100 Essential CDs – Number 74 – Lionel Richie – Back To Front

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Back To Front – Lionel Richie (Motown 1992)

UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position –19

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The Commodores were signed to the Motown label in 1972 and built up a following as a support act for the Jackson 5. Pretty much a funk band in the early days the group member initially playing the saxophone was one Lionel Richie from Tuskagee, Alabama. The group’s first hit “Machine Gun” (1974 UK#20 US# 22) was actually an instrumental where Lionel’s sax work can be heard. As the group diversified into ballads alongside the funk Lionel’s vocals began to be heard in hits such as “Sweet Love” (1976 UK#32, US#5) and the all-time classic “Easy” (1977 UK#9, US#4) and a song penned for his wife “Three Times A Lady” became the group’s first chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic and opened doors for Richie. Asked to write and produce a hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, “Lady” saw Richie crossing into new markets and scored his biggest hit to date, his first US #1 in 1980. The following year saw Richie pen a song from the throwaway Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love” and record it as a duet with Diana Ross. In the US that became Motown’s biggest selling single to date with a nine week run at number 1. (In the UK it stalled at number 7). A solo career inevitably beckoned.

From “Machine Gun” to “Natural High” the Commodores became one of Motown’s biggest groups.

By 1992, after three huge selling albums Richie had experienced a five year career hiatus and to remove the pressure of having to come up with a whole new album Motown green-lighted “Back To Front” which would feature three new recordings alongside 13 of his biggest hits, predominantly from the solo career. The title explains the format- the new material was not tucked in at the end but led the recording. It brought Richie back into the limelight and topped the charts in the UK. It’s a great one- album introduction to what Richie was all about.

The format, does mean, however that the CD opens with the weakest track on display. “Do It To Me” like the rest of the new material was written by Richie and produced by Stewart Levine. All three were released as singles in the UK. This came out about a month before the album was released and is a pleasant enough early 90’s laid-back ballad with plenty of saxophone. It is a long way from the classic Richie songs and feels the most like album filler of the three tracks. It gave Richie his first UK Top 40 hit for over five years when it reached number 33. In the US it did better and became the highest placed track of the new material, scoring him his fifth solo R&B chart-topper and making 21 in the pop charts. In the UK we favoured the second release, “My Destiny” which is, as far as I am concerned, his last great single release. Its number 7 placing was his highest since 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling”. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands. It feels the most contemporary of the three, a slinky mid-tempo number which felt like just what Richie should have been releasing in 1992. It’s a great little sing along track

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Major anthem status was sought out for the third of the three tracks, “Love Oh Love” which has the feel of “We Are The World” the all-star USA for Africa song written by Richie with Michael Jackson as part of Live Aid. This tracks hovers very close to the cheesy with its chorus of children, “Little Drummer Boy” rhythm and big themes of world peace and eradicating sorrow but rather like Mr Jackson’s “Earth Song” I personally think Richie gets away with it and it’s all rather charming. At the end of 1992 I thought this could garner the Xmas single market and be a big hit but it didn’t happen, falling short of the Top 40. Once again it had its strongest approval in the Netherlands where it was a Top 20 hit.

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I don’t feel that these new tracks let the album down in any way but it is more likely that people purchased it for the remaining thirteen tracks, probably to replace on CD what was already owned on vinyl. There’s no chronological approach as suggested by the title, we just get a mixture of tracks from the back catalogue. As a solo artist Richie released three solo albums on Motown and here we get the cream of those tracks – just one from the first album, five of the original eight tracks from the second and two from the third. As well as this there is the non-album duet and four of his biggest Commodores hits to make up the 16 tracks. It made better sense to buy this on CD to replace a vinyl copy of “Can’t Slow Down”, that second Motown album, as you got the best tracks from that and much more besides. I don’t think it totally encompasses the cream of the Commodores output – for that I would recommend the 2005 double CD “Gold”.

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The thing that slightly overshadows Richie’s career as far as I am concerned is that with both his solo hits and works with the Commodores, the biggest hits, the ones that have come to define the artist are some distance from his best. “Three Times A Lady” with its quite traditional waltz feel and ever so cheesy lyrics sounded alright at the time of release and certainly broadened the group’s appeal with an older generation above their usual market falling for this schmalty track and it gave the group their first Pop #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Solo Richie’s pretty-enough ballad from his second album “Hello” was the third single release off a very big release so something was needed to bring it to record buyers who had not gone for the album. A cheesy video, which at the time seemed more like a movie with a blind girl fashioning the head of Richie out of clay was fine for the first few viewings but then its out and out cheesiness became indelibly linked with the song in my head and is often the first thing people remember about Richie. This track also topped the Charts in the USA and became his only solo number one in the UK. I tolerate both these tracks on the CD but don’t exactly look forward to either of them, but probably for many people, these may have been what decided them to part with their cash for “Back To Front”.

