January 24 – O’Jays, And All Of Us Too

I love music, you love music (or else you probably wouldn’t be reading this) and the O’Jays love music too. Or at least their 1975 hit tells us that. “I Love Music” peaked at #5 on Billboard this day 48 years ago.

The O’Jays are one of the longest-running vocal groups around, having being formed by a group of high school friends in Ohio in 1958. Their lineup’s changed through the years, as one would expect, but remarkably has had Eddie Levert and Walter Williams as constants through the decades; Levert’s in his 80s now! They put out their first single in 1960, and had minor success during the ’60s on the R&B charts, but never made it big until they looked east and signed with Philadelphia International records, home to the Philly soul sound and home to artists like Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul and Patti Labelle. Their first single on that label, “Backstabbers” went to #3 and earned them their first gold single. By the time this single came around in the middle of the decade, it was their fifth top 10 hit and fourth gold single – besides “Backstabbers” they also had “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money”. Their popularity on the R&B charts jumped as well – after having just one top 10 on that specialty list before Philadelphia, they’d score eight in a little over three years!

Like most of their other hit songs (and in fact, most of the hits found on that record label), it was written and produced by the under-rated duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who ran the company. And like most hits on Philadelphia International, the artists sang while the music was created by a somewhat anonymous group of session players known as “MFSB”. That outfit had their own hit a year before “I Love Music” with the instrumental disco hit “TSOP” – short for The Sound of Philadelphia.

They’d go on to have one more major hit three years later, 1978’s “Useta Be My Girl” but while hits dried up somewhat in the ’80s, they kept on singing and have had a bit of an uptick in their popularity this century. They were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 , and the Vocal Group Hall of fame before that. As well, their 1974 gold single “For the Love of Money” was used as the theme for the TV reality show The Apprentice featuring a pre-presidential Donald Trump. They got to appear on the show and sing it one time; we don’t know if the host was aware the song was derived from the Biblical reference to the love of money being the root of all evil. But we do have an idea of how the O’Jays feel about it now… in 2016 they sent a “cease and desist” order to Trump to try and prevent him from using their music at his rallies or in ads.

If you’d like to see if they still have what it takes, you’re in luck. They plan to tour later this year, although they have titled that tour “the Last Stop”, saying it will be their final go-round.

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October 27 – Knight Took The Express To The Top

Trains are just a cooler, more romantic mode of transport than planes. Perhaps it’s because you actually see the countryside passing by, maybe it’s the slower pace means you talk to people more along the way. Either way, Arlo Guthrie’s big breakout hit in 1972 was about the Illinois Central train “The City of New Orleans” not a Pan Am flight; Steve Perry sang about all the losers taking the “midnight train” years later on Journey’s megahit “Don’t Stop Believin’”; Kenny Rogers would barely have had time to play a hand of blackjack with “The Gambler” if they were in a 747 instead of a Pullman coach. So it is probably a good thing someone along the way had the idea of changing Jim Weatherly’s plane to a “train”. And sending it to Georgia helped too… but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. This week in 1973 well-established soul sensation Gladys Knight & The Pips made the bigtime, hitting #1 on the singles chart with “The Midnight Train To Georgia.” Surprisingly, by that time they’d been at it for over twenty years. More surprising, at that time Gladys was still in her 20s!

The Pips were essentially a singing family which started in the most innocent and humble of ways – singing at a child’s birthday party. Gladys’ mom suggested she, her sister Brenda and two cousins sing at their brother Bubba’s tenth birthday party, in 1952. They did, and it must’ve sounded good. Within months, 7 year-old Gladys was winning a local TV talent contest and the mother had them, with Bubba along too, singing at shows around Atlanta. Not long after they signed with Brunswick Records; by 1961 they’d scored their first big hit on R&B radio – “Every Beat of My Heart.” They’d soon sign to Motown and by 1973, had 16 top 10s on the R&B charts, including a #1 with their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” But a big breakthrough into mainstream radio was elusive for them. Until they took the surprising step of leaving Motown and signing with the smaller Buddah label. Buddah was a fairly new company then, associated with MGM and distributor of Essex (Bill Withers label) and Charisma (home to then-not-so-well-known Genesis at the time.)

