that had been a Top 20 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell three years earlier. Their choice wasn’t well received. Ross was hesitant to cut a song that had already been a hit with someone else. Besides, she had also performed the song when the Supremes paired with the Temptations for a television special and album in 1968.

Eventually, Ross was persuaded to record a re-imagined version of the song. While Gaye and Terrell’s arrangement build upon the synergy of their voices, the new vision opens with Ross’ affirmation of love, like a lonely, long-distance telephone call. The backing chorus of Ashford and Simpson, the Andantes and several other Motown studio singers builds slowly in the background underneath Ross’ promises of devotion. By waiting so long to grow into the refrain, the familiar strain is even more powerful.

When the finished track was submitted to Gordy he was not pleased. He thought the song should open with the chorus (an arrangement Ross later used in her live shows). In a story that mirrors Gaye’s recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” it wasn’t until DJs started cutting down the six-minute album track and playing it on the radio that Gordy finally acquiesced. Just as before, “Mountain” made a major star out of its singer.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has been played, performed and sampled so often it sometimes feels like a cliché. It seems every time a director wants a feel-good moment when the underdog triumphs they reach for this song (which must make Gordy, Ashford, Simpson and their bankers very happy). When the song reaches ears voluntarily, however, it is still a delight.

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