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So, that’s the negatives done with. Let’s look at what is really special about this album. Firstly, that’s all the rest of the Commodores tracks, particularly “Easy”. How great a track is this? Penned by Richie and produced alongside James Anthony Carmichael, it is real laid-back sophisticated soul, stopped being totally as “easy as a Sunday morning” by one of the great guitar solos in a pop hit. There’s a great echoey feel to the whole thing. It’s one of the best not-out-of-Detroit Motown singles of all time. “Still” is also excellent and became their second US chart-topper in 1979 (in the UK#4) a real piece of calm amidst all the Disco that was released that year and sounding pretty much like a deep soul ballad with an orchestral backing. “Sail On” (1979 US#4 UK#8) perhaps underlines more than any of the others how close this group could go towards country music, and may have been behind the idea to have Richie work with country legend Kenny Rogers, this kind of musical boundary blurring quite unusual in the days of genre-specific radio play in the US. There’s a lovely build to this track.

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To launch his solo career Richie took producer James Anthony Carmichael with him and with him now penning much of the Commodres material it was really the smoothest of transitions to solo stardom as first solo hit “Truly” fits in perfectly with The Commodores ballad sound. Another calm ballad very much in the feel of “Still” with the build of “Sail On”. It was an unsurprising US Pop #1 and reached 6 in the UK in 1982.

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The album “Can’t Slow Down” was a clear statement at propelling Richie towards super-stardom. It fused musical styles ending up really as one of the early classic black pop albums and won the Grammy for the Album of The Year in 1985 and topped charts all around the world. The infectious “All Night Long (All Night)” proved that Richie wasn’t just a ballad singer but was also no longer the funk singer who snarled his way through “Brick House”. This was bright and breezy and intended for the masses and they loved it as it topped the US chats and got to number 2 in the UK. Its carnival feel ensured its worldwide success. Less showy but successful tracks from the album here included are “Penny Lover” (1984 US#8, UK#18), Stuck On You (US#3,UK#12) and the rock-lite of “Running With The Night” (US#7, UK#9) where a rock guitar which made “Easy” holds this track back .

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The third Richie solo album, “Dancing On The Ceiling” didn’t impress me nearly as much. The tracks included here, the title track, (1986 US#2, US#7) and “Say You Say Me” (US#1, UK#8) actually sound better now than they did at the time of release when I found one cheesy and one a little dull. Other single releases from the album, especially “Ballerina Girl” and “Sela” seemed to suggest Richie had lost his way somewhat as far as this record buyer was concerned. They are not included on “Back To Front” and led to a burnt out Richie beginning his extended break from recording and the public arena.

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Lionel Richie was not able to build on the success of this album and it was not until 1996, four years after this compilation and ten years after his last studio album that he re-emerged on the Mercury label with “Louder Than Words”. Over the years his subsequent albums have seen him toying with R&B and hip-hop influenced tracks with varying success. Nothing he has recorded since I would consider essential, although there was a triumphant return to form in 2012 when a back-to-his-country roots album “Tuskagee” topped the US charts marking his first Number 1 hit in 26 years. This revisited his hits alongside collaborations with country music stars including Shania Twain, Willie Nelson and with Kenny Rogers on a new version of “Lady” which helped catapult him into solo fame. This was too much country for me, but it was great to have him back in the limelight.

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Richie has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and features on lists of the biggest selling stars of all time. This album reminds us why.

 

Back To Front is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.85 and used from £0.05.  It can be downloaded for $7.89 .In the US it is available new from $12.11, Used from $0.08 and can be downloaded for $6.99.used for $3.00.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

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

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Compact Command Performances: 24 Greatest Hits –

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (Motown 1986)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.   

100 Essential CDs – Number 11 –Gladys Knight & The Pips – Gold

Gold – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Disky 1993)

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Gladys Knight, born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, was a child phenomenon scooping first prize as an eight year old on the nationally televised “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”.  By the age of 10 she was working as part of her family group- alongside her brother and sister and two cousins.  This three girls, two boys incarnation of the Pips lasted until 1958 when Gladys became the only girl left in the group and two more male cousins joined.  By 1961 they had scored their first US hit as The Pips when “Every Beat Of My Heart” reached number 6.

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There were a couple of other appearances in the US charts in the early 60’s by which time Gladys had become the powerhouse in front of the group and this was acknowledged by pushing her name to the front.  In 1967 Gladys Knight and the Pips signed to Motown where great things were expected of them.  For the next six years they were regular visitors to the pop charts with tracks such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (#2 in 1967), “If I Were Your Woman” (#9 in 1971) and “Neither One Of Us” (#2 in 1973).  In the UK a couple of tracks that hadn’t exactly hit set the charts alight in their homeland became big hits, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” (#13 in 1967) and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (UK#11, US#33).  The group felt increasingly confined by the Motown sound and Gladys, quite rightly assumed that they were not top priority on the label.  By 1973 after 13 US Top 40 pop hits and a reputation of being amongst the very best in the business the group left Motown and moved to Buddah records.

