As I was thinking about this month’s Motown musings, news arrived of an exciting – let’s not be coy here, it’s a wonderfully incredible – release courtesy of Kent Records at the end of September. “The Rita Wright Years 1967 – 1970”, a fourteen track compilation, some of which were previously recorded, with the remainder taken from a pair of recently found tapes which she recorded during 1970 in Los Angeles. No, I haven’t heard it yet, but the sheer historical value of this pending release is staggering because, for one thing, it will fill in blank spaces in Syreeta’s early career. Among the unissued material like “Love’s Gone Bad”, “I Want To Go Back There Again”, “Can’t Stop”, “You” and “Save The Country”, there’s the version of “Love Child” which has been kicking around on YouTube for ages now.
During our many conversations, Syreeta told me her version was never seriously considered for single release, and this was also backed up a few years ago by one-time UK Motown product manager, Gordon Frewin, despite the singer’s fans begging to purchase it. Syreeta recorded many demo songs for Motown’s A-list acts and “Love Child” was one of them, providing as she did guide vocals for lead singers. That’s the real purpose behind demo versions, apart from there (then) being a Union requirement that an artist has to be at the microphone when a band track was laid down. Syreeta, who died too soon in July 2004 after a battle against cancer was a loyal Motown artist, enjoyed her life with the company and the artists, and never once spoke out against either. She once told me “I learned all the way up and now have experience in a little bit of the business side because I used to sit in on Mr Gordy’s meetings sometimes and learned how to manoeuvre things.” It was only when Motown was sold that she was told she didn’t fit into the company’s new image. “..I fought for my own identity and freedom for a number of years so I don’t want to be anywhere where they’re going to put me in clothes that are slit from my toes up to my neck, and where I’m not wearing underclothes because it’s fashionable. That’s not me”. Oh lor, this planned short mention has gone on a bit, so my apologies to those who’ve nodded off.
You’ll never guess what I’m playing while I tap away at the keyboard. “Big Motown Hits & Hard-To-Find Classics Vol 2” but check this out. It’s on cassette!! Yup, and, apart from the occasional click, plays like it did in 1986. No sleeve notes of course, but track listing is pretty wonderful with Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone” kicking off. Eddie Holland’s “Jamie”, The Supremes/Four Tops’ “River Deep, Mountain High”, Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, Tammi Terrell’s “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” and R Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” following on side one. Get up, walked to the player and turn cassette over. First track is Shorty Long’s “Function At The Junction”, with The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Sayin’ Something”, Isley Brothers’ “I Guess I’ll Always Love You”, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me”, Rare Earth’s “Born To Wander” following. Leaving Billy Preston/Syreeta’s “With You I’m Born Again” as the closing track. Enjoying every second!
News has also reached me that legendary Motown press man, Al Abrams will be inducted posthumously into the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Music Hall Of Fame. The ceremony took place on 21 August at the Ford Performing Arts Theatre, Dearborn, Michigan. (I must have driven pass this when in Detroit a couple of years ago without realising it – doh!). You may not know, but also this year Al was the recipient of a Detroit Music Award for his special achievement within the music industry, and inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizen Hall Of Fame as a transplanted Michigan Wolverine for his international contribution to music. It goes without saying, of course, that for Al to be inducted into this year’s Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame is an honour indeed when bearing in mind other notables included Smokey Robinson, Prince, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes and the like. He would have been really chuffed and humbled for sure, and so very sad he couldn’t receive it in person. Al’s widow Nancy accepted the award on his behalf. Bet she was beside herself too during what could only have been an extremely emotional ceremony.
