EML’s Favorite Songs – “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas

Though we’re officially only one week into Summer 2021, it’s already turning out to be an exceptionally hot one for a large swath of the U.S., and around the Northern Hemisphere. Temperature records have been shattered in many locations, including here in the Coachella Valley of Southern California where I live. On June 17th, the temperature in Palm Springs reached 123 degrees, setting a new all-time record high for June (after hitting 120 two days earlier). In the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon set a new all-time record high of 108 on June 26th, with Seattle also breaking their all-time record with 102 degrees. Those new records look to be short-lived, as they’re forecast to be broken later today!

(Late update: they were indeed broken on the 27th, as high temperatures reached 112 at the official airport station in Portland, and 104 in Seattle, then broken again on the 28th, with temperatures soaring to an unbelievable 116 in Portland, 117 in Salem and 107 in Seattle!)

These crazy-hot temperatures got me thinking about one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas. Originally formed as the Del-Phis in 1957 by Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams, (and briefly renamed The Vels in 1961-62), the act was redubbed Martha & the Vandellas in 1962 after Martha Reeves replaced Williams as lead vocalist (and later to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas as Reeves gained prominence). “Heat Wave” (also known as “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave”) was written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, who also penned numerous hits for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops and many others. It was the second hit song they collaborated on with Martha & the Vandellas, following their first hit “Come and Get These Memories”.

“Heat Wave” features a gospel backbeat with jazz overtones, accompanied by Reeves’ brassy doo-wop call and response vocals that came to exemplify the style of music later termed as the “Motown Sound”. The rousing instrumentation was performed by in-house Motown musicians the Funk Brothers. The lyrics compare the intense, burning desires of romantic love to hot temperatures experienced during a heat wave.

Appropriately released in July 1963 – during what is often the hottest part of summer – the single was a breakthrough hit for Martha & the Vandellas, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart. It also earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording for 1964, making the Vandellas the first Motown group ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award.

It’s a great song and a timeless classic that’s endured to this day. It was later covered by such artists as Linda Ronstadt (who scored a top five hit with it in 1975), The Jam (in 1979) and Phil Collins (in 2010). The Martha and the Vandellas version was featured in the 1970 film The Boys in the Band, in a scene where several of the characters perform an impromptu line dance to the song. It was also used in the 1976 film Carrie and 1979’s More American Graffiti. And in the 1992 film Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg sings the song as part of her Vegas nightclub act saluting ’60s girl groups.

EMLs Favorite Albums – “The Temptations: All the Million-Sellers”

I’ve been participating in an album draft conducted by fellow blogger Hans for his excellent blog slicethelife, in which I, along with he and eight other bloggers, have been choosing some of our favorite albums. The latest category was ‘greatest hits or compilations’.  I have a lot of greatest hits albums in my collection, as there are a number of artists and bands who had several songs I love, but I didn’t want to necessarily buy any particular album of theirs. (I’ve purchased far too many albums because I loved a particular song or two, but then had to suffer listening to a lot of filler tracks, or else skip them altogether.) For those artists, a greatest hits compilation was the perfect choice for me, as I would then have all or most of their songs that I liked on one record. 

My pick is “The Temptations: All the Million-Sellers”, which was released in 1981 by Motown as one of their series of ‘Motown Compact Classics’. While not necessarily my favorite ‘greatest hits’ album, I chose this particular compilation over others in my collection because it contains only 10 songs, every one of which I love and consider to be the very best by the Temptations. Frankly, many of the greatest hits albums I own still contain at least a few of what I feel are throwaway songs. With this compilation, there’s no need for me to skip over any tracks. I also like that the tracks are arranged in chronological order, which I think is essential for all ‘greatest hits’ compilations, as it gives us a better feel for how the artist or group’s music evolved over time.

Track listing:

  1. My Girl
  2. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
  3. I Wish it Would Rain
  4. Cloud Nine
  5. Runaway Child, Running Wild
  6. I Can’t Get Next to You
  7. Psychedelic Shack
  8. Ball of Confusion
  9. Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
  10. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

The Temptations are one of the longest-running music acts, active in one form or another since their origins in 1960! They were known for their precise choreography, stylish suits, distinctive harmonies, and the fact that they were a true ensemble, in which all five members’ vocals were prominently featured on many of their songs. Like the Beatles were for rock music, the Temptations were a major influence for many male R&B and soul acts to follow in their footsteps.

