Detroit City

Any attempt to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul in a few meager paragraphs is destined to failure. A few items are worth noting, though. First of all, Detroit was one of the powerhouse cities, if not the powerhouse city, of ‘60s soul. Secondly, it’s impossible to talk about Detroit soul without talking about one label – the label – Motown Records.

It’s easy to forget, but Motown, for all its international scope and finishing-school philosophy, was still fundamentally a Detroit label. Its offices and studios were located in a residential neighborhood in west Detroit. Its staff and stable of singers, groups and session musicians were predominately assembled from post-War Detroit’s burgeoning African-American population – middle class, poor or otherwise.

No other Detroit soul label would ultimately succeed in recreating Motown’s success, of course. Few had a Berry Gordy at the helm, and few could afford either Motown’s business model or its top-to-bottom vision of production. Of the profusion of small, soul-oriented record labels that sprouted during the city’s ‘60s soul boom, few could afford not to be aware of the staggering popularity of Hitsville’s soulful groove, though.

It’s one of the great recurring patterns in America’s independent recording industry: Detroit begat Motown whose unparalleled success in turn begat many more Motown wannabes. First, there were the city’s dozens of recording studios, some housed in small commercial buildings, just as many in the converted residential backrooms and garages of Detroit’s west side neighborhoods. There was the network of innumerable personalities, too – the A&R; men, the producers, the DJs, the promoters, the engineers, the entrepreneurs as well as the singers and musicians, professional and amateur alike – who facilitated everything with varying amounts of scrupulousness.

Finally, there were the labels. Hundreds of them. D-Town, Impact, Inferno, Wheelsville, Soulhawk, Revilot, Marquee, Palmer, LaSalle, Wingate, La Beat, Karen, Thelma: the list goes on and on and on. With one eye cocked to the charts, however, all were ready to capitalize upon a pool of aspiring Detroit singers and groups not otherwise being serviced at Motown. Some labels, like Ric-Tic (with Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O-Soul”) or Golden World (with the Reflections’ “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet”) would enjoy bona fide national hits. Some, like Groovesville, might find a bankable singer in Steve Mancha who would consistently skirt R&B; success without ever scoring that breakout hit. Many, many other labels, the Temples and Enterprises, would barely endure past a single 45 release or two.

Thousands of ‘60s soul productions would come in time to constitute Detroit’s recorded legacy. Wheels turned, smoke billowed, soul records of the highest possible caliber rolled off the line. Careers were made and mishandled, dreams were summoned and smashed to bits. While it may be impossible to encapsulate the history of 1960s Detroit soul, its soul music, if nothing else, was an industry.

Thanks to the invaluable Soulful Detroit for much of this week’s historical information.

1. The Precisions, Such Misery (Drew)
The Precisions were a vocal group formed by Arthur Ashford, Michael Morgan and Dennis Gilmore on the Motor City’s west side, a neighborhood mecca for much of the city’s R&B; talent as well as the site of its densest aggregation of recording studios.

With a few obscure mid-‘60s singles on the prolific Detroit soul and R&B; label D-Town already to their name, the Precisions would go on to add young college student Billy Prince as a lead vocalist in 1967. This selection, the debut release of the reconfigured group, would be the first of five Precisions records on Drew Records, a label whose discography, as it turns out, only included other Precisions records.

“Such Misery” follows faithfully in that time-honored soul music tradition of rallying cries for the broken-hearted. Nothing new there. “Such Misery” is quite striking, however, for its drastic changes in feeling and tempo, its thudding drums and bass the colossal Yang to the celestial Yin of its vibraphone and graceful harmonies.

Two Precisions follow-ups, “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely),” would enjoy moderate success on the R&B; charts. A move in 1969 to the nationally distributed Atco Records (part of the Atlantic Records empire) proved fruitless, though. The Precisions would fold shortly thereafter, theirs a not-atypical story of line-up changes, mismanagement and general vulnerability to an industry where singing talent was seen as the most dispensable part of the equation.

The Precisions reunited in the United Kingdom for 2006’s Prestatyn Weekender, performing, among other selections, “Such Misery,” “Why Girl” and “If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely).”

2. The Fabulous Peps, With These Eyes (Wee 3)
The Fabulous Peps, legendary in the ‘60s for their barnstorming showmanship and choreographed dances, were comprised of a trio of veteran Detroit tenor vocalists, Ronnie Abner, “Little Joe” Harris and Tommy “Storm” Hester.

Initially named the Peps, the group parlayed their live renown and reputation as popular exponents of the Impressions’ falsetto harmony sound into a few well-received releases on local labels like Thelma and Ge Ge in the mid-‘60s. Rechristened the Fabulous Peps, it would be at D-Town Records (with assistance from industry character and former Precisions producer Mike Hanks) that they’d enjoy their most fruitful run of releases.

