Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

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Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield had finally triumphed. His fourth attempt at recording “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had finally made it past Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meetings and triumphed at the top of the charts. Now, just over a year later, he wanted to release an earlier version of the song recorded by Marvin Gaye. Label honcho Berry Gordy had denied Whitfield’s request to release Gaye’s “Grapevine” before Gladys Knight had a hit with the song. His stance would not change. Whitfield was successful, however, in getting the song inserted on Gaye’s “In the Groove” album. Just as he had hoped, listeners started requesting “Grapevine” and DJs clamored for Motown to release the song as a single. Finally released in late October, 1968, “Grapevine” shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, outselling Knight’s version and becoming the biggest-selling Motown single to date. The song was so popular, Gaye’s album “In the Groove” was renamed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The path to getting the song recorded wasn’t much smoother. Whitfield spent a month recording the backing track with the Funk Brothers, Detroit Symphony and backing vocal group the Andantes. During these sessions, Gaye and Whitfield started to argue over the vocal arrangement. Whitfield, who worked primarily with the Temptations, wanted Gaye to sing above his natural ranges, as David Ruffin did on the Tempt’s hit “Ain’t To Proud To Beg.” Gaye initially resisted, but finally gave in. The combination of Gaye’s rasp and the Andantes convinced Whitfield he had a hit. Now he had to persuade Gordy.

Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” bears little resemblance to the song Knight took to No. 1. The defining organ line in Gaye’s arrangement barely appears in Knight’s version. Her reading was all about funk and atmosphere; Gaye’s speaks directly to the lyrics. His strained voice is haunting and filled with pain. And while the emphasis is placed on the strings, check out the great interaction between the bass and drums and the great drum sound. It almost sounds tribal.

This reading of “Grapevine” has become the definitive version, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of other artists from trying their hand. Hoping to strike lightning thrice, Whitfield gave the song to the Temptations, who included it on their 1969 album “Puzzle People.” In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival released a blistering 11 minute version that featured lots of fretwork and jamming from the usually concise quartet. Talk-box titan and funkmaster Roger Troutman took the song back to No. 1 on the R&B charts with his 1982 cover. The song was also famously co-opted by the California Raisins (and sung by former Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles) in 1986.

Temptations – “Cloud 9”

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Temptations – “Cloud 9,” Pop # 6, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations kicked David Ruffin out of the group in 1968, they cleaned house. Free of their troubled lead singer and his drug dependence and egocentric demands to rebill the quintet “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” founding member Otis Williams decided the psychedelic stylings of Sly and the Family Stone were the sound of the future. Although producer Norman Whitfield was reluctant to change the band’s sound with something “that ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy,” he eventually relented.

The wah guitar and flat cymbal sound that opens the song was completely unlike anything Motown had issued before. Instead of featuring one vocalist, the number finds all five Temptations passing the lead around. Williams and Whitfield’s early interest in Sly and the Family Stone is betrayed by the arrangement, which mirrors the San Francisco group’s No. 8 hit, “Dance to the Music.”

The lyrics also hit on what would become another touchstone of the post-Ruffin Temptations. The socially conscious themes of poverty, abuse and danger in the urban core would be repeated in the hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and several other album tracks.

Williams has denied that the songs glorifies drugs as an escape to the world’s problems. For him, the key line is when Eddie Kendricks explains that cloud nine is “a world of love and harmony.”

“Cloud 9” brought Motown its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. The new category was just in its third year and had previously been awarded to Ramsey Lewis and Sam and Dave. The song paved the way for later psychedelic hits “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack.” These songs placed the Temptations on the vanguard of soul music and helped clear the way for Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and the funk movement of the 1970s.

“Cloud 9” was run through the Motown stable and covered by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Edwin Starr. Meshell Ndgeocello performed the song live in the excellent Funk Brothers tribute/documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The song has also been covered by reggae artist Carl Dawkins, Latin musician Mongo Santamaria and Rod Stewart.

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

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Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Pop # 8, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s first album together, “United,” was a smash that spawned three Top 5 R&B hits and turned Gaye into a soul superstar. A follow-up was inevitable. In March, 1968, less than three months after the release of their previous single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” announced the fruits of the duo’s new collaborations.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is more of a Brill Building pop song than a soul number. Each singer gets two brief verses, but the heavy emphasis is on the chorus, which is usually repeated. There is a touch of Carol King’s phrasing in Terrell’s verses and the piano line – particularly the bit that introduces the first verse owes to King’s style. Although the structure is deceptively simple, the song works because the hook allows the complementary voices to dance. The clever bridge also surprises up the verse-chorus structure.

