Had you crossed The 5th Dimension with Sly and the Family and Stone, the result might well have sounded like The Undisputed Truth. Assembled in 1971 by Motown veteran and “psychedelic soul” pioneer Norman Whitfield, The Undisputed Truth (a.k.a. Joe Harris, Billy Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce Evans) scored a hit off their first LP with the hauntingly ominous “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Enduring personnel changes, the group went on to record six LPs in all for Motown’s Gordy imprint before moving with their producer in 1976 to his own Whitfield Records label. Despite carving out a niche in the Motown firmament, much of the group’s repertoire has been wholly overlooked in the CD era. Happily, Ace Records’ Kent imprint has rectified that with the release of Nothing But the Truth: 3 Motown Albums on 2 CDs with Bonus Tracks. This new collection features the CD debuts of the Truth’s first, third, and fourth albums, plus a handful of bonus cuts. Their musical evolution, and journey from Detroit to Los Angeles, is traced throughout these three LPs.
Norman Whitfield co-wrote seven of the eleven tracks on the Truth’s 1971 self-titled debut, the first of the three albums on Ace’s collection. Primarily arranged by David Van De Pitte with Paul Riser and Jerry Long, The Undisputed Truth is a potpourri, for sure, and established Whitfield’s penchant for recycling tunes for The Undisputed Truth. The first track (“You Got the Love I Need”) dated back to a 1966 band track recorded for The Temptations (Whitfield’s main charges) and epitomized the classic Motown sound, with its throbbing bass line and lush string chart by Riser.
The Truth’s debut single (which predated the album release), “Save My Love for a Rainy Day,” was introduced by The Temptations, although the track for their version was originally earmarked for Marvin Gaye. Written by Whitfield and his late “I Wish It Would Rain” collaborator Rodger Penzabene, the song shares the sad, gorgeously yearning DNA of “Rain.” Eddie Kendricks sang “Save My Love” on The Tempts’ With a Lot o’ Soul, but lead vocalist Joe Harris channeled both Kendricks and the tortured soul of David Ruffin with quiet power. The brassy, driving “Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone,” another lovelorn melody, was plucked from the same Temptations LP.
An extended, almost 11-minute cover of the searing, Whitfield/Barrett Strong-penned recent hit “Ball of Confusion” anticipated funkier directions, and underscored The Undisputed Truth’s connection with The Temptations. That group had first recorded the supremely moody “Smiling Faces Sometimes” in a 12-minute version on their Sky’s the Limit album, but when Eddie Kendricks left the group, his departure torpedoed any chances of it being edited down for single release. Whitfield realized that the imploring, cautionary drama would be perfect for his new trio – and it was, resulting in a No. 3 hit and their only Top 40 single.
A reworked, more heavily percussive “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (not emulating either the Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight and the Pips versions) was first considered for the Tempts, too. Some familiar non-Motown covers rounded out the album. The sultry “California Soul,” written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, was introduced by The Messengers in 1967, popularized by The 5th Dimension in 1968, and then surveyed at Motown by Edwin Starr, The Miracles, and the pair of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; jazz vocalist Marlena Shaw also memorably recorded it. The Truth poached the 5th’s songbook again for a curiously subdued “Aquarius,” from Broadway’s Hair, without erasing memory of the earlier group’s chart-topping rendition. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was doubtless the most offbeat choice; the trio handled it with aplomb, if largely without Dylan’s trademark venom.
The Undisputed Truth followed up their debut with 1972’s Face to Face with the Truth. As that album has already appeared on CD, compiler Tony Rounce declined to include it here, but its two single A-sides (a cover of “You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth” by – who else, The Temptations – and Whitfield/Strong “What It Is”) and one subsequent B-side pulled from the album (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) have been included.
Law of the Land arrived in 1973 as the group’s third long-player. (Unfortunately, it’s been split here by side, one on each disc.) All but three songs were cover versions, though one original was a doozy. That was, of course, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Harris, Evans, and Calvin sang it with fire, matched by Van De Pitte’s rousing arrangement. Yet while it was on the charts, Whitfield was already back in the studio re-cutting it in an even grittier version for…The Temptations, and creating an all-time classic in the process. “Girl, You’re Alright” was written for the solo David Ruffin before it was reassigned to the Truth. Produced not by Whitfield but by his friend Clay McMurray, it’s a breezily uptempo love song that should have fared better on the charts (it “Bubbled Under” on the Hot 100 and made the top fifty R&B.) The third original, “Mama, I Got a Brand New Thing,” intertwined the group’s three voices in a taut, funky setting.
