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James Jamerson at 80

James Jamerson 2Had he lived, the most influential of all bass guitarists would have been 80 years old this week: on January 29, to be precise. Many of us will never stop marvelling at the creativity shown by the one and only James Jamerson during an era when session musicians who played his instrument were expected to do little more than mark the song’s chord changes and keep in step with the drummer.

Luckily, Jamerson (who died in 1983) played on so many records during his time as the No 1 bass player in Motown’s Detroit studio — roughly from 1960 to 1972 — that fans like me can spend a lifetime discovering half-buried examples of his artistry. A couple of years ago I wrote here about his contribution to Martha and the Vandellas’ “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. The latest one I can’t stop playing is a Mary Wells obscurity called “I’ve Got a Story”, recorded in 1962 and released a couple of years ago on a Hip-O Select from-the-vaults compilation called Something New: Original Recordings 1961-64.

An irresistibly catchy song by Marvin Gaye and two of Motown’s top backroom boys in the early years, Mickey Stevenson and Hank Cosby, its lyric has Mary telling us about a friend who’s made a disastrous decision to turn love aside before admitting that the fool is, in fact, her (“Now it was me… it was me who lost a real true lover”). It gets a fine Stevenson production featuring a chorus of grainy horns and an ace performance by the Funk Brothers, with a starring role for the bass.

A rattle of the snare and toms from Benny Benjamin’s mix ‘n’ match studio kit introduces a strutting medium-tempo rhythm entirely driven by Jamerson. He makes his Fender Precision sound almost as fruity as a tuba in a New Orleans marching band as he sits on top of the 4/4, adding his own distinctive hook to the track by inserting little descending 16th-note runs on the fourth beat of each bar, occasionally adding variation by switching the run to the second beat, and in the bridge — as the drummer adds a subtle Latin accent — sometimes extending the motif into a run across both the third and fourth beats.

The choice of notes in these beautifully articulated 16th-note flurries could only have come from someone with a jazz background, someone used to searching the chords for the most interesting variations. That’s what Jamerson had, and this is an example of how it could put it to creative use in the service of a pretty little pop song, probably something he’d already forgotten by the time he got into his car that evening and headed away from 2648 West Grand Blvd.

I’ve also been listening to his playing on the Four Tops’ hits, specifically “Bernadette”, on which he spins an amazing variety of figures around Richard “Pistol” Allen’s imperturbable four-to-the-bar snare drum beat with astonishing flexibility and imagination, and “Ask the Lonely”, where he does the opposite: by dropping anchor on the tonic while the chords shift, avoiding any hint of decoration, he underscores the song’s piercing melancholy.

But back to “I’ve Got a Story”. Recorded on June 28, 1962, it remained unheard for more than 30 years. Obviously it didn’t get past Berry Gordy Jr’s celebrated quality control committee. Could that be because, at 1:40 and 1:47, in the course of this virtuoso display, Jamerson hits two of the very few unconvincing notes of his career? Unlikely. They’re not wrong. They’re just not the perfect choices by a man to whom, in the dozen years that counted. perfection was an everyday matter of fact.

James Jamerson: a hidden masterpiece

James JamersonYou don’t need me to tell you about James Jamerson, the first of the Motown session musicians to be recognised for his outstanding individual contribution to the Sound of Young America. It was Jamerson who revolutionised the use of the bass guitar in popular music, yanking it away from a restricted role by creating the mobile, often melody-rich lines that got us dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”, the Supremes’ “Love is Here (And Now You’re Gone)”, the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, Jr Walker’s “(I’m a) Road Runner”, the Isley Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s a Rumour, Baby”, the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, Barbara Randolph’s “I Got a Feeling” and so many others (those eight tracks comprise just a rather obvious selection of my own particular favourites from the golden age of Hitsville USA).

Every now and then a previously hidden gem of Jamerson’s art emerges, and one such is to be heard on Finders Keepers: Motown Girls 1961-67, a compilation of hitherto unconsidered trifles put together by Keith Hughes and Mick Patrick for Ace Records. Containing non-hit tracks by such luckless thrushes as LaBrenda Ben, Hattie Littles, Carolyn Crawford, Anita Knorl, Linda Griner, Thelma Brown and Liz Lands as well as rejected tracks by the hit-making Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Brenda Holloway, the Marvelettes, the Velvelettes and the Miracles (with Claudette Rogers singing lead), it is not, one has to say, an absolutely essential purchase. Although there are a handful of genuine highlights, notably the Velvelettes’ Northern beauty “Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer)” and the one well-known track, Mary Wells’ “What’s Easy For Two”, in general the selection confirms the shrewdness of Gordy’s quality control department, whose stern judges assessed songs for single or album release.

