May 19 – When Stevie Really Began To Shine

Some cute child prodigies seem to enter the stage with a flourish then disappear before puberty sets in. Once in awhile though, they just keep getting better and making more of a mark for themselves. Such was the case for Stevie Wonder, as we were reminded this day in 1973. That was when he scored his second #1 song of the year, and third overall, with “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life.” It was the second single off his Talking Book album, 15th (besides compilations) of his career…even though he was just 22 when it came out!

Talking Book was considered by many the beginning of the run of truly great albums he made through the ’70s. Not that his earlier work was chopped liver; he’d already delivered such memorable hits as “For Once In My Life” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” But little by little he’d been getting better, and taking more control over his music. While most of his early songs were written by others, some covers of well-known hits, others written specifically for him by Motown staff, by Talking Book he was the main writer of all the songs. Not to mention that his expertise on the keyboards kept increasing, and his range of instruments expanding. On this hit, he played the electric piano and drums, he added a range of synthesizers and the clavinet (best heard on his other single from the record, “Superstition”) to the mix. Loni Groves and Gloria Barley add background vocals on this, with Jim Gilstrap singing the first two lines. The reasoning for that was seemingly known only to Wonder, but it worked!

At under three minutes it was the shortest song on the album (the album and single are the same length but the single had the tasteful horns added in) and also the first one recorded. It was recorded in one night at the Electric Lady Studios in New York City during the sessions for his previous album, but he decided to hold it back. Undeniably a happy little love song, one is left to surmise what his inspiration was. He’s said “the feeling of the melody is happy because I wrote in when I was in New York in late spring, early summer. Good things were happening!” Which is nice to hear, albeit suprising as that was right around the time Wonder was divorcing his first wife, fellow Motown singer Syreeta Wright.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is one of those ’70s songs that seems to raise spirits right away. Rolling Stone would call it a “pop tour de force” while Billboard predicted it would be a hit, noting its “outstanding production.” Years later, the former would rank it among the 200 best songs of all-time.

It didn’t let anybody down commercially, being the hit predicted. It got to #1 in the U.S. by knocking Tony Orlando’s massive “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” out of the top spot. It was a top 10 in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other lands and won Stevie one of four Grammys he’d collect in 1974, it winning Best Pop Performance by a Male. Amazingly though, most agree his best work was still to come, later in the decade, proving again that Stevie lives up to his last name.

April 25 – What It Took For Junior To Score A Major Hit

A major hit from Junior made its blew onto the scene this day in 1969. That was Junior Walker & the All Stars sax-happy “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)?”. The single represented quite a comeback for Junior, who’d scored a major hit five years prior with “Shotgun”, a song which has lived on to this day in numerous commercials and movies. It solidified Walker’s reputation as one of the best sax-men in the business and helped usher in the widespread use of horns in pop or rock songs.

Junior” was born Autry Mixon, in rural Arkansas in 1931. He seemed to get to music rather late in life, at least in a professional way, forming a band called the Jumping Jerks around the beginning of the ’60s. At some point, a fan jumped on stage with them and declared “these guys are all stars!” Junior agreed and decided that would be a better name for the group. Apparently Berry Gordy agreed as well; soon after the Motown mogul signed them to Soul Records, a subsidiary of Motown. Walker’s prominent tenor sax differentiated them from most of the other Motown acts of the day, and made them (in the words of Britain’s Independent) “Motown’s answer to Stax’s Booker T & the MGs.” They had good success off the bat with “Shotgun” and were a major presence on R&B radio stations and charts in subsequent years but had only minor mainstream success until this.

The song was written by Motown staffers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, who also produced the record. It would have been a mere “hurtin’ unrequited love song” were it not for Junior’s impassioned pleading voice – he was one of the rare sax players who also sang lead – and of course, the sax that could rival the best horns Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears could have thrown at you in the day. It’s 35-second sax solo intro was like nothing else on air at the time. Which perhaps was why Gordy balked at releasing it as a single.

