The Velvelettes: “Needle in a Haystack” (V.I.P. 25007, 1964)

It’s been a long time since I did an Undiscovered Motown post, but this song’s been rattling around in my head since I heard it the other day. We ate lunch at a place called Mae’s, which is the oldest restaurant in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan (I think there are only three or four restaurants in Pleasant Ridge, but still).

The interior dimensions of the place are roughly equivalent to a semi-trailer, and it has that great, old-fashioned greasy spoon feel, with a few tables and a bunch of seats at a bar a few feet from the cooking range. The menu is evolved a few steps beyond greasy spoon fare (or it at least fills a different gastrological niche), though. Its biggest tether back to trad diner food might actually be the decades-old Faygo signs they’ve never taken down.

They had an iPod plugged into a little Bose unit for a sound system, and whoever loaded the iPod did it with a lot of Detroit pride. Iggy, Marvin, the Supremes, Edwin Starr (pre-Motown Edwin Starr at that!), the Tempts, Seger, Mitch Ryder… they all came up. So did the Velvelettes, which told me someone really loves Motown, because “Needle in a Haystack,” while not exactly obscure, is still not a front-line Motown hit. It popped in and out of the R&B top 40 and just missed the pop top 40 an has long been overshadowed by the bigger hit they followed it up with, “He Was Really Sayin’ Something.”

Gosh, it is great, though, isn’t it? I’m not sure who that is drumming on this (I’d guess Richard “Pistol” Allen), but the drumming is fantastic and really gives the song a shove every time it needs one. Carolyn “Cal” Gill was only 16 when she sang the lead on this, and admits she didn’t even really understand the lyrics, but she had a well-developed voice that had some weight even as it flitted easily through the melody.

Norman Whitfield, just at the beginning of his Motown career when this was recorded, let Norma and Bertha Barbee decide what they wanted to sing on the verses behind cal, and the first place their minds went was to the “do-langs” of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” which they modified to “do-la-lang” and turned into a sticky background hook.

 The Velvelettes had a handful of great singles for Motown, but they never really caught on the way the Vandellas and the Supremes did. Gill kept the group going with various rosters even after the other original members quit to focus on their families, finally giving it up in 1969 after marrying the Temptations’ Richard Street.

Peppermint Harris: “I Got Loaded” (Alladin 3097, 1951)

I’ve never actually been drunk. The reasons aren’t complicated or moralistic or religious or anything like that—I just don’t like drinking at all. It’s more elemental than not liking the feeling, too. I’ve tried a lot of different beers and wines over the years, and I have never found one I could drink. The flavor—or more correctly, the aftertaste—just stops me in my tracks. I’ll have a sip or two on social occasions and quietly not drink the rest.

Maybe I’m just not motivated enough to get past this barrier. Regardless, I have learned during my adult life that not drinking makes you socially weird. It’s weirder still if you don’t have one of those religious or moral reasons for it (or, obviously, if you’re overcoming a drinking problem). Offering to be the designated driver usually smooths that over a bit.

The upshot of this is that I have what I guess you could call a cultural blind spot caused by the fact that I’m not familiar firsthand with alcohol’s effects on the body and mind. This makes drinking songs endlessly fascinating to me, in sort of the same way that music from other time periods and places around the world is fascinating to me—it all comes from outside my own experience and gives me a window into that experience I wouldn’t otherwise have.

One of my favorite drinking songs is Peppermint Harris’ 1951 #1 r&b hit “I Got Loaded.” I first learned this song from a slightly countrified version by Zeb Turner released the same year, but Harris’ is the original. It’s rich in the slang of the era—surely everyone knew what “juice” referred to, not to mention loaded.

On the Zeb Turner version, Turner whitens the slang by calling it “mountain dew,” which was a colloquialism for moonshine until it was co-opted for the name of a day-glo soft drink.

Mostly, though, I love how laid-back Harris (and most subsequent interpreters of the song) is as he recounts what he can remember of his tale. There’s a twinge of conscience showing through as he recalls that he stayed out far later than he told his wife or girlfriend he would be, but he’s basically had a good time, and perhaps a little better than he intended.

