Gladys Knight and the Pips – “If I Were Your Woman,” Pop #9, R&B #1
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
Relationship fantasies were nothing new at Motown – Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You” was one of the label’s earliest singles. But Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1971 single “If I Were Your Woman” shows how much Hitsville had grown up during the ‘60s. The song removes the concept from the realm of schoolgirl crushes and infuses it with some serious grown-up desire.
When “If I Were Your Woman” came out the Pips were on a run of three consecutive Top 5 R&B hits, dating back to 1969’s No. 3 “The Nitty Gritty.” The group was determined to keep this streak intact and also bolster their album sales; none of their LPs had cracked the Top 10. They accomplished both. The single went all the way to the top of the R&B charts, and the album – given the same name – lodged at No. 4.
Knight’s smoky, smoldering voice played no small role in that achievement. Listeners who grew up with “Baby Love” no doubt enjoyed hearing love songs that matured with them. Knight sumptuously plays the role of a woman in love with a man trapped in a bad relationship. Knight knows she can make him the man he deserves to be, if only he could muster the strength to walk away … and she could find the courage to confront him face-to-face.
Knight sings with the passion of a woman pouring out her deepest desires to the darkness, a conviction rooted in the comfort of knowing these words will never face the harsh scrutiny of daylight. As the song fades, it is easy to imagine Knight drifting off to sleep as her would-be beau lies awake in bed next to his partner, wondering how he wound up in this predicament. The next time Knight and her man meet, their only exchanges will be furtive glances across the room and brief, awkward conversation punctuated by nervous laughter.
Written by Gloria Jones, Clay McMurray and Pam Sawyer and produced by McMurray, “If I Were Your Woman” inspired several covers. The Jean Terrell-fronted Supremes recorded a version the following year, in 1972. One year later, Jones – better known as the original singer of the song “Tainted Love,” later recorded by Soft Cell, and girlfriend of T. Rex glam rocker Marc Bolan – recorded her own version for her second solo album.
Bonnie Bramlett, formerly known as half of Delaney and Bonnie, followed suit in 1976. The unfairly ignored Bettye LaVette put her stamp on the song on her only Motown album, 1980s “Tell Me A Lie.” Eight years later Stephanie Mills put the song back on the charts, where it reached No. 19 on the Hot Black Singles chart (now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart). That same year found the only male interpretation of the number, when George Michael performed it at Nelson Mandella’s 70th birthday tribute. Somehow people were still shocked when he came out of the closet a decade later.
Most recently, Alicia Keys included the song as part of a medley on her sophomore album, and gave it the stand-alone treatment on her 2005 live album “MTV Unplugged.”
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.
Brenda Holloway – “When I’m Gone,” Pop # 25, R&B #12
By Joel Francis
Brenda Holloway isn’t the biggest name in soul music, but she was on top of the world when this song hit 1965. She opened for the Beatles on their U.S. tour that year, and performed at the legendary Shea Stadium show.
The story behind “When I’m Gone” is more interesting than the song itself. Originally slated to be Mary Well’s follow-up to “My Guy,” the song was given to Holloway when Wells spurned Motown for 20th Century Fox Records. Despite being an alto to Well’s soprano, Berry Gordy thought Holloway was best-suited to put lead vocals to Well’s backing track.
“When I’m Gone” wasn’t as big a hit as “Every Little Bit Hurts,” but Holloway kept making singles for the next three years. Shortly after recording the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (later a huge hit for Blood Sweat and Tears), Holloway retired from the music business. Deeply religious, Holloway was disillusioned with Motown and conflicted about the lifestyle expected of a young star. Although she was just 22, Holloway had been making records for 6 years. After a 12-year absence, she returned with gospel album in 1980 and a pop album in 1999.
Before Gladys Knight, Martha Reeves and certainly Diana Ross, Mary Wells was Motown’s first female (super)star. Landing a No. 1 single in the heart of Beatlemania was no small feat. Arguably none of the Motown’s female stars have had bigger or more recognizable hits than “My Guy.” The Beatles themselves were so enraptured with Wells that they called her their favorite American singer.
Unfortunately, the Smokey Robinson-penned “My Guy,” was also Well’s swan song. Just a few months after “My Guy” was released, and while it was still very much ruling the charts, Wells exercised the termination clause in her Motown contract. Only 21 years old, she signed with 20th Century Fox with dreams of higher royalty rates and movie stardom. Leaving Motown also meant leaving Robinson, who penned and produced many of her greatest songs. Wells landed only one hit on the Top 40 pop charts after leaving Motown. She spent the rest of the decade bouncing to Atco, then Jubilee Records and finally Reprise Records.
Motown founder Berry Gordy was quick to groom a replacement for Wells – Diana Ross.
While the back story is interesting, none of it matters when listening to the actual song. The giddy, lightness in Wells’ delivery and the Funk Brothers bouncy accompaniment make “My Guy” stand up to the most narrow oldies playlists and misguided covers. Check the breathy semi-stutter Wells uses to sing “there’s not a man today who can take me away from my guy” in the outro. Pure delight. — by Joel Francis
Mary Wells’ follow up to “You Beat Me to the Punch” found her back with Smokey Robinson with the same results: a No. 1 R&B hit.
This song tends to get lost in the wake of the runaway success “My Guy,” but is the most complete musical Wells/Robinson collaboration. Here the sophistication of “The One Who Really Loves You” is improved – without being overshadowed – by a great chorus. What sounds scandalous at first blush, a early ‘60s black women singing openly about having more than one lover, takes a great turn in the final verse. (I’ll leave it to you to listen to the twist for yourself.)
By this point Wells had really stepped into her own as a singer. Her double-tracked vocals are both confident and confiding, as if she’s sharing a seductive secret. Wells sounds like a woman who could not pull off having two men at once, but enjoy it. And yet, there’s some hesitation and vulnerability present as well. Wells isn’t just boasting about her love, she’s working it out in her head at the same time.
This song, along with Wells’ two other No. 1 hits, demonstrates why Wells was Motown’s first true diva and remains one of its best female vocalists. — By Joel Francis
Mary Wells – “You Beat Me To the Punch,” Pop #9, R&B #1
If the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” was Motown at its most raw, “You Beat Me to the Punch” was really where the “Motown sound” started to be defined. The vibes in the background smooth all the rough edges while the bongos add an extra bounce to the melody. Backing vocals from the Love-Tones add to Mary Wells’ delivery without distracting from it and foreshadowed the relationship this song’s writer, Smokey Robinson, would have on record with The Miracles.
Wells sounded insecure in her debut single, “The One who Really Loves You,” (although the pedestrian songwriting doesn’t give her much to work with), but she nails the surprise and thrill of new love here. Smitten from the first time she saw her man, the shy girl is delighted to learn her feelings are reciprocated.
This is an underrated gem in Wells’ too-small Motown catalog. –By Joel Francis
Mary Wells – “The One Who Really Loves You,” Pop # 8, R&B # 2
Mary Wells was billed as “Motown’s First Female star” but she got off to a slow start with this song. Penned by the usually reliable Smokey Robinson, “The One Who Really Loves You” suffers from overly simplistic lyrics and a melody that doesn’t try much harder. Wells’ vocals are frequently flat as she basically just calls out her smitten rivals – like Silly Lily – and points out their flaws. After listening to the song a half-dozen times, I think the singer may be exaggerating the threat of Ginnie and Minnie to steal her man, but I’ve also never been a lovelorn teenage girl. Then again, neither has Smokey Robinson.
Thankfully, while this song doesn’t work, it didn’t take long for the Robinson-Wells collaborations to click. Special note should also be made of Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s lilting percussion, supposedly inspired by the island rhythms of Harry Belafonte. — By Joel Francis