But there is one moment which more than justifies the album’s existence, and that moment is “No More Tear Stained Make Up”, a Smokey Robinson song recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1966 and previously released only on their LP of the same year, Watchout!, where it languished until this resurrection. I confess that I never noticed the special quality of this song, which resides chiefly in the fact that it functions as a vehicle for some of Jamerson’s most inventive playing

Some may also enjoy Smokey’s lyric: “I’ve had no use to wear a / Pair of lashes or mascara / And my eyes have natural shadows from the crying / That I’ve done so much of lately / Cos it really hurt me greatly / When I found the love you vowed was only lying…” I’m certainly among them, particularly for the “to wear a”/”mascara” rhyme. But the true beauty of the track is the way Jamerson exploits the cool medium-paced swing of the rhythm — not unlike the airy, hip-swivelling groove of the Miracles’ “I Like It Like That” from two years earlier — with what amounts to a running commentary on the top line and the chord changes, exposing his wonderful instinct for the best way to embellish a simple song without cluttering or overwhelming it.

Born in 1936, Jamerson learnt to play the double bass while a pupil at Detroit’s Northwestern High School and spent the early years of his career playing with jazz groups. He switched to the electric instrument in 1961, at just about the time he was starting to work in the Motown studio, but on many of his recordings you can hear the influence of his grounding in jazz in the fluency of his double-time fills and run-ups, the passing notes, the register leaps, a willingness to add syncopation through the use of rests, and — on a track like this — the ability to “walk” a 4/4 rhythm. There are even times on some of the early Motown tracks, such as “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”, the B-side of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, recorded in 1963, when it sounds as though he was still using the upright instrument. And listen to him on the Supremes’ magnificent “Love Is Here (And Now You’re Gone)” from 1966, how he reshapes what must have begun life as a basic four-on-the-floor stomper with leaping triplet-based figures and a lovely, almost acoustic tone that would not have shamed Charles Mingus.

I wish I had the skill and patience to transcribe his playing on “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. Ranging up and down the stave and across the bar-lines, it would probably look as beautiful as it sounds.

* The photograph is taken from Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of the Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, the self-published book by Dr Licks (Allan Slutsky) which first appeared in 1989 and sparked the interest that led to a Grammy-winning documentary film in 2002 and the highly successful reunion tours of the Funk Brothers, as the Motown session men called themselves — too late, alas, for Jamerson, who died in 1983, aged 47.

The Hitsville movie

Hitsville

It was good to see Marvin Gaye smiling down on Leicester Square on Monday night. Even better to settle down inside the Odeon and catch a brief clip of him performing “What’s Going On” live with a band including the greatest bass guitarist in history. To watch the index finger of James Jamerson’s right hand roaming the strings of his Fender Precision was like being read a wonderful poem. All his legendary fluid invention of melody and rhythm was present in those few seconds as he stood beside Gaye’s piano, adding his genius to the other man’s.

The clip was included in Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which received its European premiere only a few hours after Berry Gordy Jr, the company’s founder and president, announced his retirement a couple of months before his 90th birthday. The full-length documentary — here’s the trailer — will be shown in selected cinemas on Monday, September 30.

Gordy and his pal Smokey Robinson recreate their foundational double-act as the spine of the narrative, cruising the Detroit avenues in a classic T-Bird, guiding us through Studio A at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, giggling at the tales of the old days, arguing about who was the first to record “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Other interviewees include the Holland brothers, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Lamont Dozier, the A&R man Mickey Stevenson, Claudette Robinson, Mary Wilson, the only survivors of the Temptations (Otis Williams) and the Four Tops (Duke Fakir), and Barney Ales, the white sales manager who occasionally had to “get a little Sicilian” on distributors reluctant to pay up. There are a lot of clips from live performances, TV appearances and promo shoots, including a hilarious black and white sequence of the Supremes dodging the Citroën 2CVs and Renault Dauphines on the Champs-Elysées in 1964.

