Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Stevie Wonder’

(Above: The Original Wailers perform Bob Marley’s classic “No Woman No Cry,” in 2008.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Junior Marvin’s two musical heroes growing up: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder.

And in a twist he couldn’t have dreamed of back then, both Marley and Wonder made competing offers for his services. It was Valentine’s Day, 1977.

Marvin had met Marley through Island Records president Chris Blackwell, who knew of Marvin’s work with Traffic in England. Wonder, meanwhile, saw Marvin play in the States with T-Bone Walker, Ike and Tina Turner and Billy Preston.

“I mean, how can you choose?” Marvin said. “Just getting a call from either of these guys was a dream come true, and I got calls from both on the same day.”

He sought the advice of friends and family and other musicians, he said.

“They said I had to go with the man who shared my heritage. I’m Jamaican, so I chose Bob Marley.”

Junior Marvin, left, with Bob Marley.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Marley and the Wailers were getting ready to record “Exodus.” Marvin’s distinctive guitar work was all over future classics “Jamming,” “One Love,” “Wait in Vain” and “Three Little Birds.” In 1999, Time magazine declared “Exodus” the album of the century.

“When Time wrote that, it was probably the proudest moment of my career,” Marvin said. “I am proud of that album. We all worked so hard on it. It was an honor to be selected over Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”

In 1978, the Wailers produced the album “Kaya” and the hit “Is This Love.” The following year Marvin played on “Survival,” which united him with Al Anderson. Anderson, who had delivered the timeless guitar solo on Marley’s early hit “No Woman No Cry,” had left the Wailers in 1976 to work with Peter Tosh.

“I met Al while I was playing with T-Bone. He was working with Mary Young and playing on Island sessions at the time,” Marvin said. “One night I had a dream I would have the opportunity to play in a group with Al.”

Both Anderson and Marvin played with Marley until his death in 1981. Shortly after Marley died, they made a pact to continue performing as the Wailers.

“We spent time with Bob in Germany while he was ill,” Marvin said. “He asked us to keep the band together after he was gone. He made us promise to keep the standard of music high, but to create our own songs as well.”

Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers released three studio albums and three live efforts after Marley’s death. In 2008, the group collaborated with Kenny Chesney on a No. 1 country hit, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”

“That was a lot of fun,” Marvin said. “He was real down-to-earth. He was interested in our history and was even talking about the possibility doing a reggae album.”

Chesney shot the video for “Heaven” in Jamaica with the Wailers. The band appeared happy on tape, but trouble was brewing. Before the end of the year, Marvin and Anderson left the band.

“We looked up to Family Man as our leader, but when his girlfriend took over it became a John and Yoko kind of thing,” Marvin said. “It was like the other band members didn’t count. There were no rehearsals, and we were not represented financially.”

The guitarists felt the musical standards weren’t living up to their promise to Marley, so they struck out on their own as the Original Wailers. Despite boasting two lead guitarists, the division of labor in the Original Wailers is relatively simple. Because they overlapped on only a few albums, each man plays lead on the material where he originally appeared. As a lead singer before his stint in the Wailers, Marvin handles the vocals.

“Whenever we play, we explain the two Wailers to people,” Marvin said. “I think there’s room for all of us to coexist.”

Original Wailers shows, Marvin said, are about half Marley classics and half new material. This summer he hopes the Original Wailers will release their first album, “Justice.”

“We just got off a five-week European tour, and the reaction to the classics and the new songs was pretty much the same,” Marvin said. “Obviously more people were able to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ but they were dancing and enjoying the new songs as well. We were thrilled to see that.”

Marvin said he feels Marley’s spirit in all the music he creates and has no regrets about choosing Marley over Wonder back in 1977. Besides, he got his chance to play with Stevie Wonder.

“I have a photo of me standing between Stevie and Bob singing ‘jamming in the name of the Lord,’ ” Marvin said. “It’s from when we played the first black music convention in Philadelphia for (Philly soul songwriters and producers Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff. It was a proud moment to be standing on the same stage as those two men at the same time.”