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This is where this 19 track, budget compilation kicks in.  The Buddah recordings upped the sophisticated gloss of the later Motown tracks and by using top producers and great songs continued the run of hits for another few years, during which time the group were really at their commercial peak.  On this CD you get all 7 of their Top 40 hits of this period, including their only US Pop #1 hit.  In the UK the Buddah years were perhaps even more cherished than in their homeland as they scored 11 Top 40 hits between 1975-78, with a run of songs with which they are most closely associated over here.  They are probably one of the greatest groups never to score a UK #1.

Contained within these 19 tracks are three of my all-time favourites singles as well as a resoundingly strong collection of performances which shows how good Gladys Knight and The Pips were.  It kicks off with the biggest and the best, the all-time soul classic which is “Midnight Train To Georgia”.  This Jim Weatherly song started off life as another form of transport where “plane” took the place of “train”.  After the name change it was recorded by Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum, whose version is very good but it is the vocal interplay between Gladys and The Pips which really took this song to another level.  Released as a single it topped the US charts in 1973 but was not a hit in the UK until 1976, by which time it was already an established soul classic when it reached #10. Gospel roots are very much in evidence as the Pips confirm, question and comment on the proceedings and even get to sound like the train with their “wooh-woohs”.  This is a track I never get tired of hearing and each time I marvel over the quality of the song and the performance.  This is a great way to start the CD.

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“I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” is a funky little track with driving drum and brass work.  There is this perception of Gladys Knight and Pips as a ballads-only supper-club type group but they could excel on the uptempo funk of tracks such as this as well as disco.  This was taken from their debut Buddah album “Imagination” and written by master songwriter Gerry Goffin alongside Barry Goldberg.  The US liked their Gladys Knight & Pips tracks a little funkier and more rhythm and blues based  than we did over here (further proof of this is the lack of pop chart success for the disco tracks that became some of their biggest and best hits over in Europe) and it reached number 4 in the US pop charts as a follow-up to “Midnight Train.”

Two more Jim Weatherly songs follow and first off is their second all-time classic track, one I love so much that I actually had as a wedding song (couldn’t run to Gladys performing it, however).  “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” is such a well-written song, which could have been sugary in anyone else’s hands but with Gladys’ voice cutting through the whole thing is a sublime treat.  There’s a few lines in here that remain as almost a mantra in my head, one of my ultimate ear-worms as Gladys sings;

“If anyone should ever write my life story

For whatever reason there might be

You’ll be there

Between each line of pain and glory

‘Cos you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Gladys very appropriately named her autobiography “Between Each Line  Of Pain And Glory” (what else could she call it really?) On the best tracks the Pips’ contribution is vital, they operate far more than as backing singers and this is the case here.   It had previously been a chart-topper on the US country charts by Ray Price.  Gladys’ version topped the Soul Charts, went to number 3 in the US  pop charts and became another belated hit for her in the UK two years later when it reached #7 in 1975.

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The third Jim Weatherly song was chosen as the debut single from the Buddah association.  “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” (US#28 1973) puts the Pips in a prominent position.  It’s a gentle, graceful track which is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Gladys moment but always sounds good and fits in beautifully with this compilation.  This moves into the Pips led version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” which demonstrates clearly the group’s gospel roots.  The vocals are somewhat far back in the mix of this which is strangely effective but I think here Nash’s original version is the stronger track.

For a time Gladys looked as if she might follow Diana Ross into the world of Hollywood movies.  She starred in the film “Pipe Dreams” but the only thing that is now remembered about that is the title song written by Tony Camillo which makes its appearance next and is a very good example of a Gladys ballad.  Camillo continues the writing honours with Mary Sawyer on “I Feel A Song (In My Heart)” a track which just oozes with class.  It was the lead single from their third Buddah album.  Once again it is the driving quality of the performances that takes this to another level.  As a single, it perhaps wasn’t the best commercial option as its number 21 placing in 1974 ended their run of four consecutive US Top 5 pop hits.  It was, however, another R&B chart-topper for them.

If Gladys is associated with schmaltz it is probably because of the next track.  The song was a bit of a game-changer for them in the UK which saw them begin a run of consecutive hits and established them on radio playlists was a live version of the Barbra Streisand weepie “The Way We Were” teamed up with a hint of “Try To Remember” which Gladys largely speaks through.  It is a sentimental track but the live performance and Gladys’ voice when she gets into singing mode stop it from going over the edge.  In the UK it became the group’s biggest hit to date getting to number 4 and prompting re-issues of earlier tracks which hadn’t made the grade first time round. In the US it hovered just outside the Top 10.

From this point on Gladys’ chart performances were more consistent in the UK as we really took her to heart.  An association with disco supremo Van McCoy brought forth three top 40 singles and includes what I would consider to be the third all-time classic by this group.  I love the work that was done with McCoy, who died in 1979 at the tragically young age of 39.  Where he worked best is with gutsy vocalists who could cut through the lushness of his arrangements which combined together beautifully –so here I’m thinking of  David Ruffin, Melba Moore, Faith Hope and Charity and especially Gladys Knight & The Pips. The driving “Come Back And Finish What You Started (UK#15 1978) the disco bounce of “Home Is Where The Heart Is” (UK#35 1977) are great tracks but eclipsed by “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” (UK#4, 1977) which effectively conveys the paranoia towards a partner’s commitment once his “ex is back in town”.  This track also marvellously rhymes “mind” with “genuine” and all to a disco beat.  I know that many soul artists struggled during the disco years and didn’t hold the music they were being asked to do then in high esteem but Gladys is just great at this and these tracks show why.

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Van McCoy – The Disco Kid

Elsewhere we get Gladys re-exploring “The Way We Were” feel with a version of “Georgia On My Mind”; one of the most sensitive vocal performances ever on David Gates’ “Part Time Love” (US#22, UK#30 1975) and a couple of Curtis Mayfield penned and produced tracks which came off the soundtrack for a movie “Claudine” which starred Diahann Carroll.  “On and On” (US#9 1974) is a track which has grown on me over the years and “Make Yours A Happy Home” (UK#35, 1977) has an irresistibly infectious warmth.

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The Buddah association came to an end in 1980 when they signed to Columbia Records.  Towards the end of the stay Gladys and the Pips began to explore solo projects.  The Pips could never be great without Gladys despite good vocals and excellent stage presence but Gladys without the Pips recorded one of the great James Bond Themes in a “Licence To Kill” and topped the US charts as part of the Dionne Warwick led AIDS fund-raiser “That’s What Friends Are For”.  The post Buddah years threw up a few good tracks for the group including the Ashford-Simpson penned “Bourgie Bourgie”.  In 1988, 27 years after their first chart hit the group disbanded and Gladys embarked upon her solo career.  Pips Edward Patten and William Guest are no longer with us but Gladys now aged 72 released her latest album “Where My Heart Belongs” in 2014.  Her recordings encompass R&B, standards, jazz and gospel, where she has remained incredibly active.  She is truly one of the legends of the entertainment business.

I’ve gone for this European budget compilation using tracks licensed from Buddah because it contains the Van McCoy songs which, because of their lack of commercial US success, some compilations do not feature.  There is also of course great Gladys and Pips tracks to be found from the Motown years (the double CD “Anthology”from 1990 brings out the best of these) as well as great tracks from after the Buddah years, but this is the one (although not the easiest to find and with no frill in the packaging department that I would consider to be essential.  There is a 2006 Double CD available also called “Gold” which takes in both the Motown and post- Buddah years but for a single CD compilation this one is hard to beat.

Gold is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.99, and used from £0.81. It does not seem to be readily available in the US.

100 Essential CDs – Number 5 –The Best Of – Michael Jackson & Jackson Five

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The Best Of – Michael Jackson & Jackson Five  (Polygram 1997)

 UK Chart Position – 5

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Throughout the sixties Motown, nicknamed “The Sound Of Young America”,  had been an unassailable force in popular music.  The Marvelettes had scored the label’s first US#1 Pop single back in 1961 with “Please Mr Postman” and the rest of the decade saw a group of young African-American artists becoming household names worldwide and transforming the face of music on the way.  By 1969, however, the label was looking just a little vulnerable.  Major hitmaking writing and production team Holland, Dozier and Holland had departed, the label’s biggest money-spinning act The Supremes had split with Diana Ross facing a solo career where she did not know whether she would be be embraced or blamed.  Marvin Gaye’s career was in the doldrums affected by the terminal illness of duet partner Tammi Terrell and the Temptations had sacked the disctinctively voiced maverick David Ruffin with some loss of identity.  What was needed was an act which would inject a breath of fresh air into the proceedings to ensure the label’s relevance for the new decade and, boy, did they find it with five youngsters from Gary, Indiana.

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Michael + bubblegum = worldwide hits

One of the most successful musical trends in 1969 was bubblegum pop.  This is best personified by two of the year’s biggest hits “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe and The Shondells and, especially, “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies.  This type of youth-orientated pop was often recorded by session musicians which meant there was not a great deal of identity going on.  In fact, the Archies were a cartoon group based on the long-running comic characters.  The planning behind Motown’s new signing was genius, to produce music in this genre with a strong identifiable group and who knows, maybe get a cartoon series of their own! So at the end of 1969 to an unsuspecting record-buying public came “I Want You Back” by The Jackson Five.  These were no session singers.  This group, and especially the lead singer were singing for their lives.  It explodes from the very first note, never lets up and is one of the greatest pop singles of all time.

