The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles: Memoirs, Motown, and Music has been nominated for the 2021 Association for Recorded Sound Collections "Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research."
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Chapter 1 – Nancy Wilson
It was 1976. I was 23 years old, and if I remember correctly, it was a Monday afternoon.
I smiled as I walked toward The Record Plant, a recording studio in Hollywood. I had just made a discovery, and I could not have been more pleased with myself.
I heard a car pull up. I turned to watch as it stopped at the parking meter.
She got out. She was even more beautiful than her album covers would lead one to believe. She was thirty-nine years old and drop-dead gorgeous. She opened her purse, reaching for change as she stood next to the parking meter. Boldly, I decided to share my discovery with her.
“Put in a dime. It will get you the same time as a quarter will.” She looked at me. You know, the look that says, “I have no idea who you are or why you are talking to me or why I should believe you.” But she nodded to me, put in a dime, and got the same time on the meter as if she had dropped in a quarter. She turned to me and laughed. “You just saved me fifteen cents.”
I waited for her, and we headed toward the studio entrance together. I extended my hand. “Hi, I’m Paul Allen.” She smiled warmly and shook my hand. “Nancy Wilson.” I held the door of the studio recording room open for Ms. Wilson so that she could enter first. I got another sweet smile as she walked past me.
But her producer, Gene McDaniels, was not smiling. Not at me, anyway. He looked bothered by the fact that I was walking in with Nancy. His vibe was strange, and the tension was palpable, at least it was to me.
Didn’t he invite me to come today? I asked myself silently. Did I misunderstand? When he visited my father’s house this weekend, he said he was producing Nancy Wilson, and that we could come and watch.
Ah, we could come and watch. But there was no we. Only I had come. My father, whom Gene knew well (my grandfather and father had helped Gene get into the music business decades earlier), was unable to make the trip. I, whom Gene barely knew at all, was there, smiling, already buddies with the star he was producing. I was just some kid, crashing his party, who had found favor with this fabulous artist, and Gene did not take kindly to that notion.
Gene warmly greeted Nancy as she settled in next to him behind the large mixing board. He barely said two words to me. But if looks could kill?
I sat on the sofa located just in front of that board, whereas the mixing board itself sat on a platform or riser. I figured I had better be as quiet and as invisible as possible. I was embarrassed, but I could not retreat.
There was an artist in the recording portion of the studio, just behind the sizable soundproof window we all observed him through. He was playing one of those new keyboards called a synthesizer. The purpose was to give Nancy a modern jazzy sound to the track she was about to perform.
As we could all hear through the studio monitors as he played, this musician was remarkable. He finished, exited the soundproofed room, then stood next to me as I sat on the couch. We looked at each other, smiled and nodded in recognition.
I wanted to tell him so badly that I thought he had mad skills and that he just killed that synth part on the track, but I was sure as heck not going to say anything to him, for fear it would put Gene into labor.
(It was not until later that day when I stopped at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard before heading back home to San Bernardino that I had a revelation. There was a section in the store featuring one artist, his latest album being displayed maybe eight across in four rows, with the artist’s face smiling from the album cover. The name of the album was Liberated Fantasies. Man, this guy looks familiar, I thought. Then it hit me. It was the face I had just seen in the studio! That keyboard player who looked down at me, smiled, and nodded as I sat on the sofa was George Duke, and I had just witnessed him performing musical magic on the Nancy Wilson album called This Mother’s Daughter.)
Next, Nancy was up, but before she went through the door into the actual recording area, Gene said, “Listen, I will be glad to clear the studio while you do your vocals.” I felt the dagger in my heart. Jesus, this guy wants to get rid of me. Maybe I should go, I thought.
But in that very moment, Nancy Wilson made me fall head over heels in love with her.
She could see what was happening. She looked at me for a moment; then, she turned to Gene and said, “I’m a pro. I perform in front of people every day. Having someone in the studio while I record is no big deal at all.”
“Are you sure?” Gene continued, “Because I have no problem clearing the studio.”
Man—is he ever pushing the issue!
Nancy just smiled and said again, “No need. Everything’s fine.”
After returning to San Bernardino later that night, my father asked me how things went on my visit to the studio.
I told him everything was fantastic.
The moral of this story?
It is incredible what a person will do for you if you save them fifteen cents.
I love you, Nancy Wilson. You were a class act, even when the rest of the world was not watching.
