Monthly Archives: February 2010

Rage to Survive

“Her (Mitty Collier) voice fucking blows me away…and the fact that she was so young when she recorded that stuff…how many 20 something year olds can sing like they know what they are talking about. and people want to know why i hate beyonce and solange. fucking worthless bitches.”

So I introduced (otherwise felt guilty about not having enough money for Christmas gifts and gave a CD I already had and have in my iPod) Cheyenne to Mitty Collier. And It had me thinking when he said this, as I replied:

“But don’t you think, if we compare how many of our favorite singers grew up, and had to go through life that was, painfully harsh by the time they actually reached 18 or 21, compared to the Suburban Opulence and Middle class ease that Beyonce or a number of other pop tartlets these days go through. Altho “Rage to Survive” is the title of Etta’s book, you can come up with a list of 500 performances from different women from the past that show that “rage to survive.” To be loved, to be respected, to be honored, to be taken seriously, to be heard. “

And I thought about what I said a little more in response. Those Soul Singers (particularly the women from the gut bucket blues singers like Bessie Smith through the 1970s singers like Kim Tolliver) lived through an era where it was a lot “tougher” to be a minority female. A lot of them came from impoverished backgrounds. And even if they didn’t there were plenty of societal limitations about who they could be, how they could represent themselves, and how they could live.

Beyonce Knowles was born less than a year before me. She was born into an upper middle class Creole family in Houston, in an era that, as I interpret it from my view of being (lesser) middle class and Creole, growing up in the affluent Silicon Valley of the 1980s, there were fewer restrictions on who, as a minority female, you could be in the last 20 years of the 20th century. We didn’t suffer like the generation that birthed us. Or the generations before. We were the generation that was told we could have it all, there was no pain, and everything came as we asked for it.

We had maids (Black folks with maids?!?!?!) We had Ninetendos, We had our first cars at 16.

It’s a reality that Mitty Collier didn’t have. It’s a reality even Diana Ross didn’t have. If you look beyond the myth of The Supremes even, although Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, for points in their childhoods, had middle class existances, they didn’t have their first cars at 16, didn’t have new clothes to wear when school started, and, because of the size or politics of their family didn’t get attention, or material possessions to fill the voids of not getting affection and attention.

So often, in their late teens, or early twenties, when they won the chance to steal the spotlight for themselves, even if it were only for 5 minutes on stage, or 3 minutes on a 45rpm single, they put every breath of life into it. And they didn’t take the chance for an encore for granted.

Maybe if the lyrics handed to them didn’t relate to who they were, they found meaning in the words. Learned what those words meant. Expressed a knowledge of the power of statements. Dionne Warwick says she doesn’t understand why everyone thinks she was soo heartbroken, crying through songs like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” or “Walk On By” but, there’s no question she understood where the lyric was coming from. Followed the emotion in the words.

“If you see me walking down the street, and I start to Cry, each time we meet……..”

If one thinks about how devastated one would be, to utter those words. One might be able to make a pastiche of that heartbreak.

Whatever happened to lyrical content being actually a story that you can follow. A story that you could apply to your own life? Whether you were the singer on the stage or in the recording studio, or the listener on a radio, or buying the single that spoke to you in a way that’s beyond words?

That’s why I laugh, still, like 18 months later at Beyonce tripping down the stairs. Or the lack of passion in today’s popular music, and how that shows popular culture might be a bit rotten at its core right now. People who land record contracts and make it to iTunes, or on TV, feel that they are entitled to whatever attention is lavished on them. Not that they necessarily worked hard for it, or are filling a void about needing to be heard, recognized, acknowledged, cause this is the only way you know how.

Maybe we’ve forgotten how to get in touch with the words, how those words express emotion. I guess that’s why I sit on a bedroom floor, with CDs and old mixtapes and LPs and 45s, to make sure that, I, of all people, don’t forget.

