Category: motown

On this day in music history: December 9, 1962 – “Meet The Supremes”, the debut album by The Supremes is released. Produced by Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Raynoma Liles, it is recorded at Motown Studio A in Detroit, MI from October 1960 – September 1962. It features the first four singles released by the group during 1961 and 1962, including “I Want A Guy”, “Let Me Go The Right Way”, “Buttered Popcorn”, and “Your Heart Belongs To Me”. All fare poorly on the charts which lead people around Motown to dub them the “no hit” Supremes, in spite of the labels’ best writers and producers efforts to come up with a hit single for the group. “Meet” is reissued in early 1965 (originally issued in mono only) it is remixed in true stereo with different cover artwork, after their breakthrough success with the “Where Did Our Love Go? album”. Original copies of “Meet The Supremes” are among the rarest of the early Motown LP’s and command up to $500 for a near mint copy today. In 2010, the album is remastered and reissued as a two CD edition through Hip-O Select Records, with the mono and stereo versions of the original album along with alternate versions and seven live tracks recorded in 1964.

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On this day in music history: December 5, 1970 – “The Tears Of A Clown” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 3 weeks, also topping the Hot 100 for 2 weeks on December 12, 1970. Written by Stevie Wonder, Henry Cosby and Smokey Robinson, it is the second R&B and lone pop chart topper for the Detroit based R&B vocal group led by singer, songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson. Stevie Wonder and his then producer Hank Cosby write the music for the song in the Fall of 1966, but are not able to come up with suitable lyrics for it. They play it for Smokey at the annual Motown Christmas party that year and ask if he can write some lyrics for it. Upon hearing the instrumental track, the intros’ calliope like sound reminds Robinson of the circus. He’ll begin to write lyrics about Pagliacci The Clown, the central character in the Ruggero Leoncavallo opera, “Pagliacci”. The man in the song compares himself to the famed clown who brought joy to many, but himself is sad and lonely because he doesn’t have a woman who loves him. The track is recorded at Motown’s Studio A on September 26, 1966, with members of The Funk Brothers providing musical support. The Miracles record their vocals in early 1967 and the song is first released as a track on the album “Make It Happen”, which goes largely unnoticed by the public. It is first released in the UK as a single in early September 1970 after a successful re-release of “The Tracks Of My Tears”. “Clown” hits number one in the UK selling over 900,000 copies, leading to its US release. Before it’s issued in the US, Motown makes new stereo and mono mixes of the song, the latter being used for the US 45, which includes a newly recorded bass line. The stereo remix appears on the album “One Dozen Roses” released in August of 1971. Released in the US on September 24, 1970, “The Tears Of A Clown” sells over a million copies, and its popularity extends Robinsons’ stay in The Miracles, who prior to the songs’ release had planned to leave the group in order to spend more time at home with his wife and family before launching his own solo career. The song is covered numerous times over the years with versions by Petula Clark, The (English) Beat, Nnenna Freelon, Phil Collins, Eumir Deodato, Marc Cohn, and Boyzone. “The Tears Of A Clown” is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2002.