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


(Above: Modest Mouse’s concert at the Uptown Theater in March deserves an honorable mention.)

By Joel Francis

Stevie Wonder, Starlight Theater, June 27

One day after the shocking death of Michael Jackson, Motown legend Stevie Wonder took the stage before a packed Starlight Theater to both grieve and celebrate his old friend. Wonder’s songbook and the scarcity of his performances – he last played Kansas City in 1986 – already guaranteed a special evening. The timing made it historic. Keep reading….

Bela Fleck, Uptown Theater, April 2

Banjo legend Bela Fleck ditched his band the Flecktones for a half dozen African musicians he encountered on his musical adventure across the continent. The three-hour showcase not only exposed the audience to artists they likely wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience, but brought the performers to the nooks and crannies of America. Keep reading ….

Sonny Rollins, Walton Arts Center (Fayetteville, Ark.), April 16

Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins marked his first performance in the state of Arkansas by reminiscing about radio host Bob Burns, aka the Arkansas Traveler and crowing about his idol, native son Louis Jordan. In between stories, Rollins and his four-piece band made transcendence standard with extended performances of chestnuts like “In A Sentimental Mood” and newer material. Keep reading ….

Leonard Cohen, Midland Theater, Nov. 9

Leonard Cohen knew that most of his biggest fans had never seen him in concert and that this tour would be their only chance to experience him in person. Accordingly, Cohen, 75, generously packed his three-hour concert with all his big numbers – “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Everybody Knows,” and about two dozen more – some album cuts and one new song.

Helping Cohen through this immaculate musical buffet was an impeccable six-piece band. Javier Mas’ performance on bandurria and 12-string acoustic guitar frequently stole the spotlight. His playing added new shades and textures to the songs and his solos were always breathtaking. Reed man Dino Soldo was also impressive on clarinet, sax, harmonica and other wind instruments. Three backing vocalists, including Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, helped smooth the rough patches in Cohen’s gravely baritone.

The adoring, sold-out crowd marinated in every moment, cheering at choice lines and raining ovations on the surprisingly spry singer as he skipped and hopped joyously around the stage. Cohen may have been forced back on the road for financial reasons, but both he and his audience delighted in celebration.

Sly and Robbie, Folly Theater, June 6
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Beaumont Club, August 30

This summer was a great time to be a reggae fan in Kansas City. Jamaican visitors included two biological sons of Bob Marley, and several metaphorical ones, including Toots and the Maytals, the reconstituted Wailers and Matisyahu. Pioneers Sly and Robbie and Lee “Scratch” Perry were the season’s bookends.

Sly and Robbie, veterans of literally hundreds of reggae recordings, kicked off the unofficial summer of reggae with nearly two hours of rumbling riddims at the Folly Theater. Nearly three months later, the eccentric and prolific producer “Scratch” Perry kept a small Beaumont Club crowd waiting for hours, before finally appearing with a psychotropic set of Bob Marley numbers he produced and originals like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Pum Pum.”

Keep reading:

–          Sly and Robbie
–          Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jimmy Cobb, Gem Theater, October 17

As the last living performer from Miles Davis’ landmark jazz recording, Jimmy Cobb left a crowded Gem Theater crowd feeling anything but kind of blue. The drummer and his five-piece So What Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue” by playing all of its numbers, but treating the lauded original recordings more like an outline than a blueprint. When Cobb finally unleashed a drum solo more than an hour into the set, he was rewarded with the standing ovation he deserved. Keep reading ….

Pogues, Midland Theater, October 25

It took the renowned Irish acoustic punk band nearly three decades to reach Kansas City, and the groups notorious singer Shane McGowan wasn’t going to vacate the stage quickly. Alone onstage, the dying chords of “Fiesta” still ringing out, McGowan delivered a very inebriated, off-key version of “Kansas City.” A drink in each hand and cigarette dangling from his mouth, McGowan finally shuffled off to whoops and cheers.

