Stevie Wonder – A Musical History (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Friday night is traditionally music night on BBC4 and over the last few weeks there have been a series of “Musical Histories”. These have been genre based, this is the first one I have seen which have focused on one artist, I didn’t actually realise that this was linked in with this series until I saw the return of the dodgy retro graphics which have opened these programmes and which are reminiscent of some afternoon children’s pop show from the 1970’s. Next week it is Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music who come under the spotlight with another performer scheduled later in the year for this three part artist retrospective.

I did manage to watch three of the Musical Histories which focused on Disco and Electronica, Soul & R&B and Greatest Voices. The format was of two artists or experts from the chosen genre discussing an ultimate playlist and watching clips of their chosen tracks. Thus we had Ana Matronic and Martyn Ware on Disco, Trevor Nelson and Corinne Bailey Rae on Soul and Beverley Knight and James Morrison focusing in on voices. At times it proved to be odd television, you couldn’t help but feel it might have worked a little better on the radio as pairs, in relative states of ease and unease, discussed their choices perched on soft furnishings. The clips, although fascinating to see, seemed a little well-used, having been featured on many such music compilation shows in the past. Nevertheless, I was interested to hear what the presenters had to say and this kept me tuned in.

stevietv3Get back on that sofa James and Beverley!

Friday’s hour focused on Stevie Wonder, who I have been thinking about recently, having written a review for his “Love Songs”, one of my Essential CDs, only last week. What I hadn’t realised when I spotted this in the schedules was that it would largely be the pairings who talked about genres over the last few weeks talking about Stevie Wonder. There were a few talking heads who went it alone, including Martin Freeman, Alexander O’Neal, Norman Jay, journalist Sian Pattenden and broadcaster Emma Dabiri and these tended to be more insightful and less off the cuff than most of the duos’ comments . The most natural of these pairings were Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris but they are a couple who were used to working together (and have been married since 1993). They were featured the least. The Knight-Morrison pairing was featured the most and this at times became grating because of James’ over-eagerness to agree with everything that Beverley Knight said. This made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. BBC4 recently found a successful pairing with good chemistry between them for their series about British pop which sent Midge Ure and Kim Appleby out on a road-trip but here the couples here perched on sofas were not exactly sizzling. But format aside, it was really the music here that should do the talking.

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It did provide a good overview of Stevie’s career and stressed just what it was that made him special. Musically it went from his first Top Of The Pops appearance in 1966 with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” his initial UK hit to 80s tracks such as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (his biggest selling single in Britain) and “Part Time Lover”. There was a mixture of TV appearances, live concert and video (Stevie was never really well served by video. Beverley Knight really nicely built up “Ribbon In The Sky” one of his lesser-known 80’s tracks yet the video shown was cringe-making in the way that American videos of the 80’s could be (Lionel’s “Hello”, anyone?) I especially liked the songs performed for a very uncool (judging by the earnest audience) German show called “Musikladen” in which a smoking 70’s Stevie performed “Superstition” and “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “Higher Ground”.

People got to mention their favourites, thus we had Alexander O Neal championing “Sir Duke , Martin Freeman “As” and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 the beautiful (and quite late in the canon of Wonder hits) “Overjoyed”- which is one of my all-time favourites of his. Emma Dabiri reminisced over her childhood Stevie Wonder impersonation to “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. What was brought out by the talking heads and I was pleased to note this is, as it is often forgotten, is how young Stevie was when he was churning out absolute classic tracks, just how good is voice (a great natural range without having to use falsetto) and also the importance of him as a political and social protestor.  At one point we learnt he was going to give up the music business to concentrate on social issues (what a loss that would have been). He is a man who was able to put his message in his music in a way which never diluted what he was saying but was incorporated into the exuberance of his music, tracks like “Higher Ground” “Living For The City” and the lyrically dark “Superstition” are all examples of this. In the early 80’s Stevie’s role in the campaign to get a US holiday established to commemorate Martin Luther King was instrumental and ultimately successful and couched in his million-selling “Happy Birthday” single.

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One thing about the clips which disappointed me came with another of my favourites “Isn’t She Lovely” which was taken from a concert clip that I had seen before. In the concert Stevie announces that the song, about the birth of his daughter Aisha, and who featured as a baby gurgling in the original track, was dedicated to one of his backing singers, that very daughter Aisha. This was a really touching moment which has stayed with me and the clip shown does feature Aisha looking understandably emotional at singing an all-time classic song which was written about her. I would have liked the talking heads to have picked up on this and mentioned it but they didn’t, which deprived the audience who hadn’t seen this clip before of a lovely story.

Despite the cheapness of the format I was once again drawn in and for a Stevie Wonder fan there was perhaps no better way to spend an hour on a Friday evening. If these Musical Histories focus in on an artist or a genre that you are interested in, or that (you younger generation out there) you are interested in finding out more about then they are certainly worth seeking out.

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Stevie Wonder – A Musical History was shown on BBC4 at 10.00pm on Friday 30th November.  It is currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player

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100 Essential CDs – Number 65– Stevie Wonder – Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits

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Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits (Motown 1985)

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The CD I turn most to for the early years of Stevie Wonder’s career is this 1985 compilation which arrived without much fuss nor any impression on pop charts.  It has an interesting mix of tracks which are predominantly from the 1960’s, kicking off with a 1962 recording , and is a fascinating blend of hit singles and other less well-known performances.  It goes up to the point where Stevie manages  to wrest more control over his career from Motown and come up with a sequence of albums in the 1970’s which are considered to be soul classics.  It provides a very solid introduction to the sheer talent that is Stevie Wonder in his formative years.  Hit-wise it contains 11 UK Top 40 hits spanning from 1967-72 and 12 US Top 40 hits covering the same period. 

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Motown signed Stevie Wonder when he was just 11 years old in 1961.  It took a few singles for him to make his breakthrough.  CD opener here “Contract Of Love” was his third single released at the end of 1962.  I’d never heard it before its appearance here and it’s an interesting proposition to open the album with such a rarity.  It begins with “Baby Love” style handclaps and male voices until Stevie, voice not yet broken, eases confidently into a doowop style song produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland just before they also really hit form.  It was obviously a learning process for all concerned, it’s certainly not a bad track but rather pales compared to the quality of the songs that follow on.

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Stevie then billed as “Little Stevie Wonder” broke big with his next track in his homeland.  This was a rough and ready harmonica instrumental which was probably too raucous to make much impression in the UK charts of 1963.  In the US it gave him a chart-topper for three weeks.  “Fingerprints Part 2” may very well be the only occasion where a Part 2 of a song topped the charts.  His youthful exuberance and obvious talent charmed America although it did seem to push him along the novelty instrumentalist line as 1963 and 1964 was spent putting out harmonica dominated singles that never lived up to “Fingertips”.  That debut hit is not included here as it does not fulfil the brief and nor does his more mature comeback track form 1966 which saw the “Little” dropped, concentrated on vocals and gave him a US#3, UK#14 “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

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This CD picks up again with his next UK hit, a cover version and really the only version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” that I would like to listen to.  The folk song is transformed into a rolling call and response duet between Stevie and I always believed an uncredited Levi Stubbs but now I can’t find any evidence which says this is so.  It is, however, an early example of the social awareness and his eagerness to convey protest in a song.  This became A Top 10 hit in the US in 1966.  On both sides of the Atlantic the big version of this had come three years before recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary but this has a gospel grittiness which works very well.  From here the hits carried on flowing and most of them are present here, his next one being the country-folsky-R&B mash-up of “A  Place In The Sun” which does recall Stevie’s hero Ray Charles in the type of song and slightly uncool backing vocals which also got to #9 in the US and became his second Top 20 hit in the UK. 

