Pre-Motown: The 8 of '58
SONGS OF MAGIC, RHYMES OF RUBY, THE JOY OF NATURE
Next year, much of the conversation around Motown will be driven by the 60th anniversary of its start in the music business, and by the company’s subsequent achievements and influence.
But while there’s still some of this year left, let’s reflect on the 60th anniversary of what Berry Gordy and his professional circle were doing in 1958, labouring for others. Some of those projects are difficult to date with precision; some are so musically forgettable that there’s no need to include them at all. A few other recordings involve persons of interest. Let’s call these “The 8 of ’58,” to be examined in a two-part West Grand Blog, starting here.
First up: “Magic Song” by the Gaylords.
Really? OK, this is one of a number of songs authored by Gordy and Billy Davis (aka Tyran Carlo), and recorded in the slipstream of their work for Jackie Wilson. The Gaylords were a young vocal trio from Detroit, peddling 1950s Italian-American pop for the Mercury label. What makes “Magic Song” worth noting is that it was among the first sessions supervised by Nat Tarnopol, Mercury’s newly-appointed A&R man from Detroit.
Motown historians know that Tarnopol worked for Al Green, the Motor City maven who managed Wilson and LaVern Baker, and ran the Flame Show Bar. Moreover, Tarnopol was among those present at Green’s offices in the summer of ’57 when the Miracles (then known as the Matadors) were auditioned, turned down, and met Berry Gordy for the first time.
About Tarnopol’s appointment at Mercury in November 1957, Billboard reported that this twenty-something had been operating “as a freelance talent-and-material packager,” who unearthed Wilson and “Reet Petite,” and sold the combination to Brunswick Records. In January ’58, Cash Box even pictured Tarnopol on its front cover with the Gaylords – as “Magic Song” was being promoted – and with Detroit distributor John Kaplan, credited with discovering the group.
“Magic Song” was no milestone in music (“Presto, presto, do your best”). Nor was it a hit, but the Mercury connection apparently served Gordy and Davis as they continued to pitch their work to as many outlets as possible. In February 1958, Eddie Holland cut several sides for Mercury at Bell Sound in New York. “[Berry] was still writing songs for Jackie Wilson,” Holland told me in 2004. “He had me doing a lot of the demos, and he was still trying to get me recorded. And some publisher said they wanted me to record a song.”
This was “Little Miss Ruby,” written by Neal Matthews Jr., one of Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires. “I didn’t particularly like the song,” recalled Holland, “and I don’t think Berry liked it either, but the guy said, ‘Well, the song is going to be in a movie and we’ll promote the artist.’” The film was Country Music Holiday, a Paramount Pictures release which starred Zsa Zsa Gabor, with country & western singers Ferlin Husky, Faron Young and June Carter, and, of course, the Jordanaires. Variety called it “an obviously low-budgeted cornball special.”
‘CAN I GET ON YOUR DATE?’
According to Holland, Jackie Wilson was scheduled to cut new material in New York. “So Berry asked, ‘Jackie, can Eddie get part of your recording date and record on your session?’” Despite the disapproval of someone who Holland identified as Wilson’s road manager – it wasn’t clear whether this was Tarnopol – the star sanctioned the idea. “Jackie said, ‘Man, let him sing on my session.’”
Gordy pressed his luck, seeking to have the 18-year-old Holland also cut a song originally intended as a Wilson flipside. “Jackie said, ‘OK,’ and the road manager said, ‘Damn! You got to take the man’s session and you got to give him a tune, too!’ Jackie told the man to be quiet, and so Berry and I rolled up in Jackie’s El Dorado from Detroit in the wintertime in New York.” But cold was the promise of promotion for Holland’s “Little Miss Ruby.” It was the Jordanaires who appeared in Country Music Holiday to lip-sync the song, and their version was also issued as a single.
The flipside of Eddie’s Mercury debut was “You (You You You You),” a ballad crediting Gordy, Davis (Carlo) and Gwen Gordy as writers. With “Little Miss Ruby” as the topside, the single was released on April 4, 1958. “That was my first recording session,” said Eddie Holland. “That was no Motown, man, it was just Berry doing his producing and writing at that time.” The record did not trouble the national charts.
