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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Whitfield’

By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

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By Joel Francis

Remember, the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home. And while you’re there, you may as well play some records. Here are some of mine.

The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) The seventh album by Motown’s soul stalwarts is groundbreaking in several ways. It was their final album with David Ruffin on vocals and Smokey Robinson producing. It’s also their last album to contain the classic Motown sound before producer Norman Whitfield (who is behind the boards for several tracks here) starting taking the Tempts down a more psychedelic path. The heartbreaking ballads “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another” were based on a real-life relationship that cut so deeply Robert Penzabene, who helped write both numbers, killed himself. The rest of the album stays along these themes of heartache and loss, but the Funk Brothers keep punching away, keeping the album from getting too somber. With Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations ended their classic lineup era on a high note and carried that momentum into the next psychedelic chapter.

Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019) The Washington D.C.-based punk trio named their second album after Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, an examination of why people – mainly conservatives in his thesis – vote against their own interests. The songs are more empathetic than angry, written as an attempt to bridge and understand the divide that has split America. Texturally, the album moves from a spacey, early Cure vibe on the paranoid “Not Percieved,” to the post-punk thump of revenge on “I’m Clean.” The final song, “Texas Instruments,” is my favorite cut. It discusses the whitewashing of history by looking at the story of the Lone Star state. Sample lyrics: “The hubris of propriety/Macy’s Day Parade history/Puff your chest up so we can see/Who brought the books you read?” Heady stuff to be sure, but the music keeps the feet entertained while the brain is engaged. Sadly, Priests went on an indefinite hiatus shortly after their tour behind this album wrapped. I hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.

Hearts of Darkness – self-titled (2010) Man, you could hardly go anywhere around Kansas City without bumping into either a member of Hearts of Darkness, someone talking about Hearts of Darkness or seeing a flier for an upcoming Hearts of Darkness. They won a spot at Farm Aid in 2011 and blew Snoop Dogg off the stage as an opening act that same year. Watching the 15-piece Afrobeat group perform was like standing on the launch pad as a rocket takes off. The band’s energy was matched only by the amount of smiles generated. Hearts of Darkness released another album in 2012 and then gradually tapered off. According to their ReverbNation site the group’s most recent show was in 2017. High time for a comeback.

White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007) After expanding their sound on Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes’ previous album, Icky Thump was the sound of the duo getting back to a straightforward rock sound. This isn’t the garage rock they perfected on early albums, however, but a more spacious arena-ready sound reflecting the larger venues they were now commanding. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” remains a divisive song among fans, but other singles like the title track and the stomp of “Rag and Bone” make up for this misstep. It would have been interesting to see where Jack and Meg White would have taken their sound after this album. Icky Thump sounds like pair were getting back to basics and regrouping before deciding where to go next. Unfortunately, Meg White called it quits after the tour wrapped. We’ll never know what the next chapter may have held.

Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977) Put the iconic title track that opens this album and the magnificent medley of “The Load Out/Stay” that closes the record. There’s some pretty weird stuff happening in the other 30 minutes of this album. Cocaine shows up in nearly a third of the songs. “Rosie” is a tribute to a groupie. (Sample lyric: “She was sniffing all around/like a half-grown female pup.” Classy, Jackson.) There are a couple songs about the loneliness and desolation on the road, one of which was actually recorded on Browne’s tour bus as it hummed toward the next gig. Its like Browne decided to turn Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” into a concept album. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but take away the first and last cut and there’s not much to make Running on Empty into more than a one-night stand.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995) If this is your first time encountering The Bends, you are in store for a tremendous experience. If it is not, feel free to use this as an excuse to play it again. So much has been written about Radiohead and The Bends, I don’t know that I have much to add. I will say that The Bends was gripping the first time I heard it and continues to reveal new layers a generation later.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005) One of the best moments at a Death Cab for Cutie concert is when the band exits the stage, leading singer Ben Gibbard alone to sing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” with his acoustic guitar. This heartfelt, darkly romantic ballad has been a staple on mixes and playlists by the angst-filled and lovelorn from the day Plans was released. There are several other great songs to be found here as well. “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect slices of indie rock and the rest isn’t far behind. Plans isn’t Death Cab’s best album, but it has definitely earned a place on the medal platform.

The New Pornographers – Together (2010) Together was the first New Pornographers album that didn’t excite me when it was released. It felt like the band was having to work too hard to develop the delightful power pop that made the group’s first three albums so wonderful. That their sound was becoming a crutch. In retrospect, I think I was too hard on the album. Granted, the band isn’t breaking any new ground but there are several genuinely great songs here, such as the delicate “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” (How’s that for title?) “Crash Years” and Dan Bejar’s always-skewed songwriting on “Jenny Silver Dollar.” Together may be a holding pattern, but if this is what it took to get to Brill Bruisers, their next release, a classic on par with the Pornographer’s early material, then it was worth the stop.

Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (2012) The third album after Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is cut from the same cloth as their previous release, Farm. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, though. Not when you’ve got J. Mascis’s guitar ripping through the speaker with bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Murph right behind him, chasing Mascis like he owes them money.  You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if you like this album. If you do, the full listen won’t be enough. Fortunately, the Boston-based trio has left us several more platters, just like this one.

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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.

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Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

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Rare Earth – “Get Ready,” Pop # 4, R&B # 20

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Motown’s signing of Rare Earth in 1968 was the sign of a label attempting to spread its wings. Although Rare Earth wasn’t the first all-white rock group signed by to Motown (that would be the Messengers in 1967), it was the most successful.

“Get Ready” was the Earth’s second and biggest single. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1966 when it rose to No. 29. It was written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles. When the Temptations version of “Get Ready” failed to chart high enough, Robinson passed production reigns of the group over to Norman Whitfield.

But that was four years ago, before the psychedelic movement and power trios started stretching songs to fill an entire album side. Which is exactly what Rare Earth did to “Get Ready.” Modeled after their show-closing performances, the song reached more than 21 minutes and packed the entire second side of their Motown debut.

The quintet lobbied label honcho Berry Gordy to release the song as a single, but given the song’s length he balked at the proposition. Finally, a three-minute edit was released in February, 1970 and the song shot up the chart.

Despite the genre transplant, “Get Ready” emerged relatively unaltered. The horn line was replaced with electric guitar, and faux crowd noise was added. The biggest change was Pete Rivera’s gritty white soul vocals replacing Eddie Kendricks’ tough falsetto. A saxophone solo by Gil Bridges closes the number.

The song became a staple not only for Rare Earth and the Tempts, but was a sort of label warhorse. It was included on albums by the Supremes, Miracles, Smokey Robinson on his own, and again by the Temptations in 1991.”Get Ready” was also covered by pop-punk band Ash, the Scottish folk band the Proclaimers and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas, who later turned it into a full-blown cover for their singer Fergie on her solo album.

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The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

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(Above: Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” is one of music writer Bill Dahl’s favorite early Motown songs.)

By Joel Francis

Chances are good that Chicago-based music writer Bill Dahl has penned the liner notes to at least one of your favorite reissues or compilations. Since 1985, Dahl has been commissioned to write the notes for hundreds of blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock collections on both major and boutique labels.

In 1998, Dhal was recognized with a Grammy nomination for his essay on Ray Charles’ sax section included in the “Ray Charles – Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” box set. In 2000, he received the Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. His book, “Motown: The Golden Years” was published in 2001. Dahl’s latest project was co-authoring the amazingly comprehensive liner notes for each of the 12 volumes in the Hip-O Select “Complete Motown Singles” series.

Dahl also writes regularly on his Web site. He recently spoke to The Daily Record via e-mail.

The Daily Record: What was your first exposure to Motown and how did you become interested in writing about it?

Bill Dahl: I started buying quite a bit of Motown vinyl—the Miracles, the Temptations, Jr. Walker, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops—during the early ‘70s as an outgrowth of my record collecting interests, which were expanding rapidly from my original love of ‘50s rock and roll. I was getting into soul, blues, rockabilly, etc., and loving it all (much to the chagrin of my mainstream rock-loving high school classmates, who ragged me unmercifully; I guess I never was much of a conformist).

TDR: What are some of the more interesting stories or facts you learned in researching these liner notes?

BD: One thing that always impresses me is the loyalty the great majority of Motown’s ‘60s artists have to the company and Mr. Gordy to this day. I was fortunate to attend a charity tribute to him a few years ago in LA, and a virtual galaxy of Motown stars performed and paid homage to their beaming boss. Later, all of them trooped up to the stage at the end to sing the old Hitsville fight song!

I’ve found it interesting that several of the better-known songwriting teams had a similar setup to that of Lennon-McCartney—if one wrote it, both names went on automatically. It’s been a pleasure tracking down a lot of the lesser-known acts, including a lot of the Rare Earth label rockers, to get their intriguing stories. They’re too often overlooked and made their own contributions to Hitsville history.

TDR: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Motown?

BD: The goofy and totally unfounded rumors that the mob was involved with the label, solely because a few very competent Caucasians wielded power in the front office. The only color Mr. Gordy cared about was green, so he hired the best person for the job. There were more than a few R&B labels where “da boys” were in up to their eyeballs (no names here), but Motown wasn’t one of them.

TDR: Motown’s big stars get a lot of attention. Who are some of the unheralded Motown artists worth checking out? Were there any long-forgotten gems you discovered as a result of working on the Complete Motown Singles notes?

BD: I remember being amazed by Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” which is on the first Complete Singles box. It sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers meet Hitsville!

