Last weekend, The Fantastic Four – the super-powered Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm – returned to the big screen, ultimately to disappoint fans. But Ace Records’ Kent label has another group of the same name in the spotlight – and this one is bound to thrill!
Joe Pruitt, Ralph Pruitt, Toby Childs and James Epps made their debut as The Fantastic Four in 1966 on Detroit’s Ric-Tic label, notching a series of R&B and Pop hits (including 1967’s No. 6 R&B/No. 63 Pop “The Whole World is a Stage”) there. By 1968, the group had garnered sufficient attention to come to the attention of Berry Gordy, who arranged with Ric-Tic’s Ed Wingate for The FF to join his Motown family on the Soul imprint. In the busy Motown establishment, however, the quartet got lost in the shuffle. Four singles and an album re-presenting the group’s early hits were the only releases that emerged. But unsurprisingly, The FF left a backlog of viable material. Kent’s The Lost Motown Album premieres How Sweet He Is, the album scheduled to appear in early 1971 as Soul SS-722, along with thirteen additional bonus selections. It all adds up to a happily-found collection of prime Motown soul.
Many of the behind-the-scenes names on The Lost Motown Album will be familiar to any Hitsville fan: William Weatherspoon, James Dean, Clay McMurray, Paul Riser, and David Van De Pitte among them. You’ll also hear The Andantes working their background vocal magic on a number of these tracks, recorded between 1967 and 1969 at both Hitsville USA and Golden World Studios and largely designed to spotlight lead singer “Sweet” James Epps. Four of the twelve selections have never been previously released.
Writer-producers William Weatherspoon and James Dean (of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame) are responsible for many of the strongest tracks here. “Take Him Back If It Makes You Happy” and “Keep On Tryin’ (‘Til You Find Love)” are just two cuts boasting the unmistakable driving rhythms that could only have come from the Motown hit factory. Both tracks (which were first unearthed on 2010’s A Cellarful of Motown! Volume 4) had been assigned to Dennis Edwards but were scuttled when he was recruited to join The Temptations; the latter song also was briefly intended for Jimmy Ruffin, brother of The Temps’ David. Dean and Weatherspoon’s “I Feel Like I’m Falling in Love Again” made it to the Fantastic Four’s second Soul single after passing from Ruffin to Edwards (who also recorded a lead vocal). “Don’t Care Why You Want Me (Long as You Want Me),” another of Jimmy’s cast-offs, found its way to the flipside of the group’s third single on Soul.
Clay McMurray helmed the beautiful production here of Marvin Gaye’s ballad “If This World Were Mine” (first issued on Motown Sings Motown Treasures) and the Detroit makeover of Jerry and Billy Butler and Kenny Gamble’s “Just Can’t Forget About You Baby” which was originally arranged by Thom Bell in early Philadelphia soul style. McMurray also co-wrote the urgent “I’m Gonna Carry On” with its dynamic brass and strings arranged by Paul Riser and Jerry Long, and produced the fine, slow-burning rendition of “We Can Work It Out” that premieres here.
Ric Tic-era producers Al Kent and Mike Hanks were tapped for a couple of tracks, too: Kent’s dramatic “On the Brighter Side of a Blue World” (arranged by Riser with evocative harpsichord) which was released as The FF’s final Soul single, and Hanks’ funky slab of psychedelic soul, “You Turn Me Around.” The latter was recorded at one of their earliest Motown sessions, but with Hanks at the controls and some of the recording taking place at the Ric-Tic stomping ground of Golden World, it proved that the transition to Motown was a fairly seamless one.
All but three of the thirteen bonus tracks are previously unreleased, and feature more classy, sophisticated soul productions by Johnny Bristol, Bobby Taylor, Henry Cosby and George Gordy, among others. Any of these songs could have been hits, as is so often the case with the material left on the shelf at Motown. These varied bonuses, recorded between 1969 and 1971, have impassioned, yearning lead vocals from Epps, support from the group or The Andantes, and the powerful array of ingredients behind The Sound of Young America. Rich strings, exuberant horns, thunderous percussion, tight guitar and funky bass were married to universal lyrics and potent, soulful melodies, making for blasts of sheer musical exhilaration.
Bobby Taylor’s production of “Don’t Tell Me I’m Crazy” (one of the previously issued songs, having first been aired on 2003’s Tamla Motown Connoisseurs Volume 2) rides along an irresistible Motor City groove with Epps’ gravelly vocals in delicious counterpoint to the sweetly cooing background voices; Edwin Starr and Gladys Knight and the Pips also both recorded the Gloria Jones/Pam Sawyer song. Jones and Sawyer also wrote “I Hate Myself for Loving You” in a similar vein. Taylor’s polished, crisp production makes it another highlight. “Fan the Flame,” co-written by Smokey Robinson, will be familiar to Temptations fans. It’s another strong virtual solo effort for Epps. “In a Bad Way” dated all the way back to Ric-Tic and a 1964 Freddie Gorman recording, but the brassy 1969-1970 revival is happily far from musty. Johnny Bristol’s “I’m Still a Struggling Man,” recorded in 1968 and 1969, is a strong slice of socially-conscious soul.
The Lost Motown Album isn’t quite everything recorded by The Fantastic Four at Motown, but this retrospective is the most definitive anthology yet. It contains all but one of the completed (recorded and mixed) tracks made at Motown between December 1968 and March 1971; by the end of the group’s Motown tenure, Toby Childs had died and been replaced by Ernest Newsome. Keith Hughes and Tony Rounce have provided the track annotations and liner notes, and Nick Robbins has beautifully remastered these long-lost cuts. The original album tracks are in stereo (so there are variations from the mono mixes of the tracks released as singles and included on the Complete Motown Singles boxes) while bonus tracks are mostly in mono.
Those seeking more from this underrated Detroit quartet can seek out the recent Japanese CD reissue of The FF’s Soul LP Best of The Fantastic Four, as well as Ace’s previous reissues of the group’s 1970s output for the Eastbound and Westbound labels. (Cleveland Horne had joined the line-up by that point, also consisting of Joe Pruitt, James Epps and Ernest Newsome.) In the meantime, The Lost Motown Album is one of the most stunning soul finds of the year.
- Take Him Back If It Makes You Happy (Motown CD 882 4009, 2010)
- Just Another Lonely Night (Soul single 35065, 1969)
- If This World Were Mine (Motown CD 530 960 2, 1998)
- A Little Too Much
- We Can Work It Out
- Keep On Tryin’ (‘Til You Find Love) (Motown CD 882 4009, 2010)
- On the Brighter Side of a Blue World (Soul single 35072 (edit), 1970)
- Don’t Care Why You Want Me (Long as You Want Me) (Soul single 35065, 1969)
- I’m Gonna Carry On (Soul single 35072, 1970)
- I Feel Like I’m Falling in Love Again (Soul single 35058, 1969)
- You Turn Me Around
- I Just Can’t Forget About You Baby
- How Big Is Your Heart
- It Keeps Raining Down Tears
- Pin Point It Down (Soul single 35058, 1969)
- Loving You (Is Hurting Me) (Motown CD 530 3228 2, 2007)
- I’ve Found My Goal
- Don’t Tell Me I’m Crazy (Spectrum CD 067 016 2, 2003)
- Fan the Flame
- In a Bad Way
- I Hate Myself for Loving You
- I’m Still a Struggling Man
- Forgive My Jealousy
- I Shall Not Be Moved
- The Double Cross
Tracks 1-15 Stereo; Tracks 16-25 Mono
All tracks previously unreleased except as indicated above.