They left Motown on a high-note, with a single that got to #2 on Billboard – “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” . Buddah however, was where everything really clicked. The first LP they did for that label, Imagination, was their first gold one and besides this hit, it also had another R&B #1/ mainstream top 10 in another Weatherly single, “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” Both singles also made the top 10 in both Canada and the UK, where their exposure had been a little more limited than at home.

Weatherly originally wrote the great track as a country song he called “Midnight Plane to Houston”, allegedly after talking to Farrah Fawcett one night on the phone and asking her what she was up to. She answered she was going to hop a midnight flight to Texas and his mind and pen got working. However, someone – in all likelihood Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy – thought a train to Georgia sounded better. Houston recorded her own version of the song earlier in the year, but soon Gladys’ would be the only one that mattered. It made her and The Pips a household name, so much so that they soon would have their own short-lived TV variety show. It won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo, one of three they’ve put on their shelf in that category.

The Pips kept singing until 1989 and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in ’96; Gladys has had a solo career off and on since. A good thing since her voice is great indeed. Rolling Stone picked her as the 51st greatest singer of all-time, praising her “pop elegance and soul power” and adding that she “approaches singing with inspiring seriousness.” She was a voice on an ’80s smash as well – the AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. More recently, she’s been keeping herself active with her church and being the namesake co-owner of three restaurants in the Atlanta area – Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles. As well, she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 2019, the same year she was an ongoing contestant on the TV show The Masked Singer.

Interestingly, not only were trains popular in pop music in the ’70s, so too was Georgia. TV star Vicki Lawrence had a #1 hit only months before Knight’s one, with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, Brook Benton had revived his career in 1970 singing about a “Rainy Night In Georgia”, and of course, later on people outside of the bluegrass/country field would find out who Charlie Daniels was when he told the story about “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Perhaps people might like “California Dreaming” but they just prefer to hear songs about the Peachtree state!

September 8 – Let’s Get It On Soundtrack To Getting Clothes Off?

This day in 1973, people were taking clothes off to the sound of “Let’s Get It On.” Marvin Gaye hit #1 in the U.S. for the second time in his career with the song some, like Purple Clover, think the sexiest pop song ever.

There’s no denying the sultry appeal of the smooth music and unabashedly (for the era) straight-forwardly naughty lyrics. As Rolling Stone put it, Gaye came up with a “vintage ’50s melody” with an “arrangement (which) centers around a slightly eccentric rhythm pattern that deepens the song’s power” resulting in “a classic Motown single, endlessly repeatable (with) Marvin Gaye’s best singing at its center.” The song spent 10 weeks in Billboard‘s top 5 and ended up as the fourth biggest single of the year not to mention becoming the biggest hit for Motown Records to that point in time, selling some four million copies by 1974. As such it got Marvin his first platinum single and pushed the album of the same name up to #2 on the charts, the highest for any of his. It lives on not only on radio but in countless movies, including Jack Black’s surprisingly-true rendition in High Fidelity, and ads. The b-side wasn’t bad either: “I Wish It Would Rain”.

September 2 – Cuba Found Main Ingredient To A Hit Single

Debuting on the American top 40 chart this day in 1972 was New York’s Main Ingredient, with their now-iconic hit “Everybody Plays The Fool.”

The lively, encouraging tune for the “heart broken” made a lot of sense telling people who’d gone from a breakup not to “sit around moping, cryin’ cryin’” since “there’s no guarantee the one you love is gonna love you”. It eventually got to #3 and earned them a gold single. The band was well-established by that point; they’d formed as a trio called The Poets back in 1964 and had been recording with RCA for a couple of years by that point. In fact, it was the fifth song they’d launched onto the R&B charts, but it was the first one to cross over to mainstream hit radio. Oddly enough singer Cuba Gooding said “Black stations wouldn’t even play it – they said it wasn’t R&B”. Indeed it was originally written for country artist Charlie Pride, but he didn’t think it was country enough. Good thing, as Main Ingredient did it up right! They’d score one more hit in 1974 with “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely.” and broke up in ’77, only to reunite times since.

