Big Break Records has long kept each month packed with the most soulful records of all time, but the label has recently done something a little extra special – an entire group of six releases drawn exclusively from the vaults of Motown Records! (And there’s more on the way!)
Atop this mighty list is a long-awaited remaster of Stephanie Mills’ Motown debut, For the First Time. Released in 1975 – the same year Mills took Broadway by storm in The Wiz – the LP was the “first time” she recorded for Motown, and the last time that Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote and produced an album together. We’ll be covering that title soon in a special review!
Lenny Williams, former lead singer for Tower of Power, didn’t break through as a solo artist until he signed with ABC Records in 1977. But prior to that, Williams released two LPs: one for Warner Bros. while he was still with Tower of Power, and one with Motown: Rise Sleeping Beauty. Seeking not to veer too far away from the ToP sound, he teamed as co-producer with the band’s Chester Thompson. Six of the ten tracks on Sleeping Beauty were co-written by Williams and David Stallings; among the album’s musicians were ToP alumni Steve Kupka and Mic Gillette. Despite some controversy over the cover – a fairy-tale image which seems rather tame today – the album, recorded in San Francisco, scored one minor hit with the Sly and the Family Stone-influenced “Since I Met You.” In addition to the album version, the track is included in its promotional single version on Big Break’s new reissue as a bonus cut. Alternating between lushly romantic songs and funky grooves, Rise Sleeping Beauty is both a missing link in the Williams story and a lost R&B gem. Andy Kellman provides the new, comprehensive liner notes, and Kevin Reeves has remastered. Rise Sleeping Beauty is handsomely presented in a Super Jewel Box, as are all of these Motown releases.
Big Break returns to the catalogue of The Originals with 1977’s Down to Love Town, following the label’s 2011 reissue of the group’s 1975 California Sunset. The Originals, formed in 1966 but with roots tracing back to the 1950s’ Voice Masters group, worked their way up the Motown ranks as background singers for Stevie Wonder, Edwin Starr and Jimmy Ruffin. With Marvin Gaye championing them, The Originals scored their most memorable hits with “Baby, I’m for Real” (1969) and “The Bells” (1970), both co-written and produced by the Motown legend. Down to Love Town, on the Soul imprint, followed 1976’s Communiqué, and had its roots in that LP. The title track, “Down to Love Town,” was featured on Communiqué, and its 12-inch remix took The Originals all the way to No. 1 on the U.S. Disco chart, their best chart showing since “The Bells.” This extended version, which cut many of the lyrics and emphasized the groove, appeared on the new LP. “(Call on Your) Six Million Dollar Man” from “Love Town” co-writers Michael B. Sutton and Brenda Sutton also notched a No. 6 Disco hit for the vocal quartet. Michael Sutton produced three of the album’s seven tracks, with two more produced by the group itself (led by founding member Freddie Gorman) and one by Sutton and Motown stalwart Frank Wilson (who would join Lenny Williams at ABC). Down to Love Town proved to be The Originals’ Motown swansong; their next album appeared on the Fantasy label. Big Break’s new reissue of this lost disco-soul platter, remastered by Reeves, features copious notes from Justin Cober-Lake. One bonus track, an alternate version of the title track, is also included to round out the package.
A few months later in 1977, Motown’s Gordy imprint released the debut of High Inergy. Turnin’ On introduced the four-person girl group that Berry Gordy hoped would follow in the footsteps of The Supremes. Gordy’s older sister, Gwen Gordy-Fuqua, guided Vernessa and Barbara Mitchell, Linda Howard and Michelle Martin to Motown and assigned a number of producers to the album: Kent Washburn, Jimmy Holiday, Al Willis and Dee Ervin. They, in turn, drew on Motown’s Jobete publishing arm to supply High Inergy with fresh material. Two songs had origins in material Washburn had recorded in demo form for Diana Ross herself: “Let Me Get Close to You” and “Searchin’ (I’ve Got to Find My Love).” Another track, “Love is All You Need,” was previously recorded by Tata Vega but given a smoking new interpretation by High Inergy. One song came from the tried-and-true team of Marilyn McLeod and Pam Sawyer (“You Can’t Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On),” introduced by Millie Jackson) and two more from future soul superstar James Ingram (“Could This Be Love,” “Save It for a Rainy Day”). All of this assembled talent – including musicians Ray Parker, Jr. and Ollie Brown – augured for success, and Turnin’ On achieved it. With its contemporary blend of R&B styles – from classic-styled romantic balladry to light disco and funk – the album reached a No. 6 R&B peak and also went Top 30 Pop, while “You Can’t Turn Me On” hit No. 2 R&B and a still-impressive No. 12 Pop position. Second single “Love is All You Need” also went Top 20 R&B, and cracked the top 100 on the Pop side. BBR’s Kevin Reeves-remastered reissue chronicles the group’s history in a fine new essay from Rico “Superbizzee” Washington and adds both of those single versions.
After the jump: the scoop on Platinum Hook and Switch, plus full track listings and order links for all titles!