Gino Parks’ “Same Thing” (which I knew about already) and several others of his songs are fantastic, as are Singin’ Sammy Ward’s early blues numbers, like “Who’s The Fool.” I love Jr. Walker’s early instrumentals – “Mutiny,” with James Jamerson’s jazz bass solo, is astounding – Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, and some of Little Stevie Wonder’s overlooked early outings. Los Angeles guitarist Arthur Adams’ “It’s Private Tonight,” which came out on Motown-distributed Chisa (it’s on the 1970 box), is the perfect marriage of blues and soul.

TDR: How detrimental do you think Berry Gordy’s favoritism toward Diana Ross was to the label? How much better would Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Kim Weston and Mary Wells have fared otherwise?

BD: It wasn’t detrimental in the slightest; the Supremes made some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s at a time when the British Invasion was otherwise dominating our charts, and Diana Ross had a coquettish mainstream appeal that none of the rest had. Mary Wells ruined her own career by walking away from Motown when she turned 21. Gladys Knight and the Pips were already stars when they arrived at Motown and far bigger ones when they left, though they got even hotter at Buddah. Kim Weston’s Motown career was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, for both better and worse.  And Martha Reeves and her Vandellas had a series of incredible hits, much like the Marvelettes, that made both groups long-term mainstays.

TDR: There has been some disagreement over Tammi Terrell’s involvement on the duet albums with Marvin Gaye that bear her name. Did she return to the studio after her collapse and is that her voice on those songs? What was (Motown songwriter) Valerie Simpson’s role in these recordings?

BD: It’s impossible to say for sure, since Valerie has never admitted any possible lead vocal involvement (Marvin Gaye’s biography stated such unequivocally, but I’d be less inclined to buy in).  I doubt we’ll ever know one way or the other for sure, though Valerie’s role as co-producer and co-writer on many of them was so crucial that Tammi was no doubt channeling her vocal approach when she sang them (if indeed she was on the last couple hits).

TDR: The Complete Motown Singles Collection series ends in 1972. Why stop there? What is your favorite post-1972 Motown single or moment?

BD:  That was the end of the Detroit era—the Golden Years—so it seems like a reasonable place to end it, though you’d have to ask my boss Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music – ed.) there. I’m not sure I have too many post-1972 favorites—I’m very partial to the 1959-72 Motown era we’ve covered on the Complete Motown Singles series—but  Gloria Jones, Yvonne Fair, Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison, and Jr. Walker’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” come to mind.

TDR: In your mind, what was the greatest single factor in the label’s decline? Was it the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the move to Los Angeles, Gordy’s interest in movies or something else?

BD: I don’t think we can accurately say Motown declined, since it’s still a going entity today and enjoyed a ton of hits after 1972. Times change and so do musical tastes, so keeping the same sound in 1972 that sold so well in the mid-‘60s would have been a recipe for disaster. Certainly HDH’s departure was a blow, but that gave other writers and producers more room to create their own soulful magic, like Norman Whitfield. The move to Los Angeles hurt the artists and musicians that chose to remain in the Motor City, and didn’t help the local economy either.

Mr. Gordy’s early ‘70s interest in the film industry made him a lot harder to reach on the phone at the time, much to the frustration of some staffers, but artistically it had a negligible effect since he wasn’t all that active musically by then anyway other than with the Jackson 5.

TDR: Ultimately, what do you feel is Motown’s greatest and most lasting impact on music today? Why?

BD: As the top indie label of the ‘60s, Motown turned the industry on its ear. There had been successful African-American owned record labels prior to Motown—Duke/Peacock, Fire/Fury, and Vee-Jay come to mind—but none were so monumentally successful. Gordy’s mantra of making R&B attuned to pop sensibilities had never been pulled off so convincingly. He also did a masterful job of delegating authority in the A&R department. It sounds like a cliché to say these classic recordings will never die, but they won’t.

TDR: Now that this project is over, what is your next venture? Are there any more Motown projects on the horizon?

BD: There are no Motown projects immediately scheduled, but I wrote the notes on Reel Music’s CD reissue of Jimmy Ruffin’s fine “Ruff ‘n Ready” Motown LP, complete with a fresh in-depth interview with the gracious Mr. Ruffin, which is just coming out.

I’m hoping and praying that Rhino Handmade finally releases the wonderful Wilson Pickett boxed set that it’s been sitting on for more than two years. A recent proclamation on the label’s website says it’s been scheduled. I wrote a huge track-by-track essay for it, much like the ones in the Motown boxes. It’s got everything he did for Atlantic on it and plenty more. Interestingly, the Funk Brothers played on Pickett’s first solo platters for Double L, a fact scantily documented before I started doing research for this box.

Keep reading:

Music essays and reviews by Bill Dahl

More features and interviews on The Daily Record:

Former NBA player at home in KC music scene

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Hail Death Cab

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Out of the Tar Pit Back Onto the Stage

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

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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.

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Cloud 9
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.

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