Posts Tagged ‘Martha & The Vandellas’

On Summers Gone

May 13, 2022

Originally posted July 31, 2009

I’ve been trying for an hour now to write something meaningful about how it felt to be a kid in summertime. And I’m not sure that what I remember is really how it felt. There is a tendency, a temptation, to put a nostalgic and meaningful glaze on all the memories and perceptions of childhood and youth (a temptation I frequently find difficult to resist), as if the only purpose of being a child in the 1960s was to provide memories for us in later life.

That’s not how it was, of course. We didn’t run through our summer days constantly thinking how fine our memories of those days would someday be. Oh, there were times, special days, when the thought came: I hope I remember this forever. And I do remember thinking that at times, but sadly and ironically, I don’t recall in any of those cases what it was that I hoped to remember.

I do remember games: We boys – with a few girls, now and then – would play workup baseball in the street during the day and into the late afternoon. After dinner, as the evening approached, all of us – boys and girls alike – would play games like “Kick the Can,” a hide-and-seek type game. We played across a territory that ranged widely around the neighborhood, with some yards in play and others – generally those of folks who had no kids – not in play. That would go on until the very last light of the day was fading and the streetlights came on. Then, in ones and twos, kids would make their ways home.

At other times, we – generally Rick and I – might make our way to the grocery store half a block away on Fifth Avenue. We’d dither over the best investment for our pennies and nickels, maybe buy some Dubble Bubble or Sour Grapes bubble gum. Or maybe we’d buy one of those balsa wood gliders that – with luck – flew loops in the backyard air without getting stuck in the trees.

We were unconcerned, for the most part, with the events and realities of life beyond Kilian Boulevard and the southeast side. I, being who I’ve always been, followed the news at least a little, but the accounts I read of the civil rights movement, and of war and unrest in a place called Vietnam, didn’t touch us. Not then, in the first half of the 1960s.

We got older, and one by one, the older kids quit playing the summer games we’d always played. And one summer, sometime in the latter half of the 1960s, Rick and I were the older kids, and the younger kids were playing their own games. With a figurative shrug, we went off and did something else.

Many things about those summertimes are hazy, with specific memories replaced by generalities. But one thing I know: As I made my way from being one of the little kids to being one of the older kids, I was aware of summertime music. I remember how it seemed like the volume was turned up during those three months. Even in the very early years, I heard music during summer that I evidently chose to ignore the rest of the year.

Some Summertime Hits From Motown
 “Heat Wave” by Martha & The Vandellas, Gordy 7022 (No. 4, 1963)
“Smiling Faces Sometimes” by the Undisputed Truth, Gordy 7108 (No. 3, 1971)
“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations, Gordy 7054 (No. 13, 1966)
“I Was Made To Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, Tamla 54151 (No. 2, 1967)
“It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops, Motown 1081 (No. 5, 1965)
 “I’ll Keep Holding On” by the Marvelettes, Tamla 54116 (No. 34, 1965)
“You Beat Me To The Punch” by Mary Wells, Motown 1032 (No. 9, 1962)
“The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5, Motown 116 (No. 1, 1970)
“Where Did Our Love Go” by the Supremes, Motown 1051 (No. 1, 1964)
“The Tracks Of My Tears” by the Miracles, Tamla 54118 (No. 16, 1965)

When selecting from the massive Motown/Gordy/Tamla catalog, it’s comforting to have a few rules in place. Given my framework here of choosing only songs that entered the Top 40 in June, July or August, as well as choosing one song per performer/group, I thought I did pretty well.

Many of these, of course, came out in the years before I paid much attention to rock, pop or R&B, but Motown’s best work – like a lot of the great music of the time – was part of the environment. Wherever we went, there were radios, and wherever radios were, you heard the tunes of the time. I’m not saying I heard all of these when they were on the radio regularly, but I know I heard most of them, and for today, that’s close enough.

