Music

Needles in the Haystack

Diana Ross

To supplement our list of favorite 25 singles, we offer a quick look at a handful of under-appreciated gems in the Motown catalog.

Chris Clark, "If You Should Walk Away" (1967)

In this time of celebrating all things Motown, Chris Clark -- an accomplished singer, songwriter, photographer, and film executive -- remains relatively unsung outside of the label's completists and Northern Soul enthusiasts. Clark faced a number of hurdles as a recording artist in the mid-to-late '60s, and to my knowledge none of them had anything to do with the quality of her musical output. As a white singer on the Motown label, she was met with misgiving by media, fans, and fellow artists. One of the best anecdotes about Clark has her performing at the Fox Theatre in Detroit to a particularly skeptical audience. Berry Gordy's solution was to have her start singing from off-stage so that those in attendance would admire her voice before being confronted with the color of her skin. It worked, and her whiteness became a non-issue for that crowd.

In addition to race politics, label politics are a particularly thorny issue for Motown. Gordy's selective promotional push for the performers at his music factory certainly had an impact on Clark's career and that of many others throughout the label's history. Add to that a backbiting alternative biography of Clark in which she's a label receptionist and rumors about the effect of her personal relationship with Gordy, and it seems that Clark fought and continues to face an uphill climb towards being acknowledged as a worthy artist. However, to revisit Clark's 1967 Motown release Soul Sounds is to recognize the versatility of her instrument and the important niche she represents within the sound of young America. The verses on "Born to Love You Baby" flirt with the sounds of bossa nova lounge. "Love's Gone Bad", on the other hand, is a stomping blues-rock throw-down that powerfully exorcises the titular bad love and evokes Janis Joplin. Clark's relatively faithful take on the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life" showcases the interpretive dexterity of her voice as it rivals the punch of the horn arrangement.

But there's no better moment than "If You Should Walk Away", a Motown ballad written by Gordy and Frank Wilson that was never released as a single. On this number, Clark departs from the speak-singing delivery she uses in many places on the album (most markedly on "I Want to Go Back There Again", co-written by Clark and Gordy). The opening phrase of "If You Should Walk Away" finds Clark tapping into a smooth section of her range akin to Karen Carpenter's alto. As the song develops, the oft-cited Dusty Springfield comparison comes into view as Clark adds an edge that fits the song's narrative about fidelity and strained relationships. This tension and release are also present in the downbeat-driven instrumentation, which breaks occasionally into acoustic guitar and auxiliary percussion interludes. These seem like unnecessary pop gestures that interrupt the sultry sway of the song, but even they bloom into a dynamic, string-enhanced breakdown just past the two-minute mark. Throughout, Clark exhibits her expert control and soulful realization of the material.

The sequencing of Soul Sounds somewhat undermines the impact of the song, following it up with the comparatively inconsequential "Whisper You Love Me Boy". As such, I'll allow that "If You Should Walk Away" is an excellent candidate for standalone discovery in the mp3 era. This would-be single is an ideal gateway into the many pleasures of Chris Clark and her soul sounds. Thomas Britt

 

The Mynah Birds, "It's My Time" (1966)

If you and I were chatting about music in a bar and I were to tell you that, at one point, Neil Young and Rick James were in a band together on the Motown label, you would probably walk away thinking I was nuts.

But alas, if you dig deep enough into the depths of the legacy of Berry Gordy's Hitsville USA, you will discover the story of the Mynah Birds, the very first white band signed to Motown. Formed in Toronto, Onatrio in the mid-'60s, the Mynah Birds were primarily a vehicle for the then-teenage James, who went by the name Ricky Matthews, along with a rotating cast of musicians that, at some point or another, included Young on guitar, Bruce Palmer (Young's future bandmate in Buffalo Springfield) on bass, Goldie McJohn of Steppenwolf on keyboards, and even folk-rock hero Bruce Cockburn.

According to Young in an interview with author Jimmy McDonough in Young's excellent biography Shakey, James at the time aimed to be the black Mick Jagger rather than the funk demigod he grew into during the '70s and '80s. "Ricky was great," he stated. "He was a little touchy, dominating -- but a good guy. Had a lot of talent. Really want to make it bad... Ricky was the frontman. He's out there doin' all that shit and I was back there playin' a little rhythm, a little lead, groovin' along with my bro Bruce. We were havin' a good time. Rick James was really into the Stones. 'Get Off My Cloud', 'Satisfaction', 'Can I Get a Witness', all these songs we used to do. We got more and more into how cool the Stones were. How simple they were and how cool it was."