The rest of the Pogues, recently reunited and sober (with one exception), have learned to live with these incidents. It’s probably safe to say a good portion of the crowd showed up because of them. Both the morbidly and musically curious had plenty of cause to be glad. After his only face plant of the evening, McGowan replied with aplomb “That’s why they call me Mr. Trips.” Overall, though, he was in good enough shape to deliver great versions of “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “Dirty Old Town” and “Bottle of Smoke.”

Despite suffering from a muddy mix, the rest of the band held up their end of the bargain, especially accordion player James Fearnley who ran and slid around the stage like Bruce Springsteen at the Super Bowl and tin whistle-ist Spider Stacy’s percussive beating of his head with a cookie sheet during “Fiesta.” The McGowan songbook was augmented by the traditional Irish numbers “Irish Rover” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and late-Pogues number “Tuesday Morning.” There were a few stones left unturned – “Fairytale of New York” was missed – but more than enough good moments to justify the wait.

Alice Cooper, Ameristar Casino, August 8

Alice Cooper’s theatrics aren’t as shocking as they were 30 years ago. What is shocking is how captivating and entertaining his stage show remains. Cooper’s adventures with the noose, guillotine, iron maiden, hypodermic needle, wheelchair, guns and swords mesmerized a fist-pumping, sold-out audience who sang along to every syllable of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and nearly every other song in the set. Keep reading ….

Raphael Saadiq, Voodoo Lounge, March 13

While not officially tied to the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Motown, Raphael Saadiq’s 75-minute concert in front of a pitifully small crowd at the Voodoo Lounge was an homage to old-school soul, complete with David Ruffin’s horned glasses, tight suits and choreographed dances. The best aspect, though, was that all the music was new and original material written by the former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman, much of it drawn from his incredible album “The Way I See It.” Keep reading …

Keep Reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2008

Read Full Post »

sesamestreet220

As “Sesame Street” celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, The Daily Record examines five of the show’s greatest musical moments.

Johnny Cash – “Nasty Dan”

Twenty years after “Cry Cry Cry” appeared in jukeboxes, Johnny Cash was singing with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. “Nasty Dan” appears on the classic 1975 record “The Johnny Cash Children’s Album,” but Oscar is the perfect foil for the number. Cash enjoyed his fifth season spin on the Street so much, he returned to Jim Henson’s world of Muppets. In 1980, Cash hosted an episode of The Muppet Show. Cash was also the inspiration behind the 1990s Sesame Street character Ronnie Trash, who sang about the environment in Cash’s classic boom-chicka style.

The Fugees “Just Happy To Be Me”

The Fugees immortal sophomore album “The Score” was one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s, but it wasn’t exactly kid-friendly material. Somehow, though, the divisive Elmo took a shine to the group and invited the trio to appear in his 1998 TV special. Although “Ready or Not” could have been adapted to a song about playing hide-and-seek, the Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean opted to cover a newer song in the Sesame Street canon, “Just Happy To Be Me.” Jean has returned to the Street several times since, but Hill and Michel are perpetually M.I.A. This once prompted Snuffleupagus to hollar “Where Fugees at?”

Stevie Wonder – “1,2,3 Sesame Street

Stevie Wonder between albums and at arguably at the peak of his career when he appeared on the Sesame Street in 1973. In a rare Sesame Street-Soul Train crossover moment, Wonder and his full band performed his recent hit “Superstition.” He then returned with the original number “1,2,3 Sesame Street,” starting a new talk box fad at kindergarteners across the country.

Itzhak Pearlman – Easy and Hard

This isn’t as much a song as a lesson with the greatest classical violinist of his generation. Itzhak Pearlman was no stranger to Sesame Street when he appeared in this 1981 clip. Polio is all but forgotten today, but the message on disabilities and talent still rings true.

Cab Calloway – “Mr. Hi De Ho Man”

Cab Calloway earned the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man” after his signature song, “Minnie the Moocher” became a hit in 1931. Half a century later, Calloway converted his handle to a greeting and performed on Sesame Street with the perpetually contradictive Two-Headed Monster. Calloway’s guest spot occurred during a late career resurgence. After spending almost a decade as a has-been, Calloway was back in the spotlight, thanks to his role in “The Blues Brothers” film. The movie was directed and co-written by John Landis, who was good friends with Muppeteer Frank Oz. Oz, who voiced Grover, Bert and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Yoda, appears as the guard who returns Joliet Jake’s belongings at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers.”

