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.
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.
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…
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.
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.