“I Want You Back” is the opening track of 20 on this 1997 Polygram compilation which showcases the early years of this musical phenomenon, the six years they spent on Motown as The Jackson Five and the solo tracks of one Michael Jackson.  This period could be seen as a musical apprenticeship for one of the biggest recording stars ever but it is more than that because a number of these tracks represent his and his band of brothers’ best work.

“I Want You Back” is Motown’s best hit single both in terms of sound and what it represents.  Saleswise it was no slouch either topping the US charts and getting to number 2 in the UK.  It was written and produced by “The Corporation” which may have been Berry Gordy’s attempt at bubble-gum anonymity or a response to Holland, Dozier &  Holland’s sound becoming bigger than the artists – anyone making demands could be slipped out of “The Corporation” without the upheaval of HDH’s departure.  The Corporation was later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards. This track began a golden run for the group as their next three singles would also top the American charts and the two after that would get to number 2.  They would get their own TV cartoon series and inspire at least one other chart-topping act, the former Barbershop family group The Osmonds who created a close an approximation to the Jackson sound as possible and got their first hit, the chart-topping “One Bad Apple” thus beginning the other musical dynasty of the 70’s and beyond.jacksons3

Hearing these first five singles one after the other in chronological order on this CD is a joy to behold.  The energy invested in these tracks is sensational and the powerhouse behind it is the amazing vocal of the best child star ever, Michael Jackson.  On “ABC” (UK#8), “The Love You Save” (UK#7) and “Mama’s Pearl” (US#2,UK#25) his performance is exhausting.  Even if you do not like this sort of music the achievement of this pre-teen has to be applauded.  If pop-soul and bubblegum pop is seen as anodyne here is the antidote –a boy who is singing as hard as any James Brown or Jackie Wilson and of course the live performances of these numbers, with the group bedecked in 70’s flares and bright patchworks of colour are absolutely mesmerising.  Somebody in Motown, was thinking ahead and amongst these pop stormers were released a couple of excellent soul ballads which showed a whole other side to the group.  “I’ll Be There” gave the rest of the group a chance to have their moment in the spotlight and topped the US charts for 5 weeks (UK#4).  The Corporation were temporarily abandoned as Gordy worked with two other Motown staff writers and producers Hal Davis and Willie Hutch.  This track became the biggest Motown song to date which was a real indication that this group would have longevity.  “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a song written by Clifton Davis for the Ross-less Supremes.  The decision was made to give it to the Jackson Five.  Although it got to number 2 in the US it became their smallest British hit to date (#33).  It was up to later acts such as Gloria Gaynor  and The Communards to take this song up to the higher reaches of the chart.

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After this run of five hits there was huge demand to record Michael as a solo artist.  The first choice for single release seems so inappropriate that it is a joy.  Who thought a good song for a twelve year old boy would feature lyrics that stated he was intending to be around when his love woke up in the morning with the implication that he would be there in bed with her?  Lyrically dubious, this is one of the first examples of the naivety of the group and those surrounding them.  Luckily, the song (and the exemplary performance) was good enough to get such thoughts out of our grubby minds and “Got To Be There” reached #4 in the US,#5 in UK.  The follow-up seemed more age appropriate and may have been a nod to the old-song revivals that Donny Osmond was recording as “Rockin’ Robin” had reached #2 Stateside for Bobby Day in 1958.  It had not been such a big hit in the UK (#29).  Jackson’s version matched Day’s chart position in the US and reached #3 in the UK.  If you remember this track as being amazingly twee, have another listen.  The tweeness is not in the fact that it’s recorded by a child (get “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” out of your mind straight away) it’s actually the flute line that gives it a sugary coating.  Jackson’s vocal which is bordering on raspy certainly does not.  In the UK Jackson also scored a big solo hit with his version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” (#8- 1972).  The most notorious of the early run of Michael’s solo hits was of course, “Ben” hopefully the only hit song to be addressed to a rat.  A tender love song from a horror film sequel this song showed really for the first time the vulnerability which Jackson could also convey with his voice which at times resembles his great friend and inspiration Diana Ross. “Ben” gave Jackson his fourth US Top 20 hit and his first number 1.  In the UK it was also his 4th hit and reached number 7.

Meanwhile whilst Michael was topping charts things were not going so well for the family group.  A run of under-performing singles from mid 1971-2 is represented on this CD only by “Looking Through The Windows” which became the first of their singles to do better in the UK than US (US#16,UK#9).  This change of fortunes was cemented when their version of Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” only became a hit in Britain (UK#9). By mid 1973 it could seem that their days at Motown could be numbered.  The attempt to get back the effervescence of their early hits led to the Freddie Perren produced “Hallelujah Day”  a gospel-esque track from one of the few African-American groups of the time not to come from a gospel background.  This reached #28 in the US and #20 UK.  It’s very likely that anyone would say that this is their favourite Jacksons track.  It is catchy and bubbles away but it feels like very cheap champagne after “I Want You Back” and ends up all rather inconsequential.  This is something that might have been picked up by the Jacksons’ management as negotiations began for them to move away from Motown.  I do have more of a soft spot for “Skywriter” with  its distorted, aeroplane inspired vocals which took them to #25 in the UK.  Their US career renaissance “Dancing Machine” which took them to number 2 in 1974 but was passed on by us Brits is not included on this CD.