However, radio DJs found it buried on the Home Cookin’ LP and began playing it, and eventually Motown relented and put it out as a single. A smart move, as it would revitalize the All Stars career and become a gold seller. It got to #4 in the States, topping R&B charts, and made the top 20 in the UK and Canada as well. It was nominated for the very first Best R&B Performance Grammy Award, losing out to the less-remembered King Curtis.

Clarence Clemons later said this was one of the most influential records to him and his playing, and it also found fans in the guys in Foreigner. They liked his playing so much, they wrote a sax part specifically for him on their song “Urgent.” Meanwhile, also in the the ’80s, easy-listening sensation Kenny G re-recorded it and made it a minor hit.

Walker never had as big a hit again, and passed away in 1995 from cancer.

April 23 – Chart Topper One For Four Tops

The Four Tops were heading to the top on this day in 1965 with the release of one of Motown’s biggest, and best singles – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.)” It would go on to be their first #1 single and one of the defining ones of the whole Motown sound of the ’60s.

The quartet had “paid their dues” as they say, having been around for over a decade at that point, and having put out their first single way back in 1956 on Chess Records. They signed to Motown in ’63 and had decent success with “Baby I Need Your Loving” on their first album, with it getting to #11 in the U.S. and making their name known among the growing roster of stars on the Detroit-based label.

Like most of that company’s hits in the first half of the decade, “I Can’t Help Myself” was written by the great trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, with Lamont Dozier seemingly the chief creator of this one. He admitted the melody was similar to the one in the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?”, and when someone had pointed it out to him when tooling around with the new song, he answered “I can’t help myself” – from writing the same tune over again basically. He liked the way the phrase sounded and worked it in, as well as the parenthethetical one, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.” That one dates back to his childhood.

I stayed with my grandmother when I was a kid. She owned a home beauty shop, and when the women would come up the walkway to get their hair done, my grandfather…was a bit of a flirt (and he) would say ‘How you doin’, sugar pie?’ ‘Good morning, honey bunch’…just flirting with a big smile.”

They recorded it with the Funk Brothers – an unfortunately rather anonymous set of Detroit studio musicians including great bassist James Jamerson – playing the music and Levi Stubbs of the group singing lead…against his wishes. He apparently hated the song, thinking it too lightweight and “sugar”y.

He was in the minority though. At the time Billboard called it a “spirited, fast-paced wailer performed in their unique style”; years later allmusic would simply classify it as “magnificent.” The public agreed, with it spending two weeks on top of the charts that summer and nine weeks at #1 on the R&B one. It also became their first top 40 in the UK, where it eventually was certified gold. And like it or not, 20 years later it was a highlight of their set at Live Aid. At that time, Stubbs seemingly couldn’t help himself from enjoying the moment.

April 2 – Marvin Moved Motown Toward Music That Mattered

Today we mark the 83rd anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th Century’s most important and celebrated musicians – Marvin Gaye. Born this day in 1939 in Washington DC and tragically killed by his own father a day shy of his 45th birthday in L.A., he crammed a lot of great Detroit music in the time he had. According to Casey Kasem, Gaye was the most successful solo artist of “the Beatles years”, a time when groups reigned supreme. And yet, his best work was still to come at that point. We’ve looked at his life before, so today we’ll look a bit at why he’s so revered. After all, he’s one of very few artists to be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

While Gaye ran off an impressive list of hit singles in the ’60s, like “How Sweet It Is” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, as well as duets with Tammi Terrell like “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, there wasn’t yet much to distinguish him from other popular Motown artists of the day, or many of the other pop singers on other labels for that matter. He had a great voice, but basically just sang what his record company bosses told him to. However, around the end of the decade, that began to change. Ironically, he’d written some hit singles, like Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets”, but not recorded them himself.