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Miss Martha & The Girls

(Recycled Post from Martha Reeves 68th birthday)

So, in my ongoing series of celebrating Motown’s 50th anniversary I’ve been spending my Saturday in with Miss Martha Reeves and the various ladies that did the world the pleasure of being the Vandellas, as I wrap up pondering the songs, the context and the times these songs were recorded, it’s the end of Martha Reeves 68th birthday.

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I sadly missed her gig here in the Bay Area earlier this year, and haven’t seen her in concert in years (probably 1994ish or so). People often assume me growing up and loving Motown=I love The Supremes, which I do, but Martha & The Vandellas always to me meant more. I can say the Vandellas I have every released LP as an LP and CD, and I can’t say that for The Supremes (nor any other musical act). I don’t think a day of my life has gone by that I haven’t at least spun one of their tunes, to either lift my spirits, accompany my tears, or just make me dance for the hell of it. There’s some marvelous type of emotional dexterity that Martha Reeves conveys on her recordings that combines the fire of a Aretha Franklin or Dusty Springfield (who idolized Reeves) the smooth aloofness of Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick and the utter glee and ability to rave and burn down a tent like Darlene Love.

So when I think of the act that’s been with me in song all my life, what songs do I think of?

1) “Come & Get These Memories” (1963) The awkward send off to ex lovers, and all the crap that they leave behind physically, and also emotionally, psychologically, and it’s always gonna be single, coupled, whatever, my favorite song of all time. Because it reminds me of remembering things fondly, but still packing up and moving onto the future, with the hopes that each new thing is gonna be a good thing, altho with a few time signature changes sprinkled in for good effect, that transition from one point to another won’t be smooth or easy, it’ll be sometimes handled awkwardly but at the same time with innate grace. It also reminds me of shopping in Emporium and I. Magnin as a child with my great grandmother.

2) “This Is When I Need You Most” (1963) I think the obvious follow up to “Come & Get These Memories” that got sidelined on the “Come & Get These Memories” LP when “Heatwave” was laid down. The perfect girl group lament of feeling alone because you are surrounded by a bunch of people that (on the surface) seem to be happily coupled off, and are enjoying the things of “new love”

3) (Love Is Like a) Heatwave (1963) Sometimes I try to dismiss it, but you can’t deny the songs intrinsic fire. It makes lust, sex and desire sound outright inescapable and downright delicious, naughty and nice, and Rosalind and Annette aren’t helping a damned bit by encouraging (you) to go all the way. This is light years away from The Shirelles first songs about sex (‘Tonights The Night’ & “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) as timidity and worries about respect have gone out the window in favor of wanton sexual fulfillment….”Go ‘head gurl”

4) Spellbound (1963) Smokey Robinson cleverly re-writes a “Heatwave” alike about well, being kinda fucked psychologically once you come up for air from all that wonder “Heatwave” type humping and passion. Every romantic stage and action that you try to do for someone doesn’t work, and they leave you, panting, sweaty and devastated. Spellbound indeed.

5) In My Lonely Room (1964) The facade of a transitioning deliriously up-tempo jazzy Holland-Dozier-Holland song masking the fact that this is really a sad song about the cruelty of being laughed at in the public eye for being attached to a cheating, flirting lover. I’ve always liked that melodically it’s a sad song, but the fact that it’s so uptempo reminds me that you have to dance through life at an accelerated pace, no matter what realties you are facing externally

6) Wild One (1964) it sounds logically like what it was, the the moderate hit single that occupies space in between “Dancing In The Streets” and “Nowhere To Run” in the 23 times Martha & The Vandellas hit the Billboard Hot 100, somewhat disappointingly peaking at #34. And yes, it’s lyrically the same story as The Crystals “He’s A Rebel” but, then again it isn’t. Defending your man to the public, but a song of devotion. And then there’s the miracle that it just doesn’t fly in a million pieces everywhere, as an brilliant show of work of how tight the Funk Brothers were at their peak (since, to be honest “Baby Love” isn’t all that hard to play).

7) Too Much Pressure On My Heart (1965) Cause I like to pretend that I’m totally hip, a bad ass, and can do without love and affection, this one playfully hits home about how you can logically deny someone a pass, or re-entrance back into your heart, until they triple up on their efforts and you just relent. As strong as I would like to think I am, but at the end of it, I’m a big ole softie.