By the time – 1967, I believe – the Fabulous Peps recorded their original “With These Eyes,” the mood of Detroit’s independent record industry was one of rapidly escalating excitement. Accordingly, details can get a bit hazy. The Fabulous Peps themselves were all over the place, recording more material in Memphis (with either the Hi rhythm section or the Stax rhythm section, depending on who you ask). Their three Memphis records would be released on another brief-lived Detroit soul label, Premium Stuff.

“With These Eyes,” from the same year, would be one of just three soul records on the brief-lived Wee 3 Records and, confusingly, the selection also appeared on yet another Detroit independent soul label, Wheelsville. It’s unclear how “With These Eyes” wound up on two Detroit labels simultaneously. These things just happened.

But for all the details that will likely forever remain obscure, it’s still easy to listen to “With These Eyes” and envision the excitement of the Fabulous Peps’ club show, the gravity-defying spins, flips and splits, the screaming call-and-response vocals, the impossible energy levels. It’s easy to envision that honest-to-goodness live weeping went along “With These Eyes,” for that matter. This was a group unafraid of pushing things to the brink.

Beset by mounting internal personal pressures, the Fabulous Peps would dissolve that same year, 1967, though several reunions would soon follow. Joe Harris would go on to greater fame in the early ‘70s as part of the Motown’s Undisputed Truth.

3. The Superlatives, I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You) (Dynamics)
1969’s “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” is one of the highpoints of the Superlatives’ career, a discography which includes several other releases on Detroit’s tiny Dynamics label and, later, a lone 45 on Wal-ly Records.

This is a widely beloved track. Its classic soul harmonies, ringing vibraphone and rock-solid bottom end elicit approval throughout the wide, weird spectrum of soul fanaticism. (See recent appreciations at both Soul Sides and Funky16Corners.) Everything is groovy here – except that there is precious little information to be found on the Superlatives themselves.

The writer of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You)” was not a member of the Superlatives, for instance. This was the vocalist Rhonda Washington, rather, who would later sing with the brief-lived female group Hot Sauce in the early ‘70s. Other Superlatives writing credits variously include J. Edwards, A. Lanot, G. Jones, J. Hendricks, T. Russell, and F. Robinson. Darius Moore, the arranger of “I Don’t Know How (To Say I Love You),” may have been a member of the group as well, but that’s nothing but naked speculation. Who were they? Hired songwriters? Group members? Both? Dead ends all.

This selection would prove popular enough that it was later picked up for distribution as one of the earliest releases of Armen Boladian’s nascent Westbound label.

4. The Gaslight, Here’s Missing You (Grand Junction)
Recorded for Marvin Figgins and Arnold Wright’s Gaslight label, “Here’s Missing You” was a fairly big-selling record back in 1970.

But personnel details for the Gaslight on this record are scarce, though they at some later point included vocalist extraordinaire Oliver Cheatham. Label information also connects the record to Detroit psychedelic funk artists Fugi and Black Merda, though their direct involvement here, if any, remains quite understated.

Several similar sweet harmony soul releases followed for the Gaslight on Grand Junction over the next year or two – and, a year or two after that, on Polydor Records – but none with the same commercial success as “Here’s Missing You.”

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9 Responses to Detroit City

  1. Anonymous says:

    i think this is my favorite post yet. bless the D.


  2. Anonymous says:

    the superlatives are superlative

    slow poke

  3. blanca m. says:

    killer post, new favorite.

  4. Anonymous says:

    someone MUST have come across The Fabulous Peps, With These Eyes and used it as sampling goodness …..

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great post. That Superlatives track is especially magnetic.

    – Mr. Attention

  6. Vincent says:

    I concur, especially considering my new found love for “Northern Soul”. I’m also really digging the latest pledge drive premium from Mr. Fine Wine which features quite a few of the labels that you mentioned. Of course, the Superlatives… wow, what a heater! Great post as always.

    Peace and blessings.

  7. Thanks y’all.

    Vincent – I know what you’re sayin’. As an unreformed funk collector, I used to turn up my nose at Northern soul. Now ALL I want to hear is ’60s Detroit and Chicago soul, and I just don’t listen to James Brown-style funk anymore.

    Mr. Fine Wine is fantastic.

  8. Anonymous says:

    What really slays me about the Fabulous Peps 45 are the off kilter harmonies – really hard to describe but when they sing “I’m gonna cry” in their kinda strange way, I know it’s a unique kind of magic.
    -Boss Soul

  9. Mr. Fine Wine here. Thanks for the kind words. Great stuff on here!! Be sure to check out Carl Carlton’s “Don’t Walk Away” for another killer version of the Superlatives’ track.

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