(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Well, here’s a momentous first for Motown Junkies: a single that came out in Britain, but not in America. (And moreover, we in Britain got it twice. Of which more later.)
The Tamla Motown imprint, whose iconic (for British readers anyway!) black and silver labels (pictured above for the first time) defined “Motown” for a generation of UK listeners, was inaugurated with a whole sweep of new single releases on 19th March 1965. The result of a marketing partnership between Motown in the US and EMI in Europe, Tamla Motown – a label which never existed in America – replaced Motown’s previous licensing arrangement with Stateside Records, and was designed to give Motown proper representation in the world’s most music-mad market. Possibly because there was little else to do, British teens in the 1960s and 1970s spent more money per head on records than anyone else on Earth, and now Motown had a platform to launch a real bid for their share of those pounds, shillings and pence.
Motown had had UK hits before – the Supremes’ Baby Love had even hit Number One – but now they had a brand, an identity, an iconic new beginning, borne of a new label where Motown’s big American hits wouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Santo and Johnny, Herb Alpert or Brother Jack McDuff.
Tamla Motown launched with a bang, the new label selecting no less than six singles to come out on the same day, and a seventh a week later: seven 45s they felt best captured a true picture of what Motown was all about for UK newbies. British fans will be able to reel these off without looking, but EMI’s choices are illuminating: they picked new sides from the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops… and Earl Van Dyke.
Keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, leader of the immortal Motown house band the Funk Brothers (promoted here to a full label credit, but hastily rechristened “the Soul Brothers” as Motown boss Berry Gordy disliked the word “funk”), perhaps the most vital cog in the Motown hit-making machine, thus managed to appear on all seven of the first “real” British Motown singles. Van Dyke had already had a run-in with the Hitsville top brass over his future, and it’s usually painted as a straightforward tale of Motown actively thwarting his ambitions: the pianist eagerly awaiting his long-promised chance to cut some real jazz records under his own name, Motown keen to keep their valuable studio player under lock and key and prevent him from becoming a star.
The truth, as always, is a little more nuanced than that.
Earl Van Dyke was eventually given permission to record some cuts during the Sixties, but it was rare for him to be doing the kind of material he wanted. (Rare, though not unheard-of, and we’ll be meeting perhaps the “pure” Van Dyke/Funk Brothers sound before the year is out). Earl and the Funks’ first Motown single proper for three years, the energetic dancer Soul Stomp, had been moderately well-received (if not exactly well promoted), but it wasn’t what either the band or the label wanted. An impasse loomed on the horizon.
As a way of pacifying the usually good-natured Chunk of Funk, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson – positioning himself, as he often did, as a supposed intermediary between the studio musicians and the President’s office – suggested Van Dyke record some “halfway-house” type records to begin with. The proposal was for an LP of Motown hits and other completed band tracks, but with the lead vocals scrubbed off and Earl’s rippling organ overdubbed in their place.
Stevenson had played a winning hand. Motown agreed to Mickey’s plan in the hope it would keep Earl happy for a while, and maybe sell some records while sticking to the script; Earl agreed in the hope it would lead to future releases where he’d have more freedom. But neither party was truly happy with the deal.
Earl, who was no idiot, knew he was being patronised and that Motown had no great ambition to promote him as a “serious” artist rather than a performing monkey.
Berry Gordy, shrewder still, was indeed wary of doing any more than the bare minimum to push Earl’s career. But here’s my theory. Gordy wasn’t only reticent because Van Dyke and the rest of the studio band were so important to Motown’s future success, but also for another, stronger reason, one which got right to the heart of the matter: these “Soul Brothers” organ overdub records aren’t all that good.
The slated first single from those sessions, All For You – an adaptation of a track originally known as Make No Mistake and recorded (with vocals) by both Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Ruffin as Lucky Lucky Me – was pulled from the American schedules before any promos were pressed up. Various reasons have been given for this. Motown didn’t want Earl to be a success, we’re told. Motown deliberately sandbagged Earl’s career, we’re reminded.
But that, to me, is missing the point.
THAT MOTOWN SOUND: CASH REGISTERS
Berry Gordy has been called many things, but if you were asked to name the one adjective even his friends would readily agree to, that word would surely be ruthless.
