Soulsville sings Hitsville

soulsville sings hitsville

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 Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond

Above: Jack White and Alicia Keys do the latest James Bond song, “Another Way To Die.”

By Joel Francis

Duran Duran bass player John Taylor probably had the previous two James Bond themes in mind when he drunkenly approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked when they were going to get someone “decent” to do a Bond song.

It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” was a No. 1 hit, re-establishing Paul McCartney’s precedent of letting successful pop acts write and perform title songs hit. While the big synthesizers and processed drums haven’t aged well – few pop songs from the ’80s have – the chorus of “dance into the fire” remains as catchy as ever. The song also marked the last time original Duran Duran’s lineup recorded together for 16 years.

Encouraged by Duran Duran’s success, the Bonds producers handed the reigns to another pop act for 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” After being rejected by the Pet Shop Boys, who wanted to score the entire film, a-ha, the band best known for its 1985 No. 1 hit “Take On Me,” agreed to take on Bond. Sporting similar dated production as Duran Duran’s hit, but weaker songwriting and overly sensitive singing, “The Living Daylights” became another Bond footnote.

The lush orchestration associated with early Bond numbers was back for Gladys Knight’s “License to Kill” in 1989. Composer Michael Kamen did a good job incorporating the “Goldfinger” horn line into the main melody, but the lyrics and melody are bland. It’s a shame that Knight, who has one of the strongest soul voices of all time, wasn’t given stronger material. Bond’s further musical malaise is marked by the presence of Patti LaBelle’s end credits theme, “If You Asked Me To,” which was later covered by Celine Dion. Dion’s appearance marks the nadir of any expedition.

After a six-year hiatus and casting change, Bond returned in 1995’s “Golden Eye.” Written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, “Golden Eye” found the duo continuing in the same vein as their summer hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” The arrangement wraps the duo’s discotheque infatuation around a haunting melody build on a horn line. Tina Turner masterfully teases Bono’s voyeuristic lyrics and was rewarded with a Top 10 hit in Europe. “Goldfinger” was the best Bond song in a generation and helped successfully jumpstart the franchise.

After the powerful, soulful voices of Knight and Tuner, Bond’s producers turned to another American female in 1997 for “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Sheryl Crow brought strong songwriting chops and chart-topping cache, but she lacked the voice to carry her melody. Her vocals fare well during the verses, but the chorus is too high for Crow’s register where her throat lacks the energy to carry the words and emotion. k.d. lang’s “Surrender,” written by the film’s composer David Arnold, fits firmly in the Bond mold of big strings and brassy horns and would have been a better opening number. Unfortunately, it was retitled and pushed to the closing credits once Crow signed on. Finally, pop-techno musician Moby was enlisted to remix Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” The result was a rare update that successfully enhanced and modernized the original.

Arnold successfully married his large orchestration with light techno elements for “The World Is Not Enough.” Garbage singer Shirley Manson slithers through the lyrics with authority and the rest of the band maintains a tasteful balance between rock and orchestral while adding their stamp to the song.

Madonna was easily Bond’s biggest star pull since Paul McCartney when she signed up for “Die Another Day” in 2002. While the film may have been Bond-by-numbers, Madonna blew up the formula for her electronic theme song. Her manipulated vocals hide behind banks of synthesizers and strings and spout the memorable line “Sigmund Freud/analyze this.” Although the song spent 11 weeks at the top spot of the U.S. charts, it is unlike any other theme in the Bond cannon and, as a result, not without controversy. The Material Girl wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bond was rebooted once again in 2006 for “Casino Royale.” As the character became grittier, so did the music. Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” is easily the hardest number in the Bond cannon, cut from the same stone as Alice Cooper’s rejected “Man with the Golden Gun” that repulsed producers 30 years ago.

Confirming they were no longer afraid to rock out, White Stripes mastermind Jack White was enlisted to perform “Another Way To Die” for 2008’s “The Quantum of Solace.” Unsurprisingly, White’s song sounds like a heavily orchestrated White Stripes number given an urban twist courtesy of the piano and vocals of Alicia Keys. Stripped of the overproduction that plagues her solo releases, Keys shines under White’s watch. Her call and response with White’s dirty guitar licks halfway through the song channel “What I’d Say” through Jimmy Page’s amplifier. The number is the first Bond theme performed as a duet, but based on the openness Bond’s producers have shown in the past decade, it will likely not be the last.

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part 1 – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part 2 – The Seventies