Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing “Someday We’ll Be Together”

diana_ross__the_supremes_-_somedayListen to this track by mighty Motown hit machine Diana Ross & The Supremes. It’s “Someday We’ll Be Together”, a smash hit single from 1969 and found on their LP Cream Of The Crop.

The song has the distinction of being the last number one single on the R&B charts of the 1960s, while also being the first number one single of the next decade, too. It was also the group’s swan song, with Diana Ross leaving for a solo career by 1970. This gave the song’s refrain a kind of weightiness that seemed to go beyond the story depicted in it.

The song had actually been recorded previously in 1961 by doo-wop group Johnny (Bristol) & Jacky (Beavers), the team who also wrote it. Bristol oversaw the Supremes recording too. You can hear him singing backup, although that session was meant to be a demo with Bristol’s interjections as vocal encouragement in order to get the right take. When Motown honcho Berry Gordy heard it, he liked Bristol’s backing that offset Ross’ lead voice. Ironically for a swan song of a massive pop group like the Supremes, or “Diana Ross & The Supremes” as they became known, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson aren’t featured on the track. This was indicative of the state of the union of the group at the time. Besides that though, this song always struck me as a swan song of another kind; that of childhood itself. Read more

The Temptations Sing “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”

1971-tepts-skyListen to this track by five man Motown pop soul institution The Temptations. It’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, a smash hit single as taken from the group’s 1971 record The Sky’s The Limit. The song was a return to form for the group, hearkening back to their earlier Motown singles in the 1960s after a period of putting out records that featured a grittier and more updated sound. At the same time, this single was the end of an era, too.

A big part of this was the departure of lead singer Eddie Kendricks soon after this song was released, leaving the group to strike out on his own in the much the same way that his former colleague David Ruffin had done. This song was Kendricks’ swan song with the group, and he made it a doozy; a virtual solo performance with his fellow Temptations providing an empathetic Greek chorus behind a tragic narrative. Even his nemesis in the group at the time Otis Williams had to admit that Kendricks knocked it out of the park on this cut, one that would become one of their best-loved songs.

This tune would become a signature song for the Temps, and inspired a number of cover versions including one by the Rolling Stones that had that them covering a Motown hit well after their habit of doing so on one of their albums was long behind them. This song is notable for another reason, too; it’s emotional complexity as balanced with how relatable it is. Read more

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell Sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell UnitedListen to this track by Motown titan and smooth as silk soul-pop provider Marvin Gaye, along with his vocal counterbalance, and no slouch in the soaring vocal department herself, Tammi Terrell. It’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, a  single from writing partnership and real-life couple Ashford & Simpson. The song was a top twenty hit  single in 1967, released on the Tamla label, a sister label of Motown, eventually appearing on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell joint album United.

The song was thought of by its writers as being their golden ticket into the Motown stable, even turning down Dusty Springfield who wanted to record it herself. Ashford and Simpson held it back , and it was eventually offered as a duet to Marvin Gaye, and to Tammi Terrell who made it one of the most prominent songs of the Motown catalogue, and an important record of the whole decade. Later on, Diana Ross would record it when she split with the Supremes and went solo in 1970. It would be a number one hit, and become a signature tune for her.Yet, it’s the alchemy that the Gaye-Terrell version offers that makes this the definitive version of the song.

Terrell had signed with Motown at the tender age of twenty, after a short career of minor hits, and even a time at the University of Pennsylvania as a pre-med student. But despite the run of singles and albums she would have with Marvin Gaye as her singing partner, Terrell would face greater challenges of a more personal nature.

Read more

The Band Play “Don’t Do It” Featuring Levon Helm

Levon Helm,1976 (Photo: David Gans)

Listen to this track by Canadian-American modern roots music architects The Band, here featuring the impossibly funky drummer-singer Levon Helm. It’s “Don’t Do It” as taken from the landmark 1972 live album Rock of Ages, a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition originally recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964,  but utterly redefined here by Helm and his bandmates.

This version of the song was released as a single, scoring #34 on the Billboard top 100. More importantly, it would become a live staple for the group into the 1970s, featuring most prominently in the milestone farewell concert The Last Waltz as a closing number, and an opening number to Martin Scorcese’s film of the same name.

