Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Temptations' 'Ain't too proud' on Broadway

Cholly Atkins, left, rehearsed with the Four Tops in the basement of the Apollo Theater in 1964.

Cholly Atkins taught Motown to dance. His moves get an update in ‘Ain’t Too Proud.’

By Brian Seibert
13 March 2019

Five handsome men, dressed sharp. Golden-voiced singers, each distinctly soulful, harmonizing on hit after hit. That they could also move well, smoothly executing snazzy, classy choreography, might have seemed extra. Yet it was essential to what made the Temptations exceptional and enduring. Think about it: Does anyone dance quite the way they did anymore?

Not really. Not even the extremely talented cast of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opens at the Imperial Theater on Broadway on 21st March 2019.

Times change. The past can never be wholly recaptured. Those are themes in this jukebox musical, which tells the story of the Temptations from the perspective of Otis Williams, the sole surviving original member (and an executive-producer of the show). And deep in the second act, when consequences and regrets are starting to pile up, the actor playing Mr. Williams (Derrick Baskin) says, “Don’t nothing rewind but a song.”

Change can be lamented or embraced. Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer of “Ain’t Too Proud,” is the embracing type. “It was important to me,” he said before a recent preview performance, “that an audience that knows the Temptations is able to watch the show and think, ‘That’s what I remember.’ But it’s also important to look through the lens of today.” The question he asked himself was: “If I were choreographing for the Temptations now, what would I do?”

What he did was create choreography that is more intricate, stylistically varied and narratively sophisticated than anything the Temptations ever approached.

All the characteristic slides and pivots and gestures in relay are in there, but amid a whole lot more. So while “Ain’t Too Proud” honors the past, it also brings out differences between dancing in Motown back then and dancing on Broadway now.

The Temptations were not trained dancers. At first, they didn’t think of themselves as dancers at all. “We would just stand and sing, or sit and sing,” Mr. Williams, 77, recalled over the phone.

The show has fun with this fact in an early scene. Paul Williams (no relation to Otis Williams) tries to get the other guys to dance in their act and they resist, claiming they can’t. He has to convince them that the ladies will like it.

Paul Williams, who died in 1973, did give the Temptations their first moves.

In 1965, though, they started working with a professional choreographer: Cholly Atkins. He is not a character in “Ain’t Too Proud.” But that omission, presumably for narrative economy, has some historical justification. In his 2001 autobiography, “Class Act” (written with Jacqui Malone), Mr. Atkins says that Motown artists were often told to say that they did their own choreography. He was part of the behind-the-scenes operation.

That operation was called Artist Development, and it was a critical component in the vision of Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy. “Berry always wanted Motown artists to be more than recording artists,” said Shelly Berger, who became the Temptations manager in 1966. (He’s a creative consultant for “Ain’t Too Proud,” as well as a character in it.) And so the people hired for Artist Development were show-business veterans, there to teach the kids how to become versatile entertainers.

Mr. Atkins was a tap dancer. Born in 1913, he came of age when tap, a sibling of jazz, was at its cultural peak — ubiquitous in nightclubs, Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals. As a black man, Mr. Atkins found little success in segregated Hollywood; he dubbed tap sounds for white dancers, gave ideas to Eleanor Powell. But in New York, with Honi Coles, a virtuoso once considered to have the fastest feet in the business, he formed a great partnership.

Mr. Coles and Atkins were in the tradition known as the class act: suave, debonair, cultivated. They sang a little, told jokes, and danced in several styles. Their soft-shoe was recklessly slow, a nonchalant tightrope walk of graceful control and rhythmic exactitude.They toured with the big bands of Cab Calloway and Count Basie. They appeared on Broadway in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1949.

But by then, the early 1950s, tap was falling out of fashion. It got a shove from the rise of rhythm 'n'blues and rock'n'roll. At places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a home for tap, R&B revues took over. Coles became the theater’s production manager, appalled by the teenagers with hit records and no understanding of theatrical etiquette as basic as how to bow. Mr. Atkins began to teach them.

