100 Essential CDs – Number 95 – Martha Reeves & Vandellas – Compact Command Performances

images

Compact Command Performances: 24 Greatest Hits –

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (Motown 1986)

martha1

The Compact Command Performance series was an early compilation CD series which put out the best of an artist’s back catalogue some for the first time on CD.  The tracks were made from masters from Motown’s studios although this CD claims it was made in Germany.  It is pretty much a no-frills release with nothing in the way of notes and just basic information on the writers and producers on each track.  Others in the series included Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Temptations.  Many of these acts had vinyl “Anthology” releases which had appeared on Double CD’s but this series offered a single CD overview.  I didn’t purchase any of the other releases but this 24 tracker offering the best of the under-rated Martha Reeves gets played regularly.

The tracks here span the years 1963-1971 taking Reeves from Motown secretary who was in the right place at the right time and ready to make an impression when other artists were not available to the star unwilling to make a move from her Detroit home when the label uprooted to Los Angeles and so departing from the label which had given her 12 US Top 40 hits over 4 years and 8 UK Top 40 hits over an eight year period.  Reeves was often in conflict with label bosses, especially Berry Gordy, over what she saw as favouritism towards The Supremes, and particularly Diana Ross as well as unfair treatment over royalties and was prepared to speak out publicly whilst others kept quiet.  In the scheme of things this probably wasn’t the best for her career as it saw her slipping down the pecking order as hits were being dished out and although she made some great music, she felt under-promoted and disgruntled by Motown.  It took a while for her to manage to break free from the label but her post Motown years were without commercial success.

martha2

She’s still going strong.  There have been periods of ill health and a large number of Vandellas as Martha has switched from a solo career to reigniting the group.  She has become a valuable figure in politics in the Detroit home she wouldn’t give up on when Berry Gordy saw bigger fish to fry in Hollywood.  I saw her perform in our local theatre a year or so back in a show which was disarmingly charming.  The voice wasn’t what it was and the heels of her shoes were a little high to make much movement possible but she won an audience over by the strength of the back catalogue and her warm stage personality.  When you consider the career trajectories of Diana Ross and Martha Reeves there’s a huge difference.  At one time the two women were directly challenging one another to be the Queen Of Motown.  Reeves lost that particular power struggle but the battle has left us with some great music.  These 24 tracks provide a great introduction to that music.

martha10Martha Reeves -still performing

Martha had early ambitions to be a solo jazz singer but also was part of a group who became the Del-Phis where she was not the lead singer.  Invited to a Motown audition the group was rejected but Martha found herself with a clerical job as assistant to A&R man and producer Mickey Stevenson.  The communal atmosphere of the early days at the label meant everyone tended to chip in and when backing singers were needed for some Marvin Gaye tracks Martha got her group back and “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” was a hit single taking those backing vocals to a large audience.  When Mary Wells failed to turn up for a recording, Martha, now lead vocalist got the girls Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard back in which led to their first recordings as Martha and The Vandellas (not because they were female vandals as often suggested but because Martha lived in Van Dyke Street and was a big fan of  singer Della Reese).

martha6

There are four words which explain the early success of Motown’s newest signing.  Those words are Holland, Dozier and Holland, the production team which turned  the label into Hitsville USA.  The female vocal trio were the first girl group to work with the male production trio – predating The Supremes who were still looking for that first hit when Martha’s recordings began to ascend up the charts.  This hit was “Come And Get These Memories” a teen-heartbreak song of returning love tokens once the relationship had soured.  In her autobiography (written with Mark Bego) “Dancing In The Street: Confessions Of A Motown Diva” (1994) Martha had this to say about the song:

“According to Berry’s eldest sister, Esther Gordy, when Berry heard our recording of “Come And Get These Memories” he exclaimed, “that’s the sound I’ve been looking for.  That’s ‘the Motown Sound.” The song had a steady beat, great background harmony parts, horns, catchy lyrics, and a story line that everyone could identify with.  I knew instantly that it would be a hit.  I’ve always thought that the song really shows off the great harmonies  that Rosalind and Annette and I had in the very beginning.”

