Higher and Higher
The Funk Brothers give ‘Mr. Excitement’ a lift
With “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet),” the late, great Jackie Wilson helped to shape music history. The song was, of course, the work of 27-year-old Berry Gordy and his 24-year-old writing partner, Roquel "Billy" Davis. The recording session took place under the supervision of Dick Jacobs at New York’s Pythian Temple studio in July 1957; the result was released by Brunswick Records that October.
Ten summers later, Wilson travelled back to the Big Apple to cut new music with links to Gordy and Davis. By then, the music business knew all about “Reet Petite” and its consequences. Jackie had become a star in his own right, while Gordy and Davis were glittering in their own galaxies in Detroit and Chicago, respectively. The planets were aligned once more, this time with a song called “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.” The following excerpt from The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits explains how.
Fuel-injected by moonlighting Motor City musicians and machine-tooled in the Windy City by producer Carl Davis, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” accelerated onto the charts in August 1967 to become Jackie Wilson’s biggest-selling crossover hit in years.
The song was originally created by Billy Davis, Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, and recorded by the Dells during the opening months of ’67. “But before we could release it on them,” said Davis, who was then the A&R chief of Chess Records in Chicago, “I remember being in my office and someone called me and said, ‘Did you hear Jackie Wilson’s new record? It sounds like the same song you guys did with the Dells.’”
“I said, ‘No, it couldn't be.’ So I got a copy of the record, and sure enough, it was the same song, same hook, same message. There were a few lyrics changed. I said, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’”
To find out, Davis checked with Miner and Smith, and learned that “a fellow named Gary Jackson had just started coming around and wanted to be one of our staff writers. Carl and Raynard took a liking to Gary and thought he might be able to add to that group.” Smith and Miner decided to give Jackson a share in several copyrights, including “Higher And Higher.”
A subsequent rewrite of the song by Gary Jackson ended up at Brunswick Records, where label boss Nat Tarnopol and producer Carl Davis thought it right for Jackie Wilson. “Man, he heard the track and he flipped,” said William “Sonny” Sanders, a onetime member of Motown’s Satintones, who arranged that track. “Sometimes an artist has a little trouble getting into a song, or forgetting a line, or whatever. This guy, he just ate the song to bits.”
No surprise, considering that some of Detroit’s finest were playing what Wilson heard: James Jamerson on bass, Robert White and Eddie Willis on guitars, Richard “Pistol” Allen on drums, Johnny Griffith on keyboards. These were card-carrying members of the Funk Brothers, Motown’s studio band. “We would have three or four of the guys come over from Detroit, lay a few tracks for a couple of days, and go back home,” said Sanders, who remembered the “Higher And Higher” session taking place at the Columbia studios in Chicago.
Sanders also noted that drummer Allen fired the shot that made the track work. “We were playing around with this thing for about half an hour and the groove wasn’t quite there. So Pistol says, ‘Hey, Sonny, man, try this out for a second.’ I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He says, ‘Just count it down,’ and he double-timed the rhythm. Everybody knew immediately – that was it!”
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” took off soon after that session in July of 1967 – and Billy Davis told Carl Davis to keep letting it fly. “I said, ‘Look, Carl, tell Nat [Tarnopol] that you guys have apparently redone the song, and it’s apparently a hit. So I’m willing to share it with you.’” A deal was done: Billy’s name was removed, but he earned a significant share of the publishing income.
And so Billy Davis (a/k/a Tyran Carlo) was reteamed with Jackie Wilson, the very same talented man for whom he had written, with Berry Gordy, such career-lifting hits as “Reet Petite,” “To Be Loved” and “Lonely Teardrops.” The stars glittered once more, above Detroit, Chicago and many other cities united in soul.
Carl Davis, by the way, corroborated most of these details in his 2009 autobiography, The Man Behind the Music. He explained that he paid the Funk Brothers “double scale in cash, so they loved to engage in a little moonlighting for me.” The producer also noted that Motown’s Andantes “came along to provide their gospel-tinged background blend.” As for Jackie’s vocal, Davis reported that he cut it in New York, the same metropolis in which the singer first recorded “Reet Petite,” a decade earlier.
The synchronicity was complete when “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame during the same, final year of the 20th century that “Lonely Teardrops” was honoured – the biggest hit which Berry Gordy and Billy Davis wrote for “Mr. Excitement.”