Tag Archives: Berry Gordy

Bobby Taylor 1934-2017: An Understanding Of A Major Motown Jelly Maker

Image result for Bobby Taylor

Bobby Taylor epitomizes what a phrase Henrique Hopkins told me several years ago. That in terms of making a difference in life, there are tree shakers and there are jelly makers. To extend the metaphor, DC native Bobby Taylor didn’t shake many trees save for the hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me”. And I myself only found out about him as a teenage watching a VHS copy of  the 1988 Showtime documentary called Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues. It was MJ’s brother Marlon who mentioned Bobby Taylor’s place in his history as the man who brought the Jackson 5 to Motown.

Taylor began his singing career in NYC-with a doo-wop group whose other members later joined the Teenagers and the Imperials. It was journey from groups in Ohio,San Francisco that led to him migrating to Canada and forming a multi racial band called the Calgary Shades. During this time, he had been in a band with a man who’d later become the drummer for Three Dog Night.  As for the Calgary Shades? The name came from the multi racial nature of their members. One of them was a young Tommy Chong, who would of course later go onto a career in comedy with Cheech Marin.

It was Supreme’s Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard who alerted Berry Gordy to the newly rechristened Bobby Taylor & The Vancouver’s after seeing them live. They had a live repertoire of mostly Motown covers. Gordy signed them to the self named imprint of Motown.  The Vancouver’s eventually broke apart due to a disagreement with Johnny Bristol and their headliner Chris Clark, who fired a couple members of the bands for missing a big whilst trying to obtain green cards. But they did record one self titled album on Gordy before this occurred.

Taylor’s history with the Jackson 5 is another story. In 1968, the Jackson brothers opened for the Vancouver’s at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Taylor was so impressed, he brought them to Detroit to audition for Suzanne De Passe and in turn Berry Gordy. The band were signed to Motown in a years time. Taylor was their first producer. He was involved in producing tracks for their debut album. Including an 11 year old Michael’s show stopping version of “Who’s Lovin’ You”. His emphasis was on classic soul cover songs-from within and without Motown.

What happened was that the J5’s debut was called Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. She was even credited as discovering them by Ed Sullivan on their first appearance on his iconic variety show. As Motown began moving its operations to the West Coast, Gordy didn’t give any credit to Taylor’s earlier work with the Jackson’s. While he did work with them a bit in LA on their second album ABC, Gordy along with Fonce Mizell and the late Deke Richards took on writing and producing for them. Taylor’s solo career on the labels VIP imprint went nowhere. He was dropped from the label and faded into obscurity.

Despite being something of the poster man for Motown’s lack of support for its behind the scenes people during its move from Detroit to LA, Bobby Taylor’s place in the labels late 60’s history remains carved in stone. He died of cancer on July 22nd of this year in Hong Kong. But bringing in what became the last of Motown’s classic groups in the Jackson 5 was no small feat. He even made some of the most insightful commentary on MJ on the documentary Michael Jackson: The Life Of An Icon.  So while belatedly so, wanted to remember Bobby Taylor for the great work he did in Motown’s peak.

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Bobby Taylor, Uncategorized

‘What’s Going On’ at 45: The Time Marvin Gaye Reminded Us That Only Love Could Conquer Hate

Marvin Gaye (1971) - What's Going On (Deluxe Edition 2001) (A)

Marvin Gaye had to fight Berry Gordy at Motown to get this album made and released. The label was transitioning from Detroit to Los Angeles at the time. Vietnam kept raging on,President Nixon was blowing a dog whistle to bring down the sociopolitcal revolts of the 60’s and Marvin was depressed. He decided to write an album from the point of view of his brother Frankie-coming back into an unwelcoming America from Vietnam. With the help of the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Motown’s bass maestro James Jamerson, Marvin came up with a musical masterpiece whose appeal is still evolving.

What’s Going On has a basic groove-a cinematic soul jazz sort of sound on just about every song. Marvin scats and improvises many of the vocal adlibs himself. The title song begins the album on a happier note-hoping that people will come to deal with the racial,political and ecological concerns Marvin is so troubled by. By the time of the instrumentally brilliant,percussive Latin soul stomp of “Inner City Blues”,Marvin has given up. He sings “make me wanna holler/throw up both my hands”. To this day,it’s really up to the given listener whether they feel Marvin’s mixed emotions here are cathartic or enervating.

