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Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Ruffin’

(Above: Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” is one of music writer Bill Dahl’s favorite early Motown songs.)

By Joel Francis

Chances are good that Chicago-based music writer Bill Dahl has penned the liner notes to at least one of your favorite reissues or compilations. Since 1985, Dahl has been commissioned to write the notes for hundreds of blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock collections on both major and boutique labels.

In 1998, Dhal was recognized with a Grammy nomination for his essay on Ray Charles’ sax section included in the “Ray Charles – Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” box set. In 2000, he received the Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. His book, “Motown: The Golden Years” was published in 2001. Dahl’s latest project was co-authoring the amazingly comprehensive liner notes for each of the 12 volumes in the Hip-O Select “Complete Motown Singles” series.

Dahl also writes regularly on his Web site. He recently spoke to The Daily Record via e-mail.

The Daily Record: What was your first exposure to Motown and how did you become interested in writing about it?

Bill Dahl: I started buying quite a bit of Motown vinyl—the Miracles, the Temptations, Jr. Walker, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops—during the early ‘70s as an outgrowth of my record collecting interests, which were expanding rapidly from my original love of ‘50s rock and roll. I was getting into soul, blues, rockabilly, etc., and loving it all (much to the chagrin of my mainstream rock-loving high school classmates, who ragged me unmercifully; I guess I never was much of a conformist).

TDR: What are some of the more interesting stories or facts you learned in researching these liner notes?

BD: One thing that always impresses me is the loyalty the great majority of Motown’s ‘60s artists have to the company and Mr. Gordy to this day. I was fortunate to attend a charity tribute to him a few years ago in LA, and a virtual galaxy of Motown stars performed and paid homage to their beaming boss. Later, all of them trooped up to the stage at the end to sing the old Hitsville fight song!

I’ve found it interesting that several of the better-known songwriting teams had a similar setup to that of Lennon-McCartney—if one wrote it, both names went on automatically. It’s been a pleasure tracking down a lot of the lesser-known acts, including a lot of the Rare Earth label rockers, to get their intriguing stories. They’re too often overlooked and made their own contributions to Hitsville history.

TDR: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Motown?

BD: The goofy and totally unfounded rumors that the mob was involved with the label, solely because a few very competent Caucasians wielded power in the front office. The only color Mr. Gordy cared about was green, so he hired the best person for the job. There were more than a few R&B labels where “da boys” were in up to their eyeballs (no names here), but Motown wasn’t one of them.

TDR: Motown’s big stars get a lot of attention. Who are some of the unheralded Motown artists worth checking out? Were there any long-forgotten gems you discovered as a result of working on the Complete Motown Singles notes?

BD: I remember being amazed by Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” which is on the first Complete Singles box. It sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers meet Hitsville!

Gino Parks’ “Same Thing” (which I knew about already) and several others of his songs are fantastic, as are Singin’ Sammy Ward’s early blues numbers, like “Who’s The Fool.” I love Jr. Walker’s early instrumentals – “Mutiny,” with James Jamerson’s jazz bass solo, is astounding – Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, and some of Little Stevie Wonder’s overlooked early outings. Los Angeles guitarist Arthur Adams’ “It’s Private Tonight,” which came out on Motown-distributed Chisa (it’s on the 1970 box), is the perfect marriage of blues and soul.

TDR: How detrimental do you think Berry Gordy’s favoritism toward Diana Ross was to the label? How much better would Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Kim Weston and Mary Wells have fared otherwise?

BD: It wasn’t detrimental in the slightest; the Supremes made some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s at a time when the British Invasion was otherwise dominating our charts, and Diana Ross had a coquettish mainstream appeal that none of the rest had. Mary Wells ruined her own career by walking away from Motown when she turned 21. Gladys Knight and the Pips were already stars when they arrived at Motown and far bigger ones when they left, though they got even hotter at Buddah. Kim Weston’s Motown career was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, for both better and worse.  And Martha Reeves and her Vandellas had a series of incredible hits, much like the Marvelettes, that made both groups long-term mainstays.

TDR: There has been some disagreement over Tammi Terrell’s involvement on the duet albums with Marvin Gaye that bear her name. Did she return to the studio after her collapse and is that her voice on those songs? What was (Motown songwriter) Valerie Simpson’s role in these recordings?

BD: It’s impossible to say for sure, since Valerie has never admitted any possible lead vocal involvement (Marvin Gaye’s biography stated such unequivocally, but I’d be less inclined to buy in).  I doubt we’ll ever know one way or the other for sure, though Valerie’s role as co-producer and co-writer on many of them was so crucial that Tammi was no doubt channeling her vocal approach when she sang them (if indeed she was on the last couple hits).

TDR: The Complete Motown Singles Collection series ends in 1972. Why stop there? What is your favorite post-1972 Motown single or moment?

BD:  That was the end of the Detroit era—the Golden Years—so it seems like a reasonable place to end it, though you’d have to ask my boss Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music – ed.) there. I’m not sure I have too many post-1972 favorites—I’m very partial to the 1959-72 Motown era we’ve covered on the Complete Motown Singles series—but  Gloria Jones, Yvonne Fair, Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison, and Jr. Walker’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” come to mind.

TDR: In your mind, what was the greatest single factor in the label’s decline? Was it the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the move to Los Angeles, Gordy’s interest in movies or something else?

BD: I don’t think we can accurately say Motown declined, since it’s still a going entity today and enjoyed a ton of hits after 1972. Times change and so do musical tastes, so keeping the same sound in 1972 that sold so well in the mid-‘60s would have been a recipe for disaster. Certainly HDH’s departure was a blow, but that gave other writers and producers more room to create their own soulful magic, like Norman Whitfield. The move to Los Angeles hurt the artists and musicians that chose to remain in the Motor City, and didn’t help the local economy either.

