The Spinners, It’s A Shame (1970)

Spinners45_-_It's_A_Shame

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Supremes, Stoned Love (1970)

 

Stoned-love-supremes

Artist: The Supremes
Title: Stoned Love
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 2003

Ever the dedicated archaeologist of recorded popular music, I rather fear that the first time I knowingly fell under the spell of this late Supremes single was in the early part of this century, some 40 years, in fact, after its release. It passed into my home under cover of the 3-disc Capital Gold Motown Classics compilation, purchased for the following good, sound, practical reason: to top up the soul content of my iPod. Where had this song been all my life? Seemingly just lurking, halfway down CD2 between The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back and I Don’t Blame You At All by Smokey Robinson, waiting to pounce, pin me to the floor and pour honey into my ears.

Diana Ross is already placed in The 143, with her key solo hit Upside Down. She’d flown the girl group nest in 1970, after Berry Gordy had “run in” her Mississippi-born replacement Jean Terrell, so that the Supremes brandwagon could roll on as if nothing had happened. Terrell, signed as a Motown solo artist, was formally introduced at Miss Ross’s final appearance as a Supreme in Las Vegas. Thus, the band played on, and scored hits without their first-name-terms taliswoman with the likes of Nathan Jones and Floy Joy. Only Mary Wilson survived from the stone age; Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong back in 1967. One might regard the Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong formation as the group’s second classic line-up. I certainly do. The Funk Brothers remain on infrastructure, so nothing’s falling over.

If there’s a change of lyrical direction, it comes wrapped in candy floss. The number begins* with Miss Terrell cooing the provocative title over a gently tickled row of ivory: “Sto-o-oned Lo-huh-uh-uhh-huh-ove …”, then, a soft parp, a rattle on the snare … and when the piano line plinks into action, the song does the opposite of explode into stoned life. It sort of tumbles. Like the teeth-sucking sound of a hi-hat, or a reversed tape, or the inhalation that precedes a pyrotechnic event, we’re off, but without much warning. Suitably and subtly lulled, you took your ear off the ball. Stop, children, what’s that sound? It’s the sound of the 60s turning into the 70s.

A love for each other will bring fighting to an end

This is the Supremes with placards, protesting the indignity, cruelty and human deforestation of the Vietnam war, now in its fifth official year, although imprinted with US boots since Eisenhower sent in his 900 “advisers”, and Kennedy tacitly endorsed the CIA’s covert involvement. The lyrics are by Kenny Thomas and producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), and take the “girl group” into waters being swum by The Temptations, the actually stoned Family Stone and other beatniks. Come 1970, the National Guard were killing American students on their own campus and something had to be done about it. Equally, something had to be sung about it, if the peaceniks really were going to overcome.

Forgiving one another, time after time, doubt creeps in
But like the sun lights up the sky with a message from above
Oh, yeah, I find no other greater symbol of this love

It may seem naive to our cynical eyes, but this rather amorphous hippy sentiment of thoughts-and-prayers should not be dismissed from this distance, just because it sounds lilting and sweet. (So, for instance, does For What It’s Worth.) Asking its young audience to “put the present time to hand”, Stoned Love becomes in fact an urgent call to arms, disguised as a come-on: “If you’re young at heart, rise up and take your stand.”

If a war ’tween our nations passed, oh, yeah
Will the love ‘tween our brothers and sisters last?

Terrell, Wilson and Birdsong think it will: “On and on and on and on.”

Like all classic Motown tunes, it fades too soon, and too quickly. I think that’s why we’re all still so besotted by the hits of Detroit 1959-72, which never sought to outstay their welcome, however warm that welcome be.

I don’t care where this song has been all my life. It’s where it is now that matters, filling me with love supreme.

 

*Postscript: a connoisseur going by the Twittername of @daysofspeed has just recommended the four-minute version that appears on The Supremes: Box Set, released in 2000. “The opening,” he accurately states, “is like a state ceremony.”

 

The Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

TheJamBeatSurrender

Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned.

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

Frank Wilson, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) (1965)

BestNorthernSoulAllNighterEver!

Artist: Frank Wilson
Title: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
Description: promo single; single
Label: Soul
Release date: 1965
First heard: 2002

What? No scan of the original 1965 sleeve on the Beat label to illustrate? Nor the 1979 UK reissue on Tamla Motown? No. The CD inlay of a compilation album from 2001. In the interests of full disclosure I am going to confess to you right now that the only “rare” record I own is the 7″ of Blur’s Wassailing Song, which I think is worth about £300 but I’m not selling it. I have never bought a record, in any format, as an investment. (The Blur one was given away after a gig.) I bought the singles I wanted, or could afford, as a teenager, and I still own every one of them. I sold the bulk of my 12-inch vinyl collection in the mid-noughties because, having moved house with it a number of times, I decided it was time to let it go and save my spine.