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I think things notched up a gear with the next track which really has the feel of some of Stevie’s best tracks over the next few years .  Henry Cosby produced “I Was Made To Love Her” which combines the Stevie sound with the Motown sound more successfully than what we have heard from up until now.  A US#2 and UK#5, this track really asserted Stevie’s position as a leading male vocalist of the time.  Pretty much the same team of Cosby producing and Stevie and Sylvia Moy helping out with song-writing duties for “I’m Wondering” (US#12,UK#22) and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Do-Da-Day” (US#9), acceptable enough tracks although unlikely to be too many people’s Stevie favourites. 

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Things move up to the top notch again for a great song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden which had been given to other artists but Henry Cosby decided on a more uptempo version which turned the song instantly into a pop standard.  “For Once In My Life” gave Stevie his biggest UK hit to this point, reaching number 3 and US #2 and is a great vocal performance from him as well as an exciting return from the harmonica.  We are now in 1969 and Stevie notches up three hits the lovely although rather uncommercial sounding ballad “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” which marked the first time a Stevie recording performed better in the UK than in his homeland (#14 as opposed to #39) and also had Stevie credited as co-producer alongside Don Hunter; the absolutely commercial gem which hovers a little towards the sickly “My Cherie Amour” which reached #4 on both sides of the Atlantic and “Yester-Me-Yester-You-Yesterday” a song which is infinitely better than its title might suggest which got to number 7 in the US and became his first single to just miss out on the top spot in the UK, reaching number 2 (held off by “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies).  Hard to believe that at this stage in his career, after this string of hits Stevie was still a teenager.

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Stevie was still spreading his wings here, doing more in both the song-writing and production fronts but Motown were keen to keep the relationship with Henry Cosby going.  In 1970 we had the lovely, swaying “Never Had A Dream Come True” (US#26,UK#6), the driving “Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (US#3,UK#15) and the brooding gospel tones of  “Heaven Help Us All” (US#9,UK#29) all drastically different sounding tracks which once again underlined his versatility and all three would sow seeds for the Stevie material that was to come later in the decade.  In 1971 Stevie produced his own version of the Lennon & McCartney song “We Can Work It Out” which reached  US#13 and UK#27.

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 Stevie was growing up.  In 1970 he married his Signed Sealed Delivered writing partner Syreeta Wright, who was also signed to Motown as a solo artist and had been boosting the girl group sound of both Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas tracks.  He was also, now he was no longer a child, in a better place to negotiate with Motown.  1971 saw the release of his statement of independence, the album “Where I’m Coming From” with all tracks written by Stevie and Syreeta and all produced by Stevie.  The hit track from this “If You Really Love Me” took him back to number 8 in the US and 20 in the UK and features a singalong chorus alongside Syreeta vocalising and a rather sparse, slowed down verse which makes it all rather fascinatingly uneven yet very likeable.  Single-wise this is where “Love Songs” calls it a day but also included is the star track from this Stevie produced album “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” which only appeared as a B-side.  This is a big and yet tender, mournful ballad track which has remained near the top of Stevie’s repertoire and was a song he chose to revisit at the Memorial Service for Michael Jackson and certainly fulfils this album’s “Love Songs” brief. 

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The remaining tracks on the album include a harmonica instrumental version of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie”, a 1967 song written by Stevie with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax which remained unreleased until Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1973 “Until You Come Back To Me”, the same team’s “Hey Love”, a doowop influenced tune which doesn’t stand out in this company and “Nothings Too Good For My Baby”, a Northern Soul style stomper from 1966.

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These 20 tracks represent, if a long way from definitively, the early years of Stevie’s career when he was still very much under Berry Gordy’s control.  From his age of majority Stevie was able to explore avenues with a greater freedom that had also been accorded to Marvin Gaye who had responded with a couple of all-time classic soul albums.  This was Phase 1 of the Wonder career and throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s Stevie would continue to soar, but this time more on his own terms.  There would be considerably more gems to come…………………..

Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £8.83 new and used from £0.33.  It can be purchased as a download for £7.99.  In the US I found it on Amazon with a different cover new from $28.32 used from $2.55.

Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

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There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.

100 Essential CDs – Number 100–The Supremes – 70’s Greatest Hits And Rare Classics

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Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)

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The Post- Diana Ross Supremes years are sometimes merely recorded as a footnote to the illustrious five years of hits where the trio scored an astonishing 12 US#1 pop hits but this 22 track 1991 compilation release would suggest otherwise.  From 1970-76 there were another eight top 40 hits, 7 of which are included here (the exception being the pairing with the Four Tops on “River Deep Mountain High” which can be found on 40 Golden Motown Hits.

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Jean Terrell 

Taking over from Diana Ross must have seemed something of a poisoned chalice.  If the hits stopped coming then there would soon be tension from the other girls, from the record label and fans.  If the hits were too big then this might overshadow the former lead’s solo career and label boss, Berry Gordy, at this point infatuated with Diana would not allow this to happen.  The woman chose initially to fulfil this role was Jean Terrell.  Berry Gordy had discovered Jean singing in Miami in the late 1960’s and was keen to sign her to a solo Motown contract.  Vocally, she resembled Diana Ross and this would probably not have been a diplomatic move on his part and as plans grew to launch Diana solo, Motown began recording the new trio of Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong whilst the original trio were still doing live performances.  Jean Terrell could be introduced as part of a smooth transition for the group.  There was a bit of wavering and later solo hitmaker and wife of Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright , was also suggested but the remaining Supremes preferred to have Jean in the role.

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It was a time of great anticipation.  In her autobiography “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” Mary Wilson had this to say.

 “People must have asked us how we felt over a million time, and there were a hundred different emotions, but for me the main one was relief….Diane’s status at Motown and her relationship to Berry made it impossible for things to be otherwise, and if she hadn’t left the group something would have had to change.  Working with Jean and Cindy was a joy.  Maybe we weren’t as close as Flo, Diane and I had once been, but we were starting fresh.  After years of hard work, I felt I was embarking on another wonderful adventure”.

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The fresh start began with “Up The Ladder To The Roof” a sophisticated soul track released in 1970 which took the girls to US#10, (Ross’ first solo single out just a few weeks earlier had stalled at number 20).  In the UK this track was given even more of a thumbs up, getting to number 6, the biggest hit for the trio since “Reflections” back in 1967.  The early hits were produced by Frank Wilson who gave things much more of a group feel than there had been in latter years and produced highly polished numbers which had both the glam and glitz we might expect from the group as well as feeling very contemporary.  “Stoned Love” did even better on both sides of the Atlantic becoming the biggest hit of the post Ross years, number 7 in the US and #3 in the UK.  This had the rhythm of the 60’s HDH hits yet still felt hip, with its groovy lyrics of peace and love and more than a fair share of controversy from those who saw the lyrics as drug references.  “Stone” was a term at the time to show total involvement (also present in “Stone In Love With You” by The Stylistics).  There was apparently a mix-up when the record was labelled which saw the extra “d” be added and opened up a whole can of worms (and of course much publicity from those who saw the wholesome Supremes apparently declining into a drugs lifestyle as another step on the road to the end of civilisation). 

