More Expansion and
Mutation of Rock and Roll
The 1960s were filled with exciting changes in the world of rock and roll. Three new styles began to take shape: music about surfing and hot rods in Los Angeles, authentic black rock in Detroit, and psychedelic rock in San Francisco. Los Angeles and Detroit will be explained now, and San Francisco will be addressed in Chapter 28.
About the same time the Twist captured the East Coast, a different style of music grew up on the beaches in southern California with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, the Surfaris, Jan and Dean, the Belairs, the Beach Boys, and similar groups.
Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
From Beirut, Lebanon, by way of Quincy, Massachusetts, Dick Dale (born Richard Monsour in 1937) became a West Coast legend when he combined his love of surfing and playing guitar.
There was a tremendous amount of power I felt while surfing and that feeling of power was simply transferred into my guitar when I was playing surf music. It was that good rambling feeling I got when I was locked in a tube with the whitewater caving in over my head. I was trying to project the power of the ocean to the people (quoted in Szatmary 1996, 71).
Musically, that translated into a powerful style of sharp, short chords heavily reverberated, and "rapid-fire, double-stroke picking… with long Middle Eastern melodies slithering along atop shimmering Spanish-inflected chording, punctuated by slamming slides up the neck" – and everything at high decibel levels (Palmer 1995, 41).
The style caught on, and surfers drove hundreds of miles to Balboa to hear Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. "The Rendezvous Ballroom held well over 1000 people, and Dale's sound was, in a word, awesome!" (Pete Johnson, quoted in Szatmary 1996, 71).
"Let's Go Tripping" (1961), "Surfing Drums" (1961), and "Miserlou" (1962) led Dick Dale to a Capitol recording contract in 1963, and he was soon known as the "King of the Surf Guitar".
Using some of Dick Dale's guitar techniques, but playing nearer the bridge to make the sound even more brittle and metallic, Duane Eddy (b. 1938) arrived at his special voice, called the "twangy guitar". It was similar in raw energy to the surf sound of Dick Dale, but it seemed to have more commercial possibilities. Recording most of his material at Audio Recorders in Phoenix, Arizona, Eddy often sent the master tape to Gold Star Studios in Hollywood to add a jazz saxophone track. Very soon, Duane Eddy and the Rebels attracted a cult following in both America and England.
Shy and handsome, he appeared in movies, had a few hit releases which pleased his crowd immensely, and enjoyed a solid career in the music business. In 1986, he recorded a remake of his earlier hit, "Peter Gunn" (written by Henry Mancini), with British synthpop group The Art of Noise, for which they won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.
His "Movin' and Groovin'", "Cannonball", and "Your Baby's Gone Surfin'" are still heard on Golden Oldies programs today.
Jan and Dean
Their football lockers were next to one another at Emerson Junior High School, so Jan Berry (1941-2004) and Dean Torrence (b. 1940) became classroom buddies. Their common interest in cars and surfing led them into the music business where they struck gold by singing about those topics.
An appearance on American Bandstand lifted them to national fame, and they hit the big time when "Surf City" entered the charts in July of 1963. They sang of the same concerns as the rest of the California surf music crowd, and soon recorded "Ride the Wild Surf", "Sidewalk Surfin'" (about skateboarding), and others.
They collaborated with the Beach Boys on several albums, and had a strong career going. It all came to a sudden stop in 1966, however, when Jan Berry was involved in an automobile accident and suffered severe brain damage. While Berry recovered, Torrence turned his attention to graphic design, specializing in album covers and poster art, which he continued to do until 1980. Berry's recovery was incomplete, but eventually Jan and Dean were able to perform again on stage beginning in the late 1970s. The duo continued performing on and off up until Berry's death in 2004.
The Beach Boys
The supergroup of the surfing craze first called themselves the Pendletones, a musical play on "Pendleton", a plaid flannel shirt-jacket popular among surfers. Then they called themselves Carl and the Passions, then Kenny and the Cadets for their first recording. There was no one in the group named Kenny, but their first tune was "Barbie" (1961) when the Ken and Barbie dolls were just getting popular (Charlton 1990, 111).
