The Songwriters – Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Norman Whitfield (left) and Barrett Strong

While Motown had its own very strong musical identity, one thing it couldn’t be accused of is following fashion. Motown was Motown and the rest of the world could do what it liked. The Beatles progressed from She Loves You to Strawberry Fields Forever as the Sixties  moved on, but in Detroit it was still sequined gowns, tight-fitting suits and dance routines. And as the quality remained peerless, who could complain?

One man who did like to move with the times, though, was producer and composer Norman Whitfield, usually working with lyricist Barrett Strong. As the man who directed the career of The Temptations, Whitfield managed to introduce new ideas that reflected the psychedelic sounds that were bathing music in mutating coloured light shapes, with singles such as Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack, Ball of Confusion and the masterly Papa Was A Rolling Stone, a tale of a young man’s tough upbringing in a poor family with a feckless father. Strong’s lyrics are delivered over Whitfield’s  loose, rather menacing production, resulting in a unique three minutes 40 seconds that showed the world the label didn’t live in a room full of mirrors after all. (Of the rest of the artists and producers, we should acknowledge Holland-Dozier-Holland for the rather naff The Happening and the utterly cool Reflections.)

Even if you’re not a fan of this strain of Motown, Whitfield is a significant figure in the label’s history. After typical early songs like Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and (I Know) I’m Losing You, later covered by Rod Stewart, he gave us the monumental slow burner I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which, as was the way at the time, had a double life. It was a big hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in the US, although the UK resisted its charms until the Marvin Gaye version appeared shortly afterwards. It’s hard to imagine The Beatles and The Rolling Stones having hits with the same song within months of each other, but such was the wealth of talent  within Motown – and the appetite of the fans.

Whitfield also wrote Edwin Starr’s War, I Can’t Get Next To You, a hit for The Temptations, Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (Marvin Gaye) and a late bloomer in It Should Have Been Me for Yvonne Fair in 1975. Previously recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, this is a murderously intense tale of unrequited love, the singer dangerously close to the emotional edge as she sees her man marrying someone else.

Even later, and on his own Whitfield label, came his composition Car Wash, which launched the career of Rose Royce.

Again, this demonstrates growth on the part of the writer, as we see if we go back to Whitfield’s early 60s days and The Velvelettes’ Really Saying Something and the wonderfully blank-faced Needle In A Haystack.


The Songwriters – Ashford and Simpson

Prolific but with a career as uncelebrated as some of their songs, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were a husband-and-wife duo, unsuccessful as performers at first and then enjoying a renaissance after their Motown writing heyday had passed.

They had a few early hits with songs for stars such as Aretha Franklin (Cry Like A Baby) and Ray Charles (Let’s Go Get Stoned, I Don’t Need No Doctor), which is an achievement most writers would be happy with, but it is a measure of the exalted standards we’re dealing with in this series that this part of their career doesn’t invite real celebration in its own right.

Eventually their work with Charles attracted the attention of Berry Gordy, and Ashford & Simpson were enlisted on the Motown roster, with a special brief to provide material for Marvin Gaye in his second partnership, Kim Weston having been replaced by Tammi Terrell.

There is a heartwarming quality about the team’s big hits, The Onion Song, You Ain’t Livin’ Until You’re Lovin’ and You’re All I Need To Get By that owes much to Terrell’s vulnerable delivery of an Ashford and Simpson trademark. While the Motown catalogue is full of love songs, something about this writing duo gave an extra mellow feel to the recordings.

There was also the original version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with Gaye and Terrell which would later be eclipsed by Diana Ross’s more dramatic version, and the drama element continued in the early 70s with Ross’s Ashford & Simpson collaborations on Remember Me and Surrender. It was a more grown-up style for Ross as she moved on from the teen angst (high class though it was) of the Supremes, and Ashford and Simpson knew exactly how to do it.

A splendid combination of the mellow and the dramatic sides of Ashford and Simpson is the surprisingly low-profile I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You, which they co-wrote with Eddie Holland and which shifted a few units for Syreeta Wright (billed as Rita on that occasion). Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross both covered it, as have a host of others over the years, including Vikki Carr, but in my opinion nothing rivals the Syreeta version. Meanwhile, British guitar hero Jeff Beck thought enough of it to do an instrumental version, blustering (vainly, I’m sorry to say) to wring out every drop of emotion without the help of words. Nice try – it just doesn’t quite work.

The Seventies knocked the stuffing out of many Motown writers, who managed only sporadic hits, and Ashford and Simpson were no exception, their sporadic one being Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman.

And they had their belated singing career too, building slowly before culminating with Solid in 1984.

After that they got out and about, opened a restaurant/music bar, worked with the poet Maya Angelou and adapted Solid for Barack Obama (Solid as Barack). Nik Ashford died at the age of 70 of throat cancer in 2011 just days before Simpson’s 65th birthday. Is it ever less than insensitive to observe that someone “had a good innings”? Ashford and Simpson didn’t do too badly for themselves.

The Songwriters – Berry Gordy and (separately) Mickey Stevenson


And so back to Motown, that cornucopian family of singers, musicians and writers. Few labels have had such a volume of great acts on the books at the same time, and that meant they needed not just a steady stream of material but a fast-flowing river, and fortunately the writers were there just like the singers, many being performers themselves.

Berry Gordy is world famous as the founder of Motown, but why did he want to start a record company anyway? Was he just a businessman?

The answer is he was a songwriter, so while his business skills were vitally important in the company’s success, he knew  a good singer and a great songwriter when he heard them, because he had aspirations in that direction himself.

Not just aspirations, in fact, but hits in the late 50s and early 60s. Gordy often wrote with his sister Gwen and her then-boyfriend Tyran Carlo (real name Roquel Davis), a jingles writer, beginning with the catchy if uncool Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson. He followed that with Lonely Teardrops, also for Wilson, and You Got What It Takes for early Motowneer Marv Johnson, who somehow missed the boat of megastardom. Here is a cover of Lonely Teardrops by Michael McDonald from the 1995 Nicolas Cage film Leaving Las Vegas.

Then there was  a raucous piece of tosh entitled Money, originally recorded by Barrett Strong, which appealed to the Beatles and has spawned a host of cover versions including a truly nauseating take in 1979 by The Flying Lizards, complete with snobby English-accented vocals by a girl who sounded as though she meant it.

Another one adopted by the British beat groups was Do You Love Me, which the Dave Clark Five, The Hollies and Brian Poole & The Tremeloes all recorded. David Hasselhoff sang it on Baywatch and Bruce Springsteen used to use it as a late-set stormer. So it may not bewidely regarded as one of the great Motown songs, but it certainly had something.

After Gordy had assembled his startling roster of singers and writers, he took a back seat on thatside of things until the late 60s when The Jackson Five appeared. Gordy’s name appears on the credits for I Want You Back, ABC and, as part of The Corporation (with Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Fonce Mizell), The Love You Save and I’ll Be There.

Not a bad track record for someone who had  serious responsibilities when not messing around with tunes.

And Mickey Stevenson

Another man with a proper job who found the time to write a few Motown hits was William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s first A&R man. That means his principal occupation was “artistes and repertoire”: finding and looking after stars in both the performing and writing fields.

While Holland Dozier Holland and the others “just” had to write hits all day long, Stevenson had to squeeze that in as and when he could, and he succeeded to the extent of co-writing Dancing in the Street (many versions including Martha and the Vandellas), It Takes Two (for Marvin Gaye and Stevenson’s girlfriend Kim Weston) and What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (David Ruffin).





The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
duet 1
She was a fruit, he was a flavouring and together they made a beautiful taste

Why do people do duets? For the sheer joy of combining our talents with someone else’s. It’s why team games are so popular: it’s not all about the individual, but the pleasure of seeing someone else adding to what we do.

