Motown music historian and writer Sharon Davis reflects on her face-to-face meeting with Barbara Randolph back in the late ’80s and pays tribute to Carl Bean, of “I Was Born This Way” fame…
I had always wanted to meet up with this lady and twenty-two years after the release of her single “I Got A Feeling”/”You Got Me Hurtin’ All Over” on the Soul label in September 1967, I finally managed it. As you know, the topside was her version of the Four Tops’ original, tucked away as the flipside to “Bernadette” released earlier in the year. And now, to my horror, I realise, Barbara’s single is actually fifty-four years old this month. Hell’s bells, can this be real? Pick yourself up, Davis and move on! Barbara’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness”, with the same B-side as her first, was issued a year later in the August. So, what better time to re-visit the two or so hours I spent with her and her husband, Eddie Singleton, during their trip to London when Barbara was recording at the Southlands Studio in Shepherds Bush for Ian Levine’s Nightmare/Motorcity labels. What can I say? She was an absolute dream as she quietly talked freely, candidly and positively about her career; so much so I wished I’d met her a whole lot earlier.
I originally thought Ms. Randolph had told me she was born in Houston, Texas, but it now appears she was a native of Detroit. She was adopted by actress Lillian Randolph but was able to track down her real mother with the intention of building up a solid relationship with her, compensating for their lost years. However, this part of Barbara’s life was rather sketchy and as our chat was taped on a cassette player, much is unplayable now thanks to my not taking care of my cassettes. From Detroit she moved to California, where her actress mother guided her into the world of show business. Using the name Barbara Ann Sanders (the surname credited to Lillian’s second husband) she played Tanya in Bright Road, a low budget 1953 film, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in his first feature film appearance. Barbara was all of eight years old and is actually listed in the movie credits.
Prior to signing with Motown, Barbara was no newcomer to the recording process, as she had already recorded for RCA Records. She told me. “It was a nothing deal. I had a really brief situation with them. They sent a representative out from New York to California, and he signed up a few artists. Then he moved his whole family out and within a month they fired him and dropped all the artists. However, before that happened I recorded something called ‘Malaguena Salarosa’. I don’t know how I got to do it, let alone who chose it. I was sixteen or seventeen at the time. So that was the end of my RCA career!” And the end of a future solo career but, I’m happy to add, not her singing ambitions.
Barbara went on to join the original Platters when Zola Taylor left. “I recorded an album on Mercury with them and then toured with them. I was about twenty years old then. I had two leads on that album; one was ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and the other ‘Big Daddy, Tree Top Tall’.” She laughed “I have no idea where these titles came from. So that was like my second recording contract. And then – nothing.” In time though, she hooked up with Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, and while working in San Juan she crossed with a touring Motown show. The story went something like this: “San Juan is like Vegas in as much as the hotels have a main room and a lounge. I was working in the lounge and The Supremes – Diane, Mary and Florence – were performing in the main room in his very fancy hotel. It was 1967, I think. The group was just moving then; they were still little girls, but were big stars, even though they hadn’t been around the world at that time. They finished their show, then came to watch mine, and I think it was Berry Gordy’s sister, Esther, who suggested I go to Detroit to record for Motown.”
At the time the company had a mighty influx of female vocalists, a situation Barbara remembered well. “Brenda (Holloway) was there before I was, and I guess Kim (Weston) also. To be quite frank with you, the first thing Berry Gordy wanted to assign me to, and I don’t know if Esther had anything to do with it, was The Supremes. Even at this point Berry was thinking of replacing Florence in the group, but Miss Ross was averse to my replacing her… Although journalists have hinted that Berry fancied the majority of his female artists, we didn’t have any type of relationship.” In fact, she admitted, she rarely saw him because at the time he was wrapped up with Diana. “He and Miss Ross were very close and she was very demanding, very possessive and seemed intent on have this man as her husband. I don’t think anyone could have gotten too close to him even if they desired to do so.”
Even though The Supremes were the queens at Motown, Barbara did get to work with their writers and producers, Holland-Dozier-Holland. According to her, any artist could bag one of their songs. “Anyone could produce you as well. As a matter of fact, Hal Davis, who ultimately became the one who produced the Jackson 5, was one of my original producers there. He actually decided on the tracks I’d record. Hal was also from California, so I knew him first as a friend.”
When “I Got A Feeling” was recorded, she sighed, The Supremes’ presence was felt again. “My record hit the chart with a bang in the States, then within a week, it was like everything stopped. The single went in with a bullet, then The Supremes had a single out and everything was geared to that. (I’m thinking that single was probably “In And Out Of Love”). Gladys Knight was there at the same time, and she couldn’t get anything going. No female artist could get a record out and no-one at that time had one promoted. They were just released and that was the end of them. I watched this happen with Brenda and Blinky as well.”
“I Got A Feeling” was released in the UK in November 1967. As Holland-Dozier-Holland’s work was instantly recognisable by the hookline and back beat, her single included them drawing from “Heaven Must Have Sent You”, while others believed the relentless clapping track swiped the feel of “Where Did Our Love Go”.
It was a given that H-D-H mixed and matched the same, or similar, musical stylings across different artists, but who cared? The beat was exciting beyond words, unashamedly compulsive and for fans like me, we just couldn’t get enough! On the other hand, others felt it was all too samey and predictable. Nonetheless, Barbara’s “I Got A Feeling” lived on for years; was included on several compilations, and adopted by the UK Northern Soul scene, where it’s held in high esteem. I recall hearing it several times blasting out from the huge speakers while at the last, but wonderful, Skegness weekender, organised by the equally wonderful Russ Winstanley.
Miss Randolph’s next outing was the previously mentioned “Can I Get A Witness” which, she insisted, she recorded after Marvin Gaye. “Again it was the choice of the producer because acts didn’t have a lot of say in their songs. There were writers on the staff and if they decided they wanted to produce an artist, they would get it approved, then go into the studios and record the material with you. The only problem was, you were charged for the sessions, and this money comes out of your royalties. So now you can see why I only released those three titles. Today, the album comes first but in those days, it didn’t. You did a forty-five and if that was a success you cut an album. And I guess I thank God in a way because if I’d done an album I’d probably have ended up owing them $5 million!”
While it’s true Barbara only dropped this trio of titles, it became apparent years later that there were other titles stashed away somewhere safe, probably long forgotten, gathering dust. When unearthed, it took awhile to sort out the licensing formalities but during 2003, Spectrum scooped up fifteen unreleased items for commercial release under the title “Barbara Randolph: The Collection”. Granted, the bulk of the tracks were cover versions with “I’ll Turn To Stone”, “Chained”, “(I’m A) Roadrunner”, “The Look Of Love”, “Bah Bah Bah” among them, but they represented a historical look into her musical landscape. A joy to listen to. By all accounts, fourteen of the tracks were mixed and primed ready for release, and, having played them through as I started to write this, I’m totally perplexed as to why they weren’t released at the time. And, even more saddened by the fact, that Barbara died a year before this compilation was released. Sometimes, life just isn’t fair, is it?
Anyway, back to our chat which I think you’ll agree is an honest reflection from a singer who never courted controversy. Barbara moved on to the subject of management and that when anyone signed with Motown as a singer, the company also became their management team, which, of course, was later confirmed by others down the years. “So it was as if your entire livelihood depended on them, and you couldn’t sign to an outside agency for work.” This working situation was alien to her. “Before Motown I’d go out as a single and work all over the United States. But once you’ve signed to them, you can’t do that anymore. If they don’t give you any work, then you’re there without any income and you’re not making money off records either. We were assigned to managers that we paid for, and that manager was in charge of you getting work. I had problems with the man who was managing me at the time…and he wouldn’t get me any work.” However, she later secured work from Larry Maxwell who was looking out for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. She said this move didn’t bother Motown.
Another aspect of company life she shared with me was the lack of publicity, a subject re-told by many an artist over the years. In Barbara’s case, she has no recollection of meeting the media, let alone hosting an interview. Why didn’t she question this I asked? “I felt as if Motown were building me into something at the time. They had their own publicity department that issued pictures and articles, but there were few interviews. I mean, articles would come out but it would be their own publicity people providing the copy. And while you’re with Motown you’re hoping everything will turn out right. I wouldn’t have considered saying anything to anybody because you’re too involved in trying to straighten things out and make them work for you… And then you walk away.”
“Motown had the kind of environment that you hung around a lot. You’d go up there on a daily basis and you’d listen to songs to come up with something. Once contracts were signed, they moved very quickly, the work started. The word goes out – here’s a new artist, and people start looking into you, and the producers are there listening, the photographers start sizing you up, and everything gets very busy.” In hindsight, I don’t immediately recollect any UK interviews and certainly I wasn’t offered any until Ian Levine made it possible. It was as if Barbara Randolph didn’t exist as a person: she was simply a name on a record label. Mind you, that was the case for several signed artists during the sixties, particularly those Motown failed to throw money at on a commercial level.
From publicity deficiencies to royalties, and I use the term loosely. When Barbara received her first royalty statement, she was in debt to Motown for roughly $300,000! Her smile lit up her face. “I can’t tell you how. They had a little bit that I had supposedly earned from those record sales, something like a couple of thousand dollars. And they had the ‘you owe us’ bit, and they subtract that from what you owe them. So it takes you a long time to catch up. I can only imagine that other smaller acts that recorded albums were in debt to Motown for life! It was very difficult. Everyone was looking for a break….we were just kids after all. However, I did come from a show business background. My mother and aunt knew this was wrong….my mother was very intelligent but she tried not to interfere too much, even though she was kinda one of those interfering people. Nonetheless, she had the right instinct about this, but I signed anyway.”
Next month my interview with Barbara covers working with Marvin Gaye, her love for Tammi Terrell, life after Motown and more. It’s fascinating stuff, so do stay with me…
Oh dear, I’m afraid we’re closing on a sad note because Carl Bean, recording artist and founder of the Unity Fellowship Church in 1985, died just recently after a long illness. You’ll remember, Carl, I’m sure, because he recorded the slightly controversial (for the time anyway) single, “I Was Born This Way”, released on the Motown label in March 1978 with a British outing two months later. Openly gay from a young age, Carl was a singer prior to becoming a preacher, later receiving the title archbishop. During the mid-seventies, he recorded gospel songs for ABC Records under the name Carl Bean and Universal Love. Motown bought the rights to “I Was Born This Way”, penned by Chris Spierer and Bunny Jones and first recorded it on Valentino. The company then asked Carl to record it. He said in a 1978 interview with The Advocate, “I was hesitant to sign with another record label, but after I found out what the song was, I knew I had to do it. It was like providence. They came to me with a song I have been looking for my whole life….I suppose this song and its message is a sort of ministry to gay people. I am using my voice to tell gay people that they can still feel good (about themselves).”
In another interview, he explained that Berry Gordy’s acceptance of a gay song and singer was impressive during an era when being publicly gay was inconceivable. “Motown was good to me and I never experienced any homophobia. My picture went up in the hallway like all the other artists. We came to a parting of the ways when they wanted me to do songs like ‘ooh girl I love you so’, right after they promoted me as openly gay. But it was a great time for me and I have no bad stories about Motown (because) they allowed me to be myself.”
By the early eighties, AIDS plagued the gay community: so much so that Carl wanted to plough his energies into helping those who suffered helplessly. By involving himself with Shanti, which provided a ‘buddy system’, among other things, for people living with the disease, he was trained to educate others about HIV. In 1982 Carl was ordained; he joined the Universal Tabernacles of Christ Church to begin working in Los Angeles, where he reached out to gay black people and others who were shunned by mainstream Christianity. He formed Bible study groups and travelled constantly in answer to requests for help. “I told them, ‘If you can get ten black gay men and lesbians together, who aren’t afraid to be out, I will come and talk.’ So I went to many cities for many years, and only went back to LA around ’85.”
In 1992, he was ordained as a bishop and seven years later an archbishop. His autobiography “I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher’s Journey Through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom And A Ministry In Christ” was published in 2010, with unfulfilled plans for a sequel. In his lifetime, Carl received countless awards and honours for his work with people living with AIDs, and support from public figures including the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Carl Bean’s legacy includes the hundreds of people his ministry impacted, his religious beliefs which he shared, and, of course, that single with its mesmeric disco flair and inspiring by-line “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay.”
And finally, you may have noticed I was missing last month. You didn’t!!?? Well, I’m going to say this anyway, I had a minor op which needed me to take life easy afterwards. All is good now I’m pleased to say and we’re firing on all cylinders again – whatever that really means.
Thank you for your company as always. There’s more next month…