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Frank Wilson was also behind “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love” (US#21), which carried on the late 60’s/ early 70’s social consciousness of the label and a good old love song about a man who let the girls down “Nathan Jones” (UK#5, US#16).  This is a good song and unusual that the lead is sung by the three in unison.  17 years later a Bananarama got to number 15 in the UK with a likeable enough version which lacked the production and vocal depth of the original. 

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There were those in the Motown camp who were amazed at how successful the Ross-less Supremes were being, particularly in Europe and the UK where sizeable hits were also being buoyed up with pairings with The Four Tops, which led to a big selling album “The Magnificent Seven”.  Other names were keen to work with this trio.  In the queue were two of Motown’s legendary stars, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

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In the early days of the group when Motown staff were referring to the group as the “no hit Supremes” Smokey Robinson tried and failed to give them their first hits.  Two of his first class songs and productions can be found on the group’s debut “Where Did Our Love Go?” album.  In 1972 he recorded a whole album on the girls.  It was at this point that Lynda Laurence was brought in, initially to deputise during photoshoots for a pregnant Cindy Birdsong.  This began a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for the group with Birdsong officially leaving the group and returning to deputise when Lynda Laurence was having a baby.  The album with Smokey, “Floy Joy”, had a very lightweight piece of confection as the title track, but with its stomping beat and cooing vocals it harked back to the sounds of yesteryear and became a UK#9, US#16 hit.  A better track was the follow-up “Automatically Sunshine” which certainly brought out the Ross-like qualities in Jean Terrell’s voice and became their last Top 10 UK hit, not doing quite as well in the US (#37). 

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Motown were keen to promote The Supremes as a sophisticated group and to this effect brought in songwriter and arranger Jimmy Webb to emphasise this.  Webb was noted for his complex pop song compositions such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Macarthur Park” and “Witchita Linesman” which instantly became staples for acts who aimed for the supper club, lucrative Las Vegas market.  He had enough kudos to be in the title with the girls on the album he worked with them “The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb”.  Although a commercial disappointment this sound can be heard to good effect on the dramatic “Paradise” (a Harry Nilsson song) and the big Italian balladry of Il Voce De Silenzo (Silent Voices), both of which I think are great tracks.  There’s also the slightly frantic gospel edge to “Tossin’ And Turnin’” which is certainly different from tracks recorded with Diana Ross as lead.  It’s hard to gauge Motown’s response to this album, especially as the only track released as a single was neither produced nor arranged by Jimmy Webb, it was a plaintive Broadway ballad “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” which came from the show “Pippin” and was very much a showcase for the solo talents of Jean Terrell.

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With Lynda Laurence now the official third member of the group she asked an artist she had worked with, Stevie Wonder, to produce a funkier sound for them and this he certainly achieved with the great “Bad Weather” which sounds like a female-led Wonder track. If Motown had really got behind this track this could have been a new lease of life for the group.  It certainly sounds like a big hit to me yet failed to chart Stateside and just crept in the lower reaches of the chart in the UK.

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The end of the Terrell years are marked on this album by an unsensational version of the O’Jays “Love Train” and an attractive solo track, a version of the Gallagher and Lyle song “I Had To Fall In Love”.

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Scherrie Payne 

Enter Scherrie Payne.  The sister of “Band Of Gold” chart-topper Freda came into the group as it’s third lead singer and the first we heard from here was certainly explosive.  “He’s My Man” was released in June 1975 as the title track from the album “The Supremes”.  This is very possibly, in my opinion, the best thing this group ever did both from the Ross-led years and afterwards.  It’s a powerhouse of a track with great vocals and hooks a plenty and I can remember forking out my pocket money on a 7” vinyl copy (incidentally the only Supremes single I had bought apart from the hit reissue of “Baby Love” and an inherited from my sister copy of “Nathan Jones”).  I can remember on the same day as this I bought my first ever pair of headphones, a pair of monster-sized cans which was perfect for the clip-clop rhythms and thrilling vocal arrangement of this track.  There’s range and power and it sounded like a huge hit, but it wasn’t.  It did, however top the Billboard Disco charts, but crossover success eluded it.  It has always been a bit of an underground classic for the group and this new sound here produced by Greg Wright seemed very promising with great commercial potential.

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It wasn’t long before the revolving door of Cindy Birdsong and Lynda Laurence ground to a halt and they both decided to hang up their wigs.  In came Susaye Green, another real powerhouse of a singer with a great range and vocally this combination of Scherrie, Mary and Susaye was outstanding and a long way from the Ross voice out front and the other two cooing in the background.  These girls could sing anything.  It’s just a pity that by this time Motown seemed to be losing faith in the group.  There was a final hurrah with the album “High Energy” with its stunning title track, a song which should have done for the girls what “Love Hangover” did for Diana Ross and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” for The Temptations -a lengthy workout of a disco track with great orchestration and production.  And that producers?  None other than Brian and Eddie Holland returning to the Motown field to work with the group they had launched into superstars a dozen or so years before.  The track “High Energy” is sorely missed on this compilation (try the 2005 double CD “Motown Disco” to hear it in its full length glory) but here we do have “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” a track which had something of the feel of “He’s My Man” but is slightly more disjointed but which took the trio into the US Top 40 for the first time in four years, scraping in at the anchor position.  This was to be their last US hit single.  The “High Energy” album also had a couple of great ballads which showcased Mary Wilson on lead vocals with great effect.  The voice that HD&H had largely silenced in the 60’s hits was allowed to shine at last.  Only the hit single from “High Energy” is included on this compilation but the whole album is certainly worth checking out. 

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It’s follow-up “Mary, Scherrie and Susaye” seemed like a last-ditch attempt to establish this new line up.  The disco metaphor of “You’re My Driving Wheel” is the track on show here, but it is far from their best.  The Supremes eventually disbanded officially at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in June 1977.  Scherrie and Susaye would continue to record together as a duo for a time and there have been various incarnations of the group over the years.  In the mid 80’s I saw Mary Wilson touring as Mary Wilson and The Supremes and a group entitled The Former Ladies Of The Supremes which has involved at times Scherrie, Jean, Lynda and Cindy, a long-lasting collaboration which has over time involved singers who were never former Supremes.  Some members of the group were also involved in solo and group capacity with recording with Ian Levine at Motor City Records.  The Payne/Green project “Partners” featured a solo track by Scherrie Payne which is this CD’s closer and is another excellent track, the ballad “Another Life From Now”, a song written by Payne and produced by Eugene McDaniels which demands to be heard.

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Scherrie, Susaye and Mary

The hey-day of The Supremes may have very well been in the 1960’s but this 70’s compilation shows how good and varied they can be and the great vocal talent that has been in this group over the years.  All this goes to make this compilation of 22 tracks an essential release. 