Ray Charles – “The Alphabet”

This bonus clip is from Ray Charles’ second stop on the Street in 1977. Although he’s just singing the alphabet, there are few artists who could make 26 letters swing so hard.

Read Full Post »

for once
Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life,” Pop # 2, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

“For Once in my Life” was less than two years old, but already practically a staple by the time Stevie Wonder’s cover was finally released in October, 1968.

Jean DuShon recorded the original version for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in 1966. Although the label failed to promote the single, it still managed to reach the ears of Berry Gordy. He was not pleased to learn that Motown composer Ron Miller had written the number for a performer outside of the Hitsville stable. Gordy demanded Miller let a Motown artist record the number and he promptly gave it to Barbara McNair for her 1966 album “Here I Am.” Best known as an actress who appeared on “Mission: Impossible,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Dr. Kildare,” McNair’s version sank without a trace.

Gordy wasn’t done with the song, though. In 1967 he gave it to the Temptations as a showcase for baritone Paul Williams. Their downbeat interpretation was one of the highlights of a 1968 television special with the Supremes.

Tony Bennett released his version of “For Once in My Life” the same time the Temptations were staking claim to the tune. Bennett’s reading was a crossover hit, lodging in the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart and peaking at 91 on the pop chart. The title song of his 1967 album, it became one of the crooner’s signature numbers.

So the public was more than familiar with “For Once in My Life” by the time Wonder’s version hit the streets. Arriving a year after Bennett’s version peaked, Wonder’s interpretation became the most successful and definitive reading of the song. Like many great songs, however, this one almost didn’t get released.

Wonder recorded his vision of “For Once in My Life” the same summer the Temptations cut the song. Wonder’s upbeat arrangement stood in sharp contrast to the Temptations’ soulful balladry, and Gordy preferred the Tempts’ reading. After a year of pleading and cajoling, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department finally talked Gordy into allowing Wonder’s version to be released as a single. The result, of course, was a No. 2 single (held out of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”) that became the title track of Wonder’s tenth album.

Sonically, it’s hard to believe this song hails from 1968. The production and arrangement sounds like a throwback from the Holland-Dozier-Holland heydays of 1966. The big strings and Wonder’s vocals are front and center in the mix with the drums pushing the entire arrangement. The strings and horn tiptoe just shy of being bombastic, and a great piano line snakes along the bottom of the mix. Wonder’s harmonica makes the most of its verse-long solo, nimbly improvising on the melody like a jazz horn. The backing vocals are a little corny, but they are redeemed by Wonder’s best vocal performance to date. Wonder wasn’t yet 18 when he recorded this song, but there is a confidence in his delivery and phrasing that shows how much he’d grow since “Uptight” was released the summer before.

Wonder had far from the final word on the song. Gordy’s old boss Jackie Wilson released a cover that tried to split the difference between the Bennett and Wonder arrangements as a single to compete with Wonder. His version stalled at No. 70 on the cart. Ella Fitzgerald performed the song in concert throughout the summer of 1968 with an arrangement based on Bennett’s version. The following year, Frank Sinatra included his reading on the “My Way” album. In the twilight of his career, Sinatra revisited the song with Gladys Knight and Wonder for the 1994 “Duets II” album. Wonder returned to the song a dozen years later, sharing vocal duties with Bennett for Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” recording.

An enduring classic, “For Once in My Life” was covered by rocksteady singer Slim Smith in1969, recorded by James Brown in 1970 and translated into German by Stefan Gwildis in 2005. The song has also popped up on “Oprah,” “American Idol” and countless other television shows and films.

Read Full Post »

syreeta
Rita Wright – “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You,” did not chart

By Joel Francis

Rita Wright is best known by her 1970s stage name, Syreeta. Before she collaborated with – and briefly married – Stevie Wonder, and scored a handful of Adult Contemporary hits with Billy Preston, Wright was a Pittsburgh transplant working as a secretary for Motown. Wright managed to catch the ear of Brian Holland, who signed her to the label. Holland collaborated with Ashford and Simpson – the songwriting team ironically brought in to replace the defected Holland, his brother Brian and their partner Lamont Dozier – on her 1968 debut, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You.”

The song opens with a jarringly dissonant horn line before settling upon Wright’s soft voice. Although her performance is strong, the arrangement betrays the track’s origin as an abandoned Diana Ross and the Supremes cut. Although Ross eventually cut the song as a solo track for her 1971 album “Surrender,” Wright’s version could easily be confused for a lost Supremes track.

Although “I Can’t Give Back” didn’t chart, Wright had a successful recording career. She co-wrote “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” with Wonder and the Spinners’ hit “It’s A Shame.” Her first two LPs, 1972’s “Syreeta” and 1974’s “Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta” are hidden soul gems.

Ross’ version of “I Can’t Give Back” came in the middle of a sort of renaissance for the number. Dusty Springfield covered it in 1970 during the sessions to her follow up to “Dusty In Memphis,” the Philly soul masterpiece “A Brand New Me.” The final lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, featuring vocalist Bobby Tench, put their stamp on the song in 1972.

Read Full Post »

(Above: One of the few Jamie Foxx videos on Youtube that his label allows to be shared.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Three days after Michael Jackson’s death, Jamie Foxx appeared as host of the BET Awards clad in a red leather, Thriller-era jacket and sequined glove. After performing “Beat It” and telling a few jokes about Jackson’s ever-changing nose, Foxx paid tribute to the fallen icon by moonwalking across the stage.

And when Foxx performs a concert at the Sprint Center on Saturday, Jackson again will have his moment.

“We definitely do a Michael Jackson moment at our shows and let his music play,” Foxx said in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the media’s Michael Jackson coverage has become a circus. We try to concentrate on what he gave us — his music.”

After walking the tightrope of poking fun at Jackson without offending, Foxx closed out the BET Awards with a duet of “I’ll Be There” with Ne-Yo. After the pair finished, Jackson’s sister Janet and father, Joe, came out and thanked everyone for their support.

“My job that night was to keep things light, keep things fun,” Foxx said. “Having the family there was tough, because I wanted to be respectful and I knew Janet was going to come out at the end. I have to commend BET, though. They had to do an awards show when the biggest entertainer in the world passes away. With very little money and very little time, they completely turned the show around.”

When Foxx last played Kansas City at the Music Hall in March, 2007, he was best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles and parodying that character on the hit single “Gold Digger” with Kanye West. For this tour, Foxx has the success and chops under his belt to prove that he’s not just another actor living out a fantasy as a musician.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since the last tour is that you should go out while your record is hot, not wait two years,” Foxx said, remembering his 2005 hit “Unpredictable,” which he didn’t promote until 2007. “Right now, this very moment, ‘Blame It’ is still rolling (on the charts). It’s sizzling.”

When Stevie Wonder played Starlight Theatre recently, he stopped the show for a few minutes to have the soundman pump his favorite song this year through the PA. Within moments, the crowd that had been grooving to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Living for the City” was grinding to Foxx’s “Blame It.”

Even without the endorsements, “Blame It” is one of the unofficial songs of the summer. It topped the Urban Contemporary charts for 12 consecutive weeks and as of mid-July it had been in the Top 40 for 26 weeks.

Like many of the previous summertime hits, “Blame It” gets a boost from the ubiquitous T-Pain. He won’t be at the Sprint Center, but Foxx said audiences won’t miss T-Pain or any of the other artists that appear on his albums.

“For those songs with features, I have guys who sing those parts, so we don’t miss a step,” Foxx said. “My back-up singer does a great job performing T-Pain’s part. It’s a lot of fun, but it also taught me another lesson: Don’t lean on your features too heavily when recording, so you can still do them alone on tour.”

