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Posts Tagged ‘Elton John’

(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.

Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.

Beloved songwriter James Taylor has only released one album of original material this decade.

Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).

Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.

Guitarist Junior Marvin and the Original Wailers have been playing material from their upcoming album alongside Bob Marley's classic material.

Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.

The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.

Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)

Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?

Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.

Keep reading:

Review: Lilith Fair

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Bruce Springsteen

Review: James Taylor and Carole King

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(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.

Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.

LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.

While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.

Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.

Keep reading:

Review: Bettye LaVette and Buddy Guy at Roots n Blues BBQ Fest (2008)

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Review – Booker T.

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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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(Above: “We and Dem” was one of several new cuts the Original Wailers performed in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

New material can be problematic for established acts. At a Kemper Arena concert several years ago, Elton John apologized for playing new songs and promised the he’d get to the hits as quickly as possible.
The Original Wailers took the opposite track Friday at the Voodoo Lounge, making several tracks from their upcoming album the centerpiece of the show. The gamble paid off.

Bob Marley casts a long shadow over all reggae acts, but the Original Wailers are especially stricken: Their two guitarists, J unior Marvin and Al Anderson, played with Marley on some of his greatest albums, including “Exodus” and “Uprising.”

The seven-piece band didn’t overlook those moments, but it was clear they want to be remembered as something more as well. After introducing themselves with a trio of Marley numbers, they dove into several songs from the as-yet unreleased album “Justice.”
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Even though the crowd couldn’t sing along, they didn’t seem to mind. Part of this had to do with band’s enthusiasm for the numbers. It was evident they were happy to be playing their new creations, and as a result the performances bounced a little bit higher. The other reason is that the songs maintained several of Marley’s hallmarks, like socially conscious, yet upbeat lyrics underlined by gospel organ lines and subtly textured guitar parts.

“Blackbird Fly” was dedicated to the late Joseph Hill from Culture and floated as effortlessly as its title implied. “Backslider” was a song about hypocrites in the vein of “Who the Cap Fit,” and “We and Dem” featured a nifty dub bass-and-drum breakdown.

After several new songs, Anderson declared the band would take a request. There were shouts for “I Shot the Sheriff” and “No Woman No Cry.” Both were good suggestions; neither was played. Instead, the band played another new number, “What’s Love Supposed To Do.” It might have been a cruel trick, but the poppy number kept everyone dancing happily.

Marvin and keyboard player Desi Hyson shared vocal duties. The pair were as much educators as entertainers, pausing between tracks to frame each song. The song “Justice” was prefaced by a quote from founding Wailer Peter Tosh, which drew a big cheer.

The band didn’t deliver a big Marley hit until nearly halfway through the two-hour show. The Voodoo Lounge wasn’t close to full, but just about everyone in the place ran onto the dance floor during the opening chords of “Three Little Birds.” A more obscure cut “Heathen,” also from the “Exodus” album, kept the floor crowded thanks to Anderson and Marvin’s extended solos. A master of feel, Anderson added touches of Latin, psychedelica, blues and even metal into the songs.

After introducing “Jammin’” the crowd didn’t need an incentive to stick around, but Marvin gave them one anyway, leading them through dance steps, hand claps and a call and response. Anderson added a weird, dissonant blues riff to the mix that didn’t seem to fit but somehow worked. As the band worked the groove, backing vocalist Erica Newell, spurred on by fans near the stage, unleashed her funkiest dance moves of the night.

Wailers2After a brief break, Anderson resumed the stage alone, playing a guitar solo that recalled Jimmy Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountainside.” Eventually joined by drummer Paapa Nyarkoh, the rest of the band fell in as he slid into the familiar intro to “Redemption Song.” The performance had a hymn-like solemnity until Marvin kicked it into doubletime, reworking the last verse into a ska number.

The night ended with a 15-minute romp through “Exodus” that wouldn’t quit. After jamming through all the verses, Nyarkoh took a drum solo that didn’t slow the dancing by a single step. Marvin eventually regained the stage, but the band wouldn’t stop, working the groove tighter and tighter as Anderson took a long solo. At this point there were two options: continue playing the number for the rest of the night, which no one on stage or in the crowd seemed to mind, or break it off immediately. Realizing the band had an upcoming gig and the audience may have weekend plans, Anderson chose the latter. If he hadn’t we might all still be dancing.

Setlist: Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Forever Loving Jah, Solution, We Are the Children, Backslider, Justice, Pimper’s Paradise, We and Dem, Blackbird Fly, Three Little Birds, Heathen, What Love’s Supposed To Do, Jammin’. Encore: Al Anderson guitar solo > Redemption Song, Exodus/drum solo.

Keep reading:

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

We at The Daily Record try to play clean in our tiny corner of the interweb. Once a year, on “music’s biggest night” the gloves come off and the snark comes out. This year, we present a live diary of the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. We’ll be doing this live throughout the telecast, so keep checking back.

7:01 – Lady Gaga opens the show in a dress she bought at Bjork’s garage sale.

7:02 – She forgot to buy the pants, though.

7:04 – At last, Elton John has found someone with more flamboyant taste in eye wear. Wonder how that feels.

7:11 – Stephen Colbert may have already delivered the line of the night. Re: Susan Boyle selling the most records of ’09 and saving the bottom line –  “You may think you’re the coolest people in the world, but just remember that your industry was saved by a Scottish woman in sensible shoes.”

7:13 – Beyonce wins “Song of the Year” but can’t make it onstage to accept the award. Why not have it received by the Chippettes, stars of the year’s best film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”? Now that’s synergy!

7:15 – Who the hell thought it was a good idea to turn “American Idiot” into a musical? I can hear this one flopping faster than Twyla Tharpe’s tribute to Bob Dylan. Forget “Movin’ Out,” how about moving on?

7:16 – Nothing screams “punk rock” louder than a Broadway chorus. Even the Clash buried their choral version of “Career Opportunities” on the last side of “Sandinista.”

7:24 – I can’t figure out which interests me less Kirsten Bell’s insipid new movie “When In Rome” or what song Bon Jovi will play tonight. Let me guess: a really lame one from the ’80s.

7:26 – Does Taylor Swift have a clause in her contract that she must win every award for which she is nominated? Has she ever lost?

7:27 – I’m a little disappointed Kayne West didn’t jump onstage and start talking about how great Keith Urban is.

7:28 – Hey, Beyonce brought the S1W’s with her. Nice to see her kicking it old school.

7:29 – (The S1Ws were the black panther dancers who guard the stage during Public Enemy performances.)

7:32 – Nothing screams 2010 like Alanis Morrissette songs. On to the next one.

7:37 – Questlove just tweeted “must admit that watching twitter tweets are better than watching the actual event.”

7:41 – Pink is wearing the sexiest berka of all time.

7:44 – Nothing screams “class” like a chick in a g-string spraying water everywhere. Pink is so talented!

7:45 – Between Pink and GaGa that’s four butt-cheeks bared tonight. Just wait until Howard Stern and Prince come out.

7:47 – I’m not sure who the Zac Brown are, but respect the fact that they didn’t get all gussied up for the show.

7:48 – I’m also glad none of them were wearing a g-string.

7:55 – Will.I.Am looks like Mr. Roboto from that Styx album.

7:56 – Fergie looks like someone from either Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galatca. Does anyone else remember when Channel 62 used to show all those back-to-back on Saturday afternoons?

7:58 – I gotta admit that watching the Peas do “I Got A Feeling” in concert would probably be a lot of fun. That song got a lot more infectious energy than it deserved.

8:00 – OK, so we’re an hour into this thing and a couple ground rules have already been established. No. 1, no one can perform a song all the way through. Medleys only, please. No. 2, all performance must somehow make their way from the main stage to the satellite stage, and back.