An accepted narrative has grown up around the Funk Brothers, a kind of legendary glow stoked by the book and movie Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, and it’s a narrative I’m faintly uncomfortable with. We went over most of this when talking about Soul Stomp, but in a nutshell… while not wanting to do down the musicians’ incredible achievements, while not bemoaning their belated (too late) fame, and while not disputing they (along with many others) got a raw deal at Motown, I nonetheless get annoyed when people seem to suggest the Funk Brothers’ light was held under a bushel. “What a shame it is we never got to hear their true genius let free to roam”, or something along those lines. “If only…”
For a start, it’s wrong to say they never got to play off the leash (as we’ll see in a few months’ time). But more importantly, that argument, to me, seems to lead to the conclusion that Earl and the Funks could have been really good, if only they hadn’t been held back by having to do all that Motown pop chart stuff. Balls, says I. Van Dyke, Jamerson, Willis, Benjamin, Messina, White, Brokensha and the rest were legends alright, and I’m glad they’re getting their long-deserved, long-overdue props, but they’re legends because of what they did, not what they might have done. The most successful band of all time in terms of hit records, they were also the greatest band of all time in terms of what’s ON those records. What they actually left us is amazing, and to suggest it only represents a fraction of their true ability is to suggest pop music can’t truly be compared to “real”, serious jazz and classical work – an insult to Motown and those who continue to love it.
But it’s a red herring in any case. Maybe it might have been good to hear some “real” Funk Brothers albums (if only alongside, not instead of, their regular Motown work), but frankly there are other underexposed Sixties jazz-blues records more deserving of your money and attention, records by men and women who didn’t also rack up thirty Number One singles in their sneered-upon “day jobs”. But it might also have been a tedious exercise. Or, it might just have been that we got to hear some more good records, on a par with some of the other interesting stuff that’s come out of the Motown vaults in the CD era.
(Case in point: James Jamerson’s got three “solo” tracks included on the new Earl Van Dyke The Motown Sound compilation CD, pictured above. They’re very good. (The best of them, Greedy Green, sounds like “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells recorded two years early). They’ve also been available for months now; how many articles have you seen praising them as great lost Motown hits? How many journalists have fallen over themselves to proclaim Jamerson, the greatest bassist of all time, as a visionary solo artist?)
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s my belief that – within certain limits – Motown would have been delighted if Earl Van Dyke had scored a big hit single, allowing him to become a “name”, if not necessarily a star.
Sure, he’d have been missed in the studio if he was out on tour, but then that happened anyway – Motown set him up as head of “The Earl Van Dyke Sextet” (not “The Soul Brothers”, or “The Motown Band” or whatever, telling in itself) and sent him out to tour Europe as part of the Tamla Motown launch celebrations, meaning he was away from Hitsville for an extended period of time in 1965 in any case, and yet Motown recorded more studio hours of tape that year than ever before.
Sure, it might have been more difficult to work with him if he was famous in his own right, harder for Norman Whitfield to demand he run through fifteen takes of some obscure B-side fodder intended for the bin – but not much harder; Earl was a seasoned pro, and unlike Choker Campbell (who walked out on Motown in a row over his lack of releases), the only problems Van Dyke ever caused revolved around money. So long as he was being paid, then – like Booker T. and the MGs over at Stax, who’d had a Top Five hit with Green Onions three years ago but still showed up for work – he’d have been fine.
Sure, he’d have been able to demand more things (money, concessions over material, a share of the marketing budget) as a name artist – but then he’d only got to record anything at all because his importance meant he had Motown over a barrel in the first place, and his having a hit record wouldn’t have made his demands any harder to deny.
Sure, Motown usually liked to keep the musicians (and backing singers, and writers, and producers) anonymous – but Earl himself was already an exception, billed as a solo artist (instead of, again, “The Soul Brothers” or “The Motown Band” or whatever) – and, in Europe, given a lavish picture sleeve (above), Earl standing in front of Buckingham Palace with his name blown up in giant 50-point type. Are these really the actions of a label actively trying to hobble a man’s ambitions to keep him in his place?
No, for me it doesn’t all add up. Motown had the power and the opportunity to keep him under wraps just like, say, Joe Messina, or Uriel Jones, or Dave Hamilton. If you listen to Carol Kaye or Robert Dobyne (NB: do not listen to Carol Kaye or Robert Dobyne), Motown was so good at keeping its underpaid worker bees out of the public eye that we still don’t know the full story as to who really did what. They let Earl try his hand at making the big time, given the exact same roll of the dice, and – more importantly – subject to the exact same restrictions, limitations and second-hand material as the rest of what Gladys Knight called Motown’s “peon crowd”, the recording acts who weren’t already stars. If he wanted a shot, he’d damn well better toe the line, dance to Gordy’s tune, just like every other artist.