That is how duets are supposed to work, anyway, and in the early part of the pop era there were some gems. We’ve got to start somewhere, so how about Deep Purple, the song that started life in 1933 as a piano instrumental by Peter DeRose before Mitchell Parish added lyrics five years later. Various people recorded it in the coming years, but the version we’re concerned with here is the 1963 incarnation by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother and sister act whose casual enjoyment of their craft gave the dreamy melody a poignant tone somewhere between happy and wistful.

Around the same time, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, a married couple who had been singing duets since the mid 50s, released I Want to Stay Here, an outwardly innocent piece of love talk which contained the urge for privacy and intimacy that young lovers feel. They don’t want to go to the party, they want to stay home and have a party for two.

These two songs reflected the gradual change from young adulthood to teenage self-assertion that was going on at the time. Lawrence and Gorme and Tempo and Stevens came across as fine, upstanding, clean-cut people destined to become responsible adults almost before their youthful flower had blossomed.

duet 6
A duet of groups. The Supremes only had one lead singer, but The Temptations used to pass it around

Then came Sonny and Cher, a long-haired man and a heavily made up young woman, with I Got You Babe, in which they complained that they weren’t being taken seriously as people. While Cher would go on to be a huge star, it was Sonny Bono who was the senior partner at the time, with his links with Phil Spector and a burgeoning career as a songwriter (Needles and Pins, among others).

Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan took the reins back for the old-style crooners with Passing Strangers, a minor hit in the US on its original release in 1957 and a bigger success when reissued in the UK in 1968. The kids who bought it then didn’t know Vaughan and Eckstine were respected jazz singers from another generation, the big band era; we just knew it was a great tune and had something classy about it. It was a bit showbiz, and that wasn’t a cool thing at the time, but what’s good is good.

duet 7
Hey buddy! Take the G off the end. And on the B side. I don’t like Gs on the end of words

Everybody knew who Frank Sinatra was, though, and he wasn’t giving up his hard-earned stardom just because the world was full of rock bands. Somethin’ Stupid, his duet with daughter Nancy,  hit the same spot on the target as Passing Strangers. On a technical note it is interesting that they didn’t sing alternate lines, but harmonized throughout, with Frank’s part carrying the melody and Nancy’s adding light and shade, although what she was given required more discipline to sing. You can hear she wasn’t making it up as she went along; she was singing the notes the arranger wanted her to sing.

All the songs we’ve looked at so far have been fairly serious and romantic, but in 1967 Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood added a bit of fun with their recording of Jackson. Also recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Jackson features a frustrated womanizer threatening to give up his stable relationship and go to the sinful city of Jackson to sow some belated wild oats. His partner just thinks he’s pathetic and would make a fool of himself (which, if this weren’t just a pop song, might be seen as the root of the problem rather than just the reaction to it).

When Mr Hathaway passed on, one UK music paper ran the headline “Wrong Donny dies”

We’re back in romantic territory for Elton John and Kiki Dee’s 1976 hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which some sources take as an affectionate pastiche of Motown duets by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston or Tammi Terrell (It Takes Two, The Onion Song, Ain’t Nothin Like The Real Thing etc). Whether that is true or not, it was a huge hit that is still popular today.

The brother/sister combination was an obvious choice for the Osmonds, and Donny and Marie duly raked in the cash with Morning Side of the Mountain and Leaving It All Up To You.

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had a string of hits including Where Is the Love and The Closer I Get To You, while after Hathaway’s premature death Flack enjoyed great solo success and also slotted in a duet with Peabo Bryson, Tonight I Celebrate My Love.

Then there was Too Much Too Little Too Late by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams… and the list goes on.

Next week: second golden age and the emergence of the fake duet


The wisdom of pop songs – When life gets real

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Serious issues call for serious songs

Don’t look at me – I didn’t write it

While the vast majority of pop, rock and country songs are concerned with matters of the heart and libido, people do get serious about other things from time to time.

The 1960s being a time of great change and when relatively young people began to have a voice, that is also the period when songs with a message started to hit the charts. Before that we might have had Pete Seeger getting intense about something, but he wasn’t getting into the Top 40 with it.

The man who really made pop grow up was Bob Dylan, who set about making us aware of racial inequality (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) and also wider political issues. With The Times They Are a-Changing he didn’t get too specific, but he was addressing the world at large and politicians in particular.

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke…

This sort of thing struck a chord with John Lennon and just as the Beatles’ output was maturing musically, so he began to write about subjects other than girls and drugs.

Like Dylan, he didn’t focus on one thing he wanted sorted out, but made it clear that people were watching what was going on in the world. Revolution, the B-side of Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude, took a scattergun approach that sprayed venom at not just the establishment but the activists who were going about things in what he felt was the wrong way.

More focused was Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, which, with its disturbing message of impending doom delivered in the singer’s charmless growl, put the mockers on many a thoughtless, carefree party if anybody took the trouble to think about what he was saying.

McGuire didn’t write the song, though. It was written by P. F. Sloan, a talented if peripheral figure on the California music scene who also worked with such political lightweights as The Searchers, the Mamas and the Papas and Herman’s Hermits.

An altogether more mellow, if equally intense, hit in the late 60s was Marvin Gaye’s Abraham Martin and John, in which Motown temporarily abandoned its fixation with boy-girl relationships to look at some of the great people who had been cut down before they had finished their good works: anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, the recently-murdered Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his also recently blown-away brother Bobby.

Nuclear apocalypse was on the agenda as early as 1961 with a well-known song by the little-known Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. Morning Dew was a chilling tale of a world when it was too late, the bombs having trashed the planet. The song was picked up later in the decade by the Grateful Dead in the US and the Jeff Beck Group in the UK, its undemanding chord structure also making it a popular choice for amateur bands who wanted to spend half an hour playing the same song.

Crosby Still and Nash ploughed the same lyrical furrow with Wooden Ships, bringing a nasty splash of reality to their otherwise happily hippie first album.

Shot by his own father: caring old Marvin Gaye

The 70s didn’t seem to care about such things, or so pop history would suggest, but there was the odd speck of blight on the hedonistic fruit, such as Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ Wake Up Everybody and Marvin Gaye again with What’s Going On. Marvin may well have been thinking this years later when he was shot and killed by his dad.

No, it’s not about Ebola, and it’s not about homosexuals, it’s about an aeroplane

Then the UK’s Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark saw fit to build a song around the name of the USAF bomber that dropped its load on Hiroshima in 1945. Enola Gay, you should have stayed at home yesterday, they lamented.

Themes of saving the planet abounded in the 1980s and 90s, as Do They Know It’s Christmas and We Are the World drew attention to the plight of starving millions in drought-ravaged Africa, with superstars drawn into the studios to sing just a few words and maybe join in the chorus.

Sensible and serious don’t add up to sexy, as the earnest, politically-aware British singer Billy Bragg admitted many years after his 80s-90s heyday when he conceded that, while he had fondly imagined his songs about unions and working men were the standout tracks in his repertoire, he eventually realized that people preferred the love songs.

Meanwhile, Sting’s career took a dramatic turn to the left when he became interested not only in global nuclear safety (“I hope the Russians love their children too”) but also the destruction of the rainforest. We found out about a hole in the ozone layer, which probably 99.9% of us had never even heard of, and while aerosol manufacturers frantically looked for ways of making things go tschhhhhh without using harmful chemicals, the former Police singer found himself on chat shows being obliged to be a grownup.

Sting stands up to be counted

And that’s not what it’s all about, is it? Rock’n’roll is about blue suede shoes and “my baby done this and that”. But somebody’s “baby” flew the Enola Gay and the men who killed the Kennedys and Martin Luther King had girlfriends in their past too.