Thursday, April 6, 2017

Searching For Light: Jimmy Ruffin: "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"

"I'm outspoken, I wasn't part of the clique." - Jimmy Ruffin

You may well be wondering what a Motown song from 1966 is doing in the 1974 chart, but as it stands, British radio has had its struggles with Motown for some time. 

In 1966, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" got to #10, at the point late in the year where the tide for new, interesting music was turning from the UK and back to the US; just months before the pirate stations were to close, and Radio One was to begin.  In the late 60s a reissue series of Motown singles that were never big hits when they were first issued began via Dave Godin*, who worked for the distribution arm for Motown in the UK; and Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman were only too happy to play these alongside the fresh Motown songs, in a belief that these songs deserved more airplay, sales and general respect.**

This song was rereleased (possibly by Godin; I am not sure of this) and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, #4 on the UK chart.  Which is only right for such a (and I don't use this word loosely) majestic song

And yet it has, as I keep thinking, something a bit rough about it too.  Ruffin grew up poor, singing in the church alongside his brother David, and went into the army for a time, then worked in a factory, and after an injury took up work at Motown, singing for sessions, doing singles that were on the Motown subsidiary Miracle, while his brother joined The Temptations (a job he had turned down).  He heard this song, written by William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean, and heard The Spinners were to record it - the song resonated with him, and he managed to convince them that he should record it instead. 

Though not on the single version, there is a spoken introduction:

A world filled with love is a wonderful sight.
Being in love is one's heart's delight.
But that look of love isn't on my face.
That enchanted feeling has been replaced.
The song was produced by Smokey Robinson, and Ruffin's voice is dignified, direct, unironic.  And the Andantes and Originals are there too, because this is one man's witness to a crowd, a congregation; though it is not a protest song explicitly, there is an inescapable sense that what he has suffered has been suffered by others, due to the many voices, voices who have growing needs but only experience is of an "unhappy ending."  Ruffin didn't want to be part of a group, and his tenor voice is too distinctive to blend in happily.  It is a voice of a man who is average, but outspoken; a man who went to the UK and Europe to work when things dried up in the US. 

The misery in this song is absolute - he is "cold and alone" and while he sees love growing everywhere for others, it does not exist for him.  There are The Andantes and The Originals testifying to this, and there they are encouraging him to keep going, to keep searching in the darkness for light;  the song's title, which is something of a question, is that the brokenhearted either give up to the bleakness or they have the faith (have to have it) to find a way out, to find someone who will care.  He is a seer; he has visions; and at first these are troubling, but he also walks towards something positive, even if he can't see it, he knows it's there.

Was this a hit in the UK of 1974 as people wanted to feel acknowledged in their hapless sense of "always moving but going nowhere"? Well, we are in the time of The Fog and the bewilderment many must have felt is echoed in this song. But the narrator is not going to "make do and mend" or "keep calm and carry on" or anything like that; he is restless, he is in pain, and passive suffering is of no use to him.  Though he may be anguished, he is active; as active as the opposite Motown song of the time, "Reach Out I'll Be There."

That this song would be covered by Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone*** in 1981 as an anti-Thatcher protest and be a hit (I like to think Ruffin appreciated this; it was his favorite cover version) is one thing to note; that Ruffin did a version of it in Italian called "Se Decidi Cosi"**** is another.  It was made a hit all over again for Paul Young in 1991, and memorably performed in the 2002 Motown doc Standing In The Shadows Of Motown by Joan Osborne. 

But what of Motown on British radio now?  (By this I mean 60s Motown, of course.)  Tony Blackburn does a "soul and Motown" show on digital radio and it is mixed up with random 80s soul and he no doubt plays some on his other shows (he has so many now and Motown is always a part of them).  But where else does it get played?  Is it doomed simply to be comfort food radio for those who remember being young at the time?  (Always with the idea, looming in the background, that everything has gotten worse since, including the music?) 

As the 60s disappear from the radio*****, Motown persists, but it is only as a sound, not as a meaning or as anything other than "the hits."  Northern Soul still gets played, I suppose, but what of Deep Soul, that of which Dave Godin was most proud?  That is perhaps too much for UK radio, and as so much US music tends to be, left to specialist broadcasters, while regular radio clings for dear life to the chart, as if to keep utter chaos from breaking out.  So much fine music being missed out, yet again; and what will become of it?

As for Jimmy Ruffin, he sang on miner's strike benefit single "Soul Deep" by the Council Collective as he knew about the struggles of the working man; and he would have had another hit with Stock, Aitken & Waterman's "Roadblock" but his vocal was left off to make it more mysterious.  But this is the song that has persisted; and whatever the cause, I am glad it got a second chance in the UK, much as Ruffin did.

Next up:  back to Canada.

*Dave Godin also coined the terms Northern Soul and Deep Soul, more on which anon.

**"Dancing In The Street" originally got to #28 in the UK in 1964 (when "Little Red Rooster" by The Rolling Stones was #1 - Dave Godin didn't think much of that, I bet); but with the push of Godin et. al., it got to #4 in 1969, for example.

***It was originally supposed to be Robert Wyatt, but he was busy working with Scritti Politti at the time. 

****"So If You Decide"

*****Radio Two's Sounds of the 60s now comes on at 6am on Saturday and is determinedly upbeat cheery stuff, as presented by Tony Blackburn.  The previous host, Brian Matthew, was dismissed only a few weeks ago and recently was taken to hospital, and mistakenly reported as dead by the BBC.  As of this writing he is still alive. 