Summer Enrichment

January 16, 2015

Originally posted June 10, 2009

Summertime in the early and mid-1960s wasn’t just for fun. There was school, too. Every summer, from the time I was six until I was, oh, fourteen, I went to summer school to learn about stuff I didn’t get a chance to learn about during the school year.

Sometimes that was okay, as those things went. I remember taking Spanish for a couple of summers. (The only thing that has stayed with me is “Hola, Paco! Que tal?” I think that translates loosely into “How goes it, Joe?” and is a fairly useless bit of knowledge.) I took a class in World War II history and a couple of drama workshops. Those came during the last few years of summer school, when I was in junior high school. My first summer school experiences came on the campus at St. Cloud State.

There was, at the time, an elementary school on campus, the Campus Laboratory School, which the School of Education used to help train teachers. Like the public schools, the Lab School’s academic year ended in spring, but the college had classes year-round. So in order to have elementary students for the college education students to teach, the Campus Lab ran summer school programs. And I was one of the laboratory subjects for a couple of summers very early during my elementary school days. I remember very little of the subjects we covered during those eight week-sessions. But I remember the oddness of being in a different school, with different types of furnishings than we had at Lincoln Elementary (which reflected, though I did not know this, a different and more experimental approach to education than was used in the public schools). The Campus Lab School seemed like an alien environment, fascinating but unsettling as well.

I also recall a portion of two summers spent in classes at Washington Elementary, on the city’s south side. These particular summer gatherings were called “enrichment” programs and took place, I think, during the summers after fourth and fifth grades, in 1963 and 1964. Just a few kids from each of the city’s elementary schools – those judged to have the most academic potential – were pulled into the program each summer. (Not being certain of current educational lingo, I imagine we’d be called “gifted” these days.) During one of those two summers, our class studied the state of Alaska: its history, culture, geography, the whole works. Among our projects during the summer was to build – with flexible wood strips for the frame, covered with white paper – an igloo.

There is, in one of the boxes of stuff I’ve carried with me over the years, a newspaper clipping with a picture of that summer school class posing by its igloo. There, at the right end of the front row, with brutally short hair and a pair of new black-rimmed glasses, is a little whiteray.

Fourth Grade Summer Enrichment Class at Washington Elementary, St. Cloud, Summer 1963.

The kids around me from St. Cloud’s other schools were still no more than friendly strangers, but a couple of years ago, I looked at the picture for the first time in years, and I realized that almost all of those kids were the ones that populated my classes in high school, in the college prep program. We were our grade’s version, God help us, of the best and the brightest. That doesn’t alter the fact that I looked like a dork.

As I said, I think that was in either 1963 or 1964. So here are some tunes from early June in the first of those two years.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, June 15, 1963)
“It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, Mercury 72119 (No. 2)
“Come And Get These Memories” by Martha & the Vandellas, Gordy 7014 (No. 32)
“Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” by Rolf Harris, Epic 9596 (No. 58)
“Six Days On The Road” by Dave Dudley, Golden Wing 3020 (No. 75)
“Detroit City” by Bobby Bare, RCA 8183 (No. 87)
“Needles and Pins” by Jackie DeShannon, Liberty 55563 (No. 114)

One of these six was omnipresent enough for me to remember hearing it frequently, though I was not a pop-radio listener, and another of them was quirky enough for me to recall it. The single that was everywhere was, of course, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” which had spent the previous two weeks at No. 1. (Oddly enough, the record was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart.) How omnipresent was it? Well, my sister rarely bought current singles. When seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore’s first single hit, however, my sister went out and got herself a copy of it. But it wasn’t just our house: The record had such an amazingly simple and effective hook – “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.” – that it couldn’t help but insinuate itself into the broader grown-up culture that existed parallel to teen culture of the time. To put it more simply, even adults knew the record, and that was a rare thing at that time.