The noteworthy thing about the band you might have noticed is that the singer on this song has a familiar name – Cuba Gooding. Gooding Sr. replaced the original singer, Don McPherson who died of cancer at a young age. Gooding at the time he was made their main singer was selling magazine subscriptions door to door, but yearning for more. “Growing up in Harlem,” he says, “(if) you didn’t want to be a pimp or a bum or a gangster, you sang and hoped to be in the music business. I grew up eight blocks from the Apollo theater, (and) could walk down the street and run into Sammy Davis Jr.,Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Jackie Browne…” Needless to say, his son Cuba Gooding Jr. has gone on to that level of great fame in another field of entertainment.

August 16 – Long Live ‘The Queen’ (And ‘The King’)

A day when we remember not only “The King” but “The Queen”. The Queen of Soul that is. On this day in 2018, or 41 years to the day since the death of Elvis, Aretha Franklin passed away. She was at home, surrounded by family and friends including Stevie Wonder, in Detroit. Franklin was 76 and suffering from a variation of pancreatic cancer.

Franklin of course was successful; her 13 gold or platinum albums and 19 R&B chart #1s (starting with 1967’s “I’ve Never Loved A Man Before” and running through 1985’s “Freeway of Love” with greats like “Respect”, “Until You Come Back To Me” and “Spanish Harlem” in between) are testimony to that. She was also a well-known and respected voice for social justice throughout her life, but she was more than that. She was one of the great voices…the great voice, at least according to Rolling Stone.

That magazine ranked her as the greatest singer of all-time, just ahead of Ray Charles. They called her “a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one that can touch her.” Or as allmusic state, “more than any other performer, she epitomizes soul.” The “Queen of Soul” nickname was so widely known, Steely Dan referred to her by it in their ’81 hit “Hey Nineteen”; so great was her appeal that she visited the White House- several times. She performed at the inauguration galas for both Presidents Clinton and Obama, and invited to do so by President Trump, whom she turned down. In between Clinton and Obama was George W. Bush, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She joined a list of musicians like Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to be so honored.

After her passing, she was quickly given tributes from all over, including one of this decade’s big female voices, Adele who wrote “I cannot remember a day in my life without Aretha Franklin’s voice and music filling my heart” , to Hillary Clinton who said “she deserves not only our RESPECT but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts.”

July 22 – Not At All Too Late For Cornelius Family 50 Years Ago

Pity Billie Jo! She was the fourth, and ergo unnamed member of the soul quartet Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. They hit #2 this day in 1972 with their biggest hit, “Too Late To Turn Back Now.” It was their second single and second to go gold in the States, but alas, also the last significant hit they would register.

The name was pretty much who they were when it came to Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. It was a family out of Florida, consisting of brothers Eddie and Carter Cornelius and their sister, Rose. The brothers began writing a few songs and singing together around the beginning of the decade but felt something was lacking, so they invited their sister, who was already a respected gospel singer, to join them. They got signed to United Artists, and added in another sister, Billie Jo before starting work on their first album. Guess they figured “Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose and oh, look, there’s Billie Jo too” might not fit well on a 7” record label.

The self-titled debut hit the American top 30 based largely on the two upbeat R&B singles that led it off : “Treat Her Like A Lady” (which got to #3 in the States) and this one. “Too Late To Turn Back Now” actually topped Canadian charts ( a rare case of a soul song doing better north of the border back then) and made the Australian and New Zealand top 20. Two more singles followed and squeaked into the U.S. top 40, “Don’t Ever Be Lonely” and “Never Gonna Be Lonely Again” but fame was fleeting.

A 1973 follow-up album drew almost no notice and they disbanded in ’76 when the brothers took a cue from their sister perhaps. Eddie became a born-again Christian pastor, while Carter joined the Hebrew faith and changed his name to Prince Gideon Israel and began making Jewish religious music until his death in 1991. At last word, Rose still lives and sings in Florida.

