(Officially written by Mickey Stevenson, though this is disputed – see below)
The best book yet written about the Marvelettes, Marc Taylor’s 2004 biography, bore the subtitle Motown’s Mystery Girl Group. But there was another great Motown girl group who had a far stronger claim on that unwanted title. Step forward the Velvelettes, the best Motown act most listeners today have never heard of.
I adore the Velvelettes. At their best, they combine in one group everything that was great about the Supremes, the Marvelettes and Martha & the Vandellas, all at once. Pulled simultaneously in two directions, by the sparkling rush of pure pop and the emotional punch of blues-tinged soul, there’s an alternate universe somewhere out there where the Velvelettes were one of the biggest groups of the Sixties.
That isn’t this universe, of course. The Velvelettes were treated shabbily by Motown: never considered for an LP, their handful of single releases (six of them in total) either nixed by Quality Control or shunted to the lower-profile VIP Records imprint… Motown also-rans for life. Like Hattie Littles, Blinky and JJ Barnes, the dissonance between the quality of their work and the amount of interest shown by their label is nothing short of astonishing.
But if the group never came close to getting the recognition they deserved, they stayed down to earth, remaining good friends, maintaining a cheerful outlook, not kicking up a fuss – and turning out some brilliant records.
A lot of that has been attributed to their “outsider” status at Motown. Like many of their labelmates, they were young – especially lead singer Carolyn (Cal) Gill, only 15 at the time of this release – but they were also educated, middle-class girls who put academia before showbiz. Cal’s big sister Mildred and her friend Bertha Barbee were both students at WMU in Kalamazoo, having cut a couple of backing tracks for other people’s records as The Barbees; both Mildred and Bertha recruited their younger sisters into the group, Norma Barbee being a full-time student at Flint Junior College. The original five-strong Velvelettes line-up was rounded out by Cal’s ninth-grade classmate Betty Kelley. Originally calling themselves “Les Jolie Femmes”, they quickly changed their name to the Velvelettes (because they thought their harmonies were “smooth like velvet”) after realising few promoters or DJs could pronounce the French name properly. They were handicapped from the get-go by the Barbee and Gill families insisting their daughters stay in college and finish their degrees (or, in Cal’s case, graduate from high school), rather than heading out on the road. This meant no participation in package tours, no out-of-town engagements or TV spots during term time, and no hanging around Hitsville waiting to catch the crumbs from the top writers’ tables. As a result, they lost ground to their labelmates that could never be made up again; just as Motown was going supernova, the Velvelettes were otherwise engaged.
Even this tentative first toe-in-the-water effort almost didn’t happen. Having secured a Motown audition through their old contact William “Mickey” Stevenson, the girls impressed Berry Gordy and were promptly signed to a contract, embarking on a number of recording sessions with Stevenson and Norman Whitfield during the spring of 1963.
Six songs from those first sessions have now surfaced, all but one of them written or co-written by Mickey Stevenson. (They’re all featured on the Velvelettes’ Motown Anthology, along with 42 more tracks. As at the time of writing, this is currently available for LESS THAN SIX POUNDS (or LESS THAN NINE DOLLARS, for American readers). If you don’t have a copy of it, then get a copy of it. Immediately. But I digress.) Supposedly, Stevenson promised the Velvelettes their record – the selected tracks There He Goes and That’s The Reason Why, both recorded at the same session in March ’63 and featuring Little Stevie Wonder on harmonica – would soon be appearing in stores, but he hadn’t reckoned on Motown Quality Control.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, QC MEANT QUEEN’S COUNSEL
Quality Control – or “product evaluation meetings”, as they were officially referred to in the corridors of Hitsville – would be the bane of many a Motown artist during the mid- and late-Sixties. Every Friday morning, Hitsville’s brightest minds – not just writers and producers, but sales execs, admin staff, people from throughout the company – would get together to listen to the most promising new recordings that week. Berry Gordy chaired every QC session, and he alone had the power of veto; otherwise, it was a democratic vote, with nobody allowed to vote for their own record and everyone free to speak their mind – or at least free to be as open as they felt comfortable, in Motown’s paranoid soup of backstabbing and political intrigue. If you’ve ever wondered where the disclaimer “Dissent is encouraged” at the bottom of each and every entry on Motown Junkies comes from, look no further.
