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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Wilson’

The Supremes – “Stoned Love,” Pop # 7, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“Stoned Love” was the Supremes’ biggest hit of the post-Diana Ross era, and with good reason – it sounds like a throwback to the golden Holland-Dozier-Holland age of Motown.

Motown producer Frank Wilson discovered the song when it was played over Detroit radio during a talent search contest. Amazed to find such a mature work had been penned by a local teenager, Wilson worked with Kenny Thomas, the young writer, and arranger David DePitte before presenting the number to Berry Gordy and the Supremes.

In a narrative repeated so frequently it has nearly become a cliché, Gordy hated the song. The reason for Gordy’s dislike is unclear, but there was concern over the title. Thomas and Wilson insisted the title referred to love with a solid foundation, not drug use. The original title, “Stone Love” supports this claim. Somehow the single was mislabeled “Stoned Love” at the pressing plant and the new title stuck.

Just as they had three years ago when the Doors sang “we couldn’t get much higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show, CBS freaked out over the potential reference and cut the song from the girls’ appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

As usual, the censors paid more attention to the hysteria than the work itself. Wilson’s lyrics call for “a love for each other that will bring fighting to an end/forgiving one another” and challenge for the “young at heart” to “rise up and take your stand.”

The hope-filled lyrics brim with the optimism of youth and could easily turn into treacle. Thomas and DePitte turned them into a great showcase for Jean Terrell’s talents. All elements seem to feed off her emotion, particularly the inspired backing vocals of fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Wilson and Birdsong had been banished from the final recording sessions with Ross and they seem extra happy to be operating as a group again.

From the propulsive snare driving the song, down to the swirling strings and display of voices, the arrangement recalls the Supreme’s finest moments with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Fans seemed to agree, sending the song to the top of the R&B chart an into the pop Top 10. Again, Gordy’s steadfast, initial instinct had been proven wrong.

The legacy of “Stoned Love” lies more with its title than its tune. Angie Stone incorporated it into the introduction on her “Stone Love” album in 2004, just one of many similar titles it inspired. These include “Stone in Love” by Journey and the smilar “Stoned in Love” by UK dance pop artist Chicane. In 2006 Justin Timberlake released the single “LoveStoned.” None of these songs hold a candle to “Stoned Love.”

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The Supremes – “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” Pop # 10, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Life in the Supremes had been rocky for a while. First, Diana Ross got top billing, then founding member Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. To add insult to injury, several tracks credited to Diana Ross and the Supremes were glorified Ross solo tracks, recorded with no input from Birdsong or Mary Wilson.

When Ross finally left to launch a solo career, Wilson regained control of the group. As the sole original member, she became the unofficial leader. For the first time in a while, Wilson’s voice was prominent among the backing vocals. In her autobiography, Wilson recalled that the backing vocals were recorded with the three Supremes sharing a microphone, something the group did frequently in the early days but had not done in years.

Although she never reached the same level of fame as her predecessor, Terrell was an excellent replacement for Ross. Terrell’s voice had greater range and tone with a strong gospel emphasis. Producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), frequently told Terrell to dial back her performance during the recording of “Up the Ladder to the Roof” because he thought Motown listeners wouldn’t like her soulful delivery.

The title is a nod to Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s 1962 hit for the Drifters, “Up on the Roof.” In the Drifters’ song, the roof is a romanticized utopia, free of the worries and stress of urban life. For the Supremes, however, the roof represents not only sex (check the way Terrell coos the lines “where we can be closer to heaven” in the chorus) but commitment and a new life together, stopping just short of being a marriage proposal. Although the string arrangement gives the song an elegant feel, the funky wah-wah guitar and percussion breakdown in the middle is definitely a nod to the times.

“Up the Ladder” successfully launched the “new Supremes,” lodging at No. 10 on the Pop chart and making it all the way to No. 5 on the R&B chart. It was covered by Bette Midler in 1977, the a capella group the Nylons in the early ‘80s and Al Green during his gospel phase later in the decade.

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soulsville sings hitsville

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.