Brothers Brian (b. 1942), Carl (1946-1998), and Dennis (1944-1983) Wilson joined with their cousin, Mike Love (b. 1941), and a friend, Al Jardine (b. 1942), in Hawthorne, California, for what became a long and occasionally irregular, but very successful career. Unpredictable and high-strung (he was later diagnosed as mildly bipolar with schizoaffective disorder), Brian was the musical leader of the group, and for a long time he made all the important decisions for everything.
He wrote some appealing tunes about surfing, hot rods, and California girls – kind of like a white Chuck Berry – then the Beach Boys sang them in four-part harmony, like the Four Freshman, the Hi-Los, and other jazz-tinged male vocal groups of the 1950s. Finally he added Dick Dale's surfing sound – greatly toned down in volume, complexity, and fire. The resultant musical mini-sagas of sex, surf, and sun caught on with America's teenagers, to say the least. The Beach Boys even displaced the Beatles as the World's Best Group in the 1966 music critics' poll (Lazell 1989, 30).
One of their hits, "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963), was musically identical to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958), and a long legal battle developed when lawyers for the record companies went to court. After some hesitation and honest confusion in his mind, Brian finally gave credit to Chuck Berry.
Rock historians consider the concept album Pet Sounds (1966) to be the Beach Boys' highest musical achievement. The album addresses the eternal problems of youth growing up with hopes, dreams, and fears. With Tony Asher's strong lyrics, Brian composed a group of songs that reached a new level of sophistication for pop rock. Especially memorable are "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "God Only Knows", and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times".
"Good Vibrations", however, is their biggest hit. It came out in late 1966, as a single off of the Smile album. It cost $50,000 – ninety hours of studio time over six months to create eleven versions of the song – before a version that satisfied everyone involved was finally released.
Without knowing it, the Beach Boys and the Beatles were working toward the same kind of mutation and expansion of the new music called rock and roll, involving longer and more serious tunes, tempo changes, modulations, better lyrics, more imaginative recording studio procedures, guest musicians, strings, reverberation techniques, and echo chambers.
As often happens, the group went through drug problems, internal personality warfare, contract disputes with record companies, nervous breakdowns, and all the predictable stresses of artistic and creative people. Although Carl and Dennis Wilson have since died, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine reunited for the album That's Why God Made the Radio in 2012, along with Bruce Johnston (b. 1942), who had joined the group in 1965, and David Marks, who had been an active member of the group in the late 1960s and in the 1990s. Some of the personality clashes apparently resurfaced, though, as Love announced in late 2012 that he would tour in 2013 with Johnston, but without Wilson, Jardine, and Marks.
In addition to surfing, the vast shoreline of Southern California offered endless stretches of roads – ideal for automobile travel, and for the competitive instincts of adolescent males. Technology spun-off from World War II research led to wondrous new engines that could be modified by any teenage mechanic. An automobile life style emerged.
Music historian David Szatmary describes this late 1950s' California subculture in his sociological study of rock.
Rather than a staid station wagon, they cast their eyes upon "asphalt eaters" (dragsters) such as 'Cudas (Plymouth Barracudas) or GTOs (Grand Turismos) propelled by such huge engines as the rat motor (a 427 cubic inch Chevy engine) or the Chrysler Hemi (a 426 cubic inch engine equipped with hemispherical combustion chambers) (Szatmary 1996, 76).
The adolescents also developed their own language to describe the life they were leading.
Like cowboys on their horses in a California of another era, teens with greased hair and tight black pants drove their machines to seldom-used roads and waited for a competitor to drag (race). They anticipated the flash of light, "dropped the hammer" (released the clutch quickly) and sped away, "shutting down" (defeating) an opponent (Szatmary 1996, 76).
The entertainment industry took notice, of course, with pop tunes like "Drag City", "Car Crazy Cutie", "Don't Worry, Baby", "Shut Down", "Hey, Little Cobra", "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena", and "G.T.O.", and the albums Hot Rod Alley, Boss Drag at Hot Rod Beach, Drag City, and many others.
The movie moguls got into the action, too, with Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Hot Rod Gang, Dragstrip Riot, Teenage Thunder, and a host of films peddling sex, speed, sun, and teenage tans.