Before long, word got around, especially when people caught what Mr. Atkins had done with Gladys Knight & the Pips. He was 30 years older than they were, and they called him Pop or Pops, names that stuck when Motown hired him as its official choreographer.

“Pops refined the Temptations,” Otis Williams recalled. “What he did was dramatic but more economic, so we wouldn’t overly exert ourselves but still could get across.”

Mr. Atkins called this techniquevocal choreography,” an art of moving for vocalists. It was dancing that accommodated a singer’s need to breathe and to get back to the microphone on time. In the right spots, it could be complex — feet following the bass line as voices sang a different rhythm. “But Pops would always stress, ‘Remember you guys are singers first,’” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Atkins was a taskmaster (“like a drill sergeant,” Mr. Berger said), but he adjusted to the skills of each group. “Let the punishment fit the crime” was his motto. The Four Tops didn’t get much more than some windshield-wiper bending. The Pips, the Supremes and the Temptations got the works.

They were being groomed for “the smart rooms,” Mr. Williams said: supper clubs like the Copacabana, places where few black acts were invited. Along with their hits, they sang standards, and Mr. Atkins taught them routines with hats & canes. You can see the results in “TCB,” the Temptations’ 1968 television special with the Supremes, and especially on their 1969 special, “G.I.T. On Broadway,” an hour of nothing but show tunes.

Every time one of Mr. Atkins’s groups appeared on television — on Ed Sullivan, “American Bandstand,” “Shindig,” “Soul Train” — they were spreading the tap and jazz steps he had learned when he was young, keeping those moves in cultural circulation as another generation picked them up from TV.

He continued to choreograph for the Temptations until his death in 2003. By then, the group’s roster had turned over many times (there have been more than 20 Temptations). And the way the Temptations danced, once so current, had become a period style.

The choreographer Sergio Trujillo said he asked himself, “If I were choreographing for the Temptations now, what would I do?”

The choreographer Sergio Trujillo said he asked himself, “If I were choreographing for the Temptations now, what would I do?”CreditSlaven Vlasic/Getty Images

It was around that time that Sergio Trujillo, born in Colombia in 1963, began choreographing “Jersey Boys,” the 2005 juke-box musical about the Four Seasons. For research, he studied videos of the old TV shows, footage of all the old groups. Since the Four Seasons didn’t move much, he had a free hand. “What I created,” he said, “was like the Temptations more than anything.”

“Ain’t Too Proud” came with different pressures: “Can I live up to the legend of these great performers known for their dancing?” he asked himself. “With the confidence of having done other shows of the period” — “All Shook Up,” “Memphis” — “I let myself create with abandonment.”

First, though, he wanted to earn the audience’s trust. And so the opening number of “Ain’t Too Proud” (“The Way You Do the Things You Do”) is very old school. Some of the lyrics are pantomimed baldly (opening the schoolbook), and when the narrator affectionately mocks those lyrics for corniness, he could be speaking of the choreography, too.

Immediately after, the simplicity recedes. For Mr. Trujillo is tasked, as Cholly Atkins never was, with helping to tell a story, the plot of how the Temptations got together and what they went through. And over the course of the show, as the group’s music changes, getting funky or psychedelic, responding to the riots and assassinations of the late 1960s, the dancing also changes, turning harder-edged, angrier, more technically and emotionally complex.

Throughout, the base style — “sprinkled with period authenticity,” in Mr. Trujillo’s words — tilts contemporary: sharper, bolder in attack. The Supremes in this show pop their hips with much more sexual frankness than the demure originals would have been allowed.

Mr. Trujillo is also working with a different kind of performer. Ephraim Sykes, who plays David Ruffin — one of the group’s lead singers — trained at the Alvin Ailey school and danced in the junior Ailey troupe. He has mastered some of Mr. Ruffin’s signature moves: splits; tossing a microphone in the air, spinning, dropping to his knees and catching the mic. But he also does much that Mr. Ruffin never attempted.

“I try to push my body as far as it can go,” Mr. Sykes said. “But also, how cool can I make it? That’s period for me. You didn’t see them try. Even the tricks I do that David never did, I’m trying to keep it so cool that it looks like David could’ve done them.”

