Soul on Fire
Recovering rarities and surrendering secrets
Rabbit holes can be so inviting.
One such invitation is Soul On Fire: The Detroit Soul Story 1957-1977. It’s a newly-released package of music associated with the entrepreneurial Robert West, whose label ventures in the Motor City predated and then ran parallel to Motown for a while.
Like the record companies operated by Joe Von Battle and Jack & Devora Brown, West's Kudo, Contour and Lu-Pine labels (among others) helped to fuel and sustain the city’s music scene during the 1950s and ’60s. None of his imprints reached Motown’s giddy heights of success and revenue, but there were common threads between the two businesses. Some are quite intriguing.
Soul On Fire has international roots. This is a U.K. release from the Soul Time label, distributed by Cherry Red, and its rights to the repertoire originated with the late Jeffrey Kruger, a British impresario with his own connection to Motown. The set was created by Bob Fisher and Glenn Gunton; Fisher wrote the liner notes.
The 86-track bundle, across three CDs, includes “Once Upon A Time” by Marv Johnson and “(Where’s The Joy) Nature Boy” by Briant [sic] Holland, both of interest to Motown aficionados. These were released – as 78rpm discs, no less – on Kudo in 1958, after West launched his first imprint, Silhouette. Marv Johnson’s voice was distinctive then, just as it was when he had hits for Berry Gordy from 1959 onwards.
On “Once Upon A Time” and its flipside, “My Baby-O,” the original Kudo label copy shows that Marv was singing “with the Band of Harold ‘Beans’ Bowles.” This, of course, was Thomas Harold Bowles – he acquired the nickname “Beans” because of his 6’ 4” wiry frame – who later joined Gordy’s team both as a musician and tour manager. Bowles also played flute on the first Tamla release, “Come To Me” by…Marv Johnson.
Briant Holland’s “(Where’s The Joy) Nature Boy” is quirky, not least because the voice belongs to someone else. “What happened,” Eddie Holland told me some years ago, “was that, actually, I did the demo, and I didn’t want to use my name – or Berry didn’t want me to use my name, I can’t remember which. So I said, ‘Why don’t I just put my brother’s name on?’ So that’s what happened.”
Soul On Fire contains material from the Contour label, the name of which was said to have inspired Motown’s Contours for their own identity. As if to reinforce the point, that group’s first Motown single, “Whole Lotta Woman,” is also included, right after a Contour Records track by the Sax Kari Show, “Hurry – Arthur Murray.” This seems appropriate: it’s a plea by the singer to be quickly taught how to dance by renowned instructor Murray. Wasn’t this the same dilemma suffered by a young Berry Gordy in pursuit of girls, which led him to learn and, later, to write and produce the Contours’ greatest Motown hit, “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)”?
The voices featured on “Hurry – Arthur Murray” were identified on the record as the Newports, but Bob Fisher notes that they were, in fact, the Falcons, who he describes as “the first important vocal group of the soul era to emerge from Detroit.” That’s a reasonable claim, given that the line-up included Eddie Floyd, Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, Willie Schofield, Lance Finney and Wilson Pickett, and that their “I Found A Love” – issued on the Lu-Pine label in 1961 – is among the finest soul records of the 20th century. It is, of course, to be found on Soul On Fire, as are many other Falcons tracks.
And what are the group’s Motown links? Well, Joe Stubbs was the brother of Levi Stubbs, and Lance Finney was the husband of Janie Bradford, the “first receptionist” of Berry Gordy’s company, and co-author of “Money (That’s What I Want).” Moreover, when Wilson Pickett left the Falcons, his first solo hit, “If You Need Me,” was co-written by two former foot-soldiers of Motown, Robert Bateman and Sonny Sanders.
(The Falcons, not to mention Janie Bradford’s songwriting skills, can also be heard on an earlier Motor City retrospective, Birth of Soul: Special DETROIT Edition 1961-1964. It was compiled by Ady Croasdell and Graham Finch for the always-impressive Ace Records.)
There are still more rabbit holes in Soul On Fire, such as “Tears Of Sorrow” by the Primettes – later to become the Supremes, as perhaps you know. They were brought to Lu-Pine by a young musician, Richard Morris, when their initial Motown audition did not yield a deal. Mary Wilson goes into some detail in her autobiography about this period in the group’s life, with recollections of the recording and how, at the same time, Wilson Pickett was rehearsing in the studio with the Falcons.
“A few weeks after the session,” writes Wilson, “with our records pressed and ready to ship, Robert West’s distributor, B&H…was targeted for a payola investigation. Without anyone’s guilt or innocence proven, our record was as good as gone.”
Gone, but not forgotten. When the Supremes became superstars, “Tears Of Sorrow” found its way (back?) into the marketplace. One route was via Ember Records in Britain in 1968. Jeff Kruger was the label owner; he had cut a deal with West, and tracks by the Primettes and Eddie Floyd were bundled together into an LP called Looking Back. When it was reissued in 1998 on compact disc, Kruger added liner notes to recall being introduced to the Lu-Pine boss in Las Vegas and “listening to tapes laying in a dirt garage.” He also remembered being challenged by “the Motown battery of lawyers” about Looking Back. “[M]any years later when I had dinner with Barry [sic] Gordy and we were discussing a concert tour I was to do with his former brother-in-law Marvin Gaye, I reminded him of the incident with his lawyers and we had a good laugh.”
Soul On Fire contains other music of merit. Tina Marvel’s “Promises You Made To Me” is striking for the influence of Mable John, for example, while Dee Edwards’ “Say It Again With Feeling” showcases a voice almost as magnetic as that of Brenda Holloway.
Barbara Mercer is always worth hearing, especially her recordings for Golden World; here, “Call On Me” demands attention, which Mercer made for another Detroit label, Sidra, unconnected to West. She also commands the front cover of Soul On Fire, in a striking photo taken at Detroit’s Latin Quarter nightclub in 1965.
And here’s one last rabbit hole, leading us to the time when Jeff Kruger promoted that U.K. tour by Marvin Gaye in 1976, including the show recorded and later released as Live At The London Palladium. Motown’s head of publicity then was Bob Fisher. “We opened at [the] Royal Albert Hall on 27 September – a sellout, with wonderful press coverage despite a few odd encounters between Marvin and the media,” he recalled for a CD reissue of that album. “Following a few dates north, the Palladium date was added at the last minute. The decision to record came suddenly. Berry Gordy gave Marvin the go-ahead from Los Angeles, but the label had no time to arrange logistics. Kruger stepped in and got it done.”
That’s always an art, and the Ember proprietor’s garage trip with Robert West has ensured that Soul On Fire has gotten done, too.