The opening track on this CD is a very catchy tune that worms its way into the subconscious but it is fairly standard girl-group fare and doesn’t sound to me the revolutionary game-changer that Berry Gordy was reputed to acknowledge.  It’s very much in the Shirelles mode but gave the girls a US #29 pop hit in May 1963 and nationwide attention.

martha4

It the early Motown sound was to be defined then it is in their follow-up track the tremendous “Heatwave” which is exciting, driving, a little raw around the edges, ever so slightly off-key and with everything thrown into the production it raced up the charts to number 4, helped by the girls’ hard work in the touring Motown revues which was steadily growing them a fan base.  A big hit single demanded an album which was recorded in one night and despite this hastiness, the covers of other girl group hits and standards and the odd H-D-H original is always worth a listen and one of the most durable of the early Motown album releases.

martha8

Barely contained on that album was the next hit “Quicksand” which could be said to resemble “Heatwave Part 2” but the whole pop industry of the day was built on repeating winning formulas.  This track is far more, however, than a throw-away sound-alike.  The girls “Whoo-hooing” the intro gives it an identity of its own and it deservedly became their second US Pop Top 10 hit in a row reaching number 8.  The frantic pace was kept up for next release “Live Wire” but perhaps that was HDH mining this particular seam a little too much as it missed out on the pop charts.  From its dramatic flourish of an intro this is a real Northern soul stomper and if by a more obscure act would have traded for big sums of money on the British Northern Soul scene.  Amongst the high-energy there are a couple of calmer tracks included from this period. “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday) began life as the B-Side to “Come and Get These Memories”.  Too good to remain a B-Side the song has been covered many times and is considered a soul classic with most notable versions from fellow Motown artist Kim Weston and a 1966 Top 20 UK hit for Ike and Tina Turner.  Also dropping the tempo just a little was the next single the delightful, hand-clap heavy “In My Lonely Room” which sounds like it should have been a massive hit but wasn’t.

They did not have to wait that long for their biggest hit, however and it was a move from the then too busy Holland-Dozier- Holland to Martha’s old boss, Mickey Stevenson who produced and co-wrote with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter one of the label’s most iconic songs.  “Dancing In The Street” commences with a brassy call to arms into heavy tambourine crashes to get us out and dancing.  Of this song Martha, in her autobiography states that she first heard Marvin Gaye singing it and didn’t really like the song;

“but when I put myself into it and made it my own it became the anthem of the decade.  From the very beginning, no matter where it was played, everyone seemed to get up and dance to it…….I’ve always said that “Dancing In The Street” is Mickey Stevenson’s greatest gift to me.”

This particular gift got to number 2 in the US in 1964 and in the British Beat group dominated UK charts of the time became their first Top 30 hit stalling at a lowly number 28.  Five years later a re-issue climbed to number 4 and reactivated British interest in the group.  A Live-Aid inspired pairing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger gave the song a British number 1 placing in a version which is luke-warm compared to the original.

martha11

The Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter combination was used to produce more singles for the group.  On this CD we get “Wild One” and “Motoring”, neither of which had the magic of the big hit.  There were also personnel changes with Betty Kelly replacing Annette who retired from the music business at this time.  The career cranked up another gear with the return of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier in production duties with another H-D-H original “Nowhere To Run”.  It sounds like this could have been another big hit for The Supremes but Martha and the girls were given the chance with this.  Martha’s grittier, more gospel-influenced voice gives this a greater edge than Diana would have done.  It feels a chilling, cold song, which HDH proved they could do well, as in tracks like “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” by The Four Tops, a hit a couple of years later for them which has the feel of this particular track. “Nowhere To Run” reached number 8 in the US and 26 in the UK.

martha7

Martha claims that one of her most favourite recordings is the gentle “My Baby Loves Me” which gives her a chance to hark back to her jazz roots over a pretty ballad produced by Stevenson and Hunter. It gave her a US#22 hit.

1966 and 1967 were another two great years for the group as they put out a string of great tracks.  As far as US pop chart success was concerned it was the last hurrah.  “I’m Ready For Love” (1966- US#9, UK#22) is not only up there amongst Motown’s best it is one of my all-time favourite singles.  The whole thing reeks with anticipation from the nervous, jiggly, driving rhythms, the plaintive vocals and great lyrics – The message Martha is conveying is “Bring it on!” She’s ready.  This is followed by the tale of the rogue Jimmy Mack (1967 UK#10, UK#21) who may or may not be coming back.  It’s single release B-Side is also included on this CD as it has always been a favourite in the UK.  “Third Finger Left Hand” is an ideal wedding fodder song, but for its singalong charm and as a mantra to remember what finger to put the ring on.  It’s a song that I felt going through my head on my wedding day!  These are all great Holland-Dozier-Holland productions.

hollanddozierLamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano

From 1967 serious cracks were showing.  The hit production team were in dispute with Motown, Mickey Stevenson had left the label, relations in the group were not good, there were clashes over the label’s promotion of Diana Ross and Martha, driven by a heavy work load and touring schedule, became addicted to prescription drugs.  Around this time original member Rosalind Ashford was sacked  and Sandra Tilley recruited.  Martha’s view at this time was that the Vandellas had became just a support for touring and that other girls could be used on recording sessions.  Motown bowed a little to Reeves’ pressure and added her surname to the group which had largely been known to this point as Martha & The Vandellas.  With new production and songwriting units the hits continued with “Love Bug (Leave Me Heart Alone)” (US#25) and “Honey Chile” (US#11, UK#30) but neither of these threaten their best material.  “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing” did not meet with Martha’s approval and she abandoned it during the recording.  Motown drafted in Syreeta Wright to finish it and released it under Martha’s name, showing the label’s heavy- handed attitude towards the brand rather than the people. A nervous breakdown followed for Martha soon afterwards, the group was disbanded in 1969 and that ended their US hit career.

Martha and the Vandellas

A revitalised Reeve returned with sister Lois and Sandra Tilley and had a couple of UK hits with “Forget Me Not” (UK#11-1971), which for some reason is not included on this CD and “Bless You” (UK#33- 1972) which is a great little track and was written and produced by The Corporation, which was in itself a response to production teams getting too big for the label and also did great work with early Jackson Five, later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards (the latter also having produced “I Can’t Dance”).

Martha Reeves’ solo career did not amount to much commercial success, which might explain why she is still touring small theatres in the UK in her 70’s singing these Motown hits.  I was certainly pleased about that when I saw her but you cannot help feeling that this under-rated star has good reason to feel a little despondent about the music industry, considering the volume of records she sold in her early career.

martha9

This single CD of 24 tracks seems to me to be the perfect introduction to these Motown legends.  Anyone wanting a little more could look at the 2006 double CD “Gold” and the three disc “50th Anniversary – Singles Collection” from 2013.  There’s also much pleasure to be had from the re-released studio albums. Whatever you choose Martha will soon have you “Dancing In The Street.”

Compact Command Performances is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.99 and used from £0.95. In the US it is available used for $3.00.   

Advertisements

100 Essential CDs – Number 87 –Four Tops – The Look Of Love

images

The Look Of Love – The Four Tops (Motown 1993) 

fourtops5

I have just the two Four Tops CD’s in my collection .  I have already sung the praises of Their Greatest Hits  but I also have a lot of time for this 1993 12 track compilation which saw a lease of life on the budget Spectrum/Karussell labels.  With both of my Four Tops CDs in my Top 100 this should suggest I should explore deeper into this band’s back catalogue.  The Four Tops studio albums released on Motown throughout their time on the label tended to be a mix of a few singles hits, a couple of non-hit tracks and a few cover versions.  And really, that also sums up this compilation.

Two of the three hits on this CD are the mighty “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” (US#6, UK#6- 1966), the equally as good  “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” (US#14, UK#12 -1967) two excellent examples of Holland-Dozier- Holland at their best and these together with the Ivy Jo Hunter/Stevie Wonder song “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (UK#21-1966) are duplicated on “Their Greatest Hits” (and would be on most other hits compilations). For more info on these tracks you might like to take a look at my previous review .

The track which for me is worth the cost of this CD alone is another Holland-Dozier-Holland track “Where Did You Go?” This powerhouse of a track was amazingly hidden away on a B-side to their 1965 single “Ask The Lonely” (US#24).  After H-D-H had established the Four Tops in the US pop charts with 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving” (US#11) you would have thought they would have been first choice for the follow-up.  There was no such thing as a shoo-in at Motown, Berry Gordy would hold weekly record meetings where a group of Motown staffers and artists would rate and select material for release and this was the main reason why there was so much fantastic Motown material left unreleased to be discovered over the years.  I’m not sure whether this release would have had to face the “Quality Control” panel but if it did they opted for an Ivy Jo Hunter and Mickey Stevenson song for the A-side which, although a great song, a somewhat overwrought ballad with a great performance from Levi Stubbs and a surprising amount of female back-up from the Andantes, failed to build upon the impact of the debut hit.  This was probably not the first or last time that HDH seethed at a Motown decision.  Both of these tracks were produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland and appeared on the debut Four Tops album released in 1965.  “Where Did You Go?” does have the “Baby I Need Your Loving” feel in the verse but by the chorus there’s glissando piano and a hook sung by the three back-up Tops of  “Only your warm embrace/Can fill this empty place “ which really gets under the skin.  There’s a very grandiose feel to this track which I found very appealing- it lacks the big sound that Holland-Dozier-Holland found with their later run of big hits for the group but it is up there amongst their best.

