Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love”

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love,” Pop # 23, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson has penned dozens of gorgeous love songs throughout his career, but few are affecting as “More Love.” The reassuring lyrics speak to the tragedies the couple suffered as a result of life on the road. Between 1957 and 1964, Claudette Robinson had eight miscarriages. This heartbreaking back story adds to the romance of the chorus:

“More love, more joy,
|Than age or time could ever destroy.
My love will be so sound,
It would take about a hundred lifetimes
To live it down, wear it down, tear it down.”

The song opens with some gospel chords on the piano before the gently insistent bassline enters. Robinson’s voice appears on a pillow of strings, as the arrangement slowly builds underneath. After Robinson delivers the chorus a second time, the performance pulls back to that great bassline before reaching a climax that sustains through the rest of the song.

Foreshadowing Motown’s cross-country relocation, the track was performed by Los Angeles session musicians before the Miracles – including Claudette – overdubbed their voices in Detroit. It’s unclear why Robinson, who also produced the cut,  bypassed the Funk Brothers, but the public didn’t seem to mind. The song was wedged near the top of both the pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1967.

Foreshadowing another Motown move, “More Love” was the second single credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.” Berry’s decision to give Robinson top billing started the avalanche that benefitted Diana Ross and Martha Reeves but doomed David Ruffin and the Temptations.

Smokey and Claudette eventually had two children, both named in tribute to Motown. Son Berry Robinson was the namesake of label founder Berry Gordy, and daughter Tamla Robinson was named after the Hitsville subsidiary.

Former New Christy Minstrels singer Kim Carnes had a No. 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1980 with her reading of “More Love.” The song was her biggest hit until “Bette Davis Eyes” hit No. 1 the following year. “More Love” has also been covered by Paul Young, Barbara McNair and the 5th Dimension.

The Marvelettes – “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”

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The Marvelettes – “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game,” Pop # 13, R&B #2

By Joel Francis

The Marvelettes gave Motown its first No. 1 hit with “Please Mr. Postman,” but that was way back in 1961. But that was five years before “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” came out – a lifetime in pop music. The interceding years weren’t too kind. The group found some follow-up success with “Beechwood 4-5789,” but lost a founding member, and famously passed on “Where Did Our Love Go,” which became the Supremes’ first No. 1 hit.

By the mid-‘60s, the Marvelettes had lost another member. Only the success of greatest hits and live albums were keeping the band tethered to the Motown roster. Then Smokey Robinson entered the picture.

Robinson penned “Don’t Mess With Bill,” the comeback single for the now-trio. His pen also produced “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” sung by Wanda Young, wife of Miracles’ guitarist Bobby Rodgers.

The lyrics are straightforward, but what makes the song is Young’s slinky singing and an equally elastic performance from the Funk Brothers. Check out the great guitar performance holding the whole song together and the great and rare Motown harmonica solo to appear outside of a Stevie Wonder or Shorty Long album.

The Marvelettes found a Top 10 hit with their next single – a remake of Ruby and the Romantics’ “When You’re In Love” – before losing another singer. They carried on with some success, but a full-scale comeback was quashed when the remaining members decided not to follow Berry Gordy to Los Angeles and Young’s pregnancy. After the Marvelettes dissolved, singer Ann Bogan joined New Birth, a soul outfit founded by former Motown staffer Harvey Fuqua.

“The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” has been covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Raconteur Brendan Benson, Jerry Garcia, Blondie and Massive Attack. A reggae cover by Grace Jones reached No. 87 on the R&B charts in 1980.

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.

Temptations – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep”

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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.

The Temptations – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”

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The Temptations – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Pop #13, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

If you’re not hooked in the first five seconds of this song, you haven’t been paying attention. All the elements attack immediately: the drum roll coupled with the insistent clanging cymbal, the knuckle-roll piano riff and, of course, David Ruffin’s raspy vocal. The stinging staccato guitar that shows up later in the initial verse is a direct homage to James Brown. Throw in the glorious backing vocals from the rest of the Temptations and a stellar horn line and you’ve got not only an incredible song, but a definitive snapshot of Motown in full glory.