Greatest Hits And Rare Classics is available from Amazon in the UK from £23.20 and used from £16.87.  In the US it is only currently available used from $18.90.  Also available from this era is the 42 track 70’s Anthology and all the albums are covered in two volumes 1970-73- The Jean Terrell years and Let Yourself Go – 1974-77.  These three compilations are all available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 3– Diana Ross & The Supremes – 40 Golden Motown Hits

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40 Golden Motown Hits (Motown/Polygram 1998)

UK Chart Position – 35

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Found languishing in a bargain bin at Asda Supermarket a few years after its release this has probably proved to be my best value CD of all time given the number of times I have played it since purchase.  Back in 1977 Motown had used the same artwork to promote 20 Golden Greats a single album compilation and had scored a UK chart-topper.  In 1993 in a deal reputed to be worth $300 million Polygram purchased Motown and now had the right to their extensive back catalogue.

 

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This and the rise of CDs meaning that more tracks could be fitted on a single disc resulted in a double CD release which was basically the original 20 enriched by a further twenty.  These new tracks incorporated a handful of Ross-less Supremes tracks, the super-group pairings with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a second CD of Diana Ross solo hits (including her duets with Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie).  With these additions the 20 Golden Greats release was redundant.  There was a TV campaign yet this release made only 35 in the UK Charts of 1998.  It is, however a superb release and a great overview of the careers of two legendary acts – both the group and the soloist.

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On the first CD we proceed through the Supremes hit catalogue in largely chronological order.  We get the hit tracks from the Essential CDs I lumped together from “Where Did Our Love Go/”I Hear A Symphony”.  In between those album releases we had one of the girls’ greatest recordings “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965 US#1, UK#7) and their 5th US number 1 single in a row “Back In Your Arms Again” (1965) which only scraped the Top 40 in the UK,  There was another run of four consecutive US chart-toppers from 1966-67, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (UK#3, later to become a UK#1 in an inferior version by Phil Collins in 1982), the excellent “You Keep Me Hanging On” (UK#8, later to get to number 2 and to also top the US charts in an inferior version by Kim Wilde in 1986, proving just how long-lasting these Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions were), “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (UK#17) but the best of all these came last of all.

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“The Happening” (UK#6) was the theme tune for a long-forgotten film and manages to combine a modern sound with a glitzy razzle-dazzle  Broadway type feel which is just so infectious and ingeniously combined what the girls had been up to this point and what Berry Gordy wanted them to become – sophisticated chanteuses who would transcend musical barriers.  Things changed after this release.

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Cindy Birdsong (right) joins Diana Ross and The Supremes

From this point on Diana Ross’ name came before The Supremes.  You can sense the arguments over this one to this day.  Smokey Robinson had been pushed in front of the Miracles, Martha led the Vandellas so it was inevitable that the ambitious Diana Ross would want to formally recognise her dominant position in the group.  Also at this point, Florence Ballard left to be replaced by ex Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong, an act which would further entrench the rivalry between these two groups with Patti Labelle often venting her frustration at the unprecedented success of Ross when she had an inferior voice.  How much of this went on at the time or appeared later  as a result of Mary Wilson speaking out in “Dreamgirls” a book which spawned the idea of a Broadway show, a revival of which is still packing them in at the West End to this day.  In 1967, however there was no denying the commercial appeal of the group.

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The first single under the new billing ended the run of US number 1’s as “Reflections” stalled at number 2 (UK#5).  The label had begun to experiment with a slightly different sound and there is a distinctly trippy introduction to this track, which was the last single to feature Flo on vocals, although TV promotion was done by Cindy.  The reputation slipped a little further with “In And Out Of Love” (US#9, UK#13) and a couple of singles became smaller hits on both sides of the Atlantic and are not featured on this compilation.

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                                  “Love Child” saw a new direction for the group

All was redeemed, however, by the trio’s third hit single of 1968.  The mood was changing in this revolutionary year and Motown responded by injecting a bit more social awareness into their releases shifting away from everyone having a good time and innocent first loves.  1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown and the new hit was to be penned and produced by Berry Gordy alongside others who were here to be known as The Clan.  The response as far as The Supremes were concerned was “Love Child”, a track which has as the first words you hear – “tenement slum”.  A song about illegitimacy and a woman resisting sexual pressure from her boyfriend might not seem a likely chart-topper for the 60’s but this is absolute classic Motown – a real gem of a track. It became their 11th US #1 and reached #15 in the UK. and might have perhaps mistakenly  led to the conclusion that HDH were not essential to the continued success of The Supremes.

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The writing was on the wall for the group anyway as it seems that Cindy and Mary were only being used as the public face of the group.  They did not apparently contribute to the recording of this song or of other later hits.  Motown back-up group The Andantes were doing the honours.  The social awareness continued with the guilt of a woman who had abandoned her roots in “I’m Living In Shame” (1969- US#10, UK14) with a return to the more traditional sounds of the label with the very successful pairings with The Temptations which provided a US#2, UK#3 “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and a raiding of the Miracles’ back catalogue “I Second That Emotion” released in the UK in 1969 where it reached #18.

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The parting of the ways happened after their twelfth chart-topping single, the anthemic “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  This song penned by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua was planned to be the first Ross solo single yet when it came to record it both Ross’ vocal and Bristol’s guide-line vocal were laid down.  The result was approved of and since it was not strictly a solo outing the decision was made to put it out as a Supremes single, although once again, Mary and Cindy do not appear.  The single reached number 13 in the UK.

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In 1968 The Supremes appeared as nuns in the TV series “Tarzan”.  Was it this that pushed Diana Ross into her solo career?

Fleshing out the first CD we have a handful of tracks released by the Supremes once Jean Terrell had come in to take lead vocals, ranging from the good as the glory days “Up The Ladder To The Roof” to the less than thrilling “Floy Joy” and the pairing of this new trio with old hands The Four Tops led to a  #14 US, #11 UK hit cover of “River Deep Mountain High” a fact that must have caused Phil Spector some irritation.  His original version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner he felt was one of the best recordings of all time and his whole life began to freefall when it missed the US charts completely.  (We had a softer spot for it over here.  It reached number 3 for the duo in 1966 and was the track which introduced Tina Turner to a mainstream UK audience ).

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Onto the second disc and we get sixteen of most of the greatest tracks Diana Ross recorded at Motown.  For me, the disco era is a little unrepresented as there is no “The Boss” a brilliant Ashford and Simpson song and the version of the phenomenal “Love Hangover” is in the short 7″ single format which always sounded a little disjointed and lacked the flow of the original album track and 12″ version but I’m niggling here.

Things didn’t exactly go immediately to plan when the Ross career was launched.  “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” stalled at a surprisingly low number 20 in her homeland and missed out on the Top 30 in the UK.  The social consciousness of the later Supremes recordings had been abandoned for what was felt to be a crowd-pleaser and although it has remained a track long associated with Ms. Ross it didn’t actually set the charts alight on release.  That happened with the follow-up, which like the debut was penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a reworking of an earlier hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  This was Diana Ross setting out her stall, a big, blowsy track with spoken interludes and a big build-up which really paid off.  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” gave her a first US Pop #1 and got to #4 in the UK.  From this point she had arrived.

