June’s Motown Spotlight is full on as Sharon Davis shares about the latest release by Diana Ross, an upcoming biopic on Marvin Gaye, news on The Four Tops, The Temptations, Rick James and more…
There’s loads to cover this month, so in no particular order let’s get started and wade through the water – and believe me there’s quite a relentless bad weather situation just now in East Sussex – to spread the word.
It’s been a helluva long time coming but at long last, Martha Reeves is to be given her own Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next year. “We’ve danced in many streets, crossed many rivers and gone down many holy and unholy highways together,” said her manager Dundee Holt. “She’s one of the hardest working people in the business and this honour is well-earned and well-deserved.” I spoke to Dundee following his announcement for a timeline next year but, he told me, no date had been set yet but would definitely let me know when he knew. I can only join other fans by whooping ‘Congratulations’ to the lady who has kept the Motown Sound alive through the decades, bringing so much joy to her public with her music and personality. A true artist on so many levels, and dear friend since 1969. It’s an honour to have Ms Reeves in our lives.
On 19 June, Detroit officials and Motowners dedicated a stretch of a Detroit street as “Marvin Gaye Drive”, adding him to the list of streets that already includes Stevie Wonder Boulevard and Aretha Franklin Drive. The street honour was recommended by the Historic Designation Advisory Board in April before being approved by the Detroit City Council earlier this month, and was timed to coincide with the Black American Juneteenth celebration. As you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic “What’s Going On”, the album that turned the music industry inside out, despite huge reservations about its actual release by Berry Gordy. Thank goodness, common sense prevailed although I suspect its release had more to do with Marvin threatening not to record another album for Motown should it be relegated to the company’s back burners. The 50th anniversary festivities kicked off earlier this year with Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s formal recognition of 20 January as “What’s Going On” Day, while the album was a huge feature at the Motown Museum with specially tailored Marvin Gaye tours through the West Grand Boulevard studio from where the album first took flight. During the ninety-minute visit, and as an added attraction, Motowners shared their stories and reflections about the artist who created the masterpiece. With the ticket price of $50, and a special line of merchandising available, including Marvin-styled beanies and commemorative badges as part of new line of branded items, it’s certainly not a cheap day out. City Councillor McCalister told the Detroit Free Press, “Gaye’s album still speaks to what’s happening in the Black community.” During his Army days when he travelled the world, McCalister said Marvin’s name cropped up regularly. “When you mentioned Detroit, he was one of the first names people would bring up. So he’s someone not just recognised for his work in Detroit, but worldwide. That’s something we want to continue to recognise.” And there’s more…..
After numerous attempts by film companies to bring Marvin Gaye to the big screen, including a personal disappointing result surrounding my own “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” book several years ago because Berry Gordy refused to release the rights to Marvin’s music, Deadline recently announced that Warner Bros. have secured a deal to produce a biopic titled “What’s Going On”. Allen Hughes is on board to direct and produce the movie based on poet/playwright Marcus Gardley’s script. (He wrote the musical “The Color Purple” for Warner Bros, among other projects). This time, Motown and Marvin’s estate are named as part of the deal thereby guaranteeing his signature songs will be available for inclusion.
This film has personal connotations for Allen Hughes as he ensured a Marvin track was featured in most of his previous movies, cementing an onging connection with the singer. Allen elaborated in a recent Deadline interview, “He’s the artist’s artist, with this ethereal voice that just comes out of the heavens. There have been plenty of great artists and then Marvin, in his own lane.” He then added that listening to him was akin to reading a novel: “Such a rich inner life in that voice, heavenly but riddled with pain; the agony and the ecstasy at the same time.” The press release also confirmed the intention is to create a musical odyssey and theatrical experience around Marvin’s life, threading the story of his past through to his final tour. Addressing his relationship with his father, the influential women in his life and the demons that continued to haunt him in later years, the film will, above all, affirm the huge impact his music had over the decades – and still does, of course. By the way, Jan Gaye and Suzanne de Passe are reported to be executive producers in what has been called the biggest-budgeted film for an African American music biopic at an estimated $80 million. Mmmm…now you ask, who will play Marvin? The jury’s out on that one but watch this space.
Following on from our recent Motown Spotlight on Rick James, I’m pleased to say a new documentary “Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James” was premiered during the Tribeca Film Fest as another addition to the Juneteenth programme, with a future release on Showtime to be announced. While obviously not on the same scale as the planned Marvin Gaye movie, Showtime Documentary Films hired Emmy-nominee Sacha Jenkins to direct this intimate yet propulsive look at the R&B/funk artist’s career in and outside Motown. With exclusive home videos, original interviews with friends and fellow artists, like Bootsy Collins, members of the Stone City Band, Rick’s ex-wife Tanya Hijazi, and rare footage of his live shows, this docufilm offers a complete picture of Rick James’ incredible rise to fame and his dramatic fall from grace. In a Showtime press statement Sacha Jenkins mentioned, “The ‘wild’ side of Rick James often eclipses his musical genius, but the mathematical equation that is his life depends on all of the numbers to make a whole…..Our aim was to create a balanced portrait of a brilliant artist who both chased his dreams and stalked more than a few demons…his influence on funk, popular music and culture is unparalleled, and his eventual rise to the top is easily more compelling than any freebase rush.” In support of Sacha’s statement, Vinne Malhotra, Showtime‘s executive vice-president added that his film was another striking piece of work because Sacha continues to document and contextualise the most iconic figures and events that have shaped the contemporary Black experience in America: “….He’s really gone deep to illuminate the artist beyond the headlines (to) show the musically groundbreaking path of Rick James, without shying away from the painful and difficult demons he battled throughout…”
It’s fair to say, Rick was both sexy and kinky (check out his autobiography, parts of which are far too graphic to include here) yet he wasn’t all he seemed as Tanya suggested in the documentary (and I’m choosing my words carefully here). “His sexual exploits were more ‘you do that to that person. Let me watch. I want to orchestrate some s**t over here…He was not that kind of super freak…. He wasn’t like in the orgy – he would watch the orgy.” Suffice to say though, “Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James” will answer a whole rack of questions about this rather remarkable artist who, while giving Motown executives constant sleepless nights, launched a brilliantly, new type of R&B/funk that made him and his record company a whole lotta dollars.
THE FOUR TOPS
From films to musicals – well, the possibility of one. The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir, the only original group member, told Page Six that he’s working with producer Paul Lambert to bring the group’s musical career to the stage. With the current working title “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” the aim is to debut the show in Detroit before heading for London’s West End, later hitting Broadway. It’s gratifying to note that the UK is second in line here: I imagine we have the largest and strongest Four Tops’ fan base and have loyally supported the guys when their home country did not. Besides, by bringing the musical here audiences can assist in ironing out any misconceptions and errors from a British viewpoint before debuting in New York!!!!! Duke confirmed casting for the musical which took place in Los Angeles, is now completed with rehearsals planned. More when I know it but these things take the longest time……
From The Four Tops to their onstage sparring partners, The Temptations who, as you know are enjoying a significant birthday. Although details are rather sketchy for obvious reasons, The Temptations have recently announced a year-long 60th anniversary celebration which will embrace lengthy touring schedules, supported by significant music and DVD releases. The intention is to start their tour in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre during August 2022, a date originally scheduled for this summer but obviously delayed due to CoVid restrictions. Reaching this diamond milestone hasn’t been an easy journey as Otis Williams, the group’s lone survivor, told Brian McCollum for The Detroit Free Press: “To be the last one standing from the classic lineups can be hard sometimes, but I know God left me here for a reason, and that was to continue to share with new generations of fans the great music that we started back in …Hitsville USA. ….I know our music throughout the years has brought people joy, comfort and sometimes even hope. I truly hope that was our greater purpose on earth.” More news will, he added, be liberated over the coming weeks.
Music fans can’t have escaped the news that saturated the media last week – and rightly so – that Diana Ross was releasing her first new music in fifteen years: her last studio album “I Love You” was in 2006. I’m grateful to Keith Russell and Paul Nixon for the first heads-up on this news, particularly the single “Thank You”, lead release from the album of the same name. Within hours of its outing on 17 June on download BBC Radio (yes, I kid you not!) jumped on it. “Thank You” is currently the Record of the Week on Radio 2, guaranteeing it daily plays, while their local stations like Radio Sussex played it on the day it was released, catching me totally by surprise as I ate my breakfast bowl of Cheerios. Diana has been pivotal in the lead up to the album release ensuring regular postings across Facebook pages and websites. One of her first went something along these lines, “This collection of songs is my gift to you with appreciation and love. I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to record this glorious music at this time.” This was later followed by, “I dedicate this songbook of love to all of you, the listeners. As you hear my voice, you hear my heart. Let love lead the way.” OK, so this outpouring of words sounds a little cheesy to me as I type them, but Diana is Diana. She puts her point across in her own inimitable style to ensure that while she was in lockdown, she put the time to good use by satisfying her fans’ demands and recording new music in her home studio. She also co-wrote and collaborated on the thirteen tracks alongside writers and producers like Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift), Spike Stent (Ed Sheeran), Freddy Wexler (Ariana Grande) and Jimmy Napes (Sam Smith) which leads me to believe the bulk of the album will be ‘today’ influenced. In fact, the single does represent what some people have called “a bright, brass-speckled song” with verses modelled on “You’re All I Need To Get By”, covered by Diana on her debut album in 1970 which itself was a copy of the original by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Mmmm…having played “Thank You”, produced by Troy Miller, more than a few times, it strikes me as being more of a bouncy, uplifting song with a hard-hitting hookline thanks to the repetition of the title. A positive grower!
“Thank You” will be released 10th September in CD, two-album and audio cassette formats on Universal’s Decca label. And, just in case you missed them, here’s the complete track listing as of this month. “If The World Just Danced”, “All Is Well”, “In Your Heart”, “Just In Case”, “The Answer’s Always Love”, “Let’s Do It”, “I Still Believe”, “Count On Me”, “Tomorrow”, “Beautiful Love”, “Time To Call”, “Come Together” and the single. Diana Ross is back! Suddenly the future doesn’t look so bleak anymore.
1971 MOTOWN RELEASES…
It’s time now to wish 50th birthday greetings to a handful of singles, some of which made a huge impression upon release while others were just afforded a casual glance. In the UK, The Undisputed Truth’s dynamic “Save My Love For A Rainy Day” hit the streets alongside The Supremes and Four Tops’ remake of “River Deep, Mountain High”, and the sublime “If I Were Your Woman” from Gladys Knight and the Pips. Striding across the Atlantic now where a couple of forty-fives bearing the Tamla label were released, namely, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ lively “Crazy ‘Bout The La La La” and Marvin’s chilling “Mercy Mercy Me”. Meanwhile on Gordy, The Temptations liberated “It’s Summer” from their “Solid Rock” album in the same month as the Jackson 5’s “Maybe Tomorrow”, the title track from their fifth studio elpee. (By all accounts, the song was intended for Sammy Davis Jr but he failed to turn up for the recording session.)
The Rare Earth label was seen on a trio of singles in Motown’s attempt to make its mark in the rock arena. The only one I instantly remember because I used to regularly play it when I was broadcasting, is R Dean Taylor’s “Candy Apple Red” which was, by the way, more ‘pop’ than ‘rock’. The others, Ken Christie and the Sunday People’s “The Rev. John B Daniels” escaped me, and the group Rare Earth’s hard hitting “I Just Want To Celebrate” was far too heavy for my delicate ears. Opened in 1969, the Chisa imprint was in full swing with the first three singles being pressed in red vinyl. However, by the time June arrived it was business as usual for The Jazz Crusaders with “Pass The Plate”, and “Dyambo (Dee-Yambo) Weary Day Is Over” courtesy of Hugh Masekela and the Union Of South Africa. While these releases may have bypassed the mainstream charts, one certainly did not – radio DJ Tom Clay’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love”/”Abraham, Martin And John”. This ingenious single instantly elevated Mowest as a credible label, as its slant on social commentary, using words like segregation, hatred and bigotry made compulsive listening.
On the album front, happy birthday to Stevie Wonder with the UK release of “Where I’m Coming From” which was his first without any interference from Motown. Inspired by Marvin’s artistic freedom with “What’s Going On” and with his contract due for renewal, Stevie really had the company in the palm of his hand. The result was magnificent and, of course, was the forerunner of more brilliance to come. In America, two releases on Gordy have remained on my playlist across the years. The Undisputed Truth’s debut self-named album was a mix-matched psychedelic/soul compilation of familiar songs like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” thanks to Norman Whitfield’s determination to re-use existing material. The same also applied to Edwin Starr’s “Involved”, another powerful selection headed up by his uncompromising “War” which went on to become one of his many signature tunes. Other tracks like “Stop The War”, “Cloud Nine” and “Ball Of Confusion” added to the no-holds-barred release. A solitary release this month fifty years ago on Soul was Jr Walker and the All Stars’ “Rainbow Funk” which, as you may remember, was included in SoulMusic Records’ super 2019 three-CD box set “Walk In The Night: The Motown 70s Studio Albums”.
And last but by no means least, a very Happy Birthday to our Brenda Holloway on 26 June. For as long as I can remember I always thought she shared her birthday with myself and (Tamla Motown Appreciation Society founder) Dave Godin on the 21st. Not so. When we spoke of this at Skegness, she said she hadn’t bothered to publicly correct the date because it meant she could celebrate two special days – much like our very own Queen Elizabeth. Fair enough!
(Visuals of Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye – taken by Peter Vernon during a photo shoot in London’s Covent Garden in/around 1981 – and Brenda Holloway with Chris Clark are from my personal collection)