Berry Gordy turned out to be very wrong that this album had no potential. Not only was it a huge commercial success for Marvin Gaye,but he could hardly go one concert after this without inserting the title song of this album into his set. That goes to show how sometimes,the artist making the music really has more of a finger on the pulse of the people than those peddling their raw creative material. In 2001,the album was expanded into a 2 CD deluxe edition. Upon hearing it,I went to Amazon.com and reviewed this new presentation of this 1971 classic on thoroughly musical terms:

How do you make a overly reissued album classic better? Well actually this one DOES-I love all the songs on ‘What’s Going On’-it’s a great album but I always felt that it was highly overproduced.This one starts with the original followed by a different variation on the same album called ‘the original Detroit Mix’-THIS version is far more understated in the finest Donny Hathaway tradition and truly brings out the richness of Marvin’s voice and the depth of his vision-the sparer arrangement actually better expresses the music’s message of urban and environmental blight.There’s still orchestration but it isn’t mixed so high.

It’s also forcing one to acknowledge how great a pianist Gaye is.And that’s why I highly recommend that those who purchased previous issues of this CD should go out and pick this set up-that along with a bonus disk of live material and outtakes make this the definitive version of this album-to such an extent myself bought this and gave my original CD issue of this album (in this case the tepid ripoff of 1994’s so called ‘deluxe edition’) to my dad,a fellow music lover who I felt would benefit from having the album in his collection alongside his other classics like The Beatles White Album,Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ and John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ where it belongs!For those who want to replace an old copy of this CD with a better one LOOK NO FURTHER!For those you for whatever reason haven’t been initiated-well,what more can I say-there is no better place to come!

Marvin was seeking with this album,to quote George Clinton about funk in general,not to tell people what to think but that they CAN think. It begins with a black man who’d made good in the world. And him looking through the eyes of a loved one who wasn’t so lucky in that regard. He starts out with a degree of optimism. By the end of the album,one realizes how much of a thoroughly human figure Marvin Gaye was. By the time it ends, he has almost lost  hope. Especially with Jamerson’s bass lines,the instrumentation is what tends to carry the positivity through when even Marvin can’t anymore.

This is the type of album inspired a lot of artists to make what I refer to as “people music”-a type of message music that takes the ethnocentric melodies and rhythms of the artists back-round to express important ideas. Unintentionally, this album became the “people music” for Generation X . This is an intelligent and aware generation of Americans who often lacked focus and interest. And with the election of Gen Xer Barack Obama for two presidential terms in America, this album seemingly succeeded in getting a generation who didn’t want to get involved to find that way to bring  loving here today.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1960's, 1971, Berry Gordy, cinematic soul, Detroit, Frankie Gaye, Generation X, James Jamerson, Los Angeles, Marvin Gaye, message music, Motown, people music, Renaldo Obie Benson, Vietnam War, What's Going on

Stevie Wonder’s ‘Up-Tight’ album turns 50!

Uptight

Stevie Wonder’s 1966 album Up-Tight is likely the most important album in his entire career. After a few years of releasing albums of standards,beach party pop and soul jazz with the moniker “little” attached to his name,the Motown record label wanted to drop Wonder from their roster. A lot of this had to do with his voice changing during puberty. Songwriter Sylvia Moy,also the label’s first female songwriter,saw 15 year old Wonder as being on the cusp of breaking through into someone musically enormous. So she got Berry Gordy to agree to keep Wonder on Motown if she could write a new hit for him.

One of the most important thing about Stevie Wonder in the mid 1960’s was bought up during a conservation between myself and friend Henrique Hopkins. And that is that unlike some child prodigies whose careers flow forward with age. Wonder had two separate careers. First was that of Little Stevie Wonder,a high voiced teen singer and harmonica virtuoso. Then came Stevie Wonder,a talented composer/musical/vocalist who was on the way to becoming a major musical icon of his generation. So on the album Up-Tight,Stevie Wonder was reborn as a maturing artist on the way to adulthood.

Sylvia of course came up with the classic Motown soul stomp of “Uptight (Everything Is Alright)”. Of course “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby” and “Ain’t That Asking For Trouble” both tell the story of that song,both musically and lyrically,ongoing. For the most part however this album finds Stevie forging ahead. My favorite here is actually “Love A Go Go” which,in Motown recycling song style,takes the opening horn charts of “Dancing In The Streets” and applies them to a breezy,catchy pop/soul number showcasing Stevie singing in his breathy falsetto we rarely hear from him.

“Blowing In The Wind” has this musicality similar to “A Place In The Sun” putting Bob Dylan’s rhetorical protest anthem into a rhythm & blues vocal and instrumental context. “Hold Me”,”I Want My Baby Back” and the poignant “With A Child’s Heart” are smooth,creamy numbers again anticipating his funky soul sound of his 70’s breakthrough by half a decade. “Teach Me Tonight” and the stomping “Music Talk” are hard edged,funky soul-the latter being one of Stevie’s strongest uptempo numbers of the 60’s. Only “Contract On Love”,recorded before Stevie’s voice had changed, represents the “Little Stevie Wonder” sound at all on this album.

