Random record reviews: Phoebe Bridgers, Neil Young, 24-Carat Black

(Above: Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album is an introspective indie rock masterpiece.)

By Joel Francis

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Indie folk darling Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is an introspective masterpiece perfect for late nights and headphones. “Garden Song” sets the stage with delicate guitars, subtle electronics and double-tracked vocals, but while Bridgers is able to maintain this mood throughout the course of the 41-minute album, it never feels staid or monotonous. The upbeat “Kyoto” bounces with a horn section, while the autotune on “Punisher” makes the lyrics about loneliness seem even more immediate and detached. “ICU” sounds like one of the best Death Cab for Cutie songs in years. The album culminates with the fittingly titled “I Know the End” and a cavalcade of horns, choir, strings and drums that bleed into screams, electric guitar and deep exhalations – a cathartic release of all the emotions Bridgers has been processing throughout the album.

Punisher recalls the lineage of Elliott Smith, Cat Power and early Sufjan Stevens, but Bridgers’ guest appearances with the 1975 and Mercury Rev and projects with Conor Oberst and boygenius reveal a broad talent that should be successful in whatever path Bridgers chooses. I’m happy to follow her on the ride.

Neil Young – Homegrown

After the success of his classic album Harvest and its No. 1 hit “Heart of Gold” in 1972, Neil Young was at a crossroads. His guitarist and a member of his touring crew had both died from drug overdoses and a longtime romantic relationship ended. Young poured his emotions into two disparate projects. Death got a hard look in the eye on Tonight’s the Night and heartbreak was at the core of Homegrown. Of the two projects, Homegrown was much closer in spirit to the homespun charm of Harvest. This might be why Young released Tonight’s the Night and Homegrown languished in the vaults until now.

Although several songs appeared across Young’s later ‘70s releases, Homegrown is the first chance to hear the dozen songs as Young first envisioned them. The result is this missing link between Harvest and Comes a Time. Not everything works – the spoken word piece “Florida” and lumbering blues of “We Don’t Smoke It No More” stall the album’s momentum – but the rest capture Young in a lyrically vulnerable and musically tranquil state.

24-Carat Black – III

Funk collective 24-Carat Black released only one album, which flopped on the charts in 1973 but gained a second life in the in the 1990s thanks to several prominent hip hop samples. The Numero Group, a Chicago label specializing in obscure and forgotten labels and bands released a collection of unreleased 24-Carat material in 2009. Now, even more 24-Carat Black material has been unearthed and released by Numero as III.

It is clear from some of the performances and mixes that these recordings were never intended to be the final version. That said, there are some moments worth seeking out. The muted trumpet on “I’m Coming Back” places the track in jazz/fusion territory popular in the late ‘70s. Similarly, “Speak Low” feels like a missing link between classical, funk and jazz. The 10-minute “Skelton Coast” sounds like something mid-‘70s Marvin Gaye would have cooked up. It is interesting to wonder what ideas were waiting to be added to the mostly instrumental track. Fans who devoured 24-Carat’s proper album and the previous vault collection will enjoy III. Newcomers should start with the original 1973 Stax release.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

“T.A.M.I. Show” finally liberated

(Above: Marvin Gaye asks for a witness. He gets four go-go dancers.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

For the past 46 years, few have been able to see “ The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 concert film that captured early performances from the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the first major U.S. appearance of the Rolling Stones.

A tangle of legal issues sent the movie to exile almost immediately after it was sent to the theaters. The producer lost his rights and the film was never released on video rarely shown in public. For years fans would read about how incredible the “T.A.M.I. Show” was – particularly James Brown’s appearance, which Rick Rubin once said “may be the single greatest rock and roll performance ever captured on film” – without being able to see it. Thankfully this has finally been corrected. After decades of wrangling, Shout Factory has finally released the “T.A.M.I. Show” on DVD.

After a montage of all the stars arriving over one of the longest Jan and Dean songs ever, Chuck Berry takes the stage. His appearance ties the film back to “Rock Rock Rock” and the classic ‘50s rock and roll films, but halfway through “Maybelline,” the camera swings over to Gerry and the Pacemakers doing their version of the song. It’s a little disorienting at first, and doesn’t completely work, mostly because Gerry is so campy. He’s constantly playing to the camera, and the group clearly doesn’t have Berry’s talent or charisma.

Fortunately, an endless parade of go-go dancers in bikinis is on hand to distract from any lulls in the music. Constantly in motion, the dancers swarm across the stage – often directly in front of the performers – and on platforms in the back. The producers discovered what MTV perfected in the ‘90s with “The Grind:” buxom, gyrating dancers will make even the most execrable music enjoyable.

The showgirls hog the camera during the first number of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ set. Fortunately, lens eventually pulls back on the second number, and the quartet delivers the first great performance of the night. Robinson drops down, jumps up and throws his entire spirit into an extended “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” That energy carries into “Mickey’s Monkey,” that has everyone onstage and in the crowd dancing. Marvin Gaye continues Motown’s strong showing with a great “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” For “Can I Get a Witness” he performs away from the band, flanked by two shimmying girls.

Director Steve Binder isn’t shy about cutting to the junior high and high school students in the audience screaming in delirium. One long shot accidentally allows a glimpse of policemen in helmets patrolling the aisles. There was clearly a hard line on the level of excitement that could be displayed.

It’s hard to believe Lesley Gore was the biggest star on the bill at the time, and that she didn’t become an even bigger star later. Gore dutifully performs her best-known songs, the No. 1 “It’s My Party” and its Top 5 sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but her poise, grace and presence suggest she should have had a much longer career. Gore It’s too bad she couldn’t keep up with the harder, psychedelic edge rock music was about to take.

Several of Gore’s songs are captured by a camera that looks like Vaseline has been smeared over the lens. In the commentary track, Binder said that was exactly what was done. He either couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to outfit the rigs with soft focus capability, so they went with this bargain basement substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like Gore is singing through a funhouse mirror.

Jan and Dean, the evening’s MCs, kick off the surf portion of the show, but they are outmatched by the Beach Boys, who follow. Jan and Dean’s harmonies seem thin and the skate-board-in-a-guitar-case trick can’t hold up to the Boys’ rich voices and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. The performance was filmed months before Wilson’s nervous breakdown forced him off the road. Here he looks completely at ease and happy.

After the movie’s initial run, the Beach Boys’ manager demanded his client’s four-song set be removed. When the inevitable “T.A.M.I. Show” bootlegs popped up, the Beach Boys were usually missing. This DVD finally restores the lush “Surfer Girl” and the freedom of “I Get Around.”

The film treads water through the Dakotas, Supremes and Barbarians until – finally – we get to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Honestly, there’s nothing he does here that wasn’t captured on the incredible “Live at the Apollo” album one year earlier. This, however, was his first major show in front of a white audience. It also gave fans the opportunity to see Brown work his magic in addition to just hearing it.

The Flames are razor-sharp as Brown kicks into “Out of Sight.” Showing his penchant for adventurous covers, Brown resuscitates Perry Como’s hit “Prisoner of Love.” He then directs the Flames into “Please, Please, Please” and the place goes nuts for the now-infamous cape routine. Brown’s pants, which were clean before the song, are scuffed and dirty at the knees from all the times he falls down (only to pop right back again.) During “Night Train” he does this crazy dance on one foot where he manages to wriggle across the stage. Not only does he not fall down, but he looks impossibly smooth.

In his commentary on the “T.A.M.I. Show” trailer, director John Landis, whose entire seventh grade class scored invites to the taping, said the Rolling Stones “were kind of boring after James Brown.” He’s right. The Stones open with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” an odd choice considering Berry was onstage earlier. They don’t start to live up to their hype and billing until the terrific “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now.”

It’s difficult to watch the early Stones without picturing the lazy spectacle they’ve become. There is a hunger in these songs and Mick Jagger is genuinely working to win the crowd’s approval. It’s odd to see Brain Jones so alive and so happy. It seems he was born with those omnipresent bags under his eyes that just grew sadder and deeper until the lids above closed forever.

But that was still several dark years off. The “T.A.M.I. Show” is a celebration that despite some dated production techniques and material still feels vibrant. It’s a peek behind a curtain to a world where artists from not only all over the world, as the song goes, but all genres, could party together on the same stage. In a way, it was a precursor to the weekend festivals that would pop up at the end of the decade and have resurfaced to dominate the summer musical landscape again today.

Keep reading:

Talking James Brown and King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Below: The Beach Boys get around.)

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love)”

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Four Tops – “Still Water (Love),” Pop # 11, R&B #4.

The Four Tops needed this.

The departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland was a devastating blow to all of Motown, but the Tops felt it especially hard. “Bernadette” made them the top Motown act in U.K., second only to the Temptations at home. But just when they made it to the top, their songwriters and producers left.

After the HDH exodus, the Tops dabbled on the fringes of psychedelic soul (“It’s All in the Game”), the folk revival (“If I Were A Carpenter”) and covered the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” to solid, but not spectacular results.

Finally, after being passed around to Ashford and Simpson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Norman Whitfield, the tops were paired with Smokey Robinson, who, with Frank Wilson, wrote and produced “Still Water (Love).”

Singer Levi Stubbs opens the track drenched in echo, inviting the listener “Walk with me/Take my hand.” The arrangement has a distinctive Motown touch, filled with a great guitar hook, clavinet and an ornate percussion figure pushed to the front of the mix. As always, the Tops’ vocals are great, and while Stubbs isn’t given much room to cut loose, he still belts a couple notes before the chorus.

“Still Water (Love)” opened the Tops’ 1970 concept album “Still Waters Run Deep,” which inspired Marvin Gaye to compose “What’s Going On.” “Still Water (Love)” was covered by the Jean Terrell lineup of the Supremes in the early ‘70s, and soul singer O’Bryan.

Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

This was the moment. For years, Berry Gordy had been grooming Diana Ross to become a star. First he pushed the hesitant child to the forefront of the Supremes, then elevated her to top billing. Now she was on her own.

Ross’ first single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was a respectable Top 20 hit. For anyone else, it would have been a brilliant success. But at Motown, and especially for Ross, Top 20 was not good enough. She had to top the charts.

For her follow-up effort, Gordy turned to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who also penned “Reach Out.” Instead of writing a new number, however, the pair reached back to a song that had been a Top 20 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell three years earlier. Their choice wasn’t well received. Ross was hesitant to cut a song that had already been a hit with someone else. Besides, she had also performed the song when the Supremes paired with the Temptations for a television special and album in 1968.

Eventually, Ross was persuaded to record a re-imagined version of the song. While Gaye and Terrell’s arrangement build upon the synergy of their voices, the new vision opens with Ross’ affirmation of love, like a lonely, long-distance telephone call. The backing chorus of Ashford and Simpson, the Andantes and several other Motown studio singers builds slowly in the background underneath Ross’ promises of devotion. By waiting so long to grow into the refrain, the familiar strain is even more powerful.

When the finished track was submitted to Gordy he was not pleased. He thought the song should open with the chorus (an arrangement Ross later used in her live shows). In a story that mirrors Gaye’s recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” it wasn’t until DJs started cutting down the six-minute album track and playing it on the radio that Gordy finally acquiesced. Just as before, “Mountain” made a major star out of its singer.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has been played, performed and sampled so often it sometimes feels like a cliché. It seems every time a director wants a feel-good moment when the underdog triumphs they reach for this song (which must make Gordy, Ashford, Simpson and their bankers very happy). When the song reaches ears voluntarily, however, it is still a delight.

The Spinners – “It’s A Shame”

The Spinners – “It’s A Shame,” Pop #14, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Spinners had been absent from the charts for five years when “It’s A Shame” came out in June, 1970. In fact, the Detroit quintet had only two hits in their 10-year history up till that point.

The group came to Motown when Berry Gordy hired Harvey Fuqua and bought his Tri-Phi label. Fuqua was an essential part of Motown’s artist development, nurturing a young Marvin Gaye and singing Tammi Terrell.

By 1970, the Spinners were considered collateral damage from the Tri-Phi takeover, serving mostly as road managers and chaperones for more successful groups. Their hunger for a hit was a natural match for another Motown artist’s desire to spread his wings.

When Gaye wanted to show his independence, he wrote and produced two hits for the Originals. Now Stevie Wonder looked at the Spinners and wanted to do the same.

“It’s a Shame” was written and produced by the same team responsible for Wonder’s most recent hit “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.” Wonder’s musical and romantic relationship with Syreeta Wright continued to blossom and Lee Garrett once again contributed to the composition.

The song opens with a hypnotic guitar hook, but it’s the Spinners’ harmony vocals that cement the number as a soul classic. The lyrics speak of heartbreak, but the delivery is effortless and graceful.

The performance was so stellar that few artists have attempted to cover “It’s a Shame.” The song instead lives on as a sample, appearing in songs by R. Kelly, Sounds of Blackness, Lethal Bizzile and Monie Love.

The Originals – “The Bells”

The Originals – “The Bells,” Pop # 12, R&B # 4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Once Marvin Gaye proved he could write and produce a hit song with “Baby I’m For Real,” he set out to show it wasn’t a fluke. Released less than a year later, “The Bells” replicated the success of its predecessor, for both Gaye and the Originals.

Like “Baby,” “The Bells” is a mid-tempo ballad that never picks up the pace past a pleasant trot. That said, whoever is playing the drums lays down some funky licks during the bridge (“I hear the bells/ringing in my ears”). The song closes with a spoken verse with smooth saxophone accompaniment, presaging the Quiet Storm movement.

Less than six months after “The Bells” ascended near the top of the charts, Gaye was again in the studio with the Originals, this time recording his landmark album “What’s Going On.”

Although “The Bells” earned the Originals a gold record, the group had a hard time finding their previous success sans Gaye. Their next four singles failed to chart. It wasn’t until five long years later, in 1975, that their disco effort “Good Lovin’ is Just a Dime Away,” nibbled at the bottom of the charts. Their 1976 single “Down to Love Town” fared better, hitting No. 1 on the dance chart.

The Originals broke up in 1981 after the death of singer Ty Hunter. Twenty-five years later, founding member Hank Dixon toured with a reformed version of the Originals. Ironically, he was the only original member in the lineup.

In 1971, Laura Nyro covered “The Bells” with Patti LaBelle contributing backing vocals. In 1994, New Jack Swing group Color Me Badd put the song back on the R&B charts.

The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real”

The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real,” Pop # 14, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

The Originals had appeared on nearly a dozen Motown hits before they finally landed one with their name on the label. As backing vocalists, the Detroit quartet saw their performances on “Function at the Junction,” “Twenty-Five Miles,” “For Once In My Life” and “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” – to name but a few – rise to the top of the chart.

When Marvin Gaye had the group sing on his singles “You” and “Chained” he felt an immediate rapport and took it upon himself to give them the breakout single they deserved. Working with his wife Anna (label boss Berry Gordy’s sister), Gaye penned the lyrics for “Baby I’m For Real.”

With its soft arrangement and doo-wop influences, the song was an about-face from the psychedelic soul singles Motown was sending to the top of the charts. Gordy balked, insisting Gaye release the other song he wrote and produced for the Originals, “You’re the One.” When it flopped, Gaye convinced his brother-in-law to release “Real.”

With its quivering strings, silky saxophone and smooth vocals, the song fit more into the Philly soul mold than the Motown model. Even the drums on the track are gentle and the performance floats by like a cloud across a lazy summer afternoon sky.

Gaye’s intentions were not entirely altruistic. He wanted to spread his wings and used the song’s success to convince Gordy that he was capable of producing hit material. The triumph of “Baby I’m For Real” was quickly parlayed into the Originals’ follow-up hit, “The Bells” and helped paved the way for Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” album.

Nearly a generation after its original release, After 7 refurbished this classic and, blending it with Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” took it to No. 5 on the R&B chart. In 1972, soul singer Esther Phillps put her spin on the number. Faux-soulster Michael McDonald included his take on the more recent “Motown Two” album.

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

(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

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Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Out of the Tar Pit Back Onto the Stage

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

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