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Big hits followed one after another in the early 70’s and by 1975 she had topped the American charts on another two occasions both with disarmingly tender tracks.  “Touch Me In The Morning” from 1973 (UK#9) and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (1975 UK#5) which was the theme from her second film “Mahogany” which is fairly essential viewing in the so- bad- its- good category, where Ross’ performance is distinctly subtle compared to Anthony Perkins.  Her UK #1 came with “I’m Still Waiting” not intended for a single release but heavily pushed by DJ Tony Blackburn until the Tamla Motown UK label relented (Incidentally her post Motown UK#1 “Chain Reaction” was also largely ignored in her homeland).  She also had a UK only hit (#12- 1972) with a song with the most annoying title of all time, I’m dreading typing it, but here goes: “Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndobe,Doobedood’ndoo” which always sounds like a few songs going on at once and is the track that I would have happily sacrificed for “The Boss”.

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Disco revitalised Diana’s career from her mid 70’s chart-topper “Love Hangover” (UK#10) and when it began to falter again the hottest producers in town, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards transferred the Chic sound to the Motown label with her biggest selling album “Diana” of which really the only good tracks were all released as singles.  But what singles they were.  The biggest was “Upside Down” (US#1,UK#2), The UK went with (#5) and my favourite of the bunch, another truly anthemic Ross recording which acknowledged a large part of her fan base (although not much was made of this at the time) with “I’m Coming Out” (US#5, UK#13).  This association was reputedly stormy but it certainly paid dividends.  Dodgy films with strong soundtracks became a feature of the 1980’s and we end this marathon trawl through the Ross career with two songs which certainly outlived the films, the lovely Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager song “It’s My Turn” (US#9,UK#16) and the track which went onto to become Motown’s best selling single to date, her duet with Lionel Richie “Endless Love” from some cinematic drivel featuring Brooke Shields.  It topped the US charts for nine weeks and reached number 7 in the UK.

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Following this release Diana Ross decided to up sticks and move away from her 27 year hit career with the Motown label and strike out on her own at RCA.  A brave, some said foolhardy move but these 40 tracks representing these years are a superb testament to Ms Ross at Motown and there are so many highs amongst these songs.

On a historic TV moment The Supremes made their last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and whizzed through a medley of their hit career before singing their final number 1 single.

 

40 Golden Greats seems to be quite difficult to find with the cover I have shown but Amazon has a CD with the same title and it looks like the same track listing with a cover which just features a drawing of Diana Ross.  That can be purchased for £8.72 and used from £0.09. There are a number of other Diana Ross and The Supremes compilations available but this one offers the best overview of group and solo careers.  

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 33– The Supremes – Sing Rodgers & Hart- The Complete Collection

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Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection (Motown 2002)

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In 1967 The Supremes recorded their eleventh album, a twelve tracker made up of standards written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart.  These were songs from a previous generation dating from 1925-43 and were all part of Berry Gordy’s plan to make the trio (and especially Diana Ross) have a large a fan base as possible.  The producers who had brought about their fame, Holland-Dozier and Holland, were for this album cast aside as Berry Gordy himself took control with musical arranger Gil Askey and produced an album which was both polished and sophisticated.  In the US it reached number 20 in the album chart which was their lowest placing since their non-charting 1965 Christmas album.  In the UK it reached number 25.

Producers Berry Gordy and Gil Askey

It is an album which has always been critically acclaimed.  It had been originally planned as a double album and in 2002 Motown dug out the other 13 tracks from the original recording sessions and topped things off with a live recording from The Copacabana, New York City – a venue which Berry Gordy saw as the epitome of just how far his Detroit recording artists had come.  These twenty six tracks stand up with the best of the Supremes’ output.  A number are the definitive versions of the Rodgers and Hart songs as far as I am concerned.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

To appeal to an older generation from those who bought Motown singles an old showbiz trouper was asked to write the sleeve-notes for the album’s original release.  Cue Mr Gene Kelly who tells how he was converted to the Supremes music by hearing his daughter playing their records.  Obviously, a performer of Gene Kelly’s standing was more familiar with the legendary songwriters who inspired this album than Motown’s leading girl group but he approved of the way The Supremes took to this task.  He writes;

“While maintaining the individuality of their own style, these clever singers have avoided the temptation to distort the beat or the music beyond recognition to conform to some far-out tastes.  Yet it is all as modern as this moment in time, and the music and lyrics remain as fresh as tomorrow morning.”

 

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Fifty-one years on from this album’s original release his words still ring true.  This would also be the last album before the group were retitled to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” and the last to feature the original line-up as just after the release of the album Florence Ballard departed and was replaced by ex Patti Labelle and Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong.  Listening to this album as a whole I tend to be more impressed by the tracks where Flo and Mary Wilson are less marginalised- a number really function more as Diana Ross solo tracks with a minimum of involvement from the other two.  I just love the harmonising of the three voices but that, by this stage, was becoming less and less Berry Gordy’s plan for the group.

Supremes-at-Brewster-Projects-1967-510x634The days were numbered for this line-up

 

The Rodgers and Hart songbook had been explored before by the trio.  “With A Song In My Heart” had been on their Essential 1965 album “I Hear A Symphony” and the girls had sung on a Rodgers and Hart TV special but for Top 40 pop artists to give over an album to songwriters of a generation or more before was an unusual move in 1967.

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Things get off to a rousing start with a traditional feel on “The Lady is A Tramp”.  This is one of the tracks where Diana largely goes it alone and of course it is no match to Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version.  This is also the case with a couple of other songs strongly associated with Fitzgerald, “My Funny Valentine” and “Manhattan” the first of the bonus tracks.  On this opener, however, there’s lively piano work over a swinging orchestra and it’s all a lot of fun with Flo and Mary only evident in the closing moments as Diana holds a big note.  You can’t help feeling that this opening track is setting out the stall for the future- a time when Diana the solo artist is moved centre stage.

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The girls work more as a trio in the charming “Mountain Greenery” with those kooky lyrics “Beans could get no keener/reception in a beanery/Bless our mountain greenery home.”  I especially like the tracks where the hint of Motown merges with the show tune style.  “This Can’t Be Love” does this, going at a frantic pace with some “hey,hey,heys” from the back-up which works so well and this ends up as one of the stronger songs.  The gloss of sophistication is back on a lovely “Where Or When” with its tempo changes and leg-kicking Broadway- worthy finish.  “Lover” gets a 60’s girl-group work-out which one again illustrates that they are not playing things totally safe and are exploring different sounds within the remit, all of which are enriched by exemplary productions.

 

The harmonies are to the forefront in “My Romance” another of the strongest tracks which has a great back-up performance from Ballard and Wilson.  The 6o’s feel is certainly present on “My Heart Stood Still” which has a feel of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song and production and would not have been out of place in the pop singles charts of 1967.  The decision was made not to release any of the tracks here as a single but this could have given them a big hit.  The most unusual track comes next.  Unusual, because Diana shares the lead vocal with Mary Wilson whose rich tones on “Falling In Love With Love” make this one of the best tracks on the album.  We don’t hear enough of this voice until the latter years of The Supremes when Mary was the only original member left. Both “Thou Swell” and “Blue Moon” are good versions but are eclipsed by the lovely “Dancing On The Ceiling” a less familiar Rodgers and Hart song which dates from the 1930 musical “Ever Green”.

