HARVEY FUQUA: THE UNDERSUNG LEGEND


I first discovered Harvey Fuqua through his 1970s acts on RCA: the Nite-Liters and New Birth. It took me years later to realize how foundational he had been in the decades prior, first with the huge doo wop group, The Moonglows, then as a formative presence during Motown’s golden years. Fuqua touched some incredibly huge records so it was always surprising to me that he wasn’t necessarily mentioned in the same breath as the Holland-Dozier-Holland team or Smokey or even Norman Whitfield as these key Motown Sound architects.

There’s no denying his prolificness though – a singer and songwriter turned label owner, then A&R, and producer – spanning at least 3 decades. Bob Davis, writing for Mark Anthony Neal’s site, put it this way: “If I had to make an analogy, Harvey Fuqua was like Pete Rose or Magic Johnson. He could play any role that you wanted him to, onstage or offstage. He was a great singer, but he also put together & managed a tour. He wrote hit songs, but he also managed record companies. For the past 10 years or so, I have had a chance to be around Harvey Fuqua quite a bit and to observe how some of the most important historical figures in the history of American Popular music behaved when they were around Harvey.”

I wanted to highlight some of the songs he’s responsible for by mixing up a few “originals” with covers of songs he either wrote or produced. This is hardly meant to be definitive but more or less reflects part of how I discovered (in some cases, retroactively) personal favorites that Fuqua had his hand in.

Jackie Edwards: Sincerely
From Sincerely (Trojan, 1978). Also on This Is My Story

Fuqua began his career with the Moonglows, one of the most influential doo wop groups of the 1950s. He was one of the primary songwriters and singers, though most of the group’s best known hits featured the group’s other lead, Bobby Lester.
“Sincerely,” the group’s first major hit, featured Lester on lead with Fuqua as primary songwriter (until DJ Alan Freed bogarted his way on to help claim publishing credit. Shady). “Sincerely” is still probably the Moonglows’ best-known song, not the least of which is because of its popularity with other artists. I included this Jackie Edwards version from the late 1970s because I love hearing reggae/rocksteady artists covering classic R&B and despite the rhythmic differences, Edwards actually does a pretty loyal cover, singing-wise. Same could be said of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ cover of the song (unreleased until recently).

Johnny and Jackey: Someday We’ll Be Together
From 7″ (Tri-Phi, 1961)

By the late ’50s, Fuqua had shifted to managing acts rather than being part of one (this is also after the Moonglows began to implode and go through some serious personnel challenges which, among other things, brought a young drummer named Marvin Gaye into Fuqua’s orbit). Along with Gwen Gordy (sister of Motown’s Berry Gordy), Fuqua helped start up Tri-Phi and Harvey Records, which, alongside Gwen and Bill Davis’ Anna Records, were part of “primordial” label soup that all melded into Motown by the early ’60s. One of the acts that ended up on Tri-Phi was Johnny and Jackey, the duo of Johnny Bristol and Jackey Beavers who, these days, are probably better known for their songwriting than actual recordings. They were the creators behind one of the Supremes’ biggest hits, “Someday We’ll Be Together” and the version here is their original. I have to say…much as I’d love to say Diana Ross couldn’t improve on the OG…let’s be honest: the Supremes’ version destroys the original. It helped, of course, that Motown production machinery was in full swing by the time the Supremes recorded their version but it is always fascinating to hear the earlier incarnation so you can compare the changes that ultimately visited it.

Tower of Power: Cleo’s Back
From Lights Out: San Francisco (Blue Thumb, 1972)

Bristol helped bring the talents of saxophonist Junior Walker to Fuqua’s attention and they landed on Harvey Records for their first recordings. When Motown bought Tri-Phi and Harvey out, they got their respective rosters and this is how Junior Walker, the Spinners and Marvin Gaye all ended up on Motown. Obviously, the fact that Fuqua knew Berry Gordy (having married his sister!), probably meant that these groups would have come under Gordy’s attention at some point but imagine how different musical history might have been if Fuqua and Gwen Gordy had never hit it off.