8:01 – They keep advertising the 3-D Michael Jackson tribute with Celine Dion. That woman’s so skinny, I bet even in 3D she’s only 2D.

8:06 – Who the heck are Lady Antebellum?

8:07 – I knew it would happen. People are starting to compose songs for those episode-capping montages. This Lady Antebellum song would be perfect over the poignant closing moments of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

8:09 – The presenter just said there was a Grammy category for artists who don’t have musical talent. Wait, there’s a Grammy for people with musical talent? When are they going to give that one out. Oh yeah, it was done earlier in the day in the parking lot behind the Ross downtown.

8:11 – I bet Stephen Colbert’s daughter thinks her dad is cool now that he’s one a Grammy.

8:12 – Oh, just as I blogged the above Colbert asked his daughter if she thought he was cool now. I am so freaking prescient!! (She said yes, by the way.)

8:13 – The Target ad just showed a white dog with a red spot of his eye. Spuds McKenzie lives!

8:14 – OK, that’s three exclamation points in the past two entries. I’m calming down now.

8:18 – Wow, Taylor Swift was up for “Song of the Year” and she didn’t win. I bet she gets at least half an album’s worth of songs of out how she’s feeling right now.

8:20 – They just introduced Robert Downey, Jr. as the most “self-important” actor of his day. How out of control is your ego when you’re crowned most “self-important” in Hollywood?

8:21 – That operatic introduction to “Blame It” was brilliant. Every time I hear this song I remember that Stevie Wonder stopped his show at Starlight last summer to play it over the PA.

8:23 – If they hadn’t just shown George Clinton in the audience, I would have sworn he was the white-haired conductor onstage.

8:24 – I think “Blame It” is starting to suffer from auto-tune overload. It sounds like Kraftwerk.

8:25 – Now Slash is onstage playing the guitar solo from “November Rain.” He probably just heard someone talking about alcohol and bum rushed.

8:27 – Joe Posnanski just tweeted: “They really had people VOTE to determine what Jon Bon Jovi sings at the Grammys? Was there a ‘What’s the difference’ option?”

8:33 – Hey, Green Day won “Best Rock Album” for their follow-up to “American Idiot.” Can’t wait until that gets turned into a Broadway musical.

8:34 – Chris O’Donnell looks like McSteamy on “Grey’s Anatomy.” I hate myself for knowing this.

8:36 – Wow, a “country” band singing a patriotic song. Way to think outside the box, guys.

8:37 – Answer: Leon Russell with the Zac Brown Band. Question: Who will be headlining Knucklehead’s Labor Day celebration in 2012?

8:38 – Are the red-staters happy that the Zac Brown Band is celebrating America by playing a patriotic number, or upset with them for supporting Obama? This is so confusing. I thought we established that one couldn’t love their country without blindly supporting its president.

8:46 – Has anyone noticed how Taylor Swift strums from her elbow and not her wrist? It’s like she just picked up a guitar for the first time.

8:47 – I hope the tattooed guy on banjo is getting paid well for this gig.

8:49 – Good Lord, Taylor, stay in key! She has pitch like Mariah Carey at a baseball game in Japan.

8:53 – Dang, I forgot to get my 3D glasses. Fortunately, I still have 7 minutes to make it to Target.

8:54 – All you chumps who forgot your 3D glasses will now be given a migraine.

8:56 – I think Smokey could have handled the whole MJ tribute on his own. I would have loved to hear him cover a less-maudlin ballad on his own. I’d even settle for “Ben.”

8:57 – I love how Beyonce is wearing her 3D specs while Jay-Z is sans glasses. Hey B, you’re at the event. It’s already in 3D.

9:01 – I bet MJ’s kids feel really out of place when they hang out at their Uncle Tito’s place. Those are some pale-faced children.

9:03 – Wow, they were just paying tribute to MJ on the Grammys and now there’s a a commercial for “This Is It” on DVD. What a weird coincidence. It’s almost like it was planned.

