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More Motown Girls

Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago Ace plays its cards right

 

The forthcoming compilation of rare Motown from Ace Records is fuelled by two dozen tracks. The number of souls involved would have run into scores, if not hundreds: songwriters, musicians, arrangers, producers, singers. Most of the music was recorded between 1963 and 1966, yet the results were unreleased at the time. Whose reputations were staked on these sessions? What promises made, what hopes dashed?

      It’s time, then, for a few background tales. Some will be subjective, or merely scratching the surface. Some may be inconsequential. In fact, the better option – your choice – is to play the music when Baby I’ve Got It! More Motown Girls arrives at the end of this month. But if you read on now, you’ve been warned.

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      Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “In My Heart I Know It’s Right” is a stunning curtain-raiser. It’s said to be their first recording for Motown, and it’s as jet-propelled as “Just Walk In My Shoes,” their first Hitsville release. It’s a joy to hear Gladys’ voice – strong, confident – muscling its way to the front, mixed to perfection. Both “In My Heart…” and “Just Walk…” were committed to tape at the same Detroit session in April 1966.

      Larry Maxwell may not have been in the control room that month, but he was certainly in the house. This was the man who took Gladys and the Pips to Motown, after their several sides for his own label, Maxx. That Knight objected to joining Berry Gordy’s business, but then deferred to the group’s majority vote, is common knowledge. Less familiar is that Maxwell had more skin in the game: he was offered a job at Motown at the same time, as its national promotion manager, no less. The news surfaced in the trade press while Gladys and the guys were navigating the cramped quarters of Studio A.

      With years of experience in the music industry, Maxwell may even have been more attractive to Motown in 1966 than the group he brought in. He had previously been employed by Atlantic Records, which understood a thing or two about R&B crossovers, and he also worked for the Riverside label in 1962 when it made a new signing: the Four Tops. Larry knew just about every important black disc jockey in the country, and was active in their trade body, the National Association of Radio Announcers. By the time Maxwell’s promotional clout finally delivered for Gladys & the Pips with “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” he was also a career coach at Motown’s artist development arm, ITMI, managing the Tops, Marvin Gaye and others.

      Liz Lands had a different kind of clout: a five-octave vocal range. Not that you’d know it from her slot on Baby I’ve Got It! "It's Crazy Baby" is an energetic piece of work, made in California during 1964 by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, but there’s only a hint of her extraordinary ability, and she’s bathed in echo. It was among 100-plus songs recorded during her brief Motown tenure, confirmed by Keith Hughes’ authoritative liner notes for the compilation. Few of these tracks were released, despite Berry Gordy calling Lands “one of the greatest singers” he ever worked with. The company apparently didn’t know how to harness that talent. (For a sample elsewhere of her range, go travel to the bridge of Mary Wells' "Oh Little Boy (What Did You Do To Me)." And no, that's not Mary holding the high C.)

   Liz Lands

Liz Lands

      What also distinguished Liz Lands from other Motown artists was an overt association with the civil rights movement, notably Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King introduced her to Gordy during the “Great March to Freedom” rally in Detroit in June 1963. Three months on, Lands cut “We Shall Overcome” for Motown’s Divinity label. Later still, hers was the voice chosen by Gordy to record “May What He Lived For Live,” a tribute to John Kennedy which he wrote (with sister Esther Edwards and Lincoln Perry, aka W.A. Bisson and Stepin Fetchit) during the week following the president’s assassination.

      On December 6, 1963, “May What He Lived For Live” was released as a single. When Lands joined other Motown stars for two New Year’s Eve shows at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, the first 500 ticket holders were given a free copy of the record. When the 1964 Democratic National Convention was held in Atlantic City the following summer, more than 2,000 copies were handed out to delegates. By then, Gordy’s fourth child had been born; he was named Kennedy.

      Baby I’ve Got It! contains other items of intrigue. One is Oma Page’s “When Someone’s Good To You” from July 1964, the first recording of this Gordy composition (he produced it, too) which is usually associated with Carolyn Crawford. Page turns in a darker performance. Another curio is the Marvelettes’ first rendering of “Playboy,” cut one day (or night) in 1961. It’s thinner and less polished than the hit, but to hear a work in progress like this is fascinating, just as it was when the first, slower – and ultimately rejected – version of “Baby Love” was retrieved from the archive for the 40th anniversary edition of the SupremesWhere Did Our Love Go album.

