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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Motown has produced many iconic artists but there was always a front line... The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops or The Temptations. Those acts always seemed to attract more

attention from the Hitsville powers that be, than some of their peers. This obviously caused some amount of bitterness and it has emerged in memoirs overt the years from the artists that felt they were never given as fair a crack of the whip.

This was particularly true of the female bands who were always left to play second fiddle to Berry Gordy's focus on Diana Ross. Martha Reeves, The Marvelettes and even the Diana-less Supremes would all later on come out and tell their tale of being rather over-looked in terms of investment and material.

That said, The Supremes or the "no-hit Supremes" as they were often referred to in their early days, as well as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all came close to being reconsidered by the Detroit management. All managed to find something magical just at the right time to keep them in the fold.

Not as merciless as nowadays perhaps, but merciless nevertheless.

Often choosing to leave Motown was a quick trip to the bargain bin, as happened to their first star Mary Wells after she left in a high-profile move and the sad departure of Florence Ballard and her stunted solo career after leaving/being fired from The Supremes is another tragic tale.

There were however some acts who managed to find a more successful career outside the label where they came across more understanding leadership who still felt that a former Motown act would add lustre to their label. Edwin Starr had never really been a Motown artist in the first place but had come in when they absorbed the small local Ric-Tic label. It still gave them time to deliver the simply majestic "War".

Gladys Knight & The Pips went to Buddah Records whilst The Detroit Spinners dropped the Detroit and went off to Philadelphia International. Both acts had distinguished chart careers producing most of their most recognisable work outside the confines of Motown and were stalwarts of the soul scene throughout the 70s.

The most interesting were probably The Isley Brothers who had hit the charts early on the 60s with a series of RnB belters - most notably "Shout" and "Twist & Shout" both of which would become worldwide smashes in the hands of others. Their brief sojourn at Motown yielded at least two stone cold classics "Behind A Painted Smile" and "This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)" but they spent much of the 60s bouncing between labels including their own T-Neck pressing, as a result of which they even had a huge legal dispute with their former Detroit colleagues.

By 1973, they hadn't had a hit for 4 years but were now signed to CBS and the family band brought in some of their younger members (Isley Jasper Isley - later famed for "Caravan Of Love") and created a new and more current sound. Their younger brother Ernie Isley had been heavily influenced by one of The Isleys earlier guitarists, one J. Hendrix esq, and modelled much of his playing style on his.

This would result in the "3+3" album which saw them break through all over again, selling over 2 million copies thanks to their cover of "Summer Breeze" originally by Seals and Croft and their heavily Hendrix-influenced "That Lady", complete with Ernie's defining guitar work that soared throughout the record.

In fact, the record was an update of an old song of theirs from the early 60s which had been recorded in an RnB style and was then titled "Who's That Lady". It's slightly different lyrically and has a nice Mod-Jazz feel about it but you would not guess what it would then become.

"That Lady" (the one you know) is one of the finest soul records of the 70s - especially in its full version. Instrumentally strong with the customary exemplary vocal performance from the then RnB veterans. It is interesting that it comes at the point when the older members of the band introduce the younger members and so creates a wonderful hybrid of classic vocal smoothness and Sly and the Family Stone rock-out.

It's a record you would need to be brave to go near to cover unless your surname was Isley, one would imagine.

And then came the rabbit holes of YouTube...

I had a CD from 30 years ago called "The New York Rock & Soul Revue" which I had bought because it was then the only recording released at the time by Donald Fagen who had gone into his strange hibernation between his exemplary album "The Nightfly" from 1982 and still an album I won't leave home without and the strange "Kamakiriad". Strange, insofar as it sounded like he had recorded it at exactly the same time and yet we had had to wait over a decade for it.

This "Revue" was essentially a compilation of live performances at The Beacon Theatre in New York of a group of which Fagen was a member along with such other luminaries as his former partner, Walter Becker, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs (told you he'd be back), Phoebe Snow and several others. It was a good CD but the Steely Dan moments were the most enjoyable. It was like a Blind Faith of intelligent AOR.

Then in around 2010, despite looking like they had all just woken up for tea in the Senior Common Room of a university campus, they decided to get together and do it all again - only this time they seemed to have filmed it and renamed themselves The Dukes Of September. You all probably knew about this but I was not aware that it had taken on more prominence than the previous incarnation. They basically supported each other quite reverentially, as they rattled through highlights of each other's respective back catalogues. I also did not realise that one of their openers would be the three main protagonists sharing lead vocal duties on "That Lady".

You can only be as good as the three of them are to even think about giving that one a go. Had I been there I may have become quite overcome. Hats off to Jon Herington for replicating Ernie Isley's guitar solo which is still the stand out part of the record even with the legendary vocalists either side.

In music terms, this is the gods coming down from Olympus.

Who says supergroups are self-indulgent?

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James Koby Gould
James Koby Gould
Sep 29, 2022

Made me smile - thanks, T.


Sep 25, 2022

Splendid piece, Tony. Reminded me to get my copy down from the shelf, blow off the dust and give it another airing

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