Thursday, November 12, 2009

To misquote Diana Ross and The Supremes, some things you do get used to. One of them being that it was very unlikely that I would ever see a couple of my favorite Motown female singers, both in their early 60s, play a London venue.

But one should never stop believing! Last night Owen and I went to the Jazz Cafe for the first of two 50th celebrations of Motown Records we have this week - and both feature the divas in question, Chris Clark and Brenda Holloway. On last night's bill too were Mable John, the first woman ever to be signed to Motown and Jack Ashford, one of the original Funk Brothers who provided the musical backbone to the label's legendary releases.

I kept telling Owen nervously that I didn't believe it was actually going to happen as we sat at the centre table in the gallery looking down onto the stage. But just in case I was wearing a self-made t-shirt of Chris Clark's fabulously va-va-voom cover photo from her album SOUL SOUNDS...Dinner came and went, drinks were sipped nervously... then the musicians appeared behind us and made their way down to the stage followed by three backing singers and finally by the very tall and wide frame of Jack Ashford himself, resplendent in a pink and purple glittery jacket. At 75 he was a bit unsteady on his pins but plonked on his stool beside keyboardist and musical director John Shipley he was soon at home, regaling us with tales from back in the day with a dry wit and a twinkle in his eye. The band then bounced through some Motown classics with Jack making his tambourine SING y'all.For me the least successful part of the show was just after one of the most affecting parts... over an understated piano vamp Jack mentioned each of the original Funk Brothers most of whom have sadly gone. He ended his list with the name of the late and great bassist James Jamerson who was given a huge cheer. This moving tribute was undercut by one of the backing singers giving us a power ballad rendering of the lachrymose Michael Jackson song "Gone Too Soon" - it was particularly icky that she kept turning to Ashford, laying a hand on his sleeve and saying "Jack..." then singing the next line about them being gone like a twinking rainbow in the sky or some such cock. Like... he knows they are gone, I'm sure he went to most of their funerals.

The band left the stage for a quick break and as they walked past the back of our table to the dressing rooms Owen alerted me to the fact that Chris Clark was there watching them - and there she was! The outline of a tall woman dressed all in white with a mass of white blonde hair backlit by the open door behind her - my heart skipped a beat! Soon enough Jack walked past us again followed by the diminutive figure of Mable John, dressed in an outlandish black admiral jacket with gold epaulets and detailing!

Although not a well-known name to many, Mable was the first woman signed by Berry Gordy in 1959 to his fledgling Motown label where she had a few releases, none of which really made an impression. Her earthy rhythm and blues style was soon at odds with the sound that Gordy's producers and songwriters were pursuing and she eventually left the label in 1962. She recorded for Stax Records and eventually became one of Ray Charles backing singers The Raelettes. Since then she has mostly worked for church and charity organizations while also becoming a Doctor of Psychology!

What can I tell you? Mable turned it on and turned it out! She gave us "My Name Is Mable", the joyous "Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like That" (incorporating both Gordy's arrangement with the later Holland-Dozier-Holland/Stevie Wonder one) and ended with "Same Time Same Place". She rocked and rolled her way through the songs with a bluesy sass that had the whole audience in the palm of her hand. She then dropped her bombshell - inviting us to America next year where she planned to celebrate her
80th Birthday "with music". She was given a rapturous ovation as she left the stage - both Owen and I got a handshake from her as she passed us with a gracious smile and "thank you". I have borrowed Owen's photo to show you all who great Mable looks!All the way through Mable's set I had noticed that Chis Clark was at the top of the stairs hiding behind a pillar watching her set and clapping along... now was the moment I had waited over 30 years to see... Chris Clark live on stage. I was SO nervous... what if she wouldn't be able to live up to my high expectations? She descended the stairs wearing tinted Jackie O specs looking a tall vision in white - a long blouse/skirt with a fringed shawl loosely tied low over her shoulders, a silver belt and white knee-boots and a mane of wavy white blonde hair - she looked Amazing! Back in February I explained about my introduction to this most under-valued of Motown singers when I made her my February hero of Motown.
She is so tall she often vanished behind the overhead stage speakers - but she soon came outfront and launched into Northern Soul classic "Love's Gone Bad" and she sounded Fantastic!! Her sexy growling soulful voice has lost none of it's power and as she swayed and sang to the band she never once stopped smiling widely. She appeared genuinely surprised at the massive ovation that song received and totally won me over with her sheer joy at being onstage. She said it was a humbling experience to be somewhere where she was so loved as "back home I can't even sell my white ass". She seemed full of nervous energy which was totally endearing - she was just happy to be given this opportunity to perform. She also said that when she heard Jack Ashford was putting the band together she knew it would be OK "because you are always safe in Jack's hands" - then added slyly "It wasn't always the case!" which got a huge laugh!

She reminisced about her time at Motown particularly doing the punishing Motown Revue Show 5 times a day at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. She said that she found out after the event that in the week leading up to the show they played a film trailer where as all the acts were announced the audience cheered and when her picture appeared on the screen, it was booed as she was a white artist. She also told us how Berry Gordy had instructed her to start singing her first song offstage and then to walk on. No doubt the audience were shocked to suddenly see that the voice they liked belonged to a white girl. I think it's this reverse racism that Chris seemed to be subjected to by others outside the Motown family is what makes her so endearing a performer. She also apologized for her seemingly unprofessional stage presence and that she couldn't act like Mable and flirt with men in the audience as her mother would drag her offstage if she heard about it!

However she then proved there was nothing to forgive by singing glorious versions of "I Want To Go Back there Again" (when introducing it she looked at Jack and said with obvious emotion "I think this says what we all feel") and finally she sang a stonking version of "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" which took the roof off the Jazz Cafe. She left the stage to a massive ovation and as she headed back towards the dressing room past our table I stood up to shake her hand and to show her my t-shirt - she said "Oh wow!" and gave me a massive hug!! PEOPLE I WAS HUGGED BY CHRIS CLARK!!!! She said to see her afterward as she wanted to sign it!!

I am afraid by the time I wafted down from cloud nine Brenda Holloway was already into her first song but I soon readjusted my concentration and enjoyed her utter professionalism, happily gliding through band miscues and sounding as warm and creamy as her 1960s recordings.

She looked luscious in a sea-green gown which was cut low enough to prove that Brenda was not behind the door when they were handing the busts out!

She gave us scintillating versions of "Every Little Bit Hurts", "Operator", "When I'm Gone" and of course her classic "You Made Me So Very Happy" which she reminded us was co-written by her recently deceased sister Patrice.

After the show it was time to join the other fans for the chance for autographs and more handshaking! After getting Mable and Brenda to sign their latest Motown collection booklets, it was time to present myself to Chris Clark! We laughed over the fact that she kept loosing her nerve to sign the t-shirt while I wore it but eventually did and Owen got a few photos of Chris... and the other Chris (as she signed herself!). I am a little in love I think.Needless to say I floated home (via a night bus) relishing a night which celebrated not just the durability of the music of Motown but the artistry and
indomitability of three rather exceptional women.

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