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On this day in music history: December 5, 1966 – “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston is released. Written by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Sylvia Moy, it is the twenty second single for Gaye and the tenth single release for Weston. By late 1965, Marvin Gaye is riding a wave of hits including the back to back R&B chart topping million sellers “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar, co-penned and produced by Smokey Robinson. With Robinson being busy with his own group The Miracles, as well as writing for other artists, Marvin is handed off to another producer. At Motown since 1959, Mickey Stevenson is given the assignment to produce a project for the singer. Stevenson already has a significant history with Gaye, having co-written the hits "Pride And Joy”, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” and “Dancing In The Street” with him. Having recorded an album with Mary Wells in 1964, Stevenson suggests another duets album, but this time with his then wife and fellow Motown artist Kim Weston. It isn’t the first time they’ve have sung together, recording “What Good Am I Without You” (#28 R&B, #61 Pop) in 1964. Weston scores her biggest solo hit in 1965 with “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” (#4 R&B, #50 Pop). For the duet album, Stevenson pairs up with songwriter and producer Sylvia Moy. Making her breakthrough co-writing Stevie Wonder’s smash “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, Moy works on some original material for it. Those songs include “It Takes Two”. Mickey Stevenson co-produces “It Takes Two” with Stevie Wonder’s then producer Henry “Hank” Cosby. It is recorded at Motown’s Studio A in Detroit on November 27, 1965 with The Funk Brothers playing on the track. The strings provided by The Detroit Symphony are recorded on December 6, 1965 and finally Marvin and Kim overdub their vocals on March 2, 1966. With the rest of the album titled “Take 2” completed, it released in late August of 1966. Initially, no single is released, during which time Stevenson leaves Motown when he is offered a lucrative position at MGM Records, also taking his wife Kim with him. Motown finally decides to release “It Takes Two” in early December, and it takes off. Entering the Billboard Hot 100 at #88 on January 7, 1967, and #50 on the R&B singles chart on January 21, 1967, it rises up both charts simultaneously. The single peaks at #14 on the Hot 100 on March 4, 1967 and #4 on the R&B chart on March 18, 1967. It also becomes Gaye’s first Top 20 hit in the UK, peaking at #16. A Motown evergreen, “It Takes Two” is covered numerous times, with versions by Otis Redding & Carla Thomas, Donny & Marie Osmond, and by Rod Stewart & Tina Turner. Marvin Gaye includes a cover version in a medley with Florence Lyles on the album “Live At The London Palladium” in 1977, and Kim Weston re-records the song with Marvin’s brother Frankie in 1989.

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On this day in music history: December 3, 1994 – “On Bended Knee” by Boyz II Men hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 6 weeks (non-consecutive), also peaking at #2 on the R&B singles chart on the same date. Written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, it is the third chart topping single for the Philadelphia, PA based R&B vocal quartet. The group meet the producers at the NBA All Star Game in Minneapolis when they approach Jam & Lewis about writing something for their new album. A couple of months later, they respond with “On Bended Knee”. Issued as the follow up to “I’ll Make Love To You” on November 1, 1994, it is another immediate smash. Entering the Hot 100 at #14 on November 19, 1994, it poles vault to the top of the chart two weeks later. “Knee” is in a tussle for the top spot with Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper”, with Kamoze bumping the Boyz from the top spot after two weeks, “Hotstepper” holds at number one for two weeks. “On Bended Knee” regains the top spot, spending another four weeks at the top. Boyz II Men make history as the first group in over thirty years to replace themselves at the top of the Billboard pop singles chart. Having just ended a record breaking fourteen week run at number one with their previous single “I’ll Make Love To You”, “Knee” replaces it in the top spot. The Beatles had previously achieved this feat in March of 1964 when “She Loves You” replaces “I Want To Hold Your Hand” at number one. “On Bended Knee” is certified Platinum in the US by the RIAA.

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On this day in music history: December 2, 1972 – “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 1 week, also peaking at #2 on the R&B singles chart on the same date. Written and produced by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, it is the fourth and final number one pop single for the veteran Motown vocal group. The song is originally recorded by The Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) in 1971 with their version peaking at #24 on the R&B singles chart and #63 on the Hot 100. When The Temptations hear the track for the first time, initially they are unhappy with the songs’ extended intro (the first vocal doesn’t begin until nearly four minutes into the LP version and nearly two minutes into the single version). The opening lyric (“It Was the third of September, that day I’ll always remember, yes I will. ‘Cause that was the day, that my daddy died.”) is particularly upsetting to lead singer Dennis Edwards. Though Edwards father died on the third of October (not the third of September as was the often repeated legend), it still hits a little too close to home. Ever the hard driving perfectionist in the studio, Whitfield has the group recut their vocals numerous times much to their annoyance, though it results in the performance captured on the finished record. The twelve minute long album track is edited down to just under seven minutes for single release. In spite of its length, the record is an across the board smash. “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” wins three Grammy Awards including Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group, Best R&B Instrumental Performance, and Best R&B Song in 1973. “Papa” is covered numerous times over the years including a version by musician Bill Wolfer in 1982 that features Michael Jackson on background vocals. George Michael also perform the song as part of a medley with Adamski and Seal’s song “Killer” in 1992 at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and released on the EP “Five Live”. “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is certified Platinum in the US by the RIAA.