One thing that really shines about this album was Stevie Wonder being presented once and for all as an uptempo based artist. His dance songs not only had an energetic stomp somewhat different than other Motown hits of the mid 60’s. But his thematic persona was starting to developing as well. On the title song,he speaks of being “a poor mans son”. And by covering Bob Dylan protest folk standards,it’s becoming clear that Wonder is already deeply connected to the social conscientiousness  that defined many of his generation. It not only reinvigorated his career,but started a new movement at Motown.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1960's, Berry Gordy, child stars, classic albums, message songs, Motown, Motown Sound, soul pop, Stevie Wonder, Sylvia Moy, Uncategorized

Smokey Robinson on Anatomy of THE Groove Part 1: “Open”

William “Smokey” Robinson was not only one of the co founders of Motown with Berry Gordy. He and his group the Miracles were also key architects of the labels approach to production and songwriting. Throughout most of my life,Smokey generally came across as someone who specialized in intricately written slow to mid tempo romantic ballads. Many of these were composed in partnership with guitarist and former Miracle Marv Tarplin. At the same time,there was a side to Smokey capable of delivering some of the most powerful uptempo music. And on his birthday today,it’s that side of the man’s artistry that I wish to celebrate.

In 1975 Smokey released an album called A Quiet Storm. It’s conceptually and musically linked ballads actually helped to spawn an entire radio format,which was named for the title of that album. A year later Smokey put a new group together referred to as the Family Robinson. Key to this was Reginald Sonny Burke. The keyboardist had once been a member of Clarence Wheeler & The Enforcers. And had done session work for Bobby Womack and Wah Wah Watson. Burke’s experience with the soul to funk transition of the 70’s helped re-focus Smokey’s groove into a faster tempo. One major result,featured on the 1976 album Smokey’s Family Robinson was entitled “Open”.

A mix of live and organ rhythm box percussion starts the entire song out. Then the heavy bass line scales deep into this groove-just before the horns scale up into the mix and into the basic groove of the song. That basic groove features Tarplin’s guitar playing James Brown style rhythms along with Burke’s equally percussive and thick Clavinet riffing. The horns act as vocal lines leading the rhythm along. That also represents the chorus. The refrain,featured just after the intro,features a heavily echoed Clavinet and bass line playing in very close harmony together. The final refrains scales down several bars before fading out with the chorus.

This was by no means the first time Smokey Robinson had made a funky record. His second solo album for example contained some strong funk on it. This was however the first time he really got celebrated for doing a record that was specifically funk oriented. Sonny Burke’s added element of textured Clavinet with Tarplin’s grooving guitar gave this song the general flavor of Smokey’s equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” basically. He would focus primarily on ballads and disco for the rest of the 70’s decade. All the same,this would not be the last time that Smokey Robinson would make a powerful musical statement with funk as it’s instrumental basis.

1 Comment

Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, Funk, Marv Tarplin, Motown, percussion, rhythm guitar, Smokey Robinson, Sonny Burke, Uncategorized

Seeing The Music: Andre’s Guide To Funk,Soul & Jazz Documentary Essentials!

SONY DSC

                   During the time I was growing up,the majority of men  around me were mainly interested in watching sports on television and action films in the movie theaters. From adolescence onward, the one thing that moved me in both media were musical documentaries about the black American musical spectrum that I was then absorbing like a sponge. The understanding of rhythm and harmony I received from seeing these musicians perform,speak of their histories along with the music they made provided me with a full sensory experience far beyond what I could’ve received from the limited literature of the era I was receiving.

                        Initially I was going to combine documentary films with biopics in the same blog. Since dramatizations  are a completely different medium of film making technique? Decided instead to break them up in separate but related blogs. Also because I received a very different level of education from them as well. Before hand,some of these documentaries are very hard to find even on YouTube. Many have never even been issued on DVD. Yet I highly recommend seeking all of them out if you are looking to seek out a first hand education on the soul,jazz,funk and R&B musical spectrum.

rock-n-roll

        This aired on PBS in 1995. The eighth part of it focused specifically on the genre of funk and it’s development from James Brown on through George Clinton. The final volume focused on hip-hop. The names of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash first came to me through watching this documentary. Not to mention the knowledge of rap’s musical roots in Jamaican reggae DJ’s such as Kool Herc. While some of the narrative commentary shows a limited understanding of the connectivity of black American music’s connectivity? The insights of interviewees such as Maceo Parker,Alan Leeds,George Clinton,Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D are extremely insightful to what drove the music forward.

record row cradle of rhythm and blues

Narrated by the late Chess Records icon Etta James,this documentary not only opened my eyes to understanding the history of blues,soul and funk in 60’s Chicago. But was also the first glimpse I got into the idea of black American financial empowerment. Jerry Butler explained it best in this when describing how Curtis Mayfield starting his Curtom label,taking control of his publishing,took the Chicago scene into the funk era by closing down the era of people such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker functioning as “musical sharecroppers”.

