(Written by Frank Wilson)
(Released, belatedly, in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
I’m half-expecting something to happen here – by and large, I’m guessing the British fans will approve of the end of this review, but be annoyed by the middle, and by and large, I’m guessing the the American fans will take no offence at the middle but snort in derision at the conclusion.
But then, as we’ve found already, my record in predicting audience reaction is patchy at best. So let’s see. It’s already by some distance the longest essay that’s ever appeared on this blog, breaking a promise I made earlier – but that’s because this is such a complicated story, and takes in so many other complicated stories, that it needs space for the telling. If you just want to know what I think about the record, and skip all the history and pseudohistory and conjecture and digressions and hooptedoodle, then as always, scroll all the way down to the end. Everyone else? Buckle up.
Before we get into it, let’s explain that “most expensive” tag. In brief: while the market is flooded with bootlegs of varying quality (pictures of some of which adorn this very page), there are only two actual copies (both promos) of the original US pressing of this record known to exist, and the last time one of them was sold, more than 10 years ago now, it changed hands for £25,000 – which, allowing for inflation, is about $40,000 in today’s money. A quick online search brings up several houses in Detroit which you could buy for that money, and yet clearly someone felt that owning a battered old Motown 45 was a better investment, and paid forty thousand U.S. dollars of actual money to make it happen. How did we get to this?
LIFT UP YOUR EYES AND LOOK NORTH
The Motown story, which we’ve been telling here on Motown Junkies as seen through the prism of the company’s many, many 45s, is full of garbled recollections and conflicting accounts and plot holes and half-truths and outright fabrications. Some of them have been tidied up (including on this very website, either by me or in the always-illuminating comments section: who were the Hit Pack? What was the true identity of Ray Oddis? Who is that brilliant singer on the Wright Specials’ amazing Pilgrim Of Sorrow? Who was the unknown teenager who played guitar on Barrett Strong’s Money?), but for others, the fog of mystery still lingers (thus far we’ve not made much headway in untangling the backstory of Martha and the Vandellas, or unpicking the saga of the Darnells, for instance).
Occasionally, and only very occasionally, the fog of mystery becomes an aura of mystique, a kind of golden glow which infuses a record with extra-textual magic – often with very little relation to what’s actually in the grooves. Rarity is a powerful motivator for the collector to turn even tarnished old plate into exotic lost treasure, so long as it’s been sufficiently forgotten. Off the top of my head, the Andantes’ Like A Nightmare is one example of this rarity-as-commodity thing, Patrice Holloway’s Stevie is another. The legend is bigger than the reality.
That allure of rarity, the temptation to like something simply because it’s obscure (and the corollary, the temptation to disdain something simply because it’s popular) has an obvious conclusion. It leads us, inescapably, to a place this blog has hardly visited in its five years online, but a place whose clenched-fist icon resides proudly at the bottom of every page; it leads us to Northern Soul.
OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH
Northern Soul is a scene more than a genre (observe the endless arguments which break out even today about what is or isn’t actually “Northern Soul”), but it’s a scene which is based, at its heart, on obscurity. It grew out of a love of Motown and Motown soundalikes; my usual definition of Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age runs roughly from 1964 to 1967, and for fans in Britain, and especially fans in the North of England who were already dealing with the customary delay of several months before new releases arrived on these shores (and with shops like Dave Godin’s which sold imported American 45s largely restricted to the big cities and port towns), the Sound of Young America was supplanted far too soon by edgier, funkier soul and R&B cuts. Hold on, we Brits say, breathless and smitten: we’re not ready for the new thing yet, we’re still digging the last new thing, it blew us away, and we haven’t yet explored every last nook and cranny before we move on. 40-odd years later, we’re still exploring. We’ll never be finished.
It’s not about pointless nostalgia; rather, it’s about finding a spectacularly good thing and wanting more of it. But obviously, there wasn’t a ready supply of new stomping uptempo 4/4 pop-soul records: the original artists had all moved on to musical pastures new as the Seventies dawned (and pretty much anything recorded specifically to cater to the Northern crowd was viewed with suspicion by the cognoscenti, notwithstanding a few chart hits from the oppportunistic likes of Wigan’s Chosen Few or Wigan’s Ovation, or even the original artists wanting a piece of the belated action, like the Trammps recording vocals over the top of Scrub Board to create something even better in Hold Back The Night)… and so crate-digging for soundalikes or “dance-alikes” became the way of things.
But let’s not conflate the DJ’s story with the fan’s story.