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On this day in music history: December 2, 1967 – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & The Pips hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 6 weeks, also peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 for 3 weeks on December 16, 1967. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, it is the biggest hit for the Atlanta, GA based R&B vocal quartet. Riding a wave of success writing and producing a string of hits for The Temptations, Norman Whitfield and his main songwriting partner Barrett Strong write “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” during this period in mid to late 1966. Whitfield cuts the song on The Miracles and The Isley Brothers, with both of their versions going unreleased (initially). Undaunted, the producer records it again in a dramatic rearrangement with Marvin Gaye in the Spring of 1967. The song is rejected by Motown’s Quality Control department as being “too different” and uncharacteristic of the Motown Sound. Gaye’s version is also shelved as a result of this rejection. Still believing strongly in the song, Whitfield asks Berry Gordy, Jr. if he can cut it on another artist. Gordy agrees, and the producer returns to the studio to cut the new version with Gladys Knight & The Pips. Inspired by Aretha Franklin’s recent smash “Respect”, Whitfield gives his song a similar “funky and earthy” arrangement. Featuring The Funk Brothers providing the musical backing, Whitfield plays the completed track for Gladys Knight & The Pips who work out their own vocal arrangement for the song. The group record their vocals at Motown’s Studio A in Detroit on June 17, 1967. Released as a single on September 28, 1967, initially Motown puts little promotional support behind it, and the group themselves actually approach DJ’s to encourage them to play the single. The strategy works and the record takes off within a month of its release, also crossing over to the pop charts and selling nearly two million copies in the US alone.

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On this day in music history: November 30, 1977 – “Looking Back” by Stevie Wonder is released. Produced by Stevie Wonder, Clarence Paul, Henry Cosby, Berry Gordy, Jr., Sylvia Moy, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Don Hunter, Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, it is recorded at Motown Studio A & B in Detroit, MI from Mid 1962 – Mid 1971. The forty track three LP set (also issued on two cassettes and two eight track tapes) is a compilation of singles released during the Motown superstars’ first nine years on the label. It also includes the previously unreleased song “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”, which Wonder records in 1967 but is shelved until this release. He gives the song to Aretha Franklin in 1973 who scores a big hit with it (#1 R&B, #3 Pop). Wonder’s version of “Until You Come Back To Me”, makes its CD debut on the collection “Love Songs” in 1985, then is remastered and issued on the career spanning box set “At The Close Of A Century” in 1999. It is also only Stevie Wonder hits package to include tracks from his 1968 instrumental album “Eivets Rednow”, featuring his cover of “Alfie” and “More Than A Dream”. The “Looking Back” compilation remains in print for only a short time before it is deleted by Motown, though is a staple record store cutout bins for many years afterward. “Until You Come Back To Me” eventually makes its CD debut in 1985 on the compilation “Love Songs” and is remastered and reissued on the box set “At The Close Of The Century” in 1999. “Looking Back” peaks at number fifteen on the Billboard R&B album chart, and number thirty four on the Top 200.

