A Night to Remember at l'Olympia
TAMLA MOTOWN TRAVELS TO THE CITY OF LIGHT
“I appreciate the sense of equality and freedom without the unspoken prejudice that is present in America. I can understand why so many performers travelled to Europe in the early days and decided to live there. It was how the Europeans made them feel: special and important.”
This endorsement appeared in Diana Ross’ memoirs, secrets of a sparrow. Other Motown stars have expressed similar sentiments over the years. So have some of its musicians. Arranger Wade Marcus, for example, seemed to glow when recalling the time he accompanied Stevie Wonder to Paris in 1963 for concerts at the storied Olympia music hall, and years earlier, when Wade played in the French capital as a member of Lionel Hampton’s band.
Then there were the words of Smokey Robinson, breathlessly delivered to an Olympia audience on today’s date – April 13 – in 1965. “It’s really wonderful being here,” he said. “I only wish I could speak French, so that I could let you know how wonderful it is.” He and his Miracles were topping the bill that night, and about to burst into the next song of their memorable 25-minute set.
Years earlier, the hint of a warm welcome overseas may have been apparent to Berry Gordy. In 1958, his first hit song, Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet),” reached the U.K. Top 10. In 1960, Marv Johnson’s “You Got What It Takes” earned Top 20 status in Australia, where the singer flew to perform with the Everly Brothers, the Crickets and Bobby Rydell. As Motown progressed in America, it made a number of ad hoc foreign license deals.
In 1962, Gordy contracted with Oriole Records, which undertook an energetic effort to market Motown in Britain. The following year, he and lieutenants Esther Edwards and Barney Ales flew to Europe in search of wider business opportunities; Paris was among the stops. That September, a new Motown pact for the region took effect with EMI Records, including its French affiliate, Pathe Marconi. And in December, the Detroit firm was paid $4,300 (worth $35,000 today) for 13-year-old Stevie to join a line-up of American, British and French stars in concert for two weeks at the Olympia, in a deal done with venue proprietor Bruno Coquatrix.
ABERBACH SEPARATES STEVIE
After each show, 13-year-old Wonder, Wade and others in the party, including Esther Edwards and Wonder’s tutor, Ted Hull, needed to dine. “We found a lot of nice restaurants,” Marcus told me, including one with African cuisine “which shocked the hell out of me. I didn’t know there were restaurants like that.” In general, the musician said, “the regular French food was great. So much different than in the United States.”
Motown’s releases through EMI were initially routed via the British company’s existing imprints, such as Columbia in France and Stateside in the U.K. When EMI agreed to introduce the Tamla Motown label in the spring of 1965, as part of a renewed license deal, Gordy committed to sending the Motortown Revue to the U.K. and to close the tour with the package’s first – and only – continental performance on April 13. Where else but l’Olympia?
The Paris extravaganza was to take place a mere 24 hours after the final British date, with the same line-up: Stevie, Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, and the Supremes, all backed by Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers. By then, the artists and musicians were tired from the demanding, twice-nightly U.K. tour. But the Olympia show was important, fuelled by Pathe Marconi’s promotional efforts for the Tamla Motown debut. The company booked newspaper advertising and poster space on 50 large sites across the capital. Its promotional giveaway was an impressive gatefold bundle with artist photos, biographies and a 12-track compilation LP.
The first Tamla Motown releases were the Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go album and EPs by Van Dyke’s combo, the Velvelettes and Jr. Walker & the All Stars, followed swiftly by four-trackers from the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and the Miracles. At that point, to its considerable chagrin, Pathe Marconi did not have rights to Stevie’s music. There was a separate deal – negotiated in Paris on Motown’s behalf by music publisher Julian Aberbach – with another French firm, Barclay, which put out Wonder EPs on its 707 and Riviera labels. Eventually, the EMI affiliate gained those rights. (In the March 2014 issue of Record Collector, Motown aficionado Paul J. Hunter wrote an authoritative piece about all the Tamla Motown EPs issued in France; I’m indebted to him for other information in this report. Also, a shout-out to former Billboard colleague Emmanuel Legrand.)
The French love of American jazz and rhythm & blues was evident in the detail of the Pathe Marconi releases. On the sleeve of Van Dyke’s Soul Stomp EP were published the names of musicians in the West Grand house band. Three of them appeared at the Olympia: guitarist Robert White, percussionist Jack Ashford and Van Dyke on keyboards. No such credits would appear on the cover art of Motown’s U.S. albums for another six years.
The other American sidemen on the 1965 tour were drummer Bob Cousar, normally in service to Motown as a trombonist; bass player Tony Newton, then just 19 years old and inexplicably name-checked as “Floyd” during the Paris show; and saxman Eli Fontaine, who in five years would be immortalised playing the distinctive flourishes on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Said Newton, “It was my first time out of the country and it was an adventure for me. Whatever came my way, I was just eating it up.”