IT’S (NOT) GRIM UP NORTH: A PRIMER FOR NORTHERN NEWBIES
I’m proud to be a fan of Northern Soul, and I put the clenched fist patch at the bottom of every page here with pride to show it to the world – this is one of my favourite styles of music. In many ways, it’s why I’m here. Everything that makes a great uptempo Motown cut, well, great, is there in a great Northern cut too; it’s a treasure trove of amazing music and it won my heart in three minutes.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that Northern Soul is a completely made-up genre, and so the criteria for inclusion – for records and for fans – can vary quite wildly. I’m often asked what it actually means to call something “Northern Soul” (I certainly didn’t know to start with, it was just one of those terms I heard bandied about, and as a kid, I originally assumed it meant soul records from the northern US, or something, especially given that “Southern Soul” means exactly the opposite of that). Ask twenty different die-hard soulies for a definition and, much like “the Motown Sound”, you’ll get twenty different answers, but broad lines of consensus emerge: in terms of the music, most soulies would agree it’s a label applied as a loose blanket to cover:
- (mostly) uptempo American R&B/pop records;
- (mostly) from the Sixties or early Seventies;
- (mostly) with a quasi-Motown sound, or at least tend more Motown than Stax;
- and, apparently crucially, which sold about eight copies on original release.
These rare records found an unlikely audience in clubs in northern England in the late Sixties through to the mid-to-late Seventies. The epithet “Northern Soul” was invented to provide a handy catch-all category to describe this sort of stuff by the legendary Dave Godin, who – the story goes – ran a soul music shop in London and noticed football fans from the North travelling down for road games would be coming in and buying rare old stuff, rather than the new stuff that was in the current black American charts. No great Northern Soul song was ever made by an artist actually deliberately setting out to appeal to the Northern Soul scene (though as we saw above, a few Seventies chancers tried this tactic and got some commercial success).
Rather, a core point of the “scene” was – is – unearthing hidden rarities and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience. In roughly chronological order, the four biggest Northern Soul clubs in England were the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and finally the Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino, which was voted the best nightclub in the world by Billboard in 1978, ahead of New York’s Studio 54.
By and large, if you like upbeat Motown, chances are you’ll like most Northern Soul staples (check out either edition of Kev Roberts’ mammoth Northern Soul Top 500 for a fair sampling, though as with any canon – like my fifty 10/10s here on Motown Junkies – there’ll always be endless debates about what people think should have been included instead), and vice versa. I was into Northern before I was into Motown; indeed, Northern Soul one of the main things that led me here, led me to write this enormous, life-consuming blog.
Anyway. A lot of excellent, well-known records have the same basic tropes as “officially approved” Northern Soul classics, sharing the same mid-Sixties Motown beat-driven sound, but if the record sold a lot of copies (Jackie Wilson’s peerless (I Get The) Sweetest Feelin, for instance, or the Chiffons’ similarly magnificent Sweet Talkin’ Guy) then, regardless of intrinsic quality, some Northern aficionados will disdain the song and even the artist as “Not Northern”. A badge of dishonour, wielded with ever more painful swings here in the days of the Internet; it used to just be newbies and DJs making and fulfilling the “wrong” requests who’d be on the receiving end of this scorn, but nowadays, woe betide the hapless poster in a Northern Soul Facebook group who accidentally shares something which a joyless trainspotter decries as Not Northern.
Sadly, among those who now seek to define and dictate “proper” Northern Soul’s ambit (which almost never, incidentally, means any of the main 70s DJs and promoters, the real movers and shakers from the time, most of whom have been only too happy to write essays and liner notes, endorse mass-audience compilations, etc), this happens rather a lot; effectively, the golden rule for Northern Soul snobs is that if a lot of people have heard of it, it doesn’t count.
(Which, truthfully, isn’t without its attractions, as philosophies go. There’s a certain appeal, for sure, in a genre among whose criteria for inclusion is to be a brilliant commercial failure. But when the mood changes from celebration of the unheralded to automatic condemnation of the successful, it’s no longer my scene, and time for me to step away.)
This has a lot to do with the demographic makeup of Northern Soul fans anyway. In its 70s heyday, the scene was driven in large part by the fans’ athletic dancing, which in turn was driven in not insignificant part by drugs, with regular attendees at the famous “all-nighter” Northern events pulling astonishing backflips, splits, leaps, spins and rolls, some of them keeping it up for hours on end, and some of them being fuelled largely by amphetamines. But I’ve never been much of a dancer (even when I was a nightclub DJ!), and so I fall into the other great core constituency of Northern Soul fandom, for whom it’s more about the music itself rather than the good times it facilitates. And that drags me into conflict with another group we’ve rarely talked about here on Motown Junkies: record collectors.
UNTIL THERE’S NOTHING LEFT
Are you a record collector? Don’t worry, this isn’t a diatribe against all collectors, and I’ve no beef with you – we can still be friends. But there’s a but.
I probably own more records than 98% of the general population, because I’ve been spending pretty much all my money on them since I was eight. Nonetheless, I’d never call myself a record collector, because I’m not really bothered about the fact I own the records themselves, any further than “can I listen to them” – I long since ripped all my CDs and vinyl albums to digital format so that the music is available at my fingertips, while the actual media, the physical husks, are stored away. Still, though, I’m not a philistine, I can appreciate the tangible, tactile sensation of having a physical copy of something you love right there in your hands (not unlike a rare book, I guess, though the appeal of the 45 surely has to be what’s in the grooves, and that isn’t immediately apparent).
