Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Soul music’ 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.

‘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.

The return of Little Steven

Little StevenNeed cheering up in these dark times? Look no further. Little Steven’s Soulfire — in which Steve Van Zandt returns to his true vocation after his adventures with The Sopranos and Lilyhammer — is a record that could start a party in an empty house.

This October it’ll be 35 years since Van Zandt brought his Disciples of Soul to London, promoting his first solo album, Men Without Women. Their appearance at the Marquee was not just one of the best gigs of a very good year but one of the most exhilarating nights I can remember in the old Wardour Street premises. A 10-piece band, with Dino Danelli, the former Young Rascal, on drums, they kicked through great songs like “Forever”, “Until the Good is Gone” and “Angel Eyes”, with an encore of “Can I Get a Witness”. Van Zandt’s singing reminded me then, as it does now, of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend: he might not possess the power or technique of a real lead singer, but there’s an honesty and a directness in his delivery that has its own special value.

Soulfire is the first album under his own name in 18 years, and mostly it sticks to the horns-and-Hammond template of the E Street Band. Some of the dozen songs are familiar: they include “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” from the repertoire of Southside Johnny, and “Standing in the Line of Fire”, written with Bruce Springsteen for Gary U. S. Bonds, now with a great spaghetti-western intro. Others are new, like “The City Weeps Tonight”, a meticulous evocation of East Coast doowop with the Persuasions providing support. “Down and Out in New York City” is a surprise cover of a song written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon in 1973 for James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack album, riding a laconic street-funk rhythm with wah-wah and chicken-scratch rhythm guitars, a Rhodes with its mirror shades on, and violins voiced in octaves: the full blaxploitation menu, in fact, and very well executed. Steve also gives us a howling Dylanesque version of “Saint Valentine’s Day”, first recorded by a Norwegian band called the Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and more recently heard in David Chase’s film Not Fade Away.

I started loving this album as soon as I put it on. It’s not bursting with originality, to say the least, but sometimes that’s not what you need. It’s good-time music with a heart and a human voice, made by a man with a profound love and understanding of rock and soul, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

In the groove with Dennis Coffey

denniscoffey1_courtesy-of-clarence-avant---interior-music-corpDennis Coffey is still playing Tuesday nights at a Detroit club called the Northern Lights Lounge. It’s what he and his 1963 Gibson Birdland have been doing for the best part of 50 years. He started making a local reputation as a session man in the mid-’60s when he played on Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the classic sides on the Golden World label by J. J. Barnes and others. Later in the decade he was absorbed into the Motown studio band, adding the rock-influenced sounds of a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to the more classic approaches of the established Hitsville USA guitarists: Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.

It was Coffey who played on Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul productions, like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War”, as the Motown Sound updated itself to suit a new era. He had his own hit, the funky instrumental “Scorpio”, which highlighted his interest in effects. But he was still playing in the clubs, as we can hear from the rather wonderful product of the latest piece of successful treasure-hunting among previously unknown tapes by the Resonance label: an album titled Hot Coffee in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, recorded in 1968 with a trio completed by the Hammond organist Lyman Woodard and the drummer Melvin Davis.

Woodard and Davis were musicians with local reputations. The organist went on the road with Martha and the the Vandellas as their musical director. The drummer also toured with Vandellas, and with the Temptations. Like many of the members of the Funk Brothers, they could also be found in the night spots, entertaining their predominantly black listeners with a style of jazz that was heavy on the groove and on the feeling of the blues.

So what we have here is just under an hour of what you’d have heard if you’d wandered into this particular club in 1968: a brand of social music mixing jazz, funk and R&B, completely devoid of pretension, being delivered by highly sophisticated players with a wonderful directness and without any hint of strain. This recording features a handful of lively originals, ultra-cool instrumental versions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, and a nice reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The rhythms are deep in the pocket and the solos aren’t about showing off.

Whenever you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such an environment, you  know that no boundaries are being stretched and no rules are being rewritten. But it doesn’t matter. There are truths in this kind of music that are no less valuable for being relatively simple. And while it’s happening you want it to go on for ever.

* The photograph of Dennis Coffey is from the booklet accompanying Hot Coffey in the D, which includes valuable interviews and background material.

“Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell…”

archie-bell-1

Among the select group of great pop singles that last no more than two and a quarter minutes, “Here I Go Again” by Archie Bell and the Drells stands pretty much supreme. From Bobby Eli’s electric sitar opening to the jammed fade, not a single one of its 135 seconds is wasted.

It was written and produced in Philadelphia in 1969 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and arranged by Bobby Martin and Thom Bell. The principal musicians will have been Eli and his fellow guitarist Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker on bass guitar, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana on vibes (or possibly, in this instance, xylophone). I give them special prominence because the heart of the record is not to be found in the vocal verse and chorus but in the little four-bar instrumental interludes that punctuate the song so memorably.

