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Posts Tagged ‘Martha Reeves’

(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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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love,” Pop # 23, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson has penned dozens of gorgeous love songs throughout his career, but few are affecting as “More Love.” The reassuring lyrics speak to the tragedies the couple suffered as a result of life on the road. Between 1957 and 1964, Claudette Robinson had eight miscarriages. This heartbreaking back story adds to the romance of the chorus:

“More love, more joy,
|Than age or time could ever destroy.
My love will be so sound,
It would take about a hundred lifetimes
To live it down, wear it down, tear it down.”

The song opens with some gospel chords on the piano before the gently insistent bassline enters. Robinson’s voice appears on a pillow of strings, as the arrangement slowly builds underneath. After Robinson delivers the chorus a second time, the performance pulls back to that great bassline before reaching a climax that sustains through the rest of the song.

Foreshadowing Motown’s cross-country relocation, the track was performed by Los Angeles session musicians before the Miracles – including Claudette – overdubbed their voices in Detroit. It’s unclear why Robinson, who also produced the cut,  bypassed the Funk Brothers, but the public didn’t seem to mind. The song was wedged near the top of both the pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1967.

Foreshadowing another Motown move, “More Love” was the second single credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.” Berry’s decision to give Robinson top billing started the avalanche that benefitted Diana Ross and Martha Reeves but doomed David Ruffin and the Temptations.

Smokey and Claudette eventually had two children, both named in tribute to Motown. Son Berry Robinson was the namesake of label founder Berry Gordy, and daughter Tamla Robinson was named after the Hitsville subsidiary.

Former New Christy Minstrels singer Kim Carnes had a No. 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1980 with her reading of “More Love.” The song was her biggest hit until “Bette Davis Eyes” hit No. 1 the following year. “More Love” has also been covered by Paul Young, Barbara McNair and the 5th Dimension.

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jimmy mack
Martha and the Vandellas – “Jimmy Mack,” Pop # 10, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“Jimmy Mack” capped a remarkable four-year run by the trio that started with “Come and Get These Memories” in 1963. Like most of the group’s hits during that time, “Jimmy Mack” was written and produced by the redoubtable Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Coincidentally, “Jimmy Mack” was not only the Vandellas final Top 10 hit, but the last time the trio worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland before the songwriting team departed Motown in early 1968 over a royalty dispute.

Although HDH had a half-dozen major hits with Motown before their work slowdown/standoff with Berry Gordy, “Jimmy Mack” was recorded in 1964 but shelved after it failed to pass the weekly Quality Control meetings. When it was rescued from the vaults three years later, the lyrics took on a whole new dimension.

President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of troops in Vietnam brought new poignancy to Martha Reeves’ musings of when her man would return. Originally written as a tempted woman’s plea for her boyfriend to return, many separated young couples interpreted the song as an overseas missive to a lost loved one.

Not that the song’s arrangement could support such a weighty metaphor. “Jimmy Mack” is little more than handclaps, perky piano and vocals. Reeves’ sunny vocals are void of any heartache, but the melody is catchy enough to compensate. Listen to this once and you’ll be signing it for the rest of the day.

Nearly 20 years later, Sheena Easton revived “Jimmy Mack” and took it to No. 65 in 1986.

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Isley Brothers – “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You),” Pop #12, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

For the most part, Motown’s talent during its heyday was home-grown. Martha Reeves was a Hitsville secretary, Stevie Wonder was a kid pestering the Funk Brothers for lessons, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson were part of Berry Gordy’s extended family and Diane Ross and her friends stopped by every day after school to pester staff for an audition.

In short, talent came to Motown, not the other way around.

Of course that mindset quickly changed when the Isley Brothers hit the free agent market in 1965. The brothers made their name with 1959’s “Shout!” (recorded for RCA) and 1962’s “Twist and Shout” (recorded for the Wand label and covered by the Beatles). But after bouncing between those two labels and the failure to establish their own imprint, the Isley Brothers were looking for a new home. Berry Gordy was all too happy to welcome them to his fold.