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So with Motown owning the name and Jermaine deciding to stay with the label as he had married the boss’ daughter Hazel Gordy, Michael and the remaining Jacksons eventually decided to take the plunge and move to Epic (a move that would be rewarded with their only UK number 1 the understated “Show You The Way To Go” from 1977, which is beyond the remit of this album).  What we are left with on this CD, apart from the obligatory “I Want You Back” remix (a number 8 UK hit in 1988) are more examples of the solo Jackson.  “Happy” is a lovely song which maintains Diana Ross connections both through Michael’s solo performance and the fact that it was inspired by the Oscar nominated vehicle “Lady Sings The Blues”.  Written by Smokey Robinson, it was inspired by the instrumental love theme composed for the film by Michel Legrand.  It does not appear in it and in fact there is not a lot “happy” about that particular film focusing on the difficulties of Billie Holiday’s life.

After Jackson made his spectacular comeback with “Off The Wall” which showed the transition of the boy star to the adult superstar he was to become there was  a great demand for tracks he had recorded at Motown and they were prepared to come up with the goods.  One of these “One Day In Your Life” gave him his first UK number 1 in 1981 despite being recorded six years earlier.  Recorded in his mid-teens this is a sublime track and probably features one of his last great vocal performances – as his career progressed he became more of a vocal stylist than a technically proficient singer.  For a while this opened the re-release floodgate in the UK – many tracks that had been languishing on under-promoted albums or in the Motown vaults whilst the group’s tenure on the label was looking dubious.  This must have been frustrating for the adult Jackson trying to establish his new identity with “Off The Wall” and even up to the point of the release of “Thriller” where teen-pop fluff such as “Farewell My Summer Love” made #7 in 1984.  There’s delights to be found here with “We’re Almost There” (UK#46 in 1981), a great track which sounds very much like the songs The Supremes were recording at the time, although admittedly it does run out of steam a little before the end and “Girl You’re So Together” which ended the Motown re-release run reaching #33 in 1984.

The Motown Years of Michael Jackson and Jackson Five cannot be brushed away as them learning their craft.  Michael may have become bigger but he was not often better than in these songs and performances.  The Jacksons also went on to have a solid career but the rest of the brothers were always going to be overshadowed by Michael.  This is something that should not have caused them too much distress as it was evident right from when he was very young that he was extraordinarily special.  As you might have gathered from my enthusiasm for this CD that we have not quite finished with the members of this family just yet……………………

The Best Of Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five is available from Amazon in the UK for £4.33 and used from £0.01.  There are of course other compilations available but I prefer the separation of the Motown tracks from the later years.  A UK release it takes some finding in the US.  American listeners might wish to explore “The Jackson Five – The Ultimate Collection” as a fair substitute.

100 Essential CDs – Number 53 –Marvin Gaye – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of – Marvin Gaye (Motown 1994)

UK Chart Position -3

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Following on from my appreciation of The Four Tops I would like to stay with the Motown label to take time out to celebrate one of the all-time great soul singers, whose life came to a premature end at the hands of his father on 1st April 1984 (on the eve of his 45th birthday).  This was a man with a story to tell and an intense, disturbed story it is as well but let’s not let his life (or death) overshadow the phenomenal creative talent.  I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not have been easy to live with but when on form he is almost peerless in the field of American popular music. I say on form, because this was not always the case.  Marvin released some albums which challenged the patience of even his greatest fans and for me, even his most celebrated albums have the odd dodgy track or have not aged well.  This is why I have opted for a Best Of compilation to join my Essential CDs list.  A lot of people would agree with me as this CD, released ten years after his death reached his highest ever UK album chart position, even though it was the 7th compilation album of his to chart since 1968’s “Greatest Hits”.

In the US, however, Marvin was more consistent as an album artist with a run of four Top 20 studio albums in the early 70’s.  His highest charting album “Let’s Get It On” reached number 2 in the US in 1973 yet only scraped to #39 in the UK.  Perhaps his most famous album “What’s Going On?” which is now seen as a milestone in pop music history got to #6 (US) in 1971 but has never made an appearance in the UK Top 40 album charts.  We seemed to love Marvin over here more as a singles artist and this collection of 22 tracks shows why.