July 13 – Pairing Got A Lot Of Spins In ’74

What’s better than a new record from a great R&B act? Maybe a new record from two great R&B acts! That’s what we found in 1974 when The Spinners got together with Dionne Warwick and put out what would end up being the only #1 single of either’s career – “Then Came You.”

Both were well-known then, but were looking like they were on opposite ends of their careers. Warwick had been a popular singer in the 1960s, but her career had wobbled in the ’70s. Her biggest hit had come in ’67 with the #4 hit “I Say A Little Prayer”. The Spinners however were a bit newer and were on the rise; they’d scored top 10 hits each of the previous two years with “I’ll Be Around” and “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” However, at the time, Warwick was still the more popular concert draw. They’d teamed up to tour together in 1973, at which point they had the idea of doing a record together. The result was this single.

Although both were signed to divisions of Warner Music, they went to Philadelphia for their inspiration on it. They brought in Thom Bell to produce (and play keyboards on) the record. Bell was synonymous with Philadelphia Intl. Records and their soul sound. He brought in two of his staff writers, Phillip Pugh and Sherman Marshall to write it. Dionne and The Spinners’ Bobby Smith played off each other’s voices (with Philip Wynne of the band adding a bit of his rougher voice at the end)

The Spinners seemed happy enough with it, but Bell remembers “Dionne made a face when we finished it. She didn’t like it much.” He did though, and says they ripped a dollar bill in half, with him and her signing a half each and exchanging them. He told her “if it doesn’t get to #1, I’ll send you my half back.” Instead, weeks later, she sent him her half-bill …with an apology.

The song did indeed hit the top of the charts in the U.S., and also made it to #7 in Canada (curiously, it did better on the cumulative year-end charts there than in the States though), and #29 in Britain. Both artists put it on their next albums, which each came out late in ’74.

The Spinners stayed hot through much of the decade, posting four more top 10 hits, including “Rubberband Man” and a cover of “Cupid.” Warwick however, remained a little less in vogue, until she had a bit of a comeback in 1979 with the gold, top 10 single “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”

An oddity about the record – for unstated reasons, Warwick added an “e” to the end of her name on the single. And in Europe, as the picture shows, the Spinners were referred to as “the Detroit Spinners” at the time.

July 9 – People Liked To Lean On Bill’s Sound 50 Years Back

We often celebrate stars who were child prodigies, today we praise one who started late – Bill Withers. Withers had done a stint in the Navy and worked in a factory for years before getting serious about being a musician. But when he did, he didn’t take long to rise to the top. His classic, “Lean on Me” hit #1 on Billboard this day in 1972.

By that time he was in his 30’s and working on his second album, “I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano” and this was one of the first things he wrote on it. He calls the song of friendship “A rural song that translates across demographics.” That it did! It also hit the top 20 in Canada and the UK and some 14 years later, a dance version by Club Nouveau would also top the charts, making it one of only nine songs to be a #1 hit in the U.S. for two different artists. Withers notes it’s a great song to play when learning piano, “just put your fingers in one position and go up and down the keyboard.”

The upbeat message about being a friend reflects Withers’ philosophy. He grew up in a small town in West Virginia, “where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid.” He had other top 10 songs with “Use Me” , “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just the Two of Us” the Grover Washington Jr. song he did vocals on.

Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, John Legend playing this song at the induction. Sadly he passed away at age 81 two years back.

June 28 – The Low & Loving Booming Bass Baritone Of Barry

If chocolate fudge cake could sing, it would sound like” this, according to the BBC. The voice that launched a thousand babies, Barry White, put out his biggest single, “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Babe” this day in 1974.

