It's 50th birthday month!
Checking the album discography in my 'Motown: The History' book I was surprised to see the generous number of releases across Motown's several American labels. Hell's bells, I can't talk about them all, so with your indulgence, I've chosen a handful at random. So we'll go with these…
When Eddie Kendricks officially left The Temptations in March 1971 Otis Williams hustled to find a suitable replacement, knowing it wouldn't be an easy task. However, he had an ace up his sleeve because for some years The Temptations had worked with The Vibrations. One of their members was Ricky Owens. "During his tenure which The Vibrations, he became known for a couple of special numbers, 'Misty' and 'Cindy' which never failed to drive the girls crazy." Otis wrote in his autobiography Temptations. As The Vibrations were disbanding, Ricky was invited to Detroit to audition for Eddie's vacant place. "His singing was great, as we'd expected, but for some reason he wasn't moving that well. He appeared awkward, and his timing was off. Figuring it was something we could work on, we enlisted him anyway."
Ricky Owens debuted as the new Temptation at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washing DC; the show was sold out and their act was running smoothly until Ricky started singing "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)". Otis took up the story – "Instead of singing the first line 'Each day from my window, I watch her as she passes by..', he sang something like 'Each window, my day…' A loud hush fell over the audience, then the booing started. It was a nightmare." The Temptations' next night at the Amphitheatre was lacking in audience (to say the least) as word spread that the new group member couldn't sing. Otis Williams had to act quickly, he realised the group was in trouble. Thankfully, Damon Harris was recommended by a friend, and notwithstanding reservations about his age – he was 19 years old and the Temptations were between 27-28 years old – he was hired and stayed for nearly four years. (Visual shows the group's line-up including Damon)
"Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)" was the debut single from the group's fourteenth studio album "The Sky's The Limit" which, compared to the group's previous singles, was a poor seller. "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" followed. A romantic ballad with Eddie's wistful lead vocal adding a certain dreamy sadness, was a song that Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong had been kicking around for a couple of years before finishing it. "We loved the song with just the basic tracks, but were totally knocked out when we heard the finished record, with all the strings….It was Eddie's finest moment. The song hung at number one for a couple of weeks in the spring of 1971, but by that time Eddie was gone."
The single soared to No. 8 in the British chart, following the previous year's Top 10 entrant "Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)" which couldn't have been more different. "Sky's The Limit" was musically confusing, merging Edwin Starr's "Gonna Keep On Tryin' ('Till I Win Your Love)", plus a couple previously outed by The Velvelettes, "Throw A Farewell Kiss" and "I'm The Exception To The Rule". Extended versions of the hypnotic "Smiling Faces Sometimes" on which The Undisputed Truth did such a blinding job, and "Love Can Be Anything (Can't Nothing Be Love But Love)" (eh?) rounded off the album. The original intention was to release "Smiling Faces Sometimes" as a single but when the song's lead vocalist Eddie liberated himself, Norman Whitfield gave it to the Truth who celebrated a top five hit. I think it's true to say, the early seventies were a difficult time for The Temptations with irreparable rifts between members. There were more defections to come but for the time being, the public were unaware anything was seriously amiss.
"All By Myself" was the aptly titled debut from Eddie Kendricks on the Tamla label, unlike the Temptations who hooked up with the Gordy imprint. I remember this album arriving from Detroit and couldn't wait to plonk it on the turntable because Eddie was my favourite Temptation having spent time with him a year earlier when he was a late arrival joining the group for their Talk Of The Town season. It was then he told me plans were afoot for his departure but was committed to honour the London dates. Oh, the secrets I've kept over the years. And still keep!
"This Used To Be The Home Of Johnnie Mae" was first from the album, where he unleashed his gospel roots to wonderful effect, with the plush "I Did It All For You" pressed in blue vinyl, following. In later years it transpired that his album was considered a huge threat to The Temptations' stability and, although this doesn't sit well with me, led to "All By Myself" being thrown to the wolves. Even Britain turned its back on it. Eddie would have the last laugh though when "Keep On Truckin'" went viral but for now he had to content himself with a pair of sluggish sellers from the album, namely, "It's So Hard For Me To Say Goodbye" and the jazz-infused, easy listening "Can I". Motown may have pushed Mr Kendricks to the back burner but I certainly did not. "(My voice was) really a gift because I've never taken any lessons. So naturally I'm truly grateful for it," Eddie once explained. "I have no regrets about anything that's gone down. Leaving The Temptations was like starting out all over again. But, although I'm never satisfied entirely with what I'm doing, I always feel I could do more. I feel like I'm biding my time until I get where I want to be."
Rare Earth was an active label between 1969–1976 and represented Motown's attempt to capitalise on the psychedelic craze during the late sixties. It was publicly introduced at a press conference at Detroit's Roostertail Club in 1969, with the first acts announced to include Love Sculpture, The Pretty Things and Rare Earth whose name inspired the label's moniker. I confess to not taking too much notice of the releases as not my kind of music, but the label did introduce me to Stoney & Meatloaf (what a terrific album that was - and still is), a credible R. Dean Taylor album "I Think Therefore I Am", and the inspiring compilation "JC Greatest Hits" from The God Squad featuring Leonard Caston.
Tucked away in the listing and celebrating their 50th birthday in April were Brass Monkey's eponymous album and UFO's "UFO1". I've not been able to find out anything substantial about this hard rock group Brass Monkey except it comprised five guys and the album was produced by Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, who also co- penned six of the tracks, with the subtle social commentary "All Fall Down", the single "Sweet Water" and the bluesy instrumental "Strange Days" among them. Cover versions included "You Keep Me Hanging On", "Proud Mary" and "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)".
However, I had more success with UFO although nothing too exciting. "UFO1" was the British group's first album released in October 1970 on Beacon Records, then a year later it was picked up by Rare Earth for an American outing. Neither of these releases reaped rewards although it was a substantial seller in Japan and Germany. Promoted as one of space-rock's pioneering group, the name was liberated from the London UFO Club, and it was there that Phil Mogg (singer), Pete Way (bassist), Mick Bolton (guitarist) and Andy Parker (drummer) came to the attention of Beacon Records. With a combination of cover versions ("C'mon Everybody" and "Who Do you Love?") and originals ("Evil", "Treacle People" and "Follow You Home") the album came and went. By mid-1973 the bottom fell out of the market and underground rock was considered to be a sound of the past, whereby Rare Earth folded.
Over on the Tamla label, Stevie Wonder was laying down the law because his contract was due to be re-negotiated and he planned to release an album inspired by his widening musical influences and his growing interest in American politics as his final release under that contract. Social issues and his apparent dissatisfaction with Motown figured in this revolutionary project which would symbolise his future thinking. He insisted the album wasn't simply a selection of songs – "(It) is based on world problems, with songs of war, anti-drugs and about the racial issue. I feel it's the most important thing I've done."
Realizing the project was not a money-spinning Stevie Wonder album as such, Motown held back its release hoping to issue a 'greatest hits' package instead. Hah. Stevie dug his heels in and eventually got his own way and the album known as "Where I'm Coming From" was released. "I was expressing what I wanted to say," Stevie later told Blues & Soul writer-at-the-time, David Nathan. "It was amazing at the time because Marvin was working on 'What's Going On' which was the greater of the two albums. His album was just awesome, because it spoke so much of what was going on."
For all his bravado "Where I'm Coming From" stalled in the US top seventy prompting Stevie to moan, "I don't think it was promoted properly. The album was premature perhaps but I wanted to express myself…People never got to hear it, so the singles that were pulled didn't really make any sense." Briefly then, Stevie pointed an accusing finger at the older generation for their ineffectiveness via "I Wanna Talk To You" which was followed by the luxuriously balanced "If You Really Love Me", which typified the mid-tempo flow of music at the time. Perfect for single release in August 1971, when it peaked in the Top 10, and five months later, soared into the UK Top 20.
"Look Around" moved into "Do Yourself A Favour", a slice of Wonder funk spanning six minutes. With "Think Of Me As Your Soldier", he joined others in condemning the Vietnam War, before returning to the subject he knew so well – love – with "Something Out Of The Blue", the smoothest track on the album. However, even this paled in comparison to the first clipped single "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer". A further love-slanted "Take Up A Course In Happiness" clashed with "Sunshine In Their Eyes", a deep-rooted look at social issues.
In hindsight, perhaps the album was a muddled project, where fans and critics alike felt it dipped too heavily into past impressions, while demonstrating the strength of Stevie's melodies when set against Syreeta's sensitive lyrics. Reviews varied from "self-indulgent and cluttered" to "pretentious lyrics". Nonetheless, "Where I'm Coming From" proved its creator's point. As you know, Motown's artists had no artistic control over their recordings up to this point but thanks to Stevie and indeed Marvin Gaye, that policy was to change. It was the major condition in Stevie's new contract and such was Motown's desire to keep him as an artist, they caved in. His best creative work was to come although we didn't realize it at the time.
Turning to the Motown label, The Jackson 5's fifth studio album "Maybe Tomorrow" hit the streets. By now, the group's record sales had begun to dip across Europe; in fact, this new album failed to crack the top fifty. The first lifted single, "Never Can Say Goodbye" hit the UK Top 40 and it took another year for them to notch up a Top Ten title with "Lookin' Through The Windows". Such was the concern that Motown considered pulling their planned twelve-day European tour of 1972 which included them participating in The Royal Variety Performance in front of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. However, all worries were brushed aside, when Michael Jackson dipped his foot into a solo career.
From the first single "Got To Be There" in January 1972, with "Ben" following, which sold over a quarter of a million copies in Britain alone, the tour was a sell out thanks to Michael's solo rising star. So what of the actual "Maybe Tomorrow" album? For a start it portrays the brothers on a more mature landscape which may not have been the best idea considering their young age, yet we were treated to more original material than previously available thanks, in the main to The Corporation, that one-time mysterious syndicate plucked from Motown's finest. The only two cover versions – "Sixteen Candles" (The Crests) and "Honey Chile" (Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) - were uninspiring and probably not wise choices. Happily though, tracks like "Petals" with the early J5 punch; the driving "It's Great To Be Here"; a powerful "Maybe Tomorrow" and, of course, "Never Can Say Goodbye" which is easily the strongest, most satisfying title on the album. Don't think this was the death knoll for the group, as their star rose again on so many levels, some of which they hadn't even thought of. For now though, J5mania was very much alive.
Before I walk the walk, I'm very grateful for the comments about last month's very special, very sad blog. Knowing that we took the right path with it meant a lot. So thank you. More 50th birthday celebrations in a couple of months, but meantime, do take care out there.