With Yuletide musical nods to The Temptations, our Motown columnist Sharon Davis continues a review of the label’s 1977 album output and shares about a new collection of performances by longtime Motown champion, Dusty Springfield and more…
Last month’s column seemed to run away with me (just slightly eh?) so have opted to finish it off this time around while listening to The Temptations’ “Give Love At Christmas” album which, despite its age, born in 1980, is scratch free. This was, by the way, the group’s second Festive release following “The Temptations Christmas Card” a decade earlier. With the line-up of Otis Williams, Glenn Leonard, Dennis Edwards, Richard Street and Melvin Franklin, whose distinctive bass voice adds a slice of glory to their version of “Silent Night”, this is a super combination of classic Christmas songs – “Little Drummer Boy” for one – and originals, like Smokey Robinson’s “Christmas Everyday”. So, yeah, well and truly in the Festive mood now. However, before I finish writing, will switch to “Phil Spector’s Christmas Album” which is my definite favourite at this time of year. And for a treat to myself, will play the vinyl version.
So, let’s round up the remaining albums from March/April 1977. Smokey Robinson claimed his “Deep In My Soul” was his life saver because it proved he was open to young writers and producers working with him. Subsequently, none of the tracks on the album were his own compositions. “I got comments like ‘you’ve petered out’ or ‘you don’t know how to write songs anymore’ so…I wanted young talent… to know Motown is open-minded about good material. They can come anytime and record an album on me, somebody who has been doing his own stuff for several years.” Brenda Sutton, Jeffrey Bowen, Michael B Sutton, Kathy Wakefield and Hal Davis were among his background team, and while delivering a sophisticated product, Smokey once again suffered saleswise. The Miracles’-inspired “There Will Come A Day (I’m Gonna Happen To You)” was the first outing, while it was left to the future single “Vitamin U” in the June to crack the UK dance chart. Ironically, Smokey admitted that stashed away were a thousand unfinished songs but he was hampered by his other commitments which he didn’t identify. What he did admit though – his intention to retire from the professional spotlight was thwarted when he realised he missed that side of his life, and longed to be in the recording studio again. It appears one of his original plans was to record with his wife Claudette, and to this end had, at this time in 1977, completed four tracks. While the idea was brilliantly conceived, Smokey suffered a major hang-up, as he explained. “It’s very difficult on some nights to work, if you see what I’m saying. I might criticise her with something in the studios, as I would do any artist, when maybe she doesn’t want to hear it. So, I think that in order to complete this particular project we’re going to have to get another producer.” I reckon the project was shelved, don’t you?
The Originals’ “Down To Love Town” (naturally) named after the hit single – which in itself was originally a track on the group’s 1976 elpee “Communique” – looked set to become a big seller. The established group was one of many to benefit from the advent of disco/dance music, although Motown stalwarts already held The Originals in high esteem for their breathtakingly beautiful ballads. Having said that, disco gave their career a huge stab of adrenalin that had previously bypassed them in the mainstream record market. One reviewer noted – “This collection of seven is built on their new found disco acceptance and sees them switch over from their usual ballad orientated album to one that is made up mainly of dance tunes.” Built around three different production units, the opening infectious title “Hurry Up And Wait” led into a full length cut of “Down To Love Town”, the pace of which continued into “You Are A Blessing To Me”. Fortunately the soulful tones of “warm and gentle” from the past returned with “Mother Nature’s Best” yet the magic fell apart with “Six Million Dollar Man” intended as a single, but abandoned when the owners of the television show bearing the same name threatened legal action. Instead, agreement was reached for the song to remain an album track. “We worked with Frank Wilson and Mike Sutton on the album and it was our first time working with Mike” Freddie Gorman explained in a January 1977 interview. “He and his wife Brenda had written some songs so he ended up co-producing the album with Frank. It seems like it was a good concept, mixing the disco things with ballads.” Yes it was yet sales were lower than expected.