Neither did another Holland release, which coupled “(Where’s The Joy?) In Nature Boy” with “Shock,” and was issued later in ’58 by Robert West’s Kudo label. The artist’s name was shown as Briant Holland. “What happened,” explained Eddie, “was that, actually, I did the demo, and I didn’t want to use my name – or Berry didn’t want me to use my name, I can’t remember which – so I said, ‘Why don’t I just put my brother’s name on?’ So that’s what happened.”
“(Where’s The Joy?) In Nature Boy” was a hop, skip and a jump of a tune, created as a commercial for an “exciting new summer wine” launched by Detroit’s Milan Wineries in 1958. The recording captured Holland’s vocal resemblance to Jackie Wilson, complete with “so fine” background chants, and some noisy guitar work. Detroit disc jockey Joe Howard was listed as the songwriter, while the writers of “Shock” (a bluesy ballad, well sung) were the Gordy brothers, Berry and Robert.
NO CHEMISE, PLEASE
The record’s musical merit may be debatable, but not its historic importance – nor its value. More than 20 years ago, an insightful article by Nick Brown in Record Collector reckoned the Kudo disc was worth £500, the top price tag in a list of pre-Motown singles written and/or produced by Gordy, or associated with him in some way. (There was also a thorough, pre-Motown round-up in the Yesterday Today Forever fanzine in 1996, by Chris Jenner.)
Meanwhile, Gordy placed another production in 1958, “Everyone Was There,” with New York’s Carlton Records. The singer was brother Robert, under a pseudonym, Bob Kayli. By Berry’s account, this was “a catchy tune with clever lyrics that incorporated titles and lyrics from the biggest pop songs of the day.” It was recorded at Berry’s preferred Detroit studio, United Sound.
Catchy and clever? Perhaps, but the song undoubtedly referenced plenty of current hits, including “No Chemise, Please,” “Witch Doctor,” “Splish Splash,” “Western Movies,” “Yakety Yak,” “Peggy Sue,” “Patricia” and “The Purple People Eater.” A sample lyric line: “Elvis was secretly on the scene/His hound dog thought/Bony Moronie was queen.”
“Bob Kayli” hit the promotion trail, including an October 4 appearance on Dick Clark’s popular Saturday night TV show, which also featured Duane Eddy, Dion & the Belmonts, Lou Monte and Jimmy Clanton. “But after the broadcast,” Berry remembered, “the record died altogether. The problem then became clear: people were shocked. This white-sounding record did not go with his black face. Bob Kayli was history.” Gordy added, “When that happened, I realised this was not just about good or bad records, this was about race.”
It was a realisation which must have coloured Gordy’s business plans, perhaps as much as the $3.19 royalty cheque paid by End Records for the Miracles’ “Bad Girl,” or the cancellation of his hero Nat “King” Cole’s highly-rated network TV series because the singer’s race deterred advertising sponsors. But that’s a tale for the second part of “The 8 of ’58.”
Let’s finish instead with a flash forward to 1975. Remember the Gaylords? Well, who should show up that year on Prodigal Records but Ronnie Gaylord and Burt Holiday, two of the original trio responsible for “Magic Song.” Their latest album was Second Generation, an 11-track dish of Italian tunes (including “Love Theme From The Godfather”) which was recorded in Warren, Michigan. It even yielded a minor hit single, “Eh! Cumpari.”
And the Motown connection? Prodigal was the property of Barney Ales, the half-vinyl, half-Italian salesman who Berry Gordy had recruited in 1961 to get his records played and the company paid. When Gordy rehired Ales in Los Angeles in 1975 to revitalise his business, Prodigal was part of the package. The next year, Motown’s Natural Resources label issued another Gaylord & Holiday album, Wine, Women And Song.
What goes around, comes around.
Music notes: there are YouTube links (embedded above) for most of the cited recordings, and a number have appeared on public domain compilations. “(Where’s The Joy?) In Nature Boy” can also be found on Soul On Fire, the 2017 CD set from Soul Time, previously examined in this blog. That and other Eddie Holland material was made available, too, by Ace Records in 2012, as part of an awe-inspiring CD package, It Moves Me: The Complete Recordings 1958-1964. The liner notes include an interview with Eddie himself about those days. As for Bob Kayli, he wasn’t quite history after “Everyone Was There”: Robert Gordy cut a couple more singles, including “Small Sad Sam” on Tamla. That was included in the first volume of The Complete Motown Singles in 2004, and is available on streaming services. There’s no shortage of the Gaylords on those services, either, although the Prodigal and Natural Resources albums are absent. Don’t tell the Godfather.