Rear View Mirror: Motown 2018
DEPARTURES, DREAMS, INSPIRATIONS AND THE UNRELEASED
For this, the last West Grand Blog of 2018, what better time to look back, in joy and in sorrow?
It’s been a busy 12 months for all things Motown, so this must be a subjective review. And, hard though it is, let’s begin with sorrow: the tragic symmetry of the deaths of Dennis Edwards (on February 1) and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin (October 24), and the loss of Eddie Willis (August 20) before Motown’s 60th anniversary.
Although Edwards deserves to be celebrated for more than one piece of music, the truth is that he will forever be associated with “Cloud Nine.” The intensity of his delivery, a fresh sound for the Temptations, a provocative lyric, and the residual shock of hearing someone other than David Ruffin upfront – all this made the record a true Motown milestone, and, not coincidentally, the company’s first release to earn a Grammy.
It was Dennis Coffey’s skill with the wah-wah pedal on “Cloud Nine” which influenced fellow guitarist Watson, eventually leading to the latter’s signature sound on “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and other fine records. Indeed, given Norman Whitfield’s addiction in the ’70s to an almost-cinematic musical landscape, complete with long instrumental passages, it was inevitable that Wah Wah would become a key contributor to the producer’s work. And if there’s a single record other than “Cloud Nine” which can define Dennis Edwards, it’s surely “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” and that commanding lyric line: “It was the third of September…”
More than a decade earlier, Eddie “Chank” Willis was among the musicians playing on “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson, muscling their way into the history books when the record was released as Tamla 101 on January 21, 1959. As the guitarist became a regular in Berry Gordy’s house band, his fretwork helped to shape “the Sound of Young America” and some of its finest moments: “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Was Made To Love Her.”
“He had that Southern thing,” Coffey told Billboard upon Willis’ passing. “He’d always come up with some funky lines. We did many sessions together, and he was just an all-round nice guy.” In 1993, Willis had revisited his Hitsville highs as a member of Spirit Traveler, playing – alongside the son of James Jamerson – “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and more on an album for Japan’s JVC label. As with so much Motown, Willis’ licks echoed around the world.
STILL MORE FROM THE VAULTS
The craft of “Chank” and his fellow Funk Brothers was also evident on the late-year bundle of Motown Unreleased 1968, featuring recordings by stars, near-stars and non-stars across two digital volumes. The first was the subject of last week’s West Grand Blog; the second set contains further items of value, including six tracks by Chris Clark. Four of those were produced by Berry Gordy – “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” “Sunny,” “Feeling Good” (from the Broadway musical, The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd), “Growing” – and two by Hal Davis.
The variety of songs suggests that Gordy was unsure how to achieve Clark’s career breakthrough after the commercial disappointment of her stunning 1967 debut album, Soul Sounds. In the event, he turned to Deke Richards, offering this relative newcomer to Motown the task of producing an entire long-player by the singer. Richards accepted, while raising the stakes by asking for it to be released on a new label, Weed Records. When CC Rides Again (with arrangements by David Van DePitte) came out in 1969, it sold fewer than Soul Sounds. Nonetheless, Richards wrote on the Motown Forum in 2015, “I had fun producing, CC had fun singing live with the orchestra, David had fun writing and recording, the musicians had fun playing the charts, and Berry had fun watching it all go down.”
Such are the delights of Motown Unreleased 1968, just like those of another digital December delivery, Motown Gospel – In Loving Memory: Expanded Edition. This 35-track set dives deep into the music of the 1968 album tribute to Gordy’s late sister, Loucye Wakefield. West Grand Blog will return to the subject at a later date, but the calibre of the artists and the power of their performances make In Loving Memory an exceptional 2018 release. Is there any chance of its availability in physical form, with an account of how the original LP – and the expanded edition – came to be?
SMOKEY HELPS TO MAKE MAGIC
From gospel gravitas to childhood innocence and, specifically, the debut this year of an animated children’s TV series, Motown Magic, on Netflix. The central “character” is an eight-year-old boy, Ben, with a vivid imagination and a magic paintbrush, which he uses to bring street art to life in his home city, Motown. The soundtrack of the 25-episode run features new versions of Jobete tunes by a range of contemporary artists, such as BJ The Chicago Kid and Ne-Yo – both are signed to Motown today – and Trombone Shorty. The series’ theme tune is “ABC,” performed by 11-year-old Zacary James, who was discovered when a videoclip of he and his brothers performing the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” went viral in 2016.