The song is definitely outside of the Motown paradigm, but Gaye’s voice , especially the soulful moans that appear after the drums and bass introduce the song, let the listener know we’re still deep in Motown territory.

Sadly, “Real Thing” was the next-to-last “real thing” Gaye and Terrell worked on together. In October, 14, 1967, following the completion of the No. 1 R&B hit “You’re All I Need To Get By,” Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms while performing at college homecoming in Virginia. Doctors diagnosed Terrell with a brain tumor and her days as a singer and performer were over.

Gaye completed the pair’s second album, “You’re All I Need,” by overdubbing his voice to Terrell solo recordings, a trick reprised on the duo’s third and final album, “Easy.” Largely present in name only, “Easy,” found Valerie Simpson standing in for Terrell on all but two albums. “Easy” spawned three Top 20 R&B hits, but nothing as influential or wonderful as “Real Thing.”

When Terrell died at age 24 on March 16, 1970, Motown released her final “duet” with Gaye in tribute.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” has been a go-to duet for 40 years. Diana Ross and the Supremes were the first to capitalize, recording a version with the Temptations in 1969. The following year the Ross-relieved Supremes cut another version with the Four Tops. The Jackson 5 included their cover on their 1972 album “Lookin’ Out the Windows.” Aretha Franklin recorded a rare solo version of the song in 1974.

Other performers to record “Real Thing” include Donny and Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Vince Gill, Elton John and Marcella Detroit, and Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. Michael McDonald and Boyz II Men also included interpretations of the number on their Motown tribute albums.

The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain”

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The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“I Wish It Would Rain” had been out less than two weeks when songwriter Roger Penzaben took his life on New Year’s Eve, 1967. The heartache and melancholy Temptation David Ruffin poured into his singing was Penzaben’s story.

In the spring of 1967, Penzaben caught his wife in an affair. Unable to cope with the pain and betrayal, Penzaben dumped his feelings into the lyrics. Producer Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who had previously teamed on Tempts’ classics EX.

The song opens with a few stately piano chords before Ruffin takes over. Backed only by a tambourine, it’s practically a cappella. Ruffin’s voice drips with so much sorrow that it’s hard to believe just three years prior he had “sunshine on a cloudy day.”

The understated strings and arrangement bear the hallmarks of Motown’s classic Holland-Dozier-Holland productions. It’s hard to believe that in less than a year, Whitfield and the Temps would be on the vanguard of the psychedelic soul movement.

It’s also hard to believe that “Rain” was Ruffin’s next-to-last single as a Temptation. Ruffin’s cocaine addiction and insistence that the group follow Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross’ leads and  be renamed “David Ruffin and the Temptations led to his firing in the summer of 1968. When the Temps again cracked the pop Top 10 with “Cloud Nine,” both Ruffin and Whitfield’s traditional arrangements were long gone.

Shortly before the Tempts debuted their psychedelic sound, Gladys Knight and the Pips took gave “Rain” an encore lap that reached Nos. 41 and 15 on the Pop and R&B charts, respectively. In 1973, Marvin Gaye recorded a funk version that was released as the b-side of his No. 1 hit “Let’s Get It On.” That same year, British slopsters The Faces had a U.K. hit with their interpretation. Aretha Franklin and hair metal band Little Caesar have also recorded versions of this miserable masterpiece.

Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

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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.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

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Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop # 19, R&B # 3

By Joel Francis

Marvin Gaye found his greatest early success as a duet partner. The 1964 album “Together” was his first album to chart, and his duets placed in the Top 20 with a consistency that eluded him as a solo artist. Unfortunately, Gaye’s soul partners, Mary Wells and Kim Weston, both left Motown for (allegedly) greener pastures shortly after collaborating with Gaye. As established Motown solo artists, pairing of Gaye with Wells and Weston made sense. The teaming of Gaye with Hitsville newcomer Tammi Terrell, however, was inspired.

Terrell arrived at Motown in 1965 after bouncing from Scepter Records, where she recorded as Tammy Montgomery, James Brown’s Try Records and the Chess Records subsidiary Checker. Her initial Motown singles didn’t much fare better than her previous efforts, but “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” took both her and Gaye’s careers to a new level.

