Elvis Costello solved the age-old problem of what to do when an artist has too many great songs for one show – he brought them all onstage with him.
Costello’s “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour touched down at a crowded Crossroads on Thursday night. Behind the acclaimed songwriter’s left shoulder loomed a huge multi-colored wheel adorned with three dozen of his favorite songs. One at a time, members of the audience were invited up to spin the wheel and pick the next number.
“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” usually an encore, came up early. So did “Earthworms,” a song Costello wrote for singer Wendy James in the early ‘90s but never recorded himself. When the wheel landed on Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” Costello let the crowd choose between that number and his own “Human Hands.” The headliner won out.
First employed in the late ‘80s, the spinning songbook is a novel way for the performer to experience his work in a new context. On that level it was a success. The quartet was tight and energetic, clearly feeding of the energy of the fans dancing along to their selections onstage. But the wheel also killed momentum and started to feel kind of gimmicky after a while.
That said there was indisputably some great music in between spins. A spooky “I Want You” and an extended reading of “Watching the Detectives” that played up the song’s dub roots were among the high points.
Many of the best moments came early. Costello and his Imposters took the stage in with many favorites in a potent 15-minute romp before introducing the wheel. The extended jam on “Uncomplicated” found Costello and bass player Davey Faragher trading lines from Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun.” The Motown connection returned during “Alison,” when Costello incorporated several of the verses from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”
Keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was the driving force on many songs, adding calliope runs to “Radio Radio,” a Theremin solo on “Peace, Love and Understanding” and sneaking some Stevie Wonder clavinet on “Shabby Doll.”
The night nearly ended with a brilliant three-song encore in which Costello and his band somehow took the jumpy “Pump It Up” straight into the reflective “Alison” before somehow ending up on a surprisingly strong version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Costello had other plans, however, returning with two thirds of the Lovell Sisters to play some bluegrass.
Setlist: I Hope You’re Happy Now; Heart of the City; Mystery Dance; Uncomplicated > Radio Radio; Talking in the Dark; Clubland; (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding; Earthbound; Human Hands; Watching the Detectives; (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea; Almost Blue; Shabby Doll; I Want You. Encore 1: Brilliant Mistake; Pump It Up; Alison > Purple Rain. Encore 2: Sulfur to Sugarcane; The Crooked Line; The Scarlet Tide.
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.
Marvin Gaye – “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” Pop #6, R&B #4
Marvin Gaye scored his second Top 10 hit with this song penned and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Gaye’s love songs were rarely this straightforward. The vocal melody is so strong the background singers and percussion are basically window dressing. And who says Motown doesn’t do jazz – check out the boogie-woogie piano playing under Gaye’s buoyant singing.
Gaye’s career has been infamously bipolar. In the ‘60s, he was essentially two performers: a nightclub singer turned pop star and coveted duet partner. “How Sweet It Is” was released after Gaye’s lone album with Mary Wells, and a couple years before he connected with Tammi Terrell. For most casual listeners, Gaye’s first decade is summarized by “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a couple Terrell duets and this song.
Jr. Walker comes close to stealing Gaye’s song with his celebratory 1966 cover. Walker’s voice isn’t a smooth as Gaye’s, but his sax is. James Taylor took the song one spot higher – to No. 5 – in 1975. Listeners who enjoy a brief, deep nap can program Taylor’s cover against Michael Buble’s 1996 version. – by Joel Francis
[Note: This concludes the first disc on our road trip through the four-disc “Hitsville U.S.A.” box set.]
The Supremes – “Baby Love,” Pop #1, R&B #1
The Supremes – “Come See About Me,” Pop #1, R&B #3
By Joel Francis
(Note: Since the producers of the “Hitsville U.S.A.” box set programmed these tracks back-to-back, we’ll tackle them in one entry.)
For most people, the Supremes are Motown. Label founder Berry Gordy certainly didn’t hesitate to promote and encourage their singles, seemingly above all other releases. Gordy had been looking high and low to find a female face for his label. Early contender Mary Wells defected, and for some reason Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Gladys Knight and the Pips didn’t fit his image. The answer was right under his nose the whole time.
Supreme Florence Ballard grew up in Detroit with future Temptations Paul Williams and Eddie Hendricks, who were performing as the Primes. Their management wanted a female group, so Ballard formed the Primettes with best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited schoolmate Diana Ross.
In 1960, Ross pestered her old neighbor Smokey Robinson for an audition at Motown. He thought the girls were too green, but snagged their guitarist to join the Miracles. Undaunted, the trio stopped by the Hitsville studio every day after school and bugged Gordy for a spot on his label. The persistence paid off and in 1961 The Supremes released their first Motown single.
The Supremes were hardly the overnight success history has made them out to be. Their first eight singles, released over three years) did absolutely nothing on the charts. In 1964 they were turned over to the Holland-Dozier-Holland machine and their fortunes improved.
“Baby Love” was the Supreme’s second No. 1 hit with HDH. Any listeners that Ross’ opening coo didn’t seduce were captured by the catchy chorus that opens the song. The Funk Brothers shuffle underneath the lyrics imitates the footsteps, but are they walking away or coming back? The sexy saxophone accompaniment seems imply a lover’s return, but Ross is so insistent throughout it’s impossible to be sure.
“Come See About Me” continued the Supreme’s No. 1 success. Yet another HDH song and production, the repeated musical and lyrical theme – a spurned Ross singing over a shuffling Funk Brothers track – the assembly-line criticism holds up in this case. Why did such lovely ladies do to be treated so badly and ignored by the men in their lives?
Both songs have risen to the top of the oldies pantheon, and performed by dozens of artists. As with most of his major hits, Gordy passed both numbers around his stable of singers. For my money, the definitive version of “Come See About Me” is Jr. Walker’s 1967 cover.