8) Keep It Up (1966) Smokey Robinson writes a hitchcock script. All of the major slights someone might look at as minor, because you don’t make a big deal about it will eventually, one day, someday, even up with your testicles in a jar (this is the subtext to the song, it’s not like the last verse says, Keep It Up, and you’ll lose your balls…..it comes close tho).

9) No More Tear Stained Make Up (1966) To me, no other pick yourself up, dust yourself off song comes close. “my eyes have natural shadows from the crying that I’ve done so much of lately cause it really hurt me greatly when I found the love you vowed was only lying” is such a devastatingly accurate way to portray the discovery of betrayal. But to remember that your are somehow of spirit young, and full of chances to experience life, and there’s no need to hide underneath artifice, is the real message, a real strong important message I think we all need to learn, or remember. I always keep this song close at hand just in case

10) Jimmymack (1967) Cause it’s fun, and cause since it’s delayed release (it was originally recorded in 1964) made it extra poignant at the height of the Vietnam War makes it sound like a time capsule into the hearts of someone lonely, and honestly, horny, not know if or when their boyfriend/fiance/husband might return, or if they actually would return alive from that war across the sea.

11) A Little Bit of Heaven (On A Patch of Earth) (1968) So, this is the absolute downer never released song that continues the dark undercurrent of “Jimmymack” being released in 1967. The dream cottage that was part of a “Rodgers & Hart” fantasy of all american coupledom has turned gray, haunted, the flowers are dying, because the relationship is gone that brought life to a section of earth. I always thought at the end of this song the casket returns from Vietnam. A sad little gem

12) Sweet Darlin (1968) A lil happiness why don’t we…. metaphor city, and burbling guitar, and nothing but ummmmhmmms satisfying as Pecan Pie and Peach Cobbler.

13) I Hope You Have Better Luck Than I Did (1969) Because sometimes you just have to have no regrets about letting go, and let some other ill advised fool take on your burdens of some marvelous idiot that, really you’d allow to get back into your hair if you had the chance.

14) Bless You (1971) Because, with Martha & The Vandellas being such a relic of the mid 1960s by 1971, why not give them a song that was a Jackson 5 rejection? Some people look at it as a travesty compared to “Heatwave” but it’s one of Martha’s best later performances,a nd you can’t deny you feel a little bit uplifted by the concept of undying, divine love between two people.

15) Goes out to every other special song, from “Quicksand” and “Nowhere to Run” “Motoring” “I’ll Pay The Price” “My Baby Loves Me” “I’m Ready For Love” “Honey Chile” “It’s Easy To Fall In Love with A Guy Like You” and hundreds of others that have kept me company for so many years, so many hours…so many tears and smiles…. Thank You Miss Martha….Happy 68th

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The 20 Worst Cover Songs of All Time

The Worst Covers:

1) These Boots Are Made For Walking-
The Supremes (1966). I don’t think Diana Ross was trying to record a 2:26 long joke. Maybe she was. Tell me this cover doesn’t make you laugh.

2) Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)-
The Doobie Brothers (1975)
This is just one in a long line of offenses to the ears that Michael McDonald is responsible.

3) You Can’t Hurry Love-
Phil Collins (1982)
because middle aged white brits should know when to leave Baby Boomer classics alone. They normally have more respect for Soul Music than Americans. Not always I guess.

4) Stop! In The Name of Love-
The Hollies (1983) See above

5) Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You-
Lauryn Hill (1998)
Hey Lauryn, good form on taking all the delightful lounge lizardness right out of a Vegas-y classic.

6) I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself-
Dionne Warwick (1966).
After Dusty Springfield’s massive towering version, Dionne’s Bacharach Lite version kinda….err…yeah.

7) Baby It’s You-
Smith (1969)
Because you can’t top The Shirelles creepy-horny original. Or the stripped down Beatles cover version

8) Chains-The Beatles (1963) because, yeah I had to snag them on something. And they can’t recreate the soft tension that lies between the lyric and Earl-Jean McCrea’s aloof original lead.

