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(Above: Raphael Saadiq runs the “100 Yard Dash.”)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Raphael Saadiq’s latest album, “The Way I See It,” is draped heavily in the sounds of Motown and Philly soul, but don’t call it a tribute album.

“Boyz II Men did a tribute; I wrote a bunch of songs,” Saadiq said about his all-originals album. “This was not intended to be a tribute album. It’s more like a secret love letter to the people I love.”

People like the Funk Brothers, Motown’s now-legendary stable of musicians, and the other unknown musicians who “took music to the level where it is today that I can come out and do this,” Saadiq said. “It’s not just about Smokey (Robinson) and Stevie Wonder, but a bunch of people we don’t even know about.”

He plays most of the instruments on the album himself, but Saadiq recruited two Funk Brothers to help him get that classic Motown sound. Jack Ashford’s tambourine has graced classics like “Nowhere to Run” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Paul Riser, who arranged the strings on Saadiq’s album, has worked with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

“I brought Jack in because he added a sound I couldn’t have had without him,” said Saadiq, who performs Wednesday at the VooDoo Lounge. “With Paul Riser it was the same thing. You can feel the energy when they walk into a room.”

Having Stevie Wonder play harmonica on one song was ultimate validation. Saadiq even went so far as to introduce his guest like Wonder introduced Dizzy Gillespie on his 1982 hit “Do I Do.”

“Seeing Stevie walk into a room and play is something I’ve never gotten used to,” Saadiq said. “Having him play on this was a stamp of approval. I’ve worked hard for a long time to have him come play (on my album).”

The former Tony! Toni! Tone! singer, who named his first solo album “Instant Vintage,” is more worried about being called “neo soul” than being pigeonholed.

“Everybody knows I hate the term ‘neo-soul,’ ” Saadiq said. “If someone was playing the blues they’d want an old soul. I don’t want a new soul — then I’d sound like somebody on the radio today, which I hate.”

On an album with so much — ahem — old-school soul, Jay-Z’s guest spot on the final track, a bonus remix, probably surprised many listeners.

“That was Q-Tip’s idea,” said Saadiq, referring to the former MC of A Tribe Called Quest. “He was like, ‘You should put Jay-Z on this record’ and then went and got him, because I didn’t know Jay like that. Some people didn’t like it. They’re probably neo-soul fans. I did this for the other people.”

More on Raphael Saadiq from The Daily Record:
“The Way I See It” album review
“The Way I See It” caps the Top 10 albums of 2008

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motownnew

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)

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Four Tops – “It’s the Same Old Song,” Pop #5, R&B #2

By Joel Francis

There’s a good reason why “It’s the Same Old Song” sounds so much like the Four Tops’ previous hit, “I Can’t Help Myself:” both songs are built on the same chords, only in reverse order.

When “I Can’t Help Myself” hit No. 1 in June, 1965, the Tops’ old label, Columbia, tried to cash in by re-releasing a five-year-old Tops single. An upset Berry Gordy countered that Motown needed to quash that single with one of their own – in just 24 hours.

At 3 p.m. Holland-Dozier-Holland sat down to write. Just two hours later, the Tops had finished recording the number and the tune was ready to mix. By 3 p.m. the next day, 1,500 copies of “It’s the Same Old Song” had been pressed and sent to DJs across the country. The icing on this astounding feat of production came in the coming weeks, as the song eventually rose to No. 5 on the charts.

Like “I Can’t Help Myself,” the song is propelled by Funk Brother Jack Ashford’s vibe’s and Richard “Pistol” Allen’s drumming. The bubbly string arrangement also echoes “I Can’t Help Myself.” Unsurprisingly, the end result is a second helping of a joyous melody masking a melancholy lyric. If it ain’t broke….

In the late ’70s two groups proved it was anything but “The Same Old Song” with two very different covers. KC and the Sunshine Band turned in a disco version and Delroy Wilson gave a reggae reading. Neither translation made the charts.

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sugar-pie-honey-bunch
Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The piano riff that kicks off this tune is instantly and universally recognizable – and with good reason. Depsite the apologetic lyrics, Levi Stubbs’ magnificent vocals are a ray of sunshine. He might be singing that he’s “weaker than a man should be,” but Stubbs is clearly having more fun than he should for a man in his predicament.

The string arrangement echoes the upbeat, impulsive melody – pay attention to the delightful vibraphone line – while Funk Brother Richard “Pistol” Allen’s offbeat drumming keep the feet moving. Stubbs’ vocals sound like the direct descendent of Kansas City, Mo. jazzman Big Joe Turner’s “shout” singing style. If they couldn’t bring his lover back, then the saxophone interlude should have sealed the deal.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s song capped five straight No. 1 hits with the Supremes. Although the trio penned the Tops’ early hits like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Berry Gordy thought they had lost their touch and passed the Tops to Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s pen for “Ask the Lonely.” After the success of “I Can’t Help Myself,” Holland-Dozier-Holland were given nearly exclusive rights to the Tops’ singles for the next three years.

In the summer of 1965, this song fought for the No. 1 spot with The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones. What a summer that must have been.

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Martha and the Vandellas – “Nowhere To Run,” Pop #8, R&B #5

Every element positively soars in this song. The brief, simple horn riff lifts off and Martha Reeves’ voice pushes the listener into the stratosphere. Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s bouncing drums and ascending backing vocals from the Vandellas keep the track in the air well past the run-off groove.

Reeves’ vain search to shake a no-good lover from her mind is further propelled by a light tickle of piano and hard-driving percussion than included a pair of snow chains bolstering the tambourine placed front and center in the mix. Holland-Dolland-Holland clearly knew what they were doing with this number. Heartbreak has never sounded so jubilant. – by Joel Francis

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The Temptations – “My Girl,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Lightning definitely struck twice for Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. After struggling for years, Robinson gave the Temptations their breakthrough hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” “My Girl,” their follow-up, is not only Motown’s biggest song, but one of the biggest soul numbers of all time.

Inspired by his wife Claudette, Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote the one of the greatest Valentines of all time as an answer song to their previous hit “My Guy.” Bob Dylan may have been thinking of the lyric “I’ve got so much honey/the bees envy me” when he proclaimed Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” in 1965.

David Ruffin made his lead vocal debut delivering these deceptively simple lyrics. Though it seems a no-brainer in retrospect, the decision was controversial at the time. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had shared the lead role prior to this song, and, to make matters worse, Ruffin was a ringer who replaced original Temptation Al Bryant. Ruffin got the nod after Robinson saw him singing “Under the Boardwalk” as part of their Motown Revue repertoire, and quickly became the group’s featured singer.

The Motown string section furthers Ruffin’s references to sunshine and fluttering birds, while Funk Brother James Jamerson’s signature two-note bass line anchors the entire performance.

It’s unclear why Robinson and White didn’t keep their song for The Miracles, but it didn’t take long for other acts to put their stamp on the number. Otis Redding added some blues for his 1965 reading; both the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and Papas cut it in 1967. Since then, everyone from Al Green to reggae artist Prince Buster to Dolly Parton to British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain has reinterpreted this timeless classic.

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