Meanwhile, half way across America in the streets of Detroit, a different but equally powerful new style of rock and roll caught the nation's teenagers by surprise – Motown. It happened in December of 1960 with the release of "(My Mama Told Me You'd Better) Shop Around", with words and music by William "Smokey" Robinson and Berry Gordy, Jr. In the early months of 1961, it was in the Top Ten charts. It was a strong opening for a brand new musical group and a brand new record company.
Berry Gordy, Jr.
As young man, Berry Gordy, Jr. (b. 1929), tried his hand at boxing, factory work, running a jazz record shop, and many other things, including writing pop songs. He had a knack for a good melody and interesting lyrics. He wrote "Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town)" (1957) and "Lonely Teardrops" (1959) for Jackie Wilson. The success of those tunes led him to finally quit his job on the Ford assembly line and give the music business his full attention for a while.
In 1959, the same year that Don Kirshner started Aldon Music, Berry Gordy borrowed eight hundred dollars from his family and rented an eight-room house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. He told his sister, Esther, "I'll live upstairs, I'll have my offices down in the front part, and I'll have a studio out back where I can make demos and masters to sell to record companies" (quoted from Szatmary 1996, 130).
He succeeded beyond his wildest dream, and started a pop music revolution that changed American history. He first called his new company Hitsville U.S.A., then changed the name to Motown in recognition of Detroit's fame as the Motor City. Among the several subsidiaries of the main label were Tamla, Gordy, and later Soul, VIP, Mowest, and Melody. The publishing company was called Jobete, after Gordy's daughters Joy, Betty, and Terry.
Through the period of racial unrest and riots in the Sixties, Motown artists sang of love and other human concerns with which people of all races, religions, and political beliefs could identify. Gordy cultivated in his performers a sophisticated image, and helped bring respect and self-esteem to black Americans, who saw the Motown performers as role models (Charlton 1990, 91).
Gordy kept tight control over everything and everyone who worked for him. Without his approval, there was not the slightest change in any act. A strong sense of pride, loyalty, and love was needed to survive Gordy's rules. Yet the corporation was, for many, one big happy family. Smokey Robinson married Claudette Rogers, a fellow member of the Miracles. Marvelette Wanda Young married Miracle Bobby Rogers. Marvelette Katherine Anderson married the Temptations' road manager, Joe Schaffner. Marvin Gaye married Gordy's sister, Anna (Stuessy 1990, 226).
It all worked, and almost overnight, Berry Gordy changed the face of pop music in America. In his seventh year of business (1967), he sold more singles than any other record company in the world, independent or major, and his empire was profiled in Fortune, The New York Times, and in several other major publications. It is estimated by some rock scholars that an astronomical 75% of all Motown releases ended up somewhere in the Top 40! That was unheard of in the pop music business!
The Motown Formula
Gordy mixed the elements of previous black and pop styles to arrive at a product that would appeal to the white market – classic saxophone-driven big band riffs, gospel tambourines and hand-clapping backbeats, lush orchestra strings from the Detroit Symphony for the slow tunes, and strong bass lines laid down below exotic Latin- and jazz-tinged rhythm patterns.
The studio musicians – soon called the Funk Brothers – were mostly jazzmen who enjoyed the new financial rewards of working for Motown Records: Benny Benjamin on drums, Earl Van Dyke or Joe Hunter on keyboards, Dave Hamilton on vibraphone or lead guitar, James Jamerson or Carol Kaye on bass, and Robert White on rhythm guitar. Secretaries and friends filled in on tambourines and handclapping. To get more backbeat, a studio carpenter had bolted a couple of 2"x 4"s together with a hinge. It could make a strong and crisp smack on counts two and four of the meter.
This layered big-band mix was captured at different times on two homemade eight-track tape recorders.
Producers could bring in the rhythm section, horns and strings, back-ground singers, and lead vocalists all at different times while recording, and this made all the difference in the final product.
A young electronics wizard named Michael McClain built these eight-track facilities, said to be the first in the country (most other companies were still using two- and four-track systems) (Taraborrelli 1986, 4).
The Motown Team
Gordy molded the talented youngsters from the projects of Detroit into a musical force of unparalleled importance. The musicians and singers who came to him had almost no exposure to the white world at all, so he formed a school called International Talent Management, Inc. (ITMI) to train them in the social skills they would need when they got wealthy and famous.
Maxine Powell. Berry Gordy hired modeling school director Maxine Powell (1915-2013) who taught the young performers how to make small talk at cocktail parties, how to hold their silverware at a banquet, how to move and act with grace and style, and how to dress so they didn't look like kids from the streets of Detroit. Equally as important as body language and clothes, Maxine Powell taught the youngsters to remove the abusive tone and aggressive manner from their speaking voices. She often said, these young men and women were "diamonds in the rough who needed polishing. We were training them for Buckingham Palace and the White House, so I had my work cut out for me" (quoted in Szatmary 1996, 133).
Cholly Atkins and Maurice King. Gordy also hired Cholly Atkins (1913-2003), dancer and choreographer in the legendary 1930s Cotton Club revues, and Maurice King (1911-1992), music director for big name jazz acts at Detroit's famous Flame Show Bar. Old pros Atkins and King put class into every Motown act, and wouldn't let the acts perform until they had learned their stage lessons.
Holland-Dozier-Holland. Brothers Brian (b. 1941) and Eddie (b. 1939) Holland and good friend Lamont Dozier (b. 1941) wrote and produced all of the Supremes hits between 1964 and early 1968. They also wrote for the Isley Brothers (from 1965-1968) and Marvin Gaye (during the early part of his career), as well as writing most of the material recorded by the Four Tops, several tunes for the Miracles, and a lot of songs for Martha and the Vandellas.
Typically Eddie Holland worked with the vocal leads in the various groups, Lamont Dozier helped with vocal backgrounds and instrumental tracks, and Brian Holland handled the overall composition and assisted with backup vocal tracks (Stuessy 1994, 225).
Strong and Whitfield. Barrett Strong gave up a singing career to write songs for others. He and writer-producer Norman Whitefield had a string of hits for Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, Edwin Starr, and Motown's biggest hit of the 1960s, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", originally recorded by Marvin Gaye (Charlton 1990, 92).
Holland-Dozier-Holland and Strong-Whitfield often took a portion of a song's refrain (chorus) to use as an introduction – "Stop! In the Name of Love" (1965), for example. They also used modified A-A-B and A-B-B forms as well as the standard A-A-B-A tradition. Then, too, they often modulated up a semitone about two-thirds of the way through the arrangement to give their tunes a psychological lift going out (see page 68).
William "Smokey" Robinson (b. 1940) was one of Berry Gordy's teenage friends. Long before Motown, they dreamed of success. So when Gordy finally made the move, the first group he put on the payroll was Smokey Robinson and the Matadors. Changing their name to the Miracles, they plunged in to make the idea of Motown work. So obvious was Robinson's talent and business skill that Gordy named him vice president in 1961, well before the corporation had any major success at all. The Miracles eventually rose to the top of the industry with dozens of Top 40 hits, including five songs in the Top Ten.
Smokey Robinson did it all – gifted vocalist, songwriter, producer, adviser, business executive, talent scout, premier backup singer, and emotional anchor of Motown. Among his compositions are dozens of the best in the field: "My Guy", "Shop Around", "I Second That Emotion", "My Girl", "Cruisin'", and "The Agony and The Ecstasy".
A handsome young man with enormous musical gifts, Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) had a budding career as a doo-wop singer and drummer with the Marquees and with Harvey and the Moonglows before he joined the Motown family. He paid his dues as a session drummer and backup vocalist, then got a solo release in 1962, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow".
Through the 1960s he placed seventeen songs in the solo Top 40 charts and a dozen more in the Top 40 duet category with Kim Weston, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, and Tammi Terrell. His two giant solo hits were "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You" (1964) and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968).
In the mid-1960s he married Gordy's sister, Anna, who was seventeen years older than he, and his career seemed to be stable. Things started to go downhill a bit in 1967, though, when his favorite duet partner, Tammi Terrell, age 24, collapsed in his arms during a stage performance. Terrell was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, which caused her death in 1970.
Filled with grief and disillusioned with the music business, Gaye withdrew from the public for six months. Then in a bitter scene, he divorced Anna and married Janis Hunter, whom he met in 1973. His strange double album, Here, My Dear (1978), aimed at Anna, is filled with irony, contradictions, and angry sarcasm (Stuessy 1994, 224). The album was clearly the work of a disturbed man.
