Indiana Wants Me 45 by R. Dean Taylor

April 12, 2012

R. Dean Taylor was a Canadian singer/songwriter who was hired by the Motown label as a producer/songwriter/singer. He would co-write such singles as “Love Child” by The Supremes, “All I Need” by The Temptations, “I’ll Turn To Stone” by The Four Tops,” and “Im Livin’ In Shame” by Diana Ross and The Supremes.

Today he is best remembered for his own single, “Indiana Wants Me,” which was issued on the Motown subsidiary label, Rare Earth. It was released during the late summer of 1970 and peaked at number five on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart in the United States.

It was a song about a murderer wanted by the Indiana police. It came complete with the sound of sirens. It actually was a better listen than it sounds. He would place three more songs on the singles chart but never crack the top 50 again.

Nothing But Heartaches 45 by The Supremes

January 22, 2012

The Supremes were on a roll from mid-1964 to mid-1965 with five number one singles in a row. Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson sat near the top of the music world.

They released “Nothing But Heartaches” July 31, 1965. It was an up-tempo and smooth pop song, which was similar to their past hits. The music industry can be funny at times as it only reached number 11 on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart. Their next release, “I Hear A Symphony,” would return them to the top of the charts.

The Supremes remain one of the most successful pop groups in history with 47 chart singles and 12 reaching number one.

Please Mr. Postman 45 by The Marvelettes

December 22, 2011

John was big; John was bad, and he had made a recording star out of a future pork sausage king. “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean had topped the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles Chart for five weeks, but its reign came to an end when the Motown Label had its first number one pop.

The Marvels were a female rhythm & blues female vocal group from Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan. The early group line-up consisted of Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Marie Tillman, Wanda Young, Katherine Anderson, and Juanita Cowart Young. They entered a talent contest where the top three places would gain an audition with the Motown label. They finished fourth but were invited to the try-out anyway, and so The Marvelettes were born.

Their first release for Motown subsidiary Tamla would prove historic for the label as it would reach number one on the pop charts, the first single to do so in the label’s long and storied history. The drummer on the original recording was future star Marvin Gaye.

“Please Mr. Postman” was typical of many of the hits The Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas would produce down through the years for the label. It had tight harmonies backing Horton’s lead vocal, a funky instrumental track that served as a counterpoint for the pop oriented vocals, plus in this case told the story of a girlfriend waiting for a letter from her boyfriend who was away at war. It all added up to a memorable radio song of the pre-Beatles era. It also proved that a good song is always a good song as the Carpenters took it to number one again during 1975.

The Marvelettes managed to issue a very modern sounding song, especially when compared to much of what Motown was producing early in their history. It also marked the beginning of the label’s appeal to a white audience as it managed to bridge the gap between pop and rhythm & blues. While the song is still recognizable today, many times its historic nature is forgotten.

The Marvelettes would place 23 singles on the pop charts during the 1960s, but would quickly be superseded by such artists as The Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, and their old drummer Marvin Gaye. They would record a number of memorable songs but none as successful as “Please Mr. Postman.”

#1’s by Stevie Wonder

September 5, 2011

I was going to end my series of Stevie Wonder reviews with his last studio album to date, A Time To Love. However, since I own #1’s and it was staring at me forlornly as the last Stevie Wonder album in the box, I decided to include it and finish the series at an even 20 releases.

#1’s was a part of a Motown/Universal series of releases by some of the label’s leading artists. I also own The Temptations disc, and all are released under the title #1’s. They all come in what is proudly proclaimed eco-friendly packaging, which in this case means cheap. Of course if I ever want to throw the CD away, it will have a minimal impact upon the environment.

The title refers to songs that topped Billboard’s Pop, Rhythm & Blues, and Adult Contemporary Charts. As such, the twenty tracks are not necessarily the best of his career, although a number would fall into that category. The material is limited by the theme, and to meet the requirements, the songs had to be released as singles. That left out a lot of superior album tracks. It adds up to a nice overview of his career from a singles perspective.

The tracks are taken from all periods of his career. Naturally the most memorable songs derive from the 1970s. The six song run of “Superstition,” “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “Higher Ground,” “Living For The City,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” are about 25 minutes of the finest music you can find in one place.

The early material sounds a bit primitive compared to what was to follow and it is very apparent on an album of this nature. On the other hand, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made To Love Her,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” are all uptempo, raucous delights.

The album tends to slow down a bit during the second half but that is mainly due to the placement of the songs, as some just do not fit together well.

#1’sis a flawed yet very good album. While there are better Stevie Wonder compilation albums, this one is a nice introduction to his music. If you decide to upgrade in the future at least you can discard it with a clear conscience.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – #1’s on Blogcritics.

Signed, Sealed & Delivered by Stevie Wonder

July 5, 2011

Stevie Wonder was no longer a teenager when Signed, Sealed & Delivered was released on August 7, 1970. It was a commercial success, as it produced four Top 30 hit singles.

While he still filled out the album with a number of cover songs, Wonder had more control over the recording process by this time, and was able to personally choose songs that would fit his style, rather than be saddled by seemingly random choices by his label. He was also becoming an adept songwriter, and here he co-wrote seven of the 12 tracks.

While the album had some ups and downs, the A-side of the original vinyl release was brilliant and was the equal of anything he would ever release. All four of the hit singles appear in a row. “Never Had A Dream Come True” was a smooth and soulful ballad with prominent keyboards and strings in support. “We Can Work It Out” is one of the more creative Beatles covers you will ever hear, as he changes the phrasing and turns the song into a soul classic. “Heaven Help Us All” was composed by Ron Miller, who was also responsible for such Stevie Wonder hits as “For Once In My Life,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and “A Place In The Sun.” Wonder takes the song in a gospel direction as he interprets the socially conscious lyrics that advocate change.

No matter how good the other three singles might have been, the title song was the highlight of the album. It was the first single release produced solely by Wonder. It garnered him his first Grammy nomination as well. He uses horns and guitars to accentuate his vocal and then fills in the gaps with female backing singers.

His other five original compositions run the gamut from average to very good. All find him exploring different styles and sounds that would become finalized during what is considered his 1970s classic period. His use of keyboards moves in new and sometimes experimental directions, and while not always successful, they show his maturation process was proceeding. The best of the lot was “Anything You Want Me To Do,” which has a memorable melody. On the other hand, songs such as “Something To Say,” “I Gotta Have A Song,” and “Sugar” have an unfinished feel, which would not happen on future albums.

Signed, Sealed & Delivered completed the second stage of Stevie Wonder’s career. He had learned his lessons well and was ready to move on and create some of the most creative and influential albums in American music history.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed & Delivered on Blogcritics.

I Was Made To Love Her by Stevie Wonder

June 24, 2011

I Was Made To Love Her was released during the developmental part of Stevie Wonder’s career, as he progressed from a Motown label-controlled teenager to one of the superstars of American music. It was similar to his other albums at the time (1967) as he continued to hone his writing skills by composing four of the tracks and then filling the rest of the album with cover songs.

His albums would increasingly become more polished and his own compositions would quickly develop a sophistication that would eventually make the cover songs unnecessary. More amazing was the fact he was still a teenager.

The best track is the title song, which also became a hit single, reaching number two on the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles Chart and number one on their Rhythm & Blues Chart. It was a joyful and up-tempo blast of Motown soul, and while the album contained a number of strong performances, this was head and shoulders above everything else. If I had to pick the best songs from his teen years, “I Was Made To Love Her” would make the top five.

The three other original compositions are the most complex and sophisticated material on the album. “Everybody Needs Somebody (I Need You)” is both smooth and melodic. “I Cry” and “Every Time I See You, I Go Wild” show the beginnings of his experimentation with chord changes and odd melodic structures. These songs may now be afterthoughts in his his vast catalogue of superior work, but for a budding teenage prodigy they were brilliant.

Some of the covers work better than others. “I Pity The Fool” is an old Bobby Bland blues hit. Wonder’s vocal stays within that framework but he adds a blues guitar as the songs foundation. It proved to be a musical direction that he did not visit often enough as his career progressed. The best cover was the Otis Redding classic “Respect.” He takes the song in a rock direction and adds one of the better harmonica performances of his career.

One the other hand James Brown’s “Please Please Please” and the Temptations big hit, “My Girl,” are average at best and will always be associated with their originators. He also gave a bland performance on yet another Ray Charles song, “A Fool For You,”

I Was Made To Love Her”was a well-produced and for the most part, well-performed album from his formative years that is now often overlooked. If you are in the mood for some good music from the pre-superstar Stevie Wonder, this is a good album to explore.

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Up-Tight (Everything’s Alright) by Stevie Wonder

June 17, 2011

By 1966, Little Stevie Wonder had released four studio and one live album. The studio albums had garnered limited commercial success, while his live release had topped the Billboard Magazine Pop and Rhythm & Blues Album Charts. In retrospect, it’s surprising that Motown did not go to the well again and issue another live album. But Little Stevie Wonder was growing up and, while he was not quite ready to assume complete control of his career, he was beginning to assert himself.

Little Stevie Wonder was gone and Stevie Wonder was on the rise. Motown had given up on trying to make him the next Ray Charles and had begun the process of accepting him as the first Stevie Wonder.

Up-Tight can be considered the beginning of the second phase of Wonder’s career. His voice had deepened and he had changed from a shouter to a singer who could now follow a melody. He was also beginning to compose his own material as he co-wrote three of the tracks, including the up-beat title song. The record buying public of the day would begin to embrace his new persona as the album would reach number 33 on the Billboard Pop Chart and number three of the R&B Chart.

Two songs pointed toward his developing maturity. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” is a driving blast of Motown soul that would become a hit single. His infectious vocal soared over the instrumentals. It may be a little off the topic but the single’s flip side, “Purple Rain Drops,” was a beautiful love ballad, which quickly disappeared from the Stevie Wonder landscape. It has not appeared on any Wonder album – studio, live, or compilation, in nearly 40 years. I don’t know if that oversight has been corrected during the past few years, but it is a long lost gem.

The other track which presented his advancing maturity was his cover of the Bob Dylan tune, “Blowin’ In The Wind” with additional vocals by Clarence Paul. He changed Dylan’s classic protest song into an aching soul classic. It’s one of the most inventive covers of a Dylan song that you can find.

There are a number of other good tracks that made the release an overall strong album. “Hold Me” was a gentle ballad, while “Nothing To Good For My Baby” is another hard driving track. His cover of “Teach Me Tonight” included additional vocals by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. The album closed with another gentle ballad, “With A Child’s Heart.”

Stevie Wonder would spend the next four to five years of his life honing his skills, which would ultimately enable him to produce a series of some of the best and most creative albums in music history. Up-Tight catches him at the beginning of that maturation process. and remains a fine listen in its own right.