303. ‘I’m Still Waiting’, by Diana Ross

For the second time this year, a former member of one of the sixties biggest groups scores a solo #1 single. From George Harrison, to Diana Ross. From The Supremes, to Diana Ross & The Supremes, to Diana. Just Diana.

90d2da18d8344f797cac2af08c389eef

I’m Still Waiting, by Diana Ross (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th August – 12th September 1971

The first word that comes to mind when this record intros is ‘polished’: polished strings, glossy production, not a dollar spared. Ross’s vocals, when they come in, are breathy and crystal clear. I remember when, I was five and you were ten, boy… Diana Ross, as always, has a voice you could swim in.

She’s loved this lad since they were kids, thought they were destined to be together, only to one day be told: Little girl, Please don’t wait for me, Wait patiently for love, Someday it will surely come… But Diana can’t take this advice, can’t give up on her first love. She’s still waiting.

It’s a record that I’m struggling to get into. I can see that it’s good – well-structured and beautifully recorded. It’s pop, but for grown-ups. Sophisticated soul. By the seventies, the people who had grown up buying pop music were getting older, and that starts to show in the number of AOR/MOR (not sure if these terms existed in 1971, but still) tracks that will become huge hits in this decade. Pop was no longer just for teenagers.

71wIjfmoBJL._SL1280_

And as I play it again, ‘I’m Still Waiting’ is slowly growing on me. I don’t love it, yet, but it’s gradually imprinting on my brain. It’s not short of hooks – the Little girl chorus is catchy, as is the And I’m still waiting… that hangs at the end of each of chorus. And there’s the I’m just a fool…! from the backing singers. And then, Diana speaks. Love has never shown his face, Since the day you walked out that door… Come back, Can’t you see it’s you I’m waiting for…

Will he ever come back? We’ll never know. The song shimmers to a fade-out. I can’t say I knew much about this record before writing this: it’s not one of Ms. Ross’s many hits that I could have named, that didn’t top the charts. Apparently it was one Tony Blackburn who plugged this album track so much on his radio show that Motown gave permission for it to be released in the UK. And it’s a sign of Ross’s longevity and sheer star quality that this #1 comes seven years after her first chart-topper with The Supremes (‘Baby Love’) and fifteen (!) years before her next chart-topper. She was a huge musical presence for the best part of five decades, and it’s been nice to discover this forgotten gem.

Listen to every number one single so far, here.

291. ‘Band of Gold’, by Freda Payne

A funky bass riff takes us into our next #1, a huge hit single that settled in for a long stretch at the top of the charts in the autumn of 1970…

p01bqv4q

Band of Gold, by Freda Payne (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 13th September – 25th October 1970

It’s a fun mix of a single. It’s soulful, it’s Motownish, it’s got strings, with some very early-seventies sounding electric sitar for the solo. Not that it’s a messy mix, not at all. It all comes together to make a great pop single. ‘Band of Gold’ was a perennial long car journey favourite as a kid, an ever present on my parents’ ‘Best of the ‘70s’ compilation tapes. It’s been nice getting to know it again.

And even as a child, I could tell that this record’s lyrics stood out. They tell a story… Since you’ve been gone, All that’s left is a band of gold… A young woman, left alone and crushed on her wedding night. Long before I knew what was meant to happen on one’s wedding night, it still drew me in, intrigued. You took me, From the shelter of my mother, I had never known, Or loved any other… Freda and her fiancé exchange vows, and kiss, but that night, on their honeymoon, they sleep in separate rooms…

This is the plot of a soap-opera, not the lyrics to a #1 single! Is she rich, and he only married her for her money? Was it an arranged marriage? Is he gay, and in need of a beard? Is he impotent?? (These are all bona fide theories that have been espoused over the years.) We never find out, left hanging as the song fades out.