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tempt beauty

Temptations – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” Pop #3, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

After teaming to give the Tempts a No. 1 R&B hit with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland paired again to deliver “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” which fared even better. The song was the Temptations’ third hit of 1966 and fifth consecutive R&B No. 1, dating back to 1965’s “My Girl.”

After a sharp blast of horns and drum roll from “Pistol” Allen, the song drops to a tinkle of glockenspiel that would make Bruce Springsteen proud and slowly builds, with a crescendo at the chorus. There’s a whisper of guitar and the rumble of James Jamerson’s bass, but Paul Riser’s arrangement is essentially David Ruffin and the Tempts’ voices, horns – complete with trumpet solo! – and that magnificent snare. It was more than enough.

Contrast the prominence the other Temptations are given with their backing performance in this song to the anonymity Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes were often given. As part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Eddie Holland certainly knew how to write and arrange interesting counter-vocals. It makes one wonder how much influence label owner Berry Gordy exerted to push Diana Ross to the front and minimize the contributions of her bandmates.

Although the title seems enlightened, few women would regard a lyric like “A pretty face you may not possess/ But what I like about it is your tenderness” as a compliment.

Whitfield actually recorded the song’s backing track two years before he added the Temptations’ vocals. In the interceding time he shopped it to several Motown artists, including David Ruffin’s brother, Jimmy, and the Miracles, who included their version on the “Away We Go-Go” album. (Never one to miss a trend, Gordy also released “The Supremes A Go-Go” album in that same summer of 1966.) The Ruffin and Miracles versions are the only substantial covers of the song on record to date.

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motownnew

Above: Part of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating 50 years of Motown Records. The exhibit is open all year. (Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

By Joel Francis

It may seem hard to believe, but “the sound of young America” is 50 years old.

To celebrate a half-century of Motown records, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is hosting a new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50,” all year in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall.

“It’s an obvious anniversary, one we should do something about,” said Howard Kramer, director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “Lots of labels have anniversaries, but Motown still rings wide and true.”

One of the largest items on display is the upright bass Funk Brother James Jamerson played on all his Motown sessions until 1963. It’s the instrument heard on “My Guy” and “Heat Wave.”

“A lot of people maintain the key to Motown was the rhythm section: The snap of the drums, the gorgeously intricate bass line and then the percussion laid over the top,” Kramer said. “Jamerson was the primary bass player. He carried the weight of those recordings.”

Of particular interest to Kramer are four posters promoting Motown concerts. Two of the posters advertise Motown Revue shows, which featured several of the labels artists on the same bill.

“For the 1963 revue, Stevie Wonder was the headliner.Usually the person with the biggest hit at the time was the headliner, and in this case he was riding ‘Fingertips, Part 2,'” Kramer said. “It’s interesting to see both who’s on top and the volume of artists (on the bill). It’s also interesting to note that for the 1968 Motown Revue shows at the Fox Theater in Detroit, they played 9 or 10 days in a theater that seats 5,000.”

Together, the posters span five years and a range of venues from a high school gym to a civic sports arena.

“These posters give you an idea of the breadth of places Motown performers were playing,” Kramer said. “They’d play arenas, high schools, theaters and also posh nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York,” Kramer said. “They played every possible circuit.”

Other items in the exhibit include the dress Supreme Mary Wilson wore for the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show after the departure of Diana Ross, the outfit and glasses Stevie Wonder wore for his halftime performance at the 1999 Super Bowl and a stage costume worn by Miracle Bobby Rogers in the 1970s.

“Rogers’ suit is an example of the over-the-top clothing vocal groups wore at the time,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason for this to have been made except for a performer. This is not street wear.”

Thanks to a loan from the Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, many of the artifacts have never been displayed before.

“A lot of Motown stuff didn’t make it past the original era,” Kramer said. “The only item we’ve shown before is Rick James’ bass.”

For many of the Motown session musicians, playing for Hitsville was just another gig. But 50 years later, the notes they laid down still resonate.

After 50 years and several generations Motown is still a staple of radio, music, movies, television, commercials,” Kramer said. “That’s part of (label founder Berry) Gordy’s vision to make the music palatable to all ages.”

To learn more about museum hours and ticket information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

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