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From the Vaults

STEVIE AT THE FOX, BILLY IN THE AFTERGLOW, GLADYS ON ‘SHOW’

From Motown Unreleased, everyone takes their own pleasures.

      As of today, there are two new such volumes of magic (and, arguably, some mediocrity) on digital music platforms, drawn from the year 1968. This is a look at the first.

      Of course, there are Hitsville addicts who would prefer this entire series in physical form, including yours truly. Motown Unreleased 1966 – the only set to date also available on compact disc – was all the better for easy access to the data behind each piece of music: songwriters, producers, recording dates. Not to mention some fabulous photos in the booklet (keep jumping, Brenda Holloway) and an explanatory essay. That compilation, as with the latest edition, was produced by Harry Weinger and Keith Hughes.

      Still, regardless of format, it’s what’s in the grooves that counts. Today’s Motown Unreleased 1968: Part 1 offers an abundance, from the stars (Stevie, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Four Tops) to the obscure (T & T, the Utopians), from the seldom-acknowledged (Paul Petersen, the Messengers) to the revered (Blinky). What’s notable, too, is the work of certain songwriters and producers, including Deke Richards, Richard Morris, Ron Miller and Al Cleveland. In addition, some of the 50 tracks serve as a reminder of Motown’s continuing efforts in ’68 to broaden its musical base with Billy Eckstine, Barbara McNair and Jonah Jones.

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      Let’s start with the most curious, which is also the oldest: “Cannibal” by ventriloquist Willie Tyler (no billing here for his dummy Lester). The song – if you can call it that – was first recorded in 1961 by Berry Gordy’s brother Robert, better known as Bob Kayli. This banal novelty is very much of its time, just like Kayli’s “Everyone Was There” from 1958. There’s no obvious reason why Gordy thought it was worth overdubbing Tyler’s voice onto the track in August 1968 other than – perhaps – because the voice-thrower was continuing to work prodigiously for Motown.

      “I signed an eight-year contract,” Tyler reminisced this past July. “But because they had a management firm and recording and everything else, they were antitrust. So they had to drop management.” Before that, the ventriloquist had MC’ed the Motortown Revue, provided comic relief in between its acts, and even scored his own album release, Hello Dummy. By the time he overdubbed “Cannibal” in ’68, the Detroit-born ventriloquist was playing New York’s Copacabana, opening for the Temptations. At the end of the following year, he was warming up audiences for Diana Ross & the Supremes’ farewell shows at the Frontier Hotel, Las Vegas.

      T & T is another curiousity. This is Terry & Terri, a male/female combo said to have been orchestrated by Smokey Robinson after he recruited songwriter Terry Johnson to Motown. Johnson sang in doowop groups during the 1950s, later approaching Robinson with material he had written. The five tracks on Motown Unreleased 1968: Part 1 are rather ordinary, although the result is better when each “T” sings solo, as on “Terrie.” Smokey produced the tracks early in 1968 with Al Cleveland, who had arrived at Motown the previous year.

      Cleveland’s credentials are impeccable, of course, including co-writing “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” and “I Second That Emotion.” The story behind the latter song appears in the 2014 biography of Cleveland by his son Daryl, Fame Without Fortune; so does Al’s association with another ex-doowop singer, Arthur Crier. These two met in New York, where Crier used Cleveland for background vocals on Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red,” according to the book.

      New York was also where Crier and Cleveland cut two of the more interesting tracks on part one of MU 1968: the Utopians’ “Steady Finger Popping” and “I Second That Emotion.” These are soulful performances by this unknown female group, particularly on “I Second That Emotion,” which they make sound like an entirely different song to the Miracles’ hit. As for “Steady Finger Popping,” it has vocal overtones of Aretha’s “Respect,” and bass-line undertones of James Jamerson. That’s a one-two punch, for sure.

      And that’s surely Jamerson blazing away below “Show Me The Way” by Gladys & the Pips. This is another Motown Unreleased 1968 highlight, which compares favourably to the group’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” with their leader in particularly fine voice. The song has history, having been previously recorded by its co-writer, J.J. Barnes, and by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.

The sweet joy of Blinky

The sweet joy of Blinky

      Reeves & Co. are represented here by “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” although the hard-voiced interpretation lacks the melancholy of Aretha’s original. Far more intriguing – available on the second set of MU 1968 – is another version by Martha of “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing.” That was co-written and produced by the late Dennis Lussier, better known as Deke Richards, who recounted the saga of its making on the Motown Forum in 2015.