“A Lot of Living to Do” https://bit.ly/3cpuWmF
“The Sweetest Sounds” https://bit.ly/2MnFCrf
Chapter 37 – Marvin Gaye “The Prince of Motown”
Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees had a nickname. They called him “The Iron Horse.” Why? According to the website, GermanHeritage.com, “Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse because he established a record for the number of consecutive games played by a professional baseball player, appearing in 2130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939.” – LOU GEHRIG: "The Iron Horse" by Shelly McDonald. https://bit.ly/3crRmUc
Yes, it was because of his consistency that Gehrig was called the Iron Horse. And his record stood for over fifty years.
If I had a “fantasy” musical team, Marvin Gaye would be my Iron Horse.
From his first record in 1962 to his last in 1982, Marvin Gaye had 67 singles that reached the Billboard charts. Just over 40 of those records achieved Top 40 hit status, 18 graced the Top 10, and 3 of his songs made it to number 1.
But here is the kicker. My mouth dropped open when I began compiling those singles and started plugging in the dates those recordings were released. As I was typing, I thought, Oh, my God! I had no idea!
Look at how many hit records he had per year. There were a few years when Marvin had only one or two (and any artist on the planet would be ecstatic to have even one hit record in their entire career), but there were years in which Marvin Gaye had three, four, five, even six hit records within the same 12 months.
And look at the years themselves. From 1962 Marvin had hit records every year until 1975 when he was touring so extensively that he could not get back into the studio. This list made me reflect on the greatness of Marvin Gaye.
I remembered my grandmother being overwhelmingly infatuated with Marvin, and I recall her playing his songs. I mean, she was in love! I was a little kid at that time, and even I could see that.
But then I remembered that Marvin had hits when I was a young man. And he had hits when I was married, and when my son was born, and he was still producing hits ten years later, not long before my daughter was born.
Marvin had hits as a solo act and hits doing duets with various Motown female artists, including Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell.
Marvin Gaye was a hit-making machine. He was so low-key that I never realized he was pumping out so many hit songs! He was like a deadly silent assassin who let his music speak for itself.
Check out this list of hits songs he put out, and as you read these song titles, it will start to come back to you. I can hear you now. “Oh, yeah, I remember this song. Wait, I remember this one too.” Like me, you will realize that Marvin Gaye has always been there through the events of our lives until the day he was no more.
Remembering that the definition of a hit record is a song that places in the Top 40 on the Pop Charts, here are the hit songs of Marvin Gaye:
1962 – “Hitchhike” #30
1963 – “Pride and Joy” #10
1963 – “Can I Get a Witness” #22
1964 – “You’re a Wonderful One” #15
1964 – “Once Upon A Time” (Duet with Mary Wells) #19
1964 – “What’s the Matter With You Baby” (Duet with Mary Wells) #17
1964 – “Try It Baby” #15
1964 – “Baby, Don’t You Do It” #27
1964 – “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” #6
1965 – “I’ll Be Doggone #8
1965 – “Pretty Little Baby” #25
1965 – “Ain’t That Peculiar #8
1966 – “One More Heartache” #29
1966 – “It Takes Two” (with Kim Weston) #14
1967 – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (with Tammi Terrell) #19
1967 – “Your Unchanging Love” #33
1967 – “Your Precious Love” (with Tammi Terrell) #5
1967 – “You” #34
1967 – “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” (with Tammi Terrell) #10
1968 – “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (with Tammi Terrell) #8
1968 – “You’re All I Need To Get By” (with Tammi Terrell) #7
1968 – “Chained” #32
1968 – “Keep On Lovin Me Honey” (with Tammi Terrell) #24
1968 – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” #1 Pop, Soul,
1969 – “Good Loving Ain’t Easy To Come By” (with Tammi Terrell) #30
1969 – “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” #4
1969 – “That’s The Way Love Is” #7
1970 – “The End of Our Road” #40
1971 – “What’s Going On” #2
1971 – “Mercy, Mercy, Me” #4
1971 – “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” #9
1972 – “Trouble Man” #7
1973 – “Let’s Get It On” #1
1973 – “You’re A Special Part of Me” (with Diana Ross) #12
1973 – “Come Get To This” #21
1974 – “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” (with Diana Ross) #19
1974 – “Distant Lover” #28
1976 – “I Want You” #15
1977 – “Got To Give It Up” (Part 1) #1
1982 – “Sexual Healing” #3
Please remember, these are only the bonafide hits. There were several other charted recordings as well.
Here are a few more interesting facts about Marvin Gaye:
Marvin Gaye added the “e” to his name to stop being teased about his sexuality, and to distance himself from his father.
Marvin, like Maurice White, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, was a professional drummer before becoming a famous vocalist. In our next installment of The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles, you will see what an excellent drummer he was.
Marvin penned most of his big hits, but he also wrote or co-wrote songs that other artists performed. Some of my favorites were:
The Marvelettes’ song, “Beachwood 45789”
The Originals’ “Baby, I’m For Real”
The Originals’ “The Bells”
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets”
Being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an incredible achievement. Marvin Gaye was a member of both.
And here is another fascinating thing about Marvin. When he signed with Tamla Records (incorporated as Motown Records in 1960), he pursued a career as a performer of jazz music and standards, having no desire to become an R&B performer.
Later known as The Prince of Soul, Marvin did not desire to sing soul music initially. How crazy is that? I found one of his old songs that demonstrates the kind of songs he wished to sing, but that Motown did not let him sing very often.
This song is from 1964. Keep in mind that most of his great duets and his songs like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” would come many years later.
I hope you enjoy the video that showcases the beautiful voice of Marvin Gaye as he performs “If My Heart Could Sing.”
Before we knew Marvin Gaye as a solo artist, he was a member of the group, Harvey and the New Moonglows. Marvin had his first-ever recorded lead vocal with that group on a song named “Mama Loocie.” Enjoy these rare video clips that will demonstrate how much Marvin grew as a singer over time.
Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, one day before his birthday. He was forty-four years old. He spent nearly half his life putting out hit recordings.
Marvin Gaye, “The Prince of Motown,” was also the “Iron Horse” of music.
Thanks for joining us today. We hope to see you again next week for another installment of The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles.
“Mama Loocie” The Moonglows https://bit.ly/2XxTyoM
“If My Heart Could Sing” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/2A03yOP
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Marvin Gaye/Gladys Knight https://bit.ly/3dzswFS
“The American National Anthem” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/3gOmfFX
“Sexual Healing” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/3gT9CJC
“What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/307KBEo
“Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/3gRQgEK
“I Want You” Marvin Gaye https://bit.ly/3cw4HLj
Chapter 52 – And in This Corner…
There have been some historic match-ups throughout the ages. David vs. Goliath, Cassius Clay (later named Muhammad Ali) vs. Sonny Liston, the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees (what is it with Boston?), Burger King vs. McDonald’s, and Pepsi vs. Coke.
But, for a time, one of the biggest rivalries in music was between two record companies, one named Motown and the other named Stax.
These two companies were worthy adversaries who had two completely different approaches to music, even down to differences in the sound of their records. And their differences were most profound when it came to demographics.
Motown trademarked the phrase, “The Music of Young America.” And that in itself shows the direction of their music and marketing plan. Motown wanted music that was “cross-over” worthy. They wanted to expand the horizons of the black music culture by making music that was at once enjoyed by black America but would also be accepted by young white America. That was their thrust. And history has proven time and again that this plan worked. We all know and love the zillions of great Motown songs.
But during a time of tremendous racial upheaval, Stax Records hit the scene, and their music targeted the African American market. If a song from Stax just happened to cross-over to white America, great. If the song did not, no biggie because young white America was not their demographic.
While Motown had a sign on their building that said, “Hitsville U.S.A.” Stax had a sign on their building that said, “Soulsville U.S.A.”
When it came to the match-up between Motown and Stax, Motown was serving slices of all-American apple pie, while Stax served slices of down-home Mississippi sweet potato pie.
“The Motown Sound” was smooth and sophisticated. Stax music was raw, earthy, sensual, powerful, and emotionally engaging. We were lucky. We could have a slice of either pie or have them both. My friends, musically speaking, those days were magic.
Stax eventually lost this match-up. Not because they did not have the acts or songs or dedicated management. But in business, as in most things, the devil is in the detail.
A distribution agreement that Stax signed with Atlantic Records contained clauses that gave Atlantic complete ownership of all the Stax master recordings that it was distributing. When, after the fact, Stax discovered this, they were horrified. They had a gold mine, but they had inadvertently given away all the gold inside it. And what good is it to own a gold mine when you do not get to keep the gold?