Before Foxx was an Oscar-winning actor or a comedian on “In Living Color” and “Def Comedy Jam,” he was a musician. Foxx started taking piano lessons at age 5 and released his first album in 1994. It took 11 years and an appearance on Twista’s “Slow Jamz” — again with West — before Foxx released a follow-up album.

When he began performing as a musician on the big stage, Foxx drew on his experiences as an actor and comedian.

“Through playing live I learned how to pace myself,” Foxx said. “I learned I could take my time with a slow song. As a comedian, I am always looking for a reaction. But when you sing a slow song, you don’t need an immediate reaction. Sometimes people want to take it all in before they respond. I don’t need to go all over the stage to make sure they like it.”

Whatever the tempo, Foxx pulls on his acting background and treats each song as if he’s playing a character. Upbeat songs get a character who knows how to party and have fun, Foxx said.

“When it’s time for slower music, I change clothes and put on a suit,” he said. “For ‘Blame It,’ I wear a sparkly jacket, because that’s what I felt that character would wear. Everything’s always a character.”

Foxx appeared as a different kind of musician earlier this year. In the movie “The Soloist,” he portrayed a homeless, schizophrenic, classically trained cellist. Don’t look for that character to appear onstage.

“No more cello for me,” Foxx said. “I just play piano.”


the show
Jamie Foxx and his 50-city “Intuition Tour” come to Kansas City at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sprint Center. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $59.75 and $69.75 at www.ticketmaster.com.

Read Full Post »

soulsville sings hitsville

By Joel Francis

Rare was the time Berry Gordy would let Motown artists record songs outside of the Hitsville catalog (and its lucrative publishing).  Fortunately, Jim Stewart at Stax did not have the same stipulation. Thanks to the 2007 compilation “Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings the Songs of Motown Records” soul fans have at least one direct barometer to use in the never-ending debate of Stax vs. Motown.

Rivalries and arguments aside, “Soulsville Sings Hitsville” is a great 15-song collection that casts many soul nuggets worn out by oldies radio in a new light. Soul fans from either side of the Mason-Dixon line will find a lot to enjoy here. And now for the 15-round battle in the head-to-head match of Stax vs. Motown.

Round 1:  – “Stop! In the Name of Love”

Margie Joseph vs. the Supremes

The Supremes took this song to No. 1 in 1965 and made it one of their defining songs. Margie Joseph adds a lengthy monologue and a completely new arrangement that transforms the song. They lyrics are about the only element these versions share. Although it’s hard to top Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Joseph accomplishes the feat by making the song her own and having an infinitely better singing voice than Diana Ross.

Winner: Stax

Round 2:  – “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

David Porter vs. Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5

David Porter made his name as half of the Porter-Isaac Hayes hitmaking machine in the ‘60s before striking out on his own in the ‘70s. His version of “I Don’t Know Why” easily tops the Jackson 5’s reading. Michael Jackson just isn’t old enough to put the necessary grit in his vocals and ends up practically shouting the song. The gold medal here, though, goes to the co-author and original performer Stevie Wonder. Released as a single from his 1968 album “For Once In My Life,” the song peaked at No. 16 on the R&B charts. Wonder’s vocals simmer, building in intensity until they boil over at the 1:40 mark. Wonder sings so hard he’s almost out of breath as the great arrangement continues to build until the only options are to explode out of the speakers or fade out. Faced with potential lawsuits from music lovers, the track ends just under the three-minute mark.

Winner: Motown

Round 3 – “You’ve Got to Earn It”

Staples Singers vs. the Temptations

One of the Staples Singers’ biggest hits, this song is so closely identified with the group that I didn’t even know the Temptations recorded the original. This Smokey Robinson-penned number was released in 1965 on the b-side of “Since I Lost My Baby.” The Tempts version is serviceable, but aside from Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocals isn’t that memorable. The Staples version trumps on every level: Mavis Staples great singing, the spectacular arrangement featuring a signature descending horn line and harmonica, and the soulful playing and support of Pops and Yvonne Staples.

