Memorable Motown Moments of 2017
Temptations, Miracles, magicians; paying dues and casting spells
As the year draws to a close, a glance in the rearview mirror is expected. So WestGrandBlog is ready to fall in line and ruminate about Motown in 2017, perhaps with one or two less obvious highlights…
AIN’T TOO PROUD
Whatever your view of Motown The Musical, its success is undeniable. The latest roadshow has been travelling in the U.S. since September, and will advance to Canada in 2018, followed by bookings in Iowa, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama and elsewhere. The production is also maintaining its presence in London, where tickets are offered through to early 2019 – coincidentally, or not, the start of Motown’s 60th anniversary year.
Such popularity augurs well for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. The show – let’s call it drama with music – made its debut this autumn in Berkeley, California; boxoffice results were good, so Broadway beckons. A friend with theatre investments there says Ain’t Too Proud still needs work, but is terrific. The show is booked for a five-week engagement in Washington, D.C. next summer, and after that, assuming all goes well, it will reach the Great White Way later in the year.
Ain’t Too Proud was scripted by Detroit-born Dominique Morisseau, whose previous work includes Detroit ’67, set amid the riots and part of a trilogy which the actress/playwright created about the Motor City. “Her plays are both angry and empathetic, forthright about the faults of the characters they describe,” wrote the New York Times two years ago, “while ready to honor their desire, ambition and essential decency.” I can’t wait to see that approach applied to the Temptations, especially since the newspaper thinks Morisseau’s work echoes that of the mighty August Wilson.
CELEBRATING THE MIRACLES
Then there’s Going To A Go-Go: The Life and Times of The Miracles. OK, I’m joking: there’s no such show, yet. But Claudette Robinson’s “Celebrating The Miracles” exhibition of memorabilia in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum, which ran from 2016 to the summer of ’17, was insightful and – forgive me, Smokey – I found it rather more endearing than his autobiography.
Back in the day, Claudette was designated as the group’s secretary; husband Smokey was president, of course. She kept minutes of their meetings and rehearsals; several examples were on display at the museum. “Ten per cent of all earnings are to be put into the Corporation (Savings) Bank Account,” read one handwritten note, from January 14, 1961. “Royalties are to be decided upon later as far as percentages go. A constitution will be drawn up at the next meeting.”
Also on show was a photo of Emerson “Sonny” Rogers of the Matadors in his military uniform. This was Smokey’s pre-Miracles combo, and when Rogers was drafted into the army, his sister, Claudette, took his place in the group – and her place in Motown history. Another photo presented the Five Chimes, the school-age doo-woppers who predated even the Matadors, and comprised William “Smokey” Robinson, Ron “Whitey” White, Warren “PeeWee” Moore, Clarence “Humble” Dawson, and James “Rat” Grice.
Almost as intriguing as those images was the telegram sent to the Miracles by Buck Goldman after they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Was thrilled at the terrific performance,” declared his message. “Continue [sic] good luck and best wishes to Smoky [sic] and the Miracles.” It was signed “Buck Goldman Furniture Show Rooms Inc.” The businessman’s role was not made clear at the Grammy Museum, but perhaps he fitted out the group’s homes. If so, let’s hope that was not complicated by Goldman’s Federal grand jury indictment in Detroit for hiding assets of his bankrupt furniture business. Still, it’s all good material for the Miracles’ stage musical.
MAGICIANS AT PEACE
If Dominique Morisseau ever gets to write that story, the character of Warren “PeeWee” Moore deserves a strong role. His death in November was one of this year’s sadder moments, just as his place in the Miracles’ career was often underrated. This childhood friend of Smokey’s co-wrote some of their most heart-wrenching hits, including “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “My Girl Has Gone” – an unforgettable Motown trilogy.
He was a warm, friendly man, who provoked a chuckle when he described for me the making of “The Tracks Of My Tears” for a Rolling Stone article about “The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years” in 1988. “It took us about three days to write it,” Moore recalled. “This one was a real rascal, because we wanted to make sure the lyrics were real meaningful and had real good content.”
Moore was also generous in praise of his Motown peers, citing the importance of studio engineers Robert Bateman and Lawrence Horn. “These guys had the knack of getting the sound out of the equipment,” he said. “The engineer was a very integral part of the Motown sound in those days.” Rest in peace, “PeeWee.”
Others who passed in 2017 deserve to rest peacefully, too, including Sylvia Moy, Leon Ware, Bobby Taylor, and Sylvester Potts of the Contours. One song co-written by Sylvia certainly changed my – and perhaps others’ – perception of Stevie Wonder in 1967. “I Was Made To Love Her” was among the most exciting, galvanising pieces of music ever to emerge from Hitsville U.S.A., and a hint that Stevie was capable of growing far beyond what any of us could imagine.
Bobby Taylor was yet another Motown magician, with his immutable role in the discovery and development of the Jackson 5. What on earth would the sound and shape of 20th century popular music have been without Michael Jackson, from “I Want You Back” to “Billie Jean,” from “Who’s Lovin’ You” to “Beat It”? Taylor helped to make that history happen.
SONGS IN THE KEY OF TAX
Perhaps the same significance is true for Holland/Dozier/Holland. Undoubtedly, it’s hard to imagine Motown without “Heat Wave” or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” or “Where Did Our Love Go” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or…well, you can fill out the list. But this year has not been kind to the Holland brothers, beginning with news in January that Brian Holland was suing a former financial advisor over an alleged unauthorised loan, and ending with reports in December that Eddie Holland owed $20 million to the Internal Revenue Service in back taxes.
If nothing else, that figure validates the popularity of the work of H/D/H, and Eddie’s songs with Norman Whitfield. To owe so much money to the taxman – even allowing for accumulated interest – suggests how great was Holland’s income in the first place. In 2015, Holland sold a catalogue of songs to a private equity fund, according to the Detroit News. “My client put $21 million into the fund to cover his tax liability,” Eddie’s lawyer was quoted as saying. “He does intend to go back and make more money in the music business as soon as these issues are resolved.”
Lamont Dozier, meanwhile, appears to be making money in the music business right now. Among 2018’s most anticipated events for Motown pilgrims will be his first-ever British concert tour and a new album which “re-imagines” some of his classic hits. Dozier’s previous live performance in the U.K. was as long ago as 2001. You sure keep us hangin’ on, Lamont.
A SPELLBINDING VOICE
Finally, this retrospective closes as it should, noting the best Motown music made available in the past year. A tough call, given the expanded edition of The Supremes A’ Go-Go and the Undisputed Truth’s Nothing But The Truth compilation, to mention just two other 2017 releases, but the double-disc set of rare and previously-unissued recordings by Brenda Holloway gets my vote. It’s called Spellbound.
That Brenda was so prolific is less surprising than the high calibre of the material, and the soulfulness of her performances. Tracks which particularly caught my ear were “What Good Am I Without You,” a powerful, piano-led ballad, and “Just Loving You,” a torch song usually associated with Kim Weston. On these and many more, Brenda’s voice is utterly compelling. Even “Deep Freeze,” a clunky clone of “Heat Wave” which opens Spellbound, has its charms, as does the cabaret bossa nova of “The Land Of Make Believe” which closes it.
All credit to Soulmusic Records and reissue producer Paul Nixon for this release, to Universal Music for its willingness to keep opening the Hitsville vaults for such compilations, and to Sharon Davis for the Spellbound liner notes, featuring a fresh interview with the California queen. “Maybe I have got a voice people like?” Holloway modestly asks Davis. The answer is in the music.
This is the final edition of WestGrandBlog for 2017, and – if you have been – thanks for reading. With luck, there’ll be more to read in ’18. In the meantime, all the best for Christmas and the New Year.