Temptations – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep”

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Temptations – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” Pop #3, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

After teaming to give the Tempts a No. 1 R&B hit with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland paired again to deliver “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” which fared even better. The song was the Temptations’ third hit of 1966 and fifth consecutive R&B No. 1, dating back to 1965’s “My Girl.”

After a sharp blast of horns and drum roll from “Pistol” Allen, the song drops to a tinkle of glockenspiel that would make Bruce Springsteen proud and slowly builds, with a crescendo at the chorus. There’s a whisper of guitar and the rumble of James Jamerson’s bass, but Paul Riser’s arrangement is essentially David Ruffin and the Tempts’ voices, horns – complete with trumpet solo! – and that magnificent snare. It was more than enough.

Contrast the prominence the other Temptations are given with their backing performance in this song to the anonymity Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes were often given. As part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Eddie Holland certainly knew how to write and arrange interesting counter-vocals. It makes one wonder how much influence label owner Berry Gordy exerted to push Diana Ross to the front and minimize the contributions of her bandmates.

Although the title seems enlightened, few women would regard a lyric like “A pretty face you may not possess/ But what I like about it is your tenderness” as a compliment.

Whitfield actually recorded the song’s backing track two years before he added the Temptations’ vocals. In the interceding time he shopped it to several Motown artists, including David Ruffin’s brother, Jimmy, and the Miracles, who included their version on the “Away We Go-Go” album. (Never one to miss a trend, Gordy also released “The Supremes A Go-Go” album in that same summer of 1966.) The Ruffin and Miracles versions are the only substantial covers of the song on record to date.

The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”

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

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Clark – “Love’s Gone Bad”

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Chris Clark – “Love’s Gone Bad,” Pop #105, R&B #41

By Joel Francis

Producers had been looking for a “white singer with a black sound” long before Sam Phillips signed Elvis Presley. But Berry Gordy’s quest definitely added a layer of irony to the process.

Not that Gordy fared any better than the majority of his contemporaries. We can be fairly certain that the assets that drew Gordy to Chris Clark were not vocal.

Nonetheless, Gordy positioned Clark to be Motown – and America’s – answer to Dusty Springfield. He propped her up with songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland and even wrote and produced several numbers himself. Gordy’s favoritism didn’t go over so well at Hitsville. Other artists resented that Gordy spent so much time trying to make a star out of someone who refused to wear shoes, didn’t dress sharply and ate too much.

The public didn’t find much to like, either. Clark’s releases refused to dent the charts. “Love’s Gone Bad,” a HDH composition, was her greatest success, and somehow was enough to earn her the right to cut a full album the next year. 1967’s “Soul Sounds” dropped without a trace. So few copies were pressed that 40 years later it is a rare Motown collectible.

Despite all this, Clark managed to hang around Motown for quite a while. She co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay to “Lady Sings the Blues,” Motown’s 1972 foray into film. That film, of course, starred Gordy’s ultimate protégée, Diana Ross.

Jimmy Ruffin – “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”

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Jimmy Ruffin – “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” Pop #7, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

Jimmy Ruffin isn’t as well-known as his brother, the late Temptations singer David Ruffin, but Jimmy didn’t land at Motown through nepotism. Raised in Mississippi, Jimmy sang with David in the family gospel group. When he was drafted, Jimmy entertained the troops with his doo-wop singing. After the military, he settled in Detroit. Jimmy auditioned for Motown and was signed before his brother, but success didn’t come as quickly.
Relegated to supplying handclaps and finger snaps, Jimmy was forced to earn a living on the automotive assembly line. After a few failed singles, Jimmy broke through with his third single, “As Long As there is Love,” written by Smokey Robinson, and finally hit big with “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”
Songwriters William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean originally intended this song to go to the Spinners, who would later give Motown a Top 20 hit with “It’s a Shame.” When Ruffin heard the number, it resonated so deeply within that he begged the trio to let him record it. The resulting single was the biggest and best-known of his career.
The song’s long introduction was the result of producer Mickey Stevenson’s decision to remove Jimmy’s spoken-word verse from the final mix. A restored version was later released on several Motown compilations. But the instrumental prelude does a great job of establishing the setting for Ruffin’s “land of broken dreams.” Songwriter Riser is best known as Motown’s in-house arranger. His string arrangements that appear on albums by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross and many more. One of the few Funk Brothers to emerge from the Snakepit – their nickname for Motown’s garage-cum-recording studio – with a writing credit, his influence may explain the song’s sweeping, theatrical feel.
Jimmy released another dozen singles and four albums – including one with David – for Motown. In the mid-’70s, he signed with Polydor, who released two of his albums. Jimmy’s final album, “Sunrise,” was produced by Bee Gee Robin Gibb and released in 1980. Shortly afterward, Ruffin moved to England where he had his own talk show and continues to tour.
The song was covered by Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1969, but ignored until Dave Stewart and Zombies singer Colin Blunstone cut a version in 1981. The duo may have been spurred by the success of “Sunrise” and Jimmy’s immigration to their native England. Ten years later, Paul Young’s cover hit No. 1 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart on the back of its appearance in the film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

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

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

Kim Weston – “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)”

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

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

The Supremes – “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me”


The Supremes – “Baby Love,” Pop #1, R&B #1
The Supremes – “Come See About Me,” Pop #1, R&B #3

By Joel Francis

(Note: Since the producers of the “Hitsville U.S.A.” box set programmed these tracks back-to-back, we’ll tackle them in one entry.)

For most people, the Supremes are Motown. Label founder Berry Gordy certainly didn’t hesitate to promote and encourage their singles, seemingly above all other releases. Gordy had been looking high and low to find a female face for his label. Early contender Mary Wells defected, and for some reason Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Gladys Knight and the Pips didn’t fit his image. The answer was right under his nose the whole time.

Supreme Florence Ballard grew up in Detroit with future Temptations Paul Williams and Eddie Hendricks, who were performing as the Primes. Their management wanted a female group, so Ballard formed the Primettes with best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited schoolmate Diana Ross.

In 1960, Ross pestered her old neighbor Smokey Robinson for an audition at Motown. He thought the girls were too green, but snagged their guitarist to join the Miracles. Undaunted, the trio stopped by the Hitsville studio every day after school and bugged Gordy for a spot on his label. The persistence paid off and in 1961 The Supremes released their first Motown single.

The Supremes were hardly the overnight success history has made them out to be. Their first eight singles, released over three years) did absolutely nothing on the charts. In 1964 they were turned over to the Holland-Dozier-Holland machine and their fortunes improved.

“Baby Love” was the Supreme’s second No. 1 hit with HDH. Any listeners that Ross’ opening coo didn’t seduce were captured by the catchy chorus that opens the song. The Funk Brothers shuffle underneath the lyrics imitates the footsteps, but are they walking away or coming back? The sexy saxophone accompaniment seems imply a lover’s return, but Ross is so insistent throughout it’s impossible to be sure.

“Come See About Me” continued the Supreme’s No. 1 success. Yet another HDH song and production, the repeated musical and lyrical theme – a spurned Ross singing over a shuffling Funk Brothers track – the assembly-line criticism holds up in this case. Why did such lovely ladies do to be treated so badly and ignored by the men in their lives?

Both songs have risen to the top of the oldies pantheon, and performed by dozens of artists. As with most of his major hits, Gordy passed both numbers around his stable of singers. For my money, the definitive version of “Come See About Me” is Jr. Walker’s 1967 cover.