The Four Tops: “I’ll Turn To Stone” (Reach Out, 1967)

I was thinking about the Four Tops earlier today, mostly because this song was stuck in my head. First, the Frou Tops did something kind of amazing: they were a group with the exact same four members—Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton, Levi Stubbs and Duke Fakir—from the moment the group was founded in as the Four Aims in 1953 all the way to 1997, when Payton died of liver cancer and Lawrence Payton, Jr. stepped in to fill his spot. 

Today, Fakir still tours with a group called the Four Tops, though the other three have all left us. But nearly 50 years as a group is a feat—has anyone else done that? You could argue that because they usually weren’t the authors of their material the group had less potential for friction and strife than a lot of bands, but I don’t think it makes much difference. It’s not as though they didn’t have their ups and downs. 

For one thing, they went from ‘53 all the way to 1964 before “Baby I Need Your Loving” gave them a hit and a national profile. They were just another hard-gigging group trying to pay the bills before that; when they first joined the Motown roster in 1963, they were assigned to the marginal Jazz Workshop imprint and spent most of their time doing backing vocals for other artists. 

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team put them on the map—“Baby I Need Your Loving” was just the first in an amazing run of hits that made them legitimate stars in the mid-to-late 60s. And then Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown with an acrimonious battle, and suddenly the group was adrift. They were huge in Britain, but second to the Temptations in the US, and for a while they were getting kicked cover versions of other people’s hits. Their takes on “Walk Away Renee” and “If I Were a Carpenter” are fine, but they’re several notches below “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and the record-buying public agreed.

They had a last hurrah at Motown in the early 70s, making the Still Waters Run Deep LP with Frank Wilson and scoring a giant hit in the UK with “A Simple Game,” on which their backing band is the Moody Blues, but they didn’t follow the label west when it left Detroit in 1972. Their ABC LPs are mostly pretty good, and their disco-era LPs on Casablanca yielded a few minor hits, but the group was mostly forgotten by general audiences at that point. They spent the rest of the career essentially as a legacy touring act.

During their biggest hit-making years, when H-D-H were still at the helm, they recorded a ridiculous number of amazing songs that were never even released as a-sides. “I’ll Turn To Stone” is one, squirreled away on the Reach Out LP. It’s pretty much what I think of when someone says “Northern Soul.” 

This song moves so easily it’s hard not to imagine a roomful of kids in Wigan moving right along with it. The Four Tops’ alternate history begins with this, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “I Got a Feeling” and “I’m Grateful,” and you can keep digging from there. I sort of wonder if Jeff Lynne heard “I’ll Turn To Stone” in ‘67, because a little more than ten years later, he wrote a song for ELO that seems to nod to it. 

Bruce Channel: “That’s What’s Happening” (Mel-O-Dy 112, 1964)

During the 60s, Motown launched a number of subsidiary imprints that were meant to feature one type of music or another. There was Divinity, a gospel label, Jazz Workshop, primarily a space for the Funk Brothers to cut instrumentals, Weed, a short-lived album-oriented label, and Mel-O-Dy, nominally a country-focused label. 

If you think a country label sounds like an awkward fit with the rest of the Motown stable, you’re pretty much right. The label never took off and didn’t produce any hits, but Dorsey Burnette, Howard Crockett and Bruce Channel, among a few others, did actually cut some pretty good records that Motown never really figured out how to promote.

Consider the case of Channel. In 1962, he had a #1 for Smash Records hit with the million-selling “Hey! Baby,” a laid-back pop tune featuring Delbert McClinton on harmonica that you almost certainly have heard (check whether you have here). Channel, born Bruce McMeans, wasn’t quite able to seize the momentum of “Hey! Baby” and had just two minor hits in the following year before signing with Motown. He was one of the few artists to cut songs outside the Snake Pit in those early days, mostly recording in his home state of Texas, and this song is no exception.

The a-side of Mel-O-Dy 112 was a good, energetic cover of “Satisfied Mind,” which had been a hit for Porter Wagoner nearly a decade earlier, and it actually was recorded at Hitsville, with the Motown house band (it benefits from their presence enormously). This b-side is, in my estimation, a pretty damn great song, if one that would have struggled to find its place in 1964. That chorus hook is just spectacular—Channel wrote it with his friend, Howard Hausey. 