Mr. Gordy’s early ‘70s interest in the film industry made him a lot harder to reach on the phone at the time, much to the frustration of some staffers, but artistically it had a negligible effect since he wasn’t all that active musically by then anyway other than with the Jackson 5.

TDR: Ultimately, what do you feel is Motown’s greatest and most lasting impact on music today? Why?

BD: As the top indie label of the ‘60s, Motown turned the industry on its ear. There had been successful African-American owned record labels prior to Motown—Duke/Peacock, Fire/Fury, and Vee-Jay come to mind—but none were so monumentally successful. Gordy’s mantra of making R&B attuned to pop sensibilities had never been pulled off so convincingly. He also did a masterful job of delegating authority in the A&R department. It sounds like a cliché to say these classic recordings will never die, but they won’t.

TDR: Now that this project is over, what is your next venture? Are there any more Motown projects on the horizon?

BD: There are no Motown projects immediately scheduled, but I wrote the notes on Reel Music’s CD reissue of Jimmy Ruffin’s fine “Ruff ‘n Ready” Motown LP, complete with a fresh in-depth interview with the gracious Mr. Ruffin, which is just coming out.

I’m hoping and praying that Rhino Handmade finally releases the wonderful Wilson Pickett boxed set that it’s been sitting on for more than two years. A recent proclamation on the label’s website says it’s been scheduled. I wrote a huge track-by-track essay for it, much like the ones in the Motown boxes. It’s got everything he did for Atlantic on it and plenty more. Interestingly, the Funk Brothers played on Pickett’s first solo platters for Double L, a fact scantily documented before I started doing research for this box.

Keep reading:

Music essays and reviews by Bill Dahl

More features and interviews on The Daily Record:

Former NBA player at home in KC music scene

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Hail Death Cab

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Out of the Tar Pit Back Onto the Stage

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

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tempt beauty

Temptations – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” Pop #3, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

After teaming to give the Tempts a No. 1 R&B hit with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland paired again to deliver “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” which fared even better. The song was the Temptations’ third hit of 1966 and fifth consecutive R&B No. 1, dating back to 1965’s “My Girl.”

After a sharp blast of horns and drum roll from “Pistol” Allen, the song drops to a tinkle of glockenspiel that would make Bruce Springsteen proud and slowly builds, with a crescendo at the chorus. There’s a whisper of guitar and the rumble of James Jamerson’s bass, but Paul Riser’s arrangement is essentially David Ruffin and the Tempts’ voices, horns – complete with trumpet solo! – and that magnificent snare. It was more than enough.

Contrast the prominence the other Temptations are given with their backing performance in this song to the anonymity Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes were often given. As part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Eddie Holland certainly knew how to write and arrange interesting counter-vocals. It makes one wonder how much influence label owner Berry Gordy exerted to push Diana Ross to the front and minimize the contributions of her bandmates.

Although the title seems enlightened, few women would regard a lyric like “A pretty face you may not possess/ But what I like about it is your tenderness” as a compliment.

Whitfield actually recorded the song’s backing track two years before he added the Temptations’ vocals. In the interceding time he shopped it to several Motown artists, including David Ruffin’s brother, Jimmy, and the Miracles, who included their version on the “Away We Go-Go” album. (Never one to miss a trend, Gordy also released “The Supremes A Go-Go” album in that same summer of 1966.) The Ruffin and Miracles versions are the only substantial covers of the song on record to date.

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jruffin

Jimmy Ruffin – “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” Pop #7, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

Jimmy Ruffin isn’t as well-known as his brother, the late Temptations singer David Ruffin, but Jimmy didn’t land at Motown through nepotism. Raised in Mississippi, Jimmy sang with David in the family gospel group. When he was drafted, Jimmy entertained the troops with his doo-wop singing. After the military, he settled in Detroit. Jimmy auditioned for Motown and was signed before his brother, but success didn’t come as quickly.
Relegated to supplying handclaps and finger snaps, Jimmy was forced to earn a living on the automotive assembly line. After a few failed singles, Jimmy broke through with his third single, “As Long As there is Love,” written by Smokey Robinson, and finally hit big with “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”
Songwriters William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean originally intended this song to go to the Spinners, who would later give Motown a Top 20 hit with “It’s a Shame.” When Ruffin heard the number, it resonated so deeply within that he begged the trio to let him record it. The resulting single was the biggest and best-known of his career.
The song’s long introduction was the result of producer Mickey Stevenson’s decision to remove Jimmy’s spoken-word verse from the final mix. A restored version was later released on several Motown compilations. But the instrumental prelude does a great job of establishing the setting for Ruffin’s “land of broken dreams.” Songwriter Riser is best known as Motown’s in-house arranger. His string arrangements that appear on albums by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross and many more. One of the few Funk Brothers to emerge from the Snakepit – their nickname for Motown’s garage-cum-recording studio – with a writing credit, his influence may explain the song’s sweeping, theatrical feel.
Jimmy released another dozen singles and four albums – including one with David – for Motown. In the mid-’70s, he signed with Polydor, who released two of his albums. Jimmy’s final album, “Sunrise,” was produced by Bee Gee Robin Gibb and released in 1980. Shortly afterward, Ruffin moved to England where he had his own talk show and continues to tour.
The song was covered by Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1969, but ignored until Dave Stewart and Zombies singer Colin Blunstone cut a version in 1981. The duo may have been spurred by the success of “Sunrise” and Jimmy’s immigration to their native England. Ten years later, Paul Young’s cover hit No. 1 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart on the back of its appearance in the film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

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