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!

LOVE MODE

The blog, Themes for Young Lovers, recently interviewed me about my songs o’ love, sex and romance. Yeah, it’s true, I had absolutely no music at my own wedding. Like Will Hung, I have no regrets.

As I noted, when asked “Name 3 songs that would be no-brainers to put on a mixtape for that special someone you were trying to woo”…I included nary a soul/R&B song on there. I think part of it is that my favorite soul songs tend to be about breaking up, not making up but taking a quick spin through my library, there are some soul tunes that would easily go onto my “Woo You” mixtape:

The Impressions: Fool For You
From This Is My Country (Curtom, 1968)

First of all, I wouldn’t trust any potential lover who doesn’t like this song. Deal breaker. Second, it’s a powerful song that doesn’t necessarily rain down with “too much/too soon” overtures (the danger of a more powerful ballad). This says “I’m crushed on you but I’m not trying to have our name tattooed in blood on me. Yet.”

Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information
From Information Inspiration (Epic, 1974)

Just tell him/her, “looking at you makes me feel the same way I do when I listen to this song.” Shameless but highly effective.

Aretha Franklin: You Send Me
From Aretha Now (Atlantic, 1968)

It’s a groovier flip on Sam Cooke’s classic and it’s fun enough without laying it on too thick.

Dennis Brown: Things In Life
From 7″ (Sound Syndicate, 197?). Also on Money In My Pocket.

Because lovers rock never fails. Because the melancholy in this song is deep enough to bond anyone within earshot. Because if your intended recognizes it as “that song from Chungking Express, that’s enough to confirm their exquisite cinematic taste.

Michael Jackson: We’ve Got a Good Thing Going
From The Stripped Mixes (Universal, 2009)

Early MJ is charmingly innocent with just the right touch of grown-up sentiment. And the stripped mix is so irresistibly on point.

So much more I could throw on. Feel free to add your favorite “woo tunes” in the comments.