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Mad Love and the Motown Troubadours

‘IT STANDS OUT ON MY PROGRAMME LIKE A SORE THUMB’

 

Early next year, Motown: The Sound of Young America (Thames & Hudson, 2016) will be published in paperback. Below is an excerpt, with a few lines added. This highlights some of the backroom believers who – far, far away from Hitsville U.S.A. – were important in its early acceptance and influence. This month, 55 years ago, one of those believers formed a fan club for the artists and music of that extraordinary time and place.

 

In England, The Bear and Ragged Staff has been used as the name of a public house since the 17th century, drawing on earlier origins as a Warwickshire coat of arms. Just south of London, a pub of similar name in the town of Crayford has been serving alcohol to locals since the early 18th century. One Saturday in the 20th century, a quartet of singers from Detroit dropped in.

   Levi Stubbs, surrounded by admirers in Crayford (photo: Clive Stone/Modus)

Levi Stubbs, surrounded by admirers in Crayford (photo: Clive Stone/Modus)

      The Four Tops were in Crayford on May 22, 1965, at the invitation of a 28-year-old telephonist from nearby Bexleyheath. They had flown into London days earlier, checked into the Mount Royal Hotel, and were working through a robust promotional schedule for “I Can’t Help Myself,” their electrifying new American hit. There were lunchtime cocktails with journalists and disc jockeys, a full slate of radio interviews, and a busy mix of live or lip-synched performances for the BBC Light Programme’s Top Gear in London, Granada TV’s Scene at 6:30 in Manchester, and Associated Rediffusion TV’s Ready Steady Goes Live back in the capital.

      But that Saturday was left free of media chores, and so the Tops visited The Bear and Ragged Staff. “It was no hysterical fan gathering,” noted the Kentish Times the following week. “Artists are regularly invited to meetings and they accept readily.” Naturally, they did. Their Crayford host was Dave Godin, that telephonist, the eccentric founder of Britain’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, and Berry Gordy’s overseas evangelist-in-chief. The society’s several hundred members were outriders: spreading the gospel, praising the music and, of course, buying the records. Godin’s recruits lived in England and Scotland, Sweden and South Africa, Poland and Zambia. Among them, too, were pop stars of the day, such as Dusty Springfield and (incognito) Mick Jagger. It is said that Jagger and Godin became acquainted at Dartford Grammar School.

DEVOTED FANS, DUPLICATION COSTS

      In 1965, Godin was on a retainer from Esther Edwards’ International Talent Management, Inc. department, which also underwrote the fan club receptions, but it didn’t begin that way. He was a milkman’s son from London, whose teenage soul was stolen when he heard Ruth Brown’s “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” in 1953. Ten years later, deeply smitten by American rhythm & blues, Godin opened the Mary Wells Fan Club and Tamla Motown Appreciation Society from his Bexleyheath home. “We are very happy that our artists have such devoted fans” ran a goodwill message from Detroit in the first edition of the Mary Wells & Motown News newsletter. The positive response encouraged Godin, notwithstanding the expense of duplication and postage. By the next edition, the membership fee was increased to seven shillings and sixpence. Meanwhile, he saved stamps from members’ letters for Britain’s Muscular Dystrophy charity.

   L’amour fou: The Marvelettes call on  American Bandstand  in Philadelphia

L’amour fou: The Marvelettes call on American Bandstand in Philadelphia

      That Godin was more sophisticated than the average pop music fan soon became clear. “The seeds of the present day new style R&B have, like the yearning for equality and justice, been several years germinating…the Detroit school is vibrantly post-war and recognises no one source as inspiration, but rather draws on the whole wide canvas of American negro culture,” Godin wrote in 1964. He affiliated the club to the anti-apartheid movement and to America’s Congress for Racial Equality, “but that part was strictly optional for members. The climate was very different then.”

      TMAS encouraged members to contribute to the newsletter. In one such piece, entitled “The Art of Martha & the Vandellas,” David Stead opined, “It is unlikely the Motown stars have been directly influenced by Monteverdi or the troubadours, but their music springs from similar social sources and uses similar technical means of expression.”

      Godin’s despair at record reviewers’ ignorance of American R&B leapt from the pages of Mary Wells & Motown News, and he often wrote to the weekly music papers. This attracted the approval of other readers of New Musical Express, Disc and, especially, Record Mirror, while increasing the appreciation society’s membership. “I suppose it’s like being gay,” he later declared. “Everybody thinks they’re the only gay person in the world until they realise there’s more out there.” Asked once about his all-time favourite Motown record, Godin singled out 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes. The record is “so layered and intense,” he replied, “it impacts like l’amour fou, but then, I’ve always been a bit of a surrealist, and they were very taken with l’amour fou too!”

SELF-SUFFICIENT ORIOLE

      John Schroeder was no surrealist, but he was another of the white friends of soul brothers who helped Motown to gain ground in Britain. He joined EMI Records in 1957, and worked for Norrie Paramor, one of its top recording managers. As a songwriter, he co-authored several hits for Helen Shapiro, a precocious teenager whose dark, deep delivery bears comparison to that of Amy Winehouse. His industry credentials thus polished, Schroeder was approached by Morris Levy of Oriole Records, who had built a business by recording “happy birthday” and similar greetings for customers at his London record store. Next, Levy duplicated current hits with anonymous singers and musicians, selling these sound-alikes on a cut-price label through Woolworths. Like Berry Gordy, Levy believed in self-sufficiency: Oriole had its own studio and pressing plant.

   John Schroeder with Helen Shapiro

John Schroeder with Helen Shapiro

      Morris Levy (not to be confused with the American of the same name) was driven. Schroeder said, “Morris told me, ‘I want someone like yourself, John, if you’re interested, to set up this label as a proper major.’” He accepted the challenge and began scouting for new British artists, while persuading the Oriole owner that Tamla Motown was a promising wellspring of American repertoire. “I found Motown registering in the U.S. charts all the time, and couldn’t believe that they had no distribution here.” Oriole made contact: a one-year license deal was agreed. Levy’s team set to work, creating an Oriole-American label and orchestrating the U.K. release in September 1962 of U.S. hits by The Marvelettes, The Contours and Dave Godin’s queen, Mary Wells.

      They never stood a chance. 

      Unlike America, there were few broadcast outlets in Britain for mainstream pop music, let alone for the rough-edged, rattling R&B recordings from Detroit. Sharp was the contrast between the singles which Oriole vainly marketed and 1962’s biggest-selling U.K. hits by the likes of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Acker Bilk. Only Ray Charles hinted at a different world and colour, but his British chart presence that year was due to comforting country tunes such as “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

IN THE HANDS OF THE LIGHT PROGRAMME  

      Others in the U.K. had been scanning Cash Box and Billboard for American repertoire to license, but the results were often mixed. An internal EMI assessment of Motown’s 1962 output was brutal: “Many of the records concerned are ‘race’ or ‘rhythm and blues’ for which there is very little demand or appreciation outside the U.S.” Ronnie Bell, Oriole’s genial exploitation chief, later admitted that he thought much of the Motown output was “horrible.” Nevertheless, he pressed the records into the hands of BBC disc jockeys, when the hands weren’t around the drinks he bought. According to DJ Paul Hollingdale, Bell was popular with the BBC’s Gramophone Department; its main outlet for records was the Light Programme. Still, no airplay resulted. 

      Bell recruited Hollingdale to front The Big O Show on Radio Luxembourg, paid to spin Oriole’s releases in a 15-minute slot on Wednesday nights. Known as “208” for its spot on the medium waveband, Radio Luxembourg was a beacon amid the post-war fog of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a centre of gravity for Europe’s teenagers who devoured its evening output of constant pop music, akin to American radio. To British record companies, 208 sold contracts for the night-time airplay of current and would-be hits, presented by a variety of disc jockeys.

   Dave Godin with Marvin Gaye, 1964

Dave Godin with Marvin Gaye, 1964

      John Schroeder’s benchmark was EMI. “I knew a lot about their structure, their pressing, advertising, marketing, and everything about Columbia Records, in particular. When I was there, Norrie Paramor and I were up against George Martin, Norman Newell and Wally Ridley, the other recording managers. They all had assistants, and they were all competing with each other.” Internal competition was Berry Gordy’s mantra, too, but Oriole was ultimately outgunned. It pumped out nineteen Motown singles and seven LPs during its one-year license deal, orgasmic fare for members of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. None sold sufficiently to reach the charts. “The big disappointment about it all was that the dear old BBC didn’t want to know,” concluded Schroeder. “Alan Freeman said, ‘John, I love this stuff, it’s great to have, but I can’t play it. My producer won’t let me play it.  It stands out on my programme like a sore thumb.’ ”

      Towards the end of 1962, four young Liverpudlians about to revolutionise popular culture made clear their appetite for American rhythm & blues. Signed to EMI’s Parlophone label, The Beatles began bringing records into London’s Abbey Road studios to signal to George Martin the sounds they sought for themselves. Since 1960, their on-stage repertoire had included “Money (That’s What I Want),” the song first recorded the previous year by Barrett Strong at Motown, and one of the company’s first significant earners. “We all had the Miracles, we all had Barrett Strong and people like that,” Ringo Starr said of their record collections. “I suppose that helped us gel as musicians, and as a group.” Their neighbours in Liverpool knew many a merchant seaman who criss-crossed the Atlantic, returning home with American blues, jazz and R&B records. The Beatles also had access to their city’s North End Music Stores, where manager Brian Epstein stocked at least one copy of every U.K. record release. As this new generation of musicians came of age, a growing number of them played and recorded rhythm & blues.

      The gospel preached by Dave Godin, however, was that these replicas did not help. “I feel it is very wrong to insist (as British artists do) on doing cover jobs of these originals,” wrote Lynn Buxton in the fan club newsletter, “when the inferior cover versions are plugged by DJs and give people a bad impression of once fabulous songs. The T/M artists are really true R&B and it makes me mad when people like Manfred Mann, Bern Elliott and Dave Berry call themselves by this name.”

 

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Book notes: the Marvelettes’ photo above appears in Motown: The Sound of Young America, in the company of many others, together with a narrative akin to the extract here. The shot of The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs in The Bear And Ragged Staff is one of many contained in Keith Rylatt’s Hitsville! The Birth of Tamla Motown (Modus The House of Soul, 2016). This tells the story of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, its escapades and its members, with colourful detail and remarkable photos. John Schroeder wrote about his career, including the brief Motown adventure, in Sex & Violins (Pen Press, 2009). Also, David Hughes, a former general manager of Motown Records U.K., interviewed Schroeder for his highly readable blog, Vinyl Memories.

Music notes: the Motown singles and albums issued in the U.K. on Oriole-American during 1962-63 are impossibly rare and valuable in their original vinyl form, even as the music is widely available on digital platforms today. Also precious are pressings of the 1964 “Christmas greetings” single, voiced by various Hitsville artists and sent to TMAS members. The late Dave Godin’s evangelism for rhythm & blues continued long after he closed the fan club, and has since been sustained by a series of compilation albums from Britain’s Ace Records on its Kent label. The fifth volume of Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures is being prepared for 2019 release; Ace has finally been able to license two tracks which Godin wanted for the very first volume, the Emotions’ “Somebody New” and Helena Ferguson’s “Where Is The Party.”

Adam White4 Comments