The Four Tops – “Standing in the Shadows of Love”

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The Four Tops – “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” Pop # 6, R&B 2

By Joel Francis

Holland-Dozier-Holland had so much fun and success with the arrangement of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” they decided to do it again as “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” Unlike most sequels, this one was just as good and just as fun.

Despite the upbeat arrangement and dance rhythms, this song is as bleak as they come. Check the opening lyrics: “Standing in the shadows of love/getting ready for the heartache to come,” or “You’ve taken away all my reasons for living/when you pushed aside all the love I’ve been giving.” This stuff makes the Cure’s “A Letter to Elise” look like a nursery rhyme.

Levi Stubbs dumps a lifetime of anguish into his vocals. Fortunately, the Funk Brothers take away a lot of the pain. Check out the instrumental version of “Shadows’ from the original master tapes on the second disc of the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” deluxe edition. The performance there is so strong and tight, the number practically stands on its own. The combination of the Funk Brothers and Four Tops on this song is so propulsive, it’s baffling to realize the song never hit No. 1.

The Jackson 5 put their spin on the song in 1971, but the lads lacked the gravitas to give a convincing performance. Barry White, a man with considerably more weight and emotion in his delivery, added an extended instrumental opening to his 1973 version. The song was turned into a dance number in the ‘80s by France Joli and attempted by Hall and Oates on their 2004 album.

When Aerosmith released this single “The Other Side” in 1990, Holland-Dozier-Holland thought the song bore enough similarity to “Shadows” that they threatened with lawsuit. Aerosmith caved, giving HDH a shared credit with Steven Tyler and song doctor Jim Vallance.

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.

Stevie Wonder celebrates Michael Jackson at Starlight

(Above: Stevie Wonder performs “Never Can Say Goodbye” the day after Michael Jackson’s death. Wonder dedicated his performance at Starlight Theater to Jackson.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stevie Wonder walked on stage at Starlight Theatre on Friday night with zero fanfare and cut to the heart of the night before playing a single note.

“God blessed us with a talented man who brought us joy with his dancing, music, videos and all of that,” Wonder said as part of his five-minute monologue about his friend and former Motown labelmate Michael Jackson.
Finally settling behind his grand piano, Wonder delivered a powerful acapella performance of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” that gave me goosebumps. After two verses, the band joined in. When the song was over, Wonder led them into a spontaneous version of “Kansas City” that caught most of the musicians off-guard.It was that kind of night. The mood altered between moving tributes to Jackson, who died the day before, upbeat hits and random moments.

It took Wonder a half hour to get the nearly sold-out crowd on its feet. Once “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” finally did the trick, Wonder ensured they stayed up by playing the signature bassline to “Billie Jean.” With no vocal support from the stage, Wonder let the crowd sing the entire song.

The audience did a good job at impromptu karoke the first time around, but was less successful in carrying “I Can’t Help It.” Wonder has good reason to be proud of the song he wrote for Jackson that ended up on his “Off the Wall” album, but few in the audience were familiar with the number.

The crowd did better on Wonder’s classic material. “All I Do,” “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” all drew big responses.

Later in the set, Wonder led the band through a jam with his vocoder. Safe behind the distortion of this electronic vocal altering device, Wonder was surprisingly honest.

“Last night and today I was in so much pain,” Wonder said, “but I knew if I played for you I would play a little better.”

Still employing the vocoder, Wonder segued into the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The poignant moment was made even more mournful by the vocal alteration and Wonder’s decision to let a male backing singer take the final verse. Emotions built as Wonder led the crowd through the chorus again and again, turning the song into a remembrance and a celebration.

Wonder was backed by a 14-piece band that included four backing vocalists – including his daughter Aisha Morris – two percussionists, keyboard players and guitarist and a rhythm and horn section.

Given his orchestrations on record, it was no surprise the band arrangements were sublime. The ensemble knew the right moments to back off and give Wonder the spotlight and the right time to come in and kick the performance up a notch. As usual, the sound at Starlight was great.

After the South American syncopation of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Wonder paused for a moment behind the keyboard. Playing a gorgeous piece of music, he started humming and mumbling until the words congealed into stream-of-consciousness thoughts about Jackson being “in the arms of God.” The energy from this moving melody was poured into an amazing reading of “You and I” that found Wonder showing of his vocal range and its resilience to time and age.

Randomness struck again in the last 30 minutes of the night when Wonder had his sound man play Jamie Foxx and T-Pain’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” over the PA while he rested his throat and the band hydrated. That was followed by a jazz number performed by Wonder’s daughter. The song was pleasant, but not what folks came to hear.

Two other shortcomings also bear mention. The only time Wonder played harmonica was during a cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” His solo brief solo there was both a tease and a crime. Also, Wonder’s ‘60s catalog was completely ignored. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” from 1970 was as far back as Wonder went for the night, which meant “Uptight,” “Hey Love,” “My Cherie Amor” and others were forgotten.

Wonder ended the night with the murderer’s row of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “Sir Duke,” “Superstition” and “As” that more than erased any minor missteps. As the final notes of “As” died out, the strains of “ABC” faded in. The Jackson 5 number kicked off a pre-recorded medley of Wonder’s favorite Jackson moments.

As the tape played, everyone remained onstage dancing, singing along and brushing away stray tears. Two hours and 20 minutes after taking the stage, Wonder and his band filed slowly offstage as “Man in the Mirror” played. There was no encore, but there was nothing left to say.