      The Marvelettes are also present with a June ’66 cover of “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier while the Chiffons’ glistening original was climbing the Billboard Top 20. (Keith Hughes suggests that the remake was intended for an album, then discarded.) At the time, nobody could have imagined that one of the song’s authors would help to bring Motown The Musical to the Broadway stage. Nor that there would ever be such a musical.

      Doug Morris was one of two songwriters attached to “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” when Laurie Records issued the Chiffons’ single; the other was Elliot Greenberg. Later credits added Barbara Baer and Bob Schwartz. “I wrote it,” Morris told Billboard some years ago, “but back then, the owners of the record labels also got the writing credit.” He admitted, “It was very heavily influenced by one of the Supremes songs, I forget which one.”

   At Motown The Musical's opening night in 2013: (l-r) Kevin McCollum, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Doug Morris

At Motown The Musical's opening night in 2013: (l-r) Kevin McCollum, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Doug Morris

      Subsequently, Morris morphed into one of the most accomplished record industry executives of the past 50 years, commanding Warner Music, Universal Music and Sony Music, one after the other. He told Berry Gordy that he should turn his life story into a stage musical, adding that the Motown founder should “see a psychiatrist” if he did not. By way of endorsement, the “sweet talkin’ guy” put up the show’s entire $16.5 million Broadway production costs.

      “Doug made it very plain to everyone that he was banking on me,” Gordy told the Financial Times when the show made its Broadway debut in 2013. “And, of course,” he chuckled, “that made me his slave.” It was quite a bet, considering that only one in ten musicals turns a profit. But with Gordy’s story, and Jobete’s inventory of hits, the risk must have seemed reasonable. Now we know the outcome, and know that Morris’ return on investment for Motown The Musical will have exceeded his earnings from “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.”

      For me, the magic of Baby I’ve Got It! lies mostly in the music made in Los Angeles, including Lands’ “It’s Crazy Baby,” Brenda Holloway’s “Baby I’ve Got It” and her sister Patrice’s “In Your Heart,” Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Is This Why (I Gave My Love To You),” and the Lewis Sisters’ “Honey Don’t Leave Me.”

      To be honest, neither of those Holloway tracks is on a par with their best work, but it doesn’t matter. Both feature the sisters’ distinctive identity, sensuality and style – even “In Your Heart,” which was likely made when Patrice was fourteen (the exact recording date is unknown). To this day, producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon deserve more recognition for their Los Angeles labours on Motown's behalf.

      Take the Lewis Sisters’ “Honey Don’t Leave Me.” No producer is identified, but the April 1966 recording date suggests that it was Davis. The song is potent and climactic – it was written by the sisters – and the arrangement meets the challenge of voices which are inviting, if not conventionally soulful. The background singers are a bonus, revealed by the liner notes to be Edna Wright, Gloria Jones and Blinky Williams.

   The Lewis Sisters

The Lewis Sisters

      Helen and Kay Lewis were among Motown’s earliest Los Angeles recruits, together with the Holloway sisters and Kay Lewis’ eight-year-old daughter, known for recording purposes as Little Lisa. Baby I’ve Got It! even contains a track by the youngster, “Keep Away,” written by her mother and her aunt. Under Marc Gordon, the Hollywood outpost grew to include other artists – Tony Martin, for one – but was temporarily shuttered at the end of 1965. There was a dispute with the home office: Gordon left, and Davis was reduced to picking up Detroit visitors at the airport, and making sure they were entertained while in town. It was a difficult time, but Hal eventually recovered to become among Motown’s most successful producers of the ’70s, while Marc went on to profitably steer the career of the 5th Dimension.

      For the above reasons and more, Baby I’ve Got It! is a welcome addition to Ace's Motown inventory. All credit to the label, Keith Hughes and Mick Patrick for delving this deep and assembling the results with skill, as they have for previous volumes. Let’s close with words about 24-year-old Kim Weston’s magnetic performance of “So Long,” a tune originally associated with songwriter/bandleader Russ Morgan. Kim is always beyond reproach, but on this occasion, I found myself thinking that the song could have been an alternative finale for Moods Of Marvin Gaye – jazzy, reflective, mournful. It also struck me here how much Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You” owes to “So Long” in melody and mood.

      Who else had a hit with “Since I Fell For You”? The most popular version was by Lenny Welch, a Top 10 hit on the Billboard charts at the close of 1963, and still in the Top 20 when Kim travelled to Chicago – yes, Chicago – for the recording session which yielded “So Long.” It was January 15, 1964, and producer Mickey Stevenson must have been in a melancholy frame of mind. But that’s another story…

Adam White6 Comments