Big Break’s next release from this criminally-underrated period at Motown arrived by way of The Commodores. The Lionel Richie-fronted group took Platinum Hook under its wing, signing the New York band to their Commodores Entertainment Corporation and nabbing the band a Motown contract. With its unusual six-man, one-woman line-up, Platinum Hook might have been expected to stand out in the Motown roster. Yet the group only released two albums on Motown – the first, self-titled of which BBR has just reissued. Platinum Hook (1978) was overseen by producer Greg Wright, a company veteran of albums by Diana Ross, Jermaine Jackson and others. Taking its cue from the funky likes of Rufus and Chaka Khan as well as George Clinton – whose “Standing on the Verge (Of Getting It On)” was actually covered on the album – Platinum Hook also took aim at the dancefloor as well as at the burgeoning Quiet Storm market. Rick James, on the verge of his own breakthrough at Motown, even dropped by to play on Platinum Hook. Ultimately, though, the album never gained much traction, peaking at No. 65 on the Cash Box R&B chart. Three singles – “Hooked for Life” in the U.S. and “Standing on the Verge (Of Getting It On)” and “Gotta Find a Woman” in the U.K. – also failed to score strongly, with only “Standing…” charting at No. 72. BBR handsomely expands Platinum Hook with all three single versions, and J. Matthew Cobb chronicles the band’s history in his comprehensive essay. Kevin Reeves has remastered.
Ironically, Platinum Hook’s biggest threat proved to be another group overseen by Greg Wright during the same period. The eponymous 1978 debut album of that group, Switch, has also just been reissued by BBR. Wright told Cobb, “I think Motown really started promoting or putting more money into Switch,” a discovery of Jermaine Jackson and his wife Hazel Gordy. Gregory Williams (keyboard/trumpet/lead vocals), Tommy DeBarge (bass), Jody Sims (drums/percussion), Bobby DeBarge (keyboard/drums/lead vocals), Phillip Ingram (percussion/keyboard/lead vocals) and Eddie Fluellen (keyboards/strings/trombone) seized upon the opportunity presented to them by Jermaine and Hazel. All members of the band were accomplished singers, and all could switch off their multiple instruments. In the copious story of Switch told by liner notes author Shelley Nicole, Motown exec Suzanne de Passe is quoted as having commented upon seeing Switch, “We’ve never seen so much switching in our lives!” Production on the album was credited to The Bewley Brothers – Jeffrey Bowen and Motown founder Berry Gordy himself. With the company’s full power behind the band, Switch reached No. 6 R&B in the U.S. and also went Top 40 Pop. “There’ll Never Be” was a Top 10 R&B smash, also hitting the Pop Singles Top 40, and “I Wanna Be Closer” reached No. 22 R&B. With echoes of Earth Wind and Fire as well as Motown legends like The Temptations, Switch was poised for success. But personal demons dogged the band members. By 1981, Bobby DeBarge and Tommy DeBarge had left Switch to start a new chapter at Motown as members of family group DeBarge. Switch recorded five albums at Motown through 1981, returning at Total Experience Records in 1984 before disbanding. BBR’s Reeves-remastered reissue of their exciting debut adds the single edits of both A-sides.
All of these Motown titles are available now from Big Break, and can be ordered at the links below!
- Since I Met You
- I’m a Pioneer
- ‘Cause I Love You
- To Be a Star
- Loving Station
- Run on See What the Ends Gonna Be
- Son of Thieves, Slaves and Braves
- Rise Sleeping Beauty
- Since I Met You (Promotional Single Version) (Motown 1369, 1975)
- Hurry Up and Wait
- Down to Love Town
- You Are a Blessing to Me
- (Call On Your) Six Million Dollar Man
- Mother Nature’s Best
- Been Decided
- Down to Love Town (Alternative Version) (from Communiqué, Soul S6-746S1, 1976)
- Love is All You Need
- You Can’t Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On)
- Some Kinda Night
- Searchin’ (I’ve Got to Find My Love)
- Ain’t No Love Left (In My Heart for You)
- Let Me Get Close to You
- Save It for a Rainy Day
- Could This Be Love
- High School
- You Can’t Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On) (Single Version) (Gordy 7155, 1977)
- Love Is All You Need (Single Version) (Gordy 7157, 1978)
- ‘Til I Met You
- Standing on the Verge (Of Getting It On)
- Hooked for Life
- Lover What You’ve Done (To Me)
- Gotta Find a Woman
- City Life
- Hooked for Life (Single Version) (Motown M-1447F, 1978)
- Standing on the Verge (Of Getting It On) (Single Version) (Motown TMG-1115, 1978)
- Gotta Find a Woman (Single Version) (Motown TMG-1128, 1978)
- I Wanna Be with You
- There’ll Never Be
- I Wanna Be Closer
- We Like to Party…Come On!
- You Pulled a Switch
- It’s So Real
- Somebody’s Watching You
- There’ll Never Be (Single Version) (Gordy single G-7159F, 1978)
- I Wanna Be Closer (Single Version) (Gordy single G-7163F, 1978)