Talking of Smokey, he’s branched out again, following his food range marketed by SPGL Foods Inc, back in 2006 or thereabouts. With the logo “the soul is in the bowl”, the dishes were inspired by the food he discovered while on the road. Apparently, food is one of Smokey’s life passions, and was never far from his mind as he sought out the famous and the lesser-known chefs throughout America. Subsequently, each of the four dishes that went on sale had its own special story. So, marketed under the banner “Smokey Robinson Food”, he offered Down Home Pot Roast, Seafood Gumbo, Chicken & Chicken Sausage, and Smokey’s Red Beans & Rice. How successful this venture was I don’t know, but they’re no longer available. Anyway, I’ve digressed because this new venture, where advertising proclaims he is the personification of the mantra “black don’t crack” (a phrase, by the way, Martha Reeves imparted to me years ago and I’ve always remembered it), has been launched Skinphonic, a company born when Smokey and his wife Frances were disappointed in the quality of skincare products available. It appears they sought out the help of some of America’s top skincare formulators to find a solution, whereupon a team of interested parties took up the challenge and after over two years of research developed a product the couple tested and later approved. Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle were instilled into him as a child, Smokey told journalists, which has led to him pursing his love of music by touring at the age of 76 years. “I used to run marathons” he told Nicole Evatt of The Associated Press. “Do things that I thought were going to be beneficial for me at this time in my life. When I got to this point in my life I didn’t realise how beneficial it was going to be because I feel great.” As well as practising yoga for 35 years plus, Smokey has also been a vegetarian for longer. “I’m only going to get this one body so I want to be healthy as long as possible.”
Touring these days is, of course, hectic, tiring and often draining, physically and mentally. It also includes lots of rest, he further explained to Nicole Evatt. “Someone will be like ‘OK Smokey, where’s the party?’ I just had a party for two-and-a-half hours. I was onstage, that was the party for me.” Once off stage, he invariably headed for his hotel room, to watch television until he fell asleep. No partying for this guy! Anyway, Mr and Mrs Robinson have launched two products: the twice daily cleanser “My Girl” at nearly $30 for the ladies, and “Get Ready – Cause Here I Come” for the gents. This comprises the twice daily cleanser, AM Hydration and PM Treatment Complex (whatever that means) at around $90. I can’t actually believe I’m writing this but, hey ho, that’s Smokey for you! Back to the music…
It can’t have escaped your notice that there’s another Motown-related law suit simmering away that involves Ed Sheeran, echoing the recent one where Marvin Gaye’s estate successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their “Blurred Lines” runaway hit. It was alleged the song borrowed some of Marvin’s “Got To Give It Up” (and other influences from Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways”) although the couple insisted they didn’t deliberately infringe any of the material. In a lot of cases where this happens, the cases are either settled out of court or dropped entirely, with no case to answer. However, this time Marvin’s estate wouldn’t back down, and once a Californian judge decreed he found the songs similar enough, the trial got underway. It’s interesting to know that as Marvin’s estate doesn’t own his music rights, only that of the sheet music, the jury only heard a stripped-down version of the questionable piece, but it was obviously sufficient to pass judgement that a $7.4 million pay out was in order. In the court documents, Robin Thicke said Pharrell Williams had written almost every part of the song, and that, at the time, he (Robin) was high on alcohol and the pain killer Vicodin. And – here’s a thing – the single earned them $16.7 million, with $5.7 million to Thicke, $5.2 million to Pharrell, leaving $704,774 to other relevant companies. I don’t know whether they paid the amount the judge decreed, because I can find no reference to it across the internet.
Anyway, is this then what’s in store for our Mr Ed Sheeran who has been sued by the estate of Ed Townsend, co-writer of “Let’s Get It On” in a court action that indicates he lifted fundamental elements from the composition, in his “Thinking Out Loud” single. Part of the suit included: “The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic compositions of ‘Thinking’ are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of ‘Let’s’. The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinking’.” Ed Townsend’s family who filed the complaint in the Southern District of New York’s federal court, have requested the suit goes to trial. This will be the second time this year Ed Sheeran has been involved in a court action like this. Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard sued him for $20 million claiming his song “Photograph” lifted major elements from their composition “Amazing”, recorded and released by Matt Cardle. Oh dear, all I can say is – watch this space.
And finally, I’m ending on a very sad note because quite out of the blue I received an email from my pal Larry Kimpel, GVR Records boss, which began – “I regret to be the bearer of bad news, but I have just received word that our mutual friend and colleague, Jimmy Levine has passed on. He apparently had been secretly battling pancreatic cancer.” To say I was devastated was an understatement. I shall so miss the dear, sweet, lovely man, with a heart of gold and, who, among other things, introduced me to Anna Gordy. Next month, I’d like to add my comments to his memory. Meantime, Jimmy, have a safe journey into your next life. And on behalf of David, Michael and myself, our heartfelt condolences go to Jimmy’s family, friends and fans across the world. He was quite a guy!