fourtops7

The two other less familiar songs on the CD are “I’m Grateful” and “The Key”.  “I’m Grateful” was the closing track on their appropriately named “Second Album” also produced by Brian and Lamont and was written by one Holland, brother Eddie, with Cleo Drake and George Fowler. This call and response song is a good old Motown stomper. “ The Key” was also a B-side to a fairly unsuccessful 1969 single release and appeared as the opening track on the not terribly successful “Four Tops Now” album.  This was released during the slight career slump the group faced when HDH left Motown.  It saw a struggle to get the magic back for the Tops by exploring a range of musical styles, producers and writers.

fourtops6

The Four Tops had a background in jazz/easy listening type singing and when Berry Gordy signed them to Motown this was the direction he believed he would guide them in.  (The same was thought about Marvin Gaye).   This background made them confident performers in a range of styles and there are occasionally some very strange choices of songs on their albums.  A few years back Motown put out a “From Broadway To Hollywood” album of show/film tunes covers from the vaults and the Four Tops show they can even turn a hoary old show-tune like “Mame” into something credible.  This is mainly because of the Levi Stubbs voice.  On this CD a couple of the cover tracks are sung in harmony with no real discernible lead, just a blend of the four voices, which for me does not work as well.  Title track “The Look Of Love” is one of these but is saved by a strong production.  I don’t think however it is the definitive version of this song.  The other Bacharach/David track “This Guy’s In Love With You” always works best with a casual, almost throwaway performance – such as Herb Alpert and Dionne Warwick turn out.  The Four Tops (especially lead vocalist Levi Stubbs) couldn’t really do casual.  He pours so much into every song wrenching out every ounce of emotion and can even turn something really schmaltzy like Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” into something which sounds like a deep soul ballad.  There’s a likeable enough cover of the Monkees “Daydream Believer” and a very good version of the Doors “Light My Fire” where the backing Tops come into their own with their “sizzle me” refrain.

I like this compilation because it shows the range of this very talented group from the hits, to the odd rarer album track and b-side to their versions of contemporary hit songs.

The video is a rare promotional Motown video which features the Four Tops in jokey horror house mood and contains a fabulous example of  how to make a bobble hat look cool

“The Look Of Love ” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.37 and used from £0.01.  It is only available used in the US from $0.01.

100 Essential CDs – Number 18 –Four Tops – Their Greatest Hits

images

Their Greatest Hits –Four Tops (Telstar 1990)

UK Chart Position – 47

fourtops4

With quite a number of Four Tops hits compilations available over the years I have gone for this one.  At first sight it doesn’t appear to be that promising – it certainly was a no frills release.  The cover looks cheap, as if it might consist of tracks re-recorded by the group in a studio in Switzerland in the 1980’s – but rest assured, these are the originals.  They’ve opted for a fairly undistinguished photo of the group and a picture of four young boys masquerading as the Tops on the back, which I think could only have tied in with a TV advertising campaign.  There’s no sleeve notes other than track listing, songwriters and year published.  So why, have I gone for this CD then?  The answer is that in twenty tracks it gives a great overview of the Music of one of the greatest vocal groups of all time- covering the early golden Holland-Dozier-Holland years at Motown, the years after HDH had left the label and the group were matched with a range of writers/producers with occasional thrilling results and, proving there was life after Motown (for some), the hits on the Dunhill label (in the UK these were issued on Probe), Casablanca and Arista.  In having this range it is quite unusual and gives a perfect introduction to this group.

fourtops

Lawrence Payton, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Levi Stubbs  four lads who began their career singing jazz influenced supper-club material as the Four Aims, working locally around Detroit with touring artists such as Billy Eckstine.  The group was unusual at the time as most male vocal groups had a tenor lead whereas Levi Stubbs had more of a gruff baritone. They were signed by their old friend Berry Gordy who was interested initially in their potential as a jazz/easy listening group, believing this would have the potential to crossover to the white pop market.  In what must have truly been a Eureka! moment this was abandoned and the Four Tops, as they were now known, were paired with brothers Eddie & James Holland and Lamont Dozier, Motown’s hot song-writing and production team.  HDH encouraged lead singer Levi Stubbs to sing just a bit above his natural vocal range and the magic began.

hollanddozier

Lamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano

There are seven Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions on this album and these contain some of the finest moments in pop history.  The CD kicks off with their biggest track, which gave them the second of their two US chart-toppers and their only UK number 1.  “Reach Out I’ll Be There” from 1966 is a track which has everything thrown at it – the powerful rhythm (which was racked up a little in the Disco Era to give Gloria Gaynor a 1975 hit), a big, almost cavernous sound, great backing vocals and a sublime performance from Levi Stubbs.  Their songs worked best when there was a big production but with a hollow, empty  almost paranoid feel (a less technical version of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound) and when Levi was the loser in love wrenching every ounce of emotion from the song.  Their songs could have a chilling coldness even though they were uptempo.  This can be heard to marvellous effect in “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” (1967 US#14, UK#12”) “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”(1966 US#6, UK#6) and “Bernadette” (196 US#4, UK#8).  It is these element coming together which make the Four Tops sound unique.