       On this first part of Motown Unreleased 1968, Richards is present as co-writer and producer of four tracks: “Send Him To Me” and “I Believe In Him” by Debbie Dean, “I Need Your Love Today” by Paul Petersen, and “Sweet Joy Of Life” by Blinky. The last of these is the most commendable, a neo-gospel workout suited to the singer’s powerful pipes. Her fan base today seems larger than in the late 1960s, when she duetted with Edwin Starr and was frequently an opening act for Sammy Davis Jr. With a choice of nine Blinky tracks on the two MU 1968 volumes, those followers will rejoice.

      Deke Richards joined Motown in 1966 with a returning Debbie Dean. She enjoyed only one commercial release as a singer during that period – 1968’s “Why Am I Lovin’ You” – but as a songwriter, she and Richards were prolific. This gave him confidence and, in time, credit with Berry Gordy; the payoff came when Deke was drafted for the team which crafted the Supremes’ “Love Child.”

      As for Paul Petersen, he has six tracks on MU 1968: Part 1, including a version of “Window Shopping” which perfectly replicates the sound of “I’m A Believer” by the Monkees. Motown persevered with Petersen: one of the tracks here, “Funny I Should Think About Janet,” was even co-produced by Berry Gordy himself. Still, no hits.

      The boss also supervised Billy Eckstine’s “If You Are Really Happy,” as his company sought to nourish the singer’s record sales in a changing marketplace. “It’s easy to explain,” Eckstine said of Motown’s decision to sign him. “They made $35 million out of ‘rock’ last year and they want to expand their catalogue into other fields.” He was speaking to an Australian journalist in March 1968, one month after adding his vocals to “If You Are Really Happy.” He added, “That’s how they came to pick me up. But I’m the senior citizen of Tamla Motown. I can tell you that.” True enough: Eckstine was 53 at the time.

      Mr. B has six tracks on this volume of Motown Unreleased 1968, and their mood seems decidedly downbeat. “Kickin’ stones/No place to go/I’m out of step/With everyone I know,” he sings on one; “I’m just a frightened, lost, umbrella man,” on another. A third, “Lookin’ Down,” finds him reminiscing: “Those shiny dreams of long ago/Are dimming in the afterglow.” Yet his 1968 concert schedule belied any sense of winding down, with bookings from Boston to Honolulu, from Chicago to San Francisco, from Indianapolis to Vancouver. Then again, Eckstine had seven children. Perhaps he should have recorded “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Stars at the Fox, December 28, 1968

Stars at the Fox, December 28, 1968

      Overall, Motown Unreleased 1968 validates much of what we already know: that Motown’s Quality Control process was right most of the time (evidenced in Part 1 by the initial take of “Yesterday’s Dreams” by the Four Tops); that some songs should have been stifled at birth, “Billy Buchanan” among them; and that some of the company’s singers were not distinctive enough. Even with BG as co-producer, Suzee Ikeda’s “Tell Me How I’m Gonna Make It” was never gonna make it, and that’s without mentioning the melodic resemblance to “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.”

      Meanwhile, soaring above everyone and everything was Stevie. This compendium of 50-year-old music begins and ends with Wonder, as it should. The set’s opener is a studio recording of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and the closer is a live version of “Hey Love,” recorded on December 28 that year during the Motortown Revue’s Christmas run at the Fox Theatre, Detroit. The point here is not so much the performances, but what they say about his ability to absorb, to experience, to learn.

      “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” is conventional in some ways, but take heed of Stevie’s note-holding skills, his command of the lyric, his comfort with a big, blustery finish. He is seventeen years old! As for “Hey Love,” you can hear how excited are the girls at the Fox that night, but he’s at ease with the thrill, he’s not distracted. Moreover, the band is restrained where it counts, allowing his voice to glide, glow and conquer.

      So it’s fine that performances like this have taken a half-century to emerge. We value and understand them in a way which, in 1968, would have been impossible.

      From Motown Unreleased, everyone takes their own pleasures.

Music notes: hardly necessary in this case, since y’all will have your own views on the merits (and otherwise) of the tracks cited above, and on the others. The writer/producer credits are provided on digital services, although – in the case of this archive material – not the recording dates. Fortunately, that information is available via the always-essential Don’t Forget The Motor City website. Finally, it’s worth noting that both Stevie tracks on Motown Unreleased 1968: Part 1 came from the Fox on December 28. Other performances that night were released in July 1969 as Motortown Revue Live, an album which is also available on digital platforms. It was an eight-day concert run, with three shows daily; the total gross was $157,000 – a new house record at the theatre.

Adam White2 Comments