But what about if you don’t ever get it out to handle it and hear it? What’s that all about? I mean, while I don’t seek to judge the people who buy rare records and then lock them away in perfect, air-conditioned storage, never to be played, rarely to be looked at, to own them just to own them, equally I don’t understand: it’s just not my bag. I know people who get more excited about matrix numbers and label typos than the actual records; again, I’ve no problem with that, but it’s not for me. I own a tiny, tiny handful of original Motown 45s, all of them acquired solely so I could hear the songs. Once I’ve ripped them, you can have them if you like, if that’s what does it for you.
“Rarity” means many things; here in the digital age, there’s far less of a correlation between “rarity” and “scarcity”. There’s a wider point here which is just outside the remit of this blog, about how the Northern Soul scene is changing (not dying, in many ways it’s as healthy as it has been for 30 years, but “new” records from the 60s/70s to champion are – as you’d expect – being discovered in ever decreasing numbers, the original clubs are all but gone, the most innovative DJs of the golden era and their most dedicated, acrobatic dancers aren’t getting any younger). What happens to a formerly rare record when some angry collector spends hundreds, even thousands, of pounds on a battered rare seven-inch in a ripped paper sleeve, jealously guarding it from all others, only to find it sandwiched with twenty other excellent songs on a mass-market Northern Soul compilation CD retailing for four quid?
(There are a great many excellent mass-market Northern Soul compilations retailing for four quid; Northern Soul is a genre where neophytes can become aficionados through the medium of cheap mass-market CD compilations. Indeed, I’d argue it’s best experienced through buying cheap CDs rather than actual vintage 45s, if you don’t want to spend all of your money and most of your life acquiring records and trading them for rare “sounds” with your “contacts” on the “circuit” (until being “evicted” for not paying your “mortgage”). Fitting for a genre where, almost without exception, virtually nobody who recorded a top Northern Soul dancefloor anthem ever did so on purpose.)
See, many – most? – of the acts featured on Northern CDs didn’t ever release any albums of their own; indeed, for some, the singles which sent Northern crowds crazy ten years after the fact were the only records they ever made. So compilations are an excellent way to go. Caveat emptor: the rarest, most obscure stuff probably won’t make it on there (not all on the same one, anyway), and you have to be careful in picking well-chosen selections rather than budget label shovelware (not every forgotten soul record of the 60s is a lost treasure, some were forgotten quite deservedly)… but if you’re new to the Northern Soul scene, a scene, once again, which was predicated on unleashing overlooked, unheard, brilliant R&B records, well, if they’re all new to you anyway, it doesn’t really matter that some other guy (and it will be a guy) was digging a record in Blackpool before you were born, and wouldn’t be seen dead dancing to it now. (In fact, you owning a copy in your dilettante hands for pennies and listening to it and loving it – well, that would probably annoy him even more, so that’s got to be a plus, right? But I digress.)
So Frank Wilson’s only Motown 45 is worth a fortune because the physical record is so rare, not because the tune is jealously guarded any more. It’s part of the furniture now. It’s been bootlegged all to hell (look at all these scans!), it’s been officially reissued on 45 (albeit even then as a historical artefact), two distinctly different versions have been widely anthologised, and now it’s available, legitimately, for 99 pence or less on most reputable download sites. If you want it, it’s yours. It’s only the physical genuine original record which will lead to burly men breaking your thumbs. As music, it’s already escaped, and for me, the vinyl is merely its shell, a pupa, a spent cocoon.
So is it worth $40,000? No, when it comes to records, nothing is. Or everything is. But the rest of this review will be about how that escape came to be, followed by what I think of this record, this record that you can buy – for my purposes – for a few cents. Do I care about how much this is “worth”, in terms of what someone was prepared to pay for a piece of plastic with the music stamped on it? Indeed I don’t.
Motown was in its pomp in 1965, the label enjoying its most successful year to date, the golden chime of millions of cash registers gradually supplanting the sound of the studio down the hall to become the default background music in Detroit, the Hitsville empire now physically expanding into neighbouring houses along and across the road on West Grand Boulevard, and metaphorically expanding right the way across the whole country.
Over in Los Angeles, Frank Wilson – a writer/producer with a burgeoning reputation at Motown’s West Coast HQ, and who we’ve already met on Motown Junkies as a songwriter a couple of times (though it’s probably fair to say he’d not really hit his stride yet!), and who’d go on to pen several of the label’s better singles of the late Sixties and early Seventies – wrote a catchy new song, and then recorded it featuring himself singing lead.