The strong emphasis this has on United Record Distributors,the only black American record distributors  in their time run by the Leaner brothers,proved extremely significant in my understanding of black America’s experience with capitalism for years to come. And the level of communication in the civil rights era through the iconic radio station WVON,such a significant force in the city that if an artist wasn’t on their play list,record stores would not stock their music. Possibly my favorite musical documentary all told.

motown40

It was this epic documentary mini series,hosted by Diana Ross that really allowed me to understand the internal workings of Motown records. From it’s foundational years when Berry Gordy,having failed as a record store owner in Detroit,began writing songs for Jackie Wilson. And then borrowed $800 from his family to start what become an American musical institution. A black American institution. The interviews follow Motown’s changes from it’s salad period in the mid 60’s,through the funk and disco era when the artists had the most creative control,on through Berry deferring ownership of the company in the mid 80’s through it’s resurgence with vocal boy bands and then Puff Daddy Combs remixing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. A very complete and thorough history on The Sound Of Young America.

jazz-show

Overall I’d apply the same viewpoint to this documentary as I would apply to PBS’s  Rock ‘N’ Roll from seven years earlier. It’s understanding of musical connectivity,absolutely key to jazz,is more limited to the participants (such as Ken Burns  and Wynton Marsalis) perceptions of the music than it is lacking. Yet the decision to weave an internal documentary on the life and career of Louis Armstrong as a key figure in jazz is double edged: it didn’t quite succeed in term of historical continuity but did showcase how the aspect of modern black American musical might’ve derived from Armstrong’s approach. I learned about important sociological figures in the music such as Buddy Bolden,James Reese Europe and Sidney Bechet here as well. With the help of my father’s asides,this helped complete my historical understanding of jazz.

Scratch

Went to Portland Maine to see this movie,in a little movie theater underground of a local clotherie. It was actually a suitable environment for this film. It traces Grand Mixer DST’s pioneering turntable work with Herbie Hancock on his “Rockit” project. It than goes on to discuss the fine art of crate digging for used vinyl by hip-hop scratch artists. There was no irony to the fact that I was myself crate digging myself,only for my personal listening pleasure and musical enlightenment,less than an hour after seeing this in the used record stores of the city of Portland. One of those films that was both influential and validating exactly at the time I saw it.

Earth Wind & Fire Shinning Stars

Probably the one documentary I was the most excited to learn about upon it’s release. It follows the ascension of Maurice White from his childhood in Memphis to switching his college major from premed to music and playing with the Ramsey Lewis Trio before forming his first and second incarnations of Earth,Wind & Fire. The fact that bassist/trombonist Louis Satterfield,saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk,drummer Ralph Johnson and guitarist Al McKay go deeply into their own insights on how music functioned in terms of being a member of Earth Wind & Fire during it’s prime period.

Stevie Wonder Classic Albums

In terms of the Rhino Classic Album series? This now very hard to find DVD interviews all of the musicians involved in the long winded and dramatic recording sessions to what is considered Stevie Wonder’s shinning musical pinnacle. Stevie demonstrates the double keyboarded Yamaha GX-1 (known as the Dream Machine)- a polyphonic synthesizer I find sonically and visually impressive. Another favorite part is where Stevie showcases how his musical acumen allowed him to cover over for a harmonic solo at the end of “Isn’t She Lovely” that a harmonica player of his caliber shouldn’t have made. Hearing the musical insights of this mans inner visions was a hugely important musical milestone for me.

Marvin Gaye Life & Death Of

Marvin Gaye’s history has,especially in the hands of author David Ritz,was generally depicted for me literarily in extremely magisterial terms. This BBC documentary,one that came my way through a life changing act of barter in itself,really did a lot to put more of a human face on the complexities of Marvin Gaye’s musical and personal life. Through interviews with the artist himself and penetrating reenactments of the even of his childhood? I’d recommend this as the best available visual documentation on Marvin Gaye.

