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Posts tagged ‘Smokey Robinson’

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.

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.