Beyond that, what happened is still unclear. We don’t know the recording dates, we don’t even know what prompted this to exist in the first place. You would think, given the record’s profile, the details of the story would be better known – if not the real story, then at least an exaggerated, falsified, legendary version of it, a folk history to be told in hushed tones of awe and respect; however mythical, you’d expect such a received text not to skip over the big details. But actually, not very much about the Do I Love You story can be pinned down beyond vague anecdotes, and what has been said so far doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Here is the official story of Frank Wilson’s only Motown 45, such as it is always told nowadays.
THIS IS THE STORY
Frank Wilson wrote and then recorded the song; this much is definitely true. Everything beyond here must be taken with a pinch of salt.
The narrative as it’s come down to us is as follows: once the track was cut, promos were pressed up (not acetates, but actual vinyl promos with proper labels). Berry Gordy heard the song and liked it. But Gordy wanted Wilson to remain out of sight as a writer and producer, not as an artist, as in Gordy’s eyes that’s where Wilson’s talent lay, and he was more valuable to Motown this way.
Wilson was asked to make a choice: singer, or writer? Spotlight, or riches? In a fateful decision, Frank chose to step out of that spotlight and remain behind the scenes as a writer and producer.
Motown then cancelled the release of the single, and – for reasons that have never been convincingly explained – destroyed the entire existing stock of promo copies of Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). A few of these promo copies somehow survived the liquidation, with the exact number being a matter of dispute, but numbering at least two (which definitely survive to the present day, of which more later), and possibly as many as six (the standard number of pressing plant test copies) or even more (depending on how many promos were ever actually ordered).
It’s a compelling story, and it gave an obscure super-rare cut a cachet of gossipy flavour to explain its obscurity: the eye-boggling rarity of the 45 after it was serendipitously rediscovered back in the Seventies is undoubtedly the main factor driving up its price, but being able to explain that rarity as an accident of Motown history, rather than a consequence of the record simply being crap, only helps in adding to the mystique.
ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ASK
But it’s a story that doesn’t make any sense at all. When have we ever seen Motown cut their nose off to spite their face like that? When else did Motown ever supposedly pulp their entire inventory of a single? Why did Motown supposedly do so here? The Motown story is littered with unreleased 45s, so what makes this one a special case?
The answers that are usually provided aren’t particularly convincing (and pardon me here for building a series of straw men – there may be more compelling arguments in favour of the official narrative than these, I’ve just not heard them yet; the comments section is open as always!).
Wikipedia (good start, I know) claims Berry Gordy didn’t actually like the record after all, that he thought Frank’s vocal was the weak link (and in many ways, he was right). How’s that for a theory?
Well, we can discount that one pretty safely, surely. Not only does it go against Wilson’s own account, but fellow West Coast Motown producer Hal Davis, billed as “Danny Day”, had laid down a lead vocal on his version of This Time Last Summer which ranks as one of the absolute worst crimes against music, and that one was actually released on the low-profile VIP label. Hard to imagine a world where Gordy, whose knack for instinctively picking a hit was rather more finely tuned than yours or mine, preferred that one to this one – but let’s say he did, just for argument’s sake. Even if Gordy hated Do I Love You and wanted to bury it, I don’t see why the official story’s dramatics and inventory-smashing came into it, as opposed to the more mundane proper channels, a prosaic tale of Quality Control rejecting yet another acetate.
(Plus, even if the Danny Day 45 was just a write-off, a favour to keep Hal Davis sweet with no expectation of sales, the official narrative which has Gordy mapping out Frank Wilson’s future importance to the company on the other side of the glass suggests that Wilson was surely owed the same favour, or at least enough to avoid Gordy making it known he hated Wilson’s first 45 so much that Motown was having every promo copy in existence thrown in the crusher.)
So perhaps Gordy really did feel Motown needed Wilson as a writer, but just didn’t want him to become a star, and he knew the record going to radio would have broken Frank nationwide as a singer?
No, surely not. This is a fine record indeed (oops, spoilers), but Wilson cuts a frustratingly average figure at its centre – a likeable but technically so-so singer who happens to be in excellent sync with a great song here, I honestly don’t see stardom in him at all.
Okay, so maybe Gordy didn’t fear Frank getting too big, but maybe he was angry at Wilson going behind his back and launching a singing career without Motown’s permission?
More plausible, but even if you buy the idea of Gordy somehow not being aware of what Wilson was doing in time to crossly put a stop to it before things got out of hand, surely Wilson – if he thought he was getting away with it, or if Gordy thought he thought he was getting away with it – would have needed to go through many more increasingly implausible steps before his 45 hit the airwaves (an artist contract, Quality Control approval, store stock inventory, distributor access, marketing, plugging, and a whole bunch of other factors to come into play, all somehow without Berry Gordy finding out). This is clearly impossible, so what was Wilson really hoping to achieve? If he’d asked nicely enough, and accepted he was so far down the artist food chain that he’d never, ever get any kind of promotional push, Motown surely would have thrown him a bone, even a derisory one out of pity or duty (cf: Lamont Dozier, Ivy Jo Hunter, Valerie Simpson, the aforementioned “Danny Day”, hell, even Clarence Paul).