The group’s lineup has changed numerous times over the years, but their lineup during their early ‘classic’ period of 1964-68 consisted of David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (no relation to Paul), Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin. Gruff-voiced vocalist Ruffin sang the first three hits listed above, but was kicked out of the band in 1968 due to his increasing cocaine abuse and numerous disagreements with fellow band members. He was replaced by Dennis Edwards, another gruff-voiced vocalist who sang lead on “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams left in 1971, Kendricks to pursue a solo career and Williams for health reasons. Otis Williams is the last surviving founding member of the Temptations, and at 79 he continues to perform. He also owns the rights to the Temptations name.

I love their first big hit “My Girl”, but “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is just so damn catchy. And you gotta love those smooth dance moves!

One of my favorites of their songs is “I Can’t Get Next to You”, which was their second single to reach #1, in 1969. I especially love the opening where we first hear clapping and yelling, then Dennis Edwards says “Hey everybody, hold it hold it, listen”, followed by a jazzy little piano riff before the song kicks in. I also like that all five members’ vocals are prominently featured.

Perhaps their most beautiful song is the 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, which was their third #1 single. By the early 70s, many of the Temptations longtime fans were frustrated by all the psychedelic songs with social and political themes they’d been releasing, most notably “Cloud Nine”, which touched on the struggles of living in poverty, with oblique references to using drugs as an escape, and “Ball of Confusion”, which touched on a litany of social, political and environmental problems of the day, many of which are still applicable 50 years later. These fans longed for songs more in the smoother R&B style of the group’s early days. In a 1991 interview, Eddie Kendricks recalled that many Temptations’ fans were “screaming bloody murder” after the group delved into psychedelia, demanding a return to their original soul sound.

Songwriting duo Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong had written the lyrics to “Just My Imagination” in 1969, and finally decided to have the group record it in late 1970, with Kendricks singing lead vocals. According to Wikipedia, the song was recorded in the midst of a bitter feud between Kendricks and the Temptations’ de facto leader, Otis Williams. Dissatisfied and frustrated with Williams’ leadership, Kendricks began to withdraw from the group, and picked several fights with either Williams or fellow band member Melvin Franklin. This would be the last song Kendricks (and Paul Williams) would sing with the Temptations.

The group’s fourth and final #1 hit – and in my opinion their best song ever – is the darkly gorgeous masterpiece “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. Somewhat of a return to the group’s psychedelic soul sound orchestrated by Whitfield and Strong, the song was both a musical and stylistic departure for the Temptations. Beginning with an extended instrumental introduction lasting nearly four minutes (a style pioneered by artists like Isaac Hayes, and used in later songs like Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby”), each of the song’s three verses is separated by extended musical passages, in which Whitfield inserted various instrumental textures in and out of the mix. It’s like a psychedelic R&B symphony, which is probably why I love it so much. That said, the Temptations were reportedly unhappy that Whitfield’s instrumentation was given greater emphasis than their vocals on the track.

Lyrically, the song is about a now-deceased father who left his wife and family to lead a life of debauchery and crime. It was originally written by Whitfield and Strong for soul group The Undisputed Truth, whose recording of the song failed to attract attention. They then had the Temptations record it, and it became one of their biggest hits. Four of the group’s members were prominently featured on vocals, each taking the role of siblings questioning their mother about their father. Her repeated response, sung by Dennis Edwards, was chilling: “Papa was a rollin’ stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died, all he left us was alone.” For years, I’d assumed the falsetto vocals were by Eddie Kendricks, but I now know he’d left the band prior to the song’s recording, and those vocals were sung by Damon Harris.

Here is the long version of the song, with it’s extended instrumentals:

“My Girl”, “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, are included among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Temptations at number 68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of all time.

EML’s Favorite Songs – THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH: “Smiling Faces Sometimes”

undisputed-truth-smiling-faces-sometimes

As a teenager back in the late 1960s to mid 1970s, I was madly in love with soul and R&B music (still am, actually), and among my favorite songs from those years is “Smiling Faces Sometimes” by The Undisputed Truth. Written by the renown Motown songwriting team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, it’s a dramatic psychedelic soul song about phony, back-stabbing people who do their friends wrong behind their backs. The song peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was a huge #1 hit in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived at the time.

Beginning in the mid 1960s, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong helped turn Motown into a veritable hit machine. Along with Smokey Robinson and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Whitfield and Strong were instrumental in the creation of what was referred to as “The Motown Sound”, as well as the late-1960s subgenre of psychedelic soul. They were one of the principal songwriters for the Temptations, penning such hits as “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “War”, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”, “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”, as well as the brilliant “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, which was a monster #1 hit for both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye.

“Smiling Faces Sometimes” was first recorded by the Temptations as a 12:43-minute-long opus that was included on their 1971 album Sky’s the Limit. An edited version of the song was to be released as a 45 single, but was scrapped when one of the track’s co-vocalists Eddie Kendricks left the Temptations for a solo career in April 1971. Undaunted, Whitfield quickly turned to another psychedelic soul group he’d created known as The Undisputed Truth, and had them record the song, which was released that May. Whitfield liked to record dramatically different versions of the same song with different Motown artists (see “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”), so having The Undisputed Truth record “Smiling Faces Sometimes” was a no-brainer. He later had the Temptations record The Undisputed Truth song “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, which became a #1 hit for them.

Whitfield created The Undisputed Truth in 1970 to further explore his interest in producing more songs in his psychedelic soul format, but also partly in response to fan criticism that he was using the Temptations as his personal plaything. The Undisputed Truth consisted of Joe Harris, Billie Calvin and Brenda Evans, all seasoned vocalists who’d previously worked with other soul and R&B acts.

It’s a darkly beautiful song with a sophisticated, yet menacing vibe thanks to a brilliant arrangement and stunning instrumentation. The track opens with what sounds like an abrupt horn blast, quickly followed by a deep bass line, wobbly guitar notes and a brief flourish of cinematic strings. Then, a rattle-based beat kicks in, nicely conveying mental images of a rattlesnake lurking in the shadows, which is alluded to in the lyric “beware of the handshake that hides the snake”. The intricate psychedelic guitar work is really fantastic, as are the jazzy horns and soaring strings, while that continuous rattling percussion keeps the eerie vibes alive. I love that all three band members share vocals, giving the song a fuller, more exciting sound. Their urgent, soulful vocals are perfect as they warn of the evil lurking behind our backs. I love this song. 

Smiling faces sometimes
Pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces
Of the evil that lurks within
(Can you dig it)

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof
Oh lord, yeah

Let me tell ya, the truth is in the eyes
Cause the eyes don’t lie, amen
Remember a smile is just a frown turned upside down
My friend, so hear me when I’m sayin’

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

Beware, beware of the handshake
That hides the snake
(Can you dig it, can you dig it)
I’m a-telling you beware
Beware of the pat on the back
It just might hold you back
Jealousy (jealousy)
Misery (misery)
Envy, I tell you, you can’t see behind

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
Hey, they don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

And your enemy won’t do you no harm
‘Cause you’ll know where he’s coming from
Don’t let the handshake and the smile fool ya
Take my advice I’m only tryin’ to school ya

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

EML’s Favorite Songs – JUNIOR WALKER & the ALL STARS: “What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)”

Jr Walker What Does It Take

Few popular artists of the 1960s – or any other decade for that matter – could play the saxophone like Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., better known as Junior Walker. Along with with his band the All Stars, Junior Walker had a string of hits from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, including the fantastic “Shotgun” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” (Walker also went on to play sax on the great Foreigner song “Urgent” in 1981.) But my absolute favorite was “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”, which was a big hit for them in 1969. It has one of the best intros of any song ever. That opening bass riff, followed by Walker’s wailing sax, are fucking incredible, sending chills up and down my spine that remain there through the song’s entire two and a half minute run time.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua and Vernon Bullock and, shockingly, was initially rejected for single release by a Motown quality control group. Thankfully, several radio station DJs chose to play the song, making it gain popularity, and prompted Motown executives to reverse their decision and ultimately release it as a single. It became a huge hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. It’s one of my favorite songs of 1969.

What does it take to win your love for me?
How can I make this dream come true for me?
Oh, I just got to know
Ooh baby, cause I love you so
Gonna blow for you

I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried in every way I could
To make you see how much I love you
Ooh I thought you understood
So you gotta make me see
What does it take to win your love for me?
Gonna blow again for you