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On this day in music history: November 30, 1968 – “Love Child” by Diana Ross & The Supremes hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 2 weeks, also peaking at #2 for 3 weeks on the R&B singles chart on November 23, 1968. Written by Deke Richards, Pam Sawyer, R. Dean Taylor and Frank Wilson, it is the eleventh number one pop single for the superstar Motown vocal trio. Following the departure of Holland Dozier Holland from Motown, The Supremes run of top charting hits runs dry for a period while the label regroups, and concentrates on restoring the group to hit making status. Berry Gordy assembles a team of the labels’ top writers and producers to work on song ideas. He locks them up in a suite in the Ponchartrain Hotel in Detroit, and tells them not to come out until they’ve written a hit for The Supremes. The team led by songwriter/producer Deke Richards come up with a song concept about a young woman (a love child herself) not wanting her boyfriend to pressure her into sleeping with him and possibly having an illegitimate child herself. Though the topic is somewhat controversial for its day, but Gordy approves of the idea and the song is quickly completed. The Motown boss, conscious of not wanting to create anymore “backroom superstars”, the songwriting credit is listed ambiguously on the single as by “The Clan”. “Love Child” is recorded at Motown’s Studio A in Detroit on September 16, 1968 with The Funk Brothers playing on the basic track. Diana Ross records her lead vocals on September 19, 1968. Mary Wilson is out of town on vacation at the time of the session, and Cindy Birdsong is not called to the session, so their places are taken by The Andantes. The strings provided by members of the Detroit Symphony are recorded on September 20, 1968. Just prior to the singles’ release, Diana Ross & The Supremes perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, revealing a new look. Eschewing their trademark glamorous image, Ross wears cutoff shorts, a sweatshirt and bare feet. The single is released the following day on September 30, 1968, resonates immediately with the public, and is an instant smash. Entering the Hot 100 at #43 on October 19, 1968, it rockets to the top of the chart six weeks later. “Love Child” becomes the group’s tenth million selling single in the US. In later years, “Love Child” is covered by freestyle vocal group Sweet Sensation in 1990, and is twice sampled by Janet Jackson on the singles “If” and “You Want This” in 1993. A previously unreleased mix of Diana Ross & Supremes original version, with an extended running time and alternate lead vocals, is issued on the archival release “Let The Music Play – Supreme Rarities: 1960 – 1969” in 2008.

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On this day in music history: November 28, 1987 – “Skeletons” by Stevie Wonder hits #1 on the Billboard R&B single chart for 1 week, also peaking at #19 on the Hot 100 on December 5, 1987. Written and produced by Stevie Wonder, it is the eighteenth chart topping single for the R&B music icon. Known for making strong social commentary through his music with songs like “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, “Big Brother”, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, “Cash In Your Face” and “Front Line”, Stevie Wonder returns to that subject matter while working on his twenty-first album “Characters”. With then recent public scandals in the headlines like the Iran-Contra Affair, illegal insider stock trading on Wall Street and numerous others, inspires Wonder to speak on the topic. The initial idea for what becomes the song “Skeletons” begins with a bass riff that Stevie begins improvising on the keyboard. While playing that insistently funky vamp, he starts singing the lyric “skeletons in the closet…”, and mumbling syllables in the place of the actual lyrics which come to him later. The track is recorded at Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles, CA, with Wonder playing all of the instruments himself, utilizing state of the art keyboards like the Synclavier II and Kurzweil 250 synthesizer. Robert Arbitter assists with the synthesizer and sequencer programming. Keith John, the son of rhythm & blues legend Little Willie John sings background vocals on the song, as well as Shirley Brewer, Kevin Dorsey, Alexis England, Lynne Fiddmont, Dorian Holley, Melody McCully and Darryl Phinnessee. At one point, “Skeletons” actually features sound bites from Colonel Oliver North and then President Ronald Reagan, but are removed from the final mix of the song. Released as the first single from “Characters” in September of 1987, it quickly becomes an R&B radio smash, also cracking the top 20 on the pop chart. The accompanying music video for the song features people in a typical American suburban neighborhood, with many of them found to be hiding scandalous “skeletons in their closets”. Actress Karen Black (“Airport”, “Nashville”, “Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”), portrays a wife and mother who appears to be “perfect” on the outside, but is actually struggling with alcoholism. “Skeletons” is also heard in the action blockbuster “Die Hard” in 1988, when limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White) is playing the song on the car’s sound system.

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Born on this day: November 28, 1929 – Songwriter, producer, television and film producer, founder and former chairman of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, Jr. (born in Detroit, MI). Happy 90th Birthday to this music industry icon!!

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