In any case, one of the early hits that Fuqua wrote and produced for Walker and the All-Stars was “Cleo’s Mood” which then evolved into a less successful sequel called “Cleo’s Back.” Fuqua did produce the song but it was actually written by Willie Woods. This version is from the Blue Thumb compilation, Lights Out: San Francisco and I probably would never have come across it initially if the UMCs hadn’t sampled it for my favorite song by them, “Swing It To the Area.”

Tammi Terrell: Hold Me Oh My Darling
From Irresistible (Motown, 1969). Also on The Essential Collection.

Fuqua did a considerable amount of A&R work at Motown and one of his main “finds” was pairing Tammi Terrell with Marvin Gaye. He produced “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (written by Ashford and Simpson) but “Hold Me Oh My Darling” was one he actually wrote. Even though Terrell and Gaye “dueted” on this song, it was actually a “made in the studio” pairing and not recorded together (which is how “AIn’t No Mountain High Enough” came about) and no disrespect to Marvin but I actually prefer hearing Tammi solo here.

Alton Ellis: What Does It Take To Win Your Love
From Sunday Coming (Trojan, 1970)

You know I had to do this one, right? After all, my love for this song is no secret but it’s only recently that I discovered that Fuqua helped write and produce it. For me personally, it’s my favorite song of his and Ellis’ cover is up there with the original (which always teetered on the edge of cheese because of the sax). Classique!

Michael Jackson: 25 Miles
From Hello World (Motown, 2009)

DJ Murphy’s Law was the first person I heard spin Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles” and it really blew my mind; I had no idea it was that good and, lo and behold – another Fuqua song (written by him, alongside Bristol and Starr). This MJ version was recorded with the Jackson 5 in the 1970s but, for whatever reason, was shelved until 1987 and then re-released again on that great Motown solo collection put out last year (though somehow, it’s become a MJ “solo” cut even though it was supposedly recorded by the J5). Not superior to the original but it’s fun to hear a young Michael trying to rip it up on here.

(Addendum: Larry Grogan points out that “25 Miles” is actually a not-so-subtle makeover/rip-off of Wilson Pickett’s “Mojo Mama” so I’m perhaps giving Fuqua a lil too much credit on this one!)

Enrique Lynch: Safari Salvaje/K-Jee
From Bomba Tropical (Sono Radio, 1971)

In the early 1970s (possibly following his divorce from Gwen Gordy), Fuqua left Motown and was given a production deal over at RCA. His big success story out of that phase was the New Birth, a strong funk set that was probably one of RCA’s attempts at capitalizing on what Clinton, the Ohio Players and similar groups were up to. I’ve always been more partial to the band that preceded New Birth: The Nite-liters, one of the best instrumental funk groups of the time. Of all of Fuqua’s compositions for the group, no song had a bigger impact than “K-Jee” which was originally a B-side cut to “Tanga Boo Gonk

It’s those opening horns. A brilliant, inspired riff that is instantly memorable and had a huge impact around the globe. In the U.S. the best known version is likely MFSB’s, especially since it landed on the multi-platinum Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But travel around the planet and it pops up everywhere, including Italy and especially Peru for whatever reason. I have at least two different records by Peruvian artists covering the tune and the absolute aces of all covers anywhere is Enrique Lynch’s medley version (combined with “Safari Salvaje”). I first heard this at Funky Sole, back when they were at Star Shoes and Cut Chemist was the guest DJ. He threw this on and my mind was blown. A few months later, a copy ended up at The Groove Merchant; I’m pretty sure I bought a copy Thes One brought in, now that I think about it. Regardless, this is one of my all-time favorite party cuts. No way this fails. (Lynch’s album cover is also one of the best I’ve ever seen out of South America).

Hot 8 Brass Band: Sexual Healing
From Tru Thoughts Covers CD/LP (Tru Thoughts, 2009)

Had to bring this one back. “Sexual Healing” was a much needed return to greatness for both Gaye and Fuqua who, by the early 1980s, had ease to the margins of the music industry despite having minted quite a few hits with disco star Sylvester. “Sexual Healing” was the last great Gaye song and a fitting bookend to his and Fuqua’s long friendship and partnership. If you’re going to talk about covers of it, no one someone’s going to come with something better than the Hot 8 Brass Band’s unique take.

Lastly, don’t miss watching Fuqua in a rare televised appearance back in his Moonglow days. Smooth!

Comments

comment(s)

11 comments to HARVEY FUQUA: THE UNDERSUNG LEGEND

  • Larry Grogan

    Odub
    Don’t forget Fuqua’s signing Sylvester to Fantasy!
    Also, Though ’25 Miles’ was originally credited to Fuqua qnd Johnny Bristol, it’s pretty much a lift of a Wilson Pickett record (from 1967) called ‘Mojo Mamma’ originally written by Jerry Wexler and Bert Berns. There must have been some legal action, because Berns and Wexler were listed in later credits of the song.
    Larry

  • OW

    Larry: I did mention Sylvester in the piece. I would have included a song by him but I actually don’t know his catalog well at all. I totally missed putting “Mojo Mama” and “25 Miles” together (kind of embarassing since I still have yet to listen to that great Atlantic boxset of Pickett’s material), thanks for pointing that out. 

  • Marc

    I’d say Fuqua still deserves every ounce of credit for “25 Miles”. “Mojo Mamma” is pretty good, and it’s easy to hear the similarities, but the Edwin Starr track really obliterates the Pickett. The blasting horns, crunchy footsteps, stomping drums–OK, maybe Uriel Jones sould share in the credit a little too.

    Re: song credits, I have a Starr collection from 1998 which lists the writers as Bristol, Fuqua and Starr–no mention of Wexler and Berns. ???

    Lastly, OW, I’m surprised you only heard “25 Miles” fairly recently, as I must have heard it a hundred times on “oldies” radio when I was growing up. Granted, I’m from Detroit…

  • OW

    Marc: I never listened to much Edwin Starr at all besides “War” (of course) and “Easin In” so the fact that he had killer tunes like “25 Miles” and my personal favorite “Running Back and Forth” was unbeknownst. You gotta keep in mind that when I first began listening to soul, I was always much more of a Southern soul guy so a lot of more obvious Motown and Northern tunes never crossed my paths until more recently. 

  • Anonymous

    Hey Oliver, Many thanks to you for putting together this piece on the oft underappreciated talents of Mr. Fuqua. He was definitely all over the Detroit scene for a number of years, putting out records in a range of musical styles styles. One that’s recently garnered  some attention on the northern scene is this quirky dancer on the always interesting Tri Phi label.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhEbdeHLkr4

  • cookie

    Don’t forget he discovered Janice Barnett —-now the Queen of Beach Music. I Told You So – Wake Up Smiling – Goody Two Shoes are just a few hits. And he formed a gospel label with her. There are new releases comiing out this year on many legends singing gospel music. He was still doing it big. Such a nice guy. He still giving young people a chance all the way in N.C.

  • Tony aka Pismotality

    What a great resource! I wasn’t fully aware of the range of Harvey Fuqua’s work. Have just linked to your post on my own blog where I have written about a lesser known Moonglows track, She’s Alright With Me, here:
    http://sweetwordsofpismotality.blogspot.com/2010/08/harvey-fuqua-two-songs.html
    The post includes a link to Alan Warner’s website – he has his own list of favourite Fuqua compositions.

  • Tom G

    Wow, nice post.  Thanks.

  • Jimbo

    Pardon my tardieness. I have been a fan of the classic doo-wop era since my teenage years (born in 1963) I’ve identified with this genre passionately. Having just learned of Mr Fuqua’ passing saddens me. I had no idea he was so near, ( I reside in Chi-town ). Would love to have met him. The Moonglows, The Flamingoes, The Harptones and The Drifters are the epitome of R&B crooning if you will. My personal favorite “When I’m with you” is simply exquisite. R.I.P. Harvey. Your music endures in my heart & spirit.

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