100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 96– Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

 

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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 There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album.  It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up.  Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts.  In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense.  A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition.  I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years.  On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.

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Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.

I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time.  I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation.  It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase.  The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.

It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.

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For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride.  Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly.  I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began  performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single.  Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well.  The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now.  Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

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It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”.  One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good.  He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again.  There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”.  It works superbly.

Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album.  It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever.  Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant.  This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.”  This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation.  When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.”  This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”.  This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus.  It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.

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The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK.  This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best.  “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk.  The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.

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There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot.  And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album.  “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.”  It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture.  A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!)  “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long.  The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams.  At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.

 

Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album

The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track.  “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece.  Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness.  In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart.  A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single.  The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music.  I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.

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After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you.  “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA.  “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.”  Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener.  Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.

The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track.  This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song.  Extraordinary.

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“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40.  It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends.  It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige.  This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original.  Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit.  Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme.  This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights.  As it is, it starts to get on your nerves.  Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US.  In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals.  The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.

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This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record.  I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated.  In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”.  This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going.  It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good.  Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta.  “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.

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There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade.  Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording.  It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums.  That would come a few years later.  It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.

The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.  One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.

 

Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66.  In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

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.

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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“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 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.

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

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

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

Gold – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Disky 1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If anyone should ever write my life story

For whatever reason there might be

You’ll be there

Between each line of pain and glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Van McCoy – The Disco Kid

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

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

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

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