The Tamla Motown menu was to reviewers’ taste, too. “Concertgoers who went to the Olympia on April 13 were exposed to the purest reflection of today’s American R&B,” enthused Roland Philippe in Disco Revue. The Supremes’ stage show, he added, was “perfectly-timed choreography, to the second,” while Stevie Wonder, declared Italian critic S.G. Biamonte, “shakes like a man possessed.” Not all media coverage was positive, with some reports of poor ticket sales. But in the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society newsletter, Peter Verpilleux observed that the Miracles’ finale earned them a standing ovation. “I watched from the wings, and I was very impressed by the way the artists watched another act with such enthusiasm and enjoyment, joining in the clapping and cheering at the end.”
Better still, the night was preserved for history, taped and issued – in edited form – as Recorded Live/Motortown Revue In Paris some months afterwards. Later still, in 2016, the audio of the complete, unedited show was issued on CD and vinyl, and in its original sequence. As such, it remains one of the few start-to-finish recordings of a single Motown concert made commercially available, since past practice was to assemble the best parts of several nights’ performances into one album.
WORDS NOT MINCED
Recorded Live/Motortown Revue In Paris even included the enthusiasm of compere Harold Kay, a radio presenter for the Europe No. 1 radio network under the Musicorama banner. “I hope you will have – I hope we will all have – a marvellous evening,” Kay declared (in French) at the start, “because this Musicorama has a very unique and exceptional character, and I’m not mincing my words.” From the evidence, the recording was done by one microphone (or two, at most) plugged into one tape machine, or a few mikes capturing sounds that were mixed to mono on the spot. The location engineers had some trouble with the lead microphone in the second half – despite Kay’s mike check at the top of the first – when the beginning of “Come See About Me” and the harmony balance in “People” were lost. On the 2016 release, this authenticity was not.
In mid-1965, when Robert Gordy in Detroit assembled the Olympia material for U.S. release in November, he closed the LP’s first side with the Miracles, and the second with Wonder. On the night, Stevie had wrapped up the first half and the Miracles had closed the show, bringing all the other performers to the stage for “Mickey’s Monkey,” as they had in England, Scotland and Wales.
This was an exciting climax, but far from the only highpoint. The immaculate work of Earl Van Dyke’s musicians was evident throughout, including his keyboard dexterity on “All For You” and “All About My Girl,” a Jimmy McGriff tune; dynamic solos by Eli Fontaine; the bluesy fretwork of Robert White; and the remarkable bass fluidity of Tony Newton. Those in the pick-up brass section were no slouches either, exemplified by the pumping intro to Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” Reeves robustly sang that number, “Nowhere To Run” and “Dancing In The Street.”
Returning to the venue he had played 16 months earlier, “the big Stevie Wonder” – Harold Kay’s words – delighted the crowd with infectious harmonica work, a magnetic rendering of “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Clarence Paul, and such an incendiary version of “Fingertips” that it was no surprise that Robert Gordy selected this for the original LP finale.
'LOVED BY PEOPLE LIVING SO FAR AWAY'
For “Les Supremes,” there was an agenda on display: not only in the engaging performance of their hits, but also in the nightclub delivery of “Somewhere” and “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You.” These were Tin Pan Alley standards soon to underpin the group’s debut at New York's Copacabana. (After singing “Somewhere” at the Olympia, Diana Ross mentioned its inclusion in a forthcoming album, There’s A Place For Us, but this stayed unissued until 2004.)
To close, compere Kay introduced “a composer, for one, and also the vice president of a company, which is pretty rare to see on the Olympia stage.” This, of course, was Smokey, fronting the Miracles’ ebullient workout of dance-floor delights (“I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying,” “Come On Do The Jerk”) and following Gordy’s showbiz master plan with the group’s layered harmony of “Wives And Lovers.” When Robinson mesmerised the audience with his sublime falsetto on “Ooo Baby Baby,” the magic was audible. He bathed in the applause which followed its stunning climax: “Thank you. Merci.”
Paris left an indelible mark on all present. Diana’s post-Olympia vacation there with Gordy has since been documented in his autobiography and other books, and flaunted in Motown: The Musical. Fellow Supreme Mary Wilson, on the 40th anniversary of the transatlantic journey, said, “The introduction of Motown on that 1965 tour was the beginning of a relationship that has gone on, and many of us to this day will say that we’re appreciated [in Europe].” To a greater degree, she added, than at home.
Martha Reeves’ recollections of Paris were coloured by her view that by then, she and the Vandellas were standing in the shadows of the Supremes, while Smokey remembered that his European fans were as devoted as those in America. “It was wonderful to learn that we were loved by people living so far away,” he declared in 1989. And Stevie? When he returned to Paris for a 2008 concert, he hummed Edith Piaf’s “Milord” to a delighted crowd.
Smokey, Diana, Martha and Stevie may gather occasionally under one roof in the 21st century – most likely, that of a TV studio or at an anniversary party – but they can never again be who, or what, they were on April 13, 1965. The world lay at their feet in the City of Light, where they truly were “The Sound of Young America.”
Music notes: the original, Paris-recorded album is available on streaming services, on its own and as part of the 40th Anniversary Collection of live Motown material, released in 2004. The unedited recording is not, so it may require a search party for physical copies of the 2016 two-CD set and three-LP vinyl package. Bonne chance!