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The 2013 American Idol Songbook: March 27, Top 8 Finalists Sing Songs by Detroit Artists
In a city long wracked by poverty, crime, and the decline of nearby auto manufacturing centers, Detroit’s musical heritage has long been a point of pride. Appropriately enough, all but one of the contestants on American Idol’s Detroit night chose to sing songs associated with the record label that is undoubtedly the most recognizable in history and perhaps the crown jewel of the city’s cultural legacy—Motown Records. When war veteran and record merchant Berry Gordy, encouraged by the night’s Idol mentor Smokey Robinson (a warmer tutor than Jimmy, by the way), started Motown in 1959, he had a novel vision. Gordy’s eye for talent and micromanagement shaped a sound that combined the melodic hooks and harmonies of doo-wop and the percussive energy of rhythm and blues, all with the goal of appealing far beyond R&B’s traditional black audiences. The singles appealed to white teens looking for catchy dancing music and followed them as college students looking for social significance in their songs, while the albums sought the lucrative adult market and got gigs at the top nightclubs and variety shows, all aided by a trademark elegant image shaped by Gordy’s sister Gwendolyn and her charm school of sorts. The massive white acceptance of Motown’s output became associated with the drama of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, while more adventurous later work by Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder did much to appease critics of the label’s assimilationist mission. Through it all, a distinctive sound was cultivated by not only great local artists and a team of staff songwriter-producers (some filled both roles) but also the house band the Funk Brothers, who doubled as Foley sound effects technicians when instruments couldn’t do the job and created an ambiance nobody since has quite duplicated. Though he could be a bit of taskmaster who was not always keen to take risks with music that didn’t fit his vision for the company, Berry deserved a lot of credit for his sheer eye for talent and his perseverance in mixing and matching song and artist until he found the right combination. Much of the roster on all sides of the company was let go around 1972, when Berry Gordy left for Los Angeles for lucrative TV and film contracts and abortive attempts to enter the rock and country markets. The label became somewhat more conventional at that point, but it remained independent and thrived until Gordy sold it in the late 1980s. Unless an artist has great old-school R&B in their bones, trying to duplicate much of the Motown repertoire can get pretty karaoke, and many Idol hopefuls wisely chose more pop-friendly tracks or brought it into their genre. Candice, Kree, Amber, and Janelle have more or less locked a female lead this season, though the men tried their best to catch up on a night with repertoire that charms even when run through pointless group renditions that tended to embarrass everyone involved.
Amber Holcomb – “Lately” (Stevie Wonder) – Advanced
Originally a bigger hit in the U.K. (number 3!) than in the U.S., Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” is a perfect example of the genius that came into full fruition when Motown finally let him take complete creative control. A child prodigy whose harmonica skill and emphatic vocals made “Fingertips, Part 3” a hit jam session in 1963, Steveland Morris (at first billed as Little Stevie the Wonder Boy by Gordy before settling on the moniker we now know) took a few years to focus on school before returning with Henry Cosby’s pop productions in the late 1960s. The experiment produced some gems, but Wonder wanted to create music for the ages, shaping indelible melodies and often poignant lyrical statements into something more than the light pop Gordy wanted to be the focus of the label. Like Marvin Gaye, Stevie had to fight tooth and nail with Gordy’s quality-control process, which as we will see had both a mixed record predicting chart success and an aversion to risk-taking. Ultimately, both singer-songwriters gained full independence in the 1970s, partly due to Gordy’s increasingly diluted focus as an L.A. multimedia maven. They proceeded to create some of the most brilliant albums in the history of R&B. Hotter than July, the 1981 effort that spawned “Lately,” was just the latest in a string that included immortal releases such as Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life. “Lately” had a perfect melody that was somehow both dramatic and subtle, complementing the ambiguous pre-breakup angst of the lyric in a way that only a true master of songwriting could accomplish. The song grew on audiences over the years and had a huge (albeit somewhat inferior) hit cover by the group Jodeci in 1993, becoming a favorite of Idol contestants on both of the last two seasons. Amber suffered a devastating rebuke from voters last week, landing in the bottom three in a result that I’m not surprised made Smokey want to turn off his set. I saw poll results during the show putting country and pop as significantly more popular genres among viewers than rock or R&B, which explains a lot about the preferences of the voting base when they undervalue even good performances of the latter two styles. At her best, Amber’s voice is one of the most pleasing to listen to in the competition, and she understands the emotional weight of the song in every case. She respects melodies even when she attempts the vocal flights of her idols like the oft-cited Whitney Houston, and there’s a control in her tone that’s often underrated in a show dominated by flashy personalities and even more attention-getting vocals. I’ve never heard “Lately” done by a female artist before, but Amber convinced me it absolutely needed to be done.
