The Spinners, It’s A Shame (1970)

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Artist: The Spinners
Title: It’s A Shame
Description: single; track, 2nd Time Around
Label: V.I.P.
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 1970s

It’s a sha-a-ay-ame

Five young, handsome African-American men, one with a polite moustache, all with a side parting product-assisted into regimentation, good teeth, wearing identical busboy jackets and standing in order of shortest to tallest, left to right. It could be any soul five-piece in America in the Eisenhower era. But it was the Spinners.

Call them the Detroit Spinners, or The Motown Spinners or, as per the title of their debut LP when it appeared in the UK, the Original Spinners, but they were, at the end of the day, the Spinners. It’s a shame that despite forming in the northern suburbs of Detroit in 1954, they didn’t call themselves the Spinners until 1961 when they made their first record (they’d begun life as the unpromising Domingoes). By this time their folkie Liverpool namesakes were already established as the Spinners, with their own folk club and everything. Interestingly, Liverpool’s Spinners started out as an American-influenced skiffle group and were advised to “go folk”, a genius move which separated them from the R&B-inclined Merseybeat herd, plugged them into sea shanties and made them a fortune in their Liverpool homes.

Back in Motor City, five fresh fellows Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer (subsequently replaced by Edgar “Chico” Edwards) and lead singer James Edwards (replaced by Bobby Smith) were making some sweet vocal soul music in the projects. Signing to Tri-Phi and scoring a modest hit with their debut single That’s What Girls Are Made For in 1961 (listen out for Marvin Gaye on the drums), label boss Harvey Fuqua sold the boys as part of a job-lot (along with everything that wasn’t nailed down) to his new brother-in-law, whose name was Berry Gordy. So, the Spinners’ belated first album finally came out on Motown, a six-years-in-the-making patchwork of singles and other tracks, but didn’t chart, which was a shame. But perseverance paid off for all concerned when, in 1970, their first studio album 2nd Time Around was released on Motown’s V.I.P. imprint. Happily, it would make them very important players.

Mississippi-raised Vietnam vet George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron had swapped the ooh-ra of the Marines for the ooh-ooh-ooh of Motown and joined as lead vocalist (displacing “Chico” Edwards), and it’s his meaningful, salty, full-ranged voice that makes It’s A Shame. That and the songwriting nous of Stevie Wonder (who also played the drums) and collaborators Syreeta Wright, a future hitmaker in her own right, and Lee Garrett. There’s little questioning the in-sync glory of that week’s original Spinners – nor the clean brass, funkily fingered bass and nifty, tambourine-softened beat supplied by the Funk Brothers, produced by the increasingly accurately named Wonder – but it’s Cameron’s lead that takes it from run-of-the-mill to top-of-the-heap.

Oh, that resonantly pretty, pastoral two-guitar line, played thrice before a key change and a kick drum, then those doo-dup-doo-doos from the boys. Then the drama starts. As the brass announces itself, Cameron sings both parts, the low, and the high, and between himself and himself he cooks up quite the bellowing chamber piece. It’s hard to believe this is a man “sitting all alone, on the telephone,” not when, soaring and searing, he buries that deceptively friendly first act as he roars his hurt at the heavens. Everything cuts out except the drums and the guitar, then take cover. Just listen to the way our man builds up a head of steam about the woman whose actions have displeased him; this is not verse-chorus, it’s closer to opera. He testifies to this scarlet lady, “It’s a shame the way you’re messin’ round with your men” – the plural adding further intrigue and opprobrium from pop.

She messes the men around like “a child at play on a sunny day” (nice work, Stevie), and even as It’s A Shame is fading at three minutes, G.C. is rasping and fluting at the good Lord above. The background stays fetchingly upbeat, declamatory and harmonious. It’s like an M.C. Esher lithograph that spins round and round in fractal patterns. Slap it on repeat and the juncture from whirling climax to palate-cleansing intro acts as a breath.

It’s a shame that within two years, the Spinners were off to Atlantic in an Aretha-influenced flounce, but minus the mighty Mr Cameron, who’d fallen in love with Berry’s sister Gwen and decided to stay at Motown to play solo and see what occurred. The one-album Spinner, he went on to be a one-hit Motown artist. (He also recorded an LP with Syreeta in 1977.)

The Spinners carried on having hits throughout the 70s (Games People Play, The Rubberband Man, Cupid, and a medley cover of the Four Seasons’ Working My Way Back To You, which topped the UK charts at the end of 1979), and – hold the front page – still play the civic halls with one original member, the alive baritone Henry Fambrough (aged 80), along with four younger men who plug the gaps. G.C. became a Temptation.

Back in Liverpool, the other Spinners had the novel idea of retiring, which they did, after 30 years, in 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

Miles Davis, So What (1959)

Artist: Miles Davis
Title: So What
Description: track, Kind of Blue
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1994

Is this cool? Is that cool? All these people: are they cool?

A. Partridge

 

I’m not qualified to take apart instrumental music, which jazz often is, but this analytical deficit has never stopped me losing myself in its syncopated currents. Jazz means different things to different hipsters: heroin, polo-necks, Gauloises, waistcoats, Prohibition, washboards, jugs, Chicago, New Orleans, Hitchin, nodding students, Afro-Cuban, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, fusion, brushes, inflatable cheeks, “sitting in”, Louis Armstrong’s hanky. To me, it means purity. It’s music that speaks for itself.

The blessing and the curse with Miles Davis is cool. As with many innovators who bottled the breeze, he gets cooler in posthumous legend. Even people whose coffee tables aren’t artfully arranged underneath a vinyl copy of Kind of Blue know that his very name spells cool. He was cool because he appeared not to have to try too hard to remain one step ahead of history, when in fact it took a lot of work, which is in itself cool. (The functioning heroin addict must find income – his arrests and court appearances only made that trickier, and as well as transcribing scores for money, he also pimped as often as he scrimped. Is that cool?) He remained fashionable as new wave after new wave crashed against his arty shore. His genius became a commodity. But neither commodification nor self-medication could erase or diminish his innate cultural chill, which was in the music.

Miles Dewey Davis III from Alton, Illinois, lived longer than he should have: to the not-inconsiderable age of 65 in ’91, when he was felled by a stroke, pneumonia and something respiratory (an especially cruel route for a man who blew). He was cool in his first bebop flush in the late 40s, in the pomp of his mid-50s comeback, with his sextet and collaborators in the early 60s, duly stirring up his Bitches Brew fusion in 1970, then again in rehabilitation in the 80s, style-magazine ready.

De-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum bah-bap

Let’s get into it, man. Let’s ignore the terminology – modal; voicing; tertial; major third interval; interjecting the head; a perfect fourth; a bar-line shift – these are just some of the things that go over my head. Let’s instead describe what I hear.

Warming up: notes gently teased out of the piano by Bill Evans (the only other co-writer credited on Kind of Blue), then a questioning riff played with the double bass of Paul Chambers in echo. The bass and the piano will be our guides throughout the next historic nine minutes and 22 seconds, allowing Miles to get into his space and if not blow the doors off, certainly create plumes of interesting smoke, which I imagine animated like a Pink Panther title sequence.

Much is spoken of jazz music’s improvisation, but rather than truly free-form, the most memorable pieces stick to a basic through-line and circle adroitly around it, making little clearings in which to solo. In the case of So What – note the missing question mark? – it’s the bass and the brass, with the piano sometimes dropping underneath to mimic the bass and trumpet notes. By default, the bass sounds like it’s walking around Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. Davis’s trumpet doodles over his own sketches, ricocheting off hither and exploring thither, the star attraction, without a doubt, but generous, too. The lightest beat is maintained on snare and ride cymbal by Jimmy Cobb – no room for showing off at the stool.

It’s the whole that matters. I’m a drummer; I’ll always follow the rhythm, but when the horns of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley parp in sets of two towards the denouement, it’s like they’re calling you over, after which Chambers, Cobb and Evans finish up, almost imperceptibly faded in the final few seconds by producers Ted Macero and Irving Townsend.

There’s a myth that the entire LP was recorded in one take. It wasn’t – although I’ve read that Side Two’s Flamenco Sketches was – but it was put to bed in two sessions in March and April 1959. And it’s certainly free of overdubs.

As is the greedy modern way, Kind of Blue now comes complete with alternate takes, false starts and studio offcuts, but who needs them? Davis, his band and producers have already bottled magic and created an album that is the sound of the 20th Century pivoting on its axis.

Are they cool? Yes they are cool.

 

The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?