Dancing that hard and still having to sing as well as David Ruffin isn’t nearly as easy as Mr. Sykes makes it look. “Singers and dancers are taught to breath in opposite ways,” he said, one relaxing where the other tightens. “I’m trying to use my dance training with a singer’s mind.”

Part of that dance training is in communicating with the body. “How they walked, how they stood, the pride of the city of Detroit, the bop in their step — it says so much about their times,” Mr. Sykes said.

In “Ain’t Too Proud,” even when the Temptations aren’t doing a dance number — in scenes between Otis Williams and his wife, for example — the five men are often present onstage like a cool Greek chorus. Their physical presence shows how they were always in one another’s thoughts.

That’s the kind of metaphor present nowhere in the choreography of Cholly Atkins. But what it looks like is five guys snapping and lightly swaying, as Cholly Atkins taught the Temptations to do.

A version of this article appears in print on March 17, 2019, on Page AR10 of the New York edition with the headline: The Way They Move the Way They Move.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Reggie Young, guitarist heard on hundreds of hits, dies at 82

He played guitar on hundreds of hit recordings in a career that spanned more than six decades.

By Bill Friskics-Warren

21st January 2019

NASHVILLE — Reggie Young, a prolific studio guitarist who appeared on landmark recordings by Elvis Presley and many others and played a prominent role in shaping the sound of Southern popular music in the 1960s and ’70s, died on Thursday, 17 January 2019, at his home in Leipers Fork, Tenn., just outside Nashville. He was 82.

His wife, Jenny Young, said the cause was heart failure. Mr. Young played guitar on hundreds of hit recordings in a career that spanned more than six decades.

Among his best-known credits are the Box Tops’ “The letter” and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious minds,” both No. 1 pop singles in the late ’60s, and Neil Diamond’s 1969 Top 10 hit “Sweet Caroline.”

Mr. Young also played the funky chicken-scratch guitar lick on “Skinny Legs and All,” the soul singer Joe Tex’s 1967 Top 10 pop hit. He contributed the reverberating fills and swells that punctuate James Carr’s timeless soul ballad “The Dark End of the Street,” also from 1967. And his bluesy riffing buttressed the sultry, throbbing groove on “Son of a preacher man,” a Top 10 single for the British pop singer Dusty Springfield in 1968.

Mr. Young appeared on all these recordings, including those associated with Presley’s late-’60s return to the limelight, as a member of the Memphis Boys, the renowned house band for the producer Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio.

Living and working in Memphis, where there had long been a fertile cross-pollinization between country music and the blues, was critical to the development of Mr. Young’s down-home style of playing, a muscular yet relaxed mix of rhythmic and melodic instincts.

Mr. Young, second from right in the back, with his fellow members of Bill Black’s Combo and the Beatles in 1964. When Bill Black’s Combo toured with the Beatles that year, Mr. Young gave George Harrison some guitar-playing guidance.

“In Memphis, it’s sort of in between Nashville and the Southern Delta down in Mississippi, so I’m kind of a cross between B. B. King and Chet Atkins,” Mr. Young said in an interview published on the website Soul and Jazz and Funk in 2017. “Most of the soul music back then was in Memphis,” he added. “That’s where I came from.”

In addition to playing guitar, Mr. Young added the psychedelic accents of the electric sitar to a handful of influential recordings, among them the Box Tops’ “Cry like a baby” and B. J. Thomas’s “Hooked on a feeling,” both of which reached the Top 10 in 1968.

After American Sound Studio closed in 1972, Mr. Young moved to Nashville, where his soulful less-is-more approach graced hits like Dobie Gray’s “Drift away,” Waylon Jennings’s “Luckenbach, Texas” and Willie Nelson’s “Always on my mind.”

Mr. Young’s Nashville session credits also include Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” which topped both the country and pop charts in 1974.

Mr. Young made an indelible contribution, especially during his years in Memphis, to the Southernization of pop music in the 1960s and early ’70s. This influence was felt not just by the number of records made in the South that were played on AM radio throughout the nation. It was also evident in the procession of artists, among them Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and the jazz flutist Herbie Mann, who came from outside the region to make records steeped in the Southern musical vernacular.