The other of these six that I recall hearing was the silly “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” by Aussie Rolf Harris. Being nine and unaware of Aussie usage, however, I struggled with the meaning of the title. Why did the singer want himself tied down? Like a kangaroo? As catchy as the song was, it didn’t make any sense to me. I just didn’t understand the song (and that was certainly not the last time that’s happened over the years). Harris’ record eventually climbed into the Top 40 and stayed there for nine weeks, peaking at No. 3. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits notes that the record was No. 1 for three weeks on the Adult Contemporary Chart, and that makes me wonder when the AC chart started. I’d always thought it was far more recent than that. (Someone out there knows the answer, I’m sure.)

“Come And Get These Memories” was the first hit for Martha Reeves and her girls, who ended up having twelve records reach the Top 40 between 1963 and 1967. During the second week of June, “Memories” was sliding back down the chart, having peaked at No. 29 a week earlier. The record was well-done but sounded pretty much the same as a lot of girl group records, to my ears. That would change for Martha and the Vandellas with their next hit, as “Heat Wave” exploded out of the speakers and into the Top Ten in August.

I’ve shared Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” here before, but it was a year and a half ago, and that’s an eternity in blogtime. At that time, I decided that Dudley’s hit was likely the most influential record ever recorded in Minnesota, and nothing I’ve heard or read since then has changed that view. The record spent just four weeks in the Top 40 and peaked at No. 32, but it went to No. 2 on the country chart and – as I noted in the earlier post – was the granddaddy of a whole lot of songs about truckers and their rigs. (Does that mean that without “Six Days,” there might have been no “Convoy” in 1975? I tend to think so.)

Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” which is about as country as they came in 1963, is another song that falls neatly into a genre. I imagine you could call it the “Wizard of Oz” or “There’s No Place Like Home” genre. In Bare’s song, it’s the story of the boy who left home for better things in the city and found out, sadly, that home is better. There are, I imagine, hundreds of such songs (nominations, anyone?), but I doubt if any of them are as twangy as Bare’s. The song, written by Mel Tillis, was first titled “I Wanna Go Home,” and was a No. 18 hit on the country chart for Billy Grammer in early 1963. Bare’s retitled version went to No. 6 on the country chart and peaked at No. 16 on the pop chart.

“Needles and Pins” is far better known as a record by the Searchers (No. 13 in the spring of 1964), but Jackie DeShannon was – according to Wikipedia – the first to record the song, written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. DeShannon’s version peaked at No. 84, but Wikipedia notes that it reached the top of the charts in English Canada, going to No. 1 on the chart issued by Toronto radio station CHUM. While the Searchers might have had the hit (as did Tom Petty with Stevie Nicks in 1986), I’ve always liked DeShannon’s version a little bit more, with its very obvious Wall of Sound influence.

Revised slightly and picture added March 30, 2015.

‘That’s Why I’ve Traveled Far . . .’

September 23, 2010

We had no reason to go to Finland except to say we’d been in Finland. But a stay of less than twenty-four hours in a small northern town there led to what I suppose was the grand romantic gesture of my life.

It was April of 1974, and John the Mad Australian and I were riding the trains north from Stockholm, Sweden, heading to Narvik, Norway. Narvik was the end of the line, as far north as one could ride a train in Western Europe. Our plan was to travel overnight from Stockholm to the city of Boden, Sweden, where we would take a side trip, changing to a train that headed east to Finland, first to the border town of Tornio, and then on to the city of Kemi.

Why the detour? For me, it was just to be able to say that I’d been to Finland, I guess. I wasn’t looking for anything more adventurous than a moderate language barrier and a good beer. Nor was John, whom I’d met in Stockholm and who was tagging along companionably during my tour of the far north. “I’ve never been there, so I may as well go,” had pretty much been his attitude since we’d met over breakfast at the train station in Stockholm a couple days earlier.