9:08 – All you have to do to win an icon award is write “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”? Seems to be setting the bar a bit low.

9:09 – So what you were really voting for was which part of a Bon Jovi song they’ll perform.

9:10 – I hope Roger McGuinn is getting a cut of “We Weren’t Born to Follow.” Methinks Bon Jovi should have paid more attention to the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow” when they were ripping it off.

9:11 – Someone needs to say it: Bon Jove are looking old. How many chins does Sambora have, anyway? I count three.

9:12 – I’ll tell you who says you can’t go home: Thomas Wolfe. And if home sounds like this, I’ll be out with Dean Moriarty on the road.

9:14 – Jon Bon Jovi should be forced to sing “Living on a Prayer” over the PA at a Home Depot.

9:16 – What the? How did Mos Def get onstage? “True Magic” had more artistry than the entire careers of everyone else onstage tonight – combined (except for Smokey Robinson and Leon Russell).

9:18 – Next year at this time, I hope Mos Def and Talib Kweli are being presented with the Best Rap Song award for “History.” Black Star rules.

9:19 – So Kanye actually wins an award and he doesn’t show up to collect it? How classic would it have been for Taylor to crash his speech? Probably why he didn’t show up.

9:21 – Seriously, though, best of luck to you and whatever you’re going through, Kanye. Your albums are genius. I hope you get your magic back and exorcise those demons.

9:26 – So it’s OK to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to show support for the Haitians even though the song was banned by Clear Channel in the wake of 9/11?

9:28 – I just want to get this off my chest: Mary J. Blige, magnificent voice, but she oversings and all her songs are vamps and choruses. She doesn’t know what to do with a verse. And the a-hole who thought it would be a good idea to run that voice through auto-tune for MJB’s latest single should be shot. That’s like tying Fred Astaire’s ankles together.

9:30 – Do Mary J and Andrea Bocelli know they’re both singing the same song? Their “duet” was like an otolaryngological cock fight.

9:37 – Who’d have thought the Latin Grammys would have lasted a decade?

9:38 – How come there isn’t a Jazz Grammys or Klezmer Grammys?

9:42 – How many support musicians does the Dave Matthews Band need for this song? Maybe the USC Marching Trojans will show up again.

9:44 – Dave Matthews dances worse than Elaine Benes from “Sienfeld.”

9:46 – Now Ricky Martin has stolen Chris O’Donnel’s close-cropped look. He should just be glad he’s not forced to pay is way in with the general public.

9:48 – I think Beyonce’s dress is made of all of Jay-Z’s discarded bling.

9:55 – When I saw Maxwell last fall at the Saavis/Keil/Whatever it’s now called Center in St. Louis I imagined the experience was similar to seeing Marvin Gaye back in the day. Maxwell is the real deal and he’s killing it right now. Best performance of the night so far.

9:58 – Maxwell + Roberta Flack. At last, a duet with two people who actually know how to sing with a partner.

10:00 – As the show rounds the three hour mark, just think: the whole night could have been as good as what we just heard.

10:05 – I wonder if this is the combo Jeff Beck will be bringing to Starlight in April.

10:06 – So what’s the thinking here, now that all the kiddies have gone to bed we can shelve the pop tarts and have some real music?

10:07 – Does Quentin Tarantino know that pretending to act like such a badass is making him look like a huge douchebag?

10:14 – Is there a song underneath all these edits? Why not change the lyrics for television? I wonder if the producers have a lyric sheet up in the booth so they know when to drop out. That would be classic to see.

10:17 – Jamie Foxx is singing along with every lyric, but I have to say I think Drake is horribly overrated.

10:18 – Drake’s blend of preppie (black leather jacket, black shirt) with ghetto (torn, sagging jeans) is cracking me up. He’s clearly trying to have it both ways.

10:26 – Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year. Yawn.

10:29 – That’s it for the night. Thanks for reading and for hanging out.

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Running Diary

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ain't nothing
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.

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Four-tops-reach-out-1966

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.

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