Marvin came to Motown hoping to be the “Black Sinatra” crooning standards.  To begin with Berry Gordy was not that impressed,  using him as a session player and drummer.  Gaye’s ambitions were bigger than this and a marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna,  seventeen years older than him,  cemented his relationship with the Motown family .  His first break came with “Hitch Hike” (US#30 1963) with backing from Martha and The Vandellas –a typical Motown call and response type track which started off a run of hits with a similar feel.  Of these only the gospel-esque stomper “Can I Get A Witness” (US#22) is included on this CD.

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Someone at Motown had the good idea of pairing this good looking, growing in popularity male singer with their most successful female singer, Mary Wells and the two recorded an album together.  The single“Once Upon A Time” got to #15 (US in 1964) and made a very brief appearance in the UK Top 50.  Wells had recorded a string of US hits but was just coming off her worldwide smash “My Guy”.  This track turned Mary’s head.  She thought she was indispensible as Motown’s female star and became one of their first casualties – leaving the label at the height of her fame and finding little success elsewhere.  It was a hard lesson, no-one was indispensable to Motown, especially with the ambitious Diana Ross waiting in the wings.  The Gaye/Wells pairing was so well-received that it set a precedent for pairing him with other female artists over the years and eight of the tracks on this album are duets and are amongst his finest work.

Partner number 2 was Kim Weston and they also sounded good together.  The highlight of their association “It Takes Two” is an all-time classic and in reaching number 16 in the UK in 1967 (US#14) became his biggest British hit to date.

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Tammi and Marvin

Partner number 3 followed hot on the heels of Kim .  Marvin Gaye’s recordings with Tammi Terrell show such chemistry that they are probably the greatest duet act of all time. There are five Marvin and Tammi duets on this CD and three of them are outstanding tracks .  All are written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and are great examples of duet-songwriting.  Ashford and Simpson of course went on to score duet hits of their own (biggest hit “Solid” in 1985) and they knew just how to pitch the songs for two voices and as a life-long couple themselves could certainly write love songs.  Perhaps the best of all is “You’re All I Need To Get By” (1968 UK#19, US#7) closely followed by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (1968 UK#34 US#8) but I have a huge affection also for the UK only hit “The Onion Song” (1969 #9).  A rather heavy-handed metaphor for the state of the world telling us to “plant love seeds” this is just performed so beautifully and moves along at a great lick.  What was not known at the time is much of the female vocals are actually Valerie Simpson’s as Tammi was too ill with a brain tumour to finish the recording.  The single was actually released posthumously.  Surprisingly absent is their other essential duet the original of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which when reworked became a massive solo hit for Diana Ross.  I think I would have preferred this on the CD to the lesser “Good Lovin’Ain’t Easy To Come By”.  Albums of just Marvin and Tammi’s duets (they recorded three together) as well as CDs with all of his duets are available and very well worth considering should you like this aspect of Gaye’s work.  Tammi’s death sent Gaye into a spiral of depression which affected his life and his career.

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Diana and Marvin

By `1974 Motown were ready to pair him up again.  This time with Diana Ross.  For me the album they recorded together is a commercial triumph rather than a creative one.  There’s a little too much sweetness in the tracks chosen for the UK market “Stop Look (Listen To Your Heart) (1974#25) and even “You Are Everything” (1974 #5), both Thom Bell and Linda Creed songs which had been previously recorded by The Stylistics.  The duo had a couple of completely different US Top 20 hits released from this duet album – but they do not appear on this CD.

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I heard it through the grapevine it might be worth visiting the launderette

Marvin’s most famous solo single kicks off this CD.  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968/69.  In the UK it became Motown’s third chart-topper.  The song had previously got to number 2 for Gladys Knight and The Pips the year before and their version is something of a mid-paced gospel shouter.  Norman Whitfield decided to transform this song that he had co-written with Barrett Strong to turn out a completely different production.  Gaye’s version is chilling.  From the opening chords and the snare drum beat Marvin sounds like a doomed man as he lament the fact that gossip told him that his love had found someone new.  That ominous beat, excellent use of backing vocals and the tortured vocals make this an all-time classic.  If someone wants to know what Soul Music is all about this makes a perfectly good introduction.  A certain Levi jeans advert and a stripping Nick Kamen revitalised this track and on re-issue it gave Gaye a posthumous UK#8 hit in 1986.  There’s more classic soul in “What’s Going On?” the title track from a protest concept album that Berry Gordy did not want to release and in the title track from the follow-up album which went from protest to the bedroom with the sublimely sensual “Let’s Get It On”.  There’s the original and perky version of the track which became a huge debut hit for Paul Young “Wherever I Lay My Hat” which is full of charm.  Another high spot is the elegy for Lincoln, Luther King and Kennedy “Abraham, Martin and John” another Whitfield production which ranks amongst Marvin’s best.

