This month’s Motown Spotlight focuses on the second part of the interview that Sharon Davis did with Barbara Randolph and more…
First things first. Thanks so much for the positive comments about my chat with Barbara Randolph which was, as you know, interrupted last month by the exclusive diary of Chris Clark’s Cleethorpes’ visit. Well, I couldn’t let that pass could I? And judging from the response, you enjoyed it as much as I did, so again, thank you Chris for taking on the challenge. Now it’s back to business with the second part of my interview with Barbara in her London hotel room during 1989. She was with her husband, the celebrated Eddie Singleton, who was previously married to Raynoma Liles, Berry Gordy’s ex-wife, and who occasionally added a comment. Trying to get a word in when two girls were on a roll was quite a feat. It was, as you can imagine, a total joy for me as the singer shared so much for me to pass on.
So let’s TCB. Barbara mentioned her frustration at not having a free hand with her live gigs: she was required to rely on Motown to secure bookings for her. When it appeared she had slipped through the company’s management net, Larry Maxwell stepped in. By this time, Barbara had appeared as Dorothy in the romantic, comedy drama Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as its leading stars. It was an exceptional movie for the time, highlighting the positive side of interracial marriage, and premiered in December 1967. However, Barbara felt Motown failed to make the most of her involvement in such a major movie, despite the film’s glowing reviews. Thankfully, Larry Maxwell, who managed Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, took over and arranged for her to perform with Marvin. She told me what happened. “It was difficult working with Marvin because these were his troubled years. I was Tammi Terrell’s on-stage replacement. This venue had booked Marvin and Tammi based on the popularity of their recordings, but Tammi was in hospital, so I was sent in. The club didn’t want Marvin as a solo artist, and I think I was chosen because I was capable of singing her part and came the closest to her stature.”
While replacing Tammi as Marvin’s partner on stage was an honour for her, she said, it often proved rather stressful as she rarely knew what to expect. “Working with Marvin was hectic and nerve racking but he was extremely likeable, easy going, with a mellow personality. I never heard him raise his voice or get into any type of loud situation with anyone. I admired him before I ever worked with him. I met my husband at the time I was with Marvin. We were performing at the Coconut Grove, and it was Marvin’s first really big main room engagement. We were there with a full forty-piece orchestra, the works, and Ed, who was with Motown at the time, came to see the show.”
However, she remembered one performance in particular: “I was booked to appear at the Apollo with him, and it was one of the many occasions he didn’t show up. I ended up appearing there alone which was really frightening, particularly if you know anything about the Apollo Theatre. It was scary – they throw hard boiled eggs [if they don’t like your performance] – and the audience was waiting for Marvin. In the end, I guess they felt sorry for me (because) I made it through that. So I reckoned I could handle any situation from then on.”
Many authors, myself included, have referenced the drug culture among Motown’s musicians and artists during the early years, with Marvin’s name regularly cropping up. However, this was an aspect of the company that by-passed Barbara. “I think there was more alcohol about; everyone was into that….mainly among the male groups and writers. They’d be working and there’d be a bottle of something around.m When they were in the studios they would be drinking and recording, and nobody really thought anything about it but, as you know, a couple of them ended up with really major problems. Cocaine was the drug you heard about….Marvin might have dabbled with a little grass, but I never knew him to have the kind of drug problem he ultimately wound up with. You hear about these things later.”
Choosing Barbara to be Marvin’s performing partner was an obvious choice because the two were firm friends after meeting in New Jersey when Tammi replaced Barbara in Steve Gibson and the Red Caps. “Tammi was very lively, a zestful person. She had paid her dues so to speak, she’d been out on the circuit and finally gotten to Motown…She had some wild relationships with different guys and she was a very emotional person. OK, so she lived on the wild side, but we all loved her because she was easy to love. ….. She came from a very respectable family. Her father was a preacher so she came from a religious background. So when she started on the road, she was an innocent…. but an unbelievable change happened (because) Tammi just loved and trusted the wrong people.”
