Soldier Women of Song: The Shirelles

The oddest thing about The Shirelles, despite their groundbreaking foray into the Pop Music landscape as the Fabulous Fifties became the Camelot era 1960s is, in residual… there’s not much left to visually grab a hold of their accomplishments.

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Not too many publicity stills if you Google for their images, nor too many clips of them performing on Television mystically saved from oblivion and posted on Youtube.

But they distilled the haunted need for recognition of The Chantels, The exuberance of youthful life of The Bobettes and the smoothness of The Original Cookies, the founders of the modern R&B Girl Group phenom that would overwhelm pop music for a brief brilliant moment between 1962 and Mid 1964.

They formed in Passaic, New Jersey in 1958 as The Poquellos. They were Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris , and Beverly Lee. They sang their original composition, the delightful round robin styled “I Met Him On A Sunday” at their High School talent show, and friend recommended them to record label owner/bored Jewish Housewife Florence Greenberg, that ran Tiara Records. She quickly recorded and licensed the song to Decca Records, where without much help, peaked at #49 pop by the summer of 1958.

When following singles (Including “Dedicated To The One I Love”) failed to match or exceed expectations, the licensing agreement with Decca was dropped, and Florence Greenberg started Scepter records and enlisted Luther Dixon, who took a cue from Leiber & Stoller, surrounded The Shirelles in strings and a Baion Beat and took them instantly into the Top 40 with the suggestive “Tonight’s The Night”

The storyline continued, posing a question quite radical, but foreshadowing the sexual revolution underway during 1960 (The same year the birth control pill hit the market) with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”: A poignant question from the female perspective of, if I have premarital sex… is it just sex? Must have been a very resounding question for heterosexual women (and probably a lot of gay men) because the song shot to #1 as President Kennedy took office and peaked at #3 in the UK in early 1961.

The flush of success was continued with a re-release of “Dedicated to The One I Love” which shot to #3

And shortly thereafter “Mama Said” climbed to #4

(I’ve always loved this short film that embodies the tumultuous era The Shirelles music was a soundtrack and a reflection of. It’s not the actual Shirelles but gets the point across so lovely).

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Then the influence started kicking off. Girl Groups like The Marvelettes followed in their footsteps and onto the charts and onto the road, And other girl groups moved from rec rooms and school glee clubs to their local record labels believing as Ronnie Spector said: “If The Shirelles could, we could too

And as The Shirelles charted 4 more songs before 1961 was over (“Big John” went #21pop, “A Thing of The Past” fought with “What A Sweet Thing That Was” for topside status and “Baby, It’s You” Started it’s trek into the top 10), Why not think “why not us”

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And definitely the influence was staggering, The Cookies became the pet darling of Goffin & King, the songwriting duo that produced The Shirelles big breakthrough, and the number of idolizers/competitors grew tenfold in 1962. But The Shirelles still managed to score their biggest hit “Soldier Boy”, “Stop The Music” and a cover of Doris Day’s “Everybody Loves a Lover” before the year was out.

But by 1963, the vanguard of Girl Group records had moved away from the string saturated paeans to romance to rougher, rawer expressions of female desire. The School of thought championed by Gladys Horton (The Marvelettes) Darlene Love and LaLa Brooks (The Crystals) Martha Reeves (and The Vandellas) and Peggy Santiglia (The Angels) got in your face, and proclaimed their feelings directly.

The prim and proper routine of The Shirelles started to fail in a one-two punch. 1) Luther Dixon left as A&R director of Scepter records and started his own production company and 2) The overtly moral “Foolish Little Girl” would be the last time The Shirelles would go Top 5

By mid 1963, they were recording the soundtrack to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad (I forget how many Mads) World and singles started to become an afterthought as Florence Greenberg switched attention and promotion funds to a former substitute Shirelle named Dionne Warwick.

“Don’t Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye” was their last time in the Top 40, peaking at #26, and a succession of singles (including the highly appropriate “What Does A Girl Do?”) struggled to make it out of the middle of the charts.

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Insult to injury, the trust that was set up by Greenberg proved to be empty by the time all of the singers turned 21 in early 1964, and the lawsuits flew… giving Scepter records little incentive to promote even worthwhile new material,

like “Sha-La-La” that made it to #69pop before a Manfred Mann cover version outcharted it. The lawsuit dragged on til.. I dunno, yesterday? Actually into the middle of 1965. But by that point so much had changed since 1960: The Supremes, Shangri-Las, The Toys and to a lesser extent Martha & The Vandellas were the vanguard in Girl Groups, but more popular was the female soloist, more marketable, more malleable, less likely to get married and/or pregnant.