“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” would be no less a masterpiece if the story stopped there, but remarkably the song almost didn’t get made.

After a few of Smokey Robinson’s productions for the Temps failed to take hold on the charts, hotshot Norman Whitfield wanted the chance to sit behind the boards with the group. Whitfield was a long shot to topple Robinson’s incumbency, but Whitfield thought he had a number that could give him control. Enlisting songwriting help from Edward Holland, Jr. of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Whitfield had the Funk Brothers lay down the backing track to one of Motown’s funkiest numbers to date. The Temptations then added their vocals and Whitfield submitted the single to be auditioned at the Motown Quality Control meeting.

Quality Control meetings were the result of Berry Gordy’s days on the Detroit assembly line. Each week, the label’s top creative minds would meet, listen to music and decide what should be released. Surprisingly, “Ain’t To Proud To Beg” didn’t make the cut. It didn’t make the cut the second week, either. Politics could have been at play – Robinson and Gordy were so close that Robinson named his son Berry – but Gordy asserted that the number simply needed more work.

So Whitfield went back into the studio and moved the melody for the vocal line just out of Ruffin’s range. The straining singer’s vocals added the needed muscle and desperation to the song, and the number was once again submitted to Quality Control.

This time, however, the song had unexpected competition in the form of “Get Ready,” a Temptations number Robinson had written and produced for the band. Since Robinson was the Temps’ established producer “Get Ready” went out while “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” stayed on the shelf. Whitfield was so upset that Gordy promised him “Beg” would be the next single if “Get Ready” failed to reach the pop Top 20.

Gordy kept his word and the song was finally released in May, 1966, eventually reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts. When Whitfield found success with the Temptations following two singles he was instated as the group’s main producer, a role he guarded fiercely until 1974.

Around the same time Whitfield was leaving Motown and the Temptations to form his own record label, the Rolling Stones found No. 17 pop hit with their cover. Through the years, the number has also yielded interpretations by Ben Harper, the Count Basie Orchestra and, even more strangely, Rick Astley, who also made it a Top 20 hit (albeit on the Adult Contemporary charts) in 1988.

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

Shorty Long – “Function at the Junction”

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Shorty Long – “Function at the Junction,” Pop #97, R&B #42

Bluesman Shorty Long always sounded more like a Chess artist than someone on the Motown roster. His 1964 song “Devil With A Blue Dress” sounded like something coming out of a juke joint at midnight. “Function at the Junction,” released two years later, was no less conventional. While Long was one of the few Motown artists in the ’60s allowed to produce himself – Smokey Robinson was another –  he allowed the Holland-Dozier hit machine to apply their shiny production to this number. The result was something that sounded more like Little Richard’s Specialty output of the ’50s than any of the recent HDH hits, but there were a few Motown trademarks. The drums and tambourine are pushed to the front of the mix, but the piano riff propped up by a mean organ that drive the song.

Lyrically, Long’s number is similar to Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” which was a hit for Koko Taylor and Chess the previous year. While Taylor sings of Automatic Slim and Fast Talking Fanny, Long espouses “Ling Ting Tong from China” and 007, who is “bringin’ all the guys from ‘I Spy.'”

The debt “Function at the Junction” owes Little Richard wasn’t lost on the legend, who covered the number in 1971. Two years later jazzman Ramsey Lewis teased the song’s piano strains with his reading. Two decades later, Huey Lewis revived the tune for a greatest hits package. – by Joel Francis

Isley Brothers – “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)”

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Isley Brothers – “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You),” Pop #12, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

For the most part, Motown’s talent during its heyday was home-grown. Martha Reeves was a Hitsville secretary, Stevie Wonder was a kid pestering the Funk Brothers for lessons, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson were part of Berry Gordy’s extended family and Diane Ross and her friends stopped by every day after school to pester staff for an audition.

In short, talent came to Motown, not the other way around.

Of course that mindset quickly changed when the Isley Brothers hit the free agent market in 1965. The brothers made their name with 1959’s “Shout!” (recorded for RCA) and 1962’s “Twist and Shout” (recorded for the Wand label and covered by the Beatles). But after bouncing between those two labels and the failure to establish their own imprint, the Isley Brothers were looking for a new home. Berry Gordy was all too happy to welcome them to his fold.

The Isley’s Motown debut, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) was their biggest success so far. Holland-Dozier-Holland definitely applied the Motown sound to their number. The drums lead the mix, and the string section sounds more like the Four Tops than the Isley Brothers’ gritty urban soul. The brothers had never sounded so slick before, but the results couldn’t be argued with. The song is infectious, fun and impossible to listen to without breaking into smiles or dance.

Unfortunately, the Isley-Motown marriage didn’t last long. Despite releasing two more albums, the group couldn’t find a follow-up hit and complained of being fed inferior, cast-off tracks. They had a point: “This Old Heart” was originally intended for the Supremes. The brothers left Motown in 1968 and signed with Buddha before finding long-term success with Epic.

The Marvelettes – “Don’t Mess With Bill”

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The Marvelettes – “Don’t Mess With Bill,” Pop #7, R&B #3

The three years between this hit and the Marvelettes’ previous chart entry, “Beechwood 4-5789,” saw them slide from Barry Gordy’s go-to girl group to third fiddle behind Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. After passing on “Where Did Our Love Go,” which became a hit for the Supremes, they finally found success with this Smokey Robinson number.

Lyrically, this relationship may not be the most stable: Bill has put tears in lead singer Wanda Young’s eyes “a thousand times or more.” But “every time he would apologize/I loved him more than before.” Furthermore, Young isn’t sure Bill will come back; that said, she wants no competition.

The vocal deliveries may not be threatening, but the slinky organ underpinning the melody and saxophone solo add an element of danger. Any girl that’s tough enough to put up with what Bill hands out can definitely hold her own. – by Joel Francis

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”

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The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears,” Pop #16, R&B #2

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson had little to prove in 1965. Since joining Motown four years ago, he had not only given the label its first million-selling single and its first No. 1, but written, produced or performed on scores of classic tracks. Robinson was rewarded for all his work when his name was pulled out of the Miracles and given top billing.

“The Tracks of My Tears” was one of the first singles credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles,” but Robinson wasn’t resting on his laurels. His heart wrenching vocals may be topped only by Levi Stubbs’ performance on “Ask the Lonely” as the label’s most powerful performance to date. With a voice packed full of heartache and longing, Robinson pulls back the mask, revealing his naked heart to his former lover.

Exhausted after meticulously maintaining his façade for the evening, and the truth seeps out of Robinson’s character when he’s finally alone. Ah that the pain of love could be so melodic. The song starts as if out of dream, introduced by the subtle but spectacular guitar line of Marv Taplin. The Miracles’ harmony vocals are the reassurance and support that are always absent in these dead-of-night confessions. The orchestra, xylophone and drumming are all perfectly arranged and placed. Everything pauses for the syncopation of the line “My smile is my makeup I wear since my break-up with you.”

“The Tracks of My Tears” is frequently lauded as not only Robinson’s best number, but one of the greatest songs of all time. It is also the Miracles’ most-covered song. Less than two year’s after the Miracles’ hit, Johnny Rivers cut a version. Aretha Franklin’s reading from “Soul ’69” is just wonderful. Her celebrated voice is framed by a gorgeous finger picked guitar and a tough brass arrangement that accentuates without overpowering. Most recently, the song has been covered by Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello, who sometime performs it in concert as a medley with his like-minded hit “Alison.”

Although the song is nearly 45 years old, it hasn’t aged a minute.