Saturday, 25 May 2024

CyberSoulMan: Lake County Motown Musings, unprecedented star alignment

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T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.
 

 

 

 

It is an unprecedented alignment of the stars. Not wholly unlike the recent total solar eclipse or the appearance of Halley’s Comet.


The CyberSoulChildren who are alive and conscious on July 31, 2009, can be cognizant of the fact that not one, but two major Motown acts are appearing at the same time in and around Lake County, within 60 miles of each other. The Four Tops are appearing at Cache Creek Casino Resort. Smokey Robinson is appearing at Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa.


This is an insightful, culture altering occurrence, juxtaposed against the golden anniversary of the birth of Motown. As a chronicler of the evolution of rhythm and blues, the time has come for me to offer up and perhaps correct some Sound Of Young America (as Berry Gordy called it) history.


I remember striving to find some semblance of that Sound on the airwaves when I arrived on the shores of Lake County in 1997. There was a commercial station that used to air a promo once or twice an hour that stressed that they played the best in Motown. They’d then follow it with a Billy Preston track or an Aretha Franklin track, neither of whom was ever a Motown artist.


Sometimes of course, they would play a legitimate Motown artist, but they would err (no pun intended) enough to make the CyberSoulMan uncomfortable. So, for those of you who are perhaps carrying around those suppositions as fact, here is the CyberSoulMan version of some Motown history. Be forewarned that I can’t squeeze the whole soulful slate into 1,000 words.


Motown was created by Berry Gordy on Jan. 12, 1959. Originally it was called the Tamla Records but incorporated as Motown Record Corp. a little over a year later.


At first it was simply a record label, a vehicle to expose to the world the very unique tapestry of the artists involved in the Detroit Sound. The first group signed to the label was the group formerly known as The Matadors. This was the group that Smokey Robinson sang lead for and when they signed with Tamla, they became The Miracles.


Other early Tamla acts were Marv Johnson, Mable John and Mary Wells. The first certifiable Tamla hit was “Money” by Barrett Strong, which charted at No. 2 on Billboard's R&B hit list in 1959.


The first million-selling record for Motown was “Shop Around” by The Miracles. The first Billboard No. 1 pop hit for the corporation was “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes.


Berry Gordy amassed a stable of artists that also included Martha & The Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Jackson 5.


Somehow, it became ingrained in parts of the American psyche that Motown was an exclusively African-American company. Nothing could be further from the truth.


From virtually its inception forward, Motown has been integrated. It has had many artists and acts that were not African American. Among them, Chris Clarke, Rare Earth, Judas Priest, Dorsey Burnette, R. Dean Taylor, The Pretty Things, Stoney & Meatloaf, Shaun Murphy, Duke Jupiter, Teena Marie, Michael McDonald and the great Bobby Darrin, among others.


Some of you may recall the film “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown,” which documented the saga of The Funk Brothers, the extremely jazz savvy studio musicians who did all the instrumental tracks for Motown from 1959 to 1972. They, too, were an integrated band.


Motown also developed Motown Latino Records which focused on Spanish language Latin American music.


In addition, Motown employed songwriting/production teams that included Smokey Robinson, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Norman Whitfield and many others that reflected accurately this melting pot called America.


Clearly, Motown wasn’t all African-American in its scope. Similarly, all African-American music wasn’t Motown. To insinuate that Aretha Franklin music is Motown distorts history. Though Aretha grew up in Detroit she was never Motown. There is room enough in Detroit for more than one iconic style or genre.


Billy Preston and others incorrectly tagged by that aforementioned radio promo not withstanding, there are many distinctions within the canon of African-American music, some of them geographic, some stylistic, some differences subtle, some very overt. It helps to do the homework. There will only be a quiz on the above material if you choose to self administer it.


The last time Smokey Robinson appeared in Lake County, I believe, was in 2004 at Robinson Rancheria. I had not seen Smokey live since 1967 when he was still fronting the Miracles. Tammi Terrill opened that show at San Francisco’s Basin Street West and gave the Smokey a good run for his money.


I was pleasantly surprised when Smokey played Lake County last. Not only had he matured gracefully, but he was a better performer. And he was my favorite in 1967. For those of you who can’t make his upcoming show, KPFZ 88.1 FM will broadcast my 2004 interview with him on Saturday, Aug. 1, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.


Duke Fakir is the only remaining founding member of the Four Tops. Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton and their great baritone lead singer Levi Stubbs have gone on to glory in Soul Heaven. Don’t let that hinder you from attending their show if you are so inclined. They have recruited former Temptation Theo Peoples and Lawrence Payton’s son Roquel to round out and continue their great sound.


For an awe-inspiring deeply emotional view of Levi Stubbs performing for the last time with his group (and the new replacements) go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1May52b1RQ . Have your hankies on the ready!


Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


*****


Upcoming cool events:


Sunday Brunch in the Garden, Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. Brunch served 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Chris Forshay featured on guitar and vocals, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Information: 707-275-2244 or www.bluewingsaloon.com .


Will Siegal & Friends, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Blues Monday, July 27, Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. Information: 707-275-2244 or www.bluewingsaloon.com .


Open Mike Night, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 30, Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. Information: 707-275-2244 or www.bluewingsaloon.com .


Rootstock, 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 31. Library Park, 200 Park St., Lakeport.


Smokey Robinson in concert, 7:15 p.m. Saturday, July 31. Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa. 8727 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville. Information: 800-660-LAKE or www.konoctiharbor.com .


The Four Tops in Concert, 9 p.m. Saturday, July 31. Cache Creek Casino Resort, 14455 Highway 16, Brooks. Information: 888-77-CACHE or www.cachecreek.com .


T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at www.teewatts.biz.

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