Angie Miller – “Shop Around” (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) – Advanced
“Shop Around” was arguably the song that made Motown, since in 1960 it was one of the first songs the label released to become a massive hit. It was partially by design, one might surmise, since Robinson really believed in Gordy’s ability to run a full-service label even when the impresario saw it only as a sidebar. Though Gordy insisted on polishing the song a bit before release, it was still more rhythm and blues than the pop stuff that would be the label’s stock-in-trade, and could not be effectively mistaken for the iconic “Motown sound.” Innumerable covers, including a saucy hit take from Captain and Tennille in 1976, would follow, while Robinson proceeded to remain one of Motown’s most prolific and successful artists, songwriters, and producers over more than two decades with the label. It’s an incredible legacy, and Angie does not seem to comprehend it. The minute I heard the blues-rock guitar behind her version in mentoring, I shuddered and wondered why this choice was made. There are so many songs that might at least bring out the stronger points in her voice or show her ability to carry a melody (many Diana Ross solo numbers come to mind), and instead she picked what might be one of the worst fits imaginable. The blues do not exist in Angie’s soul, if the performance she gave on stage was any indication, and not once did her flailing effort feel like something genuine. I’m not usually this strident, but I was shocked at how easily predictable the disaster was. Why did she do this, I kept asking? Furthermore, Angie’s stilted efforts to be flirty after cultivating her church-girl image seemed bizarre if not creepy, to say nothing of how much they conflict with a lyric that happens to revolve around saving oneself for the right person. I just can’t fathom what she was thinking.
Burnell Taylor – “My Cherie Amour” (Stevie Wonder) – Advanced
“My Cherie Amour” was originally a love song about a girlfriend of Stevie’s from the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing, edited to be more general by Wonder and producers Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy after their breakup. Given this information, the lyrics about sidelined meetings may convey the Chinese wall of blindness more than the unrequited love often interpreted. It was the latter message that gave the song its youthful charm, in addition to a melody that was the first of so many gorgeous chord sequences to be part of the Stevie Wonder brand. The track was shelved when recorded in 1966, the year of Stevie’s return after Fingertips three years prior, only seeing the light of day on an eponymous 1969 album where it promptly shot to number four in the American pop rankings with only slight revisions. Burnell’s register has the same sweet spot in the alto tenor zone as Stevie, so he’d be crazy not to pick that artist for tonight. His distinctive Louisiana accent, as always, colors his every line and makes it very much Burnell’s own, but he captures the innocent core of Stevie’s juvenilia very accurately and doesn’t seem out of place one bit. It’s not a novel way of looking at the song, but with material like this, it’s hard to want to mess with a good thing. Burnell is without a doubt the front-runner of the men tonight.
Candice Glover – “I Heard It through the Grapevine” (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles via Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye) – Advanced
Chicagoan Barrett Strong had begun working on the germ of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before being brought over to Motown (he had written for Mary Wells after she left the Motor City, bringing him to Gordy’s attention). Paired with Norman Whitfield, a composer-producer who joined the Detroit outfit when his car broke down in the best possible place to get it fixed, Strong took the classic folk signifier for gossip and put it in the context of a breakup that the narrator is the last to hear about. Gordy instantly hated the 1966 composition, first recorded by the Miracles in an unusual deviation from Smokey material, probably out of his personal aversion to the gritty, bluesy feel he left other labels such as Stax to pioneer. Bounced around across multiple artists, the song followed the Motown grapevine to a relatively new signee, Gladys Knight and the Pips, who cut the first hit version in 1967 with all the gutbucket rawness Gordy feared would ruin the company’s smooth image and proved him utterly wrong. Marvin Gaye’s slower and more measured rendition the following year was a bit more to Gordy’s tastes and became an even bigger hit, one of the top successes in the label’s history. The song’s unusual sound as Motown songs went made it perfect for rock covers, spearheaded by the eleven-minute tour de force recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory. It would have been a shock if Candice, who has mastered the essence of great R&B, had disappointed on Motown night. Her talent for blues vocals, already developed on her version of “Come Together” the previous week, continues to prove unparalleled in the competition. It’s definitely more Gladys than Marvin, but once the arrangement gets going, it’s Candice all the way. Nobody has done this song on a show such as this in recent memory, let alone on a cover I’ve heard, with such pure electricity from start to finish.
