Between the British invasion, the growth of Motown, and the girl group sound, many arguments could be made as to why 1964 was the best year for pop music. Here are twenty:
Tag Archives: Mary Wells
Some time in my teen years I feel in love with the girl group sound. My favorite was The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” The music and the vocals hooked me. The singer tells of how others don’t approve of the boy she loves as he’s a non-conformist, but he treats her well and that’s all that matters.
The story behind the record is as interesting as the record itself. The song was written by Gene Pitney, who had several hits of his own, including “Town Without Pity” and “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valence.” “He’s a Rebel” was slated to be the debut single for Vikki Carr, but when Spector heard Pitney’s demo he knew he wanted it for one of his acts, The Crystals.
He needed to record it quickly in order to challenge Carr’s version at the stores. The Crystals, however, were on the road in New York and unable to make the recording sessions in Los Angeles. No problem. Spector hired a local group called The Blossoms, led by Darlene Wright, to record the song. Wright was paid $3000 for the session. Spector released the record under the name The Crystals, as his label owned the name. The actual Crystals first learned of their new hit song when they heard it on the radio. It became their first #1 single, meaning The Crystals had to learn this song so they could perform it at their shows. The group’s lead singer, Barbara Alston, could not match Wright’s vocal performance, so fellow Crystal LaLa Brooks moved into the lead vocalist slot. Coincidentally, the week The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” was #1, Gene Pitney was #2 as a singer with “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” a song he didn’t write.
As “He’s a Rebel” was so successful, Spector needed to get a follow-up single out quickly. Again, he turned to The Blossoms to record “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Wright, however, was angry that her name was not on “He’s a Rebel” and told Spector she would only do this song if she were singed to a recording agreement and was properly credited for her vocals on the track. Spector agreed, changing her name in the agreement to Darlene Love. He released “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” It was credited to The Crystals.
Spector used the money he made from “He’s a Rebel” to buy out his business partners in the Philles Records label. In addition to the financial settlement, Spector had to give his two ex-partners a share of the royalties of the next Philles single release, so Spector got the real Crystals into the studio and recorded “(Let’s Dance) The Screw,” a silly number clearly not intended to be a hit. A copy was sent to one of the ex-partners. No royalties were generated.
Tunes du Jour celebrates Throwback Thursday with twenty great hits from 1962, kicking off with “He’s a Rebel” by “The Crystals.”
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MTV debuted on August 1, 1981. Back then it was a music video network. It positioned itself as a rock station. Most of the videos shown were of songs made by Caucasian performers, though rock-leaning black acts such as Joan Armatrading and the Bus Boys got some play.
Then came “Billie Jean.” The second single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, “Billie Jean” was accompanied by a stylish video featuring a mesmerizing performance from Jackson. However, it wasn’t a rock song. It didn’t fit the format of rock radio stations, and it didn’t fit the format of MTV either.
But there is a big difference between radio and music television. There were plenty of radio stations and many different formats. You may not hear “Billie Jean” on the rock stations, but you could hear it on r&b stations and pop stations and dance-leaning stations. However, there was only one music television – MTV.
In his autobiography, Howling at the Moon, Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS Records, for whom Jackson recorded (and where I worked in my first music business job), wrote “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air [Jackson’s] videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued they were racist assholes – and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent. I’ve never been more forceful or obnoxious. I’ve also never been as effective, threatening to pull all our videos. With added pressure from [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones, they caved in, and in doing so the MTV color line came crashing down.”
Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean” aired on MTV, followed just weeks later by his video for “Beat It,” a song whose guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen helped make it a hit on rock radio. These two videos made Jackson, already a superstar, a worldwide phenomenon with a humongous fan base that transcended race, age and location in a way never seen before. These two videos made MTV, a year and a half old and fairly popular in white suburban areas, a cultural institution. These two videos made the music video, then not something done for many singles, particularly those performed by artists of color, an art form and a necessary marketing tool.
Some people tuned in to MTV to see the Michael Jackson videos, and while watching the channel, discovered other acts. Some people tuned in to MTV to watch “white rock” videos, and while watching the channel, discovered Michael Jackson.
MTV went to showcase more “non-rock” videos. In 1988, they launched their hugely popular program Yo! MTV Raps, something that would have been completely unexpected just five years earlier, pre-“Billie Jean.”
While MTV deserves credit for making “Billie Jean” and Thriller successful, the person most responsible is Jackson himself. He wrote the song. He sang the song. He danced the song. Quincy Jones did not want “Billie Jean” to appear on Thriller. He didn’t like the title. He didn’t like the bassline. He felt the song’s introduction was too long. Jackson argued “But that’s the jelly!…That’s what makes me want to dance.” Jones wasn’t ready for this jelly, but Jackson stood his ground.
In May of 1983, NBC aired a tribute to Motown Records. Motown: Yesterday, Today, Forever featuring many legends who recorded for the storied label performing their classics. We saw Diana Ross, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Mary Wells, Junior Walker and then some. It was a terrific show, but the talk of the town following its airing was the performance of a song not from the Motown catalogue – Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The iconic performance, during which Jackson brought the famous moonwalk to the world at large, pushed him that much more ahead of any other performer working in music back then.
Following “Beat It,” CBS Records released four more singles from Thriller. All seven of the singles released (the album had only nine songs!) went top ten, breaking the record of most top ten hits from a single-artist album that was set a few years earlier by…Michael Jackson, whose Off the Wall gave us four. Before Thriller, four singles for one album was considered a lot. Thriller raised the bar for blockbuster albums, and subsequent releases such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Prince’s Purple Rain, Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Janet Jackson’s Control each produced more than four hits.
“Billie Jean” changed everything.
On this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour spotlights 1983, kicking off with Michael Jackson’s classic “Billie Jean.”
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By 1966, Barrett Strong, the singer on Motown Records’ first hit single, “Money (That’s What I Want),” had the core of a song based on expression that emanated from the Civil War era. Slaves in the United States passed along information via a “human grapevine.” In Strong’s time he often heard people passing along gossip, saying they “heard it through the grapevine.” With that line as the chorus and a bass line, he brought the song to Norman Whitfield, who added lyrics about someone who hears gossip that their lover is unfaithful and will leave him/her for another lover.
Whitfield produced a version of their new song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” with Smokey Robinsons and the Miracles, but Motown chief Berry Gordy, Jr. rejected it.
In 1967, Whitfield entered the studio with Marvin Gaye. At the time Gaye was married to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna. Gaye heard that Anna was being unfaithful to him. The lyrics surely resonated with him (though in (un)fairness, he was cheating on Anna). To wring more emotion out of Gaye, Whitfield had him perform the song in a higher key than he normally used. This did not sit well with Gaye, who is quoted in his biography as saying “Norman and I came within a fraction of an inch of fighting. He thought I as a prick because I wasn’t about to be intimidated by him. We clashed. He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge.”
All may have been for naught, as Berry Gordy rejected the Gaye recording as well.
In June of 1967, Aretha Franklin went to #1 with her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” With that record as his model, Whitfield again brought “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” into the studio later that year, this time with Gladys Knight and the Pips. This version was faster than the versions he produced for the Miracles and Gaye, with the intention to “out-funk” Aretha.
Gordy reluctantly approved the Pips version for release. It rose to #2 on the pop chart and went to #1 on the r&b chart, where it remained for six weeks. It became Motown’s biggest-selling single to that point.
The Gaye version ended up on his 1968 album In the Groove. The first single from that album, “Chained,” hit #32 on the pop chart. “Grapevine” got the attention of some radio disc jockeys, who gave it airplay. Said Gordy, “The DJs played it so much off the album that we had to release it as a single.”
Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was released as a single in fall of 1968. In mid-December it went to #1 on both the pop and r&b chart, and stayed on top of each for seven weeks, becoming Motown’s biggest hit to date. The week this went to #1 on the pop chart, Motown had the top three hits (#2 was “Love Child” by Diana Ross & the Supremes and #3 was “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder.) The company held onto the top three for four consecutive weeks. “I Heard It through the Grapevine” bookended the r&b #1 slot in ’68 – the Pips’ version was #1 on January 1 and Gaye’s was #1 on Dec. 31.
By the time his “Grapevine” was released Marvin Gaye already had 23 top 40 pop hits. This was his first #1.
Gaye’s version made Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Songs of All Time and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was the first collaboration between Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. The duo went on to compose “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” for The Temptations.
Marvin Gaye died at age 44 on April 1, 1984, shot to death by his father the day before his birthday. The gun used was a Christmas present from Marvin.
In 2011, I attended the Society of Singers’ tribute to Smokey Robinson. The award was well-deserved, as anyone who has heard him sing knows that Smokey Robinson possesses a sweet, soulful voice, one that he has used to beautiful effect on records going back more than fifty years. The British band ABC paid tribute to him on their top ten single “When Smokey Sings.” In their hit “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club sing “No one can sing quite like Smokey, Smokey Robinson.”
In addition to his singing talent, Smokey is a writer on many classics in the great American songbook. Chances are you know “The Tracks of My Tears,” “My Girl” (click here for more about that song), “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (originally recorded by Smokey’s group The Miracles as the b-side of a 45), “The Tears of a Clown,” “My Guy,” “Shop Around,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Cruisin’,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
I met Smokey one time in the late 1980s. I was working at CBS Records in midtown Manhattan. Our offices were in the Black Rock building, which was also home to WCBS radio. Smokey had just done an interview at the radio station when I bumped into him in the building’s lobby. I told him I enjoyed the article about him in the new issue of Rolling Stone, which I was holding. He said he hadn’t seen it yet and took my magazine from me to look at it. I wouldn’t let him keep my issue – I was a poor office clerk, after all – but he was gracious enough to sign an autograph for me.
Today is Smokey’s 74th birthday. Enjoy this playlist comprised of songs Smokey sings and songs Smokey wrote or co-wrote, songs you know and songs you should know.
Today is the 83rd birthday of Berry Gordy, Jr., the aspiring pugilist turned songwriter turned record executive/entrepreneur. After penning hits for Jackie Wilson and Etta James in the late 1950s, Gordy went on to launch the Motown Record Corporation. The company’s first pop hit was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” a song written by Gordy with Janie Bradford, in 1960. From then on the hits kept coming.
Today’s playlist is a small sampling of great Motown releases. If you have a favorite Motown record, let me know what it is in the Comments. Enjoy!