I’d acquired every album that mattered on CD and never played the vinyl, so off it went to Steel Wheels in Newcastle, where I hope it was redistributed to countless happy collectors via its shop and website. (Rob, the voluble guy who runs it, got back in touch some weeks after taking my collection away and informed me that he had found a “rare” Radiohead record among it which he hadn’t spotted when he priced it up at my house and he sent me a cheque for it. What an honest man. That’s how tuned in to the “rarity” of records I am!)

Frank Wilson’s unreleased pressing of Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) is the most valuable Northern Soul single ever. There are only a couple of copies of the 1965 original in circulation, which explains that. As it happens, it’s also one of the best known Northern Soul records. It’s in The 143 for neither of those two reasons. It’s in because I just love it; even a stint as the music to a KFC advert couldn’t destroy its magic. In common with every song knighted by northern treasure hunters, it has a chequered history and the power to make white men dance like loons.

Guess what? I didn’t really get a handle of what Northern Soul even was until the earliest days of working on 6 Music. I was aware of its importance in certain clubs in the North of England, thanks to the tales told by my friend Stuart Maconie, which had opened my eyes to the “scene”, but as for individual records? I was pretty clueless.

What’s particularly sweet about my long overdue conversion to the simple pleasures of obscure US soul cuts that had found new currency among DJs and scenesters in Wigan, Manchester, Blackpool and Stoke in the 60s and 70s, is that my magpie-like swoop on a kaleidoscope of musical genres in order to spice up the predominantly Caucasian 6 Music playlists in 2002-03 was overseen and encouraged by my producer, whose name – as older listeners will remember – was Frank Wilson. I took enormous pleasure in broadening my mind to reggae, ska, blues and old-style R&B through Frank’s deep love of black music, and snaffled up compilations aplenty – usually purchased with my own money round the corner at HMV on Oxford Street. The “show copy” of The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter Ever, a double-CD containing pretty much every key “side” at the top of the genre, became studio-worn very quickly, not least thanks to a simple feature called Northern Soul O’Clock. But some tunes would recur, and the “other” Frank Wilson’s was one of them.

Having read up on him, Wilson was a producer hired by Berry Gordy in ’65 who would go on to record the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops, and this was his only vocal recording, whose demo copies were deleted either by Wilson or Gordy, hence the rarity. Typically of Motown soul recordings of the era, you can hear the room, with arrangement coming at you from every corner: those exquisite vibes, strings and brass rising up around Wilson’s carefree voice as he answers his own rhetorical query. The rat-tat-rat-a-tat drum signature hallmarks the kind of record later pressed into service on the sprung dancefloors of Lancashire, but it’s the chiming notes that single this song out. We must assume the sterling work of Motown house band the Funk Brothers throughout, but there’s accompaniment all over the place, creating a joyous, celebratory racket against the pre-Dolby hiss. You can really explore the space on headphones, but frankly, it’s designed to be heard at the hop, two and a half Detroit minutes of affirmation.

I am the same age as this record. I hope I have aged as well as it, although I suspect Do I Love You will be around forever more. Indeed I do.

The Temptations, It’s Growing (1965)

the-temptationsItsGrowing

Artist: The Temptations
Title: It’s Growing
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1965
First heard: circa 1997

When I say that I first heard It’s Growing, a gem-like exhibition match from the Temptations’ David Ruffin-dominated purple patch between 1964 and 1967, in 1997, it’s entirely plausible that I heard it without identifying it at any stage via the infectious medium of radio between its release in the year I was born and the year I started to really sit down and take stock of the Temptations’ vocal genius. For some reason, I hooked into a fulsome Temptations greatest-hits around that time, when I had literally given up my day job and set about researching and writing my first book, Still Suitable For Miners. (There was something about immersing myself in Billy Bragg that called for a more Catholic listening palette, from classic soul, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Phil Ochs, to militant modern folkies Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan, and the guvnor, Woody Guthrie.) In the acknowledgements of the book, I give thanks to the Temptations, along with Clipper tea and my asthma medication!

The music of whichever magical combination of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, “Al” Bryant, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards applies has remained a constant restorative balm. The two distinct phases of the Temptations’ career showcase the God-given songwriting and studio skills of Smokey Robinson, Bobby Rodgers and Ronnie White, then Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It’s Growing – which rises to the top for me because of its audaciously clanky piano intro and a frankly ill-advised but unique production decision involving a pair of claves – comes from the first phase, written by Smokey and fellow Miracle Pete Moore and laid down by Robinson.

There are better known songs, some simply thrilling – Get Ready, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, I Know I’m Losing You – others a bit schmaltzy for my tastes – My Girl, Just My Imagination – but this one starts better than any other song that rolled off Berry Gordy’s production line during that golden era, except perhaps Baby Love. That disarmingly simple, high-pitched piano signature, not a riff but a warm-up and picked out, it seems, on a pub upright by the Funk Brothers’ Earl Van Dyke (probably), topped by a rolling drum fill of the type that was sampled forever after from the 80s on, again probably Benny Benjamin or Uriel Jones. It fills my heart with gladness each time it comes on. The plangent brass helps.

The Temps are on fine vocal form, naturally, and if the verses weren’t the greatest they were ever given to wrap their ascendingly variegated tonsils around (“Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow-covered hill” is a bit lazy with its double use of the word “snow”; “like the size of a fish that a man claims broke his reel” doesn’t even rhyme), the plain-speaking chorus is lovely: “My love for you just grows and grows … and where it’s going to stop, nobody knows.”

As for the ridiculously intrusive “clack” of those claves towards the climax of the song, it must have seemed like a whizzo idea at the time to pitch it so high in the mix. On headphones, it’s like a really precise woodpecker tapping the side of your skull; not the effect imagined by Smokey and Moore, we must assume. I used to love it when my colleague at Q, John Aizlewood, dismissed pretty much all music from the 50s and 60s because “it wasn’t produced properly.” I concede the claves decision in It’s Growing to his case for the prosecution, and yet, I love it so, “clack” and all.

Musically, it’s of a type with Dock Of The Bay (not yet written in 1965) – and Just My Imagination, less surprisingly – and has the same lazy gait as the later Otis classic, but no less soul. The age of the singer-songwriter had yet to take hold and it was no crime against authenticity for a gifted, chemically-balanced vocal group to translate the songs of an industrial writing unit. Any snobbery about artists who don’t write their own songs can be shot down with the word “Motown.” The fleet-footed ingenuity of musicians like Robinson, and later Barrett and Strong, runs through these classic pop songs without subtracting from the deft broadcasting skills of these angelic frontmen and women. The Temps line-up may have mutated (it’s growing) in the ensuing years – indeed, I think I’m right in saying that only Otis Williams survives in the current touring incarnation – but the body of work bespeaks longevity and immortality.

If you had to strip their output down to, say, half a dozen tunes, to the more obvious My Girl, Get Ready, Just My Imagination, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and Ball Of Confusion, I’d say the missing jigsaw piece was It’s Growing.

The Elgins, Put Yourself In My Place (1966)

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Artist: The Elgins
Title: Put Yourself In My Place
Description: B-side of Darling Baby; reissued as A-side
Label: Tamla-Motown
Release date: 1965; 1971
First heard: circa 1988

I would dearly love to tell you that the label above is from my own original 1966 UK copy of Put Yourself In My Place by the Elgins. It isn’t. It’s borrowed from the rather excellent 45cat website, which sells old vinyl. I do not own it as a single. I own it via the also rather excellent 3CD set Capital Gold Motown Classics (it’s on CD2). But I do know this: I fell in love with it instantly, and I’m almost positive I first heard it on the radio in the 80s, without even knowing who sang it. The possibility hangs over this entry that the version I first heard was by the Supremes. But for me, the first recording, by the Elgins, is by far the best – and how often do you get to say that about a tune also sung by Diana Ross?

There will be other Motown singles in The 143, so let’s get this said. Put Yourself In My Place is a perfect example of a Motown song that came off the conveyor belt, machine-tooled if you like for the newly-minted young pop audience. (Swiss architect Le Corbusier called a house “a machine for living”; these records are “machines for dancing.”)

There lingers a cloud of rock snobbery about “manufactured” bands, about artists who get their songs written for them, but classic songwriting – and classic song-making – cannot be faked. And in any case, to use the qualification of writing your own songs as a stamp of authenticity would discount Elvis, Bing and Frank, not to mention a large proportion of the artists on Motown, the greatest pop label in history. (Also, to discount the “production line” methodology of Motown or dismiss Hitsville as a “factory” would be to deny the skilled and intuitive musicianship of the house band – collectively, the Funk Brothers – and the angelic singers themselves.)

With that on the contextual statute books, what’s on the record? I won’t lift the Elgins’ biography from Wikipedia; suffice to say, they came and they went, with only one LP to their name (and even their name changed about three times), but what this single tells us is that they could sing, and that lead vocalist Saundra Edwards was a match for any other in Detroit, and in fact sounds a little like Smokey Robinson. Written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, whose conjoined genius needs no further eulogy from me, it runs on an ascending, somersaulting piano riff that lends an edgy urgency to Edwards’ plea for empathy after sour times (“Put yourself in my place/You’d learn to treat me right/And you wouldn’t stay out late at night”).

It was first issued on the flip of Darling Baby at the end of 1965, before my first birthday, but issued in the UK in 1966, through a licensing agreement with EMI. A reissue in 1971 made it a hit here, too, having gone Top 10 in the R&B charts over there.

A saccharine, heady, insistent tune that grips your heart, even in that moment of instant summer you can feel the author’s pain. Bittersweet, I think they call it.