West Grand Blog


Sweet songbirds

‘Mountain’ climbers: Johnny & Harvey, Nick & Val


It’s showtime on a summer’s night in 1983. During the last concert tour of his life, Marvin Gaye is about to perform several songs he made famous with the late Tammi Terrell 15 years earlier. “Give her a big round of applause,” he urges the audience. “She’ll hear you.”

      Gaye’s voice alone would have carried to where she was. Together, Marvin and Tammi were the sweet songbirds of Motown. “They were perfect,” Johnny Bristol told me many summers ago. He and Harvey Fuqua produced the couple’s initial hits, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love,” among them. “The sound of their two voices together was better than any of the other duets Marvin had done,” Bristol said, “it was just so distinctive. They got along well as friends in the studio, so there was a lot of kidding and laughing, which took away the tensions [of recording]. So when they sang, it came through: the positive side.”

      Moreover, said Bristol, “Marvin was always cooperative with us. He and Harvey were the best of friends. The four of us were like a little family thing, people who liked each other, because Harvey and Marvin and myself were married into the same family.” This, of course, was the family of the boss. Fuqua and Gaye were wed, respectively, to Gwen and Anna Gordy, sisters of Berry. Bristol was husband to Berry’s oldest niece, Iris.

      This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Marvin and Tammi’s glorious, uplifting “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which ascended the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1967. The song was written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Motown’s now-storied imports from New York. Bristol and Fuqua recorded it with Tammi early that January, then cut Marvin’s lead at the end of the month. The combination was released as a single in April. (Tammi’s original take without Marvin was finally heard on The Complete Duets, the 2001 Motown compilation of all the Gaye/Terrell material.)

      Initially, Ashford and Simpson provided their songs in the form of demos. “I remember when we started, I wasn’t thinking of Marvin and Tammi,” recalled Nick. “I was just thinking of the songs.” Later, the material was tailored to fit. “I would always sing Marvin’s part very straight, with no frills, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when he sang,” he said.

      To follow “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Bristol and Fuqua produced “Your Precious Love,” another Ashford/Simpson composition – a sensual, finger-clicking ballad underpinned by the magnetic lead guitar of Motown house musician Robert White. He never used a pick to play, according to Bristol. “He kept his nails very clean, very sharp, very well-manicured – and he had strong nails!” More importantly, the producer learned much from White. “Every time I worked with him, he was clear-minded, and I’ve never heard anyone say different. Robert and the other guys – Earl Van Dyke, James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin – were so willing to work with the producers who were not necessarily musicians, but who knew creatively what they wanted. And the musicians were willing to work with you ’til they got it.”

      After the commercial success of their first material for Marvin and Tammi, Ashford and Simpson sought to produce the sweet songbirds themselves. “Which was understandable,” Johnny Bristol explained, “because they were fantastic.” Motown’s response? To have the two teams render separate versions of the same song: “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.” According to Don’t Forget The Motor City (West Grand Blog, June 17), Bristol and Fuqua produced theirs with Marvin and Tammi during the summer of ’68, while Ashford and Simpson completed theirs in the autumn.

      The final choice was made in one of Motown’s quality control sessions. “There were twelve of us [in the meeting], I was so nervous,” said Ashford. “This was my first time; Val wasn’t with me. I’d never been to a quality control meeting before. Berry was right there in the middle of the table. They played ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.’ Beads of sweat must have been popping out of my head. So there was this silence after our record was played, and Berry said, ‘You know, I don’t think we need to vote on this one, let’s just send it out right away.’ Everybody was congratulating me. That was hot! I was the star of the meeting – they didn’t even vote on it.”

      Like Johnny Bristol with Robert White, Valerie Simpson was keen to stress the importance of Motown arranger Paul Riser to their productivity. “His real forte was in his string arrangements,” she said. “He would take the piano part and make an arrangement, and really use the demo keyboard that I did. Then [he would] build the whole thing right around it.”

      For all of Nick and Val’s work, the foundation – and the feeling – originated with gospel music. Ashford met Simpson in church, after all, and there’s a spiritual subtext to many of their songs. “I had no doubt that some of our background would creep into the music,” Nick explained during our interview. “So much soul comes out of the Baptist church, it’s embedded in you. You could go out any minute and turn the sweetest ballad into a gospel song if you felt real good about it.”

      Gospel or pop, Marvin and Tammi will forever gain a big round of applause. They’ll hear us.

Adam WhiteComment