Mel-O-Dy lasted out the year and was shuttered in 1965 as Berry Gordy and the rest of the Motown brass realized that their genre-based side labels were going nowhere and they’d do better to focus on their core r&b business. Channel recorded for a little while longer, but ultimately left the performing world to become a Nashville songwriter.

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.

The Temptations: “No More Water In The Well” (With A Lot O’ Soul, 1967)

My last Undiscovered Motown post featured an album track by Martha & the Vandellas. Let’s stick with album tracks for this one, too.

Paul Williams was a founding member of the Temptations. He and Eddie Kendricks met as children in Alabama and formed their first group in Birmingham, a vocal quartet called the Cavaliers. They and Kel Osbourne, one of the other quartet members, moved to Cleveland in 1957 and became the Primes, ultimately relocating to Detroit, where they became a popular act. So popular, in fact, that they inspired a spin-off group called the Primettes, who would later become the Supremes.

When the Primes disbanded, Williams and Kendricks joined forces with the Distants, a group headed by Otis Williams (no relation). Melvin Franklin and Elbridge Bryant rounded out the group. Paul Williams was the primary lead singer in the group, which called itself the Elgins before renaming itself the Temptations when it joined the Motown roster in 1961 (they recorded one single as the Pirates during their early tenure at Motown as well). Williams also handled choreography (he later devised the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name Of Love” routine).

By 1963, Bryant had done much to alienate himself from the group, including hitting Paul Williams with a beer bottle backstage and putting him in the hospital. They fired Bryant and replaced him with David Ruffin, putting in place the classic lineup that turned the Temptations into hit makers. Producers at Motown favored Ruffin (and sometimes Kendricks) for lead vocals over Williams, and though the group often protested that Williams deserved more leads, he given very few, relegated to album tracks.

"No More Water In The Well," from the group’s excellent 1967 LP With A Lot O’ Soul, is one of those rare leads. This is the LP that began the group’s transition from its harmony soul sound to the Norman Whitfield-directed psychedelic soul material they did in the late 60s and early 70s. That transition is most acute on the seven-and-half-minute workout “Slave,” but you can hear the tougher sound on “No More Water” as well. Williams is gritty on the lead, singing a blues-tinged melody written with him in mind by Smokey Robinson, who produced the song.

Williams wouldn’t have many more lead vocals with the group. He’d suffered from sickle cell anemia for much of his life, drank heavily, and refused to see doctors for his conditions. The other Temptations did what they could to help him out, but by 1969, his health was failing him, and he was forced to retire from performing in 1971. He was replaced by Richard Street but stayed on the payroll.

Eddie Kendricks left the group for a solo career around the same time, and in 1973, Paul Williams went back into the studio with Kendricks to record what was to be his first solo single. The song was called “Feel Like Givin’ Up,” and it was never released. Williams committed suicide shortly after recording it, and everyone involved felt that releasing a song with that title wouldn’t be right.

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: “Easily Persuaded” (Natural Resources, 1970)

To date, every Undiscovered Motown post I’ve done has been a single or b-side that failed to chart or charted very low. For this entry in the series, we’re going to an album track, from the era when Motown albums were starting to get interesting in their own right.

Martha & the Vandellas, here credited with Martha’s full name, had been big hitmakers for Motown in the mid-60s. “Heatwave,” “Nowhere To Run” and “Dancing In The Streets” are three of the defining Motown singles, but The Vandellas were pushed to the margins as Berry Gordy and the company shifted focus to The Supremes, who rewarded the company richly for its decision. Martha was technically a better singer than Diana Ross, and much, much tougher, but that may actually have played against her in the politics of Hitsville—Ross and the Supremes had the magic crossover sound that Gordy was looking for.

Natural Resources was the group’s 1970 LP, and it was their second to be well-constructed of songs that went well together, as opposed to the hodgepodge singles-and-covers LPs Motown threw together for them in the mid-60s. “Easily Persuaded” was slotted second on side one (after a nice take on George Harrison’s “Something”), and it finds the girls in a gritty funk mode—Motown’s orchestration was usually meant to sweeten the songs and telegraph an air of sophistication, but in this case, those horns just add more ballast to the heavy beat.

