Shining Shoes in L.A. and Detroit
MINE’S A JACK DANIEL’S – EDDIE, WHAT’S YOURS?
One November, many moons ago, there came a new Eddie Kendricks album, For You. It was his fifth such adventure, and introduced his last major crossover hit, “Shoeshine Boy.”
Eddie didn’t care for the song – as you can read below – but it had some of the charm of his best work. Sure, it wasn’t “Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me),” “This Used To Be The House Of Johnnie Mae” or “Tell Her Love Has Felt The Need,” but it was welcome enough in 1974. Besides, weren’t we still adjusting to the sound of Motown without the team of Funk Brothers and the alchemy of Studio A?
When working on The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, I was gratified to talk to Frank Wilson, one of the producers of For You, and Linda Allen, co-writer of “Shoeshine Boy.” She explained that the song marked one of those occasions where the opinion of Berry Gordy made a difference.
The Billboard book was published before Mr. Gordy’s autobiography, so perhaps none of us knew that he was once a shoeshine boy himself, with a homemade stand for that purpose. “It was nothing more than a chair with stirrups on top of a wooden box – an eyesore,” he admitted. “Popping my rag and singing, I was a real joy to my customers.” But since this was taking place in “the heart of white downtown,” outside Hudson’s department store in Detroit, he and his shoe-shining pals were not welcome. “We spent more time running than shining,” Gordy recalled.
Perhaps Eddie had similar memories from his childhood in Alabama, and didn’t care to relive them in song. But here’s how his hit came about:
When “Shoeshine Boy” was first released, according to Linda Allen, a senior Motown executive didn’t like the lyrics – arguing that they demeaned black people – and wanted the record killed. “But Berry believed in the song so much,” Allen remembers. “He said a shoeshine boy could be anybody, that he didn’t have to be black.”
Given its chance by the boss, “Shoeshine Boy” developed into one of Kendricks’ biggest hits. It was a professional milestone for Allen as well: her first published song. “It opened so many doors for me. To even have a song out as a single, a writer had to be signed exclusively to Motown. I wanted to be independent. I did not sign.”
Allen worked for Frank Wilson, who had successfully handled Kendricks’ segue from the Temptations to a solo career. “I remember when Eddie first came to Frank in Detroit,” she says. “He wanted to be by himself, and he wanted Frank to produce him. He was taking a risk.”
The risk paid off, with the singer’s popularity exploding in 1973 by way of “Keep On Truckin’” and “Boogie Down.” When time came to record his fifth album, Wilson selected “Shoeshine Boy,” authored by Allen with Harry Booker, a singer-turned-writer.
“Harry was a shoeshine boy once,” she explains, “and he came up with the idea. We took it from there. It was a song to encourage people, to say that no matter what you do, do the best you can. At that time, Harry and I were trying to be like Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson as writers. I remember working on the song in an apartment in Hollywood.”
Allen says Wilson would have heard “Shoeshine Boy” in demo form, sung by Booker or by Wayne Cooper. “Frank would give Eddie the demo to study, then they’d record.” Booker and Cooper sang backup on the session at Motown’s studios in Hollywood.
“I know Eddie didn’t particularly like ‘Shoeshine Boy,’” says Wilson, “but we convinced him it was a really good song, that it had a lot of potential as a crossover record. We basically were interested in taking him just a little bit more pop, but try and maintain enough of the soul to go up the R&B charts.”
“I liked Eddie, sweet Eddie,” concludes Allen. “He liked people, he spoke his mind – and he had a sense of humour. But he was like the wind, here one minute, gone the next.”
On the R&B charts, For You proved to be the third of five consecutive Top 10 albums for Kendricks. He hit the road to capitalise on the popularity of “Shoeshine Boy,” doing TV promotion and playing a variety of venues around the country. At the same time, coincidentally, came the news that the Temptations had fired Damon Harris, Kendricks’ replacement when he left the group in 1971.
And so that wraps it up, I thought: a reasonable retelling of the story of the hit song which Eddie didn’t like, and a reminder of how important Frank Wilson was to his career.
I rechecked my files on Frank, then discovered there a postscript too good to omit. Actually, Wilson had quite a few interesting postscripts, including his life as a minister. This one concerns one of his five daughters, Fawn Weaver, a real-estate investor, author and the woman who shone a light upon a slave’s role in creating America’s most famous whisky.
The full story can be located here in the New York Times, but the one-minute version is equally compelling. Weaver found and bought the farm where, in the 19th century, a Tennessee slave, Nathan “Nearest” Green, taught whisky baron Jack Daniel how to distil. She unearthed much about Green’s life in Lynchburg – what a name! – and persuaded the spirit brand’s corporate owner, Brown-Forman, to better reflect his contribution in its history. Last year, the company officially acknowledged “Nearest” as its first master distiller.
As Times reporter Clay Risen noted, “At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Green and Daniel allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as slaves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whisky.”
Eddie Kendricks certainly liked his liquor, and probably consumed his fair share of Jack Daniels. But he couldn’t have imagined how his producer’s daughter would bring recognition and respect to a slave who helped to create an iconic American brand. At least, no more than pedestrians in downtown Detroit some 80 years ago could have imagined what that young kid shining shoes outside Hudson’s would go on to do.
Music notes: “Shoeshine Boy” is available on all the usual streaming platforms, as part of The Eddie Kendricks Collection, Volume 1, an essential assembly (with volume 2) of all the singer’s solo albums for Motown. You’ll also find his post-Motown work released by Arista and Atlantic, and his duet set with David Ruffin.