The first time this all came together was on 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving” (US#11). This debut hit is not included on this CD, probably because it was, strangely enough, never a UK hit (another track scuppered by an inferior UK cover version this time by The Fourmost).  It was their 4th single which gave them the first US #1 and their first UK chart placing (#23 in 1965).  “I Can’t Help Myself” is the track which many people think is called “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and is a joyful, infectious song.  It’s easy to dismiss “It’s The Same Old Song” (1965 US#5, UK#34) as more of the same (I remember seeing a one word review of the 1978 likeable enough US Top 40 version by KC & The Sunshine Band which just said “Exactly” – an early proof for me of the caustic power of the concise review) but once again it’s catchy and well performed, even if the title is asking for trouble.  A couple of HDH productions not written by the boys also scored big “Walk Away Renee” was a cover version of a song by Left Banke. It’s another of the highlights of their career and one of their biggest hits in the UK (#3, US-#14).  Walking away is what HDH did from Motown not long after this release.  The Tim Hardin folk song “If I Were A Carpenter” (1968) (UK#7, US#20)was a little bit of an odd choice for the group and is not amongst my favourites but Gordy was always looking to extend the market and put the Tops alongside the Supremes as a high-earning supper-club act.fourtops2

Of the non HDH songs you get an early deviation from the production team with the Ivy Jo Hunter produced song co-written with Stevie Wonder- “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”.  This gave them their biggest UK hit to date (#21 in 1966) but wasn’t that favoured in the US and the try- the- group- with- other producers experiment was abandoned (but as the next single was “Reach Out I’ll Be There” nobody was complaining).  The problem may have been that it actually sounds a bit more like a Temptations song than the Four Tops.  1987’s  Levi wearer as opposed to Levi Singer Nick Kamen, who shot to fame stripping down to boxer shorts in an advert for 501’s to another Motown tune scored a UK#16 hit with a good enough cover of this song.  When Motown’s lead songwriting team upped sticks and left to set up Hot Wax/Invictus their own label the Tops may have lost some of their defining sound.  But there were still hits.  “It’s All In The Game” is an excellent cover of the 1958 Tommy Edward’s chart-topper. “Still Water (Love)” (1970) (US#11, UK#10) had a Norman Whiftield-ish ballad feel although was written and produced by Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson. Perhaps my all-time favourite Four Tops track comes from this time “Simple Game” was actually a Moody Blues song once again produced by Frank Wilson and was one of the tracks that was more successful in the UK (1971#3).  We in the UK loved the Four Tops – they may have not been as cool as the Temptations but as a singles act they were more successful.

Perhaps Berry Gordy’s ultimate plan for the Four Tops post- HDH can be seen with tracks such as “It’s All In The Game” and “Macarthur Park” (US#38) and when Motown upped sticks to move to LA- primarily to get involved with the movie business the Four Tops decided to remain in Detroit.  Success after this time was sporadic but it is great to have on this CD tracks such as “Keeper Of The Castle” (1972 US#10, UK#18) and “When She Was My Girl” (1981- US#11, UK-3) and a couple of UK only hits, the HDH influenced “Don’t Walk Away” (1981#16) and the track helped by its appearance in the Phil Collins movie “Buster”, “Loco In Acapulco” (1988#7).  The song that perhaps sums up this time is “Indestructible” (1988 US#35, UK#30) as it seemed that the Four Tops actually were.  This is the group that stayed together.  Levi Stubbs was always loyal to the group, never tempted to a solo career or even recording solo singles.  His one foray away from the group was to voice the man-eating plant Seymour in the Little Shop Of Horrors movie – and what better person to do that.  The group seemed  indestructible, until death intervened in their 44th year of recording together when Lawrence Payton died in 1997.  Then the personnel changes started (including for a time Payton’s son).  Obie Benson died in 2005 and the legendary Levi Stubbs died in 2008, leaving Duke Fakir as the only original living member.

The Four Tops are one of  Motown’s greatest groups and one of the best vocal groups ever and this compilation reminds us why.

“Their Greatest Hits” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.99 and used from £0.23.  It does not seem to be readily available in the US. In both markets other Greatest Hits compilations are available.