The record starts with a 12-bar intro featuring Eli’s Danelectro Coral electric sitar before going into the 16-bar verse and the eight-bar chorus, all built on an E flat-A flat-B flat sequence and a blithe backbeat with double-time bass guitar fills. That’s followed by the first of the four-bar interludes, in which the rhythmic emphasis changes subtly but significantly, driving deeper into the “one”, anchored by a grunting baritone saxophone; more important, there’s also a radical harmonic shift from the E flat base (by my amateur musical forensics, which someone more expert might well correct) to a G-B-A-D pattern*. The combined effect of the two elements gives an exhilarating lift to this mini-break, somehow heightened by the absence of a solo instrument.

The effect is like suddenly changing the lighting in a room — and then back again, just as suddenly, when the tension is released by a return to the original mode. They run through the 16-8-4 pattern again, and then the chorus is repeated once more before the instrumental section returns and is played three times, with Archie Bell wailing on top this time, to the fade. And then it’s over, quite abruptly, and you want to play it again.

When it came out on a 45 in the US in 1969 it was as the B-side to “A World Without Music”, which failed to make the US Top 1oo. Three years later, however, it was discovered by Northern Soul dancers, who took it into the UK pop charts, where it peaked at No 11. Archie told Blues & Soul magazine that when he was informed of its belated and unexpected success, he had trouble recalling the song.

It’s included in Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story, a new 2-CD anthology on Big Break Records. The compilers include the obvious hits, beginning with the first from 1967, introduced thus: “Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want.  In Houston, we’ve just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we Tighten Up with…” That rough but irresistible debut single, “Tighten Up Pt 1”, duly went to No 1 in the pop and R&B charts.

I confess that I never kept the closest watch on their career, and among the 44 tracks are many that are new to me, including “A Soldier’s Prayer 1967”, a ballad in which Archie — who was wounded in Vietnam — sings about the experience of thinking about his family while preparing to go into combat. (This turns out not to be quite true: see the comment below from Blaise Pascal.) There’s also the charming “Archie’s in Love”, written by Philip Mitchell, produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, and introduced with a nostalgic snatch of a country waltz before snapping into a hip-swinging 1971 disco beat.

The second disc includes a selection of the dancefloor favourites they recorded for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in the second half of the ’70s, many of them produced by John Whitehead and Gene McFadden. In”Let’s Groove”, “The Soul City Walk”, “Dance Your Troubles Away” and the rest, the textures are smoother, the grooves slinkier, and the instrumental breaks much longer. It’s the generic disco music of its time, washed in the spangled rays of a mirror ball, beautifully executed and captured by a great bunch of session musicians and studio engineers. But nothing, I have to say, beats the magical 135 seconds of “Here I Go Again”.

* It’s quite possible that the speed of the track was altered during mixing or even mastering, and that the respective chord sequences might originally have been E-A-B and A flat-C-B flat-E flat.

Moses Boyd at Frieze

moses-boyd-at-tt-bwIt’s Frieze week in London, meaning that the streets of the more fashionable quarters of the city are thronged with art people. Last night some of them made their way to a party thrown by the Timothy Taylor Gallery in a Soho basement beneath the Phonica vinyl record shop on Poland Street, where the music was provided by a quartet under the leadership of the drummer Moses Boyd.

I’ve written about Boyd’s much-praised duo with the tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and, more recently, about his contribution to Orphy Robinson’s salute to Bobby Hutcherson, but this was something very different. Completing the quartet were Golding, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the keyboardist Niji Adeleye, and they started as they meant to go on: with Moses setting a groove that got the room moving, and the others joining in at full throttle. That’s where they stayed for the best part of an hour of unbroken music, with the groove shifting gears a couple of times but the volume and the intensity staying high.

If you can imagine a cross between the wildly distorted noise of the early Lifetime and the sophisto-funk of those Grant Green albums recorded live in 1970-71 at down-home joints like the Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey and the Club Mozambique in Detroit, you’ll be part of the way to imagining what they sounded like. There were rough edges all over the place, but in a good way. Shirley Tetteh’s playing sound like it might be heading towards an interesting blend of Green’s plain-spoken bluesiness, the fluid rhythmic stutter of Hux Brown from Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One rhythm section, and the floaty lyricism of King Sunny Adé’s guitars. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes it.

Anyway, they blew apart any notion of what a conventional Frieze week social occasion organised by a high-end Mayfair gallery might be. “Party” is what it said on the invitation, and a party is what they made it. If the four of them can get the sense of unstoppable energy on to a record, you’ll be able to have that party in your very own home.

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 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.

Motown part 1 (of 3): The B-sides

Motown B-sidesOn its opening in London last week, Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown: The Musical drew this comment from the Independent‘s reviewer: “As for the occasional new numbers written to plug emotional gaps — they’re cheesy, clichéd affairs, which wouldn’t pass muster as B-sides.” It reminded me of the endless pleasure afforded in the 1960s by the discovery that on the B-side of the latest Motown purchase could often be found a track just as good as the designated A-side.

What the great B-sides of the 1960s often did was show you another dimension of the featured artist. In the case of Motown, whose A-sides were usually aimed at dancers, the songs on the flip were frequently ballads. The work ethic of Gordy’s songwriters, producers, musicians and singers meant that they were often every bit as good as the “plug sides”. Here are half a dozen of my favourites.

The Miracles: “A Fork in the Road” (1965)  What are the chances of the greatest record ever made — “The Tracks of My Tears”, of course — having an almost equally distinguished B-side? This is one of Smokey Robinson’s deepest ballads: “Seems like love should be easier to bear / But it’s such a heavy load / Worldwide traveller, you ain’t been nowhere / Till you’ve travelled down love’s road.” Voices, strings, vibes and Marvin Tarplin’s liquid guitar set up a mood of entrancement. But beware, danger’s there. Midway there’s a pause, while Smokey gathers himself in preparation for these lines of warning: “If there is something that you don’t see eye-to-eye / You’d better think before you tell your love goodbye / ‘Cause your paths may never cross again / Make sure you take the same bend / At the fork in love’s road…” Just listen to the way he delivers the word “’cause” at 2:41, with an ascending four-note phrase that is a lesson in the proper deployment of vocal virtuosity.

Kim Weston: “Don’t Compare Me With Her” (1965)  If I had too choose one record to represent Motown’s dancefloor magic, it would probably be Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”. And here on the B-side is an utterly glorious ballad from Eddie Holland, Lamond Dozier and James Bradford. Apparently Kim didn’t like being given sad songs all the time, even when the tempo was up. But that bitter-sweetness was a Motown speciality.

The Temptations: “You’ll Lose a Precious Love” (1966)  Released on the flip of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, this gorgeous Smokey Robinson ballad was cut in 1964 and harks back to the streetcorner doo-wop roots of the composer and the group. David Ruffin reins in his customary gospel rasp to make a delicate job of the lead vocal, with bassman Melvin Franklin stepping forward for a brief solo contribution.

The Supremes: “Remove This Doubt” (1966)  Another B-side from 1964 coupled to a ’66 hit, this time “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Here’s the sweeter side of Holland-Dozier-Holland: a proper swoonerama for Diane Ross to get her teeth into. “Be more tender / Completely surrender your love to me / Be sweet and not discreet…” The swirly sound works better on a battered mono 45 than on this remastered stereo version.

The Isley Brothers: “There’s No Love Left” (1966)  The B-side of the floor-filling “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, and I always preferred its combination of a heartbroken song with a deliberate mid-tempo 4/4, a small half-hidden masterpiece of the H-D-H oeuvre. Hear Ronald Isley cry as the melody hauls itself upwards: “Wondering what am I gonna do? Where can I go?” Answer came there none.

Four Tops: “If You Don’t Want My Love” (1967)  The flip of “You Keep Running Away”, the last of the their great run of hits penned by the H-D-H team before the producers turned to brilliant covers of Tim Hardin and the Left Banke. This one isn’t quite like anything else: it’s a gospel take on doo-wop, with Levi Stubbs wailing over a short chord cycle. Brilliant use of harpsichord to italicise the changes, too. And it has one of the great trademarks of the Tops’ hits: the keening sound of the Andantes (Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow), Motown’s regular female session singers, layered above the male voices: somehow, the pure sound of love in despair.

Many others could be added to that list. The Miracles’ sublime “(You Can) Depend on Me”, for instance, which appeared on the flip first of the unsuccessful “The Feeling Is So Fine” in 1959 and then coupled with the local hit “Way Over There” the following year. The Supremes’ delightfully winsome “He Holds His Own”. The Temptations’ Smokey-penned tragedies “Fading Away” and “Don’t Look Back” (on which Paul Williams sang lead). Martha and the Vandellas’ “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”. Brenda Holloway’s “I’ve Been Good to You” and “Starting the Hurt All Over Again”. The Elgins’ “Darling Baby”. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Stepping Closer to Your Heart”. In those days at Hitsville USA, they really did have songs to burn.

* Parts 2 and 3 will look at Adam White’s new book, Motown: The Sound of Young America, and at One Track Mind, a new Ace Records compilation of material from the Motown vaults.

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.