Raphael Saadiq – “The Way I See It”

By Joel Francis

It’s hard to listen to Raphael Saadiq’s new album, “The Way I See It,” without thinking it’s a lost Motown gem.

The record blasts off with “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a song that recalls the finer moments of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Later, Saadiq channels the Temptations on “Keep Marchin'” and “Staying In Love,” which features an effervescent call-and-response over a great rhythm.

The horns on “Big Easy,” courtesy of the Rebirth Brass Band, couple with an incessant guitar and snare drum to create a frantic atmosphere as Saadiq sings “somebody tell me what’s going on/I ain’t seen my baby in far too long.” Think Holland-Dozier-Holland lost in Mardi Gras and you’re almost there.

Saadiq strays from the Motor City to channel the Sound of Philadelphia for “Just One Kiss,” a duet with Joss Stone. Stone shows more restraint on this number than she did on the album Saadiq produced for her last year, “Introducing Joss Stone.” “Calling” starts with a Spanish introduction over flamenco guitar before sliding into a great doo-wop melody.

“Never Give You Up,” another Gamble-Huff-flavored moment, is the stand-out track. The arrangement pulls the listener in before Saadiq’s smooth voice kicks in, and the magnificent, swirling chorus seals the deal. That Stevie Wonder’s cameo after the third verse does not feel forced, speaks to the organic vibe Saadiq has not only created here, but sustained over most of the record.

The only misstep is the album-closing remix of “Oh Girl” featuring Jay-Z. While he offers some of his most soulful rapping to date – at points Jay-Z is nearly singing – the hip hop intrusion breaks the spell and rudely slams the album into the present.

Despite this, Saadiq’s third album is the best of his career. “The Way I See It” is more focused than his 2004 sophomore effort, “Ray Ray,” and tighter than his bloated (but otherwise excellent) debut “Instant Vintage.” From the sound of the guitar and the echo on drums to the mix and arrangement of the backing vocals, everything is spot-on. Even the timing is right – most songs are between two and three minutes.

Motown tributes are a dime a dozen. What elevates “The Way I See It” above the score of old school knock-offs is that it goes beyond the paint-by-numbers approach to inhabit and invigorate the true spirit of the music.

Below: The video for “Love That Girl.”

Velvelettes – “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”

Velvelettes  – “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” Pop #64, R&B #21

By Joel Francis

The Velvelettes’ final single for Motown was their most successful effort. Like their previous hit, “Needle In A Haystack,” this is another Norman Whitfield production. Unlike the house “assembly line” production on Whitfield’s earlier effort, this song bears more of his fingerprints. Listen to the punch of the brass, especially the deep notes from the trombones. That sound would define songs like “Get Ready” and Whitfield’s early collaborations with the Temptations.

 “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” is a step up on the writing side as well. Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson are joined by Eddie Holland of the famous Holland-Dozier-Holland team.

It took the Velvelettes two attempts to cut this single. An earlier performance cut in the fall of 1964 was discarded for this take, which was released two days after Christmas. Despite the questionable launch time, this was the group’s highest-charting single and the band was given an opening slot on an all-Motown tour. Life on the road was not sweet, however. The members disagreed about their musical direction and drifted apart. Lone founding member Carolyn Gill recruited two new members and attempted to press on, but Motown was wary of the group’s potential. Two follow-up singles failed to chart, while their final effort scraped No. 43 on the R&B charts in 1966. By then the Supremes had established themselves as Motown’s premier female group and the Velvelettes were cut loose.

In 1982, Bananarama revived the song and had a Top 5 U.K. hit.

The Temptations – “My Girl”

The Temptations – “My Girl,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Lightning definitely struck twice for Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. After struggling for years, Robinson gave the Temptations their breakthrough hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” “My Girl,” their follow-up, is not only Motown’s biggest song, but one of the biggest soul numbers of all time.

Inspired by his wife Claudette, Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote the one of the greatest Valentines of all time as an answer song to their previous hit “My Guy.” Bob Dylan may have been thinking of the lyric “I’ve got so much honey/the bees envy me” when he proclaimed Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” in 1965.

