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Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Wexler’

Edwin Starr – “Twenty-Five Miles,” Pop # 6, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

If the horn arrangement on “Twenty-Five Miles” sounds like something out of the Stax studio, that’s because it is. Motown songwriters Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol based their number on the obscure Wilson Pickett song “32 Miles Out of Waycross (Mojo Mama)” written by Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and recorded in 1967.

It’s little surprise Fuqua and Bristol turned to a Pickett number when looking for material for Edwin Starr. Like Pickett, Starr was a strong baritone who sang from the throat. And like fellow Motown family member Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Starr’s voice was seeped in the Southern style.

Unlike, Stubbs, however, Starr didn’t have a string of hits under his belt, which made him a bit of an outcast at the label. A Detroit native who somehow escaped Berry Gordy’s eagle eye for talent, Starr’s biggest hit. to date was the 1965 song “Agent Double ‘O’ Soul” recorded on the Ric-Tic label. Three years later, when Motown purchased Ric-Tick in 1968, Starr joined the Hitsville stable.

“Twenty-Five Miles” opens with Benny Benjamin’s athletic drumming and he stays front and center as the funky scoutmaster that keeps Starr’s (and everyone on the dance floor) feet relentlessly moving. The bass line echoes a horn line that has become a staple of marching and pep bands across the country. The listener never learns what happens when Starr reaches his destination, but the energetic vocals definitely prove that getting there is half the fun.

Although “25 Miles” was a Top 10 hit, it often been overlooked when acts mine the Motown catalog. For nearly 20 years, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were the only group to cover the song. Their version was released several months after Starr’s as an album track on “In the Jungle, Babe.” In 1989, UK dance outfit the Cookie Crew sampled “25 Miles” on their hit “Got to Keep On.” Australian boy band Human Nature covered “25 Miles” on their 2005 release “Reach Out: The Motown Album.”

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grapevine
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 2, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Unlike nearly every other soul singer at the time, Gladys Knight didn’t want to go to Motown. She was (rightly) worried she and her group, the Pips, would end up playing second fiddle to Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the Pips were a democracy. When the rest of the group voted to migrate to Hitsville, Knight reluctantly acquiesced.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a thrice-heated leftover when Norman Whitfield presented his song to the group in 1967. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles cut a version the previous year that didn’t make it out of Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. A second Miracles recording of “Grapevine” was buried as an album cut on 1968’s “Special Occasion” LP.  The Isley Brothers were rumored to have recorded a version during their brief stint on the label, but no recording has surfaced to date. Several Motown scholars believe a recording session with the Isleys to cut “Grapevine” was scheduled, but then cancelled.

This is likely the case. In 2005, Motown released the two-disc clearinghouse “Motown Sings Motown Treasures.” This incredible and enlightening collection presented many recordings – Kim Weston performing “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Supremes doing “Can IGet A Witness,” and the Miracles original, unissued version of “Grapevine,” among others – previously locked in the vaults. It seems unlikely that the Isley Bros. version of “Grapevine,” if it exists, would have been omitted from this collection.

Although it wouldn’t be released for another year, Marvin Gaye had also cut his reading of “Grapevine” by the time the Pips were hearing Whitfield’s pitch.

Whitfield’s latest “Grapevine” arrangement was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Whitfield’s desire to “out-funk” Franklin. It’s clear from the great snare-and-cymbal intro that Whitfield was on to something new. Motown had been a lot of things until that point, but it had rarely been so overtly funky. In the coming years, Whitfield would help place Hitsville at the epicenter of psychedelic soul. This recording was one of the first steps down that path.

Whitfield’s attempt to out-do the Memphis soul sound Aretha was getting from Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler was buoyed by Knight’s singing. The gospel background isn’t as obvious in Knight’s delivery, and her voice is a little earthier than Franklin’s, but Knight’s vocals can soar just as high. In fact, the song is little more than drums, piano and Knight’s powerful voice until a scratch guitar enters during the first chorus.

Stealing a page from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production book, the tambourine is mixed front and center. The instrument serves as a tractor, dragging the entire song it its wake. The signature organ line that introduces Gaye’s chart-topping “Grapevine” makes a cameo on the piano about a minute into the song. The saxophone solo bisecting the song is a straight-up homage to King Curtis, the Memphis soul legend. Even the juiciest gossip is rarely this much fun.

The fourth time was the charm for Whitfield, as the Pips’ powerful “Grapevine” finally made it past Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. That didn’t guarantee label support, though, as Knight was forced to rely on her DJ connections to promote the song. When “Grapevine” finally caught on, it caught fire holding the top spot on the R&B chart for six weeks and stalling behind the Monkee’s “Daydream Believer” at No. 2 on the pop chart. Although it was Motown’s best-selling single to date, the “Grapevine” story was far from over.

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