Tales abound of the eccentricities of these panels: groups of neighbourhood kids being literally invited in off the streets to give their opinons; listening to the current pop Top Five and seeing whether a given record fit the sequence; Berry Gordy questioning whether hungry listeners down to their last dollar would buy the record, or a sandwich; Gordy subtly pitting his creative talent against each other in order to motivate them to always bring their “A” game; anxious writers and producers watching Gordy listening to their record with his back turned to the room, or – if they turned up more than five minutes late – finding themselves locked outside waiting anxiously to hear whether their record would be given the go ahead.
But even getting selected for a QC meeting was an achievement in itself. The formidable Billie Jean Brown, sharp-eared A&R genius and head of Quality Control, would eventually occupy the role of gatekeeper, selecting at most five or six “finalists” from the week’s new material as good enough to run the gauntlet at the Friday meetings. The rest wasn’t good enough, and that was that. If you’ve ever wondered how Motown could possibly have so much great unreleased music – enough to fill four volumes (and counting) of the Cellarful of Motown series, and enough to make projects like the aforementioned 48-track Anthology feasible – well, this is how. More stuff was thrown away than was used.
AND BACK TO THE VELVELETTES
Whoever it was in the summer of 1963 who decided these things, Quality Control marked their territory in the expanding label’s organisation by scoring a victory here, denying There He Goes a release. Embarrassed, Stevenson then seems to have engaged in a bit of face-saving subterfuge; he used his connections to place the rejected record with the little-known Independent Producers Group label, a small-scale indie offshoot of Hawk Records based out of New York City which specialised in licensing pre-recorded material from, well, independent producers, leasing the masters from Motown for a year. He was then able to go back to the Velvelettes and point to their record being in stores. It did pick up some radio play and sales in a few Northern and Midwestern cities, enough to convince Motown that their decision to sign the group had been the right one – but with no Motown promotional money to plug it, and no live following outside the WMU campus thanks to the Velvelettes’ parentally-enforced, Motown-approved dedicaton to their schoolwork, the record’s progress stalled before the single had a chance to chart nationally.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated. Supposedly, the girls were completely unaware that the record had been rejected by Motown, and that IPG had picked it up instead, only discovering this some time after the fact. Also, more than one source claims Norma Barbee was the actual writer of the song, not Stevenson, and that she was unaware Mickey’s name was on the record until it was too late. If that’s true, it’s extremely surprising, as There He Goes bears more than a passing similarity (in both structure and tune) to another great Motown début single, Martha and the Vandellas’ I’ll Have To Let Him Go, also penned by Mickey Stevenson.
(This is a Good Thing.)
Opening, just like the Vandellas’ song, with a strident burst of slightly off-kilter harmonising – the title, in this case – before settling into a set routine of midtempo, calypso-inspired rhythm, high, sweet, echoey backing vocals, and a more free-form, soulful lead from Cal Gill, mature way beyond her years… it’s outstandingly similar to I’ll Have To Let Him Go, with the addition of a plaintively-wailing harmonica courtesy of Little Stevie way down in the mix.
It’s an excellent calling-card; perhaps it was ever-so-slightly dated by the summer of ’63, but there’s nothing really glaring here to explain Motown’s decision not to release it. Their loss was IPG’s gain – this really is quite lovely, and the slightly strident touch that occasionally blights the backing vocals is more than balanced by the smooth, beautiful harmonies the Velvelettes break out elsewhere on the record. Meanwhile, Cal Gill is on sterling form on lead, both handling the difficult vocal line with aplomb – her voice is unbelievably strong for a fifteen-year-old – and dealing with the emotional requirements of the otherwise straightforward lyrics (a combined lament that her guy has left her, and a plea for him to come back) quite superbly. “What went wrong? What on earth did I do? He has left me – now just watch the teardrops FALL”, she belts out, laying down a marker for the great deliveries she’d turn in over the next five years; stay tuned.
The song itself does meander a bit, wandering dangerously close to the MOR end of the spectrum in places – something which obviously attracted the proto-Philly soul group the Royalettes, who turned in their own horn-drenched version of the song for Warners the following year – but if the material isn’t the strongest, the group and the band sound great, something thrown into sharp relief hearing that Royalettes version, all of which makes this a lovely little introduction to one of the most criminally-underrated of all Motown groups.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Whatever Makes You Happy”
“That’s The Reason Why”
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