A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.
The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.
Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.
“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.
Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.
Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.
“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.
Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop #1, R&B #1
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
This was the moment. For years, Berry Gordy had been grooming Diana Ross to become a star. First he pushed the hesitant child to the forefront of the Supremes, then elevated her to top billing. Now she was on her own.
Ross’ first single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was a respectable Top 20 hit. For anyone else, it would have been a brilliant success. But at Motown, and especially for Ross, Top 20 was not good enough. She had to top the charts.
For her follow-up effort, Gordy turned to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who also penned “Reach Out.” Instead of writing a new number, however, the pair reached back to a song that had been a Top 20 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell three years earlier. Their choice wasn’t well received. Ross was hesitant to cut a song that had already been a hit with someone else. Besides, she had also performed the song when the Supremes paired with the Temptations for a television special and album in 1968.
Eventually, Ross was persuaded to record a re-imagined version of the song. While Gaye and Terrell’s arrangement build upon the synergy of their voices, the new vision opens with Ross’ affirmation of love, like a lonely, long-distance telephone call. The backing chorus of Ashford and Simpson, the Andantes and several other Motown studio singers builds slowly in the background underneath Ross’ promises of devotion. By waiting so long to grow into the refrain, the familiar strain is even more powerful.
When the finished track was submitted to Gordy he was not pleased. He thought the song should open with the chorus (an arrangement Ross later used in her live shows). In a story that mirrors Gaye’s recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” it wasn’t until DJs started cutting down the six-minute album track and playing it on the radio that Gordy finally acquiesced. Just as before, “Mountain” made a major star out of its singer.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has been played, performed and sampled so often it sometimes feels like a cliché. It seems every time a director wants a feel-good moment when the underdog triumphs they reach for this song (which must make Gordy, Ashford, Simpson and their bankers very happy). When the song reaches ears voluntarily, however, it is still a delight.
Chances are good that Chicago-based music writer Bill Dahl has penned the liner notes to at least one of your favorite reissues or compilations. Since 1985, Dahl has been commissioned to write the notes for hundreds of blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock collections on both major and boutique labels.
In 1998, Dhal was recognized with a Grammy nomination for his essay on Ray Charles’ sax section included in the “Ray Charles – Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” box set. In 2000, he received the Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. His book, “Motown: The Golden Years” was published in 2001. Dahl’s latest project was co-authoring the amazingly comprehensive liner notes for each of the 12 volumes in the Hip-O Select “Complete Motown Singles” series.
Dahl also writes regularly on his Web site. He recently spoke to The Daily Record via e-mail.
The Daily Record: What was your first exposure to Motown and how did you become interested in writing about it?
Bill Dahl: I started buying quite a bit of Motown vinyl—the Miracles, the Temptations, Jr. Walker, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops—during the early ‘70s as an outgrowth of my record collecting interests, which were expanding rapidly from my original love of ‘50s rock and roll. I was getting into soul, blues, rockabilly, etc., and loving it all (much to the chagrin of my mainstream rock-loving high school classmates, who ragged me unmercifully; I guess I never was much of a conformist).
TDR: What are some of the more interesting stories or facts you learned in researching these liner notes?
BD: One thing that always impresses me is the loyalty the great majority of Motown’s ‘60s artists have to the company and Mr. Gordy to this day. I was fortunate to attend a charity tribute to him a few years ago in LA, and a virtual galaxy of Motown stars performed and paid homage to their beaming boss. Later, all of them trooped up to the stage at the end to sing the old Hitsville fight song!
I’ve found it interesting that several of the better-known songwriting teams had a similar setup to that of Lennon-McCartney—if one wrote it, both names went on automatically. It’s been a pleasure tracking down a lot of the lesser-known acts, including a lot of the Rare Earth label rockers, to get their intriguing stories. They’re too often overlooked and made their own contributions to Hitsville history.
TDR: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Motown?
BD: The goofy and totally unfounded rumors that the mob was involved with the label, solely because a few very competent Caucasians wielded power in the front office. The only color Mr. Gordy cared about was green, so he hired the best person for the job. There were more than a few R&B labels where “da boys” were in up to their eyeballs (no names here), but Motown wasn’t one of them.
TDR: Motown’s big stars get a lot of attention. Who are some of the unheralded Motown artists worth checking out? Were there any long-forgotten gems you discovered as a result of working on the Complete Motown Singles notes?
BD: I remember being amazed by Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” which is on the first Complete Singles box. It sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers meet Hitsville!
Gino Parks’ “Same Thing” (which I knew about already) and several others of his songs are fantastic, as are Singin’ Sammy Ward’s early blues numbers, like “Who’s The Fool.” I love Jr. Walker’s early instrumentals – “Mutiny,” with James Jamerson’s jazz bass solo, is astounding – Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, and some of Little Stevie Wonder’s overlooked early outings. Los Angeles guitarist Arthur Adams’ “It’s Private Tonight,” which came out on Motown-distributed Chisa (it’s on the 1970 box), is the perfect marriage of blues and soul.
TDR: How detrimental do you think Berry Gordy’s favoritism toward Diana Ross was to the label? How much better would Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Kim Weston and Mary Wells have fared otherwise?
BD: It wasn’t detrimental in the slightest; the Supremes made some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s at a time when the British Invasion was otherwise dominating our charts, and Diana Ross had a coquettish mainstream appeal that none of the rest had. Mary Wells ruined her own career by walking away from Motown when she turned 21. Gladys Knight and the Pips were already stars when they arrived at Motown and far bigger ones when they left, though they got even hotter at Buddah. Kim Weston’s Motown career was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, for both better and worse. And Martha Reeves and her Vandellas had a series of incredible hits, much like the Marvelettes, that made both groups long-term mainstays.
TDR: There has been some disagreement over Tammi Terrell’s involvement on the duet albums with Marvin Gaye that bear her name. Did she return to the studio after her collapse and is that her voice on those songs? What was (Motown songwriter) Valerie Simpson’s role in these recordings?
BD: It’s impossible to say for sure, since Valerie has never admitted any possible lead vocal involvement (Marvin Gaye’s biography stated such unequivocally, but I’d be less inclined to buy in). I doubt we’ll ever know one way or the other for sure, though Valerie’s role as co-producer and co-writer on many of them was so crucial that Tammi was no doubt channeling her vocal approach when she sang them (if indeed she was on the last couple hits).
TDR: The Complete Motown Singles Collection series ends in 1972. Why stop there? What is your favorite post-1972 Motown single or moment?
BD: That was the end of the Detroit era—the Golden Years—so it seems like a reasonable place to end it, though you’d have to ask my boss Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music – ed.) there. I’m not sure I have too many post-1972 favorites—I’m very partial to the 1959-72 Motown era we’ve covered on the Complete Motown Singles series—but Gloria Jones, Yvonne Fair, Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison, and Jr. Walker’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” come to mind.
TDR: In your mind, what was the greatest single factor in the label’s decline? Was it the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the move to Los Angeles, Gordy’s interest in movies or something else?
BD: I don’t think we can accurately say Motown declined, since it’s still a going entity today and enjoyed a ton of hits after 1972. Times change and so do musical tastes, so keeping the same sound in 1972 that sold so well in the mid-‘60s would have been a recipe for disaster. Certainly HDH’s departure was a blow, but that gave other writers and producers more room to create their own soulful magic, like Norman Whitfield. The move to Los Angeles hurt the artists and musicians that chose to remain in the Motor City, and didn’t help the local economy either.
Mr. Gordy’s early ‘70s interest in the film industry made him a lot harder to reach on the phone at the time, much to the frustration of some staffers, but artistically it had a negligible effect since he wasn’t all that active musically by then anyway other than with the Jackson 5.
TDR: Ultimately, what do you feel is Motown’s greatest and most lasting impact on music today? Why?
BD: As the top indie label of the ‘60s, Motown turned the industry on its ear. There had been successful African-American owned record labels prior to Motown—Duke/Peacock, Fire/Fury, and Vee-Jay come to mind—but none were so monumentally successful. Gordy’s mantra of making R&B attuned to pop sensibilities had never been pulled off so convincingly. He also did a masterful job of delegating authority in the A&R department. It sounds like a cliché to say these classic recordings will never die, but they won’t.
TDR: Now that this project is over, what is your next venture? Are there any more Motown projects on the horizon?
BD: There are no Motown projects immediately scheduled, but I wrote the notes on Reel Music’s CD reissue of Jimmy Ruffin’s fine “Ruff ‘n Ready” Motown LP, complete with a fresh in-depth interview with the gracious Mr. Ruffin, which is just coming out.
I’m hoping and praying that Rhino Handmade finally releases the wonderful Wilson Pickett boxed set that it’s been sitting on for more than two years. A recent proclamation on the label’s website says it’s been scheduled. I wrote a huge track-by-track essay for it, much like the ones in the Motown boxes. It’s got everything he did for Atlantic on it and plenty more. Interestingly, the Funk Brothers played on Pickett’s first solo platters for Double L, a fact scantily documented before I started doing research for this box.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Pop # 19, R&B # 3
By Joel Francis
Marvin Gaye found his greatest early success as a duet partner. The 1964 album “Together” was his first album to chart, and his duets placed in the Top 20 with a consistency that eluded him as a solo artist. Unfortunately, Gaye’s soul partners, Mary Wells and Kim Weston, both left Motown for (allegedly) greener pastures shortly after collaborating with Gaye. As established Motown solo artists, pairing of Gaye with Wells and Weston made sense. The teaming of Gaye with Hitsville newcomer Tammi Terrell, however, was inspired.
Terrell arrived at Motown in 1965 after bouncing from Scepter Records, where she recorded as Tammy Montgomery, James Brown’s Try Records and the Chess Records subsidiary Checker. Her initial Motown singles didn’t much fare better than her previous efforts, but “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” took both her and Gaye’s careers to a new level.
Motown’s new singing pair was paired with the songwriting team Berry Gordy hired to replace the gradually exiting Holland-Dozier-Holland squad. Husband and wife Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson came to Gordy’s attention in 1966 with their No. 1 hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles. (Ironically, “Stoned” was Charles’ first single after leaving rehab for his heroin addiction.)
“Mountain was a heck of a debut for both Ashford and Simpson and Gaye and Terrell. It’s obvious from the few seconds of spoken introduction that the signers have great rapport and their voices dance perfectly on the chorus. Although Gaye and Terrell sound like they’re giggling from the same care-free piano bench, their vocal parts were actually recorded separately. Terrell felt like she hadn’t rehearsed the lyrics enough to record with Gaye, so after some coaching with producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol she cut her part alone.
Although Fuqua and Bristol had helmed dozens of Motown hits, “Mountain” doesn’t have the expected Hitsville sound. The most obvious explanation is that Ashford and Simpson were an “outside” songwriting team and that Holland-Dozier-Holland were on their way out. It also highlights that when people talk about the “Motown sound” they are often talking about Holland-Dozier-Holland’s signature production style. Holland-Dozier-Holland’s defection not only deprived Motown of its greatest songwriting team, but also Gordy’s vaunted “sound of young America.”
As one team of stars left, another was being born. The success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” helped transform Gaye into one of Motown’s biggest and most enduring performers, whose brightest days were yet to come.