Was there ever a record company better at getting mileage out of its songs as Motown?
One artist would cut a song. Then it would be covered by another, and perhaps another, and perhaps still another. The hit version might not necessarily be the first version. That was Motown’s genius.
Hear, then, three examples of familiar Motown songs covered by other Motown artists. All three were written by the great Barrett Strong and the legendary producer Norman Whitfield.
“War,” the Temptations, from “Psychedelic Shack,” 1970. The LP is out of print but is available digitally.
This is the original version recorded in 1969, but Motown sat on it, preferring to not piss off the Temptations’ fans with such a political song. It was a No. 1 hit for Edwin Starr in 1970.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” The Undisputed Truth,” from “The Undisputed Truth,” 1971. The LP is out of print. The song is apparently not available digitally. Too bad. This version cooks.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded the original version in 1966, but Motown owner Berry Gordy didn’t like it. It was a No. 2 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967. Marvin Gaye also recorded it that year, but Motown didn’t release it as a single until 1968, when DJs started playing it off the “In The Groove” LP. It was a No. 1 hit.
“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” Rare Earth, from “Ma,” 1973.
The Temptations did the original version in 1971. The Undisputed Truth had a No. 3 hit with it later that year.
Rare Earth’s “Ma” also is featured over on our other blog, The Midnight Tracker, which delivers vintage vinyl one side at a time. Check it out.
It’s out of print, but you can find the original 7-inch single (Continental CR 1001) on eBay for around $10. I found it earlier this year when my friend Jim threw open his garage door and sold some of his records.
(This is the sleeve for that 45. You could have bought it for 25 cents if you also bought a carton of Kent, True, Newport or Old Gold cigarettes.)
There’s no music. Just “Little Satchmo Armstrong talkin’ to all the kids,” reading Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem in a warm, gravelly voice.
“But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night. A very good night.’
“And that goes for Satchmo, too. (Laughs softly.) Thank you.”
It was the last thing he ever recorded. Satchmo died the following July.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?“
When we heard the news 32 years ago, there was darkness. It was a Monday night.
John and Yoko would want us to walk in the light, like that of our gorgeously sunny Saturday morning in our corner of Wisconsin. Good morning, John.
It isn’t Christmas without this one.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir, released as a single, 1971. A remastered version is available on “Gimme Some Truth,” a 4-CD compilation released in 2010. (This version is from the out-of-print “Lennon Legend” CD found at the library.)
The version I have, from the 1975 “Shaved Fish” compilation, has a live reprise of “Give Peace A Chance” tacked onto the end. Though well-intentioned, it sounds cluttered. So we stick with the original.
Your Christmas music requests in the comments, please.
I ain’t putting up with this any longer, he must have thought.
The second week of August 1971 in New York was hot and humid, steamy and sultry. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, each of those days reached 90 during the day and cooled only into the high 70s at night. The end of the week brought a little relief — 10 or so degrees cooler — but apparently not enough relief.
So Curtis Ousley went out and got himself an air conditioner. As Thursday night turned to Friday morning, he lugged it back to his brownstone apartment at 50 W. 86th St., a long block west of Central Park.
When he got there, a couple of guys were sitting on the steps. Junkies, they say. Doing drugs, they say. They got into it, Curtis Ousley and the dudes on the stoop. One of them pulled a knife. He stabbed Ousley in the chest. Ousley grabbed the knife. He stabbed that guy four times.
Curtis Ousley — known professionally as King Curtis, the great sax player — and his attacker, one Juan Montanez, wound up at the same hospital. Ousley died an hour later. Montanez survived, only to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
That was 41 years ago today — Aug. 13, 1971.
King Curtis, then just 37, had reached the top after 25 years of hard work.
Yes, he was just 12 when he started playing the sax in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. One of his hometown peers was Ornette Coleman, the great jazz sax player who was four years older. Ousley’s first big gig came in Lionel Hampton’s band. At the time of his death, King Curtis had lived in New York for almost 20 years and had become one of its most highly regarded session men.
And 1971, oh, what a year that was for King Curtis.
Early that year, Curtis and his band, the Kingpins, backed Aretha Franklin on her tour. In July, he did session work, solos, on two cuts on John Lennon’s “Imagine” album. Also that year, a new TV show needed a theme song, so he reworked his 1962 song “Hot Potatoes (Piping Hot)” as “Soul Train (Hot Potato)” and recorded it with the Rimshots.
His new album, “Live At Fillmore West,” was released in early August, a week before he came across the dudes on his stoop. It was recorded in San Francisco in the first week of March, at the same time as “Aretha Live at Fillmore West.”
“Memphis Soul Stew,” King Curtis, from “Live At Fillmore West,” 1971. It’s out of print but is available digitally.
King Curtis never lived to see this album become his biggest solo hit. It reached the top 10 on the Billboard jazz and soul charts and topped out at No. 54 on the Billboard Top 200 in the week after his death.
“Memphis Soul Stew” is just one of two original cuts on the record, which begins with that one and ends with “Soul Serenade.” Jammed in between are scorching and/or simmering covers of familiar tunes by Procol Harum, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Butler, Buddy Miles, Bobbie Gentry, Jerry Jeff Walker and Stevie Wonder.
All that scorching and simmering was performed and arranged by Curtis, yet seasoned by the mighty Kingpins. That all-star band included Billy Preston on organ, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and the formidable Memphis Horns.
The rest of the story: Juan Montanez, who was 26 at the time King Curtis was stabbed to death, was charged with second-degree murder. During his trial in February 1972, he agreed to plea to a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. He got seven years in prison and served almost six, the maximum possible with good behavior. He was released in December 1977. He hasn’t been heard from since.
Did another quick round of record digging today. Among the finds: Willie Bobo, Carl Carlton, the 5th Dimension, Heart and the Ventures. 1 week ago
I think that is enough work for this week. Time for a little record digging. 1 week ago
Late to the party
Always delighted to hear from you. Your guide can be reached at jeffash at new dot rr dot com
About the music
These are mp3s from my collection, taken from vinyl whenever possible. Enjoy. They are intended to encourage you to get out to the music stores, real or virtual, or out to support live music.
If you hold the copyright to something posted here, and you don't want it posted, please e-mail me at jeffash at new dot rr dot com and I'll remove it. Then again, who else is exposing your music to a new audience today?
About the words
The text is copyright 2007-2013, Jeff Ash. Text from other sources, when excerpted, is credited.