Of the many covers, the urgent, Whitfield-written, Tempts-bred “Law of the Land” was another scorcher. That group’s sweet ballad “Just My Imagination,” a 1971 No. 1 featuring Eddie Kendricks, got a new treatment from the Truth at their smoothest. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ dramatic “This Child Needs Its Father” and Rare Earth’s “If I Die” were more off-the-beaten path choices. Whitfield looked outside of Motown for Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s smash “Killing Me Softly” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” both led by Evans. (The latter has a particularly strong vocal arrangement.) Other tracks came via Al Green (“Love and Happiness”), Traffic via Joe Cocker (“Feelin’ Alright”), and The Beatles, also via Cocker (“With a Little Help from My Friends”). With so little in the way of original material, it’s no surprise that Law of the Land was a commercial disappointment. It did mark the end of two eras, however, as one of the final albums to be fully recorded by Motown in Detroit, and also as the final album from the original line-up.
The 1974 Down to Earth LP, the third and final album on this set, found Calvin and Evans out, and Virginia McDonald, Tyrone Douglas, Tyrone Berkeley and Calvin Stephenson (all of Westbound recording artists The Magictones) in. This quintet roster edged the Truth in an, edgier P-Funk-esque direction; this influence would be key in their subsequent tenure at Whitfield Records. Only seven new tracks were on the album, padded by four previously released tracks. (As all of those tracks are elsewhere on this collection, they have been cut from the Down to Earth sequence.) The lead single “Help Yourself,” sung by Harris and McDonald, was just one of the album’s tracks to feature an early drum machine, lending the Los Angeles-recorded Down to Earth a very different feel than its predecessors. The tough “Big John is My Name,” also recorded by Rare Earth on the Whitfield-produced Ma LP, and the soulful cover of Hot Chocolate and Stories’ “Brother Louie” also prominently featured the drum machine. Whitfield’s sleek, vibrant “I’m a Fool for You” also found the new group on sure footing.
In a more mellow vein, McDonald and the group tackled Ruby and the Romantics’ languid “Our Day Will Come” as well as Chicago’s ballad “Just You ‘n’ Me,” both in dynamic Paul Riser arrangements. If the new tracks established that the new Undisputed Truth was far away from the classic Hitsville, USA sound, the latter briefly rekindled it with rich harmonies, horns, and strings. What would an album from the Truth be without a Temptations song? Here, Whitfield delivered 1964’s joyful “The Girl’s Alright with Me” in a new recording arranged by Mark Davis.
Down to Earth was issued in the U.K. on Tamla Motown with a couple of additional tracks (“Let’s Go Back to Day One,” also recorded by Eddie Kendricks, and the non-LP single “Gonna Keep on Tryin’ Till I Win Your Love”), both of which are included among the bonus material here. Tony Rounce has provided the informative essay in the typically deluxe 24-page booklet (with annotations by Keith Hughes) and Duncan Cowell has superbly remastered.
The Undisputed Truth was never able to top the success of “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” perhaps due to the over-reliance by producer Whitfield on previously recorded songs. But nonetheless, the group left behind a small but potent body of work that deserves a greater standing within the Motown firmament. Thanks to Nothing But the Truth, that discography can now be re-evaluated and enjoyed anew. Let’s hope the group’s final two Motown albums are on the way next!
The Undisputed Truth, Nothing But the Truth (Ace/Kent CDTOP2 469, 2017) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
- You Got the Love I Need
- Save My Love for a Rainy Day
- Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)
- Smiling Faces Sometimes
- We’ve Got a Way Out Love
- Since I’ve Lost You
- Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone
- I Heard It Through the Grapevine
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Law of the Land
- Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
- Girl You’re Alright
- Killing Me Softly with His Song
- Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
- This Child Needs Its Father
- Mama I Gotta Brand New Thing (Don’t Say No)
- Feelin’ Alright?
- Love and Happiness
- With a Little Help from My Friends
- If I Die
- Walk On By
- Help Yourself
- Big John is My Name
- Brother Louie
- I’m a Fool for You
- Our Day Will Come
- Just You ‘n’ Me
- The Girl’s Alright with Me
- Let’s Go Back to Day One
- What It Is (Single Version)
- What’s Going On (Single Edit)
- You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell (Here on Earth) (Single Edit)
- Gonna Keep on Tryin’ Till I Win Your Love
- Law of the Land (Single Version)
CD 1, Tracks 1-11 from The Undisputed Truth, Gordy GS 955L, 1971
CD 1, Tracks 12-17 and CD 2, Tracks 1-6 from Law of the Land, Gordy G 963L, 1973
CD 2, Tracks 7-13 from Down to Earth, Gordy G968 S1, 1974
CD 2, Track 14 from Tamla Motown LP STML 1277, 1975
CD 2, Track 15 from Gordy single G 7114F, 1972
CD 2, Track 16 from Gordy single G 7134F, 1972
CD 2, Track 17 from Gordy single G 7112F, 1971
CD 2, Track 18 from Gordy single G 7124F, 1973
CD 2, Track 19 from Gordy single G 7130F, 1973