R&B Gold: Early Motown Eighths That Launched 1,000 Hits

April 7, 2017

We return to our look at early Motown recordings with three relatively unknown tracks from 1961, “Mighty Good Lovin’” by the Miracles, “Don’t Take It Away” by Sammy Ward, and “Twistin’ Postman” by the Marvelettes. My methodology for these Motown-based columns has been to follow The Complete Motown Singles as a chronological guide, starting with the very first track, Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me.” I simply scroll through the tracks listening for elements that catch my ear, and then I dig deeper in search of R&B Gold. I listen for unique rhythms, significant performances, seeds of ideas, or groundbreaking songs. It’s been very educational for me (I hope for you, too) to scan this iconic label’s early output, and if you ever find yourself with several weeks of free time, try making your way through the 14 volumes of meticulously chronicled material that fills 75 CDs with the 1,849 singles released by the company between 1959 and 1972.

Our first track is “Mighty Good Lovin’” by the Miracles, with lead vocals by Smokey Robinson. Smokey’s influence as a frontman (as well as behind the scenes at the label) was so significant that by 1965, the group became known as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. According to the informative U.K.-based fan site Motown Junkies, “Mighty Good Lovin’” was Motown’s first double-sided hit. The track was originally issued as the B-side of “Broken Hearted,” a smoothly polished stroll that showcased Smokey’s maturing vocal style and the label’s ever-improving production values. Although written as B-side fodder, the catchy riffs, solid beat, and soulful vocals gave it enough momentum to eventually out-distance the A-side. The first thing that caught my ear was the opening box-pattern guitar riff setting up a groovy vibe that screams: “This is the ’60s, baby!” The bass enters with the main groove (Ex. 1) doubled so closely with muted tic-tac bass (Fender Bass VI 6-string) that I initially thought the electric bass might have been played with a pick. By adding the guitar on top of this duo, the riff becomes the main feature. By today’s standards, it’s a pretty typical approach, but this was 1961, and it was minty-fresh. Thanks to Andy Skurow, Motown vault-master at Universal Music Group, I was able to confirm that James Jamerson laid down the bass on this track. Based on the main riff ’s sturdy feel and the interesting ways he approaches each chord change, that would have been my guess. Listening to “Mighty Good Lovin’,” I hear distinct echoes of James Brown’s “Think” and “Good, Good Lovin’,” particularly during the Maceo-esque horn break. But any debt to “Butane James” was repaid in full when Brown released “Out of Sight” in 1964: While the bass line differs, the key, tempo, and song structure are remarkably similar. Comparing the bass part of “Mighty Good Lovin’” to James’ 1965 hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” I hear distinct similarities in the V–IV–I cadence in the verses. Example 2 is similar to one of the routes Jamerson takes through that section.

Next from our hit list is the semi-obscure “Don’t Take It Away” by “Singing” Sammy Ward, an early male vocal star at Motown, whose raw blues influences may have been his undoing as Motown evolved into the “Sound of Young America.” Still, his place in the early catalog is significant for recording Motown’s first male/female duet sides, “Oh Lover” and “That’s Why I Love You So Much” with Sherri Taylor. His early track “That Child Is Really Wild” is a raw rocker in the mold of Little Richard, and a great example of the grit that was soon to be refined from the Motown alloy. Although I received info that pointed to Clarence Isabell playing bass on this one, I mostly found evidence of his work on upright bass, and this track is clearly Fender bass. Once again, Skurow informs me it was Jamerson holding down the bottom. The track is a groovy little Twist-inspired number utilizing the now-classic 1–8–b7–5 box pattern, played in even eighth-notes (Ex. 3). In the first measure of this two-bar phrase, the anticipation on the “and” of beat four gives the line a funky, push feel that matches up perfectly with the superb, in-the-pocket drumming. Based on the swinging snare fills and well-placed rack-tom hits, my best guess would be Benny Benjamin on drums.

The final track for this month is “Twistin’ Postman” by the Marvelettes, a female vocal group that had Motown’s first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart with “Please Mr. Postman.” As a song, “Twistin’ Postman” is an obvious ploy to cash in on the success of “Postman,” as well as the Twist craze that was sweeping the nation. Although artistically fluffy, the bass playing on this track is astounding given the date. Jamerson firmly lays into the root with a simple pumping eighth-note approach that every rock bassist still uses (Ex. 4). He may not have been the first to play this, but it is the earliest example I’ve heard that really nails it to the floor. Jamerson’s attack is flawlessly consistent, his time is tight, his feel is alive, and when the groove opens up for the guitar solo, he throws down a fiercely rocking eight-to-the-bar boogie pattern (Ex. 5) with the intensity of a jackhammer. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there’s a bass solo (of sorts): After the guitar solo, the band breaks down for the first eight bars of the song’s 12-bar blues form, and James jumps in tentatively, as if caught off guard. Perhaps he was supposed to lay out for a drum break but mistakenly kept playing. Like a true pro, he kept the song moving with a bare root–5–8 framework (Ex. 6), making the return to the pumping eighths even more dramatic in bar 9. This is early in his electric bass career, and while his prodigious chops were not fully developed, he distinguished himself with his well-formed tone and the power of his groove. “Twistin’ Postman” may be simple compared to later epics like “I Was Made to Love Her” or “What’s Going On?,” but it is chock-full of what every bass player craves.

On a side note, I backed up the Marvelettes on two occasions during the ’80s, separated by a few years. I don’t remember if we played “Twistin’ Postman,” but as the song peaked at #34 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in 1962, I imagine we did. I do remember a significant portion of their act being devoted to going out into the crowd to embarrass male audience members in front of their dates with lewd-but-all-in-fun suggestions over the mic. Another highlight was taking two strangers out of the crowd—male and female—and escorting them onstage to sing a terrified love ballad to each other, with plenty of encouragement from the ’Lettes. While the band tenderly vamped under these two petrified souls, it occurred to me I hadn’t heard such fear-drenched singing since teaching Ear Training 1 at Berklee College of Music. It was like waterboarding, but less musical.

There seems to be an endless trove of goodies to be found in the Complete Motown Singles collection, and my goal is to eventually listen to it all, and share the bits of R&B Gold with you.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com

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