If you know your Motown as I know The Sound Of Young America, You’ll know, beyond the bevy of hit records, at the peak of the label the studios cranked out potential hits 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some records have release dates on Holidays: The Supremes “My World Is Empty Without You” and The Elgins “Darling Baby” found their ways to record buyers on New Years Eve 1965 for instance.
This meant such a heavy bevy of potential hit records, or sophisticated album tracks failed the surefire radio hit test at the legendarily tense quality control meetings every Friday Morning. While this process proved to bring plenty of cream of the crop hit records to audiences, it meant many a hope, dream and potential knock out went unnoticed and uncovered for many a decade. This evening we’re gonna give some love to ten of those gems.
It may have had more to do with “Producers Lock” that this Smokey Robinson produced piece of word work went unreleased. Of course, Holland-Dozier-Holland, despite “Nothing But Heartaches” not making the Pop Top 10, had complete creative control over The Supremes at this point. Also, radio may have not taken to all of the complicated, nearly spoken-word verses that show Diana Ross at her most vocally dexterous. It’s an exceptionally wordy song, But I still like the post-mortem wisdom dispensed over the chunky, horn laden backing, with Florence and Mary at their high flying greatness.
The lock Holland-Dozier-Holland had on singles spread out to their LP output as well. Smokey wouldn’t get a shot at producing LP material for the group until next year, and even at that rate, that material wouldn’t surface until the Reflections LP in 1968.
Kim Weston was coming off her biggest solo hit record with her H-D-H produced “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While).” The template was pretty much set; whatever came next had to be equal, if not more a tent burning testifying number worthy of Kim’s miraculous ability to generate enough wattage behind a microphone to power Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. So, what kept “I’ve Got A Weak Heart” in the vaults? Maybe the too-too martial beat? Perhaps lyrically it hits far too hard? Then again, “Helpless,” recorded a few weeks later and a recycled Four Tops album track pretty much equals this potentiality for desperation and a dynamic performance. My other theory is that with the Fall of ’65/Winter of ’66 release scheduled already clogged with goodies, and that nagging focus of The Supremes, that there was just one too many a great Kim Weston effort to provide record buyers with, as she racked up an LP worth of fresh stuff in the Fall of ’65 in Studio A.
Barbara McNair was such a **Star,** so didn’t her Motown debut deserve to be an overly optimistic romantic comedy? Recorded a week after what would become her first single and 3 days before “You’re Gonna Love My Baby” was sent out to the public, “Into My Empty Arms” sparkles with more of that genuine Motown joy and optimism than the devastated, weepy slightly Wall-Of-Sound orientated tear jerker that started Lady McNair’s 4 year Motown stint. Judging by what was most often sent to the vaults on Barbara it seems it was always an internal struggle of whether to assign her to being a part of the Motown sound or not. Most of her singles positioned her as “other” to the traditional Motown Hit Parade, and her Anthology released a decade ago portrays an alternate, truly Motown embracing life that could have seen her soar to being one of the labels classic songstresses. She is always on full star wattage on these Motown-orientated songs, perhaps some of her best recordings of her diverse career, but for whatever reasons, at the time, the world got to see so little of it.
Speaking of Wall-Of-Sound, if we’re to be honest, some of Brenda Holloway’s greatest successes for Motown were actually closer to items that came out of Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles than those that came out of 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Indeed the opening and closing Top 40 hits of her recording career were recorded in Los Angeles instead of Detroit. “Crying Time” bridges the gap between those Detroit singles and her L.A. efforts. Like classic Detroit Motown, it’s complete danceable heartbreak; this bit of ballast clocks in as a wallop of 2 minutes and 20 seconds full of avalanche-level emotions. The huge string section reminds us of Brenda’s sole Top 40 hit of 1965, “When I’m Gone.” But there’s enough of that cloudy, epic, film score Hollywood flavor, which would start creeping into Motown records in 1966 that makes it distinct, even ahead of the curve in comparison with the efforts Brenda released in the Fall of ’65.
Our second of 3 women of Motown women trying to find their recording identity shows up with Tammi Terrell’s earliest efforts. Her opening fire with “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” is possibly one of the most distinctive Motown records of 1965: It calls out to where the label was, but doesn’t hold onto the constraints of what the label sound was. It sounds positively futuristic, yet it’s somewhere Motown wouldn’t go with productions for the rest of the 1960’s. Similar to Barbara McNair; Terrell’s unreleased solo output shows a split between wanting her to be a *Motown* star, yet still adapting her formative years of recording within the decidedly East Coast/Uptown Soul vibe of her earlier efforts, especially for Scepter/Wand records. “Slow Down” is possibly the most straightforward attempt to bridge the gap. Anchored by legendary Motown drums, it gives the runway for this mini-movie of unrequited love to take flight, from Tammi’s sly, sophisticated, slightly crazed read of the lyrics to The Andantes and The Detroit Symphony Orchestra doing the bizness to one of the most intense Paul Riser scored string sections. Whether this was the material of Top 40, I’m none too sure, but it was good enough to elicit a Supremes overdub in early 1966. Tammi’s version is totally the better of the two though.