It would be trut to say the film doesn’t go deep. There’s a very moving montage of memories of life in the road with the Motortown Revue in the mid-’60s, travelling through the segregated South, dodging bullets, sleeping on the tour bus because hotels wouldn’t take them and being denied the use of toilet facilities in gas stations. But the reasons behind Mary Wells’s departure at a key moment in the company’s early history are not explored; ditto the bitter, extensively litigated exit of Holland-Dozier-Holland. There’s no mention of the tragedies of Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, David Ruffin or Benny Benjamin (who is not even name-checked, although he’s momentarily visible, with the other Funk Brothers, in early studio footage). The tense contractual stand-offs with Wonder and Gaye are lightly dismissed, as is the human cost of the company’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. The old rumours of Mob involvement are simply laughed off, which is perhaps more understandable.

Lots of key witnesses to the story are now dead, of course. But in the credits there’s a list of additional interviewees who didn’t make the final cut. They include Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John and Louvain Demps of the Andantes, the in-house backing singers. I’d like to have heard from them. Diana Ross is not in that list. Gordy acknowledges the nature of his relationship with his greatest star, and she’s a considerable presence in the film, but she clearly wasn’t interested in telling her side of the story, at least as part of this project. Relatively minor acts cherished by hard-core fans — the Contours, the Velvelettes, the Originals — don’t get a look-in.

Co-produced by Polygram, an arm of Universal Music, which now owns Motown, this is in effect a two-hour de-luxe corporate promo film. Which is not a reason to avoid it, since it contains many worthwhile things, even in musical terms: there’s a beautiful sequence taking apart and building up Gaye’s layered vocals, and big cinema speakers are a very good way to hear snatches of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Heat Wave”.

But I came away thinking that if Netflix could give Alex Gibney four hours for his Sinatra doc, All or Nothing at All, in 2015, then surely someone could invite Ken Burns or Stanley Nelson to direct a 10-hour series dedicated to a full account of the Motown story, in all its dimensions, from an objective point of view. It would say so much about America, and the world, in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the meantime nothing says more than this, the full version of the piece I began by talking about: Marvin Gaye’s voice and piano with Eli Fontaine’s alto saxophone, Earl Van Dyke on B3, James Jamerson’s bass guitar, Uriel Jones on drums and the sublime congas of Eddie “Bongo” Brown in Chicago in 1972. “What’s Going On” indeed.

Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.

Dennis Edwards 1943-2018

Temptations

The Temptations in 1968 (left to right): Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (front), Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks

Dennis Edwards, who died on February 1, two days before what would have been his 75th birthday, was given an unusually demanding job back in 1969 when he was called upon to replace David Ruffin as one of the Temptations’ lead singers. Ruffin had left the group after being voted out by his colleagues, who were prepared to lose the matchless voice of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” in order to rid themselves of a man whose drug intake contributed to an ego running out of control.

“Eddie (Kendricks) and I first noticed a singer named Dennis Edwards at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., when he was still with the Contours,” group member Otis Williams wrote in his autobiography (Temptations, Fireside Books, 1989). “We watched from the wings as he sang lead on Lou Rawls’s ‘Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing’. Dennis not only had a stirring, soulful voice, but he was a showman with real command of the audience. His style was a little rougher and grittier than David’s, but we could tell that David would be able to handle David’s songs and bring a new sound to the Tempts as well. Eddie looked at me and said, ‘That’s who we should get. If David don’t straighten up, that’s who we should keep in mind.”

In one sense, the transition was easy: a simple matter of a personnel transfer from one Motown group, a mid-level attraction with their best years behind them, to another at the much higher peak of their powers. But it was far from straightforward. Ruffin refused to accept his rejection, turning up at the group’s gigs on several occasions and trying to join them on stage so persistently that for a while they had to hire security guards to keep him away.

Edwards was fortunate in that his arrival coincided with a change in the group’s style, masterminded by their visionary producer, Norman Whitfield, and his co-writer, Barrett Strong. Whitfield yanked Motown into the era of psychedelic soul, expressed in 10-minute tracks with lengthy instrumental interludes and strange sound effects, wah-wah guitar licks and chattering hi-hats, laconically minimal bass riffs and soaring strings, and lyrics with a strong dose of social realism shared around between the contrasting voices, from Kendricks’s falsetto to Melvin Franklin’s bass.

The new singer’s first recording with the group was the one that announced the new approach: “Cloud Nine”, a No. 2 hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1968. The lead is switched around throughout the track, but Edwards kicks it off, his raw, gospel-schooled tenor establishing the unvarnished tone: “The childhood part of my life, it wasn’t very pretty / See, I was born and raised in the slums of the city / It was a one-room shack we slept in, other children beside me / We hardly had enough food or room to sleep / It was hard times, needed something to ease my troubled mind . . . ” Whitfield’s rhythm track made inventive use of Motown studio stalwarts James Jamerson on bass guitar and Uriel Jones on drums, bringing in Melvin “Wah-Wah” Ragin to play rhythm guitar, Spider Webb on a second drum kit, and — so it’s said — Mongo Santamaria on congas.

The record won a Grammy for best performance by an R&B group, confirming the commercial validity of Whitfield’s decision to venture away from Motown’s tried-and-true methods. Again Edwards was the dominant voice as the combination spent the next four years rolling out hits like “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion”. The great run reached its climax in 1973 with the epic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: a 45 with a six-minute A-side but a full 12 minutes on the album. The long instrumental sections featured the jazz trumpet of Maurice Davis, who combined his frequent appearances in the Motown studios with a teaching job in the Detroit public school system, and the guitars of Ragin (wah-wah rhythm, left channel) and the 19-year-old Paul Warren (blues licks, right channel), a Whitfield protégé who went on to long-term road gigs with Joe Cocker, Eros Ramazotti and Rod Stewart. Plus, of course, Jamerson and Jones, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s congas, and Paul Riser’s superb arrangement for a contingent of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And the finest double-time handclaps ever committed to record.

In fact this one-chord jam was Whitfield’s Symphony in B Flat Minor, one of the high points of 20th century popular music. And at its centre was Dennis Edwards, the voice of the song’s protagonist: “It was the third of September / That day I’ll always remember (yes I will) / ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died / I never got a chance to see him / Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him / Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth . . . ”

Maybe a group with so many superb lead singers always contained the seeds of its own destruction. Kendricks had left by the time of “Papa”, disliking the extravagance of Whitfield’s productions and missing Ruffin’s voice alongside him. Paul Williams, the group’s first lead singer until Kendricks and Ruffin took over, left the following year, suffering from a combination of sickle-cell anaemia and alcoholism; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1973. Ruffin died of a cocaine overdose in 1991. Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. Franklin suffered a fatal cerebral seizure in 1995. Otis Williams still leads the Temptations — the last survivor of the original Famous Five and now also of the group who, with Edwards’ arrival, turned the page to begin a brilliant new chapter.

The sound of ’66

The portrait painted in 1966: 50 Years Ago Today, the BBC4 Arena documentary directed by Paul Tickell and based on Jon Savage’s recent book, was full of interesting things (notably a reminder of Jonathan Miller’s sensational quasi-psychedelic TV version of Alice in Wonderland). The mood Tickell strove to evoke, concentrating on a dour, monochrome paranoia, wasn’t the way I remember 1966 — a year only half a notch below its immediate predecessor in terms of cultural stimuli and general euphoria — but at least his programme had a point of view. And it also had, towards the end, a snatch of one of the greatest of all cover versions of a Lennon & McCartney song.

J.J. Barnes would eventually become a Northern Soul hero through tracks such as “Real Humdinger”, “Please Let Me In” and “Our Love (Is in the Pocket)”. His version of “Day Tripper” precedes and surpasses them, in my view. It was arranged and co-produced for Detroit’s Ric-Tic label by Andrew “Mike” Terry, a Motown studio regular whose fruity baritone saxophone solos could be heard on “Heat Wave”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “This Old Heart of Mine” and many others. I love the way Terry takes on the riff from the Beatles’ original and, while keeping the driving 4/4 rhythm and the fuzz guitar, hardens up the groove, those trumpet stabs and flourishes adding an extra dimension behind Barnes’s Wilson Pickettish vocal. And presumably that’s James Jamerson, Paul McCartney’s bass-guitar hero, moonlighting from Hitsville USA to dig into the riff.

What gives the record its special immediacy is the grainy low-fi sound that would never have made it past Berry Gordy Jr’s quality control department. It was there on the original UK Polydor version I bought the week it came out in 1966, and it’s still there today, proudly resistant to any kind of digital clean-up technology.

Since we’re on the subject, there’s another favourite I’d like to mention. It’s Roy Redmond’s soulful version of “Good Day Sunshine”, arranged and produced by Jerry Ragovoy for the Loma label, Warner Bros’ soul subsidiary, in 1967. It has the lot: great laconic guitar intro, heat-drugged slow-drag beat, greasy southern horns, gospel-style female back-up choir, and an excellent lead vocal from another obscure soul-music hero. I believe McCartney himself had nice things to say about it, and no wonder.

* Ace Records have just announced the September release of Let It Be, the second volume in their Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney series. Vol 1 (titled Come Together) included Roy Redmond’s “Good Day Sunshine” among a quantity of other good stuff. J.J. Barnes’s “Day Tripper” isn’t on either volume, sadly. For that reason alone, there is bound to be a Vol 3.

Motown part 3 (of 3): From the vaults

Motortown RevueThanks to the people behind the Complete Original Singles sets and single-artist compilations on the now defunct Hip-O Select label, the Motown catalogue has been scrupulously mined for many of its treasures. Not all of them, however. Under a deal with Universal, the current owners of the Motown masters, permission has been granted for Ace Records to issue previously unreleased material from the label. One Track Mind! More Motown Guys is the title of the latest CD to appear under this arrangement, and as usual some of these 24 rejected tracks remind you of the astonishing level of creative activity maintained at Hitsville USA during the 1960s.

It’s usually possible to guess the reason why these tracks didn’t make it past the weekly meetings of Berry Gordy Jr’s quality control committee, which functioned according to the founder’s famous question: “If you only had a dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?”  Maybe the song is not absolutely top-drawer, musically or lyrically, or maybe it’s too blatant an attempt to replicate the previous hits of the artist in question.

But you need no excuse to be swept away by Frank Wilson’s “I’ll Be Satisfied”, almost as fine a piece of Northern Soul heaven as his legendary “Do I Love You”, or the driving piano-and-strings instrumental backing track of Brenda Holloway’s “Think It Over (Before You Break My Heart)”, here credited to Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers. There are other gems, such as Edwin Starr’s “The Girl From Crosstown”, a transitional funk record produced by Norman Whitfield and located somewhere between “Function at the Junction” and “Ball of Confusion”, which is hardly a bad place to be. Jimmy Ruffin’s cover of “The ‘In’ Crowd” is rather fine, and the Temptations’ “I’d Rather Forget” would be given a warm welcome at any ’60s dance party.

The two Marvin Gaye tracks, “The Touch of Venus” and “Do You Wanna Go With Me”, are a long way below par, and the Miracles’ “My Oh My What a Groove” and “I’ve Gotta Find Myself (a True Love)” add little to their distinguished discography. Popcorn Wylie’s “Goose Wobbling Time” is an instantly disposable novelty, but there are decent discoveries from such second-division Motown acts as the Spinners, the Monitors, the Fantastic Four and Singing’ Sammy Ward. And there’s another Earl Van Dyke track, called “Heart to Heart”, on which the leader displays the B-3 sound familiar from his classic “All For You”.

An interesting light is shed on the Motown’s history by the release of an expanded double-CD release of Motortown Revue in Paris, recorded at the Olympia music hall on the Boulevard des Capucines during the celebrated 1965 European tour. The Miracles, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder are the featured attractions, backed by a six-piece band led by Van Dyke and including the great guitarist Robert White (the man who played the intro to the Tempts’ “My Girl”) and the percussionist Jack Ashford. A 19-year-old bass player, Tony Newton, and a drummer, Bob Cousar, who usually played trombone in Motown sessions, deputised for James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, whose presence in the Detroit studio was presumably deemed too valuable to allow them to undertake the trip. The sixth member is the saxophonist Eli Fountain, who would reappear to memorable effect on Gaye’s What’s Going On five years later. Uncredited local brass and reeds players are also added on some of the songs, which I don’t think happened on any of the 21 UK dates that preceded the Paris concert.

What’s noticeable is how the artists are forced into a particular mould through the inclusion of standard songs. Gordy, still misunderstanding the nature of their popularity and his own success, wanted to prepare them for supper-club careers. Martha and the Vandellas get off the lightest, including a respectable version of “If I Had a Hammer” alongside “Heat Wave” and “Wild One”. Steve Wonder, a few weeks past his 15th birthday, sings “Make Someone Happy”, sounding surprisingly like Jimmy Scott. The Miracles deliver “Wives and Lovers”. More distressing is the performance of the Supremes, whose tooth-achingly winsome seven-song set features “People”, “Somewhere” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”. You can see exactly where Gordy was trying to aim his young stars, Diana Ross in particular, and you can only be grateful that, in this respect, he failed.

On the brighter side, Martha and the Vandellas deliver piledriving versions of “Nowhere to Run” and “Dancing in the Street”, and the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” features Smokey Robinson at his most spellbinding. Wonder blows up a storm on harmonica on “Fingertips” and shares the lead vocal on “Funny (How Time Slips Away)” with Clarence Paul, his mentor and producer. Van Dyke introduces each of the two halves of the programme with three band instrumentals. All of these are clearly enjoyed by a capacity crowd at the Olympia, reminding me that in the days before pirate radio you could tune into Salut les Copains on France’s Europe 1 station any weekday evening in the mid-’60s and enjoy Motown records that were never heard on the BBC.

* The photograph, from the collection of Gilles Pétard, appears in the booklet accompanying Motortown Revue in Paris. Backstage photos from the UK concerts are included in the book Motown: The Sound of Young America, the subject of the previous post.

Love Motown

Love Motown“My Cherie Amour” has never been a favourite song of mine. In terms of the Motown catalogue alone, there are scores, probably hundreds, I think of with greater fondness. But Beverley Skeete and Noel McKoy changed that at the Festival Hall on Saturday night, when the Stevie Wonder chestnut was sung by the duo in a captivatingly elaborate arrangement that featured Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica All-Stars augmented by 15 horns and a dozen strings.

The occasion was a concert titled Love Motown, a follow-up both to Jazz Jamaica’s Motorcity Roots album of 2008 and last year’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Wailers’ Catch a Fire. Like the latter event, it featured the big band — mostly drawn from Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project — plus the 200-member Voicelab choir, whose enthusiasm was channelled to good effect.

This was not about cover versions. It was about creative reinterpretation through the lens of an Anglo-Caribbean sensibility, using the special qualities of the Jazz Jamaica musicians. So Crosby’s bass and Rod Youngs’ excellent drumming evoked Aston and Carlton Barrett rather than James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, often jettisoning the factor that distinguished the original — the riff on which Holland, Dozier and Holland built “This Old Heart of Mine”, for example — and setting the song free.

(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

I remember John Lennon remarking on his affection for songs with brackets in the title. It’s a pure-pop thing, and it was a regular feature of the charts from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s. I like them, too: “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees)”, “(‘Til) I Kissed You”, “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and so on.

My favourite brackets belong to a song released 50 years ago this month: “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections, which reached No 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and, amazingly, No 3 in the Cashbox R&B chart. Amazing, that is, because the Reflections were a white vocal quintet — Tony Micale (lead), Phil Castrodale (first tenor), Dan Bennie (second tenor), Ray Steinberg (baritone) and John Dean (bass) — whose doowop-based style was closely modelled on that of the Four Seasons.

It’s a fabulous record, quite the equal of any of the Seasons’ hits. Written by Bob Hamilton and Freddie Gorman and produced by Rob Reeco for the Detroit-based Golden World label, it has a lyric as great as its title (“I’m gonna buy her pretty presents / Just like the ones in the catalogue” — but only, he reveals in the last verse, if he can find a job), a strong pop melody, great lead and backing vocals, and a driving rhythm track: just listen to the way the handclaps carry the beat while the drummer provides a brilliantly syncopated running commentary on his snare. Here’s a sound-only link of much better quality, recorded from an original Golden World 45 (and sounding a little sharper than my UK copy, released on the Stateside label), in which all the elements are clearly audible.

The baritone sax solo gives a clue to where and when it was made. It’s surely the work of Mike Terry, moonlighting from the Motown studios, where he had already provided a similar service on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and Mary Wells’ “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”. Which means that the bassist and drummer are very probably James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, also on surreptitious leave from Berry Gordy’s empire. That would explain a great deal about the quality of the track.

Golden World, founded in 1963 by Ed Wingate and Joanne Bratton, failed to match the achievements of its local rival, although some great records were made in its studio. Gordy bought up the company, including the sister label, Ric Tic Records (J.J.Barnes, Edwin Starr etc), in 1966. By that time the Reflections had failed to find a successful follow-up to their great hit, despite trying to recreate the musical formula with “Like Columbus Did” and “Comin’ At You”. But 50 years later they’re still performing, with Micale and Dean now joined by three singers formerly with other Detroit groups, and “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” still lives up to its title.

And it you want to know how to dance to it (and how to dress for the occasion), watch this delightful clip from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, dated May 30, 1964, when the Reflections were high in the charts: