Wednesday, January 01, 2014

In Motown Memory

So goodbye 2013, an odd year but one that outshone it's shabby, derelict predecessor.

As is the case with each passing year, it was not a good year for lovers of Motown.  This year saw a number of Motown's less well-known alumni leaving the stage for the last time.

Liz Lands recorded only a few tracks for Berry Gordy's gospel label and has the odd distinction in sharing a 7" single credit with Martin Luther King!  Gordy released some of King's speeches on vinyl and paired them up with Lands' singing a gospel choon.  She is best remembered for the track MIDNIGHT JOHNNY *ahem* which also featured the vocals of none other than The Temptations.

Liz Lands died 11th January aged 74.  Speaking of The Temps...

School friends Richard Street, Otis Williams, Warren Harris and Melvin Franklin sang together in the group "Otis Williams & The Distants" .  When Williams and Franklin left to join the group that would eventually become The Temptations, Street and Harris joined another Motown group called The Monitors.  They recorded with Motown from 1964 to 1968 without ever really having a break-though hit but their records are worth tracking down because they had a fabulous sound.  One of my favourites is the lovely SAY YOU with Richard Street's yearning lead vocal.  Major snaps to tomovox for his excellent video!

Street also married Carolyn Gill of The Velvelettes so it was a real Motown marriage.

Towards the end of the 1960s Richard Street was called upon to help out his old friends in a unique capacity.  Temp member Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) was suffering from sickle cell anaemia and drinking to excess so Street was asked to go on tour with them and shadow him - in a scene straight out of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, he would sing behind a curtain as Williams mimed onstage to all the songs other than his one or two solo numbers.  If Paul was too incapacitated, Richard would then physically substitute for him too.  When in 1971 Paul W. was ruled unable to continue performing by doctors, Street was the natural substitute. 

It's telling that the Temps' kept Paul Williams on the payroll and he advised them on dance moves until his tragic death only two years later when he was found shot in an alley, a possible suicide.

Richard Street was part of The Temptations officially from 1971 - 1993 so appeared vocally on such hits as PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE, LAW OF THE LAND, TAKE A LOOK AROUND, SUPERSTAR and TREAT HER LIKE A LADY.  He left the group after an argument with his old friend Otis Williams.

Richard Street died February 27th aged 70.

Bobby Rogers was born on the same day in the same hospital as 'Smokey' Robinson and when they were both 15 they finally met.  In 1956 Rogers joined Robinson's group The Miracles... and was still performing with them, in his trademark glasses, until he died on March 3rd aged 73.  Bobby Rogers also had a Motown Marriage when in the 1963 he married Wanda Young of the Marvelettes, a marriage that lasted for twelve years - and another Motown Marriage occurred when his cousin Claudette married 'Smokey' in 1959.  She had actually joined the group in 1957 and she toured with the group until after a shocking seven miscarriages she left the group's touring schedule and sang on their studio tracks until 1972.

Bobby was also a songwriter and co-wrote THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO for The Temptations, WHAT LOVE HAS JOINED TOGETHER for Mary Wells and THAT'S WHAT LOVE IS MADE OF and GOIN' TO A GO-GO for The Miracles.

Deke Richards was born Dennis Lussier in Los Angeles and in 1966 he met Berry Gordy when The Supremes played a Hollywood gig.  He had previously worked in the back-up band, and written a song for, Debbie Dean who was a young white singer that had been unsuccessfully signed to Motown between 1961-1962 and Gordy signed him up as a songwriter / producer.

In a repeat of the generosity found earlier towards Paul Williams, Richards then contacted Debbie Dean and recruited her to co-write with him at Motown, among their songs was I CAN'T DANCE TO THAT MUSIC YOU'RE PLAYING for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas.  With R. Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer and Frank Wilson he co-wrote the ground-breaking LOVE CHILD for Diana Ross & The Supremes as well as their hit duet with The Temptations WHY (MUST WE FALL IN LOVE).  He also wrote CAN I SEE YOU IN THE MORNING for the wondrous Chris Clark.

In 1969 Deke Richards joined Gordy and the songwriting team of Freddie Perrin & Alphonso Mizell (who went on to write the hits for Tavares in the 1970s) as 'The Corporation', the team responsible for writing the songs that were to launch the newly-signed Jackson Five - and did they succeed!  They were responsible for I WANT YOU BACK, ABC, THE LOVE YOU SAVE, MAMA'S PEARL, MAYBE TOMORROW and GOIN' BACK TO INDIANA.

However Deke Richards was the sole genius behind the magnificent I'M STILL WAITING for Diana Ross  which he also co-produced with Hal Davis in 1971.  It was the Jackson 5 who made me like Motown, it was I''M STILL WAITING that made me *love* the label

Deke Richards died on March 24th aged 68.

The final Motown memory is Miss Maxine Powell.  You won't find her on any compilation or dusty old 7" single but she was seen as an integral part of the Motown package. 

She had opened Detroit's only black finishing school in 1951 which had been attended by Berry Gordy's sisters.  In 1964 Berry Gordy invited her to join Motown as part of their Artist Development programme to bring her expertise in deportment to the Motown stable of teenagers and 20-somethings from the tenements of Detroit.  While Cholly Atkins showed them how to perform their onstage choreography it was Maxine Powell's job to show them how to perform in between the songs as well as offstage.  In classes recalled all-too-well by her pupils she taught them how to behave in public and befitting their roles "as performers for Kings and Queens".

Martha Reeves has said " "We didn't take her seriously when we first met her, but I'll always be indebted to her. The girls who didn't have Mrs Powell, it shows. They don't know how to stand, they don't know how to walk, they don't know how to present themselves; they're not ladylike."

It's true, I have seen Martha onstage and each song, no matter how fabulously frentic and driving, is always rounded off with a very demure curtsy.  Class shows.

Maxine Powell died on October 4th aged 98.

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