Winner: Stax

Round 4 – “Can I Get a Witness”

Calvin Scott vs. Marvin Gaye

In the NFL, when a play is challenged and the officials go under the hood for review, there must be incontrovertible evidence to overturn the call. So goes it with covers. It is not sufficient to merely equal the original recording, the burden of the cover is to surpass the original. Calvin Scott does a good job putting his twist on one of Marvin Gaye’s earliest hits, but he doesn’t add anything to it either. Take pity on Scott, however – topping Gaye is no small feat.

Winner: Motown

Round 5 – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Mar-Keys vs. Four Tops

Although some session credits are available, the Mar-Keys kind of became the catch name for whoever was playing with the Memphis Horns. Some of their cuts ended up on Booker T. and the MGs or Isaac Hayes albums, some were added to Bar-Kays releases and others credited to the Mar-Keys themselves. The Mar-Keys’ 1971 version of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is one of the numbers that has fallen through the cataloging cracks – Stax historians aren’t really sure who played on it. However, one fact is indisputable: this track rocks. Andrew Horn blows a mad sax solo with enough grit and soul to match Levi Stubbs’ incomparable voice, while the rest of the musicians strip the sheen laid by the Funk Brothers on the original Motown recording. That said, the Four Tops version became one of their defining performances for good reason. The decision here comes down to preference: the dirtier R&B of Stax or the polished soul of Motown. I like ‘em both.

Winner: Push

Round 6 – “Never Can Say Goodbye”

Isaac Hayes vs. Jackson 5

Isaac Hayes and the Jackson 5 both released their interpretations of Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1971. The results couldn’t be more different. The pain in Hayes’ deep voice pits him as a grown man with life experience against a bunch of talented kids acting their hearts out. In the weeks following the death of Michael Jackson, the J5 performance has become an unofficial tribute to their singer. It’s a fine sentiment, but, as Mos Def would say, this is grown man business. Hayes wins, no contest.

Winner: Stax

Round 7 – “My Cherie Amour”

Billy Eckstein vs. Stevie Wonder

In the 1940s, Billy Eckstein’s orchestra was one of the first large bop combos in jazz, providing an early home for Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the ‘50s, Eckstein’s smooth voice influenced up-and-coming soul singers like Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke. Eckstein dabbled in both soul and jazz in the 1960s, even popping up on  a couple Motown LPs. Although his career was pretty much over by the ‘70s, Al Bell was able to coax the legend to cut a few albums for Stax. Unfortunately, Eckstein’s 1970 delivery of “My Cherie Amour” borders on parody and sadly resembles Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors’ version of “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life” that may be found on the Golden Throats series.

Winner: Motown

Round 8 – “Oh, Be My Love”

Barbara Lewis vs. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Barbara Lewis actually got her start as a teen soul singer in early ‘60s Detroit before finding greater success on Stax. Based on this number, it’s odd that Berry Gordy passed on Lewis at a time when he was seemingly signing every promising young singer in the city. Lewis’ voice is a perfect fit for the Motown sound. Then again, maybe it’s for the best Lewis didn’t join the Motown family. Chances are she would have ended up another in the long line of promising female talents discarded in the wake of Diana Ross. Lewis does a fine job with this interpretation of a 1967 Miracles b-side penned by Smokey Robinson. Unfortunately, the original version could not be located for comparison.

Winner: No decision

Round 9 – “I Hear a Symphony”

Booker T. and the MGs vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

On paper, this looks like a slam dunk: Remove Ross’ weak vocals and replace it with one of the tightest, funkiest groups of the day. But somehow, the MGs’ performance just doesn’t add up. The melody just doesn’t sound complete coming only from Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T. Jones’ organ can’t replicate the fullness of the Funk Brothers playing. The Supremes’ version is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and a testament to the acumen of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.

Winner: Motown

Round 10 – “Chained”

Mavis Staples vs. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye took a break from cutting duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell to lay down this funky number in 1968. The backing vocals and atmosphere give the track a live feel and the sax break is as close to the Stax sound as Motown gets. Mavis Staples cut her version a year later. She more than holds her own against Gaye’s vocals, and the arrangement is just as energetic. Both versions can pack the dance floor, yet are just different enough to stand on their own. Why choose one performance when you can have both?