It’s a Miss Davis running on empty this month as, after a two week plus holiday in Florida, suffered the most awful jet lag known to woman! However, the break in the USA was awesome and my inner child which I usually keep under wraps, reared to life as I wandered, open mouthed through the Disney parks including Universal where I re-visited my youth walking down streets from classic films. Meeting ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘Lucille Ball’ was also surreal but wonderful fun. Anyway, enough of me, let’s Motown TCB…
What to play this month I wondered? Hah, didn’t take me long to pull out a 2009 compilation which I’m sure you’ve got nestling in your collections – “A Complete Introduction To Tamla Motown”. The box set of four CDs comprise a staggering 94 tracks, broken down into the sections of “Milestones & Influences”, “British Motown Chartbusters”, “Live In London And In Paris” and “Killer Bs”. It’s quite a lavish affair: sturdy packaging, beautifully presented booklet detailing the music within surrounded by colour pictures of the contributing artists. The first two discs are pretty much what you’d expect, but it’s the other couple which have grabbed my attention because the live tracks are lifted from Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and The Temptations’ respective albums from “Talk Of The Town”, and the “Motortown Revue In Paris”. As you know, I’m not a lover of ‘live’ releases but the Talk of the Town ones I played regularly back in the day because I saw the performances and the records, of course, reminded me of great evenings spent in this iconic London venue. Well, we disrespectfully called it the ‘soup in the basket café’ yet it was the place to be: all the best artists performed there. Actually, the last time I was in the building, it was to see Cindy Birdsong perform, and where I ended up holding Diana Ross’ handbag, when the two met up in Cindy’s dressing room after her performance. Anyway, I’m rambling – back to the music, and the 4th CD highlighting some songs that were originally hidden away on B-sides, like, Kim Weston’s “Do Like I Do”; The Contours’ “Just A Little Misunderstanding”; Martha and the Vandellas’ “Motoring”; “Forget Me Not” and “Third Finger, Left Hand” (love these tracks!); Marvin Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)”; Brenda Holloway’s “Starting The Hurt All Over Again” ; Four Tops’ “I’ll Turn To Stone” and “I Got A Feeling” and…. That is what’s playing now. The package was compiled by Daryl Easlea and Adam White, with special thanks to Barney Ales and Dave Godin. It is still available at around £30. Let’s get this party started!
Opening this month is an exhibition saluting The Miracles! The place to be is the Grammy Museum, Los Angeles. Last year the museum featured The Supremes, and this latest exhibition continues the series about Detroit’s most famous of record labels. Original Miracles Claudette Robinson and Pete Moore will reflect on the group’s history during a question/answer session on the opening night, while the exhibition itself will display rare visuals and costumes spanning the group’s birth through to Smokey’s departure. “The Miracles, along with Mr Berry Gordy and Motown, have become part of a musical history that changed the landscape of popular music, soul and R&B to foster positive and progressive race relations in America and around the world” – Claudette. For more information, visit www.grammymuseum.org
I’ve been re-visiting Dennis Coffey’s book “Guitars, Bars And Motown Superstars” first published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press. What caught my eye was a chapter when, for argument’s sake, he first encountered Motown full-on via a phone call from Hank Cosby (Stevie Wonder’s producer and co-writer, among other things) asking him to play guitar for a new producer’s workshop the company was putting together. Naturally, Dennis jumped at the invite which paid $138 a week, 7am – 9pm, from Monday to Thursday, with James Jamerson heading up the new venture. When the shock had worn off, he remembered the live shows he’d previously played on supporting the likes of The Velvelettes, The Marvelettes and Edwin Starr. These memories led to him recalling an incident at one venue when David Ruffin walked in with Tammi Terrell on his arm. After being introduced to them, Dennis went outside the club to smoke a cigarette and – “I couldn’t believe my eyes” he wrote. “Parked right in the middle of the street was a shiny, brand spanking new Rolls Royce! You didn’t see many of them in Detroit, at least not back then…..Here I was, in the inner city after the ’67 riots, playing in a bar for twenty dollars a night, and David Ruffin leaves a hundred thousand dollar car in the middle of the street unattended…and I decided then and there I was going to work my ass off to get my part of the action.”
Motown had opened the producer’s workshop at the Golden World building. When Dennis arrived James Jamerson was already set up. “He was…5’ 10”, 175 pounds, and sported a Fu Manchu moustache.” He was usually dressed in black t-shirts, black beret and jeans. The other workshop members were guitarist Eddie Willis, conga player “Bongo” Eddie, drummer Spyder Turner and keyboardist Ted Sheely, who had joined the illustrious Johnny Griffith and Earl Van Dyke. And this was Mr Coffey’s introduction into Motown proper, and from this he worked with R Dean Taylor who was one of the producers at the workshop. He also remembered composer/producer Norman Whitfield who always wore expensive sweaters and fashionable slacks in the studio. “He was very animated and explosive when he conducted the rhythm section.” wrote Dennis. “Norman was the master of dynamics and built up each song to match what both he and co-writer Barrett Strong had in mind when they wrote it.”
From this workshop, Mr Coffey moved to the Snakepit in Hitsville where he usually played with the very best: Spyder and Richard “Pistol” Allen on drums (high hat and cymbals, and snare drum and foot pedal respectively), Earl and Johnny on keyboards, James and Bob Babbitt on bass, Eddie Willis, Robert White, Joe Messina on guitars, Jack Ashford on tambourines, and so on. Arrangers and producers were several and varied of course, but it was the dedication and love of the music that really shone through this particular chapter in Dennis’ book, plus the loyalty and respect of the musicians. Anyway, if this is an angle of Motown you’re interested in and, certainly, it does open the door to the company’s recording process, then this book is for you. I’m sure it’s still available but the only website I have is www.press.umich.edu
Following my mention last month, I received a note from Lynda Laurence (Formerly of The Supremes). Won’t print it all but here’s a couple of things…..”I thank you so much Sharon for your well wishes to us. We plan to keep going. In fact, at the end of our anniversary show we said ‘we’re not done!’. So we will continue to go on and when we do I know that you will always be there to spur us on!…We look forward to seeing you and all our fans soon. Love always.” The idea is for the ladies to perform over here but hooking up to the right promoter is proving problematic. However, I’m sure once this has been sorted out, they will grace our stages again.
And, finally, a reminder about the box set “Motortown Revue: The French EPs 1965”. Five extended play singles which were originally released in France only to coincide with the ’65 concert. Yeh, you know the one. Anyhows, for those who may have missed it, tracks include “Soul Stomp” – Earl Van Dyke; “I’m In Love Again” – The Supremes; “Old Love (Let’s Try It Again)” – Martha and the Vandellas; “Got A Job” – The Miracles, and “Tears In Vain” – Stevie Wonder. The cover price is hefty at nearly £45 but it could just fill the gap in some Motown record collections.
That’s it for this month. Due to my holiday, my review schedule is now about two weeks’ behind but I’ll endeavour to catch up as quickly as I can. So, until next month, keep keeping the Motown faith!
Motown Spotlight has been a regular feature for many years and gives a great insight into the workings of the iconic Motown label and all things Detroit.
About the author – Sharon Davis
Sharon Davis ran the Four Tops fan club before spearheading Motown Ad Astra, catering for all the Motown acts, where she edited the in-house magazine TCB. Was publicist for Fantasy, Stax and Salsoul before joining Motown Records in London. Formed her own press/promotion company Eyes & Ears, worked for Blues & Soul magazine and website, and became a full time author and researcher. To date Sharon has written eleven books (her last A Girl Called Dusty published by Carlton Books) and she’s working on her next – Divas Of Motown. As a researcher, Sharon assisted Diana Ross with her autobiography Secrets Of A Sparrow, and is now in constant demand for her knowledge about Motown and its artists.
Look out for regular monthly features.