THE SATURDAY MORNING SONG CHRONICLES

-- Paul B Allen III: February 29, 2020

STARS WE NEVER KNEW WERE SIGNED TO MOTOWN 

We all know Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, and the Jackson 5. They are pretty much household names. 

But did you know that Motown had other artists, ones that precious few of us have even known about? And those of us who once knew that these artists were with Motown have probably forgotten by now. This subject fascinated me, and I am thinking you may be pretty interested too. 

So, who are these performers? 

Well, have you ever seen the Die Hard movies? How about the old TV series that was like nothing that had ever come before it, called Moonlighting? Or how about the movie Pulp Fiction? Yes, we are talking about the actor Bruce Willis. Did you know that at one time he was an artist with Motown, with groups like the Temptations doing background vocals on his songs? I’ve got a video I think you’re going to love.

I am also sharing a video Bruce did with June Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. The song is a cover of the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself." Bruce and June made this song a hit again, when they took it to number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

And then there was the gorgeous and talented Barbara McNair. She was one of the first black women on TV, and to also have her own TV show. She was already an established singer and performer by the time she signed with Motown in 1965. Between 1965 and 1968, she recorded nearly 50 songs with Motown, but more than half of them were never released. Today I share with you an old and very rare video of this beautiful star singing to a live TV audience. The name of the song, which was her biggest hit in America, is “You’re Gonna Love My Baby.” 

However, Barbara also recorded a song in 1966 called “Baby A Go-Go.” Berry Gordy didn’t care for this song, so it was never released. Years later, bootlegged copies made it to the U.K. and the song became a huge Northern Soul hit. (You remember that the Northern Soul Movement was mainly located in the northern part of the U.K. and Scotland, and the people there loved the lesser-known Motown artists and their music.) Motown finally gave “Baby A Go-Go” a proper release, but not until the year 2002, nearly 40 years after it was recorded and just five years before Barbara passed away. I am so happy she got to see her song become a huge hit in the U.K. She had to feel vindicated after all that time. 

And, then there is Kiki Dee, the first white U.K. artist to ever be signed to Motown. This was not long before she hooked up with Elton John for “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” But before she departed Motown, she had a hit song in America, a sultry cover of the song “Love Makes the World Go Round,” and a huge Northern Soul hit, “The Day Will Come Between Sunday and Monday.” 

Now, we all know Frankie Valli of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He and they were famous long before Frankie signed with Motown. Frankie only signed with Motown because he was under the impression that Berry Gordy, Jr. himself would take a hands-on approach in working with him. But Berry was so involved with Diana Ross and the Motown film Lady Sings the Blues at that time, that Frankie didn’t feel that Berry delivered on their arrangement. Still, Frankie also had a big Northern Soul hit with his Motown recorded song, “The Night.” 

I am sure Frankie was frustrated with Motown and Berry for another reason, though for him, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It was while Frankie was signed to Motown that he recorded the song that would be his biggest solo hit, “My Eyes Adored You.” However, Berry was not particularly thrilled with the song, and so it sat on “the shelf” for a year and a half and was never released by Motown. When Frankie’s contract was up, he paid Motown $4,000 for the rights to the song and the master recording, and then he got the song to a different record company and within a few months, it was the number one hit in America and found huge success worldwide. 

And here is one for the books. Bobby Darin signed with Motown Records and recorded one or two albums worth of material. But he died soon after and his songs were “shelved” (unreleased) and forgotten about until decades later. I am sharing two of those songs with you today, and you can tell they could have been hits had they been released back then. Even Smokey Robinson still believes that to this day.

One clarifying note. I am not from the south, so I had never heard the southern expression, "The Devil must be beating his wife." I had to look it up to understand. For those like me who have not heard this expression before, it is used to describe the phenomenon of rain falling on a sunny day. So now, you will understand the Bobby Darin tune that is shared in one of our videos today.

Under Motown tutelage, this is not the same Bobby Darin you remember hearing sing “Mack the Knife” or "Splish Splash, I Was Taking A Bath"—believe me. 

Life deals strange cards, but if you’re going to play the game, you have to take them and make the best hand you can. 

See you next week for another Saturday Morning Song Chronicles.