Tom Dowd

Tom Dowd is probably listed as the producer of more albums than anyone in American music history. This man started out working for the Manhattan Project on the atomic bomb. And his career as a producer extends throughout both the black music and rock era spectrum-an array of artists as diverse as John Coltrane to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The amazing about this documentary isn’t merely the musical history. But Down provides an inside look,right at the mixing board,onto how he instrumentally layered songs such as “Layla”. A key story for understanding the intricacies of the musical creative process.

Bob Marley

For many years Bob Marley was mainly known to me as a superficial icon of a certain local stoner culture,one that tended to feel sociopolitical change derived solely from drug use and how it changed the consciousness. This story chronicles the complex wheel of Marley’s musical life-starting from his childhood in Trenchtown,Kingston in Jamaica through his near assassination attempt in 1976 through his passing on from Melanoma in 1981. This really broke it down exactly what about his back-round and viewpoint on the Jamaican music industries corruption that motivated the sociopolitical consciousness of the reggae music he helped to pioneer and export the world over in his lifetime.

Respect Yourself

It was thanks to Netflix that I found out about this documentary about Soulville USA! Stax Records were both the rival and opposite to Motown’s business model during it’s mid 60’s heyday. This is extremely thorough on it’s representation of Stax literally rising back from the dead following the double cross of Jerry Wexler’s Atantic Records ownership over Stax’s catalog following the death of Otis Redding, the labels burgeoning social consciousness embodied in Isaac Hayes,the Staple Singers and Wattstax during the early 70’s and financial bloating bringing the label down mid decade. Than Stax came back decades later-with a music school for young musicians to boot. Especially following the creative managing of Al Bell and interviews with many of the artists from Stax’s heyday? This is the essential story of Southern Soul from when Stax really bought the funk into the music.

Michael Jackson Life Of An Icon

Michael Jackson’s story has been re-purposed in the media so many times? It is nearly impossible to approach his life story with total objectivity. Thus far,this is one documentary that does the best job of doing so. For one,it concentrates on Mike’s late teens and early adulthood in terms of his musical development. And by interviewing everyone from Bobby Taylor,who first discovered the Jackson’s performing onto 80’s era manager Frank Dileo? It strips away some of the overbearing adulation and downright hero worship that this distinctive and funky musical talent found somewhat responsible for his own end. An end that came far too soon. Probably the essential Michael Jackson documentary thus far.

unsung_logo2012-wide

Unsung is an unprecedented documentary series on the cable network TV One. The reason for it’s importance is that it profiles an often underrated musical icons from within the soul/funk spectrum. And does so with a great level of care and compassion. As of now I’ve not been privileged to see every episode of the series. Yet the stories of people such as Tammi Tarrell,David Ruffin,Donny Hathaway,Full Force,Angela Bofill and Heatwave lead singer Johnnie Wilder provided an excellent insight into artists either misrepresented or not even spoken of broadly in other media circles.

Finding Fela

It was a reference in Paul McCartney’s documentary Wingspan that first gave me indication to the name Fela Anikulapo Kuti. This story probably brings my understanding of the African American musical spectrum near to it’s final stages. My conversations with blogging partner Rique are consistently referencing Kuti. And this film really expands on that understanding. The understanding of Fela as the Nigerian James Brown,whom he in fact was very highly influenced by through travelling through America during the years of black power in the late 60’s.

While the man bought the sound and social consciousness of total rhythm into his combination of African Highlife and jazz-funk?  He also set upon living a lifestyle of breaking down conventions,largely coming out of the corruption that led to tragic events such as the murder of his own mother. This really embodies the full spectrum of emotion a life can have-from pioneering,to humorous to tragic. And it also helps bring out peoples understanding and misunderstanding of what African culture is really all about.


Sometimes when I try to encourage people to watch more documentaries,they often respond by saying that they find them boring. At the end of the day they say? They want to escape,not learn. What I’ve personally come to understand is that knowledge functions as both a destination and an escape. Just depends on how you receive it. Being lectured at about topics by a teacher isn’t always the idea method of education. Yet through documentaries on a favorite subject? One can experience first hand,sometimes comic history,joy and tears from the viewpoint of all involved.  And for me? These have all provided the ultimate in learning while being simultaneously entertained.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1990s, Bob Marley, Chicago, crate digging, Earth Wind & Fire, Etta James, Fela Kuti, Funk, George Clinton, Heatwave, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Jazz, Ken Burns, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Maurice White, Mavis Staples, Memphis Soul, Michael Jackson, Portland Maine, reggae, Stax, Stevie Wonder, Tom Dowd, Unsung series, Vee-Jay