Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 6 – Tamla/Motown, Stax/Volt, Hangin’ Ten, and Gettin’ a Woody…
Part 5 can be found here
By the early 1960’s there wasn’t a teenager whose life didn’t revolve around music and his or her favourite radio stations and disc jockeys. A lot of the music irritated your parents, the DJ’s were full of energy and yelled everything, and the local commercials extolled the wonders of teen dances, drive in restaurants, acne cream, and (in California at least) the local Sunday Drag Races. We were all about music, dating, cars, and being cool, at least cool for whatever teen sub culture we wanted to be a part of. The music defined us, the trappings proclaimed us, and the accoutrements expressed our status. We were as conformist and as deeply shallow as every teen culture has been since the beginning of youth culture…lookin’ lame and proud as hell about it.
Heading into the ‘60’s, there were only two real fashion statements teens could make. Either your parents were cool enough to let you follow the fashions dictated by the music and the people who made it and you and your friends would wear pegged pants, t shirts, and a reasonable facsimile of that red jacket James Dean wore in Rebel Without A Cause, and the girls would dress in tight skirts and sweaters, or pedal pushers, with wide belts and neck scarves, these looks were the most prevalent with the majority of the ‘cool’ kids.
There were variations of course. My Mexican American friends added pressed Chinos, Pendletons (fine shirts made in Pendleton Oregon) thin black belts and desert boots, and the African American crowd wore slacks, short sleeve shirts buttoned to the top, and Keds or patent leather kicks.
If you were at the mercy of your mother, she dragged you down to Bravo and McKeegan in late August and bought you a school-year’s supply of Hanes Slacks, Madras shirts, cable knit sweaters and cardigans, and a car coat with root beer barrel shaped buttons, a fog cutter, and for those dances and special occasions, a corduroy suit that came with a vest that had about two dozen buttons, penny loafers, wing-tips, and saddle shoes. Some days the kids with this problem would come to school looking like Hitler Youth or Mormons while the rest of us looked like the cast of Teenage Crime Wave.
Regardless of how you dressed, it was all about the music.
Radio was an amazing thing in those days. There were no stations that played just one kind of music. After rock and roll opened the floodgate of teen culture, anything and everything that was new or different had a chance. If a record took off with the kids, that was it. The labels were searching out new sounds, the radio was playing them, and we responded, going from one thing to the next, always looking, always listening, knowing there would be something new just around the corner. The radio was on all the time everywhere, and when we started to get licenses, our cars became our own private listening booths, turning up our favourite songs, and punching the buttons if something distasteful to us started to play. The guys knew the artists and the names of the songs and the girls knew the lyrics. No one liked just one genre of music…we were up for anything.
The radio had its hands full by the early ‘60’s. There were the rockers, the dancers, the teen idolers, the folkies, the rhythm and bluesers, the country and westerners, and the jazzers…and radio rose to the occasion. Gene Pitney, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Brown, Marty Robbins, and Dave Brubeck (not to mention Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Frank Sinatra, and Walter Brennan) all co-existed on the radio, mostly all on the same stations. The labels recorded them, radio played ‘em, and we made ‘em hits. A simple, wonderful, food chain, and being obsessed with music and the radio, we started to wonder…What else could possibly be out there?
What was out there, were two young record companies that were dedicated to bringing new music to the youth of America. Their approach to recording was similar, but their sounds were miles apart, even though they tread water in the same end of the pool. One, operating out of Memphis, Tennessee, was owned by a white brother and sister named Jim Stewart, a fiddle player in a country and western band, and Estelle Axton a former school teacher who sold her home to buy an Ampex 300 tape recorder and help her brother start a record company. The other, based in Detroit, Michigan, was owned by an African American named Berry Gordy, a high school drop out who had been a boxer, a soldier, failed record store owner, and would have gone to work on a Lincoln Mercury assembly line, had he not met Jackie Wilson, former member of the hit groups The Royals, and The Dominoes, and co-wrote Reet Petite for the well known local singer. Gordy would go on to write 9 hit records for Wilson, and started his first label, Tamla, at the suggestion of the lead singer of the first group he discovered, The Miracles, Smokey Robinson.
Stewart and Axton, meanwhile, started a label called Satellite, and bought an old movie theater and converted it into a recording studio. Gordy built his studio in a house in a residential neighborhood in Detroit.
Thanks to producer Chips Moman, Stewart became interested in rhythm and blues, and his first releases in the genre (by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla) were regional hits, getting him a national distribution deal with Atlantic. After their first national hit, Last Night, by the Mar Keys, a record company in California also named Satellite, forced Stewart to change the name of his label. He settled on Stax, the first two letters of his and his sister’s last names.
Around the same time, Gordy released Shop Around by The Miracles.
The two Rhythm and Blues labels were on their way to mainstream success.
By mid 1962 radio stations were crawling over each other to play the new releases on Stax and its sister label, Volt, and anything released on Tamla, Motown, or Gordy. Almost every record released by the labels entered the charts, and stars were being born every day.