Devin Velez – “The Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) – Eliminated
In 1965, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were starting to hit their stride again after a few years of Robinson focusing more on production work for others. Busy crafting smashes such as Mary Wells’s “My Guy” and the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” for Motown, Robinson and the fellow Miracles who occasionally helped him with his behind-the-scenes work had only had sporadic success in their own right after 1962’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” As Robinson recounts in his mentoring of Devin (I love when they tell war stories), he was trying to come up with the perfect metaphor for his story of masking a breakup when shaving in the mirror brought up the titular image of “The Tracks of My Tears.” Jamming with group-mates and co-writers Warren “Pete” Moore and Marv Tarplin, Robinson threw together a timeless track built around the buttery tenor lead vocal and mid-tempo bassline that were the hallmarks of his style. A Top Twenty finish for “The Tracks of My Tears” in a year dominated by other Motown tracks and the British Invasion was very respectable, and covers by Johnny Rivers in 1967 and Linda Ronstadt in 1975 showed the versatility of this universal treasure. Devin joins the long line of artists taking the song on, and it’s perfect for his pop-soul croon. Some of the runs he tries seem somewhat forced, but the overall impression is rather enjoyable. Is this a standout of the night? No, but it’s a song choice that proves that Devin knows what sort of material will work best for him, after some recent missteps in that department.
Janelle Arthur – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (Supremes) – Advanced
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was one of many huge hits of the mid-1960s to come from the pairing of Motown’s two most successful trios. One of them, naturally, was the Supremes, then made up of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross. Perfectly pitched between soulful energy and pop schmaltz, the Supremes were Gordy’s chosen act to conquer the pop market, and they succeeded in that mission with gorgeous vocals, harmonies that belied the tensions that ultimately pushed Diana to her solo destiny, and material from top-flight writer-producers such as Holland-Dozier-Holland. The latter trio, made up of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, were part-time singer-songwriters who wound up being more useful to Gordy behind the boards, where they developed a strong enough rapport with the Motown family to create hits for practically every artist signed to the label in the 1960s. Their massive, double-tracked sound, often compared to Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, defined the sound of the Motor City for many growing up during the era. Only disputes over songwriting royalties with Gordy himself led to their final split with the label in 1968, and one of their last hits with the Supremes was the immortal and perhaps a little autobiographical “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The single, recorded and released in 1966 on The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, had a punchy backing and minor-key melody that could hold its own against the heady rock brew of the period’s radio scene. Indeed, Vanilla Fudge proved the song’s suitability to rock with their own psychedelic version the following year, while British chanteuse Kim Wilde took an entirely different dance-pop route in what turned out to be her own biggest hit on the 1986 album Another Step. While it’s true that many acoustic guitar versions exist on YouTube, the country flair Janelle brings to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” feels rather unique, especially when one considers that even Reba McEntire did her 1996 version as straight dance music. Once again, Janelle is displaying improved vocal maturity while she makes the sort of adventurous choices many country hopefuls seldom make successfully on Idol (last year’s Skylar Laine being a notable exception). She accompanies herself effectively but unobstrusively on the guitar, never letting her own sense of fun break through the real pathos of the lyric. You cannot make a song your own if you do not understand it the way Janelle proved she understands “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and thanks to performances like hers, this theme night more than exceeded my expectations.
Kree Harrison – “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (Ben E. King via Aretha Franklin) – Advanced
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” the one non-Motown song of the night, was originally recorded by Ben E. King, the most famous of the Drifters’ lead singers during the group’s 1958-1960 heyday. Ahmet Ertegün, the multi-talented co-founder of Atlantic Records, was often known to write hits for his artists, penned a rather standard breakup song for a 1962 solo album of King’s about not wanting to hear the tune connected to the big split. “Betty Nelson,” the other credit on “Don’t Play That Song,” is likely Ben E. King’s wife (his real name was Benjamin Nelson) put on as a favor or an oblique indication of a possible King participation in the songwriting. King was from Henderson, North Carolina, however, and Atlantic was based in New York, so what’s the Detroit connection? Well, Aretha Franklin, though eventually an Atlantic artist, honed her spectacular singing, piano, and songwriting talents in her father’s Detroit church where she often crossed paths with the Motown family in the 1950s. Robinson was a neighbor and has kept in touch, but Franklin was in no need of a label change in 1970, when she was riding high on her title of the “Queen of Soul” with a string of hits (both covers and originals) that almost overshadow even the success of “Don’t Play That Song.” Her version, done for Spirit in the Dark, absolutely demolished King’s original with a lively take that almost makes you forget the rather by-the-numbers school-dance context of the lyric, and she not only equaled the number 11 pop placing of King but bested him in the R&B survey by hitting pole position there. Of course, “Respect,” “Day Dreaming,” or even ReRe’s own cover of King’s “Spanish Harlem” dwarfed “Don’t Play That Song” in the popular imagination, making Kree’s choice tonight a bit of a risk. Kree grew up with a healthy mix of country, pop, rock, and soul, and Aretha and Smokey were both childhood heroes for her, which she pays tribute to on Idol in a performance that demonstrates why she belongs here but may be preaching to the choir, so to speak. The song is perhaps more popular inside than outside the industry today, and the listener is the voter, but does that make her voice a ringer? No! Of course she nails it like everything else she’s done, and Keith Urban is on to something when he brings up that Kree truly understands the blues roots of country (I’ve always called it essentially “Afro-Celtic” music), something often obscured by the South’s segregated past. The reason she can sing the phone book as the adage goes is that, like the great eclectics such as Aretha herself, Ray Charles, Elton John, and so forth, she understands the inter-connections that lace together contemporary popular music on a deeper level than many critics. It’s not just versatility—it’s magic, and if it doesn’t earn Kree a contract after the show is over and done, the industry has some real soul-searching to do.
Lazaro Arbos – “For Once in My Life” (Stevie Wonder) – Advanced
“For Once in My Life,” like “My Cherie Amour,” is a product of Stevie’s early years as a pop-soul prodigy. The song was co-written with the obscure Orlando Murden by Ron Miller, a Motown staff writer discovered by Gordy in a Chicago bar who helped kick off Wonder’s career with hits such as “A Place in the Sun” and “Yester-You, Yester-Me, Yester-Day.” Miller later moved on to write for other acts (e.g. Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”) and dabble in film soundtracks. To Gordy’s consternation, Miller had offered “For Once in My Life” to Chess act Jean DuShon (Chicago labels such as Chess had a long-standing rivalry with Motown), so Gordy fast-tracked it to Barbara McNair. McNair cut it in 1966 for Here I Am, one of Motown’s many lounge efforts, and similar slow versions cropped up on albums by the likes of Tony Bennett (the latter recently did a duet on the song with Stevie). Stevie’s harmonica-laced, peppy take on “For Once in My Life” finally hit paydirt in 1968, just missing the top of the pop charts with Miller and Murden’s first-love anthem. Gordy hadn’t liked producer Henry Cosby’s approach to the hit version and had to be cajoled into releasing it, but the uptempo track and the eighteen-year-old Stevie were actually a better fit for the lyrics than the more adult performers who took the song on. Lazaro had his heart set on this song and benefits from having real conviction in the song choice. He is more compelling in the higher-register, higher-tempo parts of the song than he has been in a long time, and by the end of the song, he bests practically everything he’s done in the competition so far. That said, verses appear to be a struggle, highlighting a familiarity barrier that may be even more of an obstacle to pop stardom for Lazaro than the obvious communication issues with his stutter. Considering that he grew up until the turn of the millennium in Cuba, a country where the government often jammed Florida radio broadcasts and censored record imports, he couldn’t help being unfamiliar with much contemporary American popular music even if he could speak like a politician. Using his new-found access to familiarize himself with a broader repertoire would serve him well, but the Idol show and tour may not provide enough time for great results. In some ways, it’s as if one were to give Justin Bieber a year to become a Bollywood star, so vast is the cultural gulf, though if anyone has the determination to cross such a chasm, it’s Lazaro.