Remember the Time
TEMPTING, SPINNING, SMOKIN’ – AND A BRONZE MEMORIAL
A lively year it has been, so far, for Motown pilgrims.
A new Temptations album. A recreation centre to honour Marvin; a new stage play about him. Fresh music (OK, one track) by Brenda. Plus, Smokey appearing before the U.S. Congress. Actually, most of this appears to have occurred in May. “When it’s cold outside/I’ve got the… [Yes, we know – Ed.]
As noted in earlier West Grand Blog posts, there has also been a Wonder-full birthday gig, and Lamont’s legacy, reimagined. And a few melancholy moments: the passing of Dennis Edwards, Hugh Masekela and Ronald Dunbar, and of former Motown promotion man/A&R exec Russ Regan.
Brighter days beckon. The release of an expanded edition of The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland. Ain’t Too Proud playing Washington, Los Angeles and Toronto. A new compilation featuring the Spinners, with unissued material, and a collection of rare Bobby Darin tracks.
Much to cover, then, demanding bullet points and brevity.
The Temptations’ first new album for years, All The Time, has been well-received since its May 4 release. The group's treatment of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is one highlight, “Remember The Time” is another; songs by Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd are among the covers. “Some of it is original,” Otis Williams said recently. “We just go and try to record whatever songs we do to the best of our ability. That’s pretty much the same after all these years.”
Later this month, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations opens in Washington, D.C., followed by playdates in Los Angeles and Toronto. Reviews were positive for the musical’s debut in Berkeley, California, last year; the ultimate goal is a Broadway berth. “People seem to love it,” said Williams, “and I was moved to tears when I saw it. I would look around and see the audience getting teary-eyed, too. It’s not only about the music, it’s got some profoundness to it.” As Ain’t Too Proud hits the stage, the Temptations are scheduled for multiple concert dates in the U.S. and, come November, in the U.K. with the Four Tops.
Washington, D.C., meanwhile, has celebrated the titanic talent of a native son. On May 5, the district’s parks department opened the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center, a $14 million facility complete with music room, art gallery, tech lounge and fitness centre, plus exterior facilities for basketball, soccer, football (the American variety) and baseball. Programming at the centre will include a summer camp for youth. Moreover, a six-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of the singer is to be installed at the centre later this year. What’s not to like?
In nearby Baltimore during May, playwright Max Garner depicted Marvin’s dark side – and that of another unique musician, Thelonious Monk – in a twin-story production, Palindrome: Sphere and Pentz (the theme comes from the middle names of each man). Monk’s woeful tale was set in a fictional therapist’s office, while Marvin’s was built around the tortured relationship with his father. Soul, a powerful play exploring that same aspect of Gaye’s life, was produced in the U.K. in 2016.
Now, to Brenda Holloway. She has recorded a new track, “Same Page,” with producer Preston Glass, who helped to make her 1999 album, It’s a Woman’s World. This is a duet with Rags Moody III, a protégé of the Motown singer, and it’s been issued by David Nathan’s Soulmusic Records. Brenda didn’t perform the ballad in London last week, but she did much else. High-spirited patrons at a club called 229 heard “Just Look What You’ve Done,” “When I’m Gone,” “Operator,” “Every Little Bit Hurts,” “Think It Over (Before You Break My Heart),” “Starting The Hurt All Over Again” and, naturally, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”
The Holloway pipes were distinctive and strong, but not always powerful enough to overcome a poor sound mix and clattering musicians in back. She may even have been unready herself. “I need my glasses,” Brenda declared at one point, trying to read song lyrics. When handed spectacles, the star added, “I feel a little bit dizzy, but I can see.” Nonetheless, Motown pilgrims are grateful that this siren still sings, and walks among us. After the 229 performance, she autographed albums and photographs.
If Smokey Robinson wasn’t reminded of “I’ll Try Something New” while at the U.S. Senate last month, he should have been. Even for this giant of American popular culture, it must have been a novel experience: speaking publicly to elected officials about better compensation for rights holders and performers whose pre-1972 music is played on digital radio. Currently, such outlets don’t have to reward creators, according to Robinson. “So, as the law stands,” he said, “SiriusXM pays me when they play my solo hits ‘Cruisin’ ’ or ‘Being With You’ from 1979 and 1981 – but under federal law, they don’t have to pay me or my brothers in the Miracles when they play any of our [pre-1972] records.”
Smokey’s full testimony is available online. As of this writing, the relevant legislative proposal, the Music Modernization Act, has not yet been passed in the Senate (the House passed it in April). In addition, a different bill addressing the issue has been introduced, considered by some to be less favourable than the statute for which Robinson was rooting. Whatever the final outcome, perhaps another Smokey song is worth recalling: “Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues.”
The return of The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is imminent, although the original June 15 re-release date has slipped by two weeks. The two-CD set was first announced by Motown/Universal Music in April; as of this writing, it will contain 52 tracks, with more than 20 previously unheard.
This expanded edition is expected to include the original album in both its monaural and stereo mixes, with the mono on compact disc for the first time. Plus, a rare recording of the Supremes at New York’s Copacabana in May 1967, one of their last performances with Florence Ballard. About the show, Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post – yes, that Carl Bernstein – wrote, “Roughly, it is a glossy yet soulful combination of hard rock, occasional funky blues, sensitive inflection, heavy bass and a big-band style mixed with gospel vocal harmonies.”
While The City Sleeps is another upcoming Motown catalogue title – this from Ace Records, under license from Universal. It brings back 2nd Time Around, the Spinners’ V.I.P. album from 1970, plus bonus tracks, and is due in August. The additional material includes productions by Smokey, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, Al Cleveland, Edwin Starr, and Rick James, when he was known as Ricky Matthews.
One of these rarities is “When It Starts To Rain, It Pours,” a previously unreleased 1969 track written by Cleveland with Tony Newton, the young bass player best-known as one of the Earl Van Dyke Six on 1965’s Tamla Motown tour of the U.K. Also unheard before is the album’s title song, penned by Billy (“The ‘In’ Crowd”) Page and produced in California by Marc Gordon and Hal Davis. The Spinners’ Bobby Smith takes the lead vocal; for most of the album, G.C. Cameron does that.
Songs by Smokey, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the Corporation, and Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson are to be found on another forthcoming CD: Go Ahead & Back Up: The Lost Motown Masters. This contains many unissued tracks by Bobby Darin from the 1970s, compiled by Real Gone Music/Second Disc Records, under license from Universal Music. It includes a “lost album” showcasing the singer’s stripped-down style of his stage shows of the period. The set is due on July 13.
Real Gone/Second Disc were responsible for a previous Darin package, Another Song On My Mind: The Motown Years, in 2016. The liner notes featured recollections by Smokey Robinson of “Happy,” the so-called love theme from Lady Sings The Blues to which he added lyrics. Darin’s recording of the song was produced in New York by Bob Crewe. Present in the studio was Andrew Loog Oldham, who discovered, managed and produced the Rolling Stones, and who was well-acquainted with Crewe and his brother, Dan. “The ‘Happy’ session was amazing,” he told me. “I went to it. Berry was there.” Oldham explained that Gordy didn’t like the original theme music intended for Lady Sings The Blues, “and ordered that ‘Happy’ had to be used, and that the tapes had to be back in California to be stuck into the movie.” With luck, the new Darin collection will offer more such delights.
What other Motown catalogue releases are on the horizon? Real Gone/Second Disc is assembling a Blinky bundle, drawing on her considerable stash of unissued material. Let's also assume that there will be a Motown Unreleased 1968 digital offering before the end of the year. And for major and independent labels alike, vinyl continues to be attractive, so it's likely that more Motown titles will be made available in the format in 2018. After all, Christmas will eventually come around again.
Today’s final item concerns the death on May 27 of the afore-mentioned Russ Regan, someone who is not as well-known as Dennis Edwards, Chisa's Hugh Masekela and probably even Ron Dunbar, but notable because of his early work on the label’s behalf in California. He was employed by Dorothy Freeman’s Buckeye Record Distributors in Los Angeles, where he promoted “Please Mr. Postman,” among other hits. More than 25 years later, after successfully running labels like Uni and 20th Century, Regan joined Motown as head of its “creative” division under Jay Lasker.
“I learned the value of a song,” Regan told Cave Hollywood. “And the hooks of a song.” He added, “It starts with the opening, you can always smell the opening of a Motown record.” In 1987, Smokey praised him as “the musical minister who joined me in a musical marriage to Peter Bunetta and Rick Chudacoff.” The pair produced Robinson’s last Top 10 pop single, “One Heartbeat,” and its accompanying album. Russ Regan was, quite simply, a backroom believer.
Music notes: All The Time can be summoned on digital services and bought on CD, regular vinyl and limited-edition white vinyl, while Brenda's "Same Page" can be located on CD Baby. The releases by Bobby Darin and the Supremes can be pre-ordered; that's not yet the case for the Spinners.