Reggie Grimes Young was born on 21st December 1936, in Caruthersville, Mo., and was raised in Osceola, Ark., and later in Memphis. His father, Reggie, was an accountant who played Hawaiian-style classical guitar and taught his son to play when he was 14. His mother, Thelma (Mayes) Young, was a homemaker.

In 1956 Mr. Young joined Eddie Bond and the Stompers, a rockabilly band that had a regional hit with a record called “Rockin’ Daddy” and opened shows for Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins.

Mr. Young, with his arms folded, with Elvis Presley and other session musicians at American Sound Studio in Memphis in 1969. Mr. Young played on the No. 1 single “Suspicious Minds” and other Presley recordings in the late 1960s.

Mr. Young, with his arms folded, with Elvis Presley and other session musicians at American Sound Studio in Memphis in 1969. Mr. Young played on the No. 1 single “Suspicious Minds” and other Presley recordings in the late 1960s.

Three years later he joined Bill Black’s Combo, an instrumental quintet led by Presley’s former bass player. He played on two No. 1 R&B singles with the group, “Smokie” and “White Silver Sands,” before joining the Army in 1960, and rejoined after his return to civilian life in the early ’60s.

He arrived just in time to travel with Bill Black’s Combo when it opened for the Beatles on their 1964 tour of the United States. During that tour, Mr. Young had the opportunity to introduce George Harrison to the finer points of his Southern style of playing.

“George asked me, because I’m a blues player, ‘How do you bend and stretch your strings like that?’ ”Mr. Young recalled in the Soul and Jazz and Funk interview. “I told him, ‘You have to have light-gauge strings,’ and after that I think he went to lighter gauge strings on his guitar.”

A compilation album of 24 tracks from sessions on which Mr. Young played, including recordings by Merle Haggard, Jackie DeShannon and Bobby (Blue) Bland, is to be released by the English label Ace Records this week.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Young is survived by a son, Reggie III; a daughter, Cindy Evans; a sister, Alice Weatley; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Young played with so many luminaries over the course of his career that he said “it was nothing special” for him and his fellow Memphis Boys to be tapped to support Elvis Presley in the studio in the late ’60s.

“We played with all the top stars of the time, and Elvis hadn’t had any hits for a while and didn’t have an album on the charts,” he said in a 2013 interview with Premier Guitar magazine.

“As he stepped into the studio though — boy,” he continued. “I never met any other person with such charisma. It was very special for me.”

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 22, 2019, on Page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Reggie Young, 82, Prolific ’60s and ’70s Studio Guitarist.

George Harrison & Pete Ham in New York, July 1971.  
Dylan & Harrison at Madison Square Garden in August 1971. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Lewis Hine, photographer

Lewis Hine photographs newly-arrivals at Ellis Island, in 1905.
Just rearing to go... inside Ellis Island processing paperwork queue...
Lewis Wickes Hine self-portrait

Friday, 18 May 2018

John Lee Hooker & 1960s hits

France EP, 1960.
Sweden Krusell, 1961.
The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield on the left) US stereo-EP, 1963.
Rivingtons' France EP, 1963.
The Shirelles, France EP .

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


John Napper is a British citizen who moved to Brazil when he retired from his work in London. He has lived Rio de Janeiro for a decade now. Both of us like music and I was surprised to know that Napper was a Melanie Safka fan. 

I lived in the USA in the early 1970s and had the chance to be exposed to the beautiful music Melanie made in those post-Woodstock years. I first heard Melanie singing 'Brand new key' but it was listening to her 'Candles in the rain' album that I fell in love with her voice and her music. Here's what John Napper wrote about her. 

Hi, Carlus

I was introduced to Melanie in 1971 by a fellow student who was a big fan and played her 1st four albums (total output at that time) constantly. Unfortunately I eventually lost touch with him but I still like her a lot. I agree with you that her version of 'Ruby Tuesday' is better than the Rolling Stones' original. She also did a brilliant version of 'Wild horses', another Stones' song. Most of her recordings are her own songs but she usually includes a couple of covers on each album which are always adapted to her own style and excellent in my opinion.