The lyrics read almost like a sequel to “Nowhere To Run,” as Reeves sorts through her regrets over a relationship that’s crashed and burned in spite of the fact she still really digs the guy—you’ll recall that in “Nowhere To Run,” she slowly but inexorably falls for a guy she knows is bad for her, and yet she can’t get him out of her head. This time, though, there’s a lot more psychedelic guitar, and it’s harder to ignore the verse lyrics and re-read the song as a soundtrack to protests and riots.

The Vandellas only cut one more album for Motown, 1972’s Black Magic. When the label moved all its operations to Los Angeles for good, Reeves refused to go and negotiated her way out of her Motown deal to sign with MCA. She never again experienced the kind of commercial success she’d had with Motown, though. From 2005 through 2009, she served on the Detroit City Council, but left politics after losing her seat.

The Underdogs: “Love’s Gone Bad” (V.I.P. 25040, 1967)

This was the first single released by Motown in 1967. The previous year, Chris Clark had a minor r&b hit with the same song—her version was produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. When Motown signed the Underdogs, who weren’t the first rock band the label had worked with, they assigned them to veteran Motown producer Clarence Paul, and together they took the song in a very different direction.

No one is really sure how many of the four Underdogs are actually on this recording. Tony Roumell’s guitar and Dave Whitehouse’s vocals are definitely on it, and we know it’s Funk Brothers James Jamerson and Earl Van Dyke on bass and organ, respectively. But those backing vocals, and the drums… well, we’re not sure. Roumell remembers being astonished by the caliber of the Motown studio musicians—the Underdogs had been together in various lineups since 1963, when they were all in high school, and they’d had a residency at The Hideout in Detroit as well as a couple singles on Reprise, but the Funk Brothers operated on another plane entirely.

The Underdogs recorded an LP’s worth of other songs for Motown, but no LP was ever assembled and the band split in 1968, leaving Roumell behind as a member of the Motown studio crew. It wasn’t the end for Motown and rock, though—far from it. The company eventually established Rare Earth as its rock imprint (after the abortive effort with Weed Records). In ‘67, I don’t think Motown really knew what to do with a rock band, and the signing of the Underdogs was more a case of not wanting to be left out.

Liner Note:

One more note on this song: I mentioned Brian Holland’s desperate lyrics up there. Motown songwriters excelled at pinpointing the moment where emotions are most intense, and writing whole songs around them. They intentionally abandon nuance and common sense, and turn moments of romantic despair into crushing, world-ending moments of emotional death. Hence, ice-cold water in the veins, black crows flying above, a bad taste in the mouth from bitter tears, and that classic line, “I see a rainbow, all black.”

My friends Aaron and Jaime once illustrated this perfectly. Jaime likes The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and who doesn’t? That’s a great song. But as the song was playing, and she was grooving along to it, Aaron made this point: “You’d hate this guy.” And it was true. The narrator of that song is a pathetic, groveling fool. There’s a whole strain of songwriting whose ethos is basically, “I don’t care how bad you treat me, I’m going to keep loving you and you’ll love me back.” This is something songs can do that would be totally insufferable in any other medium. They can focus emotions and prolong moments in ways nothing else can.

Chris Clark: “Love’s Gone Bad” (V.I.P. 25038, 1966)

After mentioning this song yesterday, I had to go ahead and do an entry on it. This will be the first of two, because I’m going to hit the Underdogs version as well.

Chris Clark was one of the few white singers on the Motown roster in the mid-60s (you hear all kinds of nonsense about this or that singer or band being the first white Motown performers, but the label pretty much always had at least a few white artists around, from the Valadiers all the way up through Rare Earth). She’d not yet had a hit for the company, but “Love’s Gone Bad” got her close, landing at #41 on the r&b chart.

Clark was positioned as something of an American answer to Dusty Springfield, a tall blond doing good work as a soul singer. She was more popular in Springfield’s homeland of England than she was in the U.S., actually. Clark recorded a couple albums for Motown in addition to her singles, and her 1969 LP CC Rides Again, the only thing ever released on Motown’s short-lived label Weed (“All your favorite artists are on Weed”), is an enjoyable if minor record.