Creator Josh Wakely recruited Smokey Robinson as the executive music producer of Motown Magic, and Smoke’s newly-recorded versions of “My Girl” and “I’ll Be Doggone” are used in the series and on the soundtrack album. Detroit native Don Was also came on board as a music producer, as did Bob Mothersbaugh, once of Devo. Each episode is named after a Motown song, which is heard therein in some form – although BJ The Chicago Kid’s rendering of “Living For The City” doesn’t seem to include a re-enactment of the drug bust heard in Stevie Wonder’s original. Even so, getting rights to use such Wonder copyrights as “Sir Duke,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Happy Birthday” is impressive.
Motown Magic is fun to watch as a kids’ cartoon series, and can help the music to reach a new generation. Naturally, there’s a “Dancing Machine,” as well as a car called “Jimmy Mack.” One episode is tagged “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” although there’s neither sight nor sound of a smoke-filled “Cloud Nine.” Still, there’s a fair chance that Dennis Edwards’ grandchildren have been watching Motown Magic. A second series is likely in 2019.
The afore-mentioned Stevie Wonder was active – as always – during 2018, even if that didn’t extend to releasing a new album. (There was a rumour last Christmas within music business circles that one was imminent, but it proved to be false.) Nonetheless, the star has been heard this year on recordings by others, such as John Legend’s “What Christmas Means To Me,” where he plays harmonica.
STEVIE TWEETS: GET OUT AND VOTE
Earlier in 2018, Stevie joined Twitter. It happened on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, complete with a #DreamStillLives hashtag and the subsequent posting of inspirational video messages by, among others, Berry Gordy, Billie Jean King, Bruce Springsteen, Jesse Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Elton John, Apple’s Tim Cook, Cher, Lionel Richie, London mayor Sadiq Khan, and Barack and Michelle Obama. More recent tweets have promoted Stevie’s “Song Party” concerts – and his annual charity show, House Full Of Toys – and encouraged U.S. citizens to vote in the midterm elections.
The Temptations have been on Twitter since 2009, and this year the platform proved useful in spreading the word about their first new album in eight years, All The Time, and about the continuing progress of Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations. This stage musical played successfully in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Toronto during 2018. When I spoke to Otis Williams a couple of months ago, he was generous with praise for those involved, including director Des McAnuff, choreographer Sergio Trujillo and scriptwriter Dominique Morisseau. “We go to Broadway,” said Otis, “in February!”
What else occurred in 2018? How long have you got? Here are more highlights from a jam-packed year:
Peter Benjaminson’s The Story Of Motown from 1979 was republished, with a new foreword by masterful music historian Greil Marcus. This was one of the first books to take the subject seriously – David Morse’s Motown was another, in 1971 – and earned good notices. Benjaminson’s six years of journalism at the Detroit Free Press certainly equipped him for the challenge, while West Grand Blog readers are likely to know his subsequent, thorough biographies of Florence Ballard, Mary Wells and Rick James. The author is now researching a biography of Bill Haley.
MICHELLE PAYS A VISIT
The Motown Museum makes news regularly, not least with the fundraising efforts for its ambitious upgrade plans (one-third of the $50 million target has now been reached). This year’s highlight was an unannounced visit on December 11 by Michelle Obama, who has been criss-crossing the U.S. to promote her memoir, Becoming. She was at 2648 West Grand with her brother Craig Robinson and Detroit actor Keegan-Michael Key, talking to students from Wayne State University. Motown Records is a sponsor of the former First Lady’s book tour, while she has put her name to a 40-track Motown playlist on streaming services. Naturally, it includes Stevie’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” which her husband used during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Also this year, the copyright infringement case involving Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” came to its conclusion, with an award of almost $5 million to the late singer’s family. A California judge ruled in their favour in the long-running lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams and their 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines.” The family will receive 50% of future royalties earned by the infringing song.
In May, the parks department of Washington, D.C., opened the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center, a $14 million facility with music room, art gallery, tech lounge and fitness centre. There’s no update on the proposed six-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of the singer to be installed there. Separately, the U.S. Postal Service confirmed that it will issue a commemorative stamp to honour Gaye in 2019.
Meanwhile, clothing brand Supreme has just introduced a line of sweatshirts, t-shirts and skateboards which feature the artwork of What’s Going On. (The photographer for the original LP cover shoot was Jim Hendin.) This “Marvin Gaye Collection” is available online and in Supreme physical stores in the U.S., Britain, France and Japan. Again, it’s apparent that Motown remains popular worldwide.