Ah, but maybe Wilson hoped that he could indeed pull a fast one, banking on the fact that once the promos went out, the jocks would find the record irresistible and fast-track the unknown singer to the A-list playlist?
Fat chance. Mary Wells had already shown quite clearly what happened when Motown singers, including famous, chart-topping, really good ones, left the company; even without giving credence to the darker rumours of Motown actively putting the kibosh on her future plans, it’s clear not having the Hitsville promotional machine behind you was a serious disadvantage. (Just ask any of the artists unlucky enough to be assigned to VIP, for example.) Frank Wilson was an intelligent man; he’d have quickly seen which way the wind was blowing, and how easily that wind could toss a superstar overboard, never mind an unknown singer-songwriter with no track record and a thin voice.
Right, so why not believe that was part of the plan? Maybe Frank was simply hoping that if the record got in enough influential hands, he’d make a name for himself within the industry anyway, and either get a new deal somewhere else or simply force Motown’s hand in terms of giving him more status?
Well, it seems extremely unlikely (as we’ve already learned from the career of Eddie Holland, the money was in writing and producing, not singing, and why would anybody willingly trade a Motown writer/producer deal for a couple of singles on Wheelsville or something?) but, alright, let’s accept that hypothesis for a moment, and suppose also that the Motown top brass and a furious Berry Gordy also got wind of the ruse. Why then destroy the stock (and if you’re doing that, why not wipe the master tape while you’re at it)? Trashing the records doesn’t really punish Wilson, who would be due a severe bollocking for his transgression in any case – a bollocking, incidentally, that doesn’t seem to have materialised outside of this one reported incident – but it certainly punishes Motown, requiring Gordy to almost literally burn his money to provide a very minor theatrical boost to an already valid point about not dicking around with Motown’s precious time and resources behind the boss’s back.
And all of this hinges on us first accepting the most bizarre part of the original story: that Berry Gordy, famously shameless when it came to chasing profits, supposedly heard a new record (which he already owned the rights to) and thought it could sell, but didn’t want to release it. This from the man who greenlit three singles from Tony Martin. I don’t buy it.
So let’s think laterally. What about Occam’s razor: that the story is true and there’s really no more to it, that Berry Gordy simply changed his mind, made good on his offer to Wilson (to the point of bringing him to Detroit after the LA office was temporarily shut down), and trashed whatever promos had been pressed up already (perhaps not even immediately, but later on, when they were discovered mouldering and taking up space in some warehouse, and the story just got garbled later…?) In effect, why does there have to be any more to it, when both the key men involved say there wasn’t?
Because it doesn’t make any sense, that’s why.
Here is my theory. The West Coast connection is everything. At the end of 1965, Motown was (quite necessarily) fragmenting, or more accurately federalising. We’ve already explored here on Motown Junkies the evolution of Berry Gordy from the company’s top songwriter and most important creative force to a wealthy businessman who rarely got to spend much time at the creative coalface writing and producing records. We haven’t really talked about his evolution as a business owner, but the transition was surely just as stark. In a little over seven years, Gordy went from a feudal lord – an iron-fisted king who made it his business to know everything that was happening in his private little empire, personally approving every mix of every 45, every album cover, every sales order – to being effectively the CEO of one of the biggest independent labels in the world. There are only so many hours in a day, and so if you want to stay on top of everything, that means delegation, no matter how keen you are to remain in a hands-on role in every aspect of the business; no matter if you’re the control freak everyone says you are.
It follows, then, that unless Frank Wilson was deliberately jeopardising his Motown career (and clearly he wasn’t, because he stayed with the label for years to come as a valued writer), the West Coast office had developed enough autonomy to be making decisions, even big decisions like approving mixes and ordering test runs of promo copies of records that hadn’t been through Quality Control yet, without notifying the big boss at all.
Frank Wilson wrote the song, Frank Wilson demoed the song, perhaps with an eye on becoming a singer, perhaps just as a guide vocal for somebody else, and test copies were pressed up, but Motown were simply never capable of (or interested in) finding a slot in the release schedules for the proposed single, never mind having to go through the faff of sorting out a contract for royalties or whatever, and Frank himself wasn’t bothered enough to push it. Like Ivy Jo Hunter five years later, Motown were happy enough to let Frank Wilson cut some more songs (a few of them have emerged from the vaults recently on compilations, after many years of it being accepted as gospel that Frank’s only 45 represented his complete Motown recording career) but with the proviso that they were never likely to go anywhere, destined to be used as demos and guide tracks, or curios for fun rather than profit. That’s my theory.
Does that mean the oft-told story is actually unsubstantiated bollocks? Can we really trust the reports of:
- a.) there actually being lots of promo copies (as opposed to the standard six (or however many) test pressings);
- b.) the order being given for those copies’ total destruction; and
- c.) the putative reason for that destruction?
I don’t think so, but I don’t know, nor does anyone else, nor can anyone else. Frank Wilson is dead; Berry Gordy keeps his own counsel. The compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 (yes, we’re still in 1965 here, and there’s another single yet to come after this one before we hit the New Year – hopefully only the Motown Junkies New Year, not the real-life New Year of 2015) understandably and unquestioningly repeat the official version of the story, even though it doesn’t really make sense.
I think the evidence points to there only ever having been the six test pressings of this, which leads to a further conclusion: there are four more unaccounted for. Were they simply discarded at the time as serving no purpose, leaving one copy each for the Jobete and Motown archives, and that’s where the story of “the entire print run of Do I Love You being smashed to bits” comes from? Seems likely enough to me.
Is it possible the two we know about really are the only two in existence? Absolutely it is.
Could there still be further original copies out there? Yes, of course there could.
And here my conjecture rejoins the established history of actual facts. An archive copy of this record – long thought to be Motown’s one and only example – was filed away, and soon forgotten in the Motown record file, gathering dust as the Sound of Young America moved on. Motown drifted away from Detroit and the fans drifted away from mid-Sixties Motown, and Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) became a half-remembered footnote, an artefact of an earlier time. By 1976, with Golden Age Motown at its lowest commercial ebb, disco and funk filling the charts and Motown’s own eye half on the Hollywood prize, the American public’s interest in the label’s decade-old odds and sods was minimal. And all the time, the only known vinyl evidence of Frank Wilson’s recording career lay buried on a stockroom shelf.
And there it might have remained forever, except for developments in Northern England.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE FOSTER
At the time this 45 was cut, nobody in Wigan had ever heard of Frank Wilson, and it’s unlikely Frank Wilson had ever heard of Wigan either, but both of their destinies were intertwined – they just didn’t know it yet. At the Casino, the last and ultimately most famous of all the great old cathedrals of Northern Soul, this became one of the records synonymous with the old club, prior to the place closing down at the end of 1981.
Motown held a special place for many Northern fans, so many of these great Funk Brothers/HDH mid-Sixties hits being in many ways the archetype of the Northern sound, even if the label’s big hits were effectively off limits for most serious Northern DJs by dint of their mega-popularity – but the label’s oddments and endments, the flop singles, B-sides, album tracks, unreleased promos and bootlegged demos, Motown’s apocrypha, were perennial winners. The allure of finding a classic Motown record (or a well-executed facsimile soundalike) that nobody’s heard (or even heard of), the Holy Grail of Northern DJs circa 1975, is strong.
Frank Wilson’s long-forgotten Do I Love You, by virtue of its very rarity in those pre-digital days and with access severely restricted to the tape library and archives, was initially safe from plunder. But as the Motown story has shown us time and again, the label’s great unreleased treasures can’t stay hidden forever. At some point in the mid to late Seventies, Tom DePierro, who was tasked with compiling official reissues of rare Motown material, pulled the one known copy from the Motown archives for research, whereupon Simon Soussan – a colourful character on the Northern scene and a notorious blagger and bootlegger – gained access to DePierro’s collection, “borrowed” the Frank Wilson 45, took it back to the UK and then promptly bootlegged it.
(Is this the copy that’s been changing hands ever since? Did it make its way back to DePierro, or remain in Soussan’s possession? If it’s the latter, did Motown ever give their blessing for it to be sold on, never mind for mind-bending sums of money? Curious. But again, I digress.)
As a “cover-up”, one of those strange by-products of competition between Northern Soul DJs as to who could find the rarest sound whereby a fake label would be applied to a “new” record – whether to throw other DJS and collectors off the scent, look knowledgeable in front of the cognoscenti, or just to obscure the fact that you were playing a record by an artist you’d never normally give the time of day (Paul Anka, anyone? Nancy Ames?)… as a cover-up, credited to “Eddie Foster” (a real person and a famous singer in his own right, as I only found out later), the bootlegged Do I Love You was a home run, a cast-iron solid gold (“eh?” – A Confused Metallurgist) floor-filling classic guaranteed to blow the audience away. And nowhere took the record more to their hearts than Wigan.
Confusingly, the story is mangled here, again; like Frank Wilson himself, Simon Soussan has passed away, and with him the chance of pinning him down to clarify some elements from later on in the record’s history. So, around twelve years after the record was actually cut, we lose the thread of truth once more.