The Isley’s Motown debut, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) was their biggest success so far. Holland-Dozier-Holland definitely applied the Motown sound to their number. The drums lead the mix, and the string section sounds more like the Four Tops than the Isley Brothers’ gritty urban soul. The brothers had never sounded so slick before, but the results couldn’t be argued with. The song is infectious, fun and impossible to listen to without breaking into smiles or dance.

Unfortunately, the Isley-Motown marriage didn’t last long. Despite releasing two more albums, the group couldn’t find a follow-up hit and complained of being fed inferior, cast-off tracks. They had a point: “This Old Heart” was originally intended for the Supremes. The brothers left Motown in 1968 and signed with Buddha before finding long-term success with Epic.

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Martha and the Vandellas – “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things),” Pop #70, R&B #22

By Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas didn’t do many ballads. Their best-known songs – “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere to Run” – are all relentlessly upbeat. Despite the drastic change in tempo, the three songs above share at least one similarity with “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)”: They were all written by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The HDH team really came into its own in 1965, the year “Love” was released. Rare was the week that one or more of their songs wasn’t found near the top of the charts. This number, however, was a rare misstep for the team.

Martha Reeves turns in a fine vocal performance, but the song never really ignites. The number never peaks. Once Reeves’ voice enters, everything just kind of sits there until the fade-out. Although the trio wrote captivating arrangements for “It’s the Same Old Song” and “I Hear a Symphony,” the arrangement here isn’t anything to write home about. The drums are prominent in the mix, but aren’t really saying anything. Likewise, one gets the impression the strings were just added to make the mix more full. Finally, the lyrics are solid, but don’t expose anything not given away in the title.

“Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” never ignited with other artists, either. Berry Gordy tried to farm the song off to a couple other Motown artists, most notably the Supremes. The results of Kim Weston’s adventures with the tune languished in the Motown vaults until the historical reissues of 2005.

That said, it is never wise to write off a Holland-Dozier-Holland number, especially from this era. In the right hands, the song could be a surprising hit today.

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Marvin Gaye – “Pride and Joy,” Pop #10, R&B #2

The bouncy piano that opens and propels this track may be pure Chicago blues and Gaye’s singing more jazz than soul, but the backing vocals are pure Motown.

Supported by Martha and the Vandellas, Gaye reunited with Norman Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson for this jaunty ode to label boss Barry Gordy’s sister, Anna. This songwriting trio may have misfired on “Beechwood 4-5789,” but everything works here. Not only was the song Gaye’s first Top 10 hit, but Anna Gordy went on to marry Gaye. — By Joel Francis

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Martha and the Vandellas – “Come and Get These Memories,” Pop #29, R&B #6
 

 

“Come and Get These Memories” would be less memorable were it not the Motown debut of both singer Martha Reeves and the songwriting team of Brain Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.

Though Holland-Dozier-Holland would dominate both the charts and the Motown landscape during the mid-‘60s, they got off to an inauspicious start here. Reeves is confident in her delivery, but the songwriting and arrangement is tepid. Before the first minute is over we’ve heard the chorus three times and two verses. The piece sounds more like a jingle than a song at this point. The horns bop back and forth without swinging and the backing vocals of “come and get ‘em” are too peppy to convey any sense of heartbreak.

The song fares better in its second half. The horn break at the halfway mark is like flipping a light switch. The brass arrangement grows more aggressive and supportive and Martha, the Vandellas and the Motown musicians really swing through the bridge (“because of these memories/I never think of anybody but you”) that fades into the outro. It’s as if the cast has finally been given direction.

According to legend, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in the studio working out the arrangement to “Breakdown,” when someone walking by in the hall recommended they move the guitar lick from the outro to the beginning. It’s a shame that no one offered similar advice here. Instead the public would have to wait five months for Martha and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s follow-up effort, “Heatwave.” They had mastered the learning curve by then. — by Joel Francis

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