Posts Tagged ‘Marvin Gaye’

RAY CHARLES – MOTOWN: MARVIN GAYE – MARY WELLS – THE TEMPTATIONS – THE SUPREMES – THE MIRACLES – LITTLE STEVIE WONDER – JOHN LEE HOOKER

by Robert Seoane

RAY CHARLES

You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.” -Ray Charles

Ray Charles took pop music to the next level in 1962 when he released his landmark, although clumsily titled album, “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music”. By blending two genres, Charles became the soul equivalent to Elvis. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll because he best knew how to sing blues songs in his own rock ‘n’ roll-tinged C&W style. Ray Charles, on the other hand, knew how to sing C&W tunes in his own style, by incorporating blues, jazz, R&B and big band to his recordings, particularly those in “MSIC&WM”. Nobody had ever heard country songs sung quite this way before.

Ray Charles was one of the first pop musicians to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His song “I Got a Woman”, released in 1955, is considered one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs ever composed, and was given the stamp of acceptance when Elvis recorded it the following year. Charles’ subsequent musical output ran the gamut in styles, from R&B with one of 1959’s biggest hits, “What’d I Say” to the following year’s gospel-tinged recording of the 1930 classic, “Georgia”. His tastes and musical experimentation covered a wide variety of musical genres.

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Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, only because his mother Aretha Williams got pregnant with Ray by Bailey Robinson in Greenville, Florida, and the boy’s family needed to banish her temporarily to another town because the two weren’t married. Retha was a teenage orphaned sharecropper who lived with the Robinsons. She returned to Greenville after Ray was born, but Bailey Robinson wasn’t keen on maintaining a family and ultimately abandoned them by leaving Greenville and taking another wife, all but ignoring Retha and his children until his death when Ray was 10 years old.

Retha moved to St. Augustine with 5-year-old Ray and his three-year-old brother George in 1936. Ray‘s childhood was subsequently one of deep poverty and enduring terrible tragedies. At age 5, he helplessly watched his brother drown in a washtub after his mother left him alone for a moment. It would be one of the last images he would ever see before losing his sight to glaucoma, and it became a memory that would haunt him for the rest of his life. By age 7, Ray Charles Robinson was completely blind.

Retha, still trying to cope with the death of her son George, refused to treat Ray any differently despite his handicap. She was tough on him, taught him to fend for himself by giving him chores and allowing him to walk through the neighborhood without help. “I’m not going to be here forever”, she would tell her young son.


Ray Charles, second from left, with his mother Retha

Retha saw Ray’s natural musical talent so she enrolled him into St. Augustine’s School for the Deaf and Blind where he studied piano, saxophone and clarinet as well as classical music. He learned to read music in braille, playing pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His personal preferences were more mainstream however. The music he grew up with and dearly loved was gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and country.

Becoming self-sufficient was good training for the young blind boy, because his mother’s words proved prophetic. Charles’ mother died when he was 14, effectively leaving Ray alone in the world. He was taken in by a family who had been friends with her and together, they moved to Jacksonville. Ray felt lost without his mother and soon began to dabble with drugs, particularly heroin, to relieve the pain of loss he had to endure daily.

Three years after his mother’s death, seventeen-year-old Ray Charles Robinson decided to go on the road and be a musician. He dropped his last name and called himself Ray Charles to distinguish himself from boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and played piano for bands in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. It was during this time that he started to wear sunglasses, a specific type made by designer Billy Stickles, to conceal his eyes onstage.

His reputation soon grew as he started to write arrangements for other artists like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Emanon”, but despite this steady rise of acknowledgement, Charles struggled, sometimes having no money to eat for days. In 1948, he decided to focus on his ambition to have his own band and perform his own music. The only way he could attain that, he figured, was to move to a big city where he’d be more likely to gain larger fame and success. A friend of his named Gossie McKee was planning to move to Seattle, Washington so Ray decided to tag along, where they would form a band together. In Seattle, he met a fifteen-year-old boy who would become one of his closest friends, Quincy Jones.


The McSon Trio; Ray Charles, keyboards, Gossie McKee, guitar and Milton Garrett, bass.

Charles’ band with McKee was named the McSon Trio (“Mc” from McKee and “Son” from Robinson) when they added Milton Garrett on bass. They played the morning shift, from 1AM to 5AM every night at a place called the Rocking Chair. Jack Lauderdale of Down Beat Records heard them there one morning and offered to record them the very next day. The result of that recording session were two songs, “Confession Blues” and “I Love You, I Love You”. Ray Charles’ first vinyl recordings misspelled the band’s name, calling them the Maxin Trio, and had him billed as R.C. Robinson. “Confession Blues” was Charles’ first Top Ten R&B hit, reaching Number Two in the US R&B chart in 1949. It would be the first of six single releases for Down Beat.

Charles was able to land himself his own recording contract in the meantime and for the next four years, the McSon Trio would record for Down Beat and the Ray Charles Trio would record for Swing Time Records. The Ray Charles Trio released 14 singles through Swing Time, and two songs made it into the R&B Top Ten, the blues classic “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” at Number Five in 1951 and an early rock ‘n’ roller, “Kissa Me Baby” at Number Eight in 1952.

During this period, his career grew steadily. He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and there, became musical director for blues artist Lowell Fulson, where he caught the ear of a young Turkish man who had emigrated with his father and brother to the United States when he was twelve and was now a record producer and label owner.


Ahmet Ertegun

“I began to discover a little bit about the situation of black people in America and experienced immediate empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination, because, although Turks were never slaves, they were regarded as enemies within Europe because of their Muslim beliefs.” –Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun’s love for R&B music led him to Ray Charles. Co-owner of Atlantic Records with Jerry Wexler, Ertegun bought Charles’ contract from Swing Time after the label folded for $2500 (about $22,500.00 in 2017 dollars). It was during his years with Atlantic that Charles enjoyed his biggest success in the R&B chart with 17 Top Ten singles from 1952 to 1960, including the rock ‘n’ roll standard “I Got A Woman”. He barely made a dent in the Pop Billboard charts however, except for his biggest success at Atlantic, “What’d I Say” which peaked at Number Six.

By 1960, Ray Charles had become one of the few African-Americans to have successfully crossed over to be accepted by the mainstream white audience. He signed with ABC Records that same year after negotiating one of those most lucrative recording contracts in the music business up until then. The contract stipulated an annual $50,000 ($400,000 in 2017 dollars) advance, higher royalties than what he was receiving at Atlantic, and most importantly of all, complete artistic control, along with eventual ownership of all his recordings. It was at ABC where he would gain his biggest audience, and where he would do the opposite of what most artists do, abandon writing his own compositions and deciding to focus instead on interpreting other songwriters’ work.

It was little wonder why Ray Charles had been nicknamed “The Genius” by Atlantic, when he released his first ground breaking albums “The Genius of Ray Charles” (1959), “The Genius Sings the Blues” (1961) and “The Genius After Hours” (1961). ABC Records continued describing him in the same way with his debut album for the label “The Genius Hits the Road” (1960) and an all-instrumental album released by subsidiary label Impulse!, “Genius + Soul = Jazz”(1961).

His first single with ABC, “Georgia” was written by Stuart Gorell and Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. It had been covered by many artists since, but Ray Charles’s version is the definitive one. He received two Grammys for his classic interpretation of the song, and his version ultimately became Georgia’s state song in 1979. His next big hit, “Hit the Road Jack” (1961), was written by Percy Mayfield. Charles received a Grammy for that song too.

That same year, Charles began touring with a big band, a far cry from the trio ensemble he had been used to performing in all his career. His taste for drugs hadn’t abated though, and he was briefly arrested when police found heroin after a questionable search of his dressing room. Luckily for Charles, the case was dismissed because the police had performed the search without a proper warrant. Although this was a flagrant violation of Charles’ civil rights, it wasn’t a set-up, but a real heroin addiction. Despite the growing monkey on his back, Charles’ muse was as refined as ever, entering a new phase in his musical experimentation. Ray asked his producer Sid Feller to research country standards through the largest country music publishers in the nation. Feller ultimately sent Charles in Los Angeles 250 songs from publishers such as Acuff-Rose who owned the Hank Williams library.

The musical experimentation Charles wanted to do for his fifth studio album for ABC was a controversial decision, receiving negative commentary by critics as well as his peers over the unusual direction a black soul singer wanted to take. But Charles’ artistic control gave the label no other choice other than to trust his instinct, and it’s a good thing they did, for the sake of today’s popular music.

In “Modern Sounds…” Charles took traditional country songs and interpreted them using contemporary, state-of-the-art production. Ray had complete control. He distributed voice-and-piano demos to his jazz arrangers Gerald Wilson and Gil Fuller, and orchestral arranger Marty Paich, and at times even dictated specific parts to all 18 backing musicians individually.

Ray Charles’ philosophy seems second nature today, but during the mid-Twentieth Century, America had been saturated with decades of mostly white-washed, cleaned up entertainment. Mixing C&W with R&B would prove to be a profoundly influential formula that was almost immediately accepted by a large and varied audience, and would mark the beginning of further experimentation by other artists over the ensuing decades.

“[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’ That’s the way you say it. Where in Tin Pan Alley will say, ‘Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.’ That’s cleaned up now, you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is.” –Ray Charles

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music became the most successful album by a black artist at the time, and immensely popular in the Pop, R&B and C&W charts. It shipped 500,000 copies in the first three months after release, earning a gold record and comparable to only Elvis Presley in sales clout. On June 23, 1962, it replaced the West Side Story soundtrack from the Number One position on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart. The album was also nominated for a Grammy as Album of the Year, but shortsightedly lost over a comedy album called “The First Family” by comedian Vaughan Meader that poked fun at the Kennedy family. Notwithstanding the lapse in the Grammy Award committee’s vision, “Modern Sounds…” was so successful that only a few months later, in September, 1962, a sequel to the album, titled “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music Vol. 2” was released to equal critical and popular success. The following are the highlights from both albums.

MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC – RAY CHARLES

BYE BYE LOVE – THE RAY CHARLES

The opening track was a country-inflected rock ‘n’ roll tune that was made first popular by the Everly Brothers in 1957. Charles turns it into a big band jazz piece with contemporary flourishes rooted in R&B along with Charles’ brilliant piano playing, encased in a Forties big-band arrangement.

I CAN’T STOP LOVING YOU – RAY CHARLES

The first single off the “Modern Sounds…” album was a popular country tune first written by C&W singer/songwriter Don Gibson in 1957. It was released as a b-side the following year along with a tune called “Oh, Lonesome Me”, also recorded by Charles for release in the sequel to this album, Gibson’s version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” got just as much airplay as “Oh, Lonesome Me” when first released, so much so that the single became a double-A sided hit.

Four years later, Ray Charles recorded it and made it all his own. It reached the Number One spot in Billboard’s Pop, R&B and Country chart, as well as topping the charts in the UK as well. Charles’ version is a heartfelt performance and feels more contemporary than its predecessor, despite the traditional vocals. Gone is Gibson’s twangy country guitar, replaced by Charles’ piano. After so many hits in the Fifties, Ray Charles managed to top himself once again with this beautiful recording. In 1972, Charles performed it on the Dick Cavett Show and dedicated to his girlfriend, existent or not, along with his background singers, The Raelettes.

YOU DON’T KNOW ME – RAY CHARLES

The second track of the album was also the second song released as a single. It was written by Cindy Walker particularly for singer Eddy Arnold as gratitude for inspiring her to write the song in the first place. Singer Jerry Vale however, got hold of it first and released his own version two months before Arnold’s in 1956. Vale’s version charted higher than Arnold’s too, making it to Number 14 on Billboard’s Pop chart. Arnold’s version didn’t make it into the Pop chart, but did manage to reach Number Ten on Billboard’s C&W chart.

As the story goes, Eddy Arnold suggested the title “You Don’t Know Me” to Walker, explaining the concept behind it and suggesting she think about it before attempting to write it. “The song just started singing. It sort of wrote itself…”, Walker said.

The song is inherently a very pretty one, but again, Ray Charles’ sings the definitive version. His version of “You Don’t Know Me” reached Number Two on Billboard’s Pop chart in 1962.

I LOVE YOU SO MUCH IT HURTS – RAY CHARLES

Ray Charles’ version of Floyd Tillman’s 1948 “I Love You So Much It Hurts” is beautifully interpreted with a traditional lush orchestration backing Ray Charles’ heartfelt, soulful baritone. His vocal delivery makes you feel the sweet pain of his love, encompassed in lazy violins and angelic background vocals.

The most popular, original version of this song was recorded in 1949 by Jimmy Wakely. His interpretation is indeed rooted in traditional C&W folk. It’s a mono recording with only guitar and a small instrumental backing. It doesn’t stand a chance when comparing it to Ray Charles’ version.

YOU WIN AGAIN – RAY CHARLES

Charles chose two Hank Williams songs to record for “Modern Sounds Vol 1”. You can hear the country longing in the melody as Ray sings “You Win Again”, but Charles’ vocal inflection is so uniquely his, drawn out and from the heart, that he does indeed manage to beautifully display the timelessness of the melody.

The song, written in 1952, is about a man who lost the love of his life. Hank Williams recorded it the day after his divorce was final with Audrey Sheppard. Williams originally titled his composition “I Lose Again”, but at the insistence of his producer Fred Rose, he reversed it.

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’ – RAY CHARLES

As in the opening track, Charles ends on a high and returns to his big band style on the closing track of the album, allowing himself to truly dance all over the keys in an extended piano solo that showcases his amazing piano-playing prowess, ending the album with the listener wanting more.

Written in 1951, “Hey, Good Lookin’” is probably one of Williams’ best known songs. Besides Charles’ recording, the song has been ubiquitous since its release in everything from variety shows to TV commercials. Williams wrote it in twenty minutes during a plane ride, intending to give it to a friend of his, Jimmy Dickens, who needed a hit. But after writing it, he recorded it for himself and telling Dickens jokingly that “this song’s too good for you.”

 

MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC VOL. 2 – RAY CHARLES

YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE – RAY CHARLES

The first track on the “Modern Sounds…” sequel album, “Vol. 2”, was also the first single off it, released in the Fall of 1962. His version sounds nothing like the original, more so than any of the other tracks in the first album. It’s rooted in a blend of blues, big band and R&B, with a staccato beat that changes the entire sound of the tune. It’s unmistakable Ray Charles, and as the opening track, promises more surprising experimentation with other traditional songs.

“You Are My Sunshine” is also one of the oldest songs among Charles’ selections, written in 1939 by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell. It also became Louisiana’s state song by virtue of the fact that co-writer Davis was once governor of that state. Originally a country song, it’s been played and recorded so many times by so many other artists that it‘s incorporated practically every music style there is, from Bing Crosby’s crooned version to Charles’ soul jazz to Lawrence Welk’s lush orchestration and many others in between. We’re still waiting for the hip-hop version.

OH, LONESOME ME – RAY CHARLES

Charles returns to big band jazz on “Oh, Lonesome Me” with a wailing sax solo. The genre suits the song well, originally written by Don Gibson, who also wrote “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

The country version also contains the bouncy, happy feeling of Charles’ rendition, despite the fact that the lyrics are about a man whose woman walked out on him. Charles replaced the country guitar with a brass arrangement.

TAKE THESE CHAINS FROM MY HEART – RAY CHARLES

“Take These Chains from My Heart” opened side two of “Vol. 2” and was also the second single off this album to enter the Billboard charts. It made it Number Three C&W, Number Seven R&B and Number Eight Pop in 1963.

It was originally written by Fred Rose and Hy Heath for Hank Williams as one of his final recordings in 1952. It was a posthumous Number One country hit for Williams in 1953 after he died suddenly on New Year’s Day.

YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART – RAY CHARLES

Ray Charles released “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as a single after “You Are My Sunshine” but it only made it into the Top Ten in the C&W chart at Number Seven, while reaching Number 29 Pop and Number 23 R&B.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart” was also taken from the Hank Williams songbook, and is considered a country standard. The fact that Ray Charles recorded this song with an R&B feel bridges the two genres together like no other song can. Williams wrote this song about his own wife Audrey during a turbulent time in their relationship. The single was released on January 1, 1953, the day Williams died at age 29 from a mixture of sedatives and alcohol. The song became an instant nationwide hit.

“Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Vols. 1 & 2” was Ray Charles’ pinnacle, both creatively and commercially. After this album, he only scored two more singles during his career in the Billboard Pop Top Ten with “Busted” (#4) in 1964 and “It’s Crying Time” (#6) in 1966. His next two albums, “Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul” (#2, 1963) and “Sweet & Sour Tears” (#9, 1964) were the last two albums of his to make it to the Top Ten LP chart until forty years later in 2004 with Ray Charles’ final studio album, “Genius Loves Company”. During the interim, Charles battled and successfully conquered his drug addiction, and enjoyed a long career recording and performing around the world.

One of Ray’s most notable recordings occurred in 1986 with Billy Joel. Joel and Charles shared lead piano and vocals on “Baby Grand”, one of the songs from Joel’s album “The Bridge”. Ray Charles contacted Billy Joel soon after Joel’s daughter’s birth, Alexa Ray, to express his appreciation for naming her after him. On the phone, Charles suggested they do a song together. The song, written overnight by Billy Joel, perfectly captures the music Ray Charles has lovingly interpreted for the world, bluesy and soulful, and all about an instrument they both shared, the piano.

“Ray Charles was my hero when I was growing up. As big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles.” –Billy Joel

Ray Charles Robinson died on June 10th of that year at age 73 and left behind a musical legacy that shaped popular music to this day.

 

MOTOWN

In 1962, the Motown family began to coalesce. Motown’s founder Berry Gordy made William “Smokey” Robinson Vice-President of Motown Records. Together, they groomed a growing stable of musical artists, writing songs and overseeing the production of all their recordings. Smokey not only wrote for other artists; he also led his own band, the Miracles, who had already scored a Number One R&B hit (Number Two Pop), Motown’s first, in 1960 with “Shop Around”.

As talented as they were, the two were spreading themselves thin. Gordy knew they needed more songs, so he sought out young, up and coming talent within their own walls to assist in writing pop hits. It wasn’t a difficult task to find them, primarily because African-American talent had heard what was going on in Detroit, so they flocked to the Motown headquarters building, dubbed “Hitsville U.S.A.”, seeking fame and fortune. In fact on most days, these musicians and artists would spend their days on Hitsville USA’s front lawn, tossing a football or otherwise chatting on the stair steps as they wait for an opportunity to record even a background vocal.

 

HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND


From left, Lamont Dozier, Eddie and Brian Holland

“Yes, it was a job, but we loved the job. We really did sit there and work all day at coming up with this song, that melody.” –Brian Holland (rockhall.com)

Eddie Holland had been working with Berry since the Motown label was founded in 1959. Groomed to be a recording artist, Holland released several singles between 1959 and 1964, with a song called “Jamie” being the only single of his to break the Billboard’s Top Thirty. Because he suffered from stage fright however, performing live proved not to be for him.

Eddie’s brother Brian was brought on board shortly thereafter as a staff songwriter. He had successfully co-penned the Marvelettes’ chart-topping “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961, giving him the clout and respectability he needed to get Gordy’s attention.

Brian also tried performing, joining Motown groups called the Fidalatones, then the Satintones and finally as part of a background vocal quartet called the Rayber Voices from 1960 to 1962 before calling his singing career quits. Brian, like his brother, also felt he belonged behind the scenes as a songwriter and began collaborating with fellow staff songwriter, Lamont Dozier, who had been a recording artist for Berry’s sister, Anna Gordy’s “Anna” label before joining Motown.

In 1962, brother Eddie gravitated towards Brian and Lamont Dozier and the three began to write songs together. Gordy watched their talent develop and the following year, asked them to write for the struggling Supremes. The result was “Where Did Our Love Go”, the first huge hit for HDH and the famed girl group. Soon, Gordy had HDH write for other Motown artists. Ultimately, the trio were responsible for writing many of Motown’s biggest hits, such as “Heatwave”, “Can I Get A Witness”, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love”, “I Can’t Help Myself”, “It’s the Same Old Song”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”… virtually every Motown classic smash hit of the Sixties. Besides the Supremes, their songs were recorded by Motown’s biggest stars including Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and the Temptations. The team, known professionally as Holland-Dozier-Holland, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson realized that it wasn’t enough to release records to radio and hope they catch the pop ear. In 1962, they decided to put together their first tour outside the usual Detroit appearances, so they booked gigs throughout the Eastern and Southern parts of the United States and dubbed the tour “the Motortown Revue”. One evening’s performance of the revue typically included the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, the Contours and the Marvelletes. Most of them hadn’t racked up any chart hits yet but the tour was designed to make them known to a broader market.

 

MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. would finally come to his own in 1962, despite the fact that he was being called “the least likely hit maker” within his own label, particularly because the kind of music Marvin wanted to record were old standards that were totally out of touch with the burgeoning Motown sound.

THE SOULFUL MOODS OF MARVIN GAYE – MARVIN GAYE’S DEBUT LP

Gaye had already released his debut album in the Summer of 1961, but “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” didn’t get much attention. Gordy and Gaye had clashed in terms of the musical direction of the record. Gordy wanted him to sing catchy pop songs for the teen radio listening audience, but Gaye saw himself more as a crooner a la Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles or Frank Sinatra. In the end, Gordy relented and allowed Gaye to record songs that were made popular by the likes of Sinatra, and some written by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Gaye added nothing new to his interpretations of these old classics, and the production was pretty uninspired throughout the whole album. “Soulful Moods…” was mostly made up of slow ballads, with maybe two more uptempo pop songs as a compromise to Gordy. In the end, Gordy was proven right, as the album never entered the Billboard Pop Album chart.

LET YOUR CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE – MARVIN GAYE

Gaye’s first single from the album, ”Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” was written by Gordy specifically for Marvin, but it also failed to become a hit. It was a slow, well-sung, bluesy number that appealed to Gaye but apparently, not anyone else. The only notoriety the record can claim is that it was Marvin’s first record with his last name spelled the way he would always be known. Just before the single was to be released, Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname, reasoning that Sam Cooke had done the same thing, not only because he was being teased as to the homosexual association of his “Gay” surname, but also because he wanted to distance himself as much as possible from his domineering, abusive father.

BEECHWOOD 4-5789 – THE MARVELETTES

As 1962 dawned, Gaye busied himself recording and performing as well as writing songs for other Motown artists, many times joining them as a session musician, playing drums for the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder and the Marvelettes’ performances and recordings. Gaye wrote “Beechwood 4-5789” with William “Mickey” Stevenson and Berry Gordy’s brother George for the Marvelettes, which managed to climb to Number 17 in Billboard’s Pop chart and Number Seven R&B in the Autumn of 1962.

Gaye continued to record singles as a solo artist, but bristled at the idea of having to go to grooming class at John Roberts Powers School for Social Grace in Detroit as Berry had instructed him to do. He later regretted the decision to not attend and realized he needed to start trying it their way. He began to take advice from those in the label who saw him perform, particularly changing his habit of closing his eyes when he sang because it appeared to the audience that he was sleeping. Slowly but surely, his stubbornness gave way and he came around to recording the type of music Gordy felt would make him a success.

The first two singles Gaye released in 1962, “Sandman” and “Soldier’s Plea”, also failed to enter the Pop or R&B chart. It took his fourth single release “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, to finally introduce Marvin Gaye into the charts as a solo artist. “…Fellow” was a Top Ten Billboard R&B hit, reaching Number Eight. It also managed to break the Pop Hot 100 by climbing up to Number 46 in the Summer of 1962.

STUBBORN KIND OF FELLOW – MARVIN GAYE

Co-written by Gaye, George Gordy and Stevenson, the title of his breakthrough hit was quite appropriate in describing Gaye’s demeanor, but the song itself was an R&B pop song, not an old creaky standard, and a good one at that. Gaye had realized finally that if he wanted to be a successful crossover artist, he would have to start singing R&B. Marvin had to force himself to learn to accept advice from those in the know, particularly Berry Gordy.

“Berry heard me playing (“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”) …on the piano. He came over and he said something to the effect of, ‘I like that melody but can you do something else with it.’ That was my first power encounter with him. I remember he wanted me to change some chords. I had a brief argument with him as to why I thought it should remain the way I wrote it. In any event, I changed things his way.” – Marvin Gaye

Martha Reeves of the Vandellas sang background in “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” as Gaye delivered the song with a strong growl, desperately trying to separate himself from the crooning talents he had displayed on his failed debut album. His heartfelt “say, yeah, yeah, yeah” open and hook sets the mood for a strong blues pop number. Released on July 23, 1962, Gaye was pleased to see that he had finally cracked the R&B Top Ten chart at Number Eight, but was disappointed that it didn’t make it into the Pop Top Forty, climbing only as high as Number 46. Encouraged by the acceptance he was receiving singing R&B, his next single would chart even higher for him.

HITCH HIKE – MARVIN GAYE

Co-written with Stevenson and Clarence Paul, “Hitch Hike” would take Marvin Gaye into the Pop Top Forty, reaching Number 30. The record also climbed to just short of the Top Ten R&B at Number 12. The dynamic song inspired a dance that Gaye would showcase when performing the song on TV shows of the day such as American Bandstand and the T.A.M.I. Show, where he would extend his thumb in a hitchhiking motion as he danced. Again, Reeves and her Vandellas provided the background vocals.

Gaye went on tour with the rest of the Motown artists in their first Motortown Revue in October of 1962, where he would showcase his two hit singles as part of his repertoire. The tour covered the “chitlin’ circuit” a swath down the Eastern and Southern coast of the United States where it was acceptable for “negro” musicians to play in racially segregated areas. He was also busy recording his second album, titled after his first hit single, “That Stubborn Kind of Fellow”. The album included the title song as well as his other singles “Hitch Hike” and “Soldier’s Plea”. All the other tracks were either co-written by Gaye or his songwriting partner Mickey Stevenson.

Gaye had ultimately abandoned his idea of jazz standards. It was the right move if he wanted to be famous. The second track on Side One of his second album would be his next single, to be released in early 1963. It was called “Pride and Joy” and it would be his first record to enter Billboard’s Pop Top Ten. Despite his stubborn personality, Gaye ultimately listened, and as a result, went from being considered Motown’s “least likely hit-maker” to one of the labels most legendary artists who set a new standard in 1971 when he released his landmark album “What’s Going On”. But throughout the Sixties, he would steadily climb in popularity, becoming one of Motown’s most profitable and famous artists.

 

MARY WELLS

Motown was beginning to chart consistently in 1962. Besides Gaye’s two solo hits and the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” both of which made it into the Top Forty, Motown Vice-President and Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson wrote “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary Wells. Reminiscent of another 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion” by Carole King, the record made it to Number Eight Billboard Pop and Number Two R&B.

Soon after, Robinson wrote “You Beat Me To the Punch” for Wells and that did similarly in the Pop chart, climbing to Number Nine. It did however, manage to make it to the top in the R&B chart, giving Wells her first Number One R&B single. It also gave Motown its first Grammy nomination for Wells’ song in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.

Mary Wells’ third single, also written by Robinson, was “Two Lovers”, a rather risqué song for 1962 with lyrics suggesting polygamy until the song reveals in the end that her two lovers are the same person.

“Darling, Well, don’tcha know that I can tell whenever I look at you, that you think that I’m untrue ’cause I said that I love two, but I really, really do ’cause you’re a split personality and in reality, both of them are you.” “Two Lovers” – Mary Wells

It became her most successful single to date, reaching Number Seven Pop and, like her previous single, also climbed to Number One R&B. Having two consecutive R&B Number One singles and three Pop Top Tens, along with the Grammy nomination, gave Wells clout within the label, becoming the first female solo singer to have accomplished such a feat.

Motown had their first A-list pop star in Mary Wells. “Two Lovers” sold over a million copies and earned a Gold record. Her second album, “The One Who Really Loves You” was released in 1962 and also entered Billboard Top Ten Album chart, reaching Number Eight. As a result of this success, Wells was the headlining artist in Motown’s Motortown Revue.

Although she was on top of the world at this point, Wells was still two years away from recording the biggest single of her career, “My Guy”.

(more…)

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THE MIRACLES – MARY WELLS – MARVIN GAYE – THE TEMPTATIONS – THE SUPREMES – LITTLE STEVIE WONDER – THE MARVELLETTES – FOLK MUSIC AND THE BIRTH OF DYLAN

by Robert Seoane

MOTOWN

1961 was a formative year for Motown Records. Founder Berry Gordy spent much of his time in Detroit’s nightclubs and talent shows in search of young, up and coming musical artists to record. He saw his record label as a Hit Factory and called it such, where rookie artists would be transformed into pop superstars through classes covering everything from etiquette and poise to dancing and vocal training. They were all fitted in suits and gowns and made to look polished and cool. Once they underwent the transformation, they would record incredible songs written by Motown’s stable of brilliant songwriters, and backing up their releases with touring and TV appearances on programs like American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, the only television outlets for rock ‘n’ roll at the time, and performing in synchronized dance moves, perfect harmonies and serious threads.


Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records

Gordy’s Hit Factory would prove to be just that. By 1966, Motown would have three to five singles in the Pop & R&B Top Ten for several weeks at a time and always had new singles climbing the charts getting ready to replace them. By the end of the decade, Motown was not only responsible for many of the most beautiful pop songs of all time, but also developed legendary musical stars that in time would become pop culture icons. Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson… names that will forever be remembered as some of the best musical talent ever produced during the 20th Century.

 

THE MIRACLES

The record label was on sure footing as 1961 dawned, having just had their first Top Ten hit the previous year with The Miracles’ single “Shop Around”, reaching Number Two Pop. It proved to be so popular that it was re-released again in early ’61.

In June of ‘61, the Miracles released their first album, titled “Hi… We’re The Miracles”. It was also the first album ever released by Motown. It received good reviews and was a largely influential work to the formation of the nascent Sixties R&B/Pop Motown sound.

Four other singles were released in 1961 by the Miracles that would also be included in their second and third albums but none of them achieved very high chart success, with only a song called “What’s So Good About Goodbye” being the only one to crack the Top Forty that year, climbing to Number 35. Their best music was still to come.

Despite its lackluster chart success, “WSGAG” served as an inspirational muse to the Beatles, who wrote “Ask Me Why” for their 1963 debut album “Please Please Me”, patterning their composition to the Miracles song.

It was the Miracles’ lead singer Smokey Robinson who wrote “Shop Around” and would continue to write hits for his group throughout the Sixties like “Going to a Go-Go” “The Tracks Of My Tears” “Ooh Baby, Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”, “I Second That Emotion” and “Tears of a Clown”, ultimately recording 26 Top Forty hits with the Miracles through the rest of the decade. As the Motown artist roster grew, Smokey wrote compositions for many of them, such as “My Guy” for Mary Wells, “My Girl”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “Get Ready” for The Temptations, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye and many more. During most of the Sixties, Smokey Robinson was Motown’s main songwriter and would ultimately become the record label’s Vice-President. Berry Gordy’s legacy is inextricably intertwined with the talent of Smokey Robinson.

 

MARY WELLS


Mary Esther Wells

During one of Berry Gordy’s talent seeking forays through Detroit nightclubs, a 17-year-old girl named Mary Esther Wells was performing at the Twenty Grand Club when she spotted the young mogul. Mary was a fan of singer Jackie Wilson and she knew Berry Gordy had written songs for him, like one of Wilson’s biggest hits “Lonely Teardrops”. She also knew that Gordy was apt to drop into the Twenty Grand from time to time, so she had written a song for Wilson that she wanted to present to Gordy for whenever he came in. She must have blessed her luck when she saw him and built up the nerve to approach him and pitch her self-penned song, “Bye Bye Baby”. What she didn’t know was that Berry had severed his ties with Wilson’s manager in order to start his own label, so he no longer wrote for him. But Berry liked her singing, so he suggested that she record it herself for his subsidiary label, Tamla. Gordy was one of the first record moguls who came up with the idea of having more than one record label. DJs of the day would not play too many songs from the same label. To get around that, simply create a new label with another name.

Mary Wells was a smart, talented girl despite her struggle as a child. Born to an absentee father and a mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Mary contracted spinal meningitis when she was two years old and had to struggle with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. Once she recovered, she had to learn to walk again as her sight and hearing were gradually restored. By the time she was 12 years old, Mary joined her mother cleaning homes just to put food on the table.

“Misery is Detroit linoleum in January—with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span.” –Mary Wells

Having graduated from Detroit’s Northwestern High School at age 17, Mary at first wanted to be a scientist, but music was really her first love. She sang in church choirs as a child and as soon as she graduated from high school, found work singing in local Detroit nightclubs like the Twenty Grand Club.

BYE BYE BABY – MARY WELLS

Berry Gordy recorded and produced Mary Wells’ first self-penned song in late 1960, releasing it in time for the Christmas season. He had her perform it in the studio over twenty-six times before he settled on a take he liked. There were only four lines of the lyric she had written so far when she walked into the studio so she expanded on the words as they recorded. It was released in December 1960 and peaked at Number Eight in Billboard’s R&B chart and Number 45 Pop. Being Motown’s first recorded release from a female singer, Wells was to become known as the Queen of Motown.

Her interpretation of “Bye Bye Baby” is a more full-throated performance than her subsequent records. You can practically hear Jackie Wilson blowing the roof off if he had ever recorded it. It’s a classically Sixties-produced rockin’ blues number that oozes feeling and soul. Wells is giving it her all, betraying a slightly rough, scratchy voice, obviously acquired after so many takes, that adds truthful grittiness to the song.

I DON’T WANT TO TAKE A CHANCE – MARY WELLS

Her second single, released in early 1961, did better than her debut, cracking the Top Forty Pop Billboard chart by climbing up to Number 33. Gordy apparently gave her voice a chance to rest this time because gone is the raspiness of “Bye Bye Baby”. It’s not as much of a soulful tune but still retains the authentic Motown sound being developed with each record release. Gordy wrote this one for her along with William “Mickey” Stevenson.

Mickey Stevenson had been with Gordy and Motown since 1959, only months after it was first founded. He headed the A&R Department during Motown’s biggest years until he left to work for MGM in 1967. Among his accomplishments while at Motown was forming an in-house studio band to provide back-up for recordings, dubbing the group of musicians the Funk Brothers. He co-wrote and produced classics such as “Dancing In The Street” for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” for Stevie Wonder, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” for Marvin Gaye and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” for Jimmy Ruffin.

STRANGE LOVE – MARY WELLS

Mary Wells’ third single was also co-written by Stevenson, this time with George Gordy, Berry’s brother. The song fell short of good, being just a slow, plaintive ballad with not a very memorable melody.

Released in mid-1961, it failed to enter the Top One Hundred, frustrating Berry Gordy’s ambitions to make her a star. Focusing on a Number One hit, Gordy asked Smokey to write something for her. They took the rest of 1961 to re-think, re-polish and re-introduce Mary to the public for 1962, with a trio of singles that would lift her into the Top Ten.


Hitsville USA is now the Motown Museum

Hitsville USA was the name of Motown headquarters, housing its administrative offices and recording studios. It was literally a converted house that Gordy bought in 1959, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Within seven years, Gordy will have purchased seven more houses in the neighborhood for his record company.

Gordy and his family lived in the second floor while the first floor was abuzz with young, eager musicians either working or just hanging out in the hopes that they’d have an opportunity to audition or, better yet… record a single. It was opened 22 hours a day, closing from 8 to 10AM for maintenance. Martha Reeves was Motown’s receptionist in 1961. Outside Hitsville USA, in its neatly manicured lawn, artists would lounge around tossing a football, harmonizing or just getting to know one another.

In the meantime, other Motown artists were kept busy recording singles for release throughout 1961 such as Jimmy Ruffin, The Contours and Barrett Strong, who all released songs to middling success that year. Lesser artists were also being groomed that never really took off, with names like the Satintones, Littla Iva & her Band, Henry Lumpkin, Debbie Dean, The Golden Harmoneers, The Twistin’ Kings and Popcorn & the Mohawks. All of them attempted to swim but ultimately sunk into oblivion. There were however, a handful of other artists already being groomed in 1961 that would take Motown up to the highest reaches of success.

 

MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. to Alberta Gay (née Cooper), a mother who was a domestic worker and, Rev. Marvin Gay, Sr., a father who was a total asshole masquerading as a church minister. Being one of six children, Gaye suffered severe beatings from his father from age seven and well into his teen years. As he grew up, his father took to throwing the teenager out of the house, all for the most trivial of reasons. Marvin admitted in later years that he would have killed himself if it wasn’t for his mother’s consolation. Music was also a soothing balm for the boy, singing in the choir of his father’s church since he was three and developing a lasting love for music, ultimately mastering the piano and the drums as a child.

Gaye’s relationship with his father never fully evolved, even during his success as a pop singer. It tragically culminated on April 1st in 1984 when Marvin intervened in an argument between his mother and father. As Marvin consoled his mother, his father shot him to death at point blank range, once in the shoulder and once in the heart. Marvin Gaye would only get to live 44 years.

***********

After being discharged from the United Sates Air Force at age 17 for not following orders according to his sergeant, young Marvin set out to form a vocal quartet called the Marquees with his best friend Reese Palmer. Marvin didn’t like the military and later admitted to have faked mental illness to get out. Focusing on his love of music through his newly formed group, the Marquees enjoyed relative success working in local clubs throughout the D.C. area with Bo Diddley, ultimately recording their one and only single “Wyatt Earp” for Okeh Records, a fun doo-wop novelty song with all kinds of amusing vocalizations and a pretty tasty little guitar solo.

Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows heard “Wyatt Earp” and hired them based on that recording to replace his group, re-naming them the New Moonglows. They also received steady work as session singers, recording back-up on Chuck Berry classics such as “Back In The USA” and “Almost Grown”.

The group was short-lived however. They disbanded in 1960 and Marvin signed a solo contract with Fuqua. Together, they moved to Detroit where Fuqua was able to get him a job as a session musician at Tri-Phi Records. That December, Fuqua and Gaye were invited to a party at Motown’s Hitsville USA studios. Gaye was introduced to Gordy. As the evening wore on, Gaye loosened up and sat at the piano. Gordy was impressed at his prowess on the keys. Approaching Fuqua, he offered to buy Gaye’s contract from him. In the end, Fuqua astutely agreed to sell Gordy only part of his interest. By the dawn of 1961, Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname, primarily to distance himself from his father, and signed with Motown’s subsidiary, Tamla.

Like all great artists, most of them stubbornly know what they want. Gaye had a distinct vision of how he wanted to be perceived that Berry Gordy did not share. Gaye wanted to be an adult alternative to the youthful market that Motown was catering to. It caused friction between artist and producer, the first of many future battles with the headstrong Marvin. Gaye wanted his debut to sound like a “Frank Sinatra-styled pop album”, pointing to his own heroes, Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles as examples of pop artists with an adult oriented, mellow sound, but Gordy wanted him to record R&B. Ultimately, they compromised and produced “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” as the artist’s LP debut, with an assortment of Broadway and jazz tunes, plus three R&B songs tacked on to appease Gordy. It was released on June 8, 1961 and would be the second album to be ever released by Motown after The Miracles’ debut album just a few days before.

LET YOUR CONSCIENCE BE YOUR GUIDE – MARVIN GAYE

Marvin Gaye’s debut single was exactly the style the singer wanted to sing in and Berry Gordy was probably shaking his head in despair. It isn’t a very exciting debut for an artist who would go on to become a musical legend.

Rooted in gospel blues, “LYCBYG” gets under your skin after repeated play, until you realize how incredibly awesome this song really is. It’s a precursor to the Marvin Gaye that would record the smoldering seductions of “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing”.

The record was released on May 25, 1961, a few weeks before the release of the aforementioned album that contained it. It was a local hit in the Detroit area but it didn’t enter any of the U.S. Billboard charts. It would still be a year before Marvin Gaye would start recording the hit singles that would launch his career.

 

THE ORIGIN OF THE TEMPTATIONS

The origin of the five Temptations sprouted from two different vocal groups. All five members of the vocal quintet ultimately met in Detroit, but each of them were born in southern towns before moving to the Motor City at various times of their lives.

OTIS WILLIAMS AND THE SIBERIANS

Otis Miles, Jr
. was born in Texarkana, Kansas to Otis Miles and Hazel Louise Williams. His mother left for Detroit, Michigan to get married, leaving her son behind to be raised by both his grandmothers. When Otis was ten, Hazel asked for her son to come live with her and his stepfather in Detroit, which he unhesitatingly agreed to do. As he grew up there, Otis developed an interest in music and singing, until during his high school days he decided to form a musical group with himself as the lead singer. He took his mother’s maiden name for his stage name, enlisted his high school mates Elbridge “Al” Bryant and baritone Melvin Franklin and called his group Otis Williams and the Siberians. Together, they developed their act and sang at high school dances, talent shows and street corners.

OTIS WILLIAMS AND THE DISTANTS, THE PRIMES AND THE PRIMETTES

During one particular talent show they were competing in, after their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews changed their name to Otis Williams and the Distants, one of their competitors were a new musical trio that had recently arrived into Detroit from Birmingham, Alabama. They were Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Kell Osborne, also known as the Primes. With them were Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diane Ross, who also went by Diana, as it was mistakenly written that way on her birth certificate. That trio would go on to become one of the biggest girl groups of all time as the Supremes. They had been discovered by Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins after having met them through Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who both had met Ballard in 1958. Jenkins envisioned them as a sister group to the Primes so he called them the Primettes.

Otis Williams observed the Primes onstage that night and was blown away by Eddie’s tenor vocal and the precision dancing of Paul Williams and Kell Osborne as they sang back-up. Otis realized just by watching them that his own group could use more of the Primes’ professional polish.

The musical bug bit both Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks when they were fifteen and they formed a doo-wop quartet in 1955 called the Cavaliers with two other schoolmates, Kell Osborne and Willy Waller. Waller left the group in 1957, turning the Cavaliers into a trio. The three left Birmingham in 1958 for Cleveland, Ohio to make it in the music business. There, they met their future manager, Milton Jenkins, who convinced them to move to Detroit. Once they moved, Jenkins suggested they change their name to the Primes.

It was during one of those talent shows in Detroit when, freshly dropped by their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews, Otis Williams and the Distants got their golden opportunity. Both Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were in attendance the night they performed. After the show, Otis managed to meet Gordy, who told him he had enjoyed their performance and agreed to hear them audition at Motown. Otis and Melvin Franklin were ecstatic, but two other members, Mooch Harrell and Richard Street, wanted to leave the group, particularly because when Matthews dropped them, she also kept their name, so they no longer had permission to use it. The two saw it as the end of their union and left Williams, Franklin and Al Bryant in need of some new members just before the Motown audition.

A stroke of luck towards the forming of a future super group occurred when the Primes broke up at around the same time Otis and his group were splintering. Kell Osborne had decided to pack it in and return to Birmingham. Eddie and Paul now found themselves a member short. Williams and Franklin heard of their break up and contacted Kendricks, asking him if he would like to join their still-unnamed group. Eddie agreed, but under the condition that Paul Williams could also join them. The newly formed group now consisted of Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin, formerly of the Distants, with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, formerly of the Primes. Together, they renamed themselves the Elgins.

THE ELGINS

The Elgins’ audition was scheduled for March, 1961. The five had been rehearsing every day for that moment since they agreed to join forces, incorporating Paul Williams’ unique dance moves into their performance, complete with hand gestures to convey the lyrics. Their dancing style would become a precursor to the moves of many subsequent artists, and not just with Motown. In this classic style, the lead singer is up front and the two or three background vocalists are either to the lead’s right or left, doing a carefully choreographed set of moves as they sing background. Sometimes they all stood shoulder to shoulder, their hands crossed behind them, and suddenly go into a synchronized choreography. Their moves were thrilling, sexy, witty and precise.

THE TEMPTATIONS

After the audition, Gordy readily agreed to sign them to a record contract for one of his Motown labels, Miracle Records. There was one minor problem, however. Gordy had discovered that the name “Elgins” was already being used by another local group. They were told to come up with a new name, so the five sat down on the front porch steps of Hitsville USA to think up a new name for themselves. After a while, they got up and returned inside, going over to Gordy’s office to announce the name for their group, The Temptations.

OH. MOTHER OF MINE – THE TEMPTATIONS

The quintet’s debut single was written by Otis Williams and Motown songwriter Mickey Robinson. Otis agreed to give the song to Paul Williams to sing lead while tenor Eddie Kendricks handled the bridge. The back-up musicians were Motown’s session band, the Funk Brothers. The song showcased their vocal chops but not much more. It was released in the dead of summer, July 1961, and couldn’t manage to crack Billboard’s Hot 100.

CHECK YOURSELF – THE TEMPTATIONS

Their second single release didn’t do much better. This one was co-written by Berry Gordy with Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Al Bryant. The song starts like the “Ten Commandments of Love”, where one of the band members, in this case Franklin, speaks the line that Otis Williams echoes singing it. It then shifts into a a rumba-tinged pop beat with Paul Williams carrying the rest of the tune.

“Check Yourself” was released on November 7, 1961 and also suffered from poor sales. Gordy decided to dissolve the short-lived Miracle record label he had launched as a result. It seems that the public was confusing the name of the label with the group, the Miracles. Also, their slogan, “If it’s a hit, it’s a Miracle” didn’t help sales any.

By the end of 1961, Gordy will have founded another label imprint, Gordy Records, to release songs by the Temptations and other groups. Gordy’s knack for opening numerous subsidiary labels was a clever one indeed. It gave his groups an easier conduit into the public radio waves. By 1962, the Temptations would start to place records on the pop and R&B Top Forty charts, thanks largely to Gordy’s different labels. It was a positive step forward into their illustrious career.

The Temptations enjoyed moments of fame and success that not many people ever get to experience. But when you aim high, the fall also becomes much greater and the Temptations were not immune to this. The group splintered slowly over the years. Al Bryant quit in 1964, right before they got their first Top Ten hit, and was replaced with David Ruffin. Ruffin got too big for his britches, wanting lead billing over the rest of the Temptations, and was ultimately fired in 1968 for missing too many dates due to his growing drug addiction. He would later die of a cocaine overdose at age fifty in 1991. Paul Williams succumbed to alcoholism due to the depression he developed because of having sickle-cell anemia. His drinking ultimately led to his inability to perform. He was replaced by Richard Street in 1971 but still got paid his one-fifth share of the earnings. Two years later, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-four following an argument with his girlfriend, and was found with a shot to the head in his car parked in a back alley. Both Melvin Franklin and Eddie Kendricks died at the age of fifty-two; the former battled health problems most of his life until February 17, 1995, when he suffered a series of seizures that left him in a coma, only to die six days later. The latter had succumbed to cancer on October 5th, 1992.

As of the writing of this in 2016, 74-year-old Otis Williams remains the only surviving member of the original Temptations.

But at the pinnacle of their career, they left us with unforgettable music like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “(You Know) I’m Losing You”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Cloud Nine”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” with the Supremes, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Can’t Get Next To You”, “Ball Of Confusion”, “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”; songs that will live on for decades, if not centuries to come, and video recordings of their TV performances that will forever serve as a historic glimpse into the sound of Sixties R&B, defined in large part by Motown.

THE SUPREMES

Florence Glenda Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ernestine Earle Ross, who went by the name Diane, the name her mother intended to give her at birth until a typo on her birth certificate changed that notion, all grew up together in the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, owned by the city and built for “working poor” families, requiring at least one parent be employed in order to live there.

Each of the girls had good singing voices. Flo took vocal lessons while going to Northeastern High School. She met fellow schoolmate Mary, who had a lower vocal range than the other two, at the school’s talent show where they became good friends. Mary in turn knew Diane, who went to Cass Technical High School, a college preparatory charter school that specialized in design. Young Diane was all set on becoming a fashion designer after graduation, indifferent to her vocal talent, a voice that would stop Berry Gordy on his tracks when the trio came over to audition for Motown.

The career of the Supremes was closely intertwined with that of the Temptations during the beginning of their careers. They practically opened and closed the decade of the Sixties together with multiple hits as well. It all started in 1958 when fifteen-year-old Florence Ballard met Temptations’ members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams when they were still known as the Primes. The Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins had heard Flo and Paul Williams’ girlfriend, Betty McGlown, sing. It inspired him to form a sister band for the Primes. In 1959, Flo enlisted her friend Mary. Both Paul Williams and Mary knew Diane so she was also asked to join. Paul’s girlfriend Betty rounded out the group to a quartet and Jenkins dubbed them the Primettes.

The Primettes would perform Ray Charles and Drifters songs at talent shows and sock hops, all of them taking turns as lead singer, as well as joining the Primes for several numbers. Coincidentally enough, Diane had grown up next door to Smokey Robinson before moving to the projects, on Belmont Road in the North End section of Detroit near Highland Park. Diane approached Smokey for the Primettes and invited him to a talent show in Winslow, Ontario so he could hear them and then decide whether they should audition for Motown. Sure enough, after the performance Smokey arranged an audition with Gordy for the girls to sing a capella.

“All three girls had qualities so unique I’d often think: ‘If they could make us feel the way we do, what could they do to the world at large?’ –“To Be Loved”, Berry Gordy’s autobiography

Berry was impressed with their harmonies but most of all with Diane’s voice. On the day of their audition in early 1960, the girls were practicing while they waited for his arrival. Diane was singing lead on “There Goes My Baby” when Berry heard them. Her voice “stopped him on his tracks” as he put it. Gordy found Diane’s voice to have crossover potential. To make sure, he asked the girls to sing it again. After they finished, Gordy asked their age. Each of them were fifteen except for Betty who was two years older. Gordy didn’t like the idea of working with minors so he asked them to come back when they graduated high school.

TEARS OF SORROW/PRETTY BABY – THE PRIMETTES

Undaunted, they managed to record a single for a tiny, newly formed record label called Lupine Records in March 1960. Unfortunately, the single that contained “Tears of Sorrow” and “Pretty Baby” as its b-side went nowhere on the charts.

Released in August 1960, Diane takes the lead vocal duties on the A-side for the Primettes’ first and only record single. Flo takes over as lead vocalist for the b-side, “Pretty Baby”. The songs have nothing special about them, but Diane, Flo and Mary remained committed to succeed. Betty McGlown however, left the group after the single’s dismal debut, having broken up with Paul Williams and becoming engaged to someone else, looking forward to life as a housewife. She was soon replaced by Barbara Martin.

Determined to get Gordy to at least let them record background vocals or even hand claps for other artists’ recordings, the four girls would camp out every day after school on the lawn of Hitsville U.S.A. Eventually, they got in through the door and did background work for singles by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. The girls became endearing to Gordy, who appreciated not only their eagerness to record but also their lovely voices. On January 15, 1961, Gordy relented despite their young age and offered the girls a recording contract, but first he insisted that they change the name of their group. He gave Flo, the unofficial leader of the group, a list of names to choose from; names like the Darleens, the Sweet Ps and the Melodees. She chose the Supremes. Diane didn’t like the name at first because she thought it sounded too much like a moniker for a male singing group, but she ultimately agreed.

I WANT A GUY – THE SUPREMES

Recorded in December of 1960 and released on March 9th, 1961, the girls’ first single as the Supremes was written by Berry Gordy and Motown songwriters Freddie Gorman and Eddie Holland. Gorman was going to enjoy success as a songwriter with another single released later that year recorded by the Marvellettes called “Please Mr. Postman”. This song would also be the first of many singles written for the Supremes by Eddie Holland and his future songwriting team, his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier. Still going by the name Diane Ross, she once again takes over the lead vocals.

Much to their disappointment, this record also did not enter the Billboard chart. Just like their previous release as the Primettes, the song also has an old-fashioned doo-wop sound to it, rooted more in the Fifties than offering something different for the new decade.

BUTTERED POPCORN – THE SUPREMES

Gordy was willing to experiment with the group in order to find the formula that would take them over the top, so he took a few months to write the next song for them. Co-written with Motown songwriter Barney Ales, “Buttered Popcorn”, had a thinly disguised allusion to sex running through the lyrics

“And I asked him, ‘What was happenin’ in the world today?’ He said, “more butter, more butter, more butter, more”. My baby likes (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn), oh yeah, oh he likes it salty (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn) and greasy and sticky and gooey (Buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn)…” Buttered Popcorn – The Supremes

Berry Gordy would present all the recordings that were made each week by their various artists and run them through the Quality Control department. There, they would take a vote as to which songs they thought would be a success. “Buttered Popcorn” received a resounding thumbs-up from Quality Control, but Gordy wasn’t convinced, mainly because he felt that Florence Ballard, who sings the lead in this single for the first and only time in the trio’s history, had a voice that was too soulful for crossover appeal, unlike Diane’s voice, that couldn’t be pegged as coming from an African-American. Gordy wanted to release a song written by Smokey Robinson called “Who’s Loving You”, sung by Diane, as the A-side of the single instead.

 

 

“Who’s Loving You” had already been recorded by Robinson with his group the Miracles the previous year, and would also be recorded not only by the Supremes but also the Temptations and many more non-Motown artists over the years, from Terence Trent Darby to Michael Bublé to the Jackson Five who had the most success with it. Twelve-year-old singer Shaheen Jafargholi also performed the song at Michael Jackson’s public memorial service in July 2009. It’s a slow doo-wop ballad with a nice enough melody but didn’t necessarily have an unforgettable appeal. As Berry Gordy would ask in many Quality Control meetings when rating a new recording: “If you were on your last dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?” Personally, after listening to this song, I’ll go for a roast beef and swiss on whole wheat.

Berry Gordy was certainly correct about the appeal of Ross’ voice to the crossover public, namely the white folks. As for whether “Who’s Loving You” should have been the A-side of the single instead of “Buttered Popcorn” is a matter of taste. Personally, I side with the guys in Quality Control. Yes, Flo Ballard’s voice is distinctly African-American but it’s also a strong and soulfully melodic one, the melody is instantly catchy and the lyrics are wickedly fun. Soon, this resistance against anything non-white from the general (white) public would erode and disappear, but in 1961, music considered black, race or R&B still had a hard time finding wide national airplay. Popular culture was still years away from accepting a juggernaut voice like Aretha Franklin. Before rock ‘n’ roll there was Ella Fitzgerald who’s perfect voice could not be ignored, but that was pretty much about it when it came to black female pop singers, although the general public didn’t seem to mind male soul vocals as much with Louis Armstrong in the 20s and 30s, Nat “King” Cole in the 40s and 50s and the breakthrough appeal of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” in 1955. But instead of waiting for society to come around, Gordy was smart enough to get in sneakily, not necessarily fooling the public but taking the potential discrimination out of the song by not calling attention to the ethnicity of the voice and focusing on the melody instead. In the long run, it worked.

In the end, Gordy and the QC Department agreed to release the Supremes’ second single as a double A side. What ensued was a disaster of confusing proportions that in the end was all for naught.

Local radio stations in Detroit played both sides of the single regularly, but upon listening to “Buttered Popcorn” on a little tinny AM transistor or car radio (state-of-the-art audio technology for 1961), it sounded muddy. They quickly withdrew the single and re-recorded “BP” only to re-release it. Fortunately, the radio stations continued giving it airplay in Detroit, but it wasn’t taking off nationally. Part of the problem was that the re-released, better recorded version of “Buttered Popcorn” wasn’t being promoted. Someone had pointed out the double entendre of the lyrics and Gordy used this as a reason to promote the b-side instead. In the end, the single never cracked any of the Billboard charts, despite it being a regional hit in various parts of the country.

Two failed singles were a major frustration for Gordy, who believed correctly that these girls had the potential to deliver mega-hits. He made some key changes, starting with Diane’s name. Gordy felt Diana, the name that was incorrectly written on her birth certificate, was a better stage name. He also made the decision to make her the lead singer and relegate the other three to back-up on single releases. This undoubtedly irked the other three, so Gordy promised them that they would have songs to sing lead on their record albums. They would also be given the opportunity to sing lead on a few tunes whenever they were performing a show live.

It would be two long years before they started to even crack the Top Forty. By December of 1961, they were recording tracks for their debut album “Meet The Supremes”, that wouldn’t be released until the end of ’62. Barbara Martin quit after they recorded their next single in early ‘62, leaving the group down to a trio for the rest of their career. It wouldn’t be until 1964 when they finally reached the coveted Number One Pop position with the timeless “Where Did Our Love Go”, which sold two million copies upon its release. Soon, they would be churning out incredible hit after incredible hit, “Baby Love”, Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, “Someday We’ll Be Together”, all written by the songwriting partnership of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They had found their formula.

Today, they are considered the best girl group of all time. Girl groups poured out in the dozens over the decades after the Supremes, culminating with Destiny’s Child, the only other female vocal group worthy of their legacy. During the Sixties, the Supremes were the most popular group in the world after the Beatles and America’s favorite vocal group, with twelve Number One Pop singles, 33 singles in the Pop Top Forty, twelve Top Ten Pop and Five Number One albums. Once they hit Number One with “Where did Our Love Go”, they would go on to hit the top spot four more times in a row with each single release, a record for consecutive Number Ones by an American vocal group. This was an insurmountable feat in the wake of the British Invasion led by the Beatles, also occurring in ’64. The Supremes offered an alternative to British rock ‘n’ roll that fit a huge niche.

Berry Gordy always gave special attention to the Supremes throughout their career. Although they went through the Motown Process, receiving instructions in dance, etiquette and singing, they had already arrived into the Motown fold with their own outfits and dance moves, having been touring and singing as the Primettes already. Rumors abounded over the years suggesting a dalliance between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, a notion that would never be acknowledged until 1994 in Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved”, where he first admits publicly that Ross’ eldest daughter Rhonda is his.

The Supremes remained the same trio until 1967, when Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Flo, who started the trio, had become increasingly resentful at Gordy for having made Diana Ross the main star, and the last straw was when Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ballard resorted to drink and her alcoholism ultimately overcame her, becoming increasingly unreliable, missing live performances or performing drunkenly. Her final appearance live with the Supremes occurred when she unbuttoned her outfit and exposed her stomach to the crowd. She was released by Motown in 1968, married her boyfriend and recorded several unsuccessful albums. On February 20, 1976, she entered the hospital complaining of numbness in her extremities. She died the next morning of coronary thrombosis. Florence Ballard was thirty-two years old.

Intent on making Diana Ross not just a musical artist but a film star as well, she eventually left the Supremes in 1970 and basically sounded the group’s death knell. Ross continued a very successful solo career that extended into the Eighties with hit single after hit single. She also made popular films like “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), where she plays Billie Holliday, and “Mahogany” (1975), in which she sings the title song, taking the single to Number One and receiving an Academy Award nomination.

Mary Wilson continued with the Supremes with Birdsong and Ross’ replacement, Jean Terrell. They had managed to chart seven Top Forty singles and two Top Tens between 1970 and 1973 after Ross’ departure. Mary was now sharing lead vocals with Terrell on some of the songs sung by Diana. But the remaining two positions in the Supremes became a revolving door, with both Birdsong and Terrell leaving and Birdsong temporarily re-joining the group. Despite the group’s waning success, their tours still performed to large crowds, largely due to Mary Wilson being the only remaining original Supreme. Wilson left the group in 1977. After some deliberation about considering a replacement, the Supremes officially disbanded.

Mary Wilson and Diana Ross are still alive as of this writing in 2016, both of them 72 years old. Tragedy befell Wilson in 1994 when she was injured in a car accident where her 14-year-old son Rafael was killed.

Diana Ross continues touring. In 2016 she will be taking her In The Name Of Love tour through the United States and Canada. She received her first ever Grammy Award in 2012 for Lifetime Achievement.

 

LITTLE STEVIE WONDER

Lula Mae Hardaway’s baby wanted to be born already, even though he was still six weeks away from his expected delivery. Upon birth, he was immediately placed in an oxygen-rich incubator, but to the infant’s tragic detriment, the environment caused the retinas of both his eyes to detach. It was a condition known as retinopathy of pre-maturity, and it meant permanent blindness.

Being born blind and poor pretty much limits one’s options in life, and being black in 20th century America, Saginaw, Michigan to be exact, didn’t help either. Fortunately for Stevland Hardaway Judkins however, besides being born blind, he was also born a musical genius.

Stevie was raised in a loving family and a devoted mother who was wise enough to allow his son to pursue his musical abilities to its limits, teaching him to refuse to allow his blindness to be an obstacle from anything. It’s been said that Stevie’s musical genius has had much to do with his blindness because it forced him to develop keener aural abilities than the average person in order to help him hear his way through the world. That may have something to do with the music of his mind. It seems to come from a mental landscape of his inner world, filled with sounds and rhythms nobody else hears until he distills them into great songs. His hits are many, too numerous to only mention a few because not mentioning others would be an injustice.

When Stevland was four years old, his mother left his father, Calvin Judkins, and moved her six children to Detroit. Lulu detected a good voice in four-year-old Stevie and had him sing at church. As he grew up, he developed an interest and talent in the harmonica, drums and piano. Regardless of whether his blindness caused him to become more finely attuned to sound or not, it was evident to Lulu that little Stevie was a born musician. As a child, he would play his harmonica and sing on street corners with a friend named John.

One of 11-year-old Stevie’s other friends during that time in 1961 was a boy who lived in the neighborhood around his age named Gerald White. White would invite Stevie to his home where the wonder boy would play his harmonica to entertain Gerald and his siblings. Gerald’s uncle Ronnie White, who happened to be co-founder of the group the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, was around one evening when little Stevie was over. When Ronnie heard the kid blowing on his harp, he was blown away. Ronnie and Smokey used to sing together as 11-year-olds, so Ronnie related to children with musical abilities. Without giving it another thought, Ronnie set up a meeting with Berry Gordy for Stevie and his mother at Motown.

Also present at the audition with Gordy was Clarence Paul, a man who would not only become Stevie’s producer during his teenage years, but also the man who gave him his stage name. As Gordy beheld the boy’s voice and versatility on percussion, he appreciated the talent, but was not yet bowled over. But when Stevie whipped out his harmonica and started to wail on it, Gordy thought twice. He produced a recording contract to Motown subsidiary Tamla Records for him that very day. In the contract, they stipulated that they would hold all the earnings of future recordings in a trust until he became 21 years old. In the meantime, he and his mother Lulu’s living expenses would be paid in full until then. Stevie would also receive a weekly stipend of $2.50, which comes to just under twenty bucks in 2016.

Everyone that day agreed that little Stevie was a wonder. Clarence Paul picked up on that and suggested he should be billed from then on as Little Stevie Wonder.

 

THE MARVELETTES

“They never really respected us. Berry Gordy lost the Marvelette name in a gambling game once, that’s how much they cared about us. We were just nothing to them.” -Gladys Horton

As 1961, drew to a close, Motown had still not come out with a Number One Pop song, and it wasn’t because Gordy wasn’t hard at work trying to find the right sound for each of his labels’ acquisitions. He could never have realized back then that with just the signing of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder, fame and fortune were around the corner, and so was the eternal legacy of timeless music Motown would deliver to the world. But in 1961, it was all still a big struggle. Motown was busy at work producing albums for the Supremes and little Stevie as well as trying to find the right songs for the Temptations and Gaye, among all their other lesser known artists. One of them was another girl group they had developed who surprised everyone at Motown as 1961 drew to a close by delivering the label’s second Number One single.

The first girl group to ever hit Number One in Billboard’s Pop chart were the Shirelles, who scored with Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in January of 1961, so it’s rather fitting that Motown would deliver the second girl group to hit Number One in December, bookending the year with two classic songs, the latter of which was re-recorded by the Beatles, thereby legitimatizing the Motown sound as rock ‘n’ roll.

Like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the Marvellettes began as high school girls getting together to form a vocal group. The Shirelles met in Passaic High School in New Jersey, most of the Supremes formed at Northeastern High School in Detroit, and the Marvelletes all went to Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb just west of Detroit. Unlike the previous two girl group peers who never had more than four members initially, the Marvelletes began as a quintet.

Fifteen-year-old Gladys Horton was a member of Inkster High’s glee club in the fall of 1960 when she came up with the inspiration to form a girl group within the club. She approached four other members she had become friendly with, sixteen-year-olds Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and recently graduated, seventeen-year-old Georgia Dobbins.

The first item on their agenda was to choose a name for themselves. After long deliberation and thought on the notion, they realized that first they needed to learn how to sing before worrying about a name, so they decided to call themselves the Casinyets because as they realized at the time, they can’t sing yet.

Fate intervened at the dawn of 1961 when Inkster High threw a talent show and the first three prizes were an audition at Motown Records. After having rehearsed their singing abilities for the last few month, the Casinyets mustered enough confidence to rename themselves the Marvels and signed up. They sang songs by the Chantels and the Shirelles and ultimately won, although there’s speculation as to where they placed. Gladys Horton insists they won first prize. Regardless, getting an audition at Motown was a big deal indeed.

“Anyway we won first prize, but until we got to Motown, it still hadn’t reached my mind how important it was. We met Berry Gordy and the Miracles, and it was then I realized the potential of this meeting. We began to picture ourselves like the Supremes, who were the company’s girl group.” -Gladys Horton

For some reason, the Marvellettes received short shrift from the record label since the get-go. On April 1961, they met with songwriters Brian Holland and Robert Bateman to sing some of their repertoire to them, including the Chantels’ “He’s Gone” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On A Sunday”. Holland and Bateman liked them enough to schedule a second audition with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. They were lauded for their vocal abilities, but Gordy told them they needed to come up with original material, which was a bit surprising since Motown had a stable of songwriters dedicated to doing just that for their other artists. Nevertheless, Georgia Dobbins in particular, dedicated herself to coming back with a hit song. She approached a songwriting friend by the name of William Garnett for help.

Garnett played her an unfinished blues song he was writing called “Please Mr. Postman”, about a forlorn lover waiting for the mail to come to see if his loved one had sent him a letter yet. Garnett gave Dobbins the song under the condition that his name appear on the credits should it be recorded. Dobbins, having never written a song before, took it and reworked it from blues to teenage doo-wop, then changed the lyrics from a male narrator to a female. Dobbins then presented fellow Marvellette Gladys Horton with a rock ‘n’ roll classic.

PLEASE MR. POSTMAN – THE MARVELETTES

Fate intervened once again when Dobbins dropped from the group due to family pressure. Her mother was ill and her father berated her for not being at her side, pursuing a silly career singing instead and urging her to quit. She caved in and left the group. Looking back to their fellow classmates, the girls contacted recent Inkster graduate Wanda Young, who became a permanent member of the band by the time they had to present their song to Motown.

Upon listening to the composition, Gordy accepted them into the Motown family but first changed their names from the Marvels to the Marvellettes. He then took the song and gave it to Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Fred Gorman, who moonlighted as a mailman coincidentally enough, to re-work it yet again.

“I’ve been standin’ here waitin’ Mister Postman so patiently for just a card, or just a letter, sayin’ he’s returnin’ home to me… (Mister Postman) Mister Postman, look and see… (Oh yeah) if there’s a letter in your bag for me… (Please, Please Mister Postman) why’s it takin’ such a long time… (Oh yeah) for me to hear from that boy of mine –Please Mr. Postman – The Marvellettes

By the time they appeared in this TV segment in 1965, the Marvellettes had gone from a quintet to a girl group trio.

Gladys Horton sings lead on this song with the Motown band the Funk Brothers backing the trio and with Marvin Gaye on drums. It was recorded in July of 1961 and released on August 21st. By that December, they became Motown’s first artists to reach the coveted Number One Spot on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts.

Gordy was pleasantly surprised, not expecting the first single from this new group to make it all the way to the top. The Supremes especially took the Marvellettes’ success to heart because they were the girl group who were expected to come out with the hits. A rivalry soon emerged between them, but the Supremes needn’t had worried. Holland-Dozier-Holland had written “Baby Love” for the Marvellettes, but incredibly enough Gladys Horton turned it down, so the songwriting team gave their composition to the Supremes instead in 1964. It shot up the charts just like “Where Did Our Love Go” and became the girls’ second Number One single in a row, while the Marvellettes’ output throughout the rest of the Sixties was to pale in comparison.

“The first number one came too easy for us. We weren’t pretty city girls from the projects like Motown’s other girl group, the Supremes. We had no experience of life at all. We were naive little country girls, and we didn’t know how to handle the situation. We had no idea how to behave, we didn’t know what to wear. we didn’t even know how to put make up. We learnt as we went along, of course, but it was very hard at first.”   -Gladys Horton

The Beatles, still three years away from global success as the most influential rock band of all time, knew a good song when they heard one and dug into the Motown treasure chest of hits more than once to record for their second album. Besides “Please Mr. Postman”, the group also recorded Barrett Strong’s “Money” and Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” all for their second British release, “With The Beatles” in late 1963. Listening to them shows you how much muscle these R&B songs truly have and should prove once and for all that R&B is synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, like siblings, simply because they were both born from the blues.

The Marvellettes’ subsequent releases through the rest of the Sixties were hit or miss, mostly misses. Riding on the crest of their sudden success with their first and only Number One, they rush recorded the “Please Mr. Postman” album and released it on November 20th, 1961, but it didn’t even enter Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. The cover was a drawing of a mailbox with cobwebs and a tiny mailman walking towards it. The Marvellettes were nowhere to be seen on the cover art simply because it wasn’t customary to showcase black rock ‘n’ roll artists until 1963. Next, Gordy decided to pair them up with the latest dance craze of the time, the Twist, so the follow-up single to “Please Mr. Postman” was “Twistin’ Postman”.

TWISTIN’ POSTMAN – THE MARVELLETTES

“Sitting by the window, feeling sad and blue, all because I haven’t heard from you , and then my mama said ‘Look! Look! Here comes the postman twistin’ down the avenue! He’s got a letter in his hand and I know it has to be for you.’ He’s got the mail sack twisted ’round his back ‘cause he’s a twistin’ postman…” Twistin’ Postman – The Marvellettes

The concept was a lame attempt to cash in on a dance craze, but the beat is what mattered in early rock ‘n’ roll, so one can forgive this really bad idea for a song as long as you can dance to it. That’s why we had disco.

Released on December 6, 1961, “Twistin’ Postman’s” danceable beat managed to propel it into the Top 40, landing at Number 34 Pop and Number 13 R&B; not a very exciting follow-up to a Number One song. As in PMP, Gladys Horton sang lead.

Aside from constant touring, which was where the real money was being made, the Marvellettes released two albums in 1962 but without chart success. They did manage two Top Twenty hits that year however; “Playboy” reaching Number Seven Pop and Four R&B, and “Beechwood 4-5789” rose up to Number 17 Pop and Seven R&B. The latter was written by Marvin Gaye, who also worked on the album as percussionist and producer along with Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Mickey Stevenson. Its title was derived from the fact that back in those days of rotary phones, every number had a telephone exchange name that corresponded with the first two letters of that name. In this case, Beechwood’s was BE, so the number dialed would be 234-5789.

The Marvellettes would not enter the Top Ten again for another five long years until they made a minor comeback in 1966 with Smokey Robinson’s “Don’t Mess With Bill”, reaching Number Seven Pop and Number Three R&B. Their line-up had changed to a trio by 1965. Juanita Clark could no longer handle the constant touring. Georgeanna Tillman developed leukemia and lupus.

“There was pressure on the group. Juanita had a nervous breakdown and had to leave. She had made a silly remark on Dick Clark’s show and everyone in the company was constantly teasing her about it. She really took it to heart and became very depressed. She was only 16. Georgeanna had to leave due to ill health. She was always very tired; there was something wrong with her and the doctor advised her to get off the road.” -Gladys Horton

Their sound had changed drastically in that time. Gone was the doo-wop of their early hits, replaced with a smoother soul resembling the output Motown was delivering at the time with the Supremes, Temptations and the Four Tops. It had a nice groove sung by Wanda Young, who had a more laid-back voice than Gladys Horton.

Although they still managed to score a couple more Top Twenty hits in 1967, the Marvellettes pretty much ended when lead singer and leader of the group Gladys Horton left to get married, replaced by Anne Bogan. They released a single in 1978 that didn’t crack the Top Forty and after a handful of other unnoticed releases up until 1971, faded away into pop obscurity. Georganna was the first to go at age 35 in 1980 when she finally succumbed to her illness, and Gladys died at age 65 in 2011 after a series of strokes and declining health. As of this writing in 2016, the other three original members, Katherine Anderson, Wanda Rogers and Juanita Cowart remain alive, as does Horton’s replacement Ann Bogan and the original writer of their biggest hit, Georgia Dobbins.

 

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