You had referred to the song 'Look what they've done to my song, Ma!' which is what she actually sings but the title is 'What have they done to my song, Ma!'.

Melanie one gave an interview to NME in which she said she'd gone into the studio and recorded 'Ruby Tuesday' with just her guitar as she would sing it on stage and thought that was fine. Later she was asked to listen to the finished recording and was not at all happy that strings had been added. Peronally I think it works well, but she was upset at the time and found a corner to sit and think about it... and that's when she wrote 'What have they done to my song, Ma!'. Both songs were included on the album 'Candles in the rain' and ironically issued as a double A-side single which became her first UK chart hit.

I got to see Melanie live in the Royal Albert Hall in 1975, where she was the only act and was accompanied by a single guitarrist whose name I can't recall. I still have the concert programme but he doesn't get a mention, unfortunately. She was on stage for around 3 hours, running well over the schedule finish-line, eventually finishing when her eldest daughter came on stage, apparently unplanned but I suspect it was a ploy by her husband to call time.

I eventually got to see her again much later in 2010, at The Stables which is a small theatre in Wavenden, just outside Milton Keynes, that is now an independent venue run by a trust but was originally created by the late Johnny Dankworth and his wife Cleo Laine on their property. It is an excellent theatre, obviously much more intimate than the Royal Albert Hall and she was able to hold conversations with members of the audience during her show which was nice.

This time she had a support act, her own son Beau Jared who is billed as a guitar-virtuoso and I won't argue with that. Afterwards they sat at the merchandise-table in the theatre-reception and signed autographs. I dashed out to my car and returned with my 1975 programme for her to sign. Melanie was very happy to see that and looked through it before asking if Beau Jared could take a photo of it. Obviously that was no problem and I was impressed that she asked permission, after all she is the star and I just happen to have kept an old concert-programme.

Concert-programmes seem to be a thing of the past. I had a small collection which I put on eBay when I was having a big clear-out in preparation for emigrating to Brazil, but this signed one is not for sale.

I'm guessing that you don't know the story of how she got started in the music business. The programme includes a short biography having the sotry of how she trained to be an actress. One day she went for an audition and went to the wrong office which was that of Peter Schekeryk, a music producer. As it happened, she was carrying a guitar-case and he asked her to play something seeing that she was there. I don't know what song she performed for him  but the result was a recording-contract and later marriage which lasted until he died which sadly was not long after I saw her at The Stables.

Melanie had never planned to be a recording star and always gives me the impression that she never really thought of herself as a star, just a singer performing for friends. Even though she obviously doesn't believe how successful she is. It's like she is still playing for fun in a Greenwich Village folk-club. What's more, her voice is still as good as ever.

Cheers, John Napper.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

USA Hit Parade from 1959 to 1981

This is a completely different view of Billboard's Weekly USA Hit Parade. It is a MONTHLY view of the 10 most popular hits in the USA from 1959 through to 1981. I have made a point of NOT repeating any song no matter how long it stayed at #1 or any other position.

For instance let's take Bobby Darin's 'Mack the knife' which was #1 for 9 weeks in 1959, making up October, November and the 1st week in December. Instead of having 'Mack the knife' as #1 in both October and November, I only included it as #1 in October and found a #2 to become #1 in November. Is it right? Probably not, but what matters is that one has 120 hits a year which gives one a comprehensive look for that year. 

This is not a strength or endurance competition. It doesn't matter if a song was 8 weeks at #1 but that the song was the best seller during a particular time. It is a list where one can find that a particular song was a hit at a particular time and had such and such as 'companions'. It was designed to give a 'snapshop' of a particular time without endless repetitions.

Bobby Lewis' 'Tossin' and turnin' was #1 for 7 weeks spanning July and August 1961. It suffices to know 'Tossin' and turnin' was #1 in July 1961. As everyone knows that a 'regular' hit would play  for 8 to 10 weeks on the air waves it is easy to figure it out.