That one incident began a downward spiral from which Stax was never able to recover.
Today, there is no Stax records, and there has not been for decades, but what a mind-boggling legacy of music and artists it left for us to enjoy.
Here are just a few of the phenomenal acts and artists that recorded on Stax, and I am sure you will remember many of their songs.
Johnnie Taylor gave Stax Records the first platinum record in recording history with his song “Disco Lady.” But the song that put Johnnie on the map for me, and I am sure for many of you, was the one that is featured today, called “Who’s Making Love.”
Jean Knight’s tune, “Mr. Big Stuff,” was almost like a novelty song to me, and it made me smile every time I heard it. There was just something about the attitude of the song and the way she delivered it.
Sam & Dave had many hit songs on Stax, but “Soul Man” is their signature tune. It is perhaps the only song I have ever heard that created a new name and genre in music.
After “Soul Man” was released and did so well, official music magazines like Billboard and Cashbox and Rolling Stone started referring to and categorizing this style of music as “Soul Music.” Soul Music is now called Soul Music because of the worldwide and cultural impact of Sam & Dave’s song, “Soul Man.” Soul music became the label for the kind of music produced by Stax Records, not Motown.
The Staple Singers were another extraordinary act on the Stax label. And what a unique group line-up. It even included the patriarch of the Staples family, referred to as “Pops” Staples. And one of Pop’s daughters, Mavis Staples, was laying down some of the most soulful vocals the world had ever heard, and she did it so effortlessly that it was incredible. Mavis brought “church” right up on stage with her, no matter where she was performing. “Respect Yourself” is another classic song recorded at Stax Records.
The Dramatics did a lot for Stax, beginning with their hit song, “What You See Is What You Get.” Ron Banks, the falsetto-singing founder of the group, became a friend. Ron was a great guy. He was kind, funny, super-talented, and not at all pretentious, which he could have been because the Dramatics were flying high. I enjoyed hanging out with Ron as he spent a lot of time in the offices of Wayne Henderson’s At Home Productions, where I spent a lot of time writing music.
I think Ron desired to have Wayne—one of the most sought-after producers of his day—produce a solo project with him, though he planned on remaining a member of the Dramatics. I enjoyed listening to Ron as he played his proposed music tracks and sang the lyrics live for Wayne and me to hear.
I was greatly saddened when Ron died. He was only 58 years old. Life on the road can be tough.
Mel & Tim were cousins, discovered by the iconic Gene “The Duke of Earl” Chandler, and Gene produced their first big hit, “Backfield in Motion” on Bamboo Records. Mel & Tim later signed with Stax and recorded the song, “Starting All Over Again.”
Albert King (no relation to B.B. King) is one of the greatest bluesmen that ever sang and played the guitar. The name of his massive hit with Stax is “Born Under A Bad Sign,” now a blues classic. I think you will enjoy this video, as it has Albert and the great Stevie Ray Vaughn performing this iconic song together. Simply beautiful. Any guitar players out there will especially appreciate this one, as will you blues lovers.
Please remember, this is only a partial list of artists that have recorded hits at Stax records.
There were many more, and some of them have been featured here on The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles in the past, like Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, and Isaac Hayes. Still, there were others like Eddie Floyd with his song “Knock On Wood,” and Fredrick Knight with “Bet You Didn’t Know That.”
Motown vs. Stax? Not really. Apples and oranges. Each company has immeasurably enriched our lives with their unique approach to music.
Enjoy these rare videos and thank you for taking time out of your busy life to read this book. It has been my great honor to share The Saturday Morning Song Chronicles with you.
“Who’s Making Love” Johnnie Taylor https://bit.ly/3cySTYK
"Mr. Big Stuff" Jean Knight https://bit.ly/3n3kNmi
“Knock on Wood” Eddie Floyd https://bit.ly/2Y47TZc
“Soul Man” Sam & Dave https://bit.ly/2MvvsVr
“Try A Little Tenderness” Otis Redding https://bit.ly/2MpYBS9
“What You See Is What You Get” The Dramatics https://bit.ly/2Y3WJ6M
“Respect Yourself” The Staple Singers https://bit.ly/3tzSHlh
“Starting All Over Again” Mel And Tim https://bit.ly/3eNLPZF
“Born Under a Bad Sign.” Albert King https://bit.ly/3tFgFLW