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Setlist: Love’s In Need of Love Today, Going to Kansas City> Bird of Beauty> As If You Read My Mind> Master Blaster (Jammin’), Billie Jean, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me> All I Do, I Can’t Help It, Vocoder Jam> Never Can Say Goodbye > Higher Ground, Spain> Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Improvised MJ tribute> You and I, Living For the City, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Blame It (On the Alcohol) (Jamie Foxx and T-Pain song played over PA), I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life (Aisha Morris, lead vocals), Sir Duke> Superstition, As, Michael Jackson medley (played over PA)

Keep reading:
More Stevie Wonder articles from The Daily Record.

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More Michael Jackson Memories

(Above: The long version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Soak in all six minutes – then play it again.)

By Joel Francis

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I wrote about the Michael I liked best. The young Michael, who fronted the Jackson 5, grew into his own and delivered his greatest statement and one of the best pop/dance albums ever on the cusp of the ’80s.

But that isn’t the Michael Jackson I remember. I recall the Jackson’s Victory tour kicking off at Arrowhead in 1984. Everyone at swim lessons that day was talking about it, but I didn’t really know who Michael was and what the fuss was all about. I have no memories of Michael’s follow-up stops at Kemper Arena four years later.

Later, all I knew about Michael Jackson were the Weird Al parodies, the “sha-mon” self-parodies and – Eddie Van Halen and Slash’s guitar solos aside – a bunch of slick pop that didn’t conform to my burgeoning rockist sensibilities.

Retrospectively, it’s easy to turn the finger on myself and laugh at how ignorant and dismissive I was at the time. In my defense, “Bad” and “Dangerous,” the two Michael Jackson albums that hit when I was coming of musical age, were unsuccessful attempts to replicate “Thriller.” By the time giant Jacko statues were floating in the Thames River to promote “HISstory,” Jackson was so far removed from his glory days and so entrenched in the paparazzi-enabled tabloid journalism that defined his life that I couldn’t take him seriously as an artistic force.

When someone tried to explain to me that the ghost-white, thin-nosed Jacko on the talk shows was the same African-American child who sang those Jackson 5 songs, I balked for two reasons. Firstly, it’s still hard to believe anyone could transform so drastically over such a short period of time. More importantly, however, those songs were great! They may have been created with the same crass marketing motives that plagued post-“Thriller” Jackson, but somehow this stuff more than held up.

One of the guys in my dad’s National Guard unit used to play “ABC” so often that my dad said he never needed to hear the song again. I can see where my dad was coming from; that could be pretty annoying. But I can also understand the impulse to play that song over and over. Great songs create a world we get to live in for a few minutes. Usually that world vanishes into the next track sooner than we’d like, and when it does you have the immediate desire to return. At two minutes, 30 seconds, “ABC” is not long enough.

Fortunately, I can make a playlist shoving “ABC” against “I Want You Back,” “Black and White,” “I’ll Be There,” my all-time favorite Michael jam “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and the rest of his finest moments. It will be in the air for the rest of the weekend, allowing me to live in Michael’s musical world once again.

Michael Jackson: We want you back

(Above: Bill Cosby emcees the Jackson 5’s infectious reading of “I Want You Back.”)

By Joel Francis

Before Michael Jackson was the King of Pop or Wacko Jacko he was little Michael, the adorable child singer for the Jackson 5. Michael and his brothers were the final star group to come out of Hitsville U.S.A. Their career bridges the gap between Motown’s glory days in Detroit and its descent to becoming just another record label in Los Angeles.

Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and all the other tween pop stars with arena tours and television shows would be nothing today without the groundwork Michael and the Jackson 5 laid in the early ‘70s. Motown founder Berry Gordy was among the first businessmen to recognize how lucrative the tweener market could be. He marketed the Jackson 5 to fans the same age as the performers. Black or white, young Americans tried to imitate the dance moves and routines they saw on the Ed Sullivan Show, network television specials and even the band’s own Saturday morning cartoon.

Like that other brilliant piece of musical marketing, the Monkees, the Jackson 5 didn’t write their own material. Holland-Dozier-Holland may have departed, but Gordy was able to round up another ad hoc songwriting team to write material for the teen sensations. Anonymously dubbed “The Corporation” so other labels wouldn’t steal them away from Motown, the team was responsible for “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Sugar Daddy” to name but a few of their J5 hits.

The music may have been marketed to tweens, but it more than holds up today. The titles alone of the aforementioned songs should be enough for smiles to spread on most faces. Don’t worry if they don’t, though. After a few bars have played, they will jolt the rest of the way into your consciousness, making you involuntarily start tapping your feet and grooving along with the happy rhythms.

In 1972, 14-year-old Michael started cutting his own records for Motown. His early solo hits include “Got to Be There,” a cover of “Rockin’ Robin.” Michael’s first No. 1 solo hit was the title song to the film “Ben.” The movie may have been about a boy and his pet rat (Ben was the rat, of course), but Michael’s song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Jackson’s biggest moment occurred when he was no longer on the Motown label, but front and center on Motown’s stage. In 1983 a television special was shot in Los Angeles celebrating 25 years of Motown records. Many of the label’s biggest hits reunited or returned to pay tribute to Berry Gordy and Hitsville, U.S.A. After performing with his brothers as the Jackson 5 for the first time in eight years, Michael took the stage himself to perform his new song “Billie Jean” and debut the dance step that defined the ‘80s – the moonwalk.

That iconic moment helped propel Michael’s career to unfathomable heights, but his music was never as fresh, fun and invigorating as it was before. As the decade fell away, Michael fell into parody and a host of other well-known problems.

But forget about all of that. Tonight, celebrate the kid who couldn’t stop smilin’, dancin’ and singin’ in front of those day-glo bell bottoms and beret-topped afros. Remember Michael for his best years on Motown.

Keep Reading:
More Michael Jackson Memories
Stevie Wonder Celebrates Michael Jackson at Starlight