The next few years were up and down, with periodic fits of depression during which time he threatened suicide. Finally, during a violent argument at his home, Gaye was shot by his father, Marvin, Sr., an apostolic preacher, who had for years been ashamed of what he saw as the dreadful decay of his sons' value system.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, and blind since birth, Stevland Judkins (b. 1950) was taken to Motown by Ronnie White, a member of the Miracles. He amazed Berry Gordy by singing and then playing piano, organ, drums, harmonica, and nearly every other instrument in the studio. He was signed that day, and within a few months went on tour with the Motown regulars, billed as Little Stevie Wonder. Gordy was convinced he had found the new Ray Charles.
That Motown Review tour had big names – Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Miracles, and Mary Wells – but the new kid held his own. In fact, one of his seven-minute blues-drenched live appearances so stunned the Motown executives that they released it in two parts in 1963 and "Fingertips – Part 2" went to No. 1 on the charts.
In 1970, Stevie Wonder cut a deal to make all his own decisions on music, production techniques, and styles. Motown would distribute the recordings, but Wonder would have absolute control of his own career. He married, moved to New York, and made significant changes in his musical output.
Since then his music has branched out considerably. He addressed social issues in "Living for the City" (1973), gave a jazz history lesson in "Sir Duke [Ellington]" (1977), and paid tribute to Bob Marley's style of reggae with "Master Blaster" (1980). He sang with Paul McCartney on "Ebony and Ivory" (1982), and with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Elton John on 1986's "That's What Friends Are For", which raised money for AIDS charities. An advocate for civil rights, Wonder was instrumental in getting Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday recognized as a national holiday in 1980. He also appeared as a "warm-up" act for Barack Obama as he stumped from state to state during his presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Starting with Talking Book (1972), every studio album by Stevie Wonder from 1972 to 2005 went into the Top 5 on the US R&B charts, and nine of them were in the Top 5 on the US album charts. His Songs in the Key of Life (1976) regularly makes it onto "Best Albums of All Time" lists, and many performers, particularly British pop star George Michael, have covered Wonder's songs. He has received twenty-two Grammys for his work, the most ever awarded to a male solo artist.
The Jackson Five
When the Jackson Five signed with Motown in 1969, Michael was only eleven years old. He became the instant darling of the group and of the entertainment business. Joe Jackson, father and manager of the Jackson Five, stayed with Motown for a while, but then tangled with Berry Gordy over professional and financial matters. He then pulled his boys out to sign with Epic in 1976.
Gordy owned the name, however, so the group had to go out as "The Jacksons", but they still received 2.7% of all profits Gordy received from the old or any new "Jackson Five" recordings (Lazell 1989, 251). The name change also reflected a personnel change – brother Jermaine Jackson stayed with Motown, having married Berry's daughter, Hazel.
Michael Jackson's illustrious solo career will be discussed later in this book.
With a string of five consecutive No. 1 singles, the Supremes brought Motown into the major leagues in a hurry. Formed in 1959 to be a sister group to the Primes (who later became the Temptations), the new group was called the Primettes, consisting of Florence Ballard (1943-1976), age 16, Mary Wilson (b. 1944), age 15, and Betty McGlown-Travis (1941-2008), age 17. Paul Williams of the Primes brought in Diana Ross (b. 1944), age 15, to strengthen the trio's sound, and for a short time it was really a quartet singing three-part harmony.
Betty Travis left in 1960 and was replaced by Barbara Martin (b. 1943). The group dissolved soon thereafter when the parents of Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin insisted that the girls concentrate on their high school studies (Lazell 1989, 494).
Mary Wilson and Diana Ross carried on as a duo until the second iteration of the quartet re-formed to audition for Diana's neighbor, Smokey Robinson. Robinson took the girls to Berry Gordy who showed no interest, but gave them some occasional backup vocals behind Marvin Gaye and others. When Barbara Martin pulled out of the group again, Gordy decided to sign the trio, but insisted on a name change.
As the Supremes, they struggled for two years, getting no higher than No. 30 on the charts, but they struck gold in August of 1964 with "Where Did Our Love Go?" by Holland-Dozier-Holland. The tune had been written for, but rejected by, the Marvelettes.
