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The Hitsville movie

Hitsville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Edwards 1943-2018

Temptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Don’t forget the Motor City

Fox TheatreYou’ll have read that Detroit went bankrupt the other day, and you might have felt more than a twinge of sympathy for the city that gave us so much music. (The Independent‘s Ian Burrell did, and wrote about it very touchingly here.) You might also have seen The Ruins of Detroit, the 2010 book in which Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre photographed the abandoned hulks of factories and municipal buildings, lending them a terrible glamour. I’m currently reading Mark Binelli’s widely praised The Last Days of Detroit, in which a Rolling Stone journalist returns to examine the fate of his home town. It made me go and dig out a photograph I took in 1994, during the World Cup, when I was in Detroit to watch Brazil play Sweden in the Pontiac Silverdome.

This is not a photograph of a ruin. Quite the reverse, in fact. It shows the Fox Theatre, a famous establishment on Woodward Avenue in the downtown area. Opened in 1928, with 5,000 seats, lavishly appointed and built at great expense, it became the world’s first cinema to install sound equipment for the screening of talkies. Live shows were also a part of its programme: Swing Era stars like Benny Goodman packed the place, Elvis Presley played there for three nights in 1956 (his first appearances in the city), and the Motortown Revue got into the habit of taking over the theatre for 10 days over the Christmas period in the ’60s. By the 1980s, however, “white flight” to the suburbs had changed the character of downtown and the heavily dilapidated Fox was showing kung-fu movies. Then along came the family who own the Little Caesars pizza chain, the Detroit Red Wings (ice hockey) and the Detroit Tigers (baseball), who bought and renovated it, re-opening in 1988 with a show starring Count Basie and Smokey Robinson.

The day I passed by with my camera, the marquee was still advertising an Aretha Franklin concert which had taken place a week earlier. (Detroit is also Aretha’s home town: it was where her father, the Rev C.L. Franklin, set up his New Bethel Church in 1946.) A check on the Fox’s website tells me that this year’s future attractions include Steely Dan, John Legend, Get Back: The Beatles Laser Experience, Sarah Brightman and the Moscow Ballet. Aretha sang there again last year.

Hope you like the picture. And good luck to Detroit, whatever its future holds.

James Jamerson: a hidden masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.