My apologies for not making it last month but I had a health issue that knocked me for six, seven and then eight. Happily, that’s now behind me. So, it’s catch up time with The Velvelettes. And because I wanted this to be a rather special item, I blagged some exclusive pictures from my dear friend John Lester to accompany it. Thanks Mr L!
These ladies were among a handful of Motown acts that I desperately wanted to meet, but being a realist thought it would never happen. In fact, just to talk to them when a single was released would have been heaven to a journalist like me, but interviews were in extremely short supply. I guess Motown’s publicists felt nobody would be interested. Anyway, by the eighties, too much time had passed since they were a working and recording act, so I felt that was that. Ah hah, not so! I got to meet them while they were in London touring and recording for Motorcity Records, but such was their tight schedule we never got the chance to sit and chat for very long. The universe then intervened because that situation changed when I later chatted in some depth with Carolyn “Cal” Gill, so to celebrate her recent birthday, thought we’d re-visit some of that interview, because she openly talked about her early life, the road to Motown, and her group.
First things, first though: Cal told me she realised from a very young age that music was her future. “My father was a Baptist preacher and he was also a baker. We listened to music on the radio all the time, mainly country-western, because my mother loved it. My dad bought albums of religious/spiritual music, mainly by Rev. C L Franklin, Aretha’s father, and he played the albums on an old record player we had. He encouraged us to sing along with the music. He noticed that I had a knack for singing the lead most of the time, so, encouraged me to lead the congregation in song when we attended church.” Staying in church all day on Sundays became the norm for the young girl. “We did a lot of singing of spirituals, studied the Bible, and played with the other preachers’ kids. My father preached old fashioned ‘fire and brimstone’ Baptist sermons and would pray until the food got cold on the table during our family dinners.”
Cal was the middle child of seven siblings, and was very much a tomboy, probably due to larking about with her brothers in her hometown of Kalamazoo. Yet she always had time for music. “We had an upright piano in our home that we played all the time,” she continued. “You can imagine the beating it took from seven children. Mildred (Millie) was the oldest, so she was given piano lessons, while Billy, Roger and myself played by ear. My other siblings didn’t show much interest in the piano, so me and my two younger brothers would make up tunes and play along with the music we heard on the radio! ”
While in 9th grade at Western Michigan University, Cal formed her first group: “My sister, Mildred, was in several of her high school musicals. She sang in church and school choirs, as did I. Somewhere along the line, after Mildred went to Western Michigan University, she co-founded a singing group on campus with Bertha Barbee. They sang around campus, but it wasn’t until they realised they needed to form a serious group of singers, that Mildred took me to audition, along with my best girlfriend from childhood, Betty Kelley. We were immediately ushered into the group, along with Bertha’s cousin, Norma Barbee, from Flint, Michigan.” The youngsters subsequently performed every place they could, even entering the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity talent show in 1962. They won – and divided the prize of $25 five ways!
One of their fellow students was Robert Bullock, Berry Gordy’s nephew, and he pushed them to audition for Motown. However, before moving forward, the girls needed a name. Cal, who was studying French, suggested Les Jolie Femmes, but later realised it was too difficult to pronounce. I checked the notes in “The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3:1963” where Bertha is quoted: “We were rehearsing one night in the car (and) somebody said ‘Boy, the harmony sounds very smooth…like velvet’.” Subsequently, The Velvets morphed into The Velvelettes, as it was popular at the time to add ‘ettes’ to a name.
It was through a severe mid-winter snow storm in 1962 when the Reverend and Mrs Willie Gill drove the anxious, yet excited, girls to Detroit for a Motown audition. Norma took the bus from Flint and met them at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Motown’s very heart. It was the weekend and auditions were held on weekdays, something they hadn’t appreciated. However, all wasn’t lost as, while the receptionist was recommending they return on the following Monday, Mickey Stevenson chanced to leave the studio. He recognised Norma and Bertha from previously recording them as The Barbees, with their cousin Joyce and uncle Simon. He wrote in his autobiography The A & R Man, “(One of them) got my attention and started running down her sob story about coming all the way from Kalamazoo, and how they didn’t know about the audition times…..She was talking faster than a machine gun on St Valentine’s Day…So I told her ‘You got five minutes to get the rest of your girls in here and let me hear what you got. Let’s do it. Right here in the lobby’. I signed them up quick fast!”
Bertha had played piano while the group sang “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and “There He Goes”, an original penned by Norma. In actual fact, this was later recorded and submitted to Motown’s weekly Quality Control meeting. It was rejected, whereupon Mickey released it via the IPG label (Independent Producers Group). “That’s The Reason Why”, also recorded at the same session, and featuring a twelve-year-old Stevie Wonder on harmonica, became its B-side. The single became a hit in Detroit, which led to further recordings, but this time under the Motown umbrella, on its VIP label.
However, by the time The Velvelettes cut the addictive “Needle In A Haystack”, released in September 1964, the membership was reduced to three. Betty Kelley left to join Martha Reeves’ Vandellas, Mildred was on maternity leave, leaving Bertha, Norma and Cal to record the song with Norman Whitfield as producer. Recalling how intense Norman was about the song’s message, Cal, being sixteen years old, had no idea of the song’s meaning. “I was not very interested in finding a good man!”
“He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”, another Norman Whitfield production, in December 1964, was a masterpiece – and one of the group’s favourites. It had all the ingredients of a hit record. Yet it wasn’t. A greater honour perhaps, was influencing future music-minded generations. It is the go-to track for typifying the Motown Sound of the sixties. The flipside, “Throw A Farewell Kiss”, showed Cal in a more mature mood, despite being the group’s youngest. As an aside, The Temptations later recorded the track for their 1971 “Sky’s The Limit” album. Anyway, this pair of singles cemented The Velvelettes’ sound; they had established a fan base and with a determined package of recording and marketing support, their future looked extremely promising, perhaps not on the scale as that enjoyed by The Supremes, but certainly as serious contenders.
By this time, Cal had relocated to Detroit because she was tired of commuting from Kalamazoo every time the group was needed to work. She told me , “I had to…travel every other weekend to either record, or do teen dance television shows, visit radio stations, do record hops. The Velvelettes made many appearances in and around the Detroit area, and in Windsor, Canada, for the sake of promoting our music. So it made better sense for me to live in Detroit.”
“Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I” and “A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two In The Bush)” followed in 1965. Sales were reasonable, but failed to surpass those by their predecessors. There was still work to do in building up the group’s brand, but it seemed for every two steps forward, they took one backwards, as Motown’s attention concentrated on those acts making bigger bucks. Nonetheless, The Velvelettes never gave up. Cal reflected, “Life at Motown in the sixties and early seventies was easy, and full of fun and excitement. It’s like we were living in a dream, yet we didn’t realise the impact our music would have on the world until much later in life. Once I matured and allowed myself to look back and reflect, I realised how blessed and lucky I was to be a part of the Motown legacy. It has been a great honour being a product of Motown.”
Like many acts have attested, she believed Motown was so successfully influential because Berry Gordy worked towards his vision, while viewing his artists as family members and not employees. “He reminded us that we were in friendly competition with each other, therefore, we did not plot and scheme against each other. Each group and individual had their own style and once that was identified and further developed, it was brought out and polished by musical coaches and consultants. And we were trained by Maxine Powell in Artist Development. She was dedicated to creating positive images and poised entertainers. Other record companies didn’t have a component that focused on creating and enhancing appeal, and developing images that were family friendly, and could be embraced by people of all ethnicities.”
Personally speaking, family life responsibilities were weighing heavily on the ladies, so around the release of “A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two In The Bush)”, Millie, Bertha and Norma left the group. Cal, on the other hand, wanted to continue, so the story goes that Four Tops’ Duke Fakir suggested Sandra Tilley, who joined Annette Rogers from Detroit. This new membership promoted the wonderful “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” in 1968, despite the song being recorded by the original Velvelettes. Who knew! The single also marked a change of label from VIP to Soul. Why so?
Whatever the reason, it was their final single. By now, Cal had married future Temptation, Richard Street, and he was instrumental in persuading her to disband the group, preferring her to be a stay-at-home wife. So, any plans by Motown to release an album were scuppered, despite the fact there was plenty of material in the can, including the now iconic “Ain’t No Place Like Motown” and the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Bring Back The Sunshine” which Diana Ross went on to record under the new title “Dark Side Of The World”.
Then joy of joys, The Velvelettes reformed in 1984. Bertha, now a junior high school teacher, was on the committee for Concerned Black Women of Kalamazoo. She was putting a show together of women in music through the ages, when she received a phone call. “It was from a DJ in the Washington area. He was a lover of The Velvelettes and asked over his radio show did anyone know me. He wanted me to reform the group. So I phoned the girls and we got together for the first time in twenty years.”
The group played at numerous special functions, including a Motown Revue with Junior Walker, Martha Reeves, and others. “We opened the show in front of six thousand people. It was fantastic because we hadn’t seen the other acts in years.” When Henry Sellers booked them for his Sounds Of Motown tour, the ladies were astonished at the warm reception they received, which was, sadly, a familiar story. “We were shocked the British people remembered us. We thought The Velvelettes were long forgotten. We never knew we were known in England. Motown never told us we had released singles here….We love our fan base in England very much.” It was always a two way street.
Then, sadness hit the group in December 2022 when Bertha died at the age of 82 years. She lost her battle against colon cancer. “She was an angel. I’ve lost my dearest friend” Cal said. “She was the group historian, and the glue that kept us together.”
Meantime, Motown didn’t forget The Velvelettes’ involvement in their history, or rather, the UK didn’t abandon them, as a pair of CDs were released – “The Very Best Of The Velvelettes” and “The Velvelettes: The Best Of” in 2001. However, it was “The Motown Anthology” in 2004, with its 48 tracks, that captured the real magic of the group that deserved so much more. The CD has pride of place in my collection as the ladies signed the cover for me. Yup, that’s me: once a fan always a fan.
“It’s always a good feeling whenever Motown alumni have the opportunity to get together. For the most part, we love each other and we feel part of a very special entity in the world of music.” Thank you Cal.
(Featured photo, courtesy Paul Nixon; all other photos, courtesy John Lester)