Maybe it was letters from his brother serving in Vietnam. Maybe it was seeing footage of the race riots going on, many near his record company’s front doors. Maybe it was seeing the growing level of poverty in Detroit, or reading of one young performer after another dying from heroin. Whatever it was, he had an epiphany. “In 1969 or ’70, I began to re-evaluate what I wanted to say,” he told Rolling Stone. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.” So he set out to do that, and along the way probably came to realize that he needed more control over other aspects of the music. He was a professional drummer before joining Motown, and a competent enough keyboardist too, and he’d spent enough time in a recording studio to know how things worked. He began to play some of the music himself, produce the records himself and when he used other musicians, he was going to give credit to the session players and name them on his record notes.

None of this pleased his record company or its owner, Berry Gordy. As Rolling Stone put it, “the last thing Motown wanted its fans to do was think about what was happening in the world.” Motown had struck a gold mine in the ’60s with happy-sounding, easy-breezy love songs that made acts like the Supremes and Four Tops superstars. He didn’t want to rock the boat, even if he had to close his own offices and studio a time or two because the rioting on the streets outside made it too dangerous to get there. But Gaye persevered and recorded What’s Going On?, his 1971 masterpiece – which his boss hated. As the Songwriters Hall point out, with that album not only did he begin to take total control over his recordings but “he took on political and social issues like the Vietnam War, drugs, equality and the environment, while incorporating jazz, pop and classical styles.” It was as big a change from what he’d done before as The Beatles Abbey Road was from “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Not only did Gordy hate it, he wouldn’t allow the title track, nor “Mercy Mercy Me” to be put out as singles until Marvin threatened to go on strike and not record or tour again for the label unless they were. Of course, he was proven right. The song “What’s Going On?” became Motown’s biggest hit single to that point and the album sold millions. What’s more, it’s still critically-acclaimed, being named the greatest album of all-time by Rolling Stone recently (previous versions of their list had it ranked at #6) and by The Guardian in Britain back in 1997.

The Temptations had a similar problem getting there opus “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” released the following year, but Berry had seemingly learned to not argue against records his artists felt strongly about, even when he disagreed. And soon after, Stevie Wonder came into his own, taking a similar trajectory to Gaye, soon writing, playing and producing most all of his own records in the ’70s, many of them making pointed social commentaries on many of the same issues Gaye had. Some – and I would put us here as among those “some” – would say Wonder even did it better than Marvin… but it’s reasonable to wonder if he’d have had a chance to were it not for Gaye mapping the trail first.

Gaye of course kept recording after What’s Going On? with mixed results, producing some very good and popular and some not so well-received records and seemed to be just beginning a career rejuvenation when he was murdered. But if we remember him for just one thing, it would be that record… and his letting other artists know, by his example, to be their own men (and women) and if they were being forced to make music they didn’t feel, ask themselves “what’s going on?” 

*Tomorrow, I’m happy to be kicking off a new feature we hope to run periodically through the year. In addition to regular posts , we’ll be running a guest column each day for four or five, with great music fans talking about one topic . I hope you’ll like it and see one topic through various eyes – and ears.*

March 6 – ‘My Girl’ Was Pretty Tempt-ation-ing To Listeners

Motown had one of its first big days this day in 1965 – “My Girl” by the Temptations hit #1 in the U.S., making it the first chart-topper on mainstream charts for that band and only the second one for male artists on Motown. Until that point the Detroit label had most of its success with girl groups such as the Supremes. For the Temptations, it was their 11th single but the first one to go to the top of the singles chart, although the previous year they’d had their first of 15 #1’s on the R&B chart with “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

It came about at the Apollo Theater in late-’64, when two of Motown’s top acts – The Temptaions and The Miracles – were playing double bills. Smokey Robinson had written the song, with a little help from his Miracles bandmate Ronald White, and the Temptations heard it and loved it. The story varies a little depending on who tells it, and when. Robinson originally said his wife back then, Claudette, inspired it, but years afterwards would say it was “written with all the women in the world in mind.” Likewise, at times he’s said he originally planned to have The Miracles do it, with him singing it himself, but was convinced to let The Temptations do it because they loved it so much; other times he’s said he wrote it specifically for David Ruffin of The Temptations who could “belt out” the tunes with his “mellow yet gruff” voice. Either way, that’s what happened and it was the first Temptations single to have Ruffin singing lead. Eddie Kendricks had usually been their main singer upto then.

The rest of the group weren’t ecstatic at the idea at first but Smokey and Berry Gordy (Motown’s owner) convinced them to let Ruffin take the mic and the results were startling- they went on to have a great string of hits with him singing including “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”. Of course, the universality and simplicity of the song and catchy melody would have likely made it a hit with any of the Temptations taking the lead. A few months after its release, it was put out on the album The Temptations Sing Smokey, with them doing a full LP’s worth of Robinson songs. It was the first of eight-straight albums by them to go to the top of R&B charts. While the song hit #1 in the U.S., it only got to #8 in Canada and missed the top 40 altogether in Britain at the time. However, oddly enough it was re-released and got to #2 there in 1992 when it was used as the title track to a Macaulay Culkin movie! 

Rolling Stone rank it as the 88th greatest song of all-time, sandwiched between two other ’60s greats, the Mamas & the Papa’s “California Dreamin’” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” By the way, Robinson apparently didn’t want to be sexist… he also wrote the hit “My Guy” for Mary Wells, another #1 hit for Motown.

February 19 – The Voice That Made Motown

Happy 82nd birthday to one of the great voices – and minds – of 20th-Century pop- Smokey Robinson. William Jr. got the nickname “Smokey Joe” from an uncle who took him to cowboy movies as a kid, but as much as he liked the flicks, Robinson loved music more. Growing up in “Motown” (Detroit), near Diana Ross, he’d formed a doo-wop group called the 5 Chimes by age 13; they’d morphed into The Miracles by 1958. Soon after, he met Berry Gordy Jr. and The Miracles became one of the first acts signed to the then new Motown label. Their “Shop Around” became Motown’s first million-seller and before he was done, he’d contributed to 26 top 40 hits for them, writing many and singing lead on most.

But hits like “Tears of A Clown” and “I Second That Emotion” weren’t all Smokey gave to the record company. By the mid-’60s he was VP of the company and he thought so much of his boss he named his first two kids “Berry” and “Gordy.” The feeling seemed mutual; Gordy wrote that “he reminded me of me – so passionate about his music.” He briefly quit the performing side of music around 1972, to devote more time to his family and business career but quickly found that boring and launched a successful solo career which yielded ten more top 40s through the ’70s and ’80s, like “Cruisin'” and “Being With You”, a gold single which went to #1 in the UK in 1981. His career continues albeit it at a slowed rate; his most recent works being an album of duets with the likes of Elton John, Sheryl Crow and John Legend in 2014 and a Christmas album in 2017.

Robinson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, among an elite group of early rock pioneers that included Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. In their words, he “put (Motown) on the map” with his “gorgeous” songs and his work as a talent scout. More recently, he was the recipient of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize, their highest honor for musicians, in 2016.

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This marks post #3000 here at A Sound Day! I look forward to thousands more to come but would like to thank all of you for reading, especially the regulars like Max (Badfinger 20), Jim (New Epic Author), Obbverse, Deke and Lisa (Tao Talk) who seem to be daily visitors and commentators which is much appreciated. But whether this is your first visit to my site or your thousandth, thank you!

In the coming months I hope to have some more new artist interviews and record reviews in addition to the usual daily columns, and perhaps try to get an index going. With 3000 articles mentioning literally thousands of artists and records, that will be quite a task, as you might imagine, but it remains a goal. In the meantime, don’t forget you can search for your favorite artist or record through the search button (the magnifying glass) which appears on top of the site on mobile phones and around the bottom on computer web browsers. Or if using the computer, you can click on the 75 most popular topics for the articles related to them, as listed on the right side.

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to let me know through the comments section.

February 8 – Mary, The Supreme Supreme?

Remembering one of Motown’s almost anonymous greats, Mary Wilson, who passed away one year ago today at age 76. Wilson was, more than anyone else really, the supreme member of The Supremes, even though fate and Berry Gordy have conspired to make that fact relatively unknown. She was the only permanent member of the most-successful “girl group” of all-time, after all.

Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, but her family moved north, first to Chicago then Detroit when she was a small child. In Detroit, she met Florence Ballard at school, and Aretha Franklin in church. She and Ballard began singing at talent shows while still young teens, and by 1959 joined the girl group the Primettes. They quickly signed to a small label (Lupine Records) and had a couple of early singles out, including “Pretty Baby”, on which Mary sang lead. They weren’t particularly successful, but did catch the attention of Berry Gordy, who signed them to Motown, insisting they change their name…and utilize Diana Ross as the “face” and lead singer. So were born The Supremes.

Although they didn’t take off right away, by 1964 they were red-hot, running off five-straight #1 American singles, including “Baby Love” and “Stop! In The Name of Love”. They’d go on to put out a dozen #1 songs and 20 top tens, making them the 26th biggest recording act of all-time according to Billboard. If the Beatles personified British music of the ’60s, it could be said The Supremes did so for American music.

Although they were able to replace Florence Ballard fairly easily when she quit (or got fired) in 1967, replacing Ross after she left in ’70 was more daunting. A number of new voices came and went in the ’70s, but the time when the Supremes ruled supreme was clearly over. Wilson decided to quit the band in 1977; initially Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene, two newcomers to the group, had planned to push on but they themselves hung up the mics days later. Wilson went on tour as “Mary Wilson of the Supremes.”

In 1979, she put out a solo album on Motown, which won middling reviews. Cashbox, for instance said she “fared well on this disco-oriented excursion.” It would post only lukewarm sales however, and she was let go by Motown – her employer of nearly 20 years. She focused more on musical theatre and writing in the ’80s, releasing an autobiography, Dreamgirl, My Life As A Supreme, in ’86. Curiously, it didn’t inspire the musical Dreamgirls, rather the latter inspired her book title. The play was already running and she was said to have been the inspiration for the Lorrell character in it. Her book was a best-seller, but also deepened the chasm between her and Ross who she described as rather a selfish diva. Still, they did put differences aside briefly to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame soon after that.

In the ’90s, she recorded a second album, Walk the Line (which included her remake of the Supremes song “You Keep Me Hanging On”) , but through absurd bad luck, the record label went bankrupt the day after her record came out, effectively stopping all promotion for, and distribution of, it. She wouldn’t record again until well into the 2000s; in 2015 she had a minor dance hit she put out herself, “Time to Move On”, and when it moved onto Billboard‘s Dance chart, she set a record for longest time between chart appearances – 36 years.

She was far from inactive though in those years. She became a popular motivational speaker, with a set of lectures known as “Dare to Dream”, about overcoming adversity, and did volumes of charitable work for organizations like Unicef, St. Jude’s Hospital and the Cancer Society. Also, disturbed by a number of the short-term members of the Supremes touring using the name “Supremes” she took several to court, arguing that she was given 50% rights to the name. Courts disagreed (saying “Supremes” was the property of Motown and they could let anybody they chose use it) getting her to advocate for the “Truth in Music” bill which would force bands to have at least one original member to continue using the name … ie, they’d be no “Rolling Stones” after Mick and Keith leave this mortal coil. Or “if”! So far, it hasn’t been approved nationally but a number of states have passed similar legislation.

Wilson passed away near Las Vegas from heart disease, only a year or so after being a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, at age 75. She said she was working on a new record days before her passing. Berry Gordy reacted, saying he was “shocked and saddened” by her passing and noting “she was quite a star in her own right.” Which she was, albeit one who might have shone a little brighter had he not been so singularly fixated on that other Supreme, the “Diva” , years earlier.

January 29 – James, Basically Best Bassist No One Knew

Remembering the best bassist you’ve never heard of today. Or, even if you have heard of James Jamerson, probably the best bassist – at least according to Bass Player magazine and Rolling Stone. Jamerson was born this day in 1936. Although he was a session player, he managed to play on at least 23 #1 singles and, according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bring the bass “out of the shadows and to the forefront of music.”

Jamerson was born in rural South Carolina, with a musical family. His grandmother was a talented pianist and one aunt a singer. So, not surprisingly, he learned to play piano quite young, and was good at it. He even played a little trombone, perhaps not so well. But when they moved to Detroit in the early-’50s, he found the standup bass and took to it quickly. Soon he was playing in R&B and jazz combos in the clubs there, then touring with Jackie Wilson. About that time, he’d switched to a Fender electric bass. That helped him get his foot in the door at Motown, where by 1960, he was getting regular work as the go-to session bassist. Through the ’60s, he played on the majority of Motown records, often with friends who dubbed themselves the “Funk Brothers.” “Bernadette” by the Four Tops? “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes? “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye? All Jamerson on bass, as were countless others. “When they gave me that chord sheet,” he explained, “I’d look at it but I’d just start doing what I felt and what I thought would work.” Jamerson treated it like a day job, working through the day in the Hitsville Studio and often playing in jazz outfits in bars at night. Which he must have enjoyed, since by the late-’60s he was being paid $1000 a week by Motown, or about $8000 today. What he wasn’t getting though was public attention, since Motown would not list session musicians back in that era.

That only changed in 1971, and it started with Marvin. Gaye so wanted Jamerson to play on his “What’s Going On?” single that when he wasn’t in the studio, he sent crew out to look for him. They located James, very drunk, in a bar, and brought him back to Gaye. Unable to stand up, he played the track lying down! Gaye on that album was the first Motown act to list his backing players, putting Jamerson as “the incomparable James Jamerson.”

Things began to change when Motown moved west. Although he followed Berry Gordy & Co. to L.A., their sound was changing and he was less in demand. He quit the label in 1973, but kept quite busy through the decade working on albums by the likes of Tavares, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, and even Robert Palmer. The workload lessened more in the ’80s as his drinking escalated and he refused to alter his playing style to suit the times. Sadly he died in 1983 from a combination of cirrhosis and pneumonia. His son James Jamerson Jr. followed in dad’s footsteps, also being a well-received professional bassist, playing on records by the likes of Janet Jackson, Phillip Bailey and Aretha Franklin) and also died quite young, in 2016.

Although not well-known to the listening public by name, other musicians took note, including Paul McCartney who cited James as a major influence on his bass-playing. In 2000, the Rock Hall inducted him, saying Jamerson “bestowed the funkiest, grooviest basslines in the Motown catalogue.” Since then, both Rolling Stone and Bass Player have listed him as the greatest bassist ever. The latter said he “wrote the bible on bassline construction and development.” Not bad for an anonymous player!

January 20 – Marvin Was The Main Man At Motown

Marvin Gaye proved that just being the boss doesn’t automatically make you right on this day in 1971. That was when he released – much to the consternation of Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr.’s consternation – the great single “What’s Going On?” A few months later, he’d release the highly-successful album of the same name.

Gordy didn’t like the song, and especially didn’t like Gaye doing it. Which, coincidentally it wasn’t really supposed to be at first. The song was brought to life by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops, when he saw police violently quell an anti-war demonstration in California. He asked his bandmates and friends “what’s going on?” and pondering the validity of the Vietnam War as well as the response to protest. He and Motown staff writer Al Cleveland wrote the song…more or less. Benson wanted his band to record it, but the other Tops would have no part of it, telling him they didn’t do “protest songs.” He argued “no man, it’s a love song about love and understanding.” Presumably it’s rather a  “glass half empty, glass half full” sort of situation – are lyrics like “war is not the answer” and “we’ve got to find a way to get some love in here today” protesting the world around them or optimistic statements? Benson thought the latter, but they didn’t buy in, so in turn he offered it to Marvin. Gaye rewrote some lyrics and changed the pacing a little. In his words, “we measured him for the suit, then he tailored the hell out of it!”

Indeed he did. As the Detroit Free Press noted, he was by then tired of singing love songs, and the “death of singing partner Tammi Terrell had shaken him up, letters from his brother in Vietnam concerned him.” He had an idea of a very easy-sounding song that would have dramatic punch. He got that recording in Detroit, with some of the regular “Funk Brothers” musicians like guitarist Robert White and bassist James Jamerson as well as a few of his own musician friends. Then he even invited a couple of Detroit Lions football players and some rank-and-file Motown staff into the studio to sing some backing vocals and chat (the talking in the background that makes the song so unusual sounding) and doubtless partake of a little of the ganja that Gaye had in good supply to help keep things “mellow.”

Gordy didn’t like the idea of Gaye doing a protest song, but when he heard the finished product… he disliked it even more. He called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Initially he refused to release it, let alone as a lead-off single from a forthcoming album. However, Gaye stood his ground and more or less threatened to go on strike against Motown until it came out. The label owner decided discretion was the better part of valour as next to Diana Ross, Gaye was probably his biggest single star at that time. The rest is history.

The single sold better than 200 000 copies in its first week, and by year’s-end had become Motown’s biggest-selling single at that point. It got to #2 in the U.S. (he’d had a #1 before with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” but this one outsold that) and was his seventh #1 R&B hit. It’s popularity then did seem restricted to the Red, White and Blue however; it failed to crack the top 60 in the UK, Canada or Australia. (As an aside, that is an odd statistic because a check of that singles chart for Toronto, Canada’s biggest market, showed it made it to #10 there in May.) However, through the years it became acclaimed internationally.

Rolling Stone have consistently listed it among the top 10 greatest songs of all-time, ranking it #6 in their most recent stab at that list. VH1 considered it the 14th greatest song ever, and in Motown itself, the Free Press readers voted it as the second “greatest Detroit song of all-time”, behind only Aretha’s “Respect.” They label the song “timeless and timely”and praise Gaye who “wasn’t shoving anything into listeners faces (but) he was leading them by the hand.”

Most reports suggest Berry Gordy never did warm up much to the record. But we bet he did warm to the influx of money to his company’s coffers from it.

December 8 – Stevie Had A Hit…For Many Times In His Life

He was only 18, but it was becoming clear “little” Stevie Wonder was going to become a big star. On this day in 1968, he put out his eleventh album overall, For Once In My Life. A busy teen, it was his second album of that fall alone, following the overlooked instrumental work, Eivets Rednow (which was his name spelled backwards, in case you’re wondering.)

While not as great as much of the work that he brought out in the following decade, it gave us a clear indication of the talent he had…and would continue to develop. For example, it was the first record on which he used the clavinet, an instrument he would become the master on with later songs like “Superstition”. Although he had lots of help in the studio for this album, he did play harmonica, drums and various other percussion instruments on it, and co-wrote eight of the 12 tunes. An indication perhaps of how excited about Stevie Motown was – one of the songs on the album, “The House on the Hill” was co-written by the label’s owner, Berry Gordy.

Among the noteworthy tracks on it were “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Day”, which became his sixth U.S. top 10 single, his cover of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” and the great title track, which hit #2 in the U.S. #3 in the UK and #5 in Canada. However, allmusic (which rated the album as 3-stars, calling it “one of Wonder’s more consistent albums of the ’60s”) said the “real find” on it was “I Don’t Know Why”, which became a top 40 hit as a two-sided single. The other side was pretty good too, the song which would end up being the title track to his next album, “My Cherie Amour.