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Posts tagged ‘Supremes’

(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

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

Motown Barney Ales

The 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.