The Coasters: “Shoppin’ For Clothes” (Atco 6178, 1960)

Catching up here. Carl Gardner was the leader of the Coasters from their mid-50s origins all the way up through his retirement in 2005, when he handed the reigns to his son. He passed away earlier this week at 83.

I’ve thought a bit about what it means to be in the Coasters today. The group last recorded in the early 1970s, and has cycled through many lineups as a touring act since then. In fact, Gardner often had to police groups calling themselves the Coasters that had no connection to his act. If you’re the Coasters today, you’re a pure nostalgia act, performing for PBS fundraisers and on the casino circuit. It’s a living, I’m sure, but it seems like it must be strange, touring the country singing these songs that were hits in 1958 in places that have hired you mostly because you’re guaranteed not to bother anyone.

It’s a weird legacy for a group that was, back in its day, a pretty distinctive vocal quartet. They achieved oldies radio immortality with “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown in the late 50s, and recorded a bunch of other good singles, many of them built around the humorous interplay between Gardner’s high-strung leads and Will “Dub” Jones’ thick bass voice.

The 1960 single “Shoppin’ For Close” takes that interplay in a different direction, as Gardner goes shopping for a sharp herringbone suit that he can’t afford. The two talk through the deal over a skeletal backing (I think that’s King Curtis on sax). Gardner plays his part well—if I had to describe the character he played in the group’s comic song, I’d say he’s a little weaselly, grasping for respect he can’t quite command. Jones was his foil, the stern and calm authority figure that put him in his place.

The group moved past that interplay-based sound as the 60s wore on, and its last recordings, done in 1971, were even pretty funky. And then the Coasters became what they still are, a professional touring act. The lineup of Gardner, Jones, Cornell Gunter and Billy Guy was part of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s second class of inductees in 1987. Gardner was the last survivor from that lineup.

Johnny Otis: “Harlem Nocturne” (Excelsior 45, 1945)

Johnny Otis was born John Alexander Veliotes in 1921. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Vallejo, California, an upbringing that mapped out much of the rest of his life for him. At age 20, he learned the drums after seeing Count Basie’s Orchestra, and for the next couple decades was a tireless promoter of black music, playing in bands, organizing early rock ‘n’ roll shows, leading his own big band and r&b combos, producing records, doing A&R for King Records and DJing at LA’s KFOX.

After forming his first big band in 1945, he cut this spooky, ragged version of Earle Hagen & Dick Rogers’ 1939 tune “Harlem Nocturne.” It was his first hit and set up his whole varied career, which in addition to all his musical activities also includes acting as deputy chief of staff for California congressman Mervin Dymally (his brother Nicholas has been ambassador to Jordan and Egypt), selling organic fruit juice, writing books, painting and scultping.I’ve had a hard time finding a lot of information, but I think Bill Doggett had a pretty big hand in this track.

"Harlem Nocturne" is a killer tune. WFMU’s Beware the Blog posted 42 versions of it after Hagen’s death in 2008, and they show just hard it is to screw this song up. The down-and-out introductory melody is lyrical—it’s the part that makes me think of asphalt soaked with nighttime rain, blinking marquee lights and men in coats and wide-brimmed hats shuffling from one joint to the next. If the opening verse is a smoky drag, the contrasting section is a promenade, going instantly upscale with the key change and shift in rhythm.

It gets me thinking about all the things Harlem has been through its history. Hagen wrote the song as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges (Ellington later recorded at least one version of his own, though I don’t think Hodge played on it), who of course were major exponents of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly during their time at the Cotton Club. I think Hagen was attempting to capture some of the spirit of Harlem in his song, much the way Duke’s orchestra peppered its recordings and performances with horn arrangements that recalled the sounds of city life. Working with only about a three-minute timeframe, he seized on a sort of duality: the city as rough, lonely and decadent, and on the other hand vibrant, creative, stylish.

The result is a tune with depth that feels like it understands the place it’s written about. This may be why it’s been recorded more than 500 times.

I’m planning to spend the whole week exploring Harlem through music—Harlem as an idea, as a place, and as a symbol.

Here’s Johnny Otis:

Johnny Otis

Hidden Track:

Johnny Otis is the father of Shuggie Otis, who played with his father on several albums in the late 60s and early 70s before making a few records of his own.