Winner: Push

Round 11 – “Ask the Lonely”

John Gary Williams vs. Four Tops

John Gary Williams cut several sides for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads until he was drafted in 1966. When Williams got out of the military, he wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. His former group had carried on in his absence, and found Williams’ replacement to be much easier to work with. Stax owner Jim Stewart pressured the group to take Williams back and he recorded with the Lads until 1972. That year, Williams was finally able to go solo. He released only one album, which included covers of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the Spinners and this reading of “Ask the Lonely.” The smooth sax solo that opens this song and Williams’ vocals foreshadow the Quiet Storm movement. Williams arrangement and delivery may have been ahead of it’s time, but it’s not nearly enough to wrestle the title away from Levi Stubbs’ gut-busting performance on the original.

Winner: Motown

Round 12 – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

Soul Children vs. Stevie Wonder

The success of “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” – it spent six weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970 – gave Stevie Wonder a great deal of leverage when he renegotiated his contract with Motown and gained the artistic control that birthed his spectacular output later in the decade. “Signed” was the first single 20-year-old Wonder produced; his arrangement is so good you can get lost in the various instruments. There isn’t much that can be improved on Wonder’s version and the Soul Children’s slowed-down gospel interpretation falls flat in the face of his triumph.

Winner: Motown

Round 13 – “Someday We’ll Be Together”

Frederick Knight vs. Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross’ name is coupled with the Supremes on the label of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” technically making it the ensemble’s final No. 1 hit before Ross started her solo career. Peeling back the label and examining the musicians’ chart, however, one can see that the song was actually a dry run for Ross’ solo career. Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced founding ‘preme Florence Ballard, are nowhere to be found, but even if they did they probably wouldn’t have been able to help. The song, co-written and produced by Harvey Fuqua, is a mess. The strings are way too syrupy, and the backing vocals are over-performed. Everything on the track is over-produced. Perhaps this was an effort to make Ross’ thin vocals sound more emotionally relevant, but even that is a failure. It does sport a great guitar line, though. Frederick Knight vaults over this ridiculously low bar, but he doesn’t exactly salvage the song. His strings are more restrained, the arrangement slightly more funky and the vocals greatly improved, but the song itself – which predates Fuqua’s time at Motown – is far from memorable.

Winner: Stax

Round 14 – “I Wish It Would Rain”

O.B. Clinton vs. the Temptations

“I Wish It Would Rain” is one of the most devastatingly heartbreaking songs in the Motown catalog. Mourning his lost love, David Ruffin lays his soul bare for all to see. Topping this soul masterpiece would be quite a challenge – so O.B. McClinton didn’t even try. Dubbed the “Chocolate Cowboy,” McClinton was an oddity on the Stax label. His singles only charted on the country charts, with his slower tempo, pedal steel-backed version of “I Wish It Would Rain” peaking at No. 67 in 1973. His is a noble attempt, but the song works better in R&B than it does country.

Winner: Motown

Round 15 – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The Bar-Kays vs. Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips

The wah wah guitar solo that punctures the Bar-Kays’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” just past the four-minute mark eclipses anything Gordy had imagined at Motown (save Rare Earth) and points Stax down the very odd path of Iron Butterfly and the acid rock of the early ‘70s. This version draws on the spirit of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Shaft” and steers close to CCR’s lengthy, jammed-out rendition. I’m not sure if this actually tops the performances Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight took to No. 1 a little more than a year apart. The versions are so different; it’s comparing apples and oranges. Enjoy them all.

Winner: Push

Final score: Stax 4, Motown 7.

The winner in this (the only) bout is overwhelmingly Motown, but Hitsville has an incumbent’s advantage of making Stax tackle its material. Listening to the Supremes tackle the Emotions, Levi Stubbs sparring with the Otis Redding songbook , the Temptations doing Sam and Dave and Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland applying their touches to Hayes/Porter and MGs arrangements would not only be a fantastic delight, but likely tip in favor of Soulsville. Sadly, we’ll never know. As a consolation prize, we have this compilation to bridge two very different and influential approaches to soul music.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »