Features

Motown picture

Motown

By Keith Hughes

It was Ace’s very good fortune in 2009 to become the first independent record company in the world to acquire from Universal Music the rights to license previously unreleased material from the classic Motown era, 1959-1969. With ten CDs now in catalogue (one of them a double), this seems a good moment to review the artists we’ve covered so far, and present our version of The Motown Story.

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Selected releases

  • Eddie Holland

    Eddie Holland went along to a Detroit recording studio in around 1958 to keep company with a nervous friend at an audition. He was asked to try a song himself and was recommended by the producer to go and sing for Berry Gordy. Eddie’s voice had an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Wilson, for whom Gordy and his partner Billy Davis were mid-way through writing a string of hits. Using Eddie as their demo voice, Gordy and Davis were able to make recordings that showed Jackie exactly how he should voice the songs. When Berry launched his own Tamla label, Eddie featured on one of the first two records the company released. That disc, ‘Merry-Go-Round’, and the artist himself, were subsequently leased to United Artists. Eddie remained at UA for two years, returning to Motown in late 1961 to cut ‘Jamie’, which became his only hit.

    Ace’s “It Moves Me” double CD collects all Eddie’s recordings from his pre-Motown Kudo single (released under his brother Brian’s name) until he retired as a recording artist in 1964, and includes his 45s, his album, unreleased recordings and demos for other artists. In an extensive and exclusive interview, Eddie reveals that, as an accountant by training, he quickly realised that brother Brian was making far more money than he was purely from songwriting, without the hassle of travelling and making public appearances – he duly set himself the task of learning how to compose and write lyrics. When Freddie Gorman vacated his place in the writing team of Holland (Brian), Dozier and Gorman, Eddie stepped in, and when the new team’s efforts hit the charts with Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and Martha & the Vandellas all within a few weeks, he “started making so much money it was like walking into a field of butterflies and you look up and it’s raining gold!”. A week after the Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ hit #1, Eddie Holland cut his last solo recording session at Motown.

  • The Satintones

    The Satintones were early arrivals at Motown, and bass singer Robert Bateman was among the first five salaried employees with the company: his job at Hitsville was as recording engineer and producer, with a bit of songwriting on the side (the Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’ includes his name on the credits). But his dream then was to be an artist, and of a comedy group like the Coasters; when he was invited along to an evening of wine, talking and harmonising with James Ellis, Chico Leverett and Sonny Sanders, he saw his chance. There was no audition: Bateman just took the group to Motown and into the studio, and within a few weeks their first single, ‘Going To The Hop’ on the Tamla label, was in the shops. Their second single appeared as the launch release of Gordy’s second imprint, Motown, and their third, ‘Tomorrow & Always’, looked set to be the one to make the breakthrough, but then disaster struck. The song was an answer record to the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, and song’s publishers sued: Gordy quickly withdrew the disc and replaced it with what many regard as Motown’s finest vocal harmony record, ‘Angel’. But the collateral damage was significant. Leverett and Ellis left the group and were replaced, but Bateman and Sanders (a talented arranger) found their in-house duties too onerous to allow for more than the occasional gig. The Satintones broke up towards the end of 1961.

    “The Satintones Sing!” CD comprises all the tracks the group completed during their brief recording career, and the booklet essay contains memories compiled from exclusive interviews with the surviving members. All their singles, including alternative versions with string accompaniments, appear on the track list, together with a solo pre-Satintones single from Chico and a number of hitherto unreleased sides by the group, including an alternative, up-tempo version of ‘Angel’.

  • The Contours

    Joe Billingslea and Billy Gordon formed the Contours (accent on the second syllable) in 1959, and were soon joined by Billy Hoggs and Hubert Johnson. The group failed their audition with Motown, but after a quick stop-off with Hubert’s cousin Jackie Wilson, and then a call from Jackie to Berry Gordy, they were back at Motown that very same day: this time they were received with open arms and signed on the spot. A couple of unsuccessful singles followed, then the addition of Sylvester Potts and Huey Davis to the line-up, plus the failure of the Temptations to show up for a recording session, led to the group getting the chance to cut the original version of Gordy’s song ‘Do You Love Me’; the record shot into the Top 10 in August 1962. They toured the country showing off this hit and what were probably the most frenetic and energetic dance routines of any Motown group at any time.

    Sadly, follow-up success for the Contours failed to materialise, and what they felt to be rough treatment by the company led to the group’s decision in the middle of 1964 to confront Berry Gordy and threaten to quit. But Gordy was forewarned, and cut a deal with Gordon and fired the rest of the group, rapidly replacing them with a new set of Contours. Somewhere in the middle of this upheaval, a planned album, “Dance With The Contours”, got lost. Although no track list survives, Ace have put together what was available for inclusion in an album at the time, packing 24 hitherto unreleased tracks into a CD bearing the original LP title. With a booklet essay incorporating new interviews with Joe Billingslea and Sylvester Potts, this is the definitive collection of the Contours Mark 1.

  • Mary Wells

    Mary Wells was, in the words of her biographer, “Motown’s first superstar”. Discovered and brought to the company by Robert Bateman of the Satintones in 1960, her first two singles made the R&B Top 10 R&B and she had the honour of launching the series of albums on the Motown label that continues to this day. Then there came a glitch: her third single failed to chart at all. A change of direction was called for, and Berry Gordy handed studio control over to Smokey Robinson, then untested as a writer and producer apart from work with his own group, the Miracles. The resulting single, ‘The One Who Really Loves You’, not only reached #2 on the R&B charts, it also made the Top 10 Pop. Motown had a crossover artist.

    Ace’s compilation of Mary’s second and third LPs, “The One Who Really Loves You / Two Lovers And Other Great Hits”, takes up her story at this point. The second LP was cobbled together quickly to cash in on the success of the 45, and used mostly material that had been bypassed for earlier releases. It included one newly-recorded track, ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’, which was trailed on the LP cover as her next single; upon release it became Mary’s first #1 R&B hit, also making the Pop Top 10 like its predecessor. Work commenced on a third album, which was to contain all new material, produced for her by Smokey and Mickey Stevenson. The hit from this album was ‘Two Lovers’, released in late 1962, which was to follow ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’ to the top of the R&B charts. The album contained a trio of standards in addition to the usual in-house songs, and it became the first Motown record to break into the album charts. Our compilation of these two LPs uses the original mono album masters, the first time these have ever appeared in digital format.

  • The Spinners

    The Spinners’ story goes back further than any other Motown group, to 1954, when C.P. Spencer, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson and Chico Edwards formed the Domingoes. Bobbie Smith replaced Spencer after a couple of years, and Edwards was replaced by George Dixon, but when Fambrough received his call-up papers, Edwards returned to fill his place. This was the line-up of the group, now renamed the Spinners, that was signed by Harvey Fuqua to his new Tri-Phi company in 1961 and who recorded the label’s debut disc and only hit, ‘That’s What Girls Are Made For’. Tri-Phi survived for a couple of years, until Berry Gordy took pity on brother-in-law Fuqua’s financial plight and bought him out, bringing him and a selection of his artists, including the Spinners, to Motown.

    After missing with their first Motown single, the Spinners’ next two , ‘I’ll Always Love You’ and ‘Truly Yours’, made the Top 10 R&B in 1965 and 1966 respectively, and an album, “The Original Spinners”, eventually appeared in 1967. Under the title “Truly Yours”, Ace have packaged this album, appearing for the first time on CD, together with 14 bonus tracks from the group’s early years at Motown, 10 of them previously unreleased. Track styles range from the neo-doo wop songs of Harvey Fuqua to the classic four on the floor Northern Soul approach of their subsequent main producer, Ivy Jo Hunter. The booklet contains an exclusive interview with Bobbie Smith, together with (as always with Ace Motown productions) recording details for all tracks derived from the original session logs.

  • Patrice Holloway

    1963 was not only the year in which Berry Gordy acquired the Fuqua stable of artists, it was the year in which he opened the first Motown office outside Detroit. Motown L.A. was staffed by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon, and their first signings were sisters Brenda and Patrice Holloway. The younger sister had already tasted local chart success with her dance-craze single, ‘Do The Del Viking’, billed as by Little 12 Year Old Patrice Holloway. Her name was linked, perhaps romantically and perhaps for publicity reasons, with that of another 12 year-old star, Little Stevie Wonder, then visiting the coast to appear in a beach movie and cut an album; that led to Patrice launching Motown’s VIP imprint with ‘Stevie’ / ‘(He Is) The Boy Of My Dreams’. The disc was abruptly withdrawn for reasons now forgotten, but Patrice carried on recording for Motown for another 15 months without seeing another release. By 1966 she was signed to Capitol, where she had five singles over the next six years, none of them making the charts. Then the illness that was to plague her for the rest of her life descended, and she never recorded again. She died in 2006.

    The Ace CD “Love & Desire” puts together all of Patrice’s Capitol singles, plus her VIP single, with 14 Motown recordings unreleased at the time, 10 appearing for the first time here. The essay by Dennis Garvey contains tributes and reminiscences from a galaxy of West Coast stars who worked with her, led by sister Brenda.

  • Marv Johnson

    Marv Johnson had the first single on the Tamla label, ‘Come To Me’, and like Eddie Holland found himself contracted out immediately to United Artists. His career there was at first more glamorous than Eddie’s, and he provided a string of eight hit singles. But by 1962, his star had waned, and after an equivalent number of flops the company released him in 1964. He returned to Motown, and recorded sporadically for the Gordy label between then and the company’s departure for L.A., when they finally let him go. He had just three singles released during that time, of which only one, ‘I Miss You Baby (How I Miss You), just scraped into the R&B Top 40. He kept his income up by working as a stock clerk for the company, filing purchase orders and chasing the maintenance of Motown’s Xerox copiers.

    But Marv’s career was by no means finished. Over in Britain, the EMI-distributed Tamla-Motown label was increasingly taking an independent line with its choice of releases, and they plucked ‘I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose’ for a single, which shot into the UK Top 10 in 1969. Marv emerged from the stockroom at Hitsville to be flown over to Britain to join a Martha & the Vandellas tour then in progress. Such was his success that Tamla-Motown requested, and got, permission to release an album of his material including five tracks that had never been released in the States. It’s this LP, never before released on CD, that Ace have packaged together with all the material Marv completed during his second coming at Motown, from 1964 to 1971. The booklet essay contains quotes from four major interviews with Marv, the last conducted not long before his death in 1993.

  • The Monitors

    The Monitors came together in 1960 as the Majestics, and with an ever-shuffling line-up recorded for a number of small Detroit labels before meeting up with Richard Street, who was to be their ticket to Motown. Street had initially teamed with Otis Williams and Mel Franklin to form the Distants, and when they left the group to join the emerging Temptations, Richard took on a new set of Distants and went to the independent label owned by Berry Gordy’s ex-wife Thelma. While there, he became first rehearsal pianist and then lead vocalist with the Majestics, who by now consisted of founder members Warren Harris and Maurice Fagan, and Maurice’s wife Sandra. When Richard joined Motown in around 1964, in their Quality Control department, he took the group with him and got them signed: early copies of their first single on VIP showed them as the Majestics, but this pressing was swiftly withdrawn and the name replaced by the Monitors.

    The Monitors had five singles and one LP during their tenure at Motown from 1965-1968, and only ‘Greetings! This Is Uncle Sam’ grazed the charts. It’s the album, never before released on CD, that is the showcase of their Ace collection, titled (after their first 45) “Say You!”. Ace have collected together 12 previously unreleased Motown recordings to accompany the LP, and secured a new interview with Richard Street to tell the group’s story in the booklet. There, Richard tells how the wheel of pop fortune came full circle when Temptations leader Otis Williams invited him to replace Paul Williams in the group: the other Monitors encouraged Street to accept the offer, and the Monitors finally disbanded.

  • Shorty Long

    Shorty Long, like the Spinners, was acquired by Motown when Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi company folded in 1963. He’d had three unsuccessful singles during his 18-month stint with the label. His first single on the Soul label, the sly ‘Devil With The Blue Dress’, bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 but his second failed completely, although ‘Function At The Junction’ got into the Top 50, as did ‘Night Fo’ Last’ at the beginning of 1968. The breakthrough came with his next disc. Berry Gordy thought Motown should have a record based on the Pigmeat Markham catchphrase, “Here comes the judge”, used every week in the hugely popular Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In TV show. Shorty and his frequent collaborator Sylvia Moy came up with a song, and despite Markham’s bringing his own song out a couple of weeks later, Shorty beat him hands down, taking his version into the Top 10 on the Pop and R&B charts. He was duly rewarded with an LP which demonstrated his skills as a writer, singer, instrumentalist and moreover producer, the last a rare distinction among Motown artists: even Marvin Gaye was not to get a producer credit until “What’s Going On”. How Shorty’s career might have developed after this there is no telling: he was drowned in a boating accident on 29 June 1969.

    Motown presented Shorty’s final recordings in a posthumous second LP, titled the “The Prime Of Shorty Long”, and Ace have brought his two albums together as “Here Comes ... Shorty Long”; this is the first time either disc has appeared on CD. We’ve used the stereo masters of the albums, and added two other stereo mixes of tracks never heard before, to make this the complete collection of Shorty’s stereo masters.

  • Finders Keepers

    Ace’s most recent Motown offering is a compilation of girl group and solo female tracks, titled “Finders Keepers” for the Marvelettes track. That sets the tone for the collection: for the previously released material, we’ve followed the path less-travelled, picking up relatively obscure single and album tracks, all recorded during the first half of the 1960s.

    However, Motown fans will view the 12 unreleased tracks on this set as the cream of the crop. Even as we dig right down to the very last few of the unreleased sides by such artists as Kim Weston (‘It’s Too Soon To Know’) and Martha & the Vandellas (‘Build Him Up’), we’re still mining gold; performers who are beginning to be better known thanks to the “Cellarful” and Hip-O releases, such as Carolyn Crawford, Hattie Littles, Liz Lands and Linda Griner, all have new tracks released here, and we’ve even managed to dig up titles by a couple of ladies who’ve never had a Motown track out before: Thelma Brown and Anita Knorl. Northern Soul fans will be delighted to hear that much-bootlegged dancefloor classic, ‘When Somebody Loves You (You’re Never Alone)’, for the first time on a legitimate release

    And we hope that points the way to our future programme of releases. The archaeologists have their hard hats on and are preparing the ropes for their next descent. Who knows what they’ll find? Berry Gordy’s demo for ‘Do You Love Me’? Unlikely, but keep watching this space.

© Ace records 2012