9) The Way You Do The Things You Do-
UB40 (1989)
Ugh. Please click next

10) I’ll Always Love You-
Whitney Houston (1992)
See the previous note. And it became a fave for both weddings and funerals. Doesn’t that say something?

11) Baby I need Your Lovin’-
Johnny Rivers (1967)
When your cover has less soul (and apparently no actual rhythm section) in comparison to a lightweight Supremes Cover version buried on an LP, but you manage to score a massive top 5 hit with your cover. I think you should be shot.

12) All I Do-
Stevie Wonder (1980)
Yes folks. This is a cover. Tammi Terrell worked on and completed a magnificently eerie version in late 1965/1966. I still don’t get how it was held back by quality control. Stevie Sounds like he’s having a seizure in comparison to the smooth creepy witchcrafty glide Tammi lays down

13) I Heard it Through The Grapevine-
Marvin Gaye (1968)
I just have always prefered Gladys Knight getting right up in your face instead of Marvin Gaye’s whiny, emasculated plea for the truth. even though both versions are technically covers of The Miracles original, and Gladys’s was recorded later than Marvin’s

14) I’m Gonna Make You Love Me-
Madeline Bell (1967)
Not as good as the Dee Dee Warwick original, nor as Good as the Temptations/Diana Ross And (actual) Supremes Cover.

15) Love Is Like a Heatwave-
Linda Rondstandt (1975).
…and there’s numerous good covers of this song.

16) You’ve Made Me So Very Happy-
Blood Sweat and Tears (1969)
…I still can’t believe original artist and co-writer Brenda Holloway thinks that this is the better version. I think she’s just thinks that because she didn’t have a big hit with it.

17) At Last-
Christina Aguilera (2000ish). Really? Someone wanna get my gun?

18) You Keep Me Hangin’ On Vanilla Fudge(1968) and Kim Wilde (1987) Like I’d trust anything from a group whose name can be interpreted as “White Chocolate” and…for the Kim Wilde version…really?

19) Ain’t No Mountain High Enough-Diana Ross (1970) for previously dicussed reasons

20) Dance With Me Henry-Georgia Gibbs (1955) cause I really wanna dance with a middle aged housewife to a R&B record.

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So Silky.. So Smooth, like Velvet. Must Be the Velvelettes.

So, sometimes you just have to reach back and find a good jam, right. For some reason The Velvelettes super crisp and clean version of “The Boy From Crosstown” (not to be confused with The Angels single from 1964), which went through 3 changes and to The Marvelettes and Gladys Knight and The Pips before being released in 1968, that came to mind.

And I thought… Well, what a fine time for a post on The Velvelettes.

The Velvelettes was the only “family” Girl Group act during Motowns classic era. Composed of Sisters Mildred and Caldin (Carolyn) Gill and cousins Bertha and Norma Barbee, they formed at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, in 1961. Carolyn recruited her friend Betty Kelley, who in 1964 would leave The Velvelettes to replace Annette Beard in Martha & The Vandellas.

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With Carolyn as lead singer they auditioned for Motown in 1962, and released “There He Goes” on the IPG label (for whatever reason the single was not released on any of the Motown Subsidiaries). Although it didn’t chart, the song was still considered good enough for The Royalettes to cover in 1964.

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The did various demos and first recordings of songs that go passed on to other artists. Some of their best material from this era went unreleased for 40 years, from the “Heatwave-a-like” “You Can’t Get Away” to the absolutely torrid “Stop Beating Around The Bush”

They would have to wait til the fall of 1964 til they got a proper first chance at hit single with “Needle In a Haystack” (R&B#16 Pop#45, 1964), given little promotion it performed a lot better than expected (mind you most Motown promotional dollars were being used to beat back Nella Dodds cover of “Come See About Me”) and for all purposes was the Sister Ship song to The Marvelettes “Too Many Fish In The Sea”

(Here are all the Original Velvelettes, minus Kelley, performing that first hit in 2005).

