Saturday, March 21, 2009

Don't Look Back, Temptations (1965)

For the past few weeks, I have had a fixation on a man, unfortunately long dead, who I barely knew existed - one of the original five Temptations, Paul Williams.

There were two catalysts for this - a miniseries on the group based on member Otis Williams' (no relation) autobiography, and a priceless dvd I haven't been able to return to Netflix called The Temptations: Get Ready (1965-1972).

When the original Tempts were alive and kicking, I rarely saw them perform on TV. Odd, because they did a lot of that sort of thing. Nonetheless, I had little awareness of who the actual members were and the magic that resulted when they worked together as a unit.

No more. Now when I listen to their songs I can picture faces and mannerisms and hear each distinctive voice and, having just bought the 5-CD box set The Temptations: Emperors of Soul, nirvana has set in. Somehow the experience is so much deeper because their level of performance was so utterly evolved. It makes all the difference.

It is to Paul Williams that a lot of that difference is owed. The original Temptations came about when two Detroit-based groups joined forces. Paul and Eddie Kendricks performed in the Primes, and Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin were in the Distants. David Ruffin was a later recruit, and it was after he joined that they started having big hits.

Paul had a singular talent for choreography and it was his influence, later expanded by Motown's house choreographer Cholly Atkins, that made the Temptations the glorious and polished performing group that they were. He is a joy to watch in every recorded performance that I have seen thus far. I refer you to his rollicking antics in The Way You Do the Things You Do (he's to Eddie Kendricks' right). Oh, to have been in that audience!

But Paul also was a lead singer, as they all were at various times, although that role was eclipsed to a large degree when Ruffin became the most well known front man, with Kendricks sharing a roughly similar amount of the spotlight. Paul's stunning performance of Don't Look Back on the Ed Sullivan Show, which I never saw at the time but is on the Get Ready dvd, stopped my heart. The song apparently has legions of followers, and I am now one of them.

Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White, Don't Look Back was a B-side to My Baby but somehow broke out onto the R&B charts, which was unusual at the time. As delivered via Paul's smoky and nuanced baritone, the emotional message of the song has become an inspiration to me, amplified by having seen his performance (unfortunately no longer on youtube).

Paul Williams was a tormented soul with more personal and health problems than anyone should have to bear. He died at 34, either of a self-inflicted gunshot wound or one fired by someone else, depending on who you ask. Knowing the tragic backstory makes watching him having the time of his life in performance a bit of a balm. I guess I'm glad I wasn't aware of him when he died - it would have been heartbreaking.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, Dusty Springfield (1966)

"What set it apart from pure kitsch is that she, like any grand diva, treated this work of somewhat dubious artistic merit with the integrity and creative energy one would bestow upon an aria." - The Queer Sixties by Patricia Juliana Smith

All her life, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien struggled to be comfortable in her own skin. In the persona of Dusty Springfield, she propelled herself to phenomenal success in her own country and beyond, becoming one of the most beloved and electrifying music interpreters of all time.

Of her many memorable recordings, it's You Don't Have To Say You Love Me to which I have the most visceral reaction. Springfield's stratospheric delivery can be appreciated as the product of massive talent alone, but it taps into something in everyone who has ever tried to convince themselves that they're willing to settle for a love that is decidedly less than reciprocal. Her repeated "believe me" is one of the most shattering endings to any song in pop history, melodramatic as it is. (She herself called it "schmaltz.") It was actually an Anglicized version of a song she'd heard at an Italian music festival; she asked her friends Vicki Wickham, who booked acts for Ready Steady Go! and Simon Napier-Bell, who managed the Yardbirds, to write English lyrics. Their efforts + her soulful stylings = worldwide stardom.

Setting her fate in motion when she informed the nuns in the convent where she went to school that she was going to be a jazz singer when she grew up, Springfield paid her dues in the music business as a teenager performing as one of the Lana Sisters, and then joined her brother's folk trio the Springfields. (Check out this unbelievable clip! And this one. Once again, I had no idea ...) Touring the U.S. with the Springfields in the early 60s, she was gobsmacked by the emerging sounds of Motown. Back in Britain, and once on her own, she was American soul music's top promoter, hosting a Ready Steady Go! special in 1965 that introduced the Temptations and Supremes, among others, to a new audience.

For all her prodigious talent, the strong-willed Springfield was never sure of herself. Last week Mombi and I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where a piece of Dusty memorabilia was quite telling - an exhibit devoted to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler included a letter written to him by Springfield as he was planning the much ballyhooed Dusty in Memphis recording. Perhaps overwhelmed by the fact that the sessions were happening in the same Southern soil where many of the musicians she idolized also laid down tracks, she basically rejects most of the songs he was suggesting for the project - often discounting her ability to do right by them.

Wexler disagreed. He'd seen her hold her own - the only white performer - on the British Motown revue (catch this priceless performance with Martha and the Vandellas!). There weren't very many white women on the planet who had as much soul as Dusty - then or now.