"Love’s Gone Bad" is as tough and gritty as Motown got in 1966. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team kept the arrangement relatively stripped for it, relying on just some drums (probably Pistol Allen), James Jamerson’s, rumbling bass part and a bit of stabbing organ and guitar that gives it a garage-y sound. No horns or strings or backing vocals or anything like that. It shows a fair amount of confidence in the singer to leave her so exposed.

It was confidence Chris Clark likely appreciated, because she’s admitted in interviews that the Motown process—she typically had an hour to learn a song that was intentionally arranged two keys too high for her—made her nervous. In the notes of the 1966 Complete Motown Singles set, she admits that she didn’t know what to do when Brian Holland told her to cut loose over the closing vamp.

A lot of H-D-H productions do that—as the song fades out, you hear the singer ad-libbing. On “What Becomes Of the Brokenhearted,” Jimmy Ruffin’s ad-libs are the only part of the song that aren’t completely depressing. Clark wasn’t used to doing that, and as a result, Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers cut the song off abruptly, forgoing the fade entirely.

Clark’s singing career never really took off. She toured with Motown revues (often as the only white artist on the bill), and scraped the charts a few more times, but stardom just was never in the cards. In the 1970s, Clark moved from the studio in the Motown administration, and she also co-wrote Lady Sings the Blues, the Diana Ross star vehicle that launched Motown’s film arm. These days, she’s a professional photographer.

The Supremes: “Your Heart Belongs To Me” (Motown 1027, 1962)

A couple weekends ago, my wife and I visited the Motown Museum at 2648 West Grand Bouleavard in Detroit. It’s not a very imposing structure, two bungalows with mismatched exteriors attached together, with a big Hitsville USA over the picture window of one of them. It’s surrounded by a funeral home parking lot and a few other former homes that have been turned into businesses, including a beauty shop, a florist and pharmacy. There is a massive hospital down the street, the flagship of the Henry Ford Health System.

The tour is pretty good—it ends in the Snake Pit, the garage-turned-studio that Motown conquered the world out of. There’s a vending machine outside the studio with candy from the 70s in it. They always put the Baby Ruths in the same slot so Stevie Wonder could get them without asking for help.

One of the coolest things about visiting the house comes early in the tour. You’re wandering around a room with memorabilia plastered all over the walls (including a business card from Berry Gordy’s failed record store, a shot of his family’s grocery store, and a bunch of 45s), and then you walk through a certain part of the room and it… sounds different. That’s because you’ve walked right under the old echo chamber, which was built into the attic. You can stand there snapping your fingers under the opening and hear the slapback effect that characterizes just about every major Motown recording.

Before there was a settled Motown sound, though, there was a lot of work done to figure out what that sound might be, and this early Supremes single, just their fourth if you count the one they made as the Primettes, makes much more judicious use of the echo chamber than any of the chart toppers they’d release over the next several years. There’s a bit of echo on the bongos, the snare and… that’s it. It’s sort of strange to hear Diana Ross without all that reverb, actually.

This song did not chart. At least not in this version. Shortly after it was released to virtually no response, a second pressing, this one loaded with reverb, was released. This one gave the Supremes their first chart showing, way down at #95 pop. But I prefer the original, dry recording. Something about the dryness makes it feel more intimate, which is appropriate, given the kind of song it is.

"Your Heart Belongs To Me" was written and produced by Smokey Robinson, and it’s one of a handful of Motown songs from the early 60s that eerily looks ahead to American escalation in Vietnam. The song’s forthright devotion and faith that the lover the song is sung to may be tempted to stray so far away from home but won’t are almost heartbreakingly innocent considering what was coming.

Even before Vietnam spiraled into the war that changed everything, the members of the Motown family would have been plenty familiar with having family and friends shipped overseas for periods of military service. It was a simple reality of being black in America—members of your race formed a disproportionately large percentage of the active duty military. This is one of the primary reasons that Robinson’s treatment of the story in this song is so humane and real.

Ross really sounds the part of a smitten young woman—her voice was never a booming instrument, and truth be told, this is the first Supremes single on which she sounds especially good. On earlier singles, you can hear intonation problems—she had trouble staying in key. The other Surpremes in 1962 were Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson, and they do a fine job here with the dry production.

