West Grand Blog

From the Donovan Files?

IMAGES OF MOTOWN’S PAST COMMAND A PRETTY PRICE

 

So now the photos are worth more than the records.

      Well, I should qualify this: some of the photos are more valuable than many of the records. Perhaps that’s been the case for some time, but it was vividly illustrated by a recent eBay auction of vintage Motown photographs, both prints and contact sheets.

      The seller known as burl*one seemed to secure more than $100 apiece for images of the Originals, Barbara McNair, Hattie Littles, the Contours, and the Mynah Birds. Others commanded more than $150 each, including those of Brenda Holloway, the Jackson 5, Barbara Randolph and the Monitors.

      A fabulous performance shot of Shorty Long earned more than $150, too. A publicity image of LaBrenda Ben topped the $350 mark. A contact sheet showing the Supremes with the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier exceeded $400. (This was the session from which came the image used on the back of The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland.)

   Dolores Coleman, pictured by Motown

Dolores Coleman, pictured by Motown

      Two particular offerings caught my eye: a PR portrait of barely-known Dolores Coleman, and an in-studio image of Caldin (Carolyn) Gill of the Velvelettes with French musician Pierre Berjot.

      It was West Grand Blog reader Bill Staiger who first asked about Coleman when he saw the publicity shot, which displays the singer standing, regally, with a tiara on her head, while the caption names Motown’s management wing as her career custodian.

      This is intriguing for one simple reason: Motown never released anything by Coleman, a onetime gospel singer who was a protégé of blues/jazz queen Dinah Washington. She did record at Hitsville, but only one track is listed in the fathoms-deep files of Don’t Forget The Motor City: “Grieving About A Love.” This was produced by Harvey Fuqua, who co-wrote the song with James Nyx and Billy Davis; the session date was March 8, 1964.

      Fuqua supervised an earlier recording of the tune, released in 1961 by Tri-Phi Records, one of his pre-Motown endeavours. On that occasion, the singer was Lorri Rudolph. Her version of “Grieving About A Love” is undistinguished, although she sings soulfully, and breaks loose towards the end. Coleman delivers more of an uptempo shuffle, notable for fuller instrumentation and her strong, bluesy voice. Nonetheless, Motown chose not to release it, nor to record anything else with her, it seems.

      Yet when you know that “My Guy” was created a few days before the Coleman session, and that “Where Did Our Love Go” was made just one month later, it’s no surprise that “Grieving About A Love” was canned. It is anchored in Motown’s prologue, before the records by Mary Wells and the Supremes creatively challenged – and outran – almost everything else in American popular music at the time.

SPARKLING AND JUMPING

      Still, Coleman had talent. Blessed by Dinah, she sparkled in nightclubs across the nation during the 1950s. (In addition, her décolleté dress had everything “jumping” during one Manhattan gig in ’56, according to The New York Age.) In 1960, she was part of a package tour headlined by Jackie Wilson, supported by Etta James, the Spaniels, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and a post-Moonglows Harvey Fuqua.

      Also in 1960, Coleman played Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. Given how frequently Berry Gordy hung out at the Flame, maybe that’s how she gravitated to Motown. Or perhaps she impressed Fuqua when they were touring together, and he kept her in mind when he began working for Gordy. (What happened to the singer after Motown is harder to trace.)

   Pierre Berjot with the Velvelettes' Cal Gill

Pierre Berjot with the Velvelettes' Cal Gill

      The hotspots of Detroit and other cities were familiar to Pierre Berjot (a/k/a Jaubert), too. He is pictured here with Cal Gill during the Velvelettes' French-language recording session, thought to have taken place in early 1964. Gordy learned that Gill had majored in French at high school, according to the group’s collective recollections in liner notes for The Motown Anthology. (This was a 2004 U.K. release, compiled and produced by Gill and John Lester, a Velvelettes evangelist and authority.)

      By the mid ’60s, Motown was keen to serve overseas markets, following Gordy's first European visit in 1963. The Supremes rendered vocal overdubs of their hits in German, for example, as did the Temptations and Marvin Gaye; all three acts even recorded original German songs. The Velvelettes’ French sides included “As Long As I Know He’s Mine” and “My Foolish Heart (Keeps Hanging On To A Memory),” with Berjot's assistance. (A French music industry friend commends Cal's diction on the latter track, which becomes "Je Veux Crier" when translated. "Quite exotic," he adds.)

      At that stage, Berjot had spent more than a decade playing in American nightspots (“Come in and hear Pierre’s 27 harmonicas!” declared one newspaper ad), including Detroit’s Club 509. He even appeared on bandleader Lawrence Welk’s network TV show. “I was not very good at playing music,” Berjot claimed in a 2008 interview republished by Funk*U magazine after his death last year at age 88. “On the other hand, I was much better at listening to it.” While travelling, he became acquainted in Chicago with producer Johnny Pate, and in Detroit with Berry Gordy.

STEVIE'S FRENCH SANDCASTLES

      Thus, Berjot’s connection to the Velvelettes. Gordy “took great pleasure in listening to Pierre and Cal carry on conversations in French,” according to the group’s recollections in The Motown Anthology. They committed to tape a total of four tracks in the language, and also encountered “a very nervous and anxious” Stevie Wonder doing likewise with “Castles In The Sand.” Berjot told Funk*U, “I gave him [French] lessons for a fortnight.”

   Pierre Berjot with Johnny Pate

Pierre Berjot with Johnny Pate

      The Velvelettes’ material took 40 years to be released; Wonder’s “Les Chateaux De Sable” has apparently stayed in the vault.

      Later in 1965, Berjot returned home, but maintained his American links via employment at Musidisc, the French licensee for labels such as Chess, Prestige and Fantasy. In 1973, his co-production of King Harvest’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” was a Top 20 hit on the Billboard pop charts; subsequently, he worked with disco singers Michelle and Chantal Curtis.

      It’s unlikely that Pierre Berjot or Dolores Coleman ever entered the Donovan building, Motown’s corporate headquarters in downtown Detroit from 1968-72, although that’s where their photographs were probably stored for years. The firm retained the premises after relocating to Los Angeles, but they were eventually emptied out and fell into disrepair. In that period, much minutiae of Motown – paperwork, photographs, even the passport of Marvin Gaye – left the building, by oversight or by neglect, by dumpster or, in 2006, by demolition.

      Some years ago, former Motown employee Joe Shillair recalled finding dozens of artefacts which had been thrown out of the Donovan, unloved. “I was so darn excited that one would have thought I had found buried treasure,” he exclaimed in the magazine of the Motown International Collector’s Club. Clearly, others have had the same experience.

      If it’s not gold or silver, treasure is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to Motown, what’s in the photographs now appears to count almost as much as what’s in the grooves.

 

MUSIC NOTES: You can find the Velvelettes’ French recordings from The Motown Anthology and Motown Around The World via the usual online services, as well as other foreign-language material made at Hitsville. Lorri Rudolph’s original of “Grieving About A Love” is on YouTube, but music by Dolores Coleman seems to be entirely absent. Please advise if you know better.

Adam WhiteComment