By December of 1966, the Supremes had registered nine more No. 1 hits – "Baby Love", "Come See about Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love", "I Hear a Symphony", "Back In My Arms Again", "You Can't Hurry Love", "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Love is Here and Now You're Gone", and "The Happening", all by Holland-Dozier-Holland (Elrod 1994, pp. 238-247).
By 1967 Diana Ross was becoming a star, and Florence Ballard started missing performances due to an increasing dependence on alcohol. When Ballard finally left to try a career on her own with ABC Records, Cindy Birdsong (b. 1939) was called in to fill the Ballard's vacancy. Florence Ballard's new career did not go well, and she died nine years later of heart failure at age thirty-three.
Diana Ross left the Supremes and began a huge career with a solo stage show in Framingham, Massachusetts, in March of 1970. Despite their many changes and issues over the ten years they were in existence, the Supremes remain, even today, as the "gold standard" for girl groups. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other groups have followed in their footsteps, with varying degrees of success. A loosely-based, fictionalized account of the Supremes' rise to stardom was dramatized in the Broadway musical (later to become a movie), Dreamgirls (1981).
In addition to the Supremes, there were the Marvelettes, whose "Please Mr. Postman", "Beachwood 4-5789", and "Too Many Fish in the Sea" confirmed that Motown's musical formula would work. Just high school girls from Inkster, Michigan, they didn't even win the school talent show, but their teacher took them to audition for Motown.
They went on to a total of nine Top 10 tunes over the next several years, but were passed around from one producer to another and therefore never developed a specific sound or personality. Of the constantly changing personnel, Wanda Rogers (b. 1943), Gladys Horton (1945-2011), and Katherine Anderson (b. 1944) are the three who are on most of the hits.
Martha Reeves and The Vandellas
When she heard Della Reese in Detroit's New Liberty Baptist Church, a young Martha Reeves (b. 1941) decided to be a singer. She formed her own singing group, the Delphis, and auditioned for Berry Gordy. The group failed the audition, but Martha Reeves was hired as a secretary at Motown. She also did handclaps and backup vocals on many studio sessions.
Finally in 1962, Gordy signed Martha's vocal trio, now called the Vandellas, using the name of her inspiration, Della Reese, as part of the trio's name. Reeves hired and fired her singers, and there were many changes in names and faces. In 1964, the group consisted of Reeves, Rosalyn Ashford (b. 1943), and Betty Kelly (b. 1944), and they did most of the famous tunes. They had a good number of Top 10 hits – "Heat Wave", "Dancing in the Street", "Quicksand", "Nowhere to Run", and several others.
In 1972, the group disbanded, but a few years later Martha Reeves hired some new singers and started again. After serving on the Detroit city council from 2005 to 2009, she is still traveling around with a first-class stage show, bringing classic Motown harmony to the nation.
Gladys Knight & the Pips
Already an established act when they signed with Motown's Soul label in 1965, Gladys Knight & the Pips had a strong musical style and a firm professional agenda of their own. But their career was in a slump, and they were eager to get with a winning company.
Gladys Knight (b. 1944) had been a child prodigy. Her parents sang in the Wings Over Jordan Gospel Choir in Atlanta, Georgia, and by age seven Gladys was on tour with the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour stage show. At age eight she was lead vocalist in a family group consisting of her brother Merald ("Bubba"), her sister Brenda, and her cousins William and Elenor Guest. Another cousin, James "Pips" Woods became their manager and persuaded them to turn professional. Soon thereafter, they toured with Sam Cooke, B. B. King, and Jackie Wilson as Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Brenda Knight and Elenor Guest soon left the group to get married. They were replaced by another cousin, Edward Patten, and an outsider, Langston George, who left a year or so later. The basic quartet was now firm, and their style began to solidify – and it was a special style all their own. With Gladys out front on red-hot lead vocals and the guys (William, Edward, and Bubba) on crisp, sassy harmonies, the group was tight, energetic, sharply-choreographed, and unlike any other act at Motown.
They never did manage to win Berry Gordy's full favor, of course. Few ever did. Insiders always complained that Motown was a small inner circle devoted mainly to the Miracles and the Supremes – and even deeper, to mega-talent Smokey Robinson, mega-star Diana Ross, and mega-executive Berry Gordy. Everybody seemed to feel it at one time or another.
Still, from 1965 to 1973, Gladys Knight & the Pips did their thing. "Just Walk in My Shoes", "Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me", and "Everybody Needs Love" got on the charts in England, and a re-make of the Miracles' "I Heard It Through the Grape Vine" went to No. 1 on the American soul charts and No. 2 on the pop.
After several more fine recordings – "Help Me Make It Through the Night", "If I Were Your Woman", "Neither One of Us (Wants To Be the One To Say Goodbye)", and "I Don't Want to Do Wrong", for example – the stress of trying to fit into a Motown mold got to be too much, so Gladys Knight and the Pips moved to Buddah Records in 1973.
The move was a masterstroke. Within months they had a platinum album, Imagination, and four hit singles: "Midnight Train to Georgia", "I've Got To Use My Imagination", "Where Peaceful Waters Flow", and "The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me".
The group went on to host their own television series, record a soundtrack for the film Claudine, and enjoy the just rewards of their unique talent. Although the Pips officially retired in 1988, Gladys Knight continued to tour until 2009 and she released a solo album in 2013.
The Four Tops
It's almost unheard of in pop music, but the same four men were the Four Tops for forty-four years – Levi Stubbs (1936-2008), Lawrence Payton (1938-1997), Renaldo "Obie" Benson (1936-2005), and Abdul "Duke" Fakir (b. 1935). While still teenagers, they opened in Las Vegas for the famous jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine and elsewhere for Count Basie and Della Reese.
Nothing much happened through five record labels, however, until Berry Gordy took them into the Motown family and turned them over to Holland-Dozier-Holland. In July, 1964, their first release, "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" entered the Top 40. A year later, their "I Can't Help Myself" (a.k.a. "Sugarpie Honeybunch") was No. 1 in America. And then in October of 1966 they hit No. 1 again with "Reach Out I'll Be There".
The ingredients of success for the Four Tops were the beautiful and expressive voice of lead singer Stubbs and the rich, jazz-tinged harmonies. Several times Berry Gordy tried to get Stubbs to go out on his own, but to no avail. The last time was in 1971 when Gordy sent a telegram to Europe asking Stubbs to audition for a perfect film role. Stubbs declined, and the role went to somebody else. Stubbs did eventually make a film debut of sorts, as the voice of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in 1986's Little Shop of Horrors.
Although the lineup of the group was eventually forced to change as members died, the Four Tops, including original surviving member Duke Fakir and Payton's son, Lawrence Payton, Jr., were still touring in 2014.
Using the classic gospel-group formula of a light, high tenor lead vocal against earthy, gutsy background voices, the Temptations were one of Motown's hottest R&B groups from 1965 to 1975. Even with continuous changes of personnel, co-anchors Melvin Franklin (1942-1995) and Otis Williams (b. 1941) always managed to present a first-class stage show.
Motown's premier composer-producer Norman Whitfield became their musical godfather, and their success owes much to his studio skills. Berry Gordy was an unforgiving executive, so when the Temptations went with Atlantic Records (1977) and returned to Motown (1980), Smokey Robinson smoothed everything out both times. Their giant hits include "My Girl", "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep", "(I Know) I'm Losing You", "All I Need Is You", "You're My Everything" and many more.
The group released its final album with Motown, Legacy, in 2004.
The Commodores met as freshman in 1968 at what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, and hit the big time in 1971 when they opened for the Jackson Five on a world tour. They signed with Motown, and took off on another tour, this time with Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones.
Their disco-funk "Machine Gun", "Slippery When Wet", and "Brickhouse" were balanced by Lionel Richie's (b. 1949) beautiful love songs, "Sweet Love", "Easy", "Three Times a Lady", and others.
The group was not the creation of Motown, however, and when Lionel Richie went out on his own in 1982 with his eponymous solo album, the group no longer enjoyed Berry Gordy's keen interest and fulltime support.
Although there have been many personnel changes over the years, the Commodores still continue to tour.
In 1971, Berry Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles to try his hand at really big money. Diana Ross was Motown's most valuable property, and Gordy wanted to make her a movie star. He did. The film reviews were mixed, but the biopic about Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues, starring Ross, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams, held its own against The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris in 1972. Gordy went on to direct Ross again in 1975's Mahogany.
Gordy sold Motown to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988, and the company has since been acquired by other companies, mostly as part of Universal subsidiaries.