The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse”

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The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse,” Pop #57, R&B #12

By Joel Francis

The name on the label says “The Contours,” but all four of the singers who found success with 1962’s chart-topping “Do You Love Me” were gone by the time this number came out three years later.

A novelty song penned in the vein of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s classic Coaster’s numbers, it’s hard to imagine songwriters Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rodgers presenting this number to their group, the Miracles. But since none of the Contour’s follow-up efforts had cracked the Top 40, they had a little leeway for fun.

The production combines the Motown Sound with a spirit similar to Jimmy Soul’s 1963 hit “If You Wanna Be Happy.” In Soul’s song, ugly women cause fewer problems that pretty ones. For the Contours, fiscal assets are more desirable than physical ones. Or as the lyrics so eloquently put it, “If the purse is fat/that’s where it’s at.”

It’s not surprising the number failed to catch on, although it did prevent the group from becoming a one-hit wonder. What is surprising is the longevity of the group. As the original lineup fell away, Berry Gordy kept replacing members. Billy Gordon, the man who sang lead on “Do You Love Me” was replaced by Joe Stubbs, brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs. After Stubbs left, Dennis Edwards was recruited to front the group.

It seemed the end for the Contours when the Temptations plucked Edwards to be their frontman in 1968. Founding member Joe Billingslea had other plans. Nearly 10 years after he left the group, Billingslea, a founding member, resurrected the name and hired four other singers to play and record with him around Detroit.

The band found themselves in demand after the Motown 25 concert and the 1988 film “Dirty Dancing,” which prominently featured “Do You Love Me.” The subsequent Dirty Dancing Concert Tour found Billingslea reunited with his old bandmate Sylvester Potts and recording for Motor City Records. In the early ’90s, Potts split from Billingslea’s quintet and started his own four-piece lineup, also called The Contours. Today, both Joe Billingslea and the Contours and The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts can be found on the oldies and county fair circuit.

The Contours – “Do You Love Me”

The Contours – “Do You Love Me,” Pop # 3, R&B # 1

“Do You Love Me” sounds more its cross-town cousin Detroit garage rock than the Hitsville factory. Completely devoid of the “Motown sound,” this is the rawest release from the label until the signing of Rare Earth seven years later.

After the guitar accompaniment of the spoken intro, the song is all piano, drums and handclaps. The lead vocals borrow more than a little from James Brown, but the sheer joy and exuberance of everyone in the room is what carries the song. The five singers are having too much fun to care to care about love. If this woman won’t have them back, they know there are plenty more hopping in line.

Like a party that steamrolls past curfew, this song has too much energy to stop. The first attempt at shutting down is little more than a hiccup. After a false fade that fools absolutely no one, the Contours are right back in the pocket. If it weren’t for radio restrictions, this bash would have carried on all night. Ultimately, the engineer has no choice but to fade the track.

Legend has it this song was originally going to be a Temptations vehicle, but I can’t imagine anyone topping this performance. Forty-five years later, the smiles are still audible. — By Joel Francis