The Young-Palmer incarnation of the Mynah Birds was the one that got signed to Motown, who funded them studio time where they recorded an album's worth of material. However, only one proper single, "It's My Time" b/w "Go on and Cry", was assigned a catalog number and slated for release. Plans, however, that were shelved after James was arrested for deserting the U.S. Navy, and forced to serve a tour of duty, which, in turn, caused the Mynah Birds to dissolve shortly thereafter. Although there are bootlegs of Mynah Birds material out there on the Internet for savage Neil Young orRick James completists to grab, "It's My Time" and "Go on and Cry" were eventually released officially on the 2006 box set The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 6: 1966. Ron Hart

 

Diana Ross, Baby It's Me (1977)

In 1976, Billboard crowned Diana Ross "Entertainer of the Century". It was a well-earned coronation. Just six years after leaving the Supremes, Ross had established herself as a formidable talent with a career that spanned records, film, television, and the Broadway stage. Amidst four chart-topping singles, Grammy and Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award for An Evening with Diana Ross, Ross released no less than a dozen albums between 1970 and 1977. Motown ensured that their top-selling female artist remained prolific even as she raised her three young daughters, Rhonda, Tracee, and Chudney.

However, Motown's saturation of Diana Ross product -- an average two album per year release schedule -- buried some of the singer's finest recordings. One of those albums, Baby It's Me was sandwiched between the double live album An Evening with Diana Ross (1977) and Ross (1978), an odds and sods collection of new and previously recorded material. Like many of the albums Ross recorded in the 1970s, it deserves to be rediscovered.

Produced by studio wunderkind Richard Perry, Baby It's Me beckoned listeners to the boudoir. Ross' come-hither gaze on the album cover was an appropriate preamble to the music. "We wanted to make a record people could make love to," Perry even disclosed to Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone. Indeed, the songs on Baby It's Me were ideal for "shadow dancing" in a razzle-dazzle sort of way.

Musically, the album contained a pastiche of pristinely orchestrated pop-soul confections. It also marked the full transition from the breathy, ingénue-like quality of Ross' singing voice to a more mature and stronger tone. Ensconced at Studio 55 in Los Angeles during the summer of 1977, Perry maximized this newfound stridency. "You Got It" symbolizes the particular quality that characterizes the album: Perry's stylized yet appealing pop and the cut-glass timbre of Ross' voice. Her exuberant intonation of "got" defines the ecstasy of romantic love, and thus, the theme of Baby It's Me.

The album is a treasure trove of irresistible tracks. "All Night Lover", a glitzy tribute to the Holland-Dozier-Holland productions Ross recorded with the Supremes, echoes both "Where Did Our Love Go" and "I Hear a Symphony". Though "All Night Lover" shares much in common with the classic sound of the Supremes, lyrics like "Renew me, do me" distinguish Ross -- a sexy, classy woman -- from the cooing 20-year old version of herself.

"Top of the World" and "Gettin' Ready for Love", which was the only single from the album to crack the Top 40 pop charts, were sweeping, buoyant three-minute odes to the stirring sensations of romantic love. The gorgeous "Come in from the Rain" and "Confide in Me", each co-written by Melissa Manchester, disguised seduction as a seemingly innocuous invitation, while a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Too Shy to Say" embellished the sweetness of the original with a tinge of melodrama. The title cut is the wild card of the bunch, a track that could only be described as funk-lite burlesque but, nonetheless, bewitching.

To simply dismiss the album as "glossy", which it was upon its release, is to miss out on its numerable charms. (The only truly disposable contrivance is "Your Love Is So Good for Me", a disco excursion that goes nowhere.) The production might be as slick as Ross' coif but it's just as alluring. No one will mistake Ross singing "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" for Bill Withers, but hearing her navigate the song's maze of heartache with that distinctive wail of hers summons its own kind of intoxication. During the last 45 seconds of the song, when the 4/4 beat suspends briefly, Ross cries wordlessly against the rhythm section. One can visualize the mascara running down her cheeks, her lipstick still glistening. The moment is executed perfectly under Perry's direction, of course, but it's beguiling just the same.

While Baby It's Me vanished from circulation years ago (used CDs fetch upwards of $100), it's well worth filing through the used album crates to hear how it captures a significant moment in the career of one of Motown's most legendary artists. Christian John Wikane


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