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Posts from the ‘R&B’ Category

Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.

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‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

 

Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston is both profoundly affecting and rather disappointing. What Whitney: Can I Be Me does have to recommend it is a quantity of intimate backstage film shot (by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-director credit) during a tour of Germany in 1999, when the singer was on the brink of disaster: still in her ultimately catastrophic marriage to the singer Bobby Brown (with whom she shared addictions), bringing their small daughter on stage to perform in a gruesome cameo, and surrounded by laughing sycophants and worried-looking assistants in charge of make-up, hair, and so on. That daughter, Bobbi Kristina, would died of an overdose in 2015 at the age of 22, three years after her mother was found dead in her bath at the Beverly Hilton, and to read that information in a caption before the closing credits is to experience perhaps the most dismaying of the many sad moments punctuating the film’s 105 minutes.

Early on we are shown Houston as a 12-year-old prodigy singing a solo with a New Jersey gospel choir, encouraged by her mother, the session singer Cissy Houston, and then as the 19-year-old protégée of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, who — as one of his former employees attests — found in her the kind of malleable diva material that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick had been simply too old and set in their styles and images to provide when he signed them in their middle years. The film holds up Davis’s decision to groom her as a black pop star for white people as a factor in her tragedy, which makes it odd that — during a Q&A session after a screening in London this week — the director said that he had chosen not to interview the  veteran executive because he had not wanted to make a controversial film. Those familiar with Broomfield’s previous output will find this a curious claim.

It’s clear, of course, that he can’t wait to get the short years of golden success — the hugely successful debut album, the starring role in Bodyguard, the worldwide smash with “I Will Always Love You” from that film’s soundtrack, the countless awards — out of the way in order to reach the stuff of tragedy, and there is certainly no shortage of that. Her mother’s desire that her daughter should fulfil her own thwarted ambitions is a subtext; Cissy appears in the film, as do the two older brothers with whom Whitney is said to have shared drugs during adolescence. We are told about her close relationship with her father — but when we learn towards the end that John Houston was suing his daughter for $100m shortly before he died, we are not told that he and Whitney’s mother had already gone through an unpleasant divorce.

It’s a classic story of success tearing a family apart, but the emotional heart of the film is its portrayal of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, the schoolfriend who became her companion and probably her lover until being removed from the picture during the Brown years. Again, Bloomfield claims that although he had Crawford’s number, and although she knew about the film, he declined to talk to her out of feelings of discretion.

The most dramatic testimony comes from David Roberts, a Welsh former policeman who was her bodyguard from 1988 to 1995 (we glimpse him in the background in several sequences), and who claims to have tried to get people to do something about her addictions, without success. Several of her musicians and backing singers, notably the saxophonist Kirk Whalum, speak movingly about her prodigious qualities as a singer and her warmth as a woman. All of them would like to have seen a different outcome but were powerless to intervene.

The music itself is barely discussed. I always found her voice technically impressive rather than emotionally moving, but that may have been a consequence of the decisions taken early on by Davis and his chosen studio operatives. It would have been interesting to know what an old-school soul/R&B producer like Jerry Wexler, Dave Crawford or Allen Toussaint would have made of her.

There are so many holes in the narrative that I began to think only an eight-hour multi-part treatment like the recent O. J.: Made in America would do proper justice to the many facets of Houston’s story. (There’s not a word, for instance, on what she did in the five years between her divorce from Brown and her death.) But I’m grateful to Bloomfield for unearthing — via the testimony of the record producer David Foster — that the decision to get her to sing the first verse of “I Will Always Love You” without accompaniment was made at the suggestion of The Bodyguard‘s other star, Kevin Costner. Maybe everyone else in the world already knew that, but I didn’t.

* Whitney: Can I Be Me is in UK cinemas from June 16.

Fine and mellow

Fine & Mellow 1Like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song”, Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog” was one of a bunch of early-’60s hits that made reference to playground songs. It was also a great R&B record, one of those that all British groups of the time had to learn.

Its other attribute, when first released on Stax in the US and London American in Britain, was a great and unexpected B-side. Rufus’s reputation was that of a showman, a specialist in slightly daft dance-craze songs, but his version of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” showed another side of his personality. Already 46 years old when the record came out in 1963, he had started his career more than 20 years earlier as a DJ on Memphis’s influential WDIA radio station, and he was steeped in earlier modes of blues-inflected popular music.

Holiday had first recorded “Fine and Mellow” in 1939 for the Commodore label. The extended version she sang during the TV special The Sound of Jazz in 1957 is even more celebrated, her pensive vocal choruses interspersed with marvellous solos by the three great pre-bop tenor giants: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and her soul-mate, Lester Young.

Not surprisingly, Rufus Thomas’s reading can’t match the emotional depth of the composer’s versions, and it doesn’t even try. But Thomas is respectful to the lyric and the melody, laid out over altered-blues structure, and only his occasional dark chuckle interrupts the alternating pleas and threats he is addressing to his lover. It’s also great to hear the Stax house band tackling a blues just as they would have done countless times in the clubs along Beale Street: razor-sharp guitar commentary from Steve Cropper, tinkling barrelhouse piano from (probably) Booker T. Jones, and a fine horn section.

Interestingly, on my London American 45 the song is credited to “McKay”. The label on Holiday’s original Commodore version clearly named her as the composer. In 1957, two years before her death, she married Louis McKay, a man with gangland connections. Maybe, at some point, he had the publishing rights signed over to himself.

You can hear Rufus’s recording on More From the Other Side of the Trax, a new collection of Stax B-sides from the early blue-label era, compiled by Tony Rounce for Ace Records. In addition to Rufus and his daughter Carla, there are gems from 1961-66 by the Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and William Bell, as well as lesser known Stax artists such as Barbara Stephens, the Premiers and the Triumphs, a Chips Moman band whose “Raw Dough” was the B-side “Burnt Biscuits”, the first release on Stax’s Volt subsidiary.

In those days artists seldom recorded songs specifically for B-side use, with the result that both decks tended to be the product of full creative effort. “Fine and Mellow” was one of those flip-sides that added a dimension to the listener’s appreciation of the artist in question: a real bonus. And it still sounds great.

Georgie Fame: the man in full

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Georgie Fame at the Cinnamon Club, Manchester, in 2007 (photo: William Ellis)

You wait decades for a proper anthology of Georgie Fame’s best stuff, and then two of them come along almost at once. Last year there was the beautifully produced five-CD box called The Whole World’s Shaking, including his first four albums for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966 — Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sweet Thing and Sound Venture, each with bonus tracks — plus a fifth disc of rarities and oddities from the period. Now there’s an equally handsome new six-CD set, also released on Universal/Polydor, called Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015, which ranges from the Blue Flames’ first two instrumental 45s for the R&B label to the lovely album, Swan Song, which came out last year, and which he billed as his last (although I gather he might be having second thoughts on that). This new box is so full of good stuff that I hardly know where to begin, although I suppose I should point out some of the less obvious highlights.

I was at Island Records in the mid-’70s when Chris Blackwell signed him, to the surprise of those at the company who thought his adventures in the middle of the road during his time with CBS (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, and so on) had destroyed his credibility. From a commercial perspective, the Island liaison was a failure.  First, with J. J. Cale taking over from Mose Allison as the dominant influence on his music, Blackwell sent him to Tulsa with Denny Cordell to make an album that never saw the light of day, and then Glyn Johns took over for one that was released but made no impact. There’s a whole disc from those sessions, including the slinky blues “Ozone” and a high-stepping version of Bobby Womack’s “Daylight”.

But what we also have from the Island vaults are seven tracks from the previously unheard tapes recorded at a Lyceum gig in the autumn of 1974 with an expanded 12-piece all-star Blue Flames line-up, including Marc Charig alongside Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton on trumpets and Elton Dean in a saxophone section also including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle. Brian Odgers (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) are the rhythm axis, with Colin Green and Bernie Holland on guitars and Lennox Langton on percussion. Thanks to careful remixing supervised by Tristan Powell, one of Georgie’s talented sons, it’s a treat to hear them roar through “Point of No Return”, “Parchman Farm” and so on in front of an enthusiastic audience at a venue that was once a great place for gigs, before The Lion King took up permanent residence.

The other big surprise to me was a track from his sole album for Pye, Right Now, produced in 1979 by the rather unlikely team of Karl Jenkins, then midway between Soft Machine and the knighthood earned for his classical compositions with Latin titles, and Jimmy Parsons, for many years the suave maitre d’ of Ronnie Scott’s. The song is called “Eros Hotel”, and Georgie wrote it with the UK-based American poet Fran Landesman, best known for her lyrics to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. A gentle reverie, swathed in strings, it’s a most elegant evocation of seduction in London, and it makes me want to seek out the album from it comes.

We know what Fame can do with other people’s songs, but “Eros Hotel” is a reminder of what an accomplished composer he became. From “Getaway” through “Flamingo Allnighter”, “Vinyl” and “Mose Knows”, his stuff is hip. There’s another example of his lovely ballad-writing in “A Declaration of Love”, one of the 11 tracks here from the fine New York sessions supervised by Ben Sidran in the early ’90s. The eight-minute title track, the bluest of blues on altered changes, comes from those sessions: you can imagine how much he enjoyed sharing the studio with A-Teamers Richard Tee (piano), Robben Ford (guitar), Will Lee (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums).

An abundance of great material among the 111 tracks includes items from the two tremendous live albums, Name Droppin’ and Walking Wounded, recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1997. There’s also a glorious “Since I Fell For You” on which he’s accompanied only by his Hammond B3 and Guy Barker’s trumpet, and a fine “Funny How Time Slips Away” from the Pye session, and tons of other things that you might never have heard before but will be very pleased to meet in the course of a journey through a wonderful life in music, in which even the occasional misstep was simply the preface to a graceful recovery.

The team who put this exemplary package together — Tristan Powell, the disc jockey Dean Rudland and the Universal A&R man Chas Chandler — deserve the highest commendation. The blemishes are few: the Basie drummer Sonny Payne is mistranscribed as Sonny Cain, Bill Eyden is wrongly identified as Phil Seamen (the man he replaced as the Blue Flames’ drummer) in a caption to one of the many fine photographs in the accompanying 48-page hardback booklet, and I’d have liked the generally comprehensive musician credits to have extended to identifying those who played on the Island studio sessions. But those are quibbles. If I didn’t already have Survival, it would be the only thing I’d want or need for Christmas.

‘Blue & Lonesome’

rolling-stonesPut a guitar in my hands and you’ll get the “Smokestack Lightnin'” riff until you rip the instrument away from me and smash it over my head. That’s part of having been a teenager in the early ’60s, and equipped with a certain set of instincts. It doesn’t leave you.

That’s what the Rolling Stones demonstrate, rather more expertly, on Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album, recorded in three days at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio at the end of an alley in Hammersmith. It’s the best thing they could have done — in fact probably the only thing they could have done to rekindle my interest.

I’ve been reading an old Record Mirror piece by Norman Jopling, dated May 11, 1963. The intrepid reporter had been to see the Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames, and had talked to them afterwards about their repertoire, which was based largely on the recorded works of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They told him they had no interest in using original material. “After all,” an unidentified Stone told him, “can you imagine a British-composed R&B number? It just wouldn’t make it.” The sounds like Brian Jones to me. And within a year, of course, he would be eating his words as Andrew Oldham coaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richard into producing “Tell Me”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Satisfaction” and the rest.

Of course they wrote some great songs. But that well dried up many years ago, and it was an intelligent decision to go back to where they came from and make an album of blues covers. I admire the fact that they chose comparatively obscure songs; how simple would it have been to make an album out of the likes of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Boom Boom” and “Big Boss Man”? Instead they’ve gone for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues”, songs known only to the cognoscenti.

And, like the bluesmen they worshipped, they’ve got better with age. Play these tracks next to recordings from their early years like “Honest I Do”, “I’m a King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster”, and you can’t miss the improvement the years have brought. Production quality has something to do with it, of course. Don Was and the engineer Krish Sharma are a cut above whoever recorded the first Stones tracks at Regent Sound on Denmark Street. In partnership with the musicians, they know exactly how to distress the sound, dirtying up the guitars and providing a great sonic perspective that evokes the 1950s Chess recordings of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This is rough music, and that’s how it comes across here.

I’m sorry that they don’t credit the individual guitar solos (Hubert Sumlin would have given a pat on the back to whoever gets the starring role on Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”). But Jagger gets an extra star for some excellent harmonica-playing — which he needed to do, given that three of songs are plucked from the repertoire of Little Walter Jacobs, a gob-iron immortal.

My only complaint about an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile album concerns the sleeve. How difficult could it be to design a fantastic cover for a blues album by the Stones? If you don’t have any ideas of your own, Mr Art Director, just go back to their first LP, with its moody chiaroscuro group photograph by Nicholas Wright, or its very similar successor, for which David Bailey did the honours. Instead we get a piece of artwork based on the tired old “tongue” logo — so crass as to be actively repulsive. And I’d have liked an Andrew Loog Oldham sleeve note, too.

* The photograph of Mick Jagger and Ron Wood is from the inside of the album sleeve, and is uncredited.

The real rhythm and blues

ChessWilko Johnson’s new autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, received an eloquent recommendation from Mark Ellen in the Sunday Times at the weekend. To coincide with its publication, Universal’s Spectrum imprint is issuing a 40-track double CD set compiled by the former Dr Feelgood guitarist called The First Time I Met the Blues: Essential Chess Masters. Its appearance prompted me to dig out the records you see above: three 45s from my all-time Top 100 box, plus two magnificent albums, all licensed for release in the UK on the Pye International label in the early ’60s.

That red and yellow label still triggers an emotional response, particularly when the centre and the paper sleeve carry the “R&B Series” logo, as the copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” pictured above does. Why it didn’t also appear on records like Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” is a question that someone out there might be able to answer.

It’s a good compilation, equally valuable to those who no longer have their original copies and to newcomers who would like a compact introduction to a golden age of Chicago rhythm and blues. There are masterpieces here: Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Goin’ Down Slow”, Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'”, John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood”, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” — the songs that those of us who were in British R&B groups in 1963-65 were required to know.

Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — recorded in 1948 with Ernest “Big” Crawford’s stand-up bass accompanying the singer’s bottleneck guitar, the two of them sounding like the whole band Waters was soon to assemble — remains one of the great moments in American popular music: magical and mysterious, a perfect integration of voice and instruments, an endlessly fascinating essay in rhythmic subtlety. “Louisiana Blues”, from a band session two years later, runs it close in that respect. It’s interesting to think about the way these particular tracks sounded before a drummer came in to tie down the beat: they float so loose and free (Elgin Evans is credited on “Louisiana Blues”, but his contribution is practically subliminal).

In some ways, however, my favourite among the 40 tracks has to be “Hi-Heel Sneakers”: a record that, in the early weeks of 1964, any young person with the slightest pretension to coolness simply had to own. It amazes me now that this modest little 12-bar blues could become not just a mod classic in the UK but such a big hit on the pop charts: No 11 in the US (Billboard), where it had the benefit of a huge number of black record-buyers, and No 23 in Britain (Record Retailer), where it didn’t.

Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) sang and played organ on his own song. That exquisite and unforgettable guitar intro seems to have been played by Dean Young from Ripley, Tennessee — a member, along with bassist Brenda Jones and drummer Bo Tolliver, of Tucker’s regular band, who negotiated a then-fashionable chord pattern that echoed Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”. The producer, Herb Abramson (an original co-founder of Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun), wisely left them to get on with it. They cannot have dreamed for a single instant that it would still be listened to and loved more than half a century later.

* This post originally credited the new compilation to the Ace label. Once the error was pointed out, I corrected it. The relevant label is Spectrum.

Cheering for Little Richard

Little RichardLittle Richard is said by his attorney to be “annoyed” at the rumours of his death which spread this week. He survived a heart attack in 2013 and underwent a hip replacement operation more recently, but apparently he’s otherwise fine at 83. Let’s hope so.

Let’s also take the chance to remind ourselves of one of his finest recordings: “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me, Parts 1 & 2”, a deep-soul ballad written by Don Covay and cut for Vee-Jay in the blessed year of 1965, apparently during a touring stopover in Los Angeles. Richard’s gospel roots have never been more apparent than here, accompanied by a version of the Upsetters featuring Jimi Hendrix (who had played on Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” the previous year) on guitar and Billy Preston on organ, both clearly audible. It was produced by Calvin Carter, whose sister Vivian was the “V” in Vee-Jay; he probably didn’t have to do much more on this session than give the engineer the signal to roll the tape.

A girlfriend introduced me to this one soon after its UK release, and the US copy pictured above has a permanent place in the box that holds my all-time Top Hundred 45s. If you don’t know it, you should.

Motown part 2 (of 3): The white guy’s story

Motown Barney AlesThe name of Barney Ales became a familiar one to those who took a close interest in the evolution of Motown Records in the 1960s. Ales didn’t sing, or write songs, or produce sessions. He wasn’t a musician or a choreographer or a voice coach. He was the guy hired by Berry Gordy Jr in 1961 as national sales manager and promotion director. And now he is the co-author, with the music historian Adam White, of Motown: The Sound of Young America, a lavishly produced history of the label.

Ales had worked for Capitol Records before joining Motown at the age of 27. His job was to get the records played on the radio and to ensure not just that they were distributed efficiently to record stores around the country but that the invoices got paid. Almost as much as the quality of the music, that was the secret of Gordy’s operation: business had to be taken care of with a different attitude from that of most black-owned labels. He needed someone who could talk to white disc jockeys and record distributors without the barrier, conscious or unconscious, of race.

One can assume that, having worked with the founder almost from the beginning and ending up as a vice-president before leaving in 1978, Ales knows a few secrets behind Gordy’s struggle to establish the label and extend its success beyond the boundaries of black America. Perhaps those with fond memories of Number One With a Bullet, the novelised version of the Motown story written by Elaine Jesmer, a former publicist, and never republished after its original appearance in 1974, will come to Ales’s memoir hoping for true-life confessions. That would be a mistake. This is a version of the tale that passes lightly over the darker episodes, while containing much detail that will be useful to those wanting to know more about Gordy’s triumph.

There are many books about Motown, including the autobiographies of Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams and Mary Wilson. My own favourite is one of the more modest efforts: Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown, an oral history based on interviews with Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John, Carolyn “Cal” Gill and others, published in the US by Avon Books in 1998. White and Ales give us a view from a different perspective, and a valuable one.

The narrative begins in an interestingly unorthodox way with a long and well illustrated account of the Detroit riot of 1967, which devastated clubs and record stores as well as homes and other businesses. It came perilously close to the Motown headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, where bullet holes in the flower pots outside the entrance were the only sign of damage to what, with gross income of $20m the previous year, was on the way to becoming America’s biggest black-owned business. The significance is that, only a month after the fires in the ghetto had finally been extinguished, Gordy and Ales had the courage to go ahead with Motown’s first-ever national sales conference, with a gala concert at the Roostertail Club on the banks of the Detroit River featuring the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Chris Clark and the Spinners. Fifteen new albums were announced at the conference; on the day of the launch, the sales department was able to count a record $4m in orders, or 20 per cent of the preceding year’s revenue.

That’s typical of the kind of detail Ales provides. His description of his dealings with Morris Levy, the heavily Mob-connected boss of Roulette Records, contains the fascinating story of how Mary Wells’ “My Guy” was bootlegged in the New York area by Gordy’s ex-wife, Raynoma Liles, who had moved to the city to open an office for the company’s song-publishing division, only to have the funding cut off by her former husband. As she told it in her own autobiography (Berry, Me and Motown, published in the US by Contemporary Books in 1990), she had 5,000 copies pressed up and sold them to a distributor for 50 cents apiece in order to raise the money to keep the office open. It was unfortunate for Liles — an important figure in the early days of the company, as an arranger and musical director — that by selling counterfeit copies of the Wells hit, she was depriving Levy of income. Her own account does not mention him, perhaps because he was still alive when she wrote it.

All this, and much more, is extremely well told and to be enjoyed alongside the wonderful illustrations, including contact sheets, album jackets, picture sleeves and advertising material in this large-format publication. My favourite of the many fabulous photographs is one by Bruce Davidson, the great Magnum photographer, who catches the Supremes backstage in New York in 1965, sitting alongside each other in their dressing room, bathed in pink light, surrounded by make-up pots, perfume bottles and ashtrays. Davidson shoots from above and behind the three women, catching their reflections: Flo Ballard using a tissue to blot her mascara and Mary Wilson touching up her hair, both sharing a single mirror, while Diana Ross, with her own individual mirror, stares straight into his lens.

* In the photograph above, Barney Ales (standing, extreme left) is hosting a group of Detroit radio personalities at the Roostertail Club. It can be found in Motown: The Sound of Young America, which is published by Thames & Hudson, price £39.95.

R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.