David Ruffin made his lead vocal debut delivering these deceptively simple lyrics. Though it seems a no-brainer in retrospect, the decision was controversial at the time. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had shared the lead role prior to this song, and, to make matters worse, Ruffin was a ringer who replaced original Temptation Al Bryant. Ruffin got the nod after Robinson saw him singing “Under the Boardwalk” as part of their Motown Revue repertoire, and quickly became the group’s featured singer.

The Motown string section furthers Ruffin’s references to sunshine and fluttering birds, while Funk Brother James Jamerson’s signature two-note bass line anchors the entire performance.

It’s unclear why Robinson and White didn’t keep their song for The Miracles, but it didn’t take long for other acts to put their stamp on the number. Otis Redding added some blues for his 1965 reading; both the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and Papas cut it in 1967. Since then, everyone from Al Green to reggae artist Prince Buster to Dolly Parton to British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain has reinterpreted this timeless classic.

Velvelettes – “Needle in a Haystack”

Velvelettes – “Needle in a Haystack,” Pop #45

The real action in “Needle in a Haystack” is happening away from the microphones and behind the glass. This song was the first single the late Norman Whitfield’s produced for Motown. Whitfield got his start at the label as a songwriter, co-writing Marvin Gaye’s hit “Pride and Joy,” but he made his name as a pioneering producer on the edge of the psychedelic soul movement.

In keeping with Berry Gordy’s assembly line mentality, the song sounds very much like the other Motown productions of the time. None of the experimental flourishes that mark Whitfield’s groundbreaking time with The Temptations are present. The promise of sounds to come, however, makes the song historically worth hearing.

History aside, there’s little that makes “Needle in a Haystack” stand out. The single was the Velvelettes’ second single for Motown and first charting effort. Although they had a follow-up hit, the Velvelettes, like Carolyn Crawford, are a footnote in Motown’s great history. – by Joel Francis

Reunion bands: Ain’t nothing like the real thing

Above: The two original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and five other guys play “Sweet Home Alabama.”

By Joel Francis

When the Temptations and Four Tops took the stage Saturday night with only one original member in each ensemble, it raised questions of truth in advertising. Can a band be billed by its legendary name if only one of its musicians is an original legend?

Few bands are as fortunate as Los Lobos and U2 to have retained the same personnel since their debut. Some bands, like Wilco, have a different lineup on nearly every album.  But the reunion craze has accelerated hiring ringers to fill in for dead or uncooperative musicians.

When Journey played the Midland a few weeks ago, longtime singer Steve Perry had been replaced with Filipino Arnel Pineda, who was 8 years old when the band’s first album came out. No one complained, but Pineda’s job is essentially to sound like Perry while founding guitarist Neal Schon and the rest of the band deliver their signature sound.

Similarly, Yes were primed for a 40th anniversary tour when lead singer Jon Anderson fell ill. Rather than cancel the tour, the remaining members, who include Oliver Wakeman, son of original keyboardist Rick Wakeman, recruited a new singer off YouTube.

The majority of fans will tolerate a minor substitution. There were no grumbles when bass player Eric Avery sat out Jane’s Addiction’s second go-round. Most fans will recognize that age and time will prevent everyone from taking part. But when the skeleton of the original crew drag new faces out under the old name, it starts to take advantage of the people who kept the hunger for a reunion alive.

There’s also a slight double-standard in play. Few Beatles fans would be satisfied with a Beatles “reunion” featuring Paul, Ringo, Julian Lennon and Dhani Harrison, but The Who have completed not one but two successful (read: lucrative) tours minus the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Of course a true Fab Four reunion never happened, while The Who have launched a handful of “farewell” tours, but the rhythm section of Moon and Entwistle defined The Who’s sound just as much as John and George did for the Beatles.

Swapping drummers and bass players is one thing, but the road to finding a new frontman is fraught with peril. INXS failed miserably in their reality TV quest to carry on after the premature death of Michael Hutchinson. However, 14 years after Freddy Mercury died, Queen – minus drummer John Taylor – reconvened with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers. Many of the band’s East Coast concert date sold out quickly.

When Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger hired Cult singer Ian Astbury to hit the road as The Doors they were faced with a lawsuit from drummer John Densmore and forced to tour as Riders on the Storm. The moniker didn’t alter any setlists, but it at least let the fans know they weren’t getting the same guys that worked together in the ‘60s.

Then there are the jazz orchestras that continue to tour despite the death of their bandleader. The Count Basie and Glenn Miller orchestras draw decent crowds when they visit the area, despite Miller’s disappearance during World War II and Bill Basie’s death a mere 25 years ago. The Gem Theater will host a Jazz Messengers reunion concert on October even though bandleader Art Blakey died in 1990.

The reason why a musician will resurrect his old band with ringers is obvious: Billy Corgan will sell a lot more tickets and albums as the Smashing Pumpkins than he would alone. And while there’s no clear-cut solution, I think this is a rare example of capitalism and artistry joining forces to provide the ultimate answer.

If a band’s catalog is strong enough, fans won’t mind shelling out $30 to $50 as they did Saturday night at Starlight to hear someone else sing “My Girl” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” On the other hand, if bands plug on minus crucial components, they might be confined to the state fair/town festival circuit Three Dog Night and the Guess Who have been riding for years.

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

Above: Are they still tempting? “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” from March, 2008.

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Halfway into his band’s set Saturday night at Starlight, Otis Williams, the last living original member of the Temptations, dedicated the evening’s performance to the late Motown producer Norman Whitfield.

It was fitting. Whitfield wrote several of the hits showcased during the night, like “Cloud Nine,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” It also matched the unofficial theme of the night: honoring the contributions of the departed.

The absence of late Temptations frontmen Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin was obvious from the opening notes of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” The group sounded good and the performance was strong, but something was missing.

Your verdict on the success of the show depends on how well you thought lead singer Bruce Williamson did filling some impossibly large shoes. It would be easy to cynically dismiss the night as nothing more than overblown karaoke, but it’s very hard to ignore the energy and delight they delivered to the crowd. The truth is these songs are so strong they sound good no matter who is singing them.

After opening with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” the Temps plowed through their classic catalog for nearly 30 minutes without taking a break. Every song had everyone on their feet, singing along.

Backed by a 10-piece horn section and four-piece band, the vocal quintet nimbly hopped from the propulsive “Ball of Confusion” to the tenderness of “I Wish it Would Rain” and the frustration of “Can’t Get Next To You.”

The only time the band veered from their prime years was to deliver a couple ballads. They also spiced up the set by performing a couple lesser-known numbers from their early Motown years. By the time they rolled into “My Girl” near the end of their 90-minute set it felt like the perfect conclusion. Unfortunately the song was followed by “Can I Get A Witness,” another Marvin Gaye cover. Despite its gospel flavor, the anti-climactic number trigged an exodus for the parking lot.

The Four Tops kicked off the night with a one-hour set. Although they sported as many original members – one – as the Temptations, they did not fare as well. The retirement of longtime lead singer Levi Stubbs was accentuated by slick production that was more Branson than Motown. Save for a pair of medleys that bookended the set, the band’s 1960s heyday was bypassed for ballads that bogged the momentum.

A tour-de-force cover of Heat Wave’s “Always and Forever” that included a long spoken introduction and tender, affecting vocals from Stubbs’ replacement Theo Peoples, drew the quartet’s biggest applause.

Although Starlight was far from sold out – partitions blocked off the back seating section and plenty of other empty chairs remained – few fans seemed concerned by the new faces singing the old songs. The consensus seemed to be, if these guys weren’t keeping the music and memories alive, would would? It’s a good question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

Setlists: Four Tops – Baby I Need Your Loving/Bernadette/It’s the Same Old Song/Just Walk Away/Still Water/Something About You/Ask the Lonely/Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)/Always and Forever/Reach Out I’ll Be There/Standing in the Shadow of Love/I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

Temptations: How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)/The Way You Do The Things You Do/Ain’t Too Proud To Beg/Ball of Confusion/I Wish It Would Rain/Just My Imagination/Papa Was A Rolling Stone/Can’t Get Next To You/You Are So Necessary In My Life/Get Ready/Treat Her Like A Lady/You’re My Everything/The Girl’s Alright With Me/Cloud Nine/Psychedelic Shack/My Girl/Can I Get A Witness

Stax vs. Motown (part two)

The second of three installments in my conversation about the golden era of Stax and Motown with soul music fan and Stax afficiando Brad. Don’t forget to check out part one.

Brad S.: I have to admit, when I think of Motown, I almost only associate it with the ‘64-‘65 period. Although I know, to cite one example, one of my old favorites, “Reflections” incorporates just enough psychedelica to distinguish it from what I consider Motown to sound like.

So what are some of those Motown songs that brought you back in?

Joel Francis: For a label so reliant upon singles, it was the albums that drew me back into Motown. “What’s Going On” made me realize there was more to Marvin Gaye than “It Takes Two.” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” and “Songs in the Key of Life” and The Temptation’s “Cloud Nine.”
These albums showed more depth, emotion and creativity than the monotonous parade of mid-60s oldies radio staples would have you believe. Motown may have made its name with its assembly line parade of hits in the first half of the ’60s when it set the agenda, but its output gets more interesting to me in the second half of the decade as it responds to the Beatles, psychedelica, the civil rights movement, etc. That’s when the artists and songwriters really started to grow.

Getting back to Stax I don’t think it ever really recovered from the death of Otis Redding. The near-simultaneous loss of its biggest star in a plane crash and back catalog to Atlantic records was the beginning of the end. I know they regrouped and had massive success with Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Wattstax, but the Stax I enjoy most – Otis, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, sessions with Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Aretha – was never entirely recaptured.

BS: I hear you with the post-Otis era of Stax, but that also begs this question: What were the true prime lifespans of these labels? I’m not talking about the point at which they continued only in name. The other question that comes to mind is how much of the label’s success is because of a fortunate luck of the draw with artists or is it because of the efforts of record owner or signature producer? Or to put it another way, is there an equivalent to (Motown founder and visionary) Berry Gordy on the Stax side?

JF: For me, Motown loses its luster when it relocated to Los Angeles. There are two reasons for this decline. The first factor is the rise of disco, which practically killed soul music until the neo-soul rebirth of the late-’80s. Second, Berry Gordy’s ambition to branch out into movies and television scattered the label’s focus and brought “mission creep” into his boardroom.

Stax golden years for me are its time with Atlantic when the late Jerry Wexler was helping run the studio. With the exception of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers (who were signed later), no one performed as well after the split as they did before. That said, it’s important to remember Stax two big ’70s non-soul successes bluesman Albert King and power pop rock combo Big Star. Many of today’s indie rock bands owe a huge debt to Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s fantastic Big Star.

If there was a Berry Gordy figure at Stax, I would say it was Wexler in the early days and Al Bell in the later period. Not only was Wexler involved with much of Stax material, but he was also the person responsible for bringing other Atlantic artists, like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, to record at Stax.

After Wexler left, Bell assumed more production duties and became Stax co-owner. Bell patterned his business model off of Gordy. Bell was the person responsible for getting Stax into the soundtrack business (think “Shaft”) and movie business (think “Wattstax”). Ironically, after Stax bankruptcy and demise, Bell worked with Gordy at Motown in the ’80s.

To answer your question, though, I’d say both Motown and Stax’ success came because they were great at identifying talent – be it the songwriting teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland or Hayes-Porter or the raw talents of Mary Wells and Carla Thomas – and had a great business plan for delivering that talent out to the masses. Success breeds success and once those initial singles broke the charts, other artists wanted in.

Continue to part three.

The Temptations – “The Way You Do The Things You Do”

The Temptations – “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” Pop #11
Several Motown songwriters had tried to write a hit for The Temptations before Smokey Robinson teamed with fellow Miracle Bobby Rogers to pen this gem.
Sung by high tenor Eddie Kendricks, the lyrics are equal parts pick-up lines and nursery rhyme. Few could rhyme “candle” with “handle” and “money” with “honey” without sounding trite and cliched, but somehow Robinson and Kendricks pulled it off.
Whatever worked in the song then, still holds up today. UB40 released a reggae-tinged cover 35 years after the Temptations and bettered the original by five spots (No. 6) on the charts. Radio Disney performer Jordan Pruitt — who wasn’t even born when UB40’s version was released — is scheduled to include a version on her second album later this year. — By Joel Francis