Motown’s new singing pair was paired with the songwriting team Berry Gordy hired to replace the gradually exiting Holland-Dozier-Holland squad. Husband and wife Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson came to Gordy’s attention in 1966 with their No. 1 hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles. (Ironically, “Stoned” was Charles’ first single after leaving rehab for his heroin addiction.)

“Mountain was a heck of a debut for both Ashford and Simpson and Gaye and Terrell. It’s obvious from the few seconds of spoken introduction that the signers have great rapport and their voices dance perfectly on the chorus. Although Gaye and Terrell sound like they’re giggling from the same care-free piano bench, their vocal parts were actually recorded separately. Terrell felt like she hadn’t rehearsed the lyrics enough to record with Gaye, so after some coaching with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol she cut her part alone.

Although Fuqua and Bristol had helmed dozens of Motown hits, “Mountain” doesn’t have the expected Hitsville sound. The most obvious explanation is that Ashford and Simpson were an “outside” songwriting team and that Holland-Dozier-Holland were on their way out. It also highlights that when people talk about the “Motown sound” they are often talking about Holland-Dozier-Holland’s signature production style. Holland-Dozier-Holland’s defection not only deprived Motown of its greatest songwriting team, but also Gordy’s vaunted “sound of young America.”

As one team of stars left, another was being born. The success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” helped transform Gaye into one of Motown’s biggest and most enduring performers, whose brightest days were yet to come.

Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston – “It Takes Two”

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Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston – “It Takes Two,” Pop # 14, R&B # 4

By Joel Francis

“It Takes Two” was one of the last songs Kim Weston recorded for Motown. Its success established Marvin Gaye as a capable duet partner. Gaye was already one of Motown’s bigger stars, but his brief pairing with Weston and subsequent success with Tammi Terrell helped earn Gaye the titles of “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul.”

The coupling of Weston and Gaye was fairly obvious. Gaye had collaborated with Weston’s husband, William “Mickey” Stevenson on “Dancing in the Street,” “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Pride and Joy.” As Stevenson’s romantic song came together, his two frequent collaborators came to mind.

On paper, this song should have been a miserable, schmaltzy failure. That it didn’t come off as corny and syrupy is a testament to the talents of Gaye, Weston and Stevenson (who also produced the cut).

His arrangement is responsible for removing most of the sappiness. The strings add a romantic touch without going too far and the horn line during the chorus keep the song swinging. Benny Benjamin’s drumming is the coup de grace, ensuring that the song will never be a slow dance number.

As great as Gaye and Weston are on this track, they are nearly upstaged by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ fabulous version released the same year on the essential “King and Queen” album. Lightning did not strike a third time, however, when Tina Turner and Rod Stewart trotted out their cover in 1990. The song went to No. 5 in the UK but mercifully did not chart in America. Bruce Springsteen frequently incorporates “It Takes Two” into his live versions of “Two Hearts.”

Soulsville sings Hitsville

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By Joel Francis

Rare was the time Berry Gordy would let Motown artists record songs outside of the Hitsville catalog (and its lucrative publishing).  Fortunately, Jim Stewart at Stax did not have the same stipulation. Thanks to the 2007 compilation “Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings the Songs of Motown Records” soul fans have at least one direct barometer to use in the never-ending debate of Stax vs. Motown.

Rivalries and arguments aside, “Soulsville Sings Hitsville” is a great 15-song collection that casts many soul nuggets worn out by oldies radio in a new light. Soul fans from either side of the Mason-Dixon line will find a lot to enjoy here. And now for the 15-round battle in the head-to-head match of Stax vs. Motown.

Round 1:  – “Stop! In the Name of Love”

Margie Joseph vs. the Supremes

The Supremes took this song to No. 1 in 1965 and made it one of their defining songs. Margie Joseph adds a lengthy monologue and a completely new arrangement that transforms the song. They lyrics are about the only element these versions share. Although it’s hard to top Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Joseph accomplishes the feat by making the song her own and having an infinitely better singing voice than Diana Ross.

Winner: Stax

Round 2:  – “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

David Porter vs. Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5

David Porter made his name as half of the Porter-Isaac Hayes hitmaking machine in the ‘60s before striking out on his own in the ‘70s. His version of “I Don’t Know Why” easily tops the Jackson 5’s reading. Michael Jackson just isn’t old enough to put the necessary grit in his vocals and ends up practically shouting the song. The gold medal here, though, goes to the co-author and original performer Stevie Wonder. Released as a single from his 1968 album “For Once In My Life,” the song peaked at No. 16 on the R&B charts. Wonder’s vocals simmer, building in intensity until they boil over at the 1:40 mark. Wonder sings so hard he’s almost out of breath as the great arrangement continues to build until the only options are to explode out of the speakers or fade out. Faced with potential lawsuits from music lovers, the track ends just under the three-minute mark.

Winner: Motown

Round 3 – “You’ve Got to Earn It”

Staples Singers vs. the Temptations

One of the Staples Singers’ biggest hits, this song is so closely identified with the group that I didn’t even know the Temptations recorded the original. This Smokey Robinson-penned number was released in 1965 on the b-side of “Since I Lost My Baby.” The Tempts version is serviceable, but aside from Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocals isn’t that memorable. The Staples version trumps on every level: Mavis Staples great singing, the spectacular arrangement featuring a signature descending horn line and harmonica, and the soulful playing and support of Pops and Yvonne Staples.

Winner: Stax

Round 4 – “Can I Get a Witness”

Calvin Scott vs. Marvin Gaye

In the NFL, when a play is challenged and the officials go under the hood for review, there must be incontrovertible evidence to overturn the call. So goes it with covers. It is not sufficient to merely equal the original recording, the burden of the cover is to surpass the original. Calvin Scott does a good job putting his twist on one of Marvin Gaye’s earliest hits, but he doesn’t add anything to it either. Take pity on Scott, however – topping Gaye is no small feat.

Winner: Motown

Round 5 – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Mar-Keys vs. Four Tops

Although some session credits are available, the Mar-Keys kind of became the catch name for whoever was playing with the Memphis Horns. Some of their cuts ended up on Booker T. and the MGs or Isaac Hayes albums, some were added to Bar-Kays releases and others credited to the Mar-Keys themselves. The Mar-Keys’ 1971 version of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is one of the numbers that has fallen through the cataloging cracks – Stax historians aren’t really sure who played on it. However, one fact is indisputable: this track rocks. Andrew Horn blows a mad sax solo with enough grit and soul to match Levi Stubbs’ incomparable voice, while the rest of the musicians strip the sheen laid by the Funk Brothers on the original Motown recording. That said, the Four Tops version became one of their defining performances for good reason. The decision here comes down to preference: the dirtier R&B of Stax or the polished soul of Motown. I like ‘em both.

Winner: Push

Round 6 – “Never Can Say Goodbye”

Isaac Hayes vs. Jackson 5

Isaac Hayes and the Jackson 5 both released their interpretations of Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1971. The results couldn’t be more different. The pain in Hayes’ deep voice pits him as a grown man with life experience against a bunch of talented kids acting their hearts out. In the weeks following the death of Michael Jackson, the J5 performance has become an unofficial tribute to their singer. It’s a fine sentiment, but, as Mos Def would say, this is grown man business. Hayes wins, no contest.

Winner: Stax

Round 7 – “My Cherie Amour”

Billy Eckstein vs. Stevie Wonder

In the 1940s, Billy Eckstein’s orchestra was one of the first large bop combos in jazz, providing an early home for Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the ‘50s, Eckstein’s smooth voice influenced up-and-coming soul singers like Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke. Eckstein dabbled in both soul and jazz in the 1960s, even popping up on  a couple Motown LPs. Although his career was pretty much over by the ‘70s, Al Bell was able to coax the legend to cut a few albums for Stax. Unfortunately, Eckstein’s 1970 delivery of “My Cherie Amour” borders on parody and sadly resembles Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors’ version of “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life” that may be found on the Golden Throats series.

Winner: Motown

Round 8 – “Oh, Be My Love”

Barbara Lewis vs. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Barbara Lewis actually got her start as a teen soul singer in early ‘60s Detroit before finding greater success on Stax. Based on this number, it’s odd that Berry Gordy passed on Lewis at a time when he was seemingly signing every promising young singer in the city. Lewis’ voice is a perfect fit for the Motown sound. Then again, maybe it’s for the best Lewis didn’t join the Motown family. Chances are she would have ended up another in the long line of promising female talents discarded in the wake of Diana Ross. Lewis does a fine job with this interpretation of a 1967 Miracles b-side penned by Smokey Robinson. Unfortunately, the original version could not be located for comparison.

Winner: No decision

Round 9 – “I Hear a Symphony”

Booker T. and the MGs vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

On paper, this looks like a slam dunk: Remove Ross’ weak vocals and replace it with one of the tightest, funkiest groups of the day. But somehow, the MGs’ performance just doesn’t add up. The melody just doesn’t sound complete coming only from Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T. Jones’ organ can’t replicate the fullness of the Funk Brothers playing. The Supremes’ version is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and a testament to the acumen of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.

Winner: Motown

Round 10 – “Chained”

Mavis Staples vs. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye took a break from cutting duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell to lay down this funky number in 1968. The backing vocals and atmosphere give the track a live feel and the sax break is as close to the Stax sound as Motown gets. Mavis Staples cut her version a year later. She more than holds her own against Gaye’s vocals, and the arrangement is just as energetic. Both versions can pack the dance floor, yet are just different enough to stand on their own. Why choose one performance when you can have both?

Winner: Push

Round 11 – “Ask the Lonely”

John Gary Williams vs. Four Tops

John Gary Williams cut several sides for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads until he was drafted in 1966. When Williams got out of the military, he wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. His former group had carried on in his absence, and found Williams’ replacement to be much easier to work with. Stax owner Jim Stewart pressured the group to take Williams back and he recorded with the Lads until 1972. That year, Williams was finally able to go solo. He released only one album, which included covers of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the Spinners and this reading of “Ask the Lonely.” The smooth sax solo that opens this song and Williams’ vocals foreshadow the Quiet Storm movement. Williams arrangement and delivery may have been ahead of it’s time, but it’s not nearly enough to wrestle the title away from Levi Stubbs’ gut-busting performance on the original.

Winner: Motown

Round 12 – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

Soul Children vs. Stevie Wonder

The success of “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” – it spent six weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970 – gave Stevie Wonder a great deal of leverage when he renegotiated his contract with Motown and gained the artistic control that birthed his spectacular output later in the decade. “Signed” was the first single 20-year-old Wonder produced; his arrangement is so good you can get lost in the various instruments. There isn’t much that can be improved on Wonder’s version and the Soul Children’s slowed-down gospel interpretation falls flat in the face of his triumph.

Winner: Motown

Round 13 – “Someday We’ll Be Together”

Frederick Knight vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross’ name is coupled with the Supremes on the label of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” technically making it the ensemble’s final No. 1 hit before Ross started her solo career. Peeling back the label and examining the musicians’ chart, however, one can see that the song was actually a dry run for Ross’ solo career. Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced founding ‘preme Florence Ballard, are nowhere to be found, but even if they did they probably wouldn’t have been able to help. The song, co-written and produced by Harvey Fuqua, is a mess. The strings are way too syrupy, and the backing vocals are over-performed. Everything on the track is over-produced. Perhaps this was an effort to make Ross’ thin vocals sound more emotionally relevant, but even that is a failure. It does sport a great guitar line, though. Frederick Knight vaults over this ridiculously low bar, but he doesn’t exactly salvage the song. His strings are more restrained, the arrangement slightly more funky and the vocals greatly improved, but the song itself – which predates Fuqua’s time at Motown – is far from memorable.

Winner: Stax

Round 14 – “I Wish It Would Rain”

O.B. Clinton vs. the Temptations

“I Wish It Would Rain” is one of the most devastatingly heartbreaking songs in the Motown catalog. Mourning his lost love, David Ruffin lays his soul bare for all to see. Topping this soul masterpiece would be quite a challenge – so O.B. McClinton didn’t even try. Dubbed the “Chocolate Cowboy,” McClinton was an oddity on the Stax label. His singles only charted on the country charts, with his slower tempo, pedal steel-backed version of “I Wish It Would Rain” peaking at No. 67 in 1973. His is a noble attempt, but the song works better in R&B than it does country.

Winner: Motown

Round 15 – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The Bar-Kays vs. Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips

The wah wah guitar solo that punctures the Bar-Kays’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” just past the four-minute mark eclipses anything Gordy had imagined at Motown (save Rare Earth) and points Stax down the very odd path of Iron Butterfly and the acid rock of the early ‘70s. This version draws on the spirit of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Shaft” and steers close to CCR’s lengthy, jammed-out rendition. I’m not sure if this actually tops the performances Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight took to No. 1 a little more than a year apart. The versions are so different; it’s comparing apples and oranges. Enjoy them all.

Winner: Push

Final score: Stax 4, Motown 7.

The winner in this (the only) bout is overwhelmingly Motown, but Hitsville has an incumbent’s advantage of making Stax tackle its material. Listening to the Supremes tackle the Emotions, Levi Stubbs sparring with the Otis Redding songbook , the Temptations doing Sam and Dave and Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland applying their touches to Hayes/Porter and MGs arrangements would not only be a fantastic delight, but likely tip in favor of Soulsville. Sadly, we’ll never know. As a consolation prize, we have this compilation to bridge two very different and influential approaches to soul music.

Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”

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Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” Pop #18, R&B #3

By Joel Francis

Because he owned both the label and its publishing, it’s no surprise that Berry Gordy frequently had other label artists cut versions of earlier Motown hits. While there are several notable exceptions, for the most part these covers are either curiosities or album filler.

Jr. Walker, however, broke out of the mold with his reading of Marvin Gaye’s 1964, Top 5 hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” After an extended saxophone intro, Walker puts down his horn. He has clearly overcome the microphone shyness that plagued him during the recording of his breakthrough hit “Shotgun.” Walking in Gaye’s shoes is no small feat, but Walker’s voice credibly handles the soulful, demanding melody.

While Gaye’s version was slick, joyous anthem, Walker’s is a little seedier – and all the better for it. Producer Harvey Fuqua, who signed Walker and changed his band name from the “Rhythm Rockers” to the “All Stars” in 1961, gave the song a faux-live feel that makes it sound like it was captured in a Southern roadhouse. The purposefully ragged backing vocals are more like enthusiastic audience intrusions. Close your eyes and you can smell alcohol and cigarette smoke while listening.

Others have covered this number since Gaye and Walker, of course, but a moratorium should have been placed after this interpretation. Finally, it should be noted that the year after he recorded “How Sweet It Is,” Walker memorably stole “Come See About Me” from the Supremes – no small feat – with his 1967 cover.

Raphael Saadiq sends a love letter to soul makers and Motown

(Above: Raphael Saadiq runs the “100 Yard Dash.”)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Raphael Saadiq’s latest album, “The Way I See It,” is draped heavily in the sounds of Motown and Philly soul, but don’t call it a tribute album.

“Boyz II Men did a tribute; I wrote a bunch of songs,” Saadiq said about his all-originals album. “This was not intended to be a tribute album. It’s more like a secret love letter to the people I love.”

People like the Funk Brothers, Motown’s now-legendary stable of musicians, and the other unknown musicians who “took music to the level where it is today that I can come out and do this,” Saadiq said. “It’s not just about Smokey (Robinson) and Stevie Wonder, but a bunch of people we don’t even know about.”

He plays most of the instruments on the album himself, but Saadiq recruited two Funk Brothers to help him get that classic Motown sound. Jack Ashford’s tambourine has graced classics like “Nowhere to Run” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Paul Riser, who arranged the strings on Saadiq’s album, has worked with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

“I brought Jack in because he added a sound I couldn’t have had without him,” said Saadiq, who performs Wednesday at the VooDoo Lounge. “With Paul Riser it was the same thing. You can feel the energy when they walk into a room.”

Having Stevie Wonder play harmonica on one song was ultimate validation. Saadiq even went so far as to introduce his guest like Wonder introduced Dizzy Gillespie on his 1982 hit “Do I Do.”

“Seeing Stevie walk into a room and play is something I’ve never gotten used to,” Saadiq said. “Having him play on this was a stamp of approval. I’ve worked hard for a long time to have him come play (on my album).”

The former Tony! Toni! Tone! singer, who named his first solo album “Instant Vintage,” is more worried about being called “neo soul” than being pigeonholed.

“Everybody knows I hate the term ‘neo-soul,’ ” Saadiq said. “If someone was playing the blues they’d want an old soul. I don’t want a new soul — then I’d sound like somebody on the radio today, which I hate.”

On an album with so much — ahem — old-school soul, Jay-Z’s guest spot on the final track, a bonus remix, probably surprised many listeners.

“That was Q-Tip’s idea,” said Saadiq, referring to the former MC of A Tribe Called Quest. “He was like, ‘You should put Jay-Z on this record’ and then went and got him, because I didn’t know Jay like that. Some people didn’t like it. They’re probably neo-soul fans. I did this for the other people.”

More on Raphael Saadiq from The Daily Record:
“The Way I See It” album review
“The Way I See It” caps the Top 10 albums of 2008