But, what makes the Band’s take on the song so special is largely down to Helm, on one of his most distinct vocal spotlights, weaving in and out with Rick Danko’s burbling bassline,  Richard Manuel‘s ‘rhythm piano’, Garth Hudson’s organic sonic colours, Robbie Robertson’s tearaway guitar stabs, and of course the horns, arranged by Allen Toussaint.

Among other things of course is that this song is one of the key documents that proves not only how potent the Band were as a live unit, and about their uniqueness in general. It also demonstrates something about Levon Helm as a musician. Read more

The Supremes Sing The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand”

supremes-liverpoolWell, folks.  It’s February 9th, so it’s Beatle day.  This day in 1964, the Beatles went on TV to perform for a record 73 million people on the Ed Sullivan Show. To honour the blessed event, I will not actually post another Beatles song. That’s too predictable.

Here’s a clip of the Queen of all girl-groups – The Supremes –  singing the Beatles, their chart competition.  I had no idea up until tonight that this cover version even existed!  It’s on their 1964 album A Bit Of Liverpool, which included a number of Lennon and McCartney tunes, including “A Hard Days Nught”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and the Peter & Gordon hit “World Without Love”.

I suppose it makes sense, since it was a very big hit – the Beatles first number one song in North America (their real first was “Please Please Me”) and one of the ones included in their Sullivan performance.  After it broke in America, a lot of cover versions of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” surfaced, including ones from artists you also might not expect like Duke Ellington,  Bobby Fuller, Al Green, Pat Boone (OK, maybe you expected Boone since he would cover anything that moved…), and many others.


This Supremes cover was early on in their career with Motown, just before Berry Gordy crafted the Motown sound. The arrangement here is a reproduction of the original, and it’s clear that everyone involved is still finding their own voices.  But, it’s a pretty interesting artifact, considering the run-for-their-money the Supremes would give the Beatles during the rest of the decade.  And it can’t be underestimated the influence the Supremes had on the trajectory of R&B, rivalling that of the Beatles’ influence on rock music.  That makes this a fascinating crossover of two musical titans.

In any case, folks.  Have a happy Beatle day!


Gladys Knight & the Pips sing Norman Whitfield’s “Friendship Train”

Listen to this song by soul goddess Gladys Knight, accompanied by her faithful Pips.  It’s her take on Norman Whitfield’s “Friendship Train”,  which the group covered while they were still signed to Motown, scoring them a #17 on the charts.   The song was also a hit for the Temptations, also under Whitfield’s care at Motown.

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Norman Whitfield passed away last year, yet he left behind a number of immortal classics like this one, co-penned by fellow Motown writer Barrett Strong, and produced by Whitfield as well.  And Gladys Knight does it justice and then some, with her exuberant delivery and clear commitment to the material which marks her as a first-tier American singer in any tradition and style.

She’d released a version of  Whitfield’s most famous song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before Marvin Gaye’s more recognized version. And it was clear that both Knight and Whitfield were interested in pushing the stringent stylistic boundaries on which Motown was based.  “Friendship Train” is a soul answer to psychedelia in some ways.  It shares a similar optimism, and childlike approach to the more complicated issues of the day, much like that of  psychedelic rock.

As such, its charming, and infectious, and shows Whitfield’s keen eye for pinpointing the zeitgeist and writing a song around it that doesn’t seem like a means to simply market to an audience.   Instead, it entertains.  And Gladys Knight’s take, along with the Temptations’ version, show that Whitfield’s approach was easily delivered by the right talent.

For more Gladys, check out the Gladys Knight official website.

And to learn more about Norman Whitfield, read this overview article about Norman Whitfield.


Diana Ross Sings ‘The Theme From Mahogany’

mahogany-coverHere’s a clip of Diana Ross’ “The Theme From Mahogany”, the title song from the 1976 film in which Ross stars as an ingénue in the fashion industry. The picture was directed by her svengali figure and Motown label boss, Berry Gordy.

This tune is very much of its time perhaps, much like the film in which it features. But, for whatever reason, I love it. It’s almost classical sounding to me, like a Bach fugue in places. And usually sumptuous orchestration is a red flag for this kind of song, unless the vocalist presents a contrasting texture of some kind. Ross doesn’t do this, which is a testament to how well arranged the tune is. It shouldn’t have worked, but it does. Well, it does for me, anyway.