Like Kim Weston, Martha & The Vandellas had enough efforts ready for a LP done by the end of 1965, and had 3 hit songs that year. Maybe it was space constraints+The Supremes that prevented more efforts and experimentation with The Vandellas potential hit parade. In any case, I do think there was definitely room for one more single to flush out their release schedule. I’ve always been surprised that “Can’t Break The Habit” didn’t make it as the follow-up single to “Nowhere To Run” and I think this bluesy counter-emote to that effort would have made a splendid B-side or potential hit the same way “You’ve Been In Love Too Long/(Love) Makes Me Do Foolish Things” did for Martha, Rosalind and Betty for the 2nd half of 1965. Then again, when you think of the double-sided hit that served Martha and The Vandellas so well for the 2nd half of 1965, indeed, they had too much great material with so little time.
Well, somebody *had* to imitate Dionne Warwick at Motown, so why not the new White Chick? As I wrote this I thought Barbara McNair had the biggest gap between proposed artistic direction versus what was released to the public, but Chris Clark decidedly takes the cake. Recorded 3 weeks after her debut single tried to out Etta-James everyone else, what’s more surprising about this Motown-in-New York Flugelhorn fueled romp is that it was originally intended for The Marvelettes (and there’s a distinct possibility that it’s Wanda Rogers and Katherine Anderson on the backgrounds here, with Chris Clark just overdubbing on Gladys Horton’s lead). Out of our 3 women making their Motown debut this year, Chris actually got the most consistent access to the true Motown sound with her singles selections. It’s more often that her unreleased material presents a distaff interpretation of what was going on elsewhere with popular music. Motown as done by Burt Bacharach? Here ‘ya go.
There’s no more classic Motown template than Gladys Horton issuing a curt “fuck you” in some variance or another on a Motown Record. Just about every Marvelettes hit single from the beginning was about Gladys being the most assertive sister in the Order of Girl Groups. However, by 1965, she was no longer front and center in the group she helped create. Indeed, whether we all knew it or not, she had made her lead spotlight/hit record swansong on “Too Many Fish In The Sea” at the end of 1964. She still remained pretty bad ass on assorted album tracks, B-Sides and unreleased gems through 1967 though. To be honest, given the only modest success of “Danger, Heartbreak, Dead – Ahead” I’m surprised this chunky bit of proto-funk wasn’t considered for a follow-up single. Then again, by October, “Don’t Mess With Bill” was ready to forever more change the composition and fortunes of Motown’s premiere girl group.
The Velvelettes were forever the awkward nerdy girls from Kalamazoo at Motown. College Educated and middle class, their term papers and finals came before recording and touring. When they did step in the studio though, they were able to knock folks on their asses just as well as the prime names at the label. Carolyn Gill was particularly ferocious when you put some undying love lyrics in front of her, and this unreleased soaring battle cry of an anthem ranks as one of her most overjoyed performances. Remarkably radiant, I’m none too sure why this record, which like a number of their singles, pushed Motown further into the future than tying them to the past; got passed over for “A Bird In The Hand” (which itself is a brilliant record, if more the typical “get 3 hits from a template before moving on” in practice).
We end things with the eldest effort, and the finest postcard to the past. Carolyn Crawford had only a few more sessions through 1965 to wade through before her contract was up. Despite the fact that she landed herself in the R&B Top 40 with her lilting Mary Wells Ode “My Smile Is A Frown Turned Upside Down” and perhaps being the best candidate to throw Wells-like material at, not too many efforts were made to give Carolyn a bigger shot at fame. Other than MOR Queen and 30-something McNair, she’s the only artist that wouldn’t go on to chart something throughout the rest of the 1960’s. Perhaps the problem here was by the Spring of ’65, this sound had been usurped and defined as a aural template that spoke to Jackie Ross/Chicago and not so much Mary Wells/Detroit. It’s a beautiful bit of string sweetened story telling about how love disrupts all your life plans regardless, and may have, with Carolyn being mixed a bit higher in the mix (the biggest flaw of the record, her vocal doesn’t sit on top of the record as it should) been a second chart effort for her had it been released. As it stands, it’s a perfect closer to where Motown could have gone with all of its leading ladies during the year of 1965.