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Road That Sometimes Bends: The Stylistics: "You Make Me Feel Brand New"

First, a short explanation as to why there has been a pause here – apart from various holidays and birthdays, there was the rather traumatic Saturday when I came home from work, to find Marcello agitated.  By now I am used to the misery and agitation upon the announcement of a death of a musician, and a song produced by Thom Bell was playing in the background, so I naturally assumed the worst, only to be told no, Mr. Bell was very much alive.  It was only after a bit of prodding that he told me that a man who had been inspired to blog (in part) due to Marcello’s own blogging had died the previous day, by his own hand.  That man was Mark Fisher, a man I had only met once, and then only briefly, at that.  I had attended the Deep Listening Club, noting coolly that I was the only woman there, and was nearly the only woman another gathering where I half-whimsically suggested the next Deep Listening Club be Charles Spearin’s The HappinessProject. 

There was no second Deep Listening Club though.  I can relate only a few impressions of what he was like here:  nervous, enthusiastic, sensitive.  I got the idea he had his own tastes and views that had very little to do with my own (I am not especially interested in the eerie or weird, for instance).  His creating the website Dissensus and then leaving it behind are both noble gestures however, and unlike others in the circles he was in he was not “one of us” in the sense that he went to a public school, Oxbridge and/or “just happened to be” related to someone of money and importance.*

 If you live in a culture like this day in and day out, you have to be extremely careful, distanced, self-aware and self-protective.  I could not tell, from just meeting him once, how good Fisher was at this, or whether he was capable of it.  This in part is why his loss is so tough.  Marcello decided right then to end Then Play Long, for many different reasons, including the general sense that the "one of us" types have no interest in it whatsoever.

Music Sounds Better With Two, however, has never been about wanting or even really needing too much acceptance for me; it is something I do mostly (though not wholly) for my own understanding of things, with the hopeful by-product of helping others to learn things as well.   

And so, we return to the number two song behind “When Will I See You Again”:  “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by The Stylistics. 

Here we are in August 1974 and for many reasons, which (if you’re an American, especially) the Long National Nightmares are over, or nearly so.  The Fog still exists in the UK however, but look how the charts have shifted.  The Glam Slam is fading away (to be replaced by Queen in the popularity stakes, though Slade and Mud and the chart-observant Rubettes still around), and dance music – of the sort that is now apparently immovable from the Radio Two schedule – is taking over.  The word disco has yet to really become known, but it is well on its way  The beginning of the 70s is over; the Fog still exists as I said, but there are welcoming beams of something else coming from Philadelphia....

To help explain Thom Bell and why he is a genius, you have to understand that he was classically trained and indeed wanted to become a concert pianist/conductor.  He went to New York City with this ambition only to be rejected and told to go to Harlem and the Apollo and find work there.  This was a disappointing turn of events (there were black conductors in the US, but as ever one or two were seen as being “enough” by the Man) and so he went back to Philadelphia and worked as a conductor for Chubby Checker.  After tiring of the Twist, he got to work with a group he refashioned as The Delfonics, writing songs for them as the ones he tried to get for them from labels were so bad, he figured he could do better himself; so he taught himself composition, straight from books.  He had some small successes at first, but with “La-La (Means I Love You)” he had a huge hit**, and became a known figure, winning a Grammy and (along with his friends and work associates Gamble and Huff) began to define the Philadelphia sound. 

After producing and writing for the The Delfonics he then in 1971 moved along to The Stylistics, who he accepted as the voice of Russell Thompkins Jr. was (and is) so strikingly high and distinctive – pure and naive and sharp all at the same time.  And he constructed the near-classical pieces to feature that voice ,though on “You Make Me Feel Brand New” you also hear the voice of Airrion Love.  It is the great contrast between the two that in part makes the song so special.  It is a song of two voices– to have it sung by only one voice seems odd (Mick Hucknall tried and failed, spectacularly).  It is also a song of vulnerability and gratitude, utterly calm and even if Linda Creed does rhyme “friend” with “friend” this just adds to the realism.  That a sitar is in the mix should not be seen as anything other than Bell’s own determination to make his songs sound different (and he knew about the sitar from way before the Beatles made them famous; his West Indies background and experience with exchange students at an early age gave him a musical knowledge others didn’t have). 
This moment of calm and vaguely exotic and strikingly modern bliss was a number two hit on both sides of the Atlantic; it feels utterly grounded in a way and yet soars (due to the two voices) and both Love and Thompkins take it slowly, not showily, somehow fitting in as voices in the general palette but also instruments.  It is a hymn; solemn,  stately and melodic enough to have a reggae cover version (I can only imagine there is one). 
Thom Bell won the very first Producer of the Year Grammy award in 1974 - and I am sure whoever has won it since has looked up to him in some way.***  His genius was to keep pushing ahead and teach himself things when others wouldn't, and to know what he wanted and with the lyrics of Linda Creed in this case, bring a delicate and genuine moment to the charts.  The Stylistics suffered once Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi and worked with The Spinners instead; but along with Charles Stepney (a very different producer, but underrated I feel****) and Maurice White he made some of the very best music of the 70s.  It is music that speaks to the spirit and to the heart.  
Next:  we go back to go forward, so to speak.
And:  thanks for waiting, everyone!


*It may be obvious, but it needs stating:  the “one of us” types who feel entitled to everything have pretty much ruined the UK and everything good about it.  The worst ones are those who act as if they are not “one of us” but actually very much are. 

**He won a Grammy but was only able to see this in person as somehow he wangled his way to get a seat in the room – he wasn’t invited.  The president of the company, not him, accepted the award.  He hasn’t been to a Grammy ceremony since.
*** I can just imagine the temper tantrums in certain quarters when (cough) certain big-headed producers didn't get the award, and weren't even thought of to give it to first. 
****Even if Stepney had only produced this, he would be one of the greatest of all time (also co-wrote it, of course):  Rotary Connection's "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun."