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Posts tagged ‘Berry Gordy Jr’

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 true 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.

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.

Anna Gordy Gaye 1922-2014

The Originals — I’m pretty sure it’s Freddie Gorman, Walter Gaines, Hank Dixon and a replacement member, Dixon’s daughter Terrie — singing “Baby I’m For Real” in Pittsburgh in 2003, reprising their No 1 R&B hit of 1969. What a great record that was, and here given a performance epitomising the art of growing older with dignity utterly undiminished. This stuff just doesn’t get weary. And, like “The Bells”, its successor, it was co-written by Marvin Gaye with his first wife, Anna Gordy, whose death at the age of 92 has just been announced.

Every time I find myself writing the obituary of one of the great women of Motown, particularly those who existed in the background, such as Esther Gordy Edwards, Maxine Powell or now Anna Gordy Gaye, I’m reminded of what an extraordinary story it all was, from the moment in 1959 when, at a meeting to listen to Berry Jr asking to be given seed money from the family start-up fund, Anna and her sister Gwen sided with their brother, pleading his case so effectively that eventually Esther, the eldest sister, whose scepticism of his ability to get a business going made her the last obstacle, finally gave way.

As anyone who’s read a biography of Marvin Gaye or listened to Here, My Dear will know, Anna Gordy’s story wasn’t one of unrelieved happiness. But she was part of something which left us music, like “Baby I’m For Real”, that will be cherished for a long, long time.

Something about Mary Wells

Mary Wells book coverIn the hearts of the first generation of Motown fans, there’s a special place for Mary Wells. During the period between 1960 and 1964 she became Berry Gordy Jr’s first female star, lending her voice to a series of songs, the majority of them written and produced by William “Smokey” Robinson, that helped define the company’s sound – and that of soul music itself.

From those days I have precious memories of owning “Two Lovers”, one of Smokey’s masterpieces, on the old black, white and yellow Oriole label, and the later Stateside coupling of “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and “What’s Easy For Two”, which stands in my estimation alongside Elvis’s “His Latest Flame”/“Little Sister” and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” among the greatest double A-side 45s in pop history.

“You Lost the Sweetest Boy” was an early product of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, as were like Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Miracles’ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying”, all of which which burst on to the airwaves at around the same time in the glorious year of 1963 to demonstrate how Gordy’s writers and producers were blending their gospel and R&B ingredients with a new pop sensibility.

Yet I finished Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, a new biography by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press), with very mixed feelings. I knew that Wells’s career had not gone well following the fateful decision to leave Motown after “My Guy” had given her a worldwide smash in 1964. I was aware, too, of a couple of marriages, including one to the man who encouraged her to switch labels from Motown to 20th Century, and another to Cecil Womack, who died earlier this month. And I knew that she had been treated for throat cancer in the 1980s, and had died in 1992, aged 49. But I had no idea of the extent to which a part of her life had been controlled by her various addictions to heroin, cocaine, methadone and alcohol.

Although I’m grateful to Benjaminson for compiling the details of her life, however distressing they may be, I wish he’d also been able to say something interesting about the music that made her famous. So it was with a sense of something like relief that I found a different way of remembering Mary Wells by putting on Something New, a two-CD collection of her obscure and unreleased Motown recordings compiled by Harry Weinger for Universal’s Hip-O Select imprint.

Some of these tracks, shelved when she left Motown and Gordy turned his attention to Diana Ross, turned up in 1966 on an album called Vintage Stock, but most people still won’t be familiar with such treats as “I’ve Got a Story”, a slice of pop-soul heaven written by Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson and Hank Cosby; Holland-Dozier-Holland’s plaintive “Guarantee (For a Lifetime)”; and Smokey’s “To Lose You” and his Miracles colleague Ronald White’s “Forgive and Forget”, both underpinned by light Latin rhythms (as had been “Two Lovers”).

It’s not all great. A couple of unreleased duets with Gaye are hardly spectacular, while the lacklustre versions of 13 standard songs originally intended for an album to be titled The Second Time Around demonstrate that Gordy’s judgement was by no means infallible. But there’s enough here to show that the Beatles were right in 1964 when they invited Wells to join them on tour, making her the first Motown artist to appear on a UK stage.