The b-side of this single, “He’s Seventeen,” is pretty awful, but more than “Your Heart” it does point toward the sound the Supremes would become famous by in 1964 when they were paired with Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers. The drums fills in particular are classic Motown sound. Meanwhile, The Supremes had another year and a half of obscure toil ahead of them before they broke through.

Marvin Gaye: “Walk On The Wild Side” (Tamla T 54101 B, 1964)

Holy smokes, Marvin. What a thing to tuck away on a b-side. Not that it was really up to Marvin Gaye in 1964 which tracks got put on which side of his singles, but this is one that always felt like buried treasure to me. Marvin had his first chart hit in 1962 with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (#8 R&B/#46 Pop), and by 1964, Motown had a defined strategy for his 45s: the tough R&B track on the A and the suave crooner track on the B.

"Walk On the Wild Side" was supposed to fill that suave crooner niche, but it winds up being the shouter on this one. A-side "Baby Don’t You Do It" is a great song, riding a single chord and a rushing rhythm, with a typically great, heavily syncopated vocal from Marvin, backed up by the Andantes, but it’s positively low-key compared to the bashing orchestration and preaching vocal of its flip (it scraped #14 on the R&B chart).

Released in September, “Walk On the Wild Side” served double duty as a preview for Marvin’s late-1964 album Hello Broadway, on which he tackled such chestnuts as “Days Of Wine And Roses,” “Hello Dolly,” and “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” “Walk On The Wild Side” itself was fairly fresh when Marvin made it his own—it had been the theme song of a 1962 film by Edward Dmytryk, in an instrumental version by Elmer Bernstein, and in a vocal version by Brook Benton, with lyrics by Mack David. The Bernstein instrumental plays over a fantastic Saul Bass title sequence.

You can check for yourself, but Marvin’s version of the song frankly blows the Benton version out of the water. In fact, it might owe more to the great version cut in late 1962 by jazz organist Jimmy Smith, which was arranged by the incomparable Oliver Nelson (see a fantastic live version on Jazz Scene U.S.A. here, with a cameo from host Oscar Brown, Jr.—note that the year is off on the description).

Marvin was riding pretty high in late 1964 when he recorded this. He’d had three big hits in “You’re A Wonderful One,” “Try It Baby” and “Baby Don’t You Do It,” had cut his first duet records with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, made his first appearance on American Bandstand, and was married to the boss’ sister, Anna Gordy. That didn’t end well—1978’s Here, My Dear is an entire album about their awful divorce.

One last thing about this song: it illustrates one of music’s more mysterious powers, at least to me. I’m not a religious person and have a general allergy to dogma, but some songs can make me sit back and just enjoy it. This is one of them.

The Fantastic Four: “I Feel Like I’m Falling In Love Again” (Soul S 35058, 1969)

Another installment of Undiscovered Motown. Some artists were just cursed during their time at Motown. The Spinners are a great example—they spent years on the label struggling to be heard while the Temptations ruled the chart, then finally scored a couple minor hits right before leaving for Atlantic and stardom.

The Fantastic Four were the biggest act on Ric-Tic Records in 1968, when Barry Gordy bought the label and signed all of its artists. Among the others who came to Hitsville in the deal was Edwin Starr. Starr struggled for about a year at Motown, but ultimately hit very, very big. Not so for the Four.

They cut some excellent singles for Gordy’s labels—this one was the production debut of Clay McMurray for Motown. It has all the hallmarks of Motown’s late 60s sophisticated soul sound: brilliant orchestration, great backing vocals and a soaring lead by James Epps.

And it absolutely stiffed upon release, like everything else they cut specifically for Motown. There’s no musical reason it should have flopped—that’s down to much more mundane business matters. While the Fantastic Four (to my knowledge, the name has nothing to do with the superheroes) were the big fish in the Ric-Tic pond, at Motown, they were drowned out by the label’s established hitmakers. Epps has said in interviews that he never felt the label was interested in the group.

A decade after this song, the group finally did climb back onto the charts, remade in a disco mold, releasing a few moderate hits on Westbound, and they kept right on performing until Epps and fellow member Cleveland Horne both passed in 2000.