So a lot of cast offs were given to the Shirelles that sounded like facsimiles of hit records of the day, like “You Could Be My Remedy”

Until they wished on a Miracle. Literally. Their last charted single was called “Last Minute Miracle”… sadly it peaked at a lowly #99pop in 1967

They finally left Scepter records midway through 1968, and did a lot of Northern Soul inspired items through the early 1970s, with Shirley finally going solo around 1975, only for the group to reform to tour the oldies circuit in the early 1980s.

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Micki Harris sadly died of a heart attack in 1982 after leaving the stage with a smile on her face, and secondary lead singer Doris Jackson died in 2000 from breast cancer.

Today Beverly Lee (the sweet coy Soprano) and Shirley (now) Reeves tour as two separate entities, Beverly as the “official” Shirelles and Shirley solo.

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Catch them if you can, to witness a 6 decade old legacy of popular music, and true legends still going strong.

There’s never too much of a good thing like The Shirelles.

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Symphonic Soul: The Royalettes

The definitions of Soul Music can be extremely amorphous. It basically comes down to the definition that if you feel connected beyond the words of the music you’re listening to, it’s Soul.

So by that definition I can find Soul in Judy Garland, Patsy Cline and Edith Piaf. And of course I can find it in the density of the full orchestral sound that became the calling card of The Royalettes.

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Formed in Baltimore in 1961, They were sisters Sheila And Anita Ross and Cousins Terry Jones and Veronica Brown. They got their big break through with their perfectly harmonized cover of The Chantels “He’s Gone”, performing it to win the amateur contest presented on Baltimore’s The Buddy Deane Show (Which, if you know your movie/Broadway history, is the show the Corny Collins Show was based on in the Hairspray movie/musical).

Their win lead them to a contract with Chancellor records, with “No Big Thing” coming and going, and “Blue Summer” bubbling under at #122pop during 1963

“Blue Summer” set an artistic template that they would find their most success with: Sheila’s willowy but intermittently powerful Soprano lead over lush backgrounds, with the accelerator pedal to the floorboard into Uptown Soul arrangements, lush strings, timpani, muted horns.

eventually this Bacharach on Steroids approach would bring a hit.

But not after a cover of The Velvelettes “There He Goes” (and a label switch to Warner Brothers), A formal cover of “He’s Gone” (and a contract with MGM records and a production deal with Teddy Randazzo) and a version of “Watch What Happens” went by virtually unnoticed.

Randazzo was the producer behind the resurgence of Little Anthony & The Imperials, the man who blessed us with that 1960s chestnut of crazy “Going Out Of My Head” and the last great baron of the Uptown soul style.

By 1965 Burt Bacharach was moving Dionne Warwick towards MOR, Maxine Brown was trying to recast herself as Kim Weston Meets The Supremes, and Dusty Springfield was tinkering with Italian Ballads. The Imperials resurgence with 3 top 20 baroque tributes to this unrespected form of Soul Music (along with brief flares from a Post Motown Mary Wells and Jackie Ross) proved their was still room in America’s ears for sweet strings and soulful longing

and 3rd time was a charm… sort of…

In June 1965, “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” was released… And it took off.. In New York, Philadelphia, And Detroit. All major East Coast Markets it rapidly appeared in the Top 10 listings…

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But on the west coast, in the midst of the first stirrings of psychedelia and Folk didn’t catch on, and nationally their big break peaked at #28 R&B, Pop #41.

But being the decent big break it was, it opened the door for their first full length LP, Appearances like the clip above on National TV and offers to Tour all over the US and in England. The sweet soul ballad “I Want to Meet Him” (R&b#26, Pop#72) and the split single “You Bring Me Down” and “Only When Your Lonely” were culled from the LP and fought for airplay on the charts.

Undaunted by their lack of chart action, Randazzo pulled out all of the stops for their next LP, using a 21 piece orchestra for the masterpiece of Uptown Soul (and the blueprint for early 70s Philly Soul) The Elegant Sounds of The Royalettes

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Even The Supremes were not set in such rich, lush, complex and frankly all out artistically gratifying surroundings. To me one of the best Soul LPs ever to be released (combination of great songs, great singing, and excellent muscianship) It was possibly the only LP released by a female act up to that point outside of Jazz done as a complete piece. And it shows. Even in the diversity of material, there’s a common thread of lushness and unity.

Despite the fact that there was 3 singles pulled, none of them charted. From the “Miracle” doppelganger hope “It’s Better Not to Know”

To the man stealing “I Don’t Want to be the One”

To the Vandellas Via Symphony “When Summer’s Gone”

The LP and the songs faded from memory, and Uptown Soul basically died a silent and uncelebrated death at the same time… except MGM tried one more time, with a new producer, Righteous Brother Bill Medley, having successfully copied Phil Spector’s style and gone #1 came up with a Randazzo meets Spector Cinderella Waltz with enough charm, “He Is (My Man)”

Again… not noticed… and released from their contract, The Royalettes tried once more with Roulette records. But their cover of Barbara Banks “River of Tears” seemed rushed and forced… and after 6 years, marriage, family, and normalcy did what it did to almost every Girl Group of the 1960s. They Broke up.

Sheila became a Playboy Bunny, Anita, Terry, and Veronica just went on to normal suburban lives.

But their legacy of rich lush work was influential almost immediately on the works of Laura Nyro (her tribute album to soul music was even titled Gonna Take a Miracle and it’s a oft covered song) Minnie Ripperton and Deniece Williams, along with songwriter Linda Creed and Gamble & Huff, who crafted lush music through the 70s based on the Randazzo/Royalette Principle.

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Whenever in doubt, make it smooth

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Black Folks Essentials: 10 songs every Black person grew up on in the Postwar era (Part 1)

This post came out of this conversation:

Me:every black family, when they get married …need to get the society classics…on a CD
Miss Fina: gotta have a mix tape of them, though. Only on tape
Me: I might have to make a mix/playlist….OH YES
the memorex 90 minute!
Miss Fina: long as u remember
me: starting with Bill Withers Grandma’s Hands!

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So….

1) Bill Withers “Grandma’s Hands” (1971)

For almost every African American experience, the bedrock of one’s existance is due to Big Mama, the maternal loving influence that was the glue, seemingly to every existance.

2) Gladys Knight & The Pips “On & On” (1974)

With the daily suffering and strife, there’ll always be another day, wash, rinse and repeat, and something that will always be the bedrock, sticking like glue, just loving you.

3) “Hit The Road Jack” Ray Charles (featuring Margie Hendrix) (1961)

But sometimes the demands aren’t enough, especially when you ain’t payin them bills and holding up your end of the bargain, sometimes you gotta hit the road, and not come back no ‘mo…

4) “Only The Strong Survive” Jerry Butler (1969)

One (of many cases) when I think the title says it all. And also the importance of parental advice of how to negotiate adult life.

5) “Mama Said” The Shirelles (1961)

The first in many “Young girl will find true love someday” songs that assures the listeners that the virtues of traditional romance, though skipping over them, will actually find them someday

6) Aretha Franklin “Respect” (1967)

I personally have always prefered Otis Redding’s quite sexist original, but when it comes to leveling the gender wars in Black Culture, nothing shoots between the eyes like ReRe’s powerhouse #1 Cover

7) “My Girl” The Temptations (1964)

Much as I think this song should just roll over and die… yeah…

8) “Ooh Child” The 5 Stair Steps (1971)
Because we always need a little bit of encouraging

9) “Don’t Mess With Bill” The Marvelettes (1965)

Essentially the original “take your hands of my man you skank ho” classic. Well not “the” original, but the most sassy and biggest hit to that point that made the point, or remains the province of electric sliding to at every 4th of July BBQ

10) “You’re Still a Young Man” Tower of Power (1972)
Their first hit, and a lesson on growing up from boyhood to manhood.

Not that I necessarily like all of these songs. Many of them slip into camp and cliche in my book. But, to understand the soul song, the soul performance as culture and moral, you have to at least respect these (and countless other songs) impact on a segment of society

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Spring 2010 Playlist

Ok I’ve made the Playlist a helluva lot easier on myself by favoring a slew of songs as I listened to them:

Let’s sit and Spin

1) Doing Things With You
Barbara Mercer (1965)

I was far more familiar with Madeline Bell’s version from approximately the same time frame. But Barbara Mercer’s version is sparser and softer. It seems like what The Supremes would have done with the track (and has a decidedly more Motown ballad feel compared to the Dusty Springfield cast-off feeling of Madeline’s version).