LADY SOUL IS RESPECTED
The Jacksons reinforced that fact in 2018, too, with concert dates at home and abroad, including crowd-pleasing shows in Britain, Ireland and Spain. Next year, they’re bound for Australia and Latin America, among other destinations. This July, their Twitter feed noted the birthday of father Joe Jackson, who died on June 27. “We miss you,” the brothers declared.
Returning to sorrow, then. Motown/Invictus songwriter/producer Ron Dunbar died on April 3, meriting an obituary in the New York Times. Mourning on an even more public scale followed the death of Aretha Franklin in Detroit on August 16, with tributes from titans of music and beyond. “In her voice,” declared the Obamas, “we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”
Lady Soul’s association with Motown was through a shared city of birth, through private passions (Dennis Edwards comes to mind again) and public friendships (Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops), and most of all, through music. It’s hard to outshine a Motown original, but Aretha’s recordings of “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” were serious contenders. Her version of “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” elevated an obscure Stevie Wonder song to higher ground, while her duet with Levi Stubbs, “If Ever A Love There Was,” remains moving and magical to this day.
In closing with melancholy, I’ll mention friends: one personal, Cliff White, and one professional, Helmut Fest. Music writer Cliff (no relation) died in London on January 25, and there was a West Grand Blog devoted to him shortly afterwards. Helmut, who died on August 21 in Zurich, was an executive whom I knew during my Billboard years, when he was the London-based director of EMI Records’ international A&R and marketing activities – always accessible, always gracious, and as candid as someone in his position could be when talking to the trade press. Before that, he was the label manager for Motown at EMI Germany in Cologne.
“I was lucky,” Helmut told me several years ago, “as I could enjoy one of Motown’s best periods ever, from the Temptations’ All Directions, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and Diana Ross’ Lady Sings The Blues to very successful albums by the Commodores, Lionel Richie and so on, plus the fantastic back catalogue.” Yet it was what he admitted was a “dreadful instrumental” by Englishman Phil Cordell, “Dan The Banjo Man,” which proved in 1974 to be one of Motown’s most lucrative European-signed releases.
“I managed somehow to get the entire company behind this, and it became number one in the German singles chart. I don’t think it happened anywhere else, but it made me a Motown favourite.” By Helmut’s estimate, the track sold 250,000 singles, and continued to earn when included on compilation albums. “I personally had a wonderful time being involved with Motown,” he added. “There were unforgettable concerts and promotional trips with Stevie – particularly his 1974 TV concert for Musikladen, which I organised – and with Diana.” Fest also worked with the latter after she left Motown and signed with EMI for the world outside North America.
More recently, he tended to the European interests of American vocal combo Naturally 7 when they were touring the world with Michael Bublé. “The group sang live on stage with a Stevie clip of ‘Fingertips Pt. 2,’” he recalled. “When I approached Universal Music for the video rights, I could hardly find anyone who remembered the original clip. I then settled for an excerpt from Stevie on The Ed Sullivan Show. This is where my Motown knowledge and past came in handy.”
And so to irony: Phil Cordell played almost every instrument on “Dan The Banjo Man,” but the recording didn’t actually feature a banjo. To make a guitar sound like one, Cordell deployed an automatic wah-wah pedal. Would “Wah Wah” or “Chank” have been amused? Probably. A hit is a hit is a hit.
West Grand Blog will, with luck, return in 2019. In the meantime, here’s wishing readers a fine Christmas, a bountiful New Year, and an enjoyable Motown 60.
Music notes: yes, “Dan The Banjo Man” is accessible on streaming services, you lucky people. Unfortunately, Spirit Traveler is not. But much of the other music mentioned above is available digitally or in physical form, including various 2018 releases cited in past West Grand Blog posts: Lamont Dozier’s Reimagination, the Spinners’ While The City Sleeps, Bobby Darin’s Go Ahead & Back Up: The Lost Motown Masters, the expanded edition of The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland, and Baby You’ve Got It! More Motown Girls. In the holiday spirit, Universal Music has just issued Wonderful Christmas Time by Diana Ross on her Ross Records imprint. This 20-track package includes 14 tracks which originally appeared in 1994 on the star’s A Very Special Season album, produced by Nick Martinelli. Universal Music’s Harry Weinger tells me that the other six come from a Hallmark exclusive collection (from 1994, too) which otherwise featured instrumentals. All 20 tracks make their digital debut this time around, he notes. This year also saw some Motown catalogue albums and singles become available again in vinyl, including Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” The latter 45 was pressed in red, just like Santa’s suit.