Some accounts have the song being debuted as the very last song ever played at Wigan Casino on the club’s final night, a rarity pulled out of a bag as the lights went up, to placate a lairy crowd. This can’t be true – if it was the last song played that night (and even that’s in doubt, not helped by the fact that many of the first-hand witness accounts are from people who’d been up all night buzzed on amphetamines), it had surely been played before that – amid a swarm of bootlegs, some more convincing than others (see the various scans around the page!) but mostly correctly identifying the artist and label, Tamla Motown in the UK eventually officially reissued the single in 1979 (left), in a failed attempt to land a hit on the back of the record’s fame on the Northern scene, more than two years before the Casino closed. Others, more plausibly, have it as a beloved long-term favourite by then, something bubbling under the surface of the mainstream and popularised by the legendary Casino DJ Russ Winstanley, a record which Tamla Motown simply caught too late to turn it into a deserved chart hit.
The only legitimate US copy then known to exist, once the truth (or, you know, “truth”) came out about the record’s origins, started to change hands for silly money, Frank Wilson himself signing it at one stage (as seen further up the page), which only added to the ambitious price tag, even after one proud new owner apparently rendered the 45 partially unplayable by drunkenly leaving his new purchase warping on the hot metal of a late-night fish and chip shop counter.
A few years later, a second legitimate copy (pictured right) appeared; despite a liquid stain, QUALITY CONTROL stamp and various scribbles all defacing the label, it proved to be just as valuable as the first one, again selling from collector to collector with a serious price hike each time, the going rate rising from “that’s a bit steep for a vinyl record” to “wow, I could have bought a brand new CAR for the money I just spent” to “you need an eye-watering bank loan to even think about it”.
By then, it seems safe to assume, the record was already a familiar staple on the circuit – perhaps even too familiar, in that it had transitioned (as all great Northern Soul records do) from tantalising dynamite rarity to floor-filling, crowd-pleasing favourite to overplayed standard.
THE LIFE CYCLE OF A GREAT NORTHERN SOUL RECORD
The gaps between each step can vary from a couple of weeks to a couple of decades, but very broadly, this is the pattern:
– The Bellarmines? Never heard of it.
– Got to hear that amazing Bellarmines record again!
– Hey, do you know the Bellarmines? They’re pretty obscure, but the record’s brilliant.
– I’ve just paid £800 for a mint copy of the Bellarmines record!
– YES, they’re playing the Bellarmines again!
– Ugh, they play this Bellarmines record too much.
– Seriously, they’re still playing the Bellarmines?
– Not the Bellarmines again! They’re pandering to the mass market now. How about something for the dedicated fans?
– I’m not going to that allnighter if they’re just going to play popular stuff like the bloody Bellarmines.
– (At this point, the Bellarmines will feature on a British TV advert for rum or carpets or hamburgers or something)
– Wow, a Facebook/YouTube video of the Bellarmines. I haven’t heard this for a while. “Good tune in its day, overplayed now. If you like this one, check out the Pepperdines – it’s not on YouTube though.”
BACK TO REALITY
And that’s just in Britain. In America, the Northern Soul scene seems to be regarded with something approaching bemused suspicion; for every unearthed and unjustly-forgotten gem beloved by the Northern scene, then (so the American view goes) there are 50 entirely unexceptional bog-standard soul cuts, unspecial records which sank without trace for a reason. Aside from providing an unexpected late-life boost to people who had forgotten they’d ever cut a soul record, people who’d long since started (and even retired from) working in supermarkets and gas stations, only to discover they were “famous” in Britain and (for the lucky ones) invited over to play a few packed-out live shows, the impact of Northern Soul back in America as a whole is negligible. Hence the expected trans-Atlantic split I mentioned all those weeks ago back at the start.
But I’m British, and so this record comes with a healthy side of winner’s perspective it never had at the time, now being roughly as famous as your average 70s Temptations single. Even before I heard it the first time, I knew the backstory, I couldn’t set aside the golden lustre of the pricetag. Not that I care how much it’s worth, but effectively this is treated in the same way as if it had been a genuine big hit, even though it never really was. I don’t know about you, but once I know something was or is very, very popular, it’s hard not to factor that in to listening – why did this strike a chord with so many fans?
The first time I heard this, like the Velvelettes’ Lonely Lonely Girl Am I, it was one of those moments that make your hair stand on end: that lightning-rod intro with its psychotic offbeat doorbell chime introducing itself (literally!) as a Proper Tune. Now that I recognise it, it’s impossible to come to it with no expectations, but it still sends chills down my spine – HEY, IT’S FRANK WILSON! – but that’s without the baggage of hearing it a million times at every allnighter since 1978, or being told over and over again that this is a Great Motown Classic, fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the company’s output, bold claims that understandably put people’s backs up. Factor in that baggage, compensate for those expectations, and when that distinctive chime strikes up, I can understand why I’ve seen people roll their eyes at it.
That two-note intro riff, though, laid over the top of a pacy one-note twang in lieu of a backbeat for several bars, and the building strings and horns that come sweeping in from offstage, almost imperceptibly at first but swiftly becoming a big black cloud on the horizon, to back it all up. How could you ever get tired of it? It’s magnificent – every copy of this I’ve ever heard sounds slightly wonky in the mix, like the power is still there but the tape has gone through just one too many generations to cut you clean open as it comes blaring out of your speakers, and yet somehow that ever-so-slightly muddy feeling makes it even stronger, a clarion call to action where you’re willing it to get louder and louder. It’s the first true Motown band-track masterpiece we’ve seen from Los Angeles rather than Detroit.
Then, up comes one of the most exciting breakbeats in Motown history, like someone’s taped the mic inside a drum kit and thrown it in the street, and then Frank himself, no great shakes as a singer but perfect for this, gabbling his words, struggling to get them out in the right order, such is the pace he’s machine-gunning them at us to keep pace with the thoughts his heart is blazing through his mind.
HERE I am on bended knees I lay my heart down at your feet now…
All you have to do is ask I’ll give until there’s nothing left now…
His voice isn’t technically strong, but there’s a kind of puppy-dog enthusiasm that comes through when, unable to modulate smoothly, he resorts to shouting his words to give them emphasis, and it’s just adorable, and it’s unforgettable.
As long as there is LIFE in ME your HAPPINESS is GUARANTEED
I’ll fill your heart with ECSTASY…
…and then an unguarded moment to underline this all comes from a place of sincerity, reminding us that this is a song of devotion without alterior motives – that little pause, a tiny, tiny break for a breath, but it’s enough for Frank to pull himself back from the brink and look into your eyes:
I’ve left some lyrics out there, of course. I’ve seen this song, and this record, criticised for lack of structure – it’s all built around that two-note hook and quickfire reply, a self-contained call and response itself used as a response, butting in after every line of the verse, so that almost the entire song consists of Frank contorting and racing at breakneck speed to get to the end of his line before he’s run over by the hook, which isn’t going to swerve out of his way – it can’t be stopped, it’s machine-stamped right into the grooves themselves with assembly-line precision:
All Frank can do is ride the bucking bronco, shouting ever louder and more ecstatically over the top of it all to make sure we can still hear him, make sure we’re still getting the message:
The very thing that I want most is just to HAVE and HOLD you close now!
Frtm[mumble] early mornin’ ’til late at night, you fill my HEART with PURE DELIGHT!
Surely the amazing track, which by now is thundering along like a runaway cartoon mining cart, is uncontrollable, and we’re going to realise he’s not got the vocal chops to keep astride it? But no, because now Frank has the nous to marry his song of devotional love with a much older source of songs of devotional love, and suddenly we’re in church and Frank is recast as an electrifying pastor (the song itself doesn’t completely work if it’s re-imagined as a gospel spiritual, but it’s not far off):
And whenev’ah I lay me down to sleep
I PRAY THE LORD!!! Your SOUL to keep!
And bring it on home safe to me now darlin’, forever…
(Later in life, Frank Wilson became a preacher for real. Go figure.)
But this is a party for everybody, because right now we’re all believers, and it’s suddenly very easy to understand how the communal 6am experience of a thousand sweaty dancers pogoing and leaping and twisting to this record on a sprung ballroom dancefloor in an English town could transform a place that looked like a carpet showroom into the greatest cathedral of Northern Soul; this is our church, here are the people.
Because there’s nothing exclusionary about this record at all, everything is geared towards drawing us in, getting us dancing. It all sounds so benign, it wants so very much to make us happy, to please us – check out the beautiful string fills that call in at 0:55 to bring us back to the sort-of-verse the first time we’ve heard that astounding chorus, as though we need something to snap us out of what we’ve just heard! Or the perfectly placed blaring horn riff at 1:33, exactly where you’d expect it to be, the individual horns occasionally breaking out of the caverns of echoing noise that’s sweeping us along, like a porpoise suddenly leaping out above the waves and then just as quickly disappearing back into the sea, gone before you noticed it was there.
Oh, do I ever love this record. There is not a single situation in life that can’t be improved by sticking this on; never once has it failed to put a smile on my face (not a metaphorical one, an actual smile, every time). If I still wonder what on earth would possess anyone to pay $40,000 for a record, well, if that’s going to happen anyway, this is the one alright. It’s impossible to hate (he said warily, with one eye on the comments box), it demands dancing, and maybe most important of all, I believe the singer: this is what it feels like to fall uncontrollably, deliriously, head over heels in love, and if he’s too lovestruck to slow down and put together a more focussed song, I forgive him because he’s captured the moment so perfectly.
(It really was a one-time thing, too, a strictly spontaneous outpouring of emotion, if the other recorded version (which appears on the Northern Soul Connoisseurs compilation) is anything to go by, either a rough draft or an attempt to recapture a moment that falls decidedly flat.)
So this is the sound of a bolt from the blue; if you’re in love, you’ll recognise a kindred spirit, and if you’re not, well, this seems to say, just you wait, your time will surely come too. Keep the faith. And in the meantime, get up and dance.
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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“Everything Is Good About You”
“Sweeter As The Days Go By”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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