Following “Deep In My Soul”, were the Commodores and G.C. Cameron. Known as “Commodores” in the US, their album was re-titled “Zoom” over here, and was a melting pot of contrasting music – downtown funk with “Brick House” and sweet soul courtesy of “Easy” and “Heaven Knows”. “Funky Situation” was built around a handful of gritty riffs that broke down when the mood changed, while “Patch It Up” was worthy of the same comment. In hindsight, it was obvious the Commodores were developing into an album act and a self-contained unit, having not only co-produced with James Carmichael but also wrote all nine songs.
G. C. Cameron’s “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” also benefitted from Carmichael’s input. Once again listeners were treated to varying styles through “Let’s Run Away Together”, “Kiss Me When You Want To” and “I’ll Love You Forever”. Explained the singer at the time – “The concept behind my material is love…I never get tired of singing about it because it deals with truth…Working on this album was possibly the easiest project I’ve dealt with, because I was dealing with professionalism, and there’s no substitute for that.” Although well received, “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” was regrettably missing from the charts.
Over on the Mowest label launched here in 1972, the last album out was Gaylord & Holiday’s “Second Generation” in April 1977, while on the TMSP series Marvin Gaye’s “Live! At The London Palladium”, was slotted in between “An Evening With Diana Ross” and the Commodores’ “Live!”. Originally members of The Gaylords, Ron Gaylord and Burt Holiday paid their dues over the years to eventually become a duo. As such Barney Ales signed them to his Prodigal label during 1975, which Berry Gordy later purchased. “Second Generation” was issued in November 1975 and much later turned up on Mowest over here.
Marvin Gaye’s “Live! At The London Palladium” was a dazzling reminder of his long awaited UK series of concerts. The exception here was, of course, “Got To Give It Up”, recorded in his Los Angeles studio, under pressure from Motown for him to cut a disco track. Said to be originally titled “Dancing Lady”, it was Marvin’s ‘answer’ song to Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”, a runaway international hit. An American chart topper, “Got To Give It Up” peaked in the UK top ten, Marvin’s biggest solo seller of the seventies since “Abraham, Martin And John”. In turn, “Got To Give It Up” reputedly inspired Michael Jackson to pen “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” for The Jacksons, and his solo “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” as he swiped some of Marvin’s percussion and guitar riffs for both.
I think I’m right in saying, Motown’s first breakthrough into country and western music came in 1974 with the Melodyland label, not to be confused with the 1962-65 outlet Me-lo-dy, the home to artists like Howard Crockett, The Pirates and Lamont Dozier. So, Melodyland was launched in the US with Pat Boone’s “Candy Lips” in October 1974 and T. G. Shephard’s “Devil In The Bottle” a month later. The latter title topped the country charts encouraging further signings of Ronnie Dove, Kenny Seratt and Ernie Payne, among others. However, the label had a short life when a Los Angeles church bearing the same name insisted that material like Jerry Naylor’s “Is This All There Is To Honky Tonk?” and “Devil In The Bottle” reflected badly on its image. By all accounts, a label spokesperson retorted at the time – “You don’t mean to tell me that churchgoers don’t drink or participate in a little nooky from time to time!” Whether that was actually true or not remains to be seen, but Motown was taken to court, lost the case with Melodyland being killed in 1976. This, however, didn’t prevent Berry from mulling over the possibility of once again tapping into this profitable country and western market, so he introduced Hitsville Records in 1976, continuing in the Melodyland tradition. Motown connoisseurs quickly spotted the label design was almost identical.
The all-American, squeaky clean Pat Boone was obviously the biggest name bagged with his “Texas Woman” album a steady seller. Wendel Adkins’ “Sundowners” was the label’s final release, whereupon MC Records replaced it in August 1977. Despite at least eleven titles being earmarked for release under this US label, only a further couple were, namely, Marty Mitchell’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and Larry Groce’s “Please Take Me Back”, the last release in the December. Yup, does get confusing doesn’t? You try sorting it out!
Remarkably – but probably due to American pressure – Hitsville Records was launched over here under the prefix HVS, first with the compilation “The New Direction In Country Music” featuring ten artists over eighteen tracks followed by “Nashville Hitmaker” from T. G. Sheppard and Pat Boone’s “Texas Woman”/”The Country Side Of Pat Boone”. The fact that these were the only UK releases indicates it wasn’t commercially viable, but at least Motown/EMI gave it its best shot.
Something different now. Nearly two years in from negotiating their departure from Motown for Epic/CBS Records, the Jackson 5 (now known as The Jacksons) were riding high on their debut eponymous album released in November 1976. Following his marriage to Berry’s daughter Hazel, Jermaine was absent from the deal, being replaced by younger brother Randy. As Motown owned the name ‘Jackson 5’ it allowed the brothers to start recording on the understanding they changed their name. However, as The Jacksons embarked upon their new adventure, their legal battles with the label that gave them life continued backstage with a new twist in March 1977 when Motown “amended and updated its lawsuit against CBS and the group’s management, with new damages lifting the previously sought $5 million to $20 million.” This move was instigated when it was proved press statements of their pending defection were publicly released without Motown being officially aware of their decision to move on. In a bizarre turn of events, this court case fuelled further rumours that The Supremes were due to jump the good ship Motown, followed by The Temptations, while Susaye Greene and Dennis Edwards had signed solo contracts to stay. And so it went on…
I meant to have mentioned this release before now but other things got in the way, so my apologies. As you know, Dusty’s love of Motown is well documented, her versions of classic tracks were included on some of her albums and those that didn’t make it, she included in her stage acts. So, “Dusty Springfield – Transmissions 1962-1968” should fill in some of those gaps, with a selection of Motown classics high on her list. She belts out three from Martha and the Vandellas’ – “Dancing In The Streets” (although that’s misspelt as ‘Streets’ – grrr), “Heatwave” and “Nowhere To Run”; Stevie’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”; Mary Wells’ “You’ve Lost The Sweetest Boy” and The Temptations’ “Get Ready”. These rare slices of Springfield magic, all digitally re-mastered, are extracted from her various performances on programmes like Saturday Club and Top Gear, and, of course, her own television shows. The first CD comprises titles from her already released “Dusty – The Complete BBC Sessions”, while her appearance at the 1965 NME Poll Winners Concert, staged at Wembley, is an added attraction. Naturally, several of her hits are here alongside album tracks and songs she didn’t get around to recording. It’s a 3-disc, low budget release (£9.99 – £11.63) from Audio Vaults and the sound quality is as good as it gets but the whole point is, this release has huge historical value, especially for fans who are keen to bridge the gaps in her musical legacy: adding another piece to the musical jigsaw if you like.
And while on the subject of ‘huge historical value’, last month I mentioned the unique, limited edition of “Kim Weston – Live In Detroit 1978” CD instigated by Paul Stuart Davies to raise much needed funds for the lady. The release stems from a recently unearthed recording of her performance at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre, highlighting a jazz styling that she adopted after leaving Motown. “This 1978 Easter Day performance comes from a time where Kim’s focus was on giving back to her community” wrote Paul. Two years prior to this, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young declared 18 July “Kim Weston Day” in recognition of her benefit concerts and voluntary work throughout the city that included the founding of “The Festival Of Performing Arts”, a workshop programme for aspiring young artists, which ran for seventeen years. With all copies sold, bar a handful, Kim received approximately $900 last weekend to help her financial situation. A master stroke young man!
While writing this I’ve also dipped into the 1969 “Merry Christmas From Motown” compilation, where among the sleeve notes I read “This album glows with the warmth of the traditional yule tidings brought to you in the soulful style of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder….(The album) is a greeting from the heart, that ever-throbbing receptacle wherein soul dwells.” There’s more, of course, but honestly, I felt myself cringe as I attempted to type them out to share with you. So deleted them instead: the music’s great though!
So, this rounds off another year of being in your company; a year that nobody could ever have imagined, yet a year that now offers a shred of hope and a new world ahead. As for the Christmas period, all I can say, with hand on heart, is enjoy what you can with who you can. And stay safe y’hear. My love and undying appreciation to you, as always.