Freda never stops hoping that he’ll walk… Back through that door, And love me, Like you tried before… He has tried to love her, then… The plot thickens. I love the image of her left in the dark, with her band of gold (it took me a long time, as a child, to work out that she was singing about her wedding ring.) Payne sings it forcefully, and the drumbeat comes down on every word. You can really picture her beating her chest in sorrow.

s-l400

‘Band of Gold’ was written by the Motown legends Holland-Dozier-Holland, but it wasn’t released on Motown due to an ongoing dispute between the writing team and the label. Which means it’s half a Motown hit, and frustrating as it deprives us of two-in-a-row following Smokey and the Miracles’ ‘The Tears of a Clown’. Ron Dunbar, who worked on the song alongside the trio, blames all the theories on the fact that he had to cut a line about the singer being the one who turned her husband away, to keep the runtime down. The full story can be heard on the 7” version…

I love the way that Freda Payne really lets loose for the final Since you’ve been go-o-o-ne… as she takes it home. Though apparently she had to be persuaded to record the song. She did, and it gave her what would be by far her biggest hit. In fact, ‘Band of Gold’ was Payne’s only Top 10 hit in either Britain or the US. She kept releasing music until the early eighties, when she moved into TV work and acting. She was married to fellow singer Gregory Abbott, for three years. Not a long marriage, but at least it got past the honeymoon.

Why not listen to all the #1 singles in one handy place, with my Spotify playlist?

290. ‘The Tears of a Clown’, by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

A perky riff kicks off this next number one, one that sounds like something The Pied Piper would play while leading the kids out of Hamelin. A jester’s riff, one that might play as a clown enters a room… It’s a riff, a motif, that repeats and holds the song together, while the rest is pure Motown.

ea6cd4a37212d4e210d47e8ca77489ea

The Tears of a Clown, by Smokey Robinson (his 1st of two #1s) & The Miracles

1 week, from 6th – 13th September 1970

Yes, Motown’s 4th #1 single in the UK, from one of its biggest acts, one that had been scoring Top 10 hits throughout the sixties in the States. And it’s another sad-lyrics-with-upbeat-accompaniment number… Really I’m sad, Oh, sadder than sad, You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad, Like a clown I’ll pretend to be glad…

It’s a song about putting a brave face on things, about not letting on when you’re heart is breaking. And it’s very wordy record… Sample lyric: Now if I appear to be carefree, It’s only to camouflage my sadness… There aren’t many #1 singles throwing words like ‘camouflage’ around. By the end Smokey’s referring to the famous clown opera ‘Pagliacci’… All very highbrow.

But it’s catchy, too. This is Motown after all. I have to admit that, for all this is a very highly regarded record, I’m struggling to really love it… Though I do love the bubblegum hook in the chorus: Now there’s some sad things known to man, But ain’t too much sadder than… The tears of a clown… 1970 really is jumping around all over the place, evading all attempts to define the ‘sound’ of the year. Some of its chart-topping singles have been true classics, others just truly dreadful. ‘The Tears of a Clown’ I’d place right in the middle, one of the purest ‘pop’ moments of the year.

-600883

It had actually been recorded back in 1967, and was only released due to Robinson’s reluctance to record new music with the band. It hit #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and Smokey was convinced to spend another couple of years with them. He did eventually go solo, and he’ll go it alone at the top of the charts in a decade or so. The Miracles continued too, and had their own successes through the seventies. Also of note is the fact that ‘The Tears of a Clown’ was co-written by Stevie Wonder, who we have yet to meet in this countdown. I think it’s not giving too much away for me to say that this, his first writing credit at #1, is far better than either of the chart-toppers he’ll get under his own name…

Follow my Spotify playlist as we go!

268. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye

Attention. Attention. We have a stone-cold classic coming right up. Marvin Gaye is here, and he has been hearing things, through the grapevine…

marvin-gaye

I Heard It Through the Grapevine, by Marvin Gaye (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th March – 16th April 1969

Has there been a cooler intro so far? A sexy, slinkingly slow build up, with a tickle of cymbal and a subtle riff: doo-do-do-doo… It’s dripping with attitude. And then Gaye’s voice, a husky falsetto. Ooh, I bet you’re wond’rin how I knew, Bout your plans to make me blue…

The singer has heard second-hand that his girlfriend is about to do the dirty on him. I heard it through the grapevine, Not much longer would you be mine… the backing singers chant, like the gossiping whisperers that have brought the news to him. The premise of the song is kind of flawed – surely the gossip would be that she is cheating on him, not that she’s just planning to – but shhh! Who cares? We’re in Greatest Pop Songs of all time territory here.

What I especially like about this song is that we are unsure how the singer really feels about the situation. Is he sad? (I know a man ain’t supposed to cry, But these tears I can’t keep inside…) Or angry? (It took me by surprise, I must say…) Or just disappointed? (You could have told me yourself, That you love someone else…) Or is he all of these things?

‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is a Motown record, only the 3rd to hit the top of the UK charts, after ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, and the last one of the 1960s, the decade synonymous with the label’s sound. But, at the same time, it’s a lot subtler than earlier Motown hits – far less bubble-gum. There’s an edge to it. It’s instant, but it’s also layered. I know I write this fairly often, about other huge hits, but it still rings true… This would have been a hit at any time. It transcends time and place.

MARVIN_GAYE_I+HEARD+IT+THROUGH+THE+GRAPEVINE-346057

Or if you want to distil it down to a simple, one-word description: it’s cool. You want to know what cool sounds like? You put ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ on. Marvin Gaye had been a recording artist since the start of the sixties, and a big star in the US for years before this became his biggest hit. In the UK, though, he hadn’t been higher than #16. Following this, he would become a routine visitor to the Top 10, throughout the seventies and early eighties, solo or with either of his favoured duetting partners, Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. It all culminated in his huge ‘Sexual Healing’ comeback in 1982…

Until he was shot, dead, a year later. By his dad. We’ve met some pretty tragic characters in our journey through the charts so far, but this is up there with the worst of them. His father was a disciplinarian, a Christian minister, and yet a cross-dresser, with a very complicated relationship with his artistic, world famous, and possibly gay, son. Marvin stepped in to break up a confrontation between his parents, and was killed by a shot from the gun he had given his father a few months earlier.

Tragic stuff. And also tragic in its own way is the fact that this is Gaye’s one and only chart-topping single. No ‘It Takes Two’, or ‘What’s Goin’ On’, or the aforementioned ‘Sexual Healing’… Just this. But what a chart-topper it is. If you’re only going to do it once, then do it in style. Meanwhile, ‘Marvin Gaye’ will hit #1 many years from now, as the title of a song. Which I just realised answers a question I posed in my post on ‘Lady Madonna’, about #1s which reference chart-topping artists in their titles… Till then, then…

225. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by The Four Tops

Amongst all the glorious music that has reached the top of the charts over the past few years, as we’ve reached the apex of the swinging sixties – Merseybeat, R&B, folk, soul, garage rock – one genre has been seriously underrepresented. Motown.

Granted it’s not technically a genre, more a record label… but hey – everyone knows the Motown sound. And ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by male vocal group The Four Tops, is only its 2nd ever UK #1, after The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. And so, in the context of the charts of 1966, this record stands out every bit as much as its predecessor, Jim Reeve’s croon-tastic ‘Distant Drums’.

AR-AC273_Music1_P_20130424150355

Reach Out I’ll Be There, by The Four Tops (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 27th October – 17th November 1966

And, though I mentioned the ‘Motown sound’ right there in that last paragraph, the intro to this song is more ‘Spaghetti-Western’. They’re not pan-pipes, are they…? It’s ominous, and thrilling. A horseman clattering round the corner to save his damsel in distress. Now if you feel like you can’t go on, Because all your hope is gone, And your life is filled with much confusion, Until happiness is just an illusion…

It should be a ballad. It should be sung by Lionel Richie at a piano. It’s a brilliant song, but the music and the lyrics don’t really match. The woman in the song isn’t just a little unlucky in love; she’s apparently suicidal. Her world has gone cold, is crumblin’ down, while she drifts out all on her own… I mean, it’s heavy stuff. And all the while The Four Tops charge to her rescue aboard a frantic and incessant groove. Reach out for me…

It’s melodramatic – I get that – and way over the top. It reminds me of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, possibly the only other #1 single so far to be based on a horse’s gallop. But several things about this record push it above camp curio and into the realm of the classic. There are the ‘Ha’s!’ the pepper the end of lines, the spoken asides – Just look over your shoulder! – and the outrageously funky bass riff before the choruses. And, most of all, the Dar-lin’s!

The Top’s lead singer, Levi Stubbs, commits to each and every line of this record. It’s one of the most memorable vocal performances that we’ve heard in this countdown. He commits to the point where it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the song is. His vocals are the reason that this is a Rolling Stone ‘Top 500 of All Time’ kind of tune.