It was the title track from his third album, which came along a few weeks later. The distinctively bass-voiced R&B singer was by then 29 and quite a veteran of the music world…albeit fairly new as a solo singer. He grew up largely in L.A., listening to a lot of classical music his mom favored. In the ’60s, he’d put out a few unsuccessful singles but also worked as an A&R man for a small label, produced several records and even wrote music for the kids show The Banana Splits! Around 1970 he joined Love Unlimited, a soul girls’ group, as a producer and writer, writing their 1972 hit “Walkin’ in the Rain” and the 1973 #1 instrumental “Love’s Theme.” In time, 20th Century Fox gave him a solo recording contract (though a huge player in movies, Fox never made a major impression in music…but they gave it a shot). His first two albums both went to #1 on R&B charts and got him noticed at least on hit radio with the single “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More” This song though put him front and center among the biggest acts going in ’74.

Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Babe” was his only #1 hit single, and hit a career-best #5 in Canada. Coupled with the follow-up, “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything,”, it also pushed the album to the top of American charts.

White would go on to have six #1 albums on the R&B charts in the ’70s, but his disco-soul sound fell out of favor in the ’80s. This song lives on in various movies and TV shows though, including The Simpsons. They used it in their “Whacking Day” show in which Lisa recruits Barry and his low voice to sing for snakes; he was a fan of the show and even wrote an original song for that episode.

White passed away in 2003, suffering from various smoking and diabetes related problems.

May 14 – At Times Staton’s Heart Ran Too Free

Happy birthday to a lady who’s been dubbed “the Queen of Southern Soul”, a disco superstar and a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. And at 82 and still active, Candi Staton‘s a survivor, which she says is the one title she’s proudest of.

She’s come through numerous changes to the music scene, being molested as a child, several abusive marriages and breast cancer…which she told NPR was her hardest fight. “Fighting a human is one thing, fighting something you can’t see is another.”

She was born in rural northern Alabama, but her family moved to Nashville while she was still quite young, and sent her to a Christian school where her great voice got noticed. By the early ’50s, she, her sister and another young woman had formed the Jewell Gospel Trio and toured churches and revivals in the South with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, beginning to cut records by 1953 – when Candi (born Canzetta) was just 13. They were quite popular, but by the mid-’60s, she’d transitioned more to mainstream R&B or soul music, eventually compiling a dozen top 20s on U.S. R&B charts, usually covers like “In the Ghetto” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”, which was her first regular chart hit, getting to #24 in 1970.

Her big break was the disco hit “Young Hearts Run Free”, a catchy song of independence. She said it was rather a companion piece to her friend Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Staton said Gaynor broke the “glass ceiling” with that one. Before it, she figured DJs wanted songs by females to be “baby, please don’t leave me…I’m your slave.” “I Will Survive” and her hit made it OK for women to be headstrong. The song took her career several steps ahead quickly. Before it, she says “I was playing what they called the ‘Chitlin Circuit’…backwoods, R&B, juke joint clubs with women painted on the walls. Most nights you’d have to chase the promoter down to get paid.”

She says she recorded it in one take – “the hurt in my voice is real…I was singing my life.” She took her own advice, and “was smart enough to …get rid” of an abusive husband she said was a drug-abuser and pimp “and run to my Mom’s house.” Soon she could probably afford better accommodations for herself (and maybe her mother too!) with the single hitting the U.S. top 20, and #21 to the north in Canada. But it was Britain where it really made a mark, getting to #2, going platinum …and re-charting again in both the ’80s and ’90s. It helped set her up as a star over there, with her recording four more top 40 hits in the decade that followed, including a cover of “Suspicious Minds.”

In the ’80s she became friends with Jim and Tammy Bakker and they helped her set up a ministry in Atlanta with her new husband; at that time she switched to mostly gospel music which has been well-received in that circuit and represents about half of her 30 studio album discography, although her most recent album, 2018’s Unstoppable is described more as “retro R&B”.

As smart as she is, she’s not had the best of luck picking mates. She’s been married six times, including to R&B star “Strokin’” Clarence Carter and even baseball player Otis Nixon. They haven’t always gone well, prompting her to begin a charity called A Veil of Silence, dedicated to helping women escape violent relationships and educating authorities about the issue….helping “Young Hearts Run Free.”