Marvin Gaye did not just sing a track, he coloured it in and there were cases where there was more colouring than song.  Some of his post “Let’s Get It On” work could seem a little self-indulgent.  This was the man who was ordered by a judge to give royalties to his next album to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna as part of their divorce proceedings.  The result “Here My Dear” is an intense, brooding listen which many fans gave up on (was that the intention all the time?) .  From this we get the best track “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You”.  This was an album which tried my patience although it is now recognised amongst his classics by some.  Gaye’s second of this two US number 1 hits was the funk workout “Got To Give It Up (1977 UK#7).  I’m a little ambivalent about this party-in-the-studio track but it certainly remains influential.  The biggest song of 2013 “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke with Pharrell Williams and T.I found itself in breach of copyright infringement by not acknowledging the debt to Gaye’s track.

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After years in the doldrums and a departure from Motown to CBS including a period of rehabilitation in Ostend, attempting to put his life back together Gaye co-wrote and produced “Sexual Healing” a track which proved a thrilling comeback and happily sits there amongst his best recordings.  A UK#4, US#3 hit in 1982 gave Gaye his long-awaited Grammy award and with the big selling “Midnight Love” album it looked as if Gaye was back for good.  I’m very pleased that Motown have put this non-Motown track on this CD.  It all ended for Gaye just a couple of years later in tragic circumstances.

For twenty two tracks which shows the breadth, range and talent of this artist I think this is an essential CD to have in your collection.  Marvin Gaye may have been a troubled soul but just listening to his music his importance shines through.

“The Best Of Marvin Gaye”  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £1.99.  It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is available for $8.99 and used from $1.94.  It is also available to stream from Spotify.

 

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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Their Greatest Hits –Four Tops (Telstar 1990)

UK Chart Position – 47

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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.

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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.

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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.

Motown – The History – Sharon Davis (1988) – A Real Life Review

realives

motown

Back in 1959 Berry Gordy Jnr,  erstwhile professional boxer and enthusiastic songwriter, on the advice of his friend, Smokey Robinson, borrowed $800 from his family and used it to open Tamla Records putting out “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson in January 1959.  From 1961 Berry was also putting out records on his new Motown label.  (In Europe Gordy’s music was released on Tamla Motown, but in the US this was two separate labels under the Motown banner).  And the rest, as they say, is history.

berry gordy

Berry Gordy

Motown, originating in Detroit, became The Sound Of Young America and the rest of the world lapped it up as over the next few decades it introduced us to some of music’s biggest stars including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Michael Jackson & The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Lionel Richie…………………….the list goes on.

motown artists

Sharon Davis is the perfect person to write a book about Motown.  Working for Blues and Soul Magazine from the 1970s she wrote a column “Motown Tracking” which gave a regular review of news, recordings and gossip from the label forming a large body of work and making friends with the artists which would have helped her produce this book.

What this makes this book different from many books about Motown (and there are quite a few out there – it being such a fascinating success story) is that British perspective and also the thoroughness of the whole thing.  Motown completists may very well weep with joy as there is at the back of this book a comprehensive discography of all releases of Singles and Albums which sorts out the output of  Gordy’s different labels as well as a list of all British releases to the mid 80’s.  It is this more than anything that keeps this book on my shelves.

Occasionally, Davis adopts a slightly scatter-gun approach and veers all over the place, which can make it a little frustrating and perhaps demonstrates those journalistic roots and I think the whole thing could be tighter in terms of chronology.  What is also different with Davis’ account is the broader time spectrum she focuses on.  I actually would have liked to have read more about “the golden years” of Motown but Davis is keen to give us the greater picture.  In 1972 the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, reputedly to support Diana Ross’ film career and for many this is where the golden age ended and many in Detroit felt betrayed by the label’s departure.  However, Motown did put out some of its best music throughout the 70’s  and 80’s but as the organisation grew the family feel of the label from its younger days departed and it became another large conglomerate .  I think part of Davis’ brief was to show that the label was still relevant at the time she was writing and as a result there may be too much emphasis on the 80’s where you can detect even the author’s enthusiasm is flagging as she chronicles the myriad of artists whose stay on the label (and probably in the music business in some cases) was extremely short-lived.  Through the 90’s Motown would have another golden period due to the success of Boyz II Men – perhaps an updated version of this book would have put this into perspective and placed less emphasis on the years when the hits were harder to find.  Some of the artists from the golden years ( including music producer Frank Wilson whose “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” is one of the most loved Northern Soul tracks and Frances Nero who had a revival of fortunes in the 90’s when she recorded with Ian Levine) are given very scant attention.  However, I’m nitpicking because this is a solid volume, full of photos of the artists in colour and black and white and it would be highly worthwhile to search this out

Sharon Davis is also well known for her book about Dusty Springfield “A Girl Called Dusty” (2008) which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as her take on Motown.  She has written books on Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder amongst others and a couple of books on the stories behind chart-topping singles.  Her latest book (2014) which I am adding to my Wants list is a biography of Disco Superstar Sylvester for whom she worked as a publicist.  All of Sharon Davis’ books can be found on Amazon.co.uk

fourstars

Motown – The History was published in 1988 by Guinness Books