Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

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Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Pop # 8, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s first album together, “United,” was a smash that spawned three Top 5 R&B hits and turned Gaye into a soul superstar. A follow-up was inevitable. In March, 1968, less than three months after the release of their previous single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” announced the fruits of the duo’s new collaborations.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is more of a Brill Building pop song than a soul number. Each singer gets two brief verses, but the heavy emphasis is on the chorus, which is usually repeated. There is a touch of Carol King’s phrasing in Terrell’s verses and the piano line – particularly the bit that introduces the first verse owes to King’s style. Although the structure is deceptively simple, the song works because the hook allows the complementary voices to dance. The clever bridge also surprises up the verse-chorus structure.

The song is definitely outside of the Motown paradigm, but Gaye’s voice , especially the soulful moans that appear after the drums and bass introduce the song, let the listener know we’re still deep in Motown territory.

Sadly, “Real Thing” was the next-to-last “real thing” Gaye and Terrell worked on together. In October, 14, 1967, following the completion of the No. 1 R&B hit “You’re All I Need To Get By,” Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms while performing at college homecoming in Virginia. Doctors diagnosed Terrell with a brain tumor and her days as a singer and performer were over.

Gaye completed the pair’s second album, “You’re All I Need,” by overdubbing his voice to Terrell solo recordings, a trick reprised on the duo’s third and final album, “Easy.” Largely present in name only, “Easy,” found Valerie Simpson standing in for Terrell on all but two albums. “Easy” spawned three Top 20 R&B hits, but nothing as influential or wonderful as “Real Thing.”

When Terrell died at age 24 on March 16, 1970, Motown released her final “duet” with Gaye in tribute.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” has been a go-to duet for 40 years. Diana Ross and the Supremes were the first to capitalize, recording a version with the Temptations in 1969. The following year the Ross-relieved Supremes cut another version with the Four Tops. The Jackson 5 included their cover on their 1972 album “Lookin’ Out the Windows.” Aretha Franklin recorded a rare solo version of the song in 1974.

Other performers to record “Real Thing” include Donny and Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Vince Gill, Elton John and Marcella Detroit, and Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. Michael McDonald and Boyz II Men also included interpretations of the number on their Motown tribute albums.

Bobby Taylor – “Does Your Mama Know About Me”

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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.”

Rita Wright – “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You”

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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.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion”

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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.

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

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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.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love”

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love,” Pop # 23, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson has penned dozens of gorgeous love songs throughout his career, but few are affecting as “More Love.” The reassuring lyrics speak to the tragedies the couple suffered as a result of life on the road. Between 1957 and 1964, Claudette Robinson had eight miscarriages. This heartbreaking back story adds to the romance of the chorus:

“More love, more joy,
|Than age or time could ever destroy.
My love will be so sound,
It would take about a hundred lifetimes
To live it down, wear it down, tear it down.”

The song opens with some gospel chords on the piano before the gently insistent bassline enters. Robinson’s voice appears on a pillow of strings, as the arrangement slowly builds underneath. After Robinson delivers the chorus a second time, the performance pulls back to that great bassline before reaching a climax that sustains through the rest of the song.

Foreshadowing Motown’s cross-country relocation, the track was performed by Los Angeles session musicians before the Miracles – including Claudette – overdubbed their voices in Detroit. It’s unclear why Robinson, who also produced the cut,  bypassed the Funk Brothers, but the public didn’t seem to mind. The song was wedged near the top of both the pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1967.

Foreshadowing another Motown move, “More Love” was the second single credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.” Berry’s decision to give Robinson top billing started the avalanche that benefitted Diana Ross and Martha Reeves but doomed David Ruffin and the Temptations.

Smokey and Claudette eventually had two children, both named in tribute to Motown. Son Berry Robinson was the namesake of label founder Berry Gordy, and daughter Tamla Robinson was named after the Hitsville subsidiary.

Former New Christy Minstrels singer Kim Carnes had a No. 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1980 with her reading of “More Love.” The song was her biggest hit until “Bette Davis Eyes” hit No. 1 the following year. “More Love” has also been covered by Paul Young, Barbara McNair and the 5th Dimension.

Four Tops – “Bernadette”

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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.

Soulsville sings Hitsville

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By Joel Francis

Rare was the time Berry Gordy would let Motown artists record songs outside of the Hitsville catalog (and its lucrative publishing).  Fortunately, Jim Stewart at Stax did not have the same stipulation. Thanks to the 2007 compilation “Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings the Songs of Motown Records” soul fans have at least one direct barometer to use in the never-ending debate of Stax vs. Motown.

Rivalries and arguments aside, “Soulsville Sings Hitsville” is a great 15-song collection that casts many soul nuggets worn out by oldies radio in a new light. Soul fans from either side of the Mason-Dixon line will find a lot to enjoy here. And now for the 15-round battle in the head-to-head match of Stax vs. Motown.

Round 1:  – “Stop! In the Name of Love”

Margie Joseph vs. the Supremes

The Supremes took this song to No. 1 in 1965 and made it one of their defining songs. Margie Joseph adds a lengthy monologue and a completely new arrangement that transforms the song. They lyrics are about the only element these versions share. Although it’s hard to top Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Joseph accomplishes the feat by making the song her own and having an infinitely better singing voice than Diana Ross.

Winner: Stax

Round 2:  – “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

David Porter vs. Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5

David Porter made his name as half of the Porter-Isaac Hayes hitmaking machine in the ‘60s before striking out on his own in the ‘70s. His version of “I Don’t Know Why” easily tops the Jackson 5’s reading. Michael Jackson just isn’t old enough to put the necessary grit in his vocals and ends up practically shouting the song. The gold medal here, though, goes to the co-author and original performer Stevie Wonder. Released as a single from his 1968 album “For Once In My Life,” the song peaked at No. 16 on the R&B charts. Wonder’s vocals simmer, building in intensity until they boil over at the 1:40 mark. Wonder sings so hard he’s almost out of breath as the great arrangement continues to build until the only options are to explode out of the speakers or fade out. Faced with potential lawsuits from music lovers, the track ends just under the three-minute mark.

Winner: Motown

Round 3 – “You’ve Got to Earn It”

Staples Singers vs. the Temptations

One of the Staples Singers’ biggest hits, this song is so closely identified with the group that I didn’t even know the Temptations recorded the original. This Smokey Robinson-penned number was released in 1965 on the b-side of “Since I Lost My Baby.” The Tempts version is serviceable, but aside from Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocals isn’t that memorable. The Staples version trumps on every level: Mavis Staples great singing, the spectacular arrangement featuring a signature descending horn line and harmonica, and the soulful playing and support of Pops and Yvonne Staples.

Winner: Stax

Round 4 – “Can I Get a Witness”

Calvin Scott vs. Marvin Gaye

In the NFL, when a play is challenged and the officials go under the hood for review, there must be incontrovertible evidence to overturn the call. So goes it with covers. It is not sufficient to merely equal the original recording, the burden of the cover is to surpass the original. Calvin Scott does a good job putting his twist on one of Marvin Gaye’s earliest hits, but he doesn’t add anything to it either. Take pity on Scott, however – topping Gaye is no small feat.

Winner: Motown

Round 5 – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Mar-Keys vs. Four Tops

Although some session credits are available, the Mar-Keys kind of became the catch name for whoever was playing with the Memphis Horns. Some of their cuts ended up on Booker T. and the MGs or Isaac Hayes albums, some were added to Bar-Kays releases and others credited to the Mar-Keys themselves. The Mar-Keys’ 1971 version of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is one of the numbers that has fallen through the cataloging cracks – Stax historians aren’t really sure who played on it. However, one fact is indisputable: this track rocks. Andrew Horn blows a mad sax solo with enough grit and soul to match Levi Stubbs’ incomparable voice, while the rest of the musicians strip the sheen laid by the Funk Brothers on the original Motown recording. That said, the Four Tops version became one of their defining performances for good reason. The decision here comes down to preference: the dirtier R&B of Stax or the polished soul of Motown. I like ‘em both.

Winner: Push

Round 6 – “Never Can Say Goodbye”

Isaac Hayes vs. Jackson 5

Isaac Hayes and the Jackson 5 both released their interpretations of Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1971. The results couldn’t be more different. The pain in Hayes’ deep voice pits him as a grown man with life experience against a bunch of talented kids acting their hearts out. In the weeks following the death of Michael Jackson, the J5 performance has become an unofficial tribute to their singer. It’s a fine sentiment, but, as Mos Def would say, this is grown man business. Hayes wins, no contest.

Winner: Stax

Round 7 – “My Cherie Amour”

Billy Eckstein vs. Stevie Wonder

In the 1940s, Billy Eckstein’s orchestra was one of the first large bop combos in jazz, providing an early home for Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the ‘50s, Eckstein’s smooth voice influenced up-and-coming soul singers like Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke. Eckstein dabbled in both soul and jazz in the 1960s, even popping up on  a couple Motown LPs. Although his career was pretty much over by the ‘70s, Al Bell was able to coax the legend to cut a few albums for Stax. Unfortunately, Eckstein’s 1970 delivery of “My Cherie Amour” borders on parody and sadly resembles Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors’ version of “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life” that may be found on the Golden Throats series.

Winner: Motown

Round 8 – “Oh, Be My Love”

Barbara Lewis vs. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Barbara Lewis actually got her start as a teen soul singer in early ‘60s Detroit before finding greater success on Stax. Based on this number, it’s odd that Berry Gordy passed on Lewis at a time when he was seemingly signing every promising young singer in the city. Lewis’ voice is a perfect fit for the Motown sound. Then again, maybe it’s for the best Lewis didn’t join the Motown family. Chances are she would have ended up another in the long line of promising female talents discarded in the wake of Diana Ross. Lewis does a fine job with this interpretation of a 1967 Miracles b-side penned by Smokey Robinson. Unfortunately, the original version could not be located for comparison.

Winner: No decision

Round 9 – “I Hear a Symphony”

Booker T. and the MGs vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

On paper, this looks like a slam dunk: Remove Ross’ weak vocals and replace it with one of the tightest, funkiest groups of the day. But somehow, the MGs’ performance just doesn’t add up. The melody just doesn’t sound complete coming only from Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T. Jones’ organ can’t replicate the fullness of the Funk Brothers playing. The Supremes’ version is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and a testament to the acumen of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.

Winner: Motown

Round 10 – “Chained”

Mavis Staples vs. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye took a break from cutting duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell to lay down this funky number in 1968. The backing vocals and atmosphere give the track a live feel and the sax break is as close to the Stax sound as Motown gets. Mavis Staples cut her version a year later. She more than holds her own against Gaye’s vocals, and the arrangement is just as energetic. Both versions can pack the dance floor, yet are just different enough to stand on their own. Why choose one performance when you can have both?

Winner: Push

Round 11 – “Ask the Lonely”

John Gary Williams vs. Four Tops

John Gary Williams cut several sides for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads until he was drafted in 1966. When Williams got out of the military, he wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. His former group had carried on in his absence, and found Williams’ replacement to be much easier to work with. Stax owner Jim Stewart pressured the group to take Williams back and he recorded with the Lads until 1972. That year, Williams was finally able to go solo. He released only one album, which included covers of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the Spinners and this reading of “Ask the Lonely.” The smooth sax solo that opens this song and Williams’ vocals foreshadow the Quiet Storm movement. Williams arrangement and delivery may have been ahead of it’s time, but it’s not nearly enough to wrestle the title away from Levi Stubbs’ gut-busting performance on the original.

Winner: Motown

Round 12 – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

Soul Children vs. Stevie Wonder

The success of “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” – it spent six weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970 – gave Stevie Wonder a great deal of leverage when he renegotiated his contract with Motown and gained the artistic control that birthed his spectacular output later in the decade. “Signed” was the first single 20-year-old Wonder produced; his arrangement is so good you can get lost in the various instruments. There isn’t much that can be improved on Wonder’s version and the Soul Children’s slowed-down gospel interpretation falls flat in the face of his triumph.

Winner: Motown

Round 13 – “Someday We’ll Be Together”

Frederick Knight vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross’ name is coupled with the Supremes on the label of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” technically making it the ensemble’s final No. 1 hit before Ross started her solo career. Peeling back the label and examining the musicians’ chart, however, one can see that the song was actually a dry run for Ross’ solo career. Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced founding ‘preme Florence Ballard, are nowhere to be found, but even if they did they probably wouldn’t have been able to help. The song, co-written and produced by Harvey Fuqua, is a mess. The strings are way too syrupy, and the backing vocals are over-performed. Everything on the track is over-produced. Perhaps this was an effort to make Ross’ thin vocals sound more emotionally relevant, but even that is a failure. It does sport a great guitar line, though. Frederick Knight vaults over this ridiculously low bar, but he doesn’t exactly salvage the song. His strings are more restrained, the arrangement slightly more funky and the vocals greatly improved, but the song itself – which predates Fuqua’s time at Motown – is far from memorable.

Winner: Stax

Round 14 – “I Wish It Would Rain”

O.B. Clinton vs. the Temptations

“I Wish It Would Rain” is one of the most devastatingly heartbreaking songs in the Motown catalog. Mourning his lost love, David Ruffin lays his soul bare for all to see. Topping this soul masterpiece would be quite a challenge – so O.B. McClinton didn’t even try. Dubbed the “Chocolate Cowboy,” McClinton was an oddity on the Stax label. His singles only charted on the country charts, with his slower tempo, pedal steel-backed version of “I Wish It Would Rain” peaking at No. 67 in 1973. His is a noble attempt, but the song works better in R&B than it does country.

Winner: Motown

Round 15 – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The Bar-Kays vs. Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips

The wah wah guitar solo that punctures the Bar-Kays’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” just past the four-minute mark eclipses anything Gordy had imagined at Motown (save Rare Earth) and points Stax down the very odd path of Iron Butterfly and the acid rock of the early ‘70s. This version draws on the spirit of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Shaft” and steers close to CCR’s lengthy, jammed-out rendition. I’m not sure if this actually tops the performances Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight took to No. 1 a little more than a year apart. The versions are so different; it’s comparing apples and oranges. Enjoy them all.

Winner: Push

Final score: Stax 4, Motown 7.

The winner in this (the only) bout is overwhelmingly Motown, but Hitsville has an incumbent’s advantage of making Stax tackle its material. Listening to the Supremes tackle the Emotions, Levi Stubbs sparring with the Otis Redding songbook , the Temptations doing Sam and Dave and Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland applying their touches to Hayes/Porter and MGs arrangements would not only be a fantastic delight, but likely tip in favor of Soulsville. Sadly, we’ll never know. As a consolation prize, we have this compilation to bridge two very different and influential approaches to soul music.

The Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

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The Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

The dramatic introduction to “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” owes more than a little to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and was Motown’s most cinematic chart-topper to date. While the flute gets the signature melody, check out James Jamerson’s uber-melodic bassline bubbling underneath the bevy of instruments. Paul McCartney gets a lot of (deserved) credit for his inventive basslines, but Jamerson’s brilliant countermelody here rivals anything McCartney came up with the Beatles – OK, maybe not “I Feel Fine” – and should permanently insert Jamerson into the ‘60s bass legends conversation.

The song was written by the white-hot trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland – there were actually other Hitsville employees at the time, although one wouldn’t know it by looking at the Billboard charts – but Norman Whitfield supplied the galloping percussion. Propelled by HDH’s rich arrangement, “Reach Out” starts strong and continues to build through the verse, dropping off and resting slightly before the Tops casually fall into the chorus. Lyrics could almost become superfluous with a melody this strong, but lead singer Levi Stubbs’ words of commitment and devotion are equally compelling.

Although the song became the Tops signature number, Stubbs initially felt his voice was too rough for the song and tried to recuse himself. Fortunately, HDH prevailed on Stubbs to give it a try. Stubbs promptly delivered one of the great vocals in the Motown catalog. Critics who pick on “overproduced” songs like this as examples of the slick Motown sound need to pay more attention to Stubbs’ vocals. His signing is as gritty and soulful as anything in the Stax cannon. Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson may sound a little stilted in singing in front of Stax’ incredible house band Booker T and the MGs. It’s not hard to imagine Stubbs being more than up to the task. Unfortunately such cross-pollination never occurred, but with the advent of ProTools and continued merger of major record labels, maybe the Motown and Stax catalog will end up under the same corporate umbrella and someone will give us a recreated session.

Stubbs’ soulful signing on “Reach Out” inspired a lot of people – unfortunately it inspired a lot of the wrong people. While the ability to sing soul music is not racial, a whole lotta white dudes certainly tried to make the case. Elton John, Michael Bolton and Michael McDonald all failed on this number. More successful were Diana Ross, who took her cover into the Top 40 in 1971, and Gloria Gaynor, who did a disco version just four years later.

The Elgins – “Heaven Must Have Sent You”

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The Elgins – “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” Pop #50 , R&B #9

By Joel Francis

I suspect that if you took this single and replaced the word “Elgins” with “Supremes” and gave it to DJs with no other changes, it would have been a far bigger hit.

Not that Saundra Edwards’ voice sounds like Diana Ross’ – Edwards’ has more depth and fullness – but the Holland-Dozier-Holland team that cranked this number out sure cribbed it in the same production and arrangement that sent all the Supremes material to the top of the charts.

Unfortunately, Edwards wasn’t Ross and the Elgins weren’t the Supremes. Frustrated by her lack of success at Motown – Edwards recorded two songs for the label in 1962 as Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas – left the group shortly after the group recorded their only full-length platter. The Elgins briefly carried on with Yvonne Allen in Edwards’ place, but disbanded in 1968.

Although it had little impact at the time, “Heaven Must Have Sent You” finally became a Motown pop hit in 1979 – for disco singer Bonnie Pointer, the youngest of the Pointer Sisters. Spurred by this hit, though, the Elgins regrouped in the 1980s. Although there was only one original Elgin in this lineup, the group toured and re-recorded “Heaven Must Have Sent You.” Edwards also cut a solo album in the early ‘80s with the same producer the Elgins were using at the time.