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These first 12 tracks make up the original album but there are many pleasures to be found in the thirteen bonus tracks which were part of the plan when a double album was scheduled.  These include a revisit of “With A Song In My Heart”, an unusual appearance of a verse on “Little Girl Blue” which I was not familiar with from the Nina Simone version.  There’s also a couple of tracks taken from “Pal Joey” , the show which propelled its lead and this album’s sleeve-note compiler Gene Kelly to stardom, a great uptempo version of “I Could Write A Book” and “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered”.  The strongest moments for me come with the sultry and accomplished “Spring Is Here”, the ultimate feel good factor of anticipation in “Wait Till You See Him”.  Perhaps my most favourite track of all is hidden amongst the bonus tracks the frantic “Johnny One Note” where the girls offer the best version I have heard of this song from the 1937 musical “Babe In Arms”.

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If I was a big Supremes fan in 1967 (I was far too young) waiting for a follow-up to their chart-topping “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” single I am not sure how I wold have felt about the release of this album but with history to help us seeing it as a launch-pad for The Supremes becoming Diana Ross & The Supremes and then eventually Diana becoming the consummate all-round solo entertainer and Motown not writing off the group but continuing it without her this is actually a significant release.  And those Rodgers and Hart songs are just great and have certainly stood the test of time.  If I’m looking to listen to a legendary songwriter’s output Ella Fitzgerald may be my first port of call but the versions on here by this Detroit trio are essential recordings.

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection seems to be currently not easy to find on CD in the UK.  Amazon have it used and new from £44.72.  A £7.09 download is available consisting of the original 12 tracks.  In the US the CD is available used from $34.22 but the complete recordings are available to download for $12.49.  The original 1967 version is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 21– The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony

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Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony (Motown 1986)

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Back in the mid 1980’s the Motown label began a series of releases to capitalise on the vibrant back catalogue CD market.  These releases put together on one CD two albums by one artist giving those of us replacing our vinyl copies with CDs great value for money.  This 1986 release was the best of the lot.  

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The CD was credited as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes yet when the original vinyl recordings were released the trio were just known as The Supremes.  This two in one put together their 1964 second album, which very much marked their breakthrough,  a superb girl-group album containing three of their five consecutive number one singles alongside their eighth album released just two years later (boy, these girls were being worked hard in the recording studio) which gave them another US number 1 with the title track.  Chartwise, on original release the album “Where Did Our Love Go?” reached number 2 in the US and “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8.  The innocent girl group sound of chirpy three minute tracks had over those two years evolved into a more sophisticated sound which combined the tracks written to appeal to Young America with cover versions of standards which might appeal more to their parents.  This was all part of Berry Gordy’s strategy to make his acts appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  Occasionally, on some recordings this acted as little more than filler around the hits but here sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland productions ensure that this is a top-notch pairing alongside the first classic Motown album.  Neither albums were UK hits but that says more about the UK album chart of the mid 60’s rather than the quality of either of these recordings.

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It had taken quite a while for the career of The Supremes to get off the ground and it would have been likely that had they been with a larger record company they would have been dropped.  But the early days of Motown were very much a family affair, with all the acts supporting one another and schoolgirls Diane Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had just hung around at the Hitsville studio until they got noticed and continued to hang around until they were offered songs that could become hits. They had been recording singles since 1961.  Berry Gordy, fascinated by Diane (soon to change the last letter of her name) had seen them as his pet project but hadn’t had a hit with the singles he had written and produced for them and neither had Clarence Paul or Smokey Robinson.  People were referring to them as the “No Hit Supremes”.  It took the genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production skills to ensure that within the space of a few months The Supremes had become one of the world’s top recording artists and it all began with the tracks on this album.

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 Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers at the piano

In fact, the game changer was the title track which kicks off this CD.  An H-D-H song and production which was reputedly turned down by the top Motown girl group of the day, the Marvelettes (who to this point had scored five US Top 40 hits including the #1 “Please Mr Postman”) but before it might be offered to the second group in line, Martha and The Vandellas , the Supremes stepped in.  It’s a simple song, distinguished by a stomping beat and set the pattern of Supremes recordings with Diana as lead vocal and Mary and Florence reduced to little more than “baby-baby – ing”. Although early Supremes releases had switched lead vocal duties once the hit pattern was established it became very much Diana Ross’ group.  The song reached the top of the US charts.  In a UK, obsessed with everything Liverpool in 1964 it got to number 3.  The album was released just a couple of months after the single and it did give fans the opportunity to catch up with previously released singles and B sides together with some new tracks.

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The new track that caused the most attention was put out as the follow-up single, something of a rush release in the UK where its predecessor was still in the charts but “Baby Love” just could not be contained.  One of the finest girl group singles ever, it retains the simplicity of “Where Did Our Love Go” and is not so rhythm dominated and just has an extra little sparkle which makes it a phenomenal track.  It topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic and is perhaps the song most strongly identified with the group.  A further US chart-topper “Come See About Me” was less successful in the UK where it stalled at number 27.

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Other first class Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings on show here include the track which marked their first actual appearance on the US pop charts the #23 hit “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” an excellent but unexpectedly raucous sing-along track for the ladies who would be known for their sophisticated cooing.  On some of the earlier tracks there are male voices (apparently the producers themselves and The Four Tops) and this is certainly the case for the rather startling male grunt which explodes mid-way through.  “Run Run Run” has a honking brass and piano sound and male voices in the back-up and a great rough edge to it.  There’s a much softer edge to the subtle soul ballad “I’m Giving You Your Freedom”, “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” is a charming piano backed mid-tempo number and “Where Did Our Love Go”’s closer is one of the finest tracks Motown never  released as an A-side.  “Ask Any Girl” sounds like a monumental hit that never was with its flamenco feel, dramatic intro and perfect girl-group feel with a nod towards the best of the Phil Spector groups, the Shirelles  and the Shangri-Las.  The couplet “It’s heartaches without number/ Many nights without slumber” is one of the greatest girl group lines.  It’s a stunning track which has that heady combination of youth and sophistication. 

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 Smokey Robinson

Other song-writing and production teams do get a look-in.  Smokey Robinson was one of those that had tried and failed to give the Supremes a hit and it is rather amazing that he missed out with the sultry “A Breath Taking Guy”, which is unusual in that it features all of the girls having a stab at lead vocals.  The other Robinson track “Long Gone Lover” is a nod back to earlier doowop tracks given a girl group slant.  Norman Whitfield would go on to produce some classic tracks for The Temptations but here his “He Means The World To Me” is an attractive Mary Wells-style track.  Label boss Berry Gordy gets in on the action with “This Kiss Of Fire” without challenging the best tracks on the album.

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It is likely that “Where Did Our Love Go” with its range of very good quality songs and performances and that great trio of HDH hits would have made it alone onto my 100 Essentials list but here we’ve certainly got more for our money with the other twelve tracker “I Hear A Symphony” on the same CD.