So from Boden, we traveled on through Haparanda, Sweden (and the customs house where we’d be detained a day later, but that’s another story), across the Tornio River and into Finland, then through the city of Tornio and on to Kemi, maybe twenty miles further on. We found ourselves a room at a nearby hotel, stashed our backpacks and walked into Kemi’s downtown, looking for the local equivalent of a burger and a beer. The downtown area wasn’t large – Kemi has a population of 22,000 these days, and I imagine it was a little smaller then – but it was baffling, as neither John nor I spoke or read Finnish.

So we peered into windows as we walked among the shops, looking for a place that looked like a café. After some false starts, we found one, and at the counter, we each ordered the item on the menu that most closely resembled “hamburger” and we pointed at what appeared to be – and were – bottles of beer in the cooler. Thus armed with refreshment, we found an empty table, and over our dinner, John began to wonder if we could find a pair of young women to take dancing or at least to join for conversation.

He began to assess the potential of the several pairs of young women in the restaurant, and as he did, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The two young women at the table next to us understood English well and were trying very hard not to laugh at us. I nodded at them, smiling a little sheepishly, and then I interrupted John in mid-soliloquy. “John,” I told him, “the young ladies at the next table understand English. They’re very amused.”

He looked at them and grinned, and moments later, we’d joined them at their table. The four of us finished our meals over introductions – they were Leena (pronounced Lay-na) and Ritva – and then we all went off to a nearby downstairs bar for further refreshment.

We never did dance. I spent those few hours talking mostly with Leena while John chatted with Ritva. We talked about school – she would soon complete the Finnish equivalent of high school – and about music and about life in Finland and in the United States. She’d been an exchange student in Michigan for a year, and I told her that parts of Michigan were very much like portions of Minnesota. We exchanged addresses and talked about families. Her birthday was approaching – she would be twenty – and she asked about mine. I told her the date – September 5 – and she asked, “So doesn’t that make you a virgin?”

It took me a stunned moment or two to realize she was talking about Virgo, my sign of the Zodiac. I stammered a response that was supposed to be witty and failed, and we shifted topics and talked on for another hour or so. Near the end of that hour, at about the time she said she and Ritva had to leave, I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed back, and a few minutes later, she and Ritva were gone.

John and I went back to our hotel, and the next morning, we returned to Sweden and eventually made our way north to Narvik and then south to Oslo, Norway, where we parted. He headed for the fjords at Bergen, and I went back to Denmark and – three weeks later – Minnesota. About two weeks after I got home, I got a letter from Finland. Leena apologized for asking me if I were a virgin, explaining that she simply got her English confused. I wrote back, telling her that after a moment of surprise, I’d known what she’d meant and that I took no offense.

A few weeks later, another letter arrived, and I answered, and for almost five years, letters went back and forth between St. Cloud and Kemi, between St. Cloud and Oulu – where Leena went to university – and Monticello and Oulu. Then a letter lay too long unanswered on one of our desks – probably mine – and the letters dwindled and then stopped.

Before they stopped, however, I startled her. As our friendship grew via the mail, we’d occasionally brought up the idea of meeting again and seeing if we cared about each other as much in person as it seemed we did through letters. Being in a slow spot in my life – lots of first dates but not much more than that – I tumbled that idea around in my head, polishing it like a jewel. And during the spring and summer of 1975, I slowly came to the conclusion that I should write a letter to Leena proposing marriage.

Never mind the countless practical details. I knew they were there, but I figured there was no point in examining them unless there were a reason to do so. I mentioned the idea to a few carefully selected friends, and they were supportive, noting that I should be prepared for disappointment. I understood; I knew that there was little likelihood of her accepting my offer. But I also knew that I didn’t want to wake up some morning in 2010, look at the life around me and wonder what might have been if I’d been brave and foolish back in 1975. So in September and October, I spent several evenings in the quiet snack bar at Atwood Center, drafting and redrafting my letter. Finally satisfied, I mailed it sometime in late October; the “thunk” as the mailbox closed was one of the loudest sounds in my life.

She said “No,” of course. I wasn’t surprised. Had she said “Yes,” I would have had to reorder my life, and I would have done so gladly. But the chances of that had been slender, and I passed the news to my friends and then to my family. (None of my family had any idea I’d proposed to Leena until I received her reply.) And I moved on.