And toe the line he did. So he didn’t get to record a lot of jazz or blues? Neither did the next twenty singers and vocal groups who wanted to be doing that, rather than overdubbing old Mary Wells tracks or working their way through the Jobete catalogue for the benefit of a barely-interested third-string producer. They all did it for as long as they could stand it, and Earl did it too. (While being paid rather more than many acts on the roster, to boot.) Could he have been a contender? Hell, anyone could have been a contender if Motown had thrown their entire weight behind them; and Motown hardly ever threw their entire weight behind anyone, and them’s just the breaks.
ALL FOR WHOM, EXACTLY?
So why was this cancelled? Why did this come out in Europe, and not in America?
It’s really simple. There are two reasons. One: while most of the cuts on Earl’s proposed That Motown Sound album were well-known singles by other Motown acts, the original vocal versions of Lucky Lucky Me ended up being shelved, and so US audiences wouldn’t have known what this was. European audiences, by contrast, were almost entirely new to Motown in general, and Europe had a proud history of embracing black instrumental music. When it was announced the Earl Van Dyke Sextet would be joining Tamla Motown’s package tour, it made sense to dust something off and issue it as an accompanying single, and All For You was ready to roll.
The other reason is simple too: it’s just not all that great. It’s not bad or anything, but nobody will be listening to the nine sides we’ve covered from 1965 to date and picking this one out as the killer cut. It just doesn’t make a real impact, especially not when put alongside Junior Walker’s explosive Shotgun, or some of Stevie Wonder’s contemporary singles; Motown USA just didn’t have room to market their third-best instrumental act.
I love Earl’s playing, but his greatest strength was always the energy and attack he brought to a band performance; it was never solos, and certainly not lengthy, exposed solos like these, almost following the line a saxophone would take when replacing a lead vocal. The results are almost universally disappointing, as well as instantly dated, the blinding light and aggressive cool of the original tracks diminished by Van Dyke’s jaunty, parping style on lead organ.
That’s especially noticeable on a track like All For You, which (as Lucky Lucky Me) would surely have been a huge hit in the hands of either Marvin Gaye or (my favourite, somehow even better) Jimmy Ruffin. There’s not one of Earl’s organ overdubs where I come away thinking the result is better than the original, and this one definitely isn’t; not for the last time, Earl turns in what turns out to be the weakest of several competing Motown versions of the same song.
But it’s probably worth remembering at this point that nobody (apart from collectors, bootleggers and other nerds) heard Lucky Lucky Me, in any version, until thirty or forty years later. Instead, most people’s only exposure to this song, this track, was via Earl’s version, and this (along with an alternate re-recording released in Britain in 1970) is the only time here on Motown Junkies we’ll meet this song, and so (bizarrely) we’re not judging Earl’s version as a cover, but as the original.
Van Dyke’s lead organ is the weakest thing on here; he’s proficient enough, but (as with Junior Walker on Hot Cha) there’s a difference between “difficult” and “worthwhile”. But the track he sets about ruining is one of Motown’s most criminally overlooked, a track Earl himself helped build. The whole thing is a locked-in drum and bass groove, powered along by a bed of cooing backing vocals and hammered piano, before some quite superb funk guitar work and a big, rousing key change two-thirds of the way through, all culminating in a chant of HEY! at the end of each chorus before the drums and bass kick in again. It works just fine without the lead vocals on it, even if we already know how much better it could be with them.
But the decision to splice Earl’s lead organ line onto the track is a complete misjudgement, an unnecessary extra ingredient nobody was asking for. Earl did at least two takes, the single version presented here and another version included on the That Motown Sound LP, which Tamla Motown eventually issued as a single in 1970; they’re both semi-improvised, Van Dyke keen to use the session as a starting point for a lengthy jazz organ jam. There are a few nice moments of frantic fingerwork and loud, high sustain parts, but on the whole, it only serves to distract and detract from the excellent backing track the band had already completed. The eventual effect is wearying, and ends up only serving to diminish the power of the song, a smashing groove turned into a pleasant but inessential curio.
Overall? It’s alright, but the organ is annoying, and it mainly serves as a reminder of Motown’s foolishness in not issuing one of the vocal versions instead. But hey, at least it let me talk a lot, right?
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.
|Jr. Walker & the All Stars
|Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers
“Too Many Fish In The Sea”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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