‘ You broke my heart ’cause I couldn’t dance
You didn’t even want me around
And now I’m back to let you know
I can really shake ’em down!’ (Berry Gordy)
Roma uno die non est condita.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It takes time to found a mighty Empire that will conquer all the known world.
So, from the founding of Rome (let’s say 753BC) to the final defeat of Carthage it was all of 600 years.
It is therefore somewhat remarkable it took Berry Gordy less than a decade from the founding of Motown in 1959 to establish an Empire that colonised the hearts and souls of music fans from Addis Abbaba to Zanzibar and Zagreb!
An $800 loan from his family became a multi, multi million dollar record company which would record songs that will last as long as we have Spirits that need lifting, hearts that need stirring (or consolation) and hips that just gotta move.
First, get yourself a base that you own.
Let’s show our ambition and call this base, ‘Hitsville USA’.
A Studio come Clubhouse where your singers and musicians can find competition and camaraderie 24 hours a day (acording to legend the local beat cop thought 2648 West Grand Drive Boulevard must be an all hours drinking den given the numbers of shady looking characters turning up at all hours of the day and night).
Next get yourself a live and play in the Basement group of musicians with Jazz chops who can fashion a wholly new sound – which is not jazz, not old school R&B, Blues or Rock n’ Roll.
Let’s call them The Funk Brothers and let’s have one of them, James Jamerson on Bass, be a fully fledged genius who will add grace and depth to every recording he ever plays on.
Let’s have a slogan calling that sound, ‘The Sound of Young America’ and let’s make so many great records that the slogan will became an every day reality on the airwaves and the charts.
And, we don’t mean, in still highly segregated America, the Black Music Charts .
No, no, no.
We mean the Pop Music charts.
Where the real money is to be made.
Open for Business and cast a cool appraising eye on all the would be stars who beat a path to your door.
This kid Smokey Robinson’s a Keeper – he’s got a notebook with hundreds of songs and he can sing ’em like a bird and work the Recording Desk too!
Not that I can’t write and produce myself.
You ever heard, ‘Reet Petite’ or, ‘Lonely Teardrops’?
Big Hits but Berry didn’t get the money!
Not going to happen again!
So, in 1960, New Frontier!, we get our first hit.
Barrett Strong with, ‘Money’ (bunch of English guys in Hamburg called The Beatles will learn a lot playing that one!).
Then Smokey comes up with, ‘Shop Around’ and by the end of the year we got a Million Seller!
Here comes 1961 and we get ourselves our first Pop Number One!
The Marvellettes, ‘Please Mr Postman’.
I got my eyes and ears on that Brian Holland – there’s a lot more hits where that came from!
Early ’62 I figure we need to find a song like, ‘Twist and Shout’ that will have all the White Kids, all the Black Kids and everybody who ain’t tied to a chair out on the floor and running down to the record store to lay down their cash.
Let’s call it, ‘Do You Love Me’.
I thought it might suit The Temptations but maybe they just sing too well for this one (I got big plans for them later).
So, what about The Contours?
Probably the best dancers of anyone who ever came through these doors!
Come to think of it Billy Gordon got a, ‘Wake the Dead and get ’em up Dancin” Voice if I ever heard one!
Next time they come through I’m gonna sit down at the piano and teach them the song one evening and record it the next day.
Gonna tell James to drive this one like a runaway train.
None of his fancy jazz licks – nail that backbeat to the Basement floor!
Of course, when Benny Benjamin is behind the Drums, the record is going to sound immense.
Maybe I’ll start with a spoken intro and then let The Funk Brothers explode and tell Billy I don’t want him to be able to sing this song a second time ’cause I want him to tear his throats to shreds the first time!
Ok – let’s go!
Now, if that ain’t shaking ’em down I don’t know what is!
The Funk Brothers never let up and Billy Gordon’s lead vocal comes at you like a tidal wave.
Hubert Johnson, Billy Higgs, Joe Billingslea and Sylvester Potts make up a chorus that has an irresitble goofball charm. The trilling guitar comes from Huey Davis.
When I’ve managed to master some skill which has previously eluded me (and there’s a lot of them!) I just can’t stop myself singing, ‘I’ m back and I can really shake ’em down – Watch me now!’.
I love the corny spoken introduction, the false ending, the references to the Mashed Potato and The Twist and the bullfrog, ‘Um, Bom, Bom, Bom, brrrmm’ backing vocals.
Of course Berry got his hit!
Top 5 in every Chart and well over a Million copies sold.
They say it was the fastest selling single in the history of Motown.
Malheureusement, it was the pinnacle of The Contours career though they did make a handful of other excellent recordings.
They were simply too low down in the pecking order of Motown Vocal Groups.
And, when you consider they were up against the likes of The Four Tops and The Tempatations that is hardly to be wondered at.
There’s almost always been a version of the group out there driving a crowd crazy with, ‘Do You Love Me’.
And, by some mysterious alignment of the heavens, in 1987 the song gained a wholly unexpected new lease of life through being featured in the world wide hit film. ‘Dirty Dancing’ (even if they did, disgracefully, chop off the ending!).
One of the versions of The Contours got to go on a world tour and enjoy the big time once again.
Not so, for poor Billy Gordon.
For Billy died in poverty after spending time in prison (bizarrely with one time colleague Joe Billingslea being a Corrections Officer in the Prison!).
So it goes. So it goes.
Yet, every day someone, somewhere, has their life lit up by hearing Billy intone:
‘You broke my heart ’cause I couldn’t dance
You didn’t even want me around
And now I’m back to let you know
I can really shake ’em down!‘
And then, if they’ve got any blood in their veins they’ll go stone crazy for the next two and a half minutes.
Watch me Now!
Dedicated to :
Billy Gordon (RIP)
Sylvester Potts (RIP)
Hubert Johnson (RIP)
Huey Davis (RIP)
James Jamerson (RIP)
Benny Benjamin (RIP)
Britain’s Ace Records has two excellent complications documenting The Contours recorded legacy.
Tracks to look out for –
‘First I Look at the Purse’
‘Whole Lotta Woman’
‘Just A Little Misunderstanding’