I’ve said before that Diana Ross’ career owes a lot to the material upon which it was built. This tune, for instance, was co-written by former Brill Building songwriter, Gerry Goffin, for which he won an Oscar nomination. And her Motown oeuvre owed a huge debt to the superlative writing talents of Holland Dozier Holland. I’m not sure that her voice is terribly special, frankly. But, maybe her bland voice is her secret weapon in this way. For one, it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, and makes way for the delivery of the material. Maybe this is why Ross was able to skip across genres so easily too.

Her late 70s-early 80s renaissance was largely down to her being able to etch out a niche for herself when disco came along. There again, she was bolstered by great producers and players, as well as great songs in “Love Hangover”, “I’m Coming Out”, and “Upside Down”. Her 1980 album Diana, produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, is the perfect example of Ross working with the best to get the best results.

Although saying that, there is the story of Ross demanding that her vocals be brought up in the mix, after hearing a version of the record as laid down by Edwards and Rodgers. I wonder how grand the original mix of the Diana album would have sounded, with a slinkier bass, a more playful rhythm guitar, and funkier drums. It might have caused heads to explode, or very least for disco and funk to remain more mainstream further into the decade. Who can say?


Song rendition showdown: “You Really Got A Hold On Me”

Which version is better? Smokey Robinson, or the Beatles? Vote now!

This is the second installment of the series which pits two excellent versions of a song against one another. Which will triumph as the better version? You decide, good people.

This week, it’s Smokey Robinson’s “ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with” classic, “You Really Got a Hold on Me”.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

This is the original version, released as a single in November 1962, featuring Smokey’s keening tenor falsetto. Here, Smokey sounds like a little kid, in love for the first time, and yet knowing that love means a lot of pain. Yet, because it is Smokey singing, it can’t sound anything less than joyous. This is a pure Motown sugar-rush, yet with a dark undercurrent (also a characteristic of a lot of Motown singles), that outlines that love is not always the safest of pursuits. You can find this version on the recent Smokey Robinson & the Miracles compilation The Ultimate Collection.

The Beatles

The Beatles loved Motown, and took this tune to their hearts when they recorded it for their second album With the Beatles, released in 1963. John Lennon’s voice is raspier and more raucous than Smokey’s smooth as silk original, with a hint of desparation behind it that serves the material well. George Harrison’s backing vocal is a shadowy response to Lennon’s call, which helps to capture that same undercurrent of darkness to an otherwise joyous delivery.

So, which is it to be? Smokey or the Fabs? Or is it some other version? The Zombies did a good one. So did Percy Sledge, M Ward, and many others. Vote now, good people!

Gladys Knight & the Pips Perform “If I Were Your Woman” on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1971

Here’s a clip* of one of my favourite vocalists, Gladys Knight, performing her hit “If I Were Your Woman” on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1971. The song was taken from the LP If I Were Your Woman. Dig those green outfits!

(Feb 2012 – *the clip has since been removed – once again, because it’s not actually a part of history at all, but privately owned property.)

(Feb 2014 – booyakasha! Well, it’s a clip of a clip anyway:)

Knight and her bandmates the Pips had been signees of the Motown label in the 60s, but never quite made the upper echelons of the label’s line-up. In my view, they stand out from the crowd quite a bit in terms of Gladys’ powerful, and very sexy, delivery, which stands in opposition to, say, Diana Ross who is a more middle of the road vocalist in a pop vein. I wonder if the difference in style had anything to do with their relative lack of success while at Motown. I strongly suspect so. The group would score their biggest hit after they left the label, with their immortal “Midnight Train to Georgia” in 1974.

Knight’s vocals and her arrangements were decidedly entrenched in a Southern tradition – gutsy, passionate, and earthy, with a strong whiff of the funk running all the way through. I always wonder if they wouldn’t have done better on Stax for their 60s sides, or at very least Atlantic. Yet, they had a good working relationship with the Funk Brothers, who often pushed Gladys’ performance in the studio by stepping up their own, knowing that she would rise to the occasion – and Gladys would always oblige by meeting them, note for note.

For me, Gladys Knight is among the giants in soul, male or female. She carved out an individual sound to match any of her contemporaries.

Enjoy the clip!