2) “I Want to Make You Happy”
Margaret Mandolph (1964)

Speaking of Dusty Springfield (as always it seems in this blog) I didn’t know that her version of this song was a cover. This original version is more elegant ( Springfield’s version seems like a grindier “Oooch” record), Something you’re surprised that was given to a unheard of singer (it seems more appropriate/sounds like Little Peggy March’s efforts to move into uptown soul).

3) I Had a Dream I Lost You
The Angels (1967)

So The Angels had a career long after the Peak and valley of “My Boyfriends Back” claimed all of the airwaves of late 1963. So this big ballad (again in the style of another artist, very much in a Reparata & The Delrons vein) was their first effort rechristened as The Angels. They spent 1965-66 as The Halos (because of contractual issues surrounding their name) and this was the beautiful single that, sadly went nowhere for them.

4) Stir It Up
Patti LaBelle (1984)

For my foray into the 80s, I love this Patti LaBelle song (totally lost in meaning attached to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack) about frustration and breaking through to the next stage of life. Kinda needed this as Spring leads me to growing another year older, and a nice kick from my childhood to keep moving on.

5) Killer Joe
The Rocky Fellers (1962)

I’ve always liked this greasy Four Seasons rip off, and was always amused that the group was soo young. Until I looked them up again to find out that they were Filipino (not Puerto Rican as I thought) brothers (the only other Filipino I can think of in 1960s music was half breed Sugar Pie DeSanto).

6) It Hurts To Be In Love
Gene Pitney (1964)

This atypically tough groove for Gene Pitney ranks as my favorite of his hit singles. Most songs never tackled unrequited romance as well and frankly as honest as this song.

7) Have I the Right?
The Honeycombs (1964)

I rarely spotlight British Invasion hits, but I’ve always liked this song for it’s utter awkward, determined and downright weird at times instrumentation and arrangement. What seems like Arabic influence on a Joe Meek production, plus with an Anthemic chorus makes this song an unforgettable listen.

8) Running out of Fools
Aretha Franklin (1964)

I feel like the only person that advocates for Aretha’s Columbia output over her Atlantic output (one time almost coming to blows with the collection manager at Amoeba about the subject). And I think Aretha’s best remembered (although not her biggest hit) single from that era presents her at her nuanced best. In the instruction of having to be more reserved, I think she found notes that in a short few years she’d just belt out, losing all vocal coloring and shading to.

9) I’m Over You
Jan Bradley (1964)

It took nearly 3 years for Jan Bradley to come up with a hit after “Mama Didn’t Lie” went top 20, and this self penned storyline follow up, a more adult, self sufficient extension of her only big hit was this song, with crisp Riley C. Hampton strings.

10) World of Fantasy
The Five Stairsteps (1967)

Appropriate as I drift off to sleep. And to all of you wishing for something to come true as you awake these days. Enjoy your spring

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Breathing new life, brushing off the dust

It’s been nearly a month since I wrote anything here, and yet somehow I still maintain some decent stats (I had a 19 view day on Tax Day! What the hell) So I thought it was about time I delighted the audience with my musings on two of the newest songs to dust off Some old timey grooves.

First up is Melanie Fiona’s “Please Don’t Go (Cry Baby)” Which amps up and borrows from Martha & The Vandellas last #1 R&B/Top Ten Pop hit “Jimmy Mack”

Although it did make me holler in that way, that an awesome sample does… for some reason the song just struck me as a lyrical extension of “Jimmy Mack” itself. The same theme of not wanting to let go of someone you love. I’m still trying to decide whether that elevates the use of the sample… making it seem like an extension of what came before, or it hinders it.

The Second Song is “Switch” by Jazmine Sullivan that borrows from The Marvelettes “Your Cheating Ways” (B-side to “Danger, Heartbreak, Dead Ahead”) from 1965.

This sample, frankly is the better one. It casts a clear connection with the classic Girl Group sound, with an clear evolution of Girl Group themes, with tongue in cheek references that could have passed equally passed in 1965 (see The Marvelettes own “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” for example). And, it’s not a thematic twin/kinda sorta switching the aggressive gender roles of the original song.

I’m leaving it to you, the reader, to chime in this month.

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Blind Faith and Diva Worship

Well, the whole (homosexual) world has lost it’s shit over Lady Gaga Featuring Beyonce “Telephone”.

Well, every Homosexual under 45 it seems. Which lead me to find this following blog comment absolutely hilarious, poignant, and quite sad all at the same time:


“Gay Men would dance to an Anita Bryant song if it had a dance beat attached to it.”

And I thought, beyond the 9 minute “movie” that halfway made sense, but has all been done before, from full on movies like Women in Prison and the Caged Heat movies, to Michael Jackson’s Thriller with a bit of Thelma & Louise and the Pussywagon thrown in for good measure.

What does it all matter that for 5 of the 9 minutes there’s a rather meaningless, uninspired song that just fills out the background and gives a chance for a Choreographed dance routine.

No soul, no pulse, but people (well again, Gay men) eat it up.

Again the profound sadness of the condition of the modern homosexual and it’s connection and way of filtering pop culture, versus the lenses of the generations of those before us.

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If this is what passes for camp: Vain, product placed, violence filled witless, and no parody or in-joke on the song that inspires the visual performance, what feels like forced ridiculousness, planting tongue firmly in cheek without an ounce of sincerity.

Basically added up to wasting 9 minutes of my Thursday night.

Then again, like the quote says, chances are the modern homosexual is just as blind in celebrating someone that “Celebrates” them that it’s one massive circle jerk of affirmation, without actually wondering about artistic significance or satisfaction.

Or maybe I’m trying too hard to have art move me?

Because I don’t get how showing up at a Gay Marriage rally makes you a good singer, a strong songwriter, or an excellent performer that will hold my attention past a commerical.

Uh, and I have to say it, I’d listen to that Anita Bryant track over anything Lady GaGa anyday…

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Come Get These Memories and the musings of a Music Snob

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So let’s just say I do judge people, quite a bit based on what kind of music they listen to. More deeply I judge them on their ability to analyze and pull apart the music they like, be it their emotional attachment to certain songs, performers, albums..etc…weighing that against what the artist might have wanted to accomplish, the context of the era said material was released (or in my fascination with the 1,000s of songs Motown didn’t release during it’s mid 1960’s heyday…what wasn’t released due to circumstance).

Basically, If I know you…and you’ve selected a song in my presence, I probably have spent 90 minutes (or more) later than evening considering why you chose what you did, and I must say at least 73% of the time or not, unless you have a very nicely rounded sense of camp surrounding that I probably am not thinking too highly of your taste in music…

So, what brings me to this…I spent a good 3 hours letting my iPod do the shuffle…and it landed at 12:17am on what remains…like 24 years after realizing what it was…my favorite song of all time

Martha & The Vandellas “Come & Get These Memories”
(R&B#6 Pop#29, 1963).

Martha & The Vandellas first hit record….

It’s a weird song, because in the Martha & The Vandellas canon there isn’t a precursor song or follow up that sounds directly like it ( As you all should know Motown had a habit of trying to squeeze at least 3 hit records from the same sonic pattern. With Martha & The Vandellas they tried to a certain extent with “Heatwave” “Quicksand” and “Live Wire” in the later half of 1963, with “Dancing In the Streets” “Wild One” and “Nowhere to Run” in 1964-65 and “Love Bug” “Honey Chile” and “I Promise to Wait My Love” in 1967-68). It also has less of a Motown feel to it, owning a great deal to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions records with the full horn section. The glorious way the Piano sends the feeling of whimsy over memories, along with the best 3 part Harmonies any Motown Girl Group laid down up to that point…the old meets the new…in a box in the living room….in more ways than one…

The Andrews Sisters-like 3 part harmonies…then sense of pulling together from 3 pieces to one, to move on to someone(thing New). and not doing the sad sappy thing and boxing up the memories to haunt you…

Altho, not really a danceable song..there is something uplifting and joyous, and very powerful about the statement of not letting memories tie you down to the past…

So, when I feel stuck, or hell, don’t even want to clean…guess what song I cue up on the iPod?

When life gets me down, when the past becomes a burden…I cue the Horn intro and
“Lover, you’ve gone from me and Left behind…..So many Memories”
(Piano and Horn clu-clunka clunk clunk clunk)

And life goes on….

And people wonder why I’m a music snob, why, in my 10 favorite songs of all time you don’t see something that’s been heard 1,001,000 times by the masses…because I look for something that is a part of me, what makes me, myself….

That’s why i’m a music snob, cause a good song is powerful enough to keep you moving even thru the darkest hours…

It shouldn’t make you wanna find a noose and hang yourself…

So…
Here’s to old Lover letters
Here’s to Old Valentine Cards
Hear’s to old Friendship Rings
Here’s to Old Teddybears…that ya won for me…at the State Fair….

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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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