374x370

It’s a deserved #1. It’s a great song and it’s about time that another Motown disc got there. For a genre that is hugely loved and respected in the UK – think all the compilation CDs and ‘Motown Weeks’ on X Factor – it really never got its due representation at the top of the charts. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ was the label’s 13th Billboard chart-topper. In Britain it was, as I mentioned at the start, its 2nd. They will have 1 (one!) more #1 in the ‘60s, and only eight in total, ever…

And I have to admit that The Four Tops are a band I’d heard of – Motown, sixties, etc. etc. – but didn’t know too much about. The hits were more famous than the group it seems, as scanning through their discography you can see some stone-cold classics: ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’, ‘It’s the Same Old Song’… Not a bad encore. And they do still tour, though ‘Duke’ Fakir is the only surviving original member.

All of a sudden, then, in The Four Tops and Gentleman Jim, two American acts have wrenched us away from what had been ‘the sound of ‘66’. And up next, another bunch of American ‘Boys’ (hint, hint) will drag us even further from our comfort zones with, ah yes, possibly the greatest pop song ever recorded…

Follow along with this handy playlist:

181. ‘Baby Love’, by The Supremes

For the intro to this next post, I was going to go all overboard on how this was the first time in ages that two female acts had replaced one another at the top of the UK charts. Sandie Shaw making way for The Supremes’ girl-group stylings. The first time that this had happened since September 1956!!!! Except… For a week in between, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, by most-definitely-a-man Roy Orbison, sneaked back to the top of the charts. Ah.

So I need a new intro… How about: And so, with this next number one, Motown arrives at the top of the singles chart! And what a record with which to arrive. A piano intro that slides down the scales – in stereo it sounds as if it’s travelling right to left through your brain – and then the voice of one of the most renowned female singers in pop history:

maxresdefault

Baby Love, by The Supremes (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 19th November – 3rd December 1964

Oooh-hooo-oo… Baby love, My baby love, I need ya, Oh how I need ya…. A girl loves a boy, but he doesn’t seem to be returning the sentiment. All he does is treat her bad, breaks her heart and leaves her sad… Baby love, My baby love, Been missin’ ya, Miss kissin’ ya…

It’s a gorgeous song, the production all warm and glossy, the drums keep swinging time, a mournful sax comes in mid-way through… And Diana Ross’s honeyed voice. A voice that sounds effortlessly perfect. It’s a world away from some of the other female voices we’ve heard so far – she doesn’t belt like Shirley Bassey or sparkle like Helen Shapiro – but it has a special quality to it. In the closing lines – Need to hold you, Once again my love, Feel your warm embrace my love… you can really feel her pleading.

The lyrics, as a whole, though, are pretty meh. Standard ‘Oh baby come back to me I’ll do what you want and give you all my love’ kind of stuff. The default setting for sixties girl-groups. And I don’t want to go all ‘woke’ here but, I’d like a little more sass and swagger from my girl groups. Look back a few years, and Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis were serving up plenty of attitude in ‘Mambo Italiano’, say, or ‘Who’s Sorry Now’. ‘Baby Love’ comes across as soppy next to those discs.

The other two Supremes – Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson – have equal billing here but aren’t much more than backing singers. 70% of the time they’re chanting Don’t throw our love away… Which they do beautifully, but you can see why the group soon became Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ms. Ross was definitely front and centre from the start. In the UK this would be their only #1 (though we will be hearing from Ms. Ross again), while in the US they enjoyed a staggering twelve (12!) chart-toppers between 1964 and 1969. Of course, classics like ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and ‘The Happening’ were big British hits; but another chart-topper always eluded them.

s-l1000 (1)

A few weeks ago, I did a series of posts on songs that should have topped the charts, in which I included Best Pop Song Ever ™ ‘Be My Baby’, by The Ronettes. ‘Baby Love’ isn’t in the same league as that, but in hitting the top spot I feel it kind of represents for all the sixties girl groups (all of them American) that missed out. For The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Shangri-Las, The Marvelettes, The Vandellas… Plus, this is also basically ground-zero for all the girl groups that are yet to come. When I was a teen they were ten-a-penny – The Spice Girls, Eternal, En Vogue, All Saints, B*Witched… They can all be traced back through these three girls and this sweetly sung chart-topper.

A final thought: ‘Baby Love’ really stands out when you hear it in context. On a ‘Motown’s Greatest Hits Compilation’ it might have passed you by; but hearing it now, after months, years even, of boys with guitars and their beat-pop ditties, this record hits you like a crisp, clean breath of Detroit air. Inhale it, and enjoy.