Sitting on the couch with her in her suite, I do remember Barbara being troubled when reminiscing about her friend, and, like so many, was devastated at Tammi’s early death in 1970, after eight operations to remove a brain tumour. “I felt very saddened. It was a shocking thing to happen to her at the pinnacle of her career…..I saw her all the way down to her crutches, when her capabilities had just vanished. It was very disturbing to everyone. There was so many rumours about her death (by 1989) so the only thing I know for sure is she suffered from a brain tumour which I imagine, in this day and age, they’d probably be able to do something about. But in those days…well.”
While recognising her stay with Motown was relatively short, Barbara couldn’t actually remember her contract’s duration because of the options added to it, but felt it was at least two years-plus. And, the company didn’t drop her; she asked to be released. “It took me a few months to get out of it. It was like a blackmail attempt on my part, hoping to make them straighten up. If you’re not going to give me work, if you’re not going to record me, then I want to be released. They mulled over it for a few months, then Ralph Seltzer (Motown’s lawyer) finally said ‘I’m sorry you feel that way about it.’ My family was sophisticated in many ways as far as this business was concerned. When my mother and aunt were actresses, it was in the day when black people did very little outside of maids’ roles and such. They were very progressive in the sense that they fought for rights in different areas. They were militant in their own way, they knew the law and they knew what to do. And so Motown couldn’t really give me any trouble as my family would have tied them up forever!”
Now free, Barbara hooked up with Lee Hazelwood. A rather fruitless association as she felt he had different ideas about the record business which she didn’t really agree with. “Motown does spoil you in a way because they take control which is good and bad. Everything’s mapped out for you. So then, when you go to someone like Lee, nothing is done and it’s a big contrast. He assigned a producer to me and we did a couple of things. One was ‘Miracle On 19th Street’ (on the LHI label – Lee Hazelwood Industries) but I wasn’t really pleased with the production. Ed even put background singers on because it was lacking something. Then the contract elapsed. I don’t even think I called them five times during the time I was signed. They didn’t call me either! I became very disenchanted with the music business….and just didn’t want to sing anymore. I wanted to be at home with a family and to hell with show business.” (She also recorded “Woman To That Man” but both singles never got beyond being promotional recordings)
Barbara and Ed Singleton married in March 1970. She was working as a broadcaster for the American Forces Radio by then. “Someone called me and said they’re looking for a young black woman on the station. I went and talked to them, and was with them from 1969 to 1973. Guys used to write to me…I got a lot of mail because the servicemen were a long way from home. I used to send out postcards and so on, but once I got married and had my baby (Darren) the whole image changed and the radio bosses decided it was time for another presenter. I think they hired a guy to replace me!”
So, from the radio airwaves, Mrs. Singleton was a full-time wife and mother until she was persuaded by her husband to return to recording, where her first work was the title for the pilot television show Success. It was an arm-twisting thing, she said. “I was happy to let Ed go ahead and do what he was doing because I became very comfortable at home and was content to watch everybody else pursue their careers. I got very complacent at home while he’d be out and about. But Ed kept on pushing me – anytime he was doing something, he’d ask me to do the songs, but I guess I didn’t feel like working! Then he said if you’re going to do it, you’d better do it now because the meter’s running. So I did.” She admitted it was pretty easy working with her husband because, for one thing, she didn’t crumble in embarrassment if she hit a bum note. I imagine these instances were rather rare as I was in the Southlands studio one time, where, after studying the song she was due to record, Barbara finished her vocals in under two hours. Nerves? Nah, the lady was a natural and in total control.
One thing that Ms. Randolph failed to mention when we talked (or maybe she did and I omitted to record it) was her brush with The Supremes when Berry Gordy seriously considered her as a replacement for Florence Ballard. To this end, she once said, he took her to see their performance in Atlantic City. “I was working in Wildwood, New Jersey, and Berry invited me to the group’s show so I could then go backstage and talk to Diana. I had already met her in San Juan, when she was a little…chilly.” It transpired that, for some reason, Diana wasn’t Barbara’s biggest fan, so when Berry took her backstage that night Diana refused to talk to either of them. However, Raynoma Liles remembered when Diana left the trio Barbara was actually auditioned to replace her. So, this was the nearest she came to joining The Supremes.
That more or less brings us to the end of our 1989 meet up. I’m thrilled that we have her Motown legacy on the compilation “Barbara Randolph: The Collection”. She told me she had recorded a rack of tracks but didn’t mention any by title, either believing the tapes were wiped, or were unfinished and forgotten. Nevertheless, there were at least fifteen unreleased titles stored away, some already mixed for release, and these became available in 2003. Anyhow, whatever the reason, I’m grateful to have the music in my collection, particularly as the lady died in July 2002 after losing her battle with cancer. She was sixty years old. Her husband, Ed, died six years later. He was seventy-two years old.
(Barbara Randolph and Eddie Singleton picture © Sharon Davis)
She may have been a stranger to our charts but Barbara Randolph’s music continues to live on thanks to the loyalty of the DJs and fans on the Northern Soul circuit. It’s just a bummer she never knew.
Now a play out groove – “A Symphony Of Soul: Motown With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” which I’ve been listening to for a few days now with an open mind. Recorded at London’s Grove Studios in April 2017, the RPO weaves and moves through the original vocals, while sweeping across those young, magical musicians who provided the Motown Sound that is so emblematic of the sixties. A taste of the seventies and eighties are also thrown in here, “With You I’m Born Again” being one such inclusion. I suppose this type of compilation had to happen in view of the acceptability of like-minded ones using noted British orchestras – and credit where credit’s due they don’t come much better than the RPO – shimmering across tried and tested originals. Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley spring to mind.
“A Symphony Of Soul” is like Marmite: you love it or hate it, and from what I’ve read and heard to date, true Motown fans are united in the latter. I can’t in all honesty admit I love it all. The necessity to add Mica Paris to the already magnificent “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” or Beverley Knight to “Abraham, Martin & John” escapes me. Acknowledging both are extremely credible artists, I can only assume there’s another sneaky reason for their inclusion, because the two songs certainly really don’t need them, do they? You can’t improve on perfection. To hear the RPO kick off “The Tears Of A Clown” (with which I have history) or the first bars of “Dancing In The Street” and “My Girl” was a little disconcerting, until the Motown Sound thankfully smashed the groove. I haven’t taken to the uncomfortable shallowness of “I Hear A Symphony” either with vocals I don’t readily recognise. Or do I?
As a quick aside here. During a visit to Universal’s New York offices, I sat at a computer to dissect a Motown track – first lifting and isolating the lead vocal, then the back-ups (that weren’t those credited which is why I won’t mention the single I worked with) through to stripping down the various instruments used. While it felt like an intrusion on my part, it was exciting to navigate my way through this musical process, yet the vulnerability of the track became all too apparent. And this is, I’m thinking, what Brian Rawling, the RPO’s conductor, did but on a more elaborate scale. “Hearing the vocals on their own, as we did during the making of this new record, was quite an experience,” he wrote in the CD’s sleeve notes. “We spent days just listening and getting inspired.” Oh yes, I know exactly what that feels like. Anyway, I’ve always believed there’s nothing like the real thing when it comes to Motown, but if this compilation opens the door to mainstream music buyers then I’m all for it.
Finally, if you’ve a mind, do check out “Psychedelic Soul – Produced By Norman Whitfield” just released by Kent Records. He’s the guy who whipped up Motown’s artists to drop them into the atmospheric, profitable world of psychedelia with Edwin Starr, The Temptations, Yvonne Fair, David Ruffin and The Undisputed Truth among them. Known for ignoring Motown’s recording policies, Norman, as you know, recorded the same songs on different artists, often using the same backing tracks which he heavily tweaked, lengthened and Whitfield-ised. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was a great example of course. First cut on The Miracles, he followed it with the moody Marvin Gaye version and the gospel/ funk take by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Yes indeed, Norman Whitfield, the man with the psychedelic touch, ensured Motown was a serious contender in the changing music world of the late sixties.
And that really is it. My thanks as always for sharing time with me this month…. I’ll be back.