A look at a group of singers who are little-known … but who were essential to the Motown sound, as we’ll see after the jump …..
Two months ago, I was listening to a weekly program of vintage rock/pop music called My Place on neighboring Vermont Public Radio. The knowledgeable host Joel Najman opened by discussing the recent debut of Motown the Musical on Broadway … and then mentioned an unknown part of Motown history that (he felt) deserved wider attention.
And after hearing of the story of the female back-up trio The Andantes – who recorded for Motown from 1960-1973 – if anything, I think that’s an understatement. Historians believe that this trio may have collectively sung on more than 20,000 recordings …… and even though this profile will be relatively brief (as little has been written of them) …..a tiny list of the recordings on which their voices can be heard will speak for itself.
At the advent of Motown, founder Berry Gordy settled upon a division of labor: a star system (lead singer/associated back-up singers) followed by the musicians and then the label’s in-studio back-up singers. The first in-studio back-up singers were known as the Rayber Voices – an informal group headed by Raynoma Liles who would later be married to Berry Gordy for a few years. After a time (and the Rayber Voices began sliding into other roles) various women answered ads to audition as singers.
And the three that emerged were Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow. Although they moonlighted for other labels (in different cities) …. in time, they became the go-to female back-up singers at Motown.
Their greatest strength was their ability to smooth out the sound generated by the other vocalists on any recording. The songwriting team of Holland, Dozier & Holland – whom I profiled just a few months ago – used the Andantes to smooth the Marvelettes’ infectious (but shaky) harmony in 1965 … and eventually replaced them (on records) by 1967. The same held true for The Vandellas – as Martha Reeves came to feel more comfortable with the Andantes.
Their greatest weakness was …… their ability to smooth out the sound generated by the other vocalists on any recording. They became so adept at providing back-up for any (and all) of Motown’s singers … that management felt they were too good to let go out on the road. They did receive a decent payment as back-up singers, and were promised future opportunities …. but never really had a chance to see if they could hit the big time, despite their pleas.
The one time that Motown allowed them to record a single on their own was 1964’s Like a Nightmare – for which the label used Ann Bogan as lead singer, not one of the Andantes – and then barely promoted it. One essayist believes they might yet have succeeded had the record been released two years earlier ….. but the market for girl groups had begun to crest.
Six years after Motown fell apart in 1973, the trio were signed by the British label Motorcity Records – for whom they recorded from 1989-1992 – with Ann Lewis joining them to make a quartet. They released several new songs, as well as covers of old songs they had back-up before … but nothing clicked, and they disbanded when the label nearly went under in 1982.
It should be noted that the male musicians who provided the actual Motown sound – known as the Funk Brothers – were treated similarly: promised side recordings (even some jazz albums) for staying on, yet became too valuable as a permanent session band. But they eventually received some recognition, with bassist James Jamerson inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 … and then a Funk Brothers documentary released two years later told their story. And at the 2004 Montreal Jazz Festival a few years back: I saw some of the surviving members backed up Joan Osborne in a memorable, free street performance.
By contrast, there was no mention of the Andantes in the new Broadway show, and they have been largely invisible (as back-up singers, especially female) tend to be ….. until a new exhibit on girl groups at the Motown Museum featured them on an equal footing with The Supremes, The Vandellas, The Marvelettes … even referring to the trio as the “Unsung Vocal Heroes of Motown“. And the exhibit (which runs through the summer) brought the trio back for a recent reunion visit to the museum. Hopefully, their song will finally be heard.
As promised, here is a sample of the songs which they sang back-up on:
Five reached #1 on the pop charts:
“My Guy” – Mary Wells
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” – Four Tops
“Reach Out I’ll Be There” – Four Tops
“Love Child” – Diana Ross & the Supremes
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
Twelve singles by the Four Tops, including: “Bernadette”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Baby I Need Your Loving”
Fifteen singles for Marvin Gaye, including: “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”, “Save the Children” and “Take This Heart of Mine”.
Seven singles for Martha & the Vandellas, including: “Jimmy Mack” and “My Baby Loves Me” (with the Four Tops).
Thirteen singles for the Marvelettes, including “Don’t Mess with Bill” and “I’ll Keep Holding On”.
The other … well, here is their recording of Like a Nightmare from 1964 (with Ann Bogan on lead vocals) ….. and we can only wonder that – if properly promoted – the trio could have been stars in their own right.