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We fast forward to 1966 and the Supremes are known worldwide.  Berry Gordy, always the businessman has begun, especially on albums, to extend the fanbase and not just bring in the young, the traditional 45RPM single buyers but also their parents and grandparents and has his eye on the world’s most prestigious night spots for his acts to perform in.  By this time all the exciting rough edges have gone from the music and the girls themselves, smoothed out by formidable Deportment Coach, Maxine Powell, a Motown employee, who both Diana and Mary today would credit for turning them into ladies and who took the “girls from the Brewster Project” and enabled them to mix with VIPs and Royalty – all part of Berry Gordy’s plan for his leading act and, especially, Diana Ross.

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supremes11The Supremes meets The Queen Mother

 

“I Hear A Symphony” reflects this as alongside the four Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions we get show tunes, standards and recent pop hits.  Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier get to produce all the tracks bar one from Norman Whitfield, where the girls tackle the Beatles’ “Yesterday”.  Album-wise since “Where Did Our Love Go” the trio had put out a run of themed long players, tackling the Lennon-McCartney songbook with “A Bit Of Liverpool” (1964 US#21), Country and Western (1965 US#79) and a Sam Cooke tribute album (US#75).  There had also been a non-charting Christmas album all of which showed that the heady days might be over as these albums garnered only a fraction of the sales of “Where Did Our Love Go”.  A more traditional studio album “More Hits By The Supremes” had been a success, reaching number 6 in the US as it featured two more number 1 US singles.

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 The more sophisticated style can be seen in the title track which became their 6th US chart-topper with its classical musical imagery of symphonies and rhapsodies, it feels more complex than some of the earlier hits.  That had been released a few months before the album, which was very much built around the sound of the hit single.  Thus we get the girls’ intepretations of “Stranger In Paradise”, “Unchained Melody” “Without A Song” together with a touch of Rodgers and Hart and “With A Song In My Heart” an idea which would spawn a whole album of these songs in the future.  Earlier Pop hits Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” and the Toys’ Bach-influenced “A Lover’s Concerto” are also present.  This might sound a little hackneyed and it does veer dangerously close to the middle of the road at times but the performances and productions are exemplary.  I know the people can be critical of Ross’ distinctive slightly nasal voice but given the right song and production and boy, can she shine as a song stylist.  The back-up work by Florence and Mary also works sublimely on these tracks with both the versions of the Mathis and the Toys hits eclipsing the originals. 

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Amongst these you also get the Holland-Dozier-Holland numbers (helped out on two of the tracks by one James Dean).  “My World Is Empty Without You” followed the title track up the charts (US#5) and perhaps better than all these is another of those Motown tracks which should have been a single, the excellent “Everything Is Good About You” which just must have been an influence for Barry White as it sounds so much like Love Unlimited’s “It May Be Winter Outside”.

 The album “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8 on the US pop charts and is a perfect accompaniment to the earlier album on this CD to show just how good these girls can be.  It revitalised the trio’s career and there would be another 6 US number 1 Pop hits before they hung up the matching sequin gowns and Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.

The two-on-one CD “Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony is available used on Amazon UK from £14.99 and in the US from $7.99.  Both albums are available separately and as a download.  In the UK they are also both separately available for streaming on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 6– Dusty Springfield – The Silver Collection

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The Silver Collection – Dusty Springfield (Philips 1988)
UK Chart Position – 14

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Dusty Springfield was the best of the British 60’s singers and her lasting legacy on popular music cannot be over-emphasised. This single CD collection of 24 tracks was put out (originally on vinyl) in 1988 to celebrate Dusty’s 25th year as a solo artist. Its healthy chart position marked the first time she gained a Top 20 album in 22 years when another hits compilation had reached number 2. At the time of “The Silver Collection’s” release Dusty had received a boost in her career thanks to her association with the Pet Shop Boys and their “What Have I Done To Deserve This” which had been a number 2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987. There was no new material on this compilation, the tracks chosen were her sixties hits and contains her only UK number 1, her twelve UK Top 20 and five US Top 20 hits from this decade. It is the perfect one disc introduction and her most essential release.

dusty2The Lana Sisters, Dusty (pre-beehive) on the left

Mary O’Brien began her music career as a Lana Sister, a late 50’s girl group which followed an established pattern of girls posing as or as real sisters performing light pop tunes in a style which picked up on the continuing popularity of the Andrews Sisters. These acts were perfect for variety shows and summer seasons and for the early days of television where was a demand for attractive girls, dressed in similar clothes, performing inoffensive ditties. Some, including The Beverley Sisters (real siblings) achieved a good level of success. The Lana Sisters, however, despite recording a few singles and appearing on stage with some of the top acts of light entertainment of the time were not so fortunate and Mary decided to move on to join her folk singer brother’s band The Springfields. Here was another fake family outing in a way, Mary became Dusty Springfield and her brother Dion, Tom Springfield. They were joined by Tim Feild who never adopted The Springfield moniker but did later become a spiritual leader and expert on Sufism, and father of actor JJ Feild (best known for playing a younger version of a character played by Michael Caine in “Last Orders” and for an excellent turn as 60’s pop singer Heinz in “Telstar” the bio-pic of producer Joe Meek). The trio became regular television guests and scored a couple of UK Top 5 hits in 1962/63. If you see clips of them performing it was really difficult to take your eyes of Dusty, so perhaps inevitable that she would decide to embark on a solo career.

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The Springfields: Tim, Dusty and Tom

There was one of those seismic movements in popular music when Dusty recorded her first single. Known primarily as a folk singer and probably by a younger audience as slightly old fashioned she exploded with a delightful slab of pop-soul inspired by both Motown and Phil Spector and became instantly Britain’s coolest solo singer with an instantly recognisable image. “I Only Want To Be With You” entered the charts in November 1963. Throughout that year a four piece band from Liverpool had been rewriting British pop and Dusty wanted to be part of it in a song which seemed to perfectly straddle the new and old eras. Producer Johnny Franz had that big orchestral feel given a “wall of sound” in a rock and roll number which combined with Dusty’s smokey tones felt different.

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Reputedly there had been a number of recordings made in a hunt for the song which would really establish Dusty as a singer. These were not released as Franz held back for the perfect match and he found it in this. His patience was rewarded. It became a number 4 hit in the UK and Dusty found herself in the wave of British artists who were making it big in the US with this, her very first release which reached number 12 in the Billboard charts and also made the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland. The song has lasting appeal and also established the chart career of another great British talent, Annie Lennox, when as lead singer of The Tourists it reached the same position Dusty posted in 1979, which weirdly was also the position it reached three years earlier in a paler version by The Bay City Rollers. Samantha Fox broke the pattern when she took it to number 16 in 1989 (the Rollers also uncannily peaked at the same chart position as Dusty in the US#12, with Sam Fox getting to #31).

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Dusty’s follow-up single “Stay Awhile” was almost as good. It had a similar feel but ramped up the Phil Spector vibe to the point where it almost sounds like a Ronettes track. Sales were not as buoyant as it reached #13 in the UK and #38 in the US but her hit status on both sides of the Atlantic were confirmed. What comes next on the CD is perhaps her greatest single and the track which marked her out as a real soul singer and one able to drive up the dramatic potential of a song to the max. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” had already been recorded by Soul men Jerry Butler and Tommy Hunt both men with great voices but giving the female viewpoint on this Bacharach/David song worked magnificently. Dusty apparently was given the song to record by Burt Bacharach when they met in New York. From its gentle horn start it seems like a great soul number and then builds with the Johnny Franz production. Dusty’s voice beautifully sums up the ennui at the end of the relationship. The vocal and the whole feel of the song set the template for the rest of Springfield’s career. It became her biggest UK hit to that point reaching number 3.

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In the US they went for the next track another Bacharach and David composition “Wishin’ And Hopin” which had been previously recorded by Dionne Warwick which was turned into a UK #13 hit by The Merseybeats. This track gave Dusty her biggest US hit to date reaching number 6. It was also her biggest hit to this point in Australia where it got to number 2. Another Bacharach and David song “The Look Of Love” which became a standard was given to Dusty to record the first vocal version and also gained an Oscar nomination in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of the first version of “Casino Royale”.

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From 1964 we get the great swinging ballad “Losing You” which was a UK number 9 and which also benefits from an exemplary vocal. “Give Me Time” is a sultry number and was an example of Dusty’s management hunting out songs that had been European hits, being an English language version of L’Amore Se Ne Va” an Italian hit single. Released in 1967 it became a number 24 hit but didn’t quite pay the dividends raiding the Italian songbook had done the previous year. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” began life as “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” by Pino Donaggio, an Italian chart-topper which was entered in a European Song Festival (not the Eurovision) which took place at San Remo and at which Dusty was also entered. She loved the song and the English language lyrics were written by two prominent music managers of the time Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell. Dusty was determined to get the emotional power of this huge ballad right. Always a perfectionist this one apparently took 47 takes and was recorded with her standing on the stairs outside the studio. Frustration with her performance was a common bugbear. Neil Tennant has spoken how when he worked with her she would record her vocals in very small sections and that he had never encountered anyone who worked in this way before. The repeated takes were worth it as this song became Dusty’s biggest hit, a UK number one and number 4 in the US. The song is a standard recorded by many artists over the year but few could give it the conviction of Dusty.

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I love Dusty when she metaphorically lets that famous beehive down and relaxes into uptempo numbers. “In The Middle Of Nowhere” (UK#8 1965) and “Little By Little” (UK#17 1966) are great examples of peak-era Springfield. Both songs were written by Buddy Kea and Bea Verdi. Kaye was a veteran song-writer who had written songs such as “A (You’re Adorable)” and hits for Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and “Speedy Gonzales” for Pat Boone. These tracks for Dusty show that he was still going strong in the mid 60’s.

Dusty was a great song stylist and her version of a song often challenged the original. I prefer Bacharach and David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” from Gene Pitney’s more histrionic guilt-ridden male standpoint but her version of Belgian Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is the best version of this song I have heard. Her version of “How Can I Be Sure?” is magnificent. Also on this CD Dusty doesn’t really challenge the hit versions of Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” nor Barbara Acklin/Swing Out Sister’s “Am I The Same Girl”.

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In 1968 Dusty released my second favourite track of hers. “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” has the drama of the big ballads combined with a neo-classical feel through great piano work and is just an excellent song. Written by Clive Westlake who had previously given Dusty two hit songs in “Losing You” (written with her brother Tom) and “All I See Is You”. Both had reached number 9 in the UK with “All I See Is You” getting to number 20 in the US in 1966. Amazingly, “I Close My Eyes” did not chart in the US. It was caught up in Dusty’s changing of labels from Phillips to Atlantic and probably was not promoted with the gusto of her earlier hits.

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By 1969 Dusty’s soul credentials were renowned. She had been instrumental in promoting the Motown label four years earlier in the UK putting together a now legendary episode of TV show “Ready Steady Go” which had her introducing Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & The Vandellas in one extraordinary episode demonstrating Dusty’s love for black American music and beginning a life-long friendship with Martha Reeves. Sometimes this role is a little overstated, the Motown stars were well-known over here with The Supremes having scored a UK number 1 with “Baby Love” and the other acts (with the exception of Stevie at this point) notching up their own hits. She didn’t actually introduce Motown to the Brits but ensured we saw some of its biggest stars on our black and white TV sets on a Friday tea-time. By the late 60’s Aretha Franklin’s star was in the ascendancy and the sounds of American Southern Soul were making inroads in the charts and Atlantic and Stax records were moving music on from the pop/soul of Motown. Dusty wanted a part of this and went to Memphis to record her 5th studio album with heavyweight soul producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd and backed by Aretha’s backing singers The Sweet Inspirations which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum as a member.

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“Dusty In Memphis” was critically acclaimed and saw Dusty heralded as new blue-eyed soul royalty. It is an album which regularly features in lists of the greatest album ever made. It was a very strong studio album but I think I would give her debut “A Girl Called Dusty” the slight edge. “Memphis” just misses out on being an essential album for me because I find it a little intense, the song choices are not all great and I think Memphis took out some of the verve of the British recordings which I loved. Perhaps buyers at the time agreed with me as it never charted in the UK and barely scraped the charts in the US. Perhaps some saw it as Dusty deserting her homeland or the whole concept might have been too cool for the mainstream. It is an important album and really from this you can track influences along to many female singers of today, especially Adele. From this album you get two stand-out tracks Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and another of Dusty’s signature songs and the big hit single “Son Of A Preacher Man”.

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“Preacher Man” was originally intended for Aretha Franklin, but neither her nor her management were initially sure about the song. Once Aretha heard Dusty’s version she was convinced and she covered it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”. There’s no doubt about it this is a real soul song and reached number 9 in the UK and 10 in the US.

For her next album Dusty relocated to Philadephia to record. “A Brand New Me” was an early example of the sweet soul sound which emanated largely from the city over the next few years and here she was working with the masters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who would go on to have major success with their Philadelphia International Label. The title track written with their leading songwriter Thom Bell sounds like a perfect match between all these talents but was not a hit. The album was titled “From Dusty With Love” in the UK and was a small hit, performing better in the charts than “Dusty In Memphis” had done.

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Also on this CD you get the extended metaphor of a lost love in “My Colouring Book” a Kander and Ebb song which Dusty performs sublimely and the wistful “Goin’ Back” a Jerry Goffin and Carole King song.

Throughout the 70’s Dusty spent more time in the US, preferring the anonymity a large country could offer. She felt hounded by the press in the UK as they seemed obsessed  with her sexuality which she struggled herself to come to terms with. Her recording career became more erratic. For a while she became fascinated by women’s tennis and followed the ATP tour around the US. There were often short-lived comebacks but it was not until the Pet Shop Boys worked with her that her commercial credentials were re-established. Following the release of this album Dusty celebrated a run of hits of great singles “Nothing Has Been Proved”, “In Private” and “Reputation”. She died of breast cancer in 1999.

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The influence of Dusty Springfield lives on and she has certainly influenced my music choices for the whole of my lifetime. From her groundbreaking performances and career you can see the evidence of other of my Essential CD choices with Madeline Bell, Duffy, Martha Reeves, The Carpenters, The Exciters and Gloria Estefan springing immediately to mind. Her “Silver Collection” is chock-full of gems and is always my starting point when I want a blast of Britain’s best female star. I know I’ve written a long review here but I find it impossible to pass any of these great tracks by without some comment.

The Silver Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $10.00 and used for $1.02.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

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.

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.

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.