And then came, to me one of the Best Girl Group Songs ever.

“He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”

For whatver reasons in the first few months of 1965 it didn’t manage to break out of the R&B top 20 or past #64 pop…

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but was lamely covered by Bananarama 17 years later. It was followed by the melancholy uptempo ballad “Lonely Lonely Girl am I” and logical follow up to “Needle in a Haystack” , “A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two in The Bush”).

In between these singles, like Kim Weston (or Martha & The Vandellas or even The Supremes) more than 2 LPs worth of material was recorded and vaulted, much of it as good or even better than what was released as singles (like “The Boy From Crosstown”) for instance the torrid “Save Me (My Ship Is Sinking)” or “A Love So Deep”

By the middle of 1966, all of the family members of The Velvelettes were tired of touring, and given that most of The Velvelettes were middle class college graduate women with husbands by this point, all but Carolyn had left performing, so she had recruited Sandy Tilley (formerly of The Orlons, Future of The Vandellas) and Annette McMillian (of what I dunno) and they released one more single, the delightfully devotional “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”

It barely moved into any charts (R&B#43, Pop#102) but 5 years later after becoming popular on Englands Northern Soul Scene, made the UK top 40, peaking at #34.

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The Velvelettes continued to record through 1967, and officially disbanded when Carolyn married future Temptation Richard Street in 1969, leaving more wonderful moments in the Vault, like this splendid more Vietnam relevant version of The Supremes “Your Heart Belongs to Me”

But, on a whim for a Charity event The Velvelettes reformed in 1984 and have been performing regularly (alternating between their normal day lives) for the past quarter century in their original line-up (without the notable pettiness of Motown’s other 3 classic Girl Groups).

So I do have to address one critical slight that is always thrown at The Velvelettes: That they were nowhere near as “unique” as the other 3 Motown Girl Groups, which is a remarkable insult to the versatility and uniqueness of Carolyn Gill’s voice. I think it’s because she does have the qualities of each other groups primary leads, Martha’s power and range, Gladys Horton’s Toughness, and Diana Ross’s sensuality and, well, quite often was probably told “Sing it like (insert current female hit)” with each recording, you can’t fault her for being versatile but identifiable in her own right. Also there’s a large slight toward The Velvelettes Soaring harmonies, notably shown here on “A Love So Deep” (no folks there’s no Andantes there).

So, if you get a chance to see these 4 wonderful women live, treat yourself to the pure joy that still is the Motown sound.

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45 years ago (Part 2)

So Monday celebrated one Motown Girl Group classic on it’s 45th birthday, and today another song released two days later, an equally (and to a few critical ears the better of the two classic) timeless song appeared.

Martha & The Vandellas
“Nowhere to Run” (1965)

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Recorded on October 21st, 1964 but held from release. The policy of Motown was normally to award the producer of the last hit single the next single release, as Mickey Stevenson gave the Vandellas the massive hit of “Dancing In The Streets” so his “Wild One” was given the first shot. When it stalled in the outer reaches of the Top 40 during Christmas 1964, “Nowhere To Run” (written by Holland Dozier Holland) was chosen as the next release.

(Along with “Stop! in The Name of Love” the first TV debut of the song was on the Sounds of Motown BBC Special hosted by Dusty Springfield in mid February, 1965)

Appropriately the song was in the same towering horn laden sound pattern as the last two Vandellas hits (that represented their 2nd stylistic period… or their “Dance Party” period. A cursory listen of at least a dozen songs the Vandellas cut at the time that remained unreleased were similar), but it was undeniably innovative, from sliding snow chains in the time with the Tambourine accents and rather playfully, the taunting saxophone line that has more in common with New Orleans Honky Tonk jazz than straight forward mid 1960s R&B.

It’s also one of the last times that the Vandellas had a single release unassisted by The Andantes, which in my opinion did a disservice to all Girl Groups at Motown’s unique identities.

So the question is, since “Nowhere To Run” only made it to R&B#5 Pop#8 by the spring of 1965 (although regionally higher) why celebrate it as much as the #1 smash camp classic mentioned 2 posts/days back?

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Because along with that song it represents one of the finest recorded moments in a Legendary labels history and also one of the best moments in Pop music.

Albeit this one far less campy and… well, melodramatic.

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Angel of the Night

Today I’m stepping out of the time warp of the 60s, into my own actual Childhood in the 1980s to praise on of the contemporary voices of my childhood.

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Latina Siren Angela Bofill

One of the voices that I *still* think that “if” I ever were to sing… who would I want to emulate (no matter how queeny that would make me) hers was one of the first, her string of moderate R&B hits that filled my childhood all of a sudden came to me last night during a bout of insomnia to ease my addled mind.

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Bronx born in 1954, she debuted with the solemn plea “I Try” an evolution of torch songs like “The Man That Got Away” and “Since I Fell For You”, you know, those ballads that never seem to get old

And then followed it with a cover of Martha Reeves “This Time I’ll be Sweeter”

But her real breakthrough was her Too Tough LP of 1983 including it’s penultimate R&B single of the same name:

and well the ballad that came to my rescue to last night, the #12 R&B “Tonight I Give In”

It was a typical early 80s ballad, not different than anything Staci Lattishaw, Deniece Williams or Whitney Houston was charting with…. but that’s neglecting the beautiful, rich thick contralto that was such a blessing to Angela’s voice, more of a 1950s torch singers voice dropped into “Quiet Storm” R&B makes her stand out.

And that oh so charming Bronx accent appearing in her phrasing.

But, for some reason by the middle of the decade, and her lack of crossing over to the larger pop market like her contemporaries I just missed her career seemed to stall, despite efforts (although still mining the same Torch Soul vein) such as “I’m On Your Side”

And throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s artistically she wasn’t, or by choice didn’t “evolve” as music changed, for better and for worse, but constantly toured and performed until she suffered back to back strokes that left her partially paralyzed between 2006 and 2007.

As I checked her website though, it seems that she was released from nursing home care in Santa Rosa this past Christmas and is still doing therapy to gain back her mobility and, hopefully her ability to perform.

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As someone that has been a lifelong fan, here’s hoping in the year 2010 brings the Beuatiful “Angel of the Night” much prosperity and health.

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45 years ago today…

Possibly the biggest Camp Classic of the postwar era was unleashed to the record buying public.

You should have guessed by now I meant The Supremes “Stop In The Name of Love”

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Recorded between January 5th and 11th 1965, it was the 4th #1 hit out of 5 racked up by the Supremes in a 10 month period. You can also look at it at a rate of every 8 weeks a new chapter in the melodrama that started with “Where Did Our Love Go” would appear on Top 40 playlists, and enough people either liked the groove or were following the story to send each chapter to the top slot on the national pop charts.

“Stop!” however stands above the rest in the series because of it’s ridiculous heightened drama:

the organ opening figure met with Mary and Florence stridently asserting you to “Stop!” and the organs reappearance throughout the song that seems ripped from the soundtrack to a Soap Opera,

“That” incomparable bass line threading in between everything.

And it’s the only song in The Supremes catalogue to feature legendary (or cliche) Choreography to match “The Temptations Walk” or “The Four Tops Boogaloo”

You know what to do

Right hand out, palm forward in a traffic cop pose, left hand on hip, 3 snaps with the right hand: 1) on before 2) you 3) Break My Heart.

(The first perfomance of the song was for the RSG:Sounds of Motown Special in Mid February 1965)

(The first completely live performance was this Shindig “pick of the week” performance on February 26th, 1965)

And in time for Diana Ross’s 21st Birthday it was #1 hit number 4 for the three girls from the Brewster-Douglass projects, and The song that basically financed 3 new Cadillacs and 3 nice new homes on Buena Vista Avenue.

And possibly for better or worse, it’s one of the best known products of American Postwar Culture (along with I Love Lucy and Star Wars)

Happy Birthday super campy 3 minute Soul Pop song.

And in 2 days… Martha & The Vandellas epic “Nowhere to Run” will be properly recognized.

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