Over at Stax/Volt you had Otis Redding, The Mar Keys, and Booker T and the M.G’s (Pictured here) who were also the core of the Stax house band. They would eventually be joined by Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, The Bar Kays, Albert King, and others. Stax also had a record store on site, which they used to play acetates for customers to get an idea of how a recording would do with the public.
At Motown, the roster consisted of damn near everyone that worked there. Several started out as session players or secretaries.
Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Temptations, Four Tops, The Jackson Five, and of course The Supremes, all of them charting regularly. Those artists, and other Motown acts eventually were responsible for 110 top ten singles by 1971.
The Motown Sound was traceable to the house band, the Funk Brothers, and produced using heavy bass, drum, and tambourine underpinnings. Regardless of where they recorded, these elements contributed to Motown’s over all consistency, whereas Stax/Volt’s unique sound came from the sloped floor of their studio, which was built in an old movie theater. Either way, Stax/Volt’s raw, energetic sound, and Motown’s slicker, simple arrangements made them both powerhouse labels.
Stax/Volt’s artists generally sang the songs they wrote, but wrote for each other as well. Motown would record backing tracks and then audition their roster of singers and record different versions of the songs. Where Stax played the acetates for their record store customers to get feedback, Motown had weekly meetings where they played the recordings for their staff. Which version was released depended on a unanimous vote by the staff, and their track record was incredible.
Stax remained true to it’s R&B roots, keeping the sound fresh and raw and still managed to be radio friendly, while Motown called itself The Sound of Young America, and lived up to the promise. Between the two of them, black music became a force on mainstream radio, and all but wiped out racism amongst the teenagers of the day. No matter your race or creed, this music touched you, and opened more doors to integration than any political movement, law, or rally.
The Mar Keys’ Last Night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ie4Qha9WvUU
Otis Redding’s first release: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-FQL-tJ3ic
The Miracles first release: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca9pyyu7dpM
Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t it Peculiar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfpzePp5y8s
At the same time these two giants were building their empires, another new sound was emerging from the wide boulevards, high schools, and beaches of Southern California.
Starting as a predominately instrumental movement led by Dick Dale (pictured here) and groups like the Chantays and the Surfaris, Surf music began in the early 1960s as instrumental dance music, almost always in straight 4/4 common time, with a medium to fast tempo. The sound was dominated by electric guitars which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the “wet” spring reverb that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves. Guitarists also made use of the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward, electronic tremolo effects and rapid (alternating) tremolo picking.
Guitar models favoured included those made by Fender (particularly the Mustang, Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Stratocaster guitars), Mosrite, Teisco, or Dynalectro, usually with single coil pickups (which had high treble in contrast to double coil humbucker pickups). Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass, particularly the Fender Precision Bass. Classic surf drum kits tended to be Rogers, Ludwig, Gretsch or Slingerland. Some popular songs also incorporated a tenor or baritone saxophone, as on “Surf Rider” and “Comanche”. Often an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing instrumentation.
Then, of course, there were the Beach Boys. Combining the surf guitars of Dick Dale, the 4 part harmony of Brian’s fave singing group, The Four Freshmen, and the iconography of the beach, the cars, and the girls of Southern California, they took surf music across North America, and then the world. Even skateboarding came out of this movement. If you thought it began with Tony Hawk, look to the early ‘60’s. Jan and Dean were Sidewalk Surfin’ back in 1962. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmeKWNwiFuQ
Jan and Dean, along with the Beach Boys, Rip Chords, Hondells, and others, would also herald an offshoot of surf music all about motorcycles and cars.
And so it was that I found myself that summer driving a custom ’56 Chevy with a surfboard on top (could never get up on the damn thing but I looked cool sitting on it in the Pacific Ocean at Santa Cruz for a couple of summers) and later, I sold the Chevy and drove a tricked out, lowered ‘58 Chrysler Imperial, and towed my prized possession at the time, a 1932 Ford Victoria sedan with a full bore ’56 Oldsmobile engine in it, to Santa Cruz, cruised Beach Street with it, and then at night, parked the Imperial and drove the sedan around. The Ford even had an under dash 45 record player on springs, loaded with the latest R&B and surf hits. Surfer girls were putty in our grubby little hands…hehehehe. Mind you, tooling around Stockton, 80 miles from the nearest beach with the surfboard on top of the Chevy made me the butt of a lot of jokes from my less than bitchin’ JD friends, who thought hangin’ ten meant punching a guy in the face with both hands.
Meanwhile one of the Instrumental groups, The Ventures (pictured here) had impacted in Europe and especially in England along with Cliff Richard’s backing band, The Shadows. Then, a guitar group from England called the Tornados would record a song called Telstar, which would become, after Vera Lynn, Laurie London (He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands) and Mr. Acker Bilk, only the fourth number one record in North America by an English artist.
That record would open the door for the biggest upheaval in popular music since Elvis Presley, and the record and radio industries would never be the same. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2ybCjf6ras
Next: The Invasion Begins….
Segarini’s column appears every Monday
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Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.