On the Streets of Philadelphia

(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.
The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.
In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.
This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.
With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.
Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.
The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

(Above: The video for “Me and the Devil,” a track from his 2010 album “I’m New Here.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.

From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.

Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.

“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”

After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.

On prison, Heron poked at critics who said his sentences had made him sound unhappy on his new album “You might be unhappy when you go in, but you’re sure not when you come out.”

Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.

Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.

“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”

He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”

“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.

Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”

The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.

As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.

It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.

A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.

Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.

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Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Another Side of Norah Jones

Review: Maxwell and Jill Scott

(Above: Maxwell performs “Fistful of Tears” in Dallas on the fall 2009 arena leg of the tour.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If the local birth notices are unusually high late next February, we’ll know why. Sunday night at Starlight, neo-soul stars Maxwell and Jill Scott set a romantic mood with three hours of slow jams designed to linger long after the last note expired.

Shortly after sunset, a silhouette appeared on the screen behind the band. As the 10-piece band vamped, Maxwell suavely strolled out in a three-piece suit and sunglasses. Women erupted in spontaneous shrieks of delight as he set the mood early with “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”

It was hardly the only time Maxwell would play to the fairer sex. Over the course of his 90- minute set he praised (“Fortunate,” “Ascension”), chastised (“Cold”), apologized (“Pretty Wings”) and seduced (pretty much every other song) the women in the audience. The set comprised two-thirds of Maxwell’s 2009 comeback album “BLACKsummer’snight,” and another half dozen hits and favorites for good measure.

The band rolled through the first three numbers without stopping. The come-hither strut of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” easily rolled into “Get To Know Ya” and an arrangement based on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” After a New Orleans jazz breakdown and trumpet solo, the ensemble took a deft turn into the Kool and the Gang-inspired “Cold,” one of the most upbeat kiss-off songs of all time.

Nearly every musician backing Maxwell has a foot in the worlds of jazz and hip hop. Many members have collaborated with rappers Mos Def, Jay-Z or Diddy. Pianist Robert Glasper was received a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album “Double Booked.” This jazz pedigree was on display all night, in the way Glasper or organist Travis Sayles would respond to a vocal phrase, or feed off the rhythm section.

Although the size of venues, staging and setlists have changed, Maxwell and the band have been touring together for nearly two years now. They’ve had plenty of time to sand out the rough spots, and Sunday’s night was an effortlessly paced ride. The roughest element was likely the most surprising: Maxwell’s voice.

The rasp in Maxwell’s throat was obvious from the first number; by the fifth he ‘fessed up to overdoing it the previous night in St. Louis and asking for the audience to help him on the high notes he couldn’t hit. He then bravely launched into the falsetto-sung “This Woman’s Work,” holding the mic stand over the crowd on the chorus. It was a generous gesture, but Maxwell would have been better off letting back-up singer Latina Webb play a greater role. Their duet on “Reunion” was one of the better moments of the night.

This was a small hurdle to overcome. Maxwell’s voice grew stronger with each number, to the point that he was able to handle the high parts in a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” with ease. The set ended with two guaranteed crowd-pleasers, “Fortunate” and “Ascension.” On the latter, the very full (but not sold out) house delivered the entire first verse a capella, much to Maxwell’s delight.

Jill Scott had the misfortune of taking the stage with the sun blazing through most of her 80-minute set, rendering most of her lighting and effects moot. It wasn’t a big loss, though, because like Maxwell the focus was on her voice and her band.

The 10-piece group sizzled through the keyboard propelled “It’s Love” that got most of the crowd up and dancing. If that number bounced with the energy of a passionate night on the town, then the next song, “Not Like Crazy,” gently embraced the delicate pleasure of waking up next to that person the following morning.

The two new numbers were studies in contrast. “I Love You” rode a bubbly ‘80s synth line, but wasn’t a radical departure in sound or subject. “Hear My Call” was a desperate, dead-of-night cry for help in the aftermath of a relationship. Scott performed the song backed only by piano. When it was over, she walked to the opposite end of the stage where her other keyboard player started one of her most affirming songs, “He Loves Me.”

Soon the band and the crowd were both fired up, but Scott stopped the show with her near-operatic vocal display that brought a richly deserved standing ovation. Scott made sure everyone stayed on their feet with the girl-power anthem “Hate On Me,” early hit “A Long Walk” and carpe diem hymn “Golden.”

It would have been a delight to have Scott and Maxwell share the stage for a number, but even apart the pair was a perfect complement. Both realized their roles as facilitators as much as entertainers.

“I’m here to support, engage and enthuse,” Maxwell said suggestively.

Scott was more direct: “This is an effort to get y’all some tonight.”

Jill Scott setlist: Gimme, The Real Thing, Insomnia, It’s Love, Not Like Crazy > The Way, Come See Me, Crown Royal, I Love You (new song), Cross My Mind, Hear My Call (new song), He Loves Me, Hate on Me, A Long Walk, Golden.

Maxwell setlist: Sumthin’ Sumthin’ > Get to Know Ya > Cold, Lifetime, Bad Habits, This Woman’s Work, Help Somebody, Fistful of Tears, Stop the World, Reunion, Till the Cops Come Knockin’, Don’t Say Goodnight (Isley Brothers cover) > Fortunate, Ascension. Encore: Pretty Wings.

Keep reading:

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Raphael Saadiq sends a love letter to soul makers and Motown

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

(Above: The video for “Pretty Wings,” one of the biggest songs to come off Maxwell’s latest album.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When Maxwell released his first album in eight years last summer, he planned on making up for lost time by hitting his audience with three albums over a short period of time. The fans, however, had another plan. “BLACKsummer’snight” debuted at No. 1, spawned two singles that stayed on the charts for 46 and 47 weeks, respectively.

The assuring everyone “I’m back for good,” the follow up album is ready. Now Maxwell’s waiting for the excitement to die down.

“This (new album) will be the second in a trilogy,” Maxwell said. “They were going to come out in succession, but then the first one created this response. We’re waiting for the people to tell us when they’re ready.”

The soul man mapped his return cautiously, playing the Uptown on the first leg of his tour in the fall of 2008. By the time his show reached St. Louis a year later he was playing arenas and had two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden under his belt.

“Honestly, I like the intimate settings better,” said Maxwell, who celebrated his 37th birthday on May 23. “People can hear us better and see us better. But because of the success of the record, I’d be in every town for two weeks if I did that.”

When Maxwell plays Starlight on Sunday, he will bring Jill Scott, one of the singers who blossomed during his time away.

“She is absolutely amazing,” Maxwell said of Scott. “Apart from the music, she not only has the most beautiful smile but the biggest spirit. She typifies soul right now.”

Maxwell said his set is “very different” from previous tour legs. The stage has been redesigned by Roy Bennett, who came to Maxwell’s attention through his work with Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein.

“His ability to design is stellar. We’ve got great video and lights,” Maxwell said. “More importantly is my band. These musicians could stand out in front of a cloth.”

The ten-piece outfit includes several artists who have made names for themselves in the jazz world, like pianist Robert Glasper and bass player Derrick Hodge. The pieces of the ensemble started falling into place when a friend introduced Maxwell to Chris Dave. Dave’s impressive resume includes collaborations with Mint Condition, Meshell Ndgeocello, Pat Metheny, Kenny Garrett.

“Chris is just an incredible drummer. He knew the person who introduced me to the horn section, and the band kind of evolved from there,” Maxwell said. “I won’t say it was happenstance, because I do believe in destiny, but it came together very organically.”

The musical landscape Maxwell re-entered is markedly different. Labels are failing and artists are selling fewer albums and, as a result, generating less money for both themselves and their label.

“It hasn’t been a problem for me, which is incredible,” Maxwell said. “We just added the fourth leg of the tour and I’m getting better album sales than I’ve ever had. I’ve been pretty – and I hate using this word, but – lucky. Blessed.”

For Maxwell the comeback is over. He’s returned and conquered, and now he’s ready to move on. Worn down by being asked why he voluntarily dropped out of sight so many times, Maxwell has a simple, smirking answer: “I like Seinfeld.”

Keep reading:

Review: Maxwell and Jill Scott

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Stevie Wonder celebrates Michael Jackson at Starlight

Review: Raphael Saadiq

Jackson 5 – “ABC”

Jackson 5 – “ABC,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Tito, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and, of course, Michael Jackson blasted to the top of the chart with their debut single, “I Want You Back.” Five months later, they duplicated the feat with their second effort, “ABC.”

Like their previous release, “ABC” was written and produced by the Corporation, the faceless entity label head Berry Gordy created in the wake of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure. Never again would Motown’s writers and producers usurp the performer’s fame. Structurally, “ABC” also resembles “I Want You Back;” the two songs share the same spirit and melody lines.

“ABC” opens with a bright burst of fuzz guitar and piano a split second before Michael wordlessly sings the equivalent of sunshine and a smile. Michael had yet to enter his teens, but his voice pops out of the speakers with remarkable authority and maturity.

Because of their ages, the Jackson 5 were branded “bubblegum” in the early years of their career. The tag isn’t completely unfair – their debut album does open with a version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”  – but the way Michael yells “Sit down girl, I think I love you!” is pure soul.

With its great bass line, the way the syncopated drumming plays off the piano line, and sprinkling of Latin percussion over the top “ABC” is pop perfection.

The song’s concept came from Corporation member Freddie Perren, a former school teacher. Perren noted the similarity between teaching and producing, namely forming a lesson play, or song idea, then having the students/musicians echo it back until attaining perfection.

“ABC” is one of Motown’s biggest song, but Gordy never saw fit to give the tune to any of his other artists. It hasn’t even been sampled that often (the less said about Ghostface Killah’s version, the better). Although the song today has been unfairly relegated to children’s compilations and oldies collections, “ABC” rocked the house parties of both young and old alike back in the day.

Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back”

Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“I Want You Back” not only introduced America to the biggest post-Elvis superstar in the world. It also kicked off the unprecedented success of a group having its first four singles top the chart, and returned the mojo Motown lost with the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The Jackson 5 – Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie – were famously raised in Gary, Ind. by their ambitious and abusive father Joe. When his sons started showing musical aptitude, Joe Jackson saw them as his ticket out of the Gary steel mills and, after music lessons, sent them out on the chitlin circuit. Their shows caught the eye of Sam and Dave and Gladys Knight, who recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Because Gordy already had one child star with Stevie Wonder, he declined to sign them.

One year later, in 1968, the Jackson 5 were paired with Knight and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were riding their lone Motown hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor and Knight were so impressed by the J5’s performance that they videotaped an audition and send the tape to Gordy to his new home in Los Angeles. Gordy was still reluctant to sign another child act, but relented after watching the tape.

Of course Knight and Taylor received little credit for bringing the Jackson 5 to Motown. The glory went to Diana Ross, who had nothing to do with the quintet or their signing, but received top billing on their debut album, “Diana Ross presents the Jackson 5.”

The arrival of the Jackson 5 draws a sharp line between the Detroit and Los Angeles eras of Motown. Gordy had recently relocated to Los Angeles to start a film career for both himself and Ross, his lover. Although some early J5 songs were recorded at the Hitsville studio in Detroit, Gordy moved the group out to California for grooming.

Gordy copied the songwriting template of the Supreme’s successful “Love Child” to craft “I Want You Back.” He called three of his best writers – Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonso Mizell – to help him retool a song originally intended for either Gladys Knight or Diana Ross as either “I Wanna Be Free” or “I Want You Back.” As on “Love Child,” Gordy billed the collective anonymously. After the defection of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy did not want any more of his songwriters to become “back room superstars.” Known only as “The Corporation,” the team wrote many of the Jackson 5’s early hits.

One of the most infectiously joyous songs in the Motown catalog, “I Want You Back” has been covered several times. Nickel Creek recorded a bluegrass version in 2007, two pop girl groups – Cleopatra and the West End Girls – had international hits with their 1990s interpretations. It was recorded by indie rockers Discovery on their 2009 debut, and performed by British singer Mika, KT Tunstall and even Guns N Roses in concert.

“I Want You Back” was sampled by Kris Kross for their 1992 hit “Jump,” and Kanye West for Jay-Z’s 2001 smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real”

The Originals – “Baby I’m For Real,” Pop # 14, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

The Originals had appeared on nearly a dozen Motown hits before they finally landed one with their name on the label. As backing vocalists, the Detroit quartet saw their performances on “Function at the Junction,” “Twenty-Five Miles,” “For Once In My Life” and “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” – to name but a few – rise to the top of the chart.

When Marvin Gaye had the group sing on his singles “You” and “Chained” he felt an immediate rapport and took it upon himself to give them the breakout single they deserved. Working with his wife Anna (label boss Berry Gordy’s sister), Gaye penned the lyrics for “Baby I’m For Real.”

With its soft arrangement and doo-wop influences, the song was an about-face from the psychedelic soul singles Motown was sending to the top of the charts. Gordy balked, insisting Gaye release the other song he wrote and produced for the Originals, “You’re the One.” When it flopped, Gaye convinced his brother-in-law to release “Real.”

With its quivering strings, silky saxophone and smooth vocals, the song fit more into the Philly soul mold than the Motown model. Even the drums on the track are gentle and the performance floats by like a cloud across a lazy summer afternoon sky.

Gaye’s intentions were not entirely altruistic. He wanted to spread his wings and used the song’s success to convince Gordy that he was capable of producing hit material. The triumph of “Baby I’m For Real” was quickly parlayed into the Originals’ follow-up hit, “The Bells” and helped paved the way for Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” album.

Nearly a generation after its original release, After 7 refurbished this classic and, blending it with Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” took it to No. 5 on the R&B chart. In 1972, soul singer Esther Phillps put her spin on the number. Faux-soulster Michael McDonald included his take on the more recent “Motown Two” album.

Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”


Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” was Jr. Walker’s second chart-topper and first since 1965’s “Shotgun,” but the two songs couldn’t have been more different. While “Shotgun” was a raw roadhouse rumble with the horn dominating the vocals, “What Does It Take” was a smooth love song designed to drive traffic to the bedroom.

Although Walker penned many of the All Stars’ best numbers, like “Shake and Fingerpop,” “Hip City” and “Last Call,” he handed the reigns over to the songwriting and production duo of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol in a bid for greater pop success in the late ‘60s.

On paper it looked like a solid decision. Fuqua and Bristol were trusted entities. The latter discovered Walker, and the former gave Walker his first record deal. When Fuqua’s Harvey Records were purchased by Motown, Fuqua, Bristol and Walker became part of the Hitsville family.

While Fuqua and Bristol were successful in taking Walker back to the top of the charts, they did it by depriving Walker of his signature sound. The great saxophone that propelled so many All Stars singles was relegated to anonymous responses that could have been handled by any session player. Walker has overcome his initial microphone shyness to deliver a credible vocal, but his delivery his hardly distinct. All the right elements may be in place, but the product is competently forgettable.

Any thoughts that Walker strayed too far from the sound that made him great are reinforced by Kenny G’s 1986 cover featuring Bristol on lead vocals.

Temptations – “Cloud 9”

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.