So why bring this up now? Because one evening in the spring of 1975, as my grand romantic gesture was in its formative stages, I mentioned it to a young ladyfriend, asking her thoughts. She went to her stereo, put Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees on the turntable and played me the second track on side two:

And I heard, as my friend intended, “That’s why I’ve traveled far, ’cause I come so together where you are.” And it’s appropriate I connect my tale with the record, with the Fleetwood Mac hit that might have been but never was. It was issued as a single by Reprise, but went nowhere although writer Bob Welch got a No. 8 hit out of an inferior remake in 1978. But in another universe, the original version of “Sentimental Lady” was a hit. And in another universe . . . well, I’m happy with the universe I’m in. I’m glad I wrote the letter I wrote. I’m glad I got the response I expected. And I don’t have to wake up tomorrow morning and wonder what might have happened.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 35
“Dancing in the Street” by Martha & the Vandellas, Gordy 7033 [1964]
“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, Motown 1104 [1967]
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw from The Spice of Life [1969]
“God, Love and Rock & Roll by Teegarden & Van Winkle, Westbound 170 [1970]
“Sentimental Lady” by Fleetwood Mac from Bare Trees [1972]
“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978]

The riches of Motown continually astound me, and I imagine I’m not alone in that. I mean, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and the young Michael Jackson, and that’s just the very top of the mountain. Great songs, great performers, great studio musicians and great production all leave not much more to be said, except that “Dancing in the Street” went to No. 2 in autumn of 1964, and “Bernadette” went to No. 4 in the spring of 1967.

I wrote about “California Soul” once before, using Marlena Shaw’s version as a take-off point, and a few readers chimed into a discussion of the merits of their favorite versions of the song. I’ve not heard a bad version of the tune – although I’m certain there is at least one out there if I were bent on finding it – but I return to Shaw’s for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s the first version I heard of the tune, and first versions tend to stay in my head longer – not always, but frequently. And second, I’m pulled in by the dry wit in her voice as she sings of the glories of the Golden State, which gives her vocal a sense of, oh, amusement at the folks who’ve come looking for that soul she sings about. Or maybe that’s just the way she sings. Either way, it sticks with me.

Listen to Teegarden & Van Winkle now:

Cheer the light
Still the fires
Raise your voice for
God, love, and rock and roll

We that fear
The way is clear
The day has come for
God, love, and rock and roll

Sing your song
We all belong
Now’s the time for
God, love, and rock and roll

’Nuff said, I think, except to note that Teegarden & Van Winkle took “God, Love And Rock & Roll” to No. 22 in the autumn of 1970.

“The Promised Land” is the third and final record by Bruce Springsteen in the Ultimate Jukebox, and that’s one more than anyone else has. Does that mean that Springsteen has taken over the top spot in my all-time rankings of performers and bands? I’m not at all sure. When I started sifting through more than 40,000 mp3s – and paging through reference books to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any essential tunes that weren’t in the RealPlayer – I would have made bets that Bob Dylan or the Beatles or The Band would have had more tracks than anyone else. That it was Springsteen, and that his three tracks came from two of his early albums – the other tracks were “Born to Run” and “Badlands” – tells me only that at the moment I was sifting through the tunes from 1975 and 1978, those three jumped out at me. I imagine that if I were to start over, my 228 tunes for this project would look very different. Would those three Springsteen titles still be there? Probably. As I trimmed and trimmed songs from the list, I kept finding that I could not trim off any of those three Springsteen tunes, for different reasons: “Born to Run” for its place in history and its ambition, “Badlands” because it was the first Springsteen record I ever knowingly heard, and “The Promised Land” for its harmonica and for the words: “Mister, I ain’t a poet boy, I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.”

The original isn’t available on YouTube, and I can’t embed what I found there this morning, but here’s a link to a kick-ass performance of the song in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002.