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Archive for the ‘Motown’ Category

The Spinners – “It’s A Shame,” Pop #14, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Spinners had been absent from the charts for five years when “It’s A Shame” came out in June, 1970. In fact, the Detroit quintet had only two hits in their 10-year history up till that point.

The group came to Motown when Berry Gordy hired Harvey Fuqua and bought his Tri-Phi label. Fuqua was an essential part of Motown’s artist development, nurturing a young Marvin Gaye and singing Tammi Terrell.

By 1970, the Spinners were considered collateral damage from the Tri-Phi takeover, serving mostly as road managers and chaperones for more successful groups. Their hunger for a hit was a natural match for another Motown artist’s desire to spread his wings.

When Gaye wanted to show his independence, he wrote and produced two hits for the Originals. Now Stevie Wonder looked at the Spinners and wanted to do the same.

“It’s a Shame” was written and produced by the same team responsible for Wonder’s most recent hit “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.” Wonder’s musical and romantic relationship with Syreeta Wright continued to blossom and Lee Garrett once again contributed to the composition.

The song opens with a hypnotic guitar hook, but it’s the Spinners’ harmony vocals that cement the number as a soul classic. The lyrics speak of heartbreak, but the delivery is effortless and graceful.

The performance was so stellar that few artists have attempted to cover “It’s a Shame.” The song instead lives on as a sample, appearing in songs by R. Kelly, Sounds of Blackness, Lethal Bizzile and Monie Love.

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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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Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Pop # 3, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Little Stevie Wonder hadn’t been little in a while, but “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was the first single clearly made by a grown man. Released in June, 1970, it was the first single Wonder produced on his own, and his first collaboration with Syreeta Wright, who would become his wife.

The Wright-Wonder marriage didn’t last long, but their musical collaboration lives on. Wonder helped write and produce much of the material on Wright’s first solo albums (including the lost Motown classic “Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta Wright”), and the two collaborated on songs that appeared on “Where I’m Coming From,” “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” This pivotal run of albums transformed Wonder as both an artist and a musician, setting up his staggering run of success later in the decade.

Signed to Motown in 1963, Wonder was starting to get bored with Hitsville at the dawn of the ‘70s. He was exploring different musical styles and arrangements and trying to broaden his sound. One day Wonder gave a tape of an instrumental he was working on to Lee Garrett, a frequent collaborator. Garrett shared the tape with Wright and the two began brainstorming ideas. The title, however, came from Wonder’s mom Lula, who exclaimed the phrase after hearing a rough version of the track.

“Signed” was recorded with the Funk Brothers, but had a strong Southern soul groove. Although many Hitsville staffers were reluctant to release a number so far removed from the Motown sound, Wonder prevailed and the song spent six weeks at the top of the R&B charts. “Signed” also earned Wonder his first Grammy nomination, which he ultimate lost to Stax artist Clarence Carter for the song “Patches.”

Elton John was the first musician to cover “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The pre-fame pianist cut the song under his birth name, Reg Dwight, for a discount copy band compilation. James Brown’s right-hand man Bobby Byrd released his version as a single a few years later. In 1977, Peter Frampton combined elements of “Signed” and Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” on his follow up to “Frampton Comes Alive.”

In 2003, Michael McDonald released his version on his Motown covers collection. Later that year, Wonder and Angie Stone appeared with the British boy band Blue on their cover, which hit No. 11 on the British charts. Most recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama played the song at the end of his 2008 campaign events.

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Jackson 5 – “The Love You Save,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The process behind the J5’s two previous singles was too successful and irresistible not to try again. And for the third time, the resulting song stuck at the top of the chart.

The product of a Berry Gordy and the Corporation, “The Love You Save” bears more than a passing resemblance to “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” Don’t fall into the trap of writing off the song as a carbon copy, though. “The Love You Save” has a more complex arrangement – it deviates from AABA structure – and greatly benefits from Jermaine’s supporting vocals. Plus it’s just as infectious and fun as the first two singles.

On their tours in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Jacksons combined all three songs in one medley. It was an obvious and surefire idea. Put these three together and you’ve got 10 minutes of music guaranteed to put a smile on the most hardened face and get the most sedentary feet moving.

The lyrics in “The Love You Save” echo the warning Diana Ross delivered five years earlier on “Stop! In the Name of Love,” another Motown No. 1. Both songs open hard on the word “stop” and implore their partners to both slow and settle down. Playing these songs back to back shows how far Motown has pushed soul music. The excitement of the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition is tempered by Ross’ mannered delivery that almost turns her pleading into nagging. On the other hand, the Corporation’s number jumps out of the speakers with a kinetic energy and Michael’s charismatic vocals. The supporting string arrangement is only hint of the assembly line Motown sound that HDH developed.

Few artists have covered “The Love You Save.” More noteworthy are the songs penned by Joe Tex and the Holmes Brothers that bear the same name.

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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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Jackson 5 – “ABC,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Tito, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and, of course, Michael Jackson blasted to the top of the chart with their debut single, “I Want You Back.” Five months later, they duplicated the feat with their second effort, “ABC.”

Like their previous release, “ABC” was written and produced by the Corporation, the faceless entity label head Berry Gordy created in the wake of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure. Never again would Motown’s writers and producers usurp the performer’s fame. Structurally, “ABC” also resembles “I Want You Back;” the two songs share the same spirit and melody lines.

“ABC” opens with a bright burst of fuzz guitar and piano a split second before Michael wordlessly sings the equivalent of sunshine and a smile. Michael had yet to enter his teens, but his voice pops out of the speakers with remarkable authority and maturity.

Because of their ages, the Jackson 5 were branded “bubblegum” in the early years of their career. The tag isn’t completely unfair – their debut album does open with a version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”  – but the way Michael yells “Sit down girl, I think I love you!” is pure soul.

With its great bass line, the way the syncopated drumming plays off the piano line, and sprinkling of Latin percussion over the top “ABC” is pop perfection.

The song’s concept came from Corporation member Freddie Perren, a former school teacher. Perren noted the similarity between teaching and producing, namely forming a lesson play, or song idea, then having the students/musicians echo it back until attaining perfection.

“ABC” is one of Motown’s biggest song, but Gordy never saw fit to give the tune to any of his other artists. It hasn’t even been sampled that often (the less said about Ghostface Killah’s version, the better). Although the song today has been unfairly relegated to children’s compilations and oldies collections, “ABC” rocked the house parties of both young and old alike back in the day.

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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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