Tommy James & the Shondells -- the very mention of their name, even to someone who doesn't really know their music, evokes images of dances and the kind of fun that rock & roll represented before it redefined itself on more serious terms. And between 1966 and 1969, the group enjoyed 14 Top 40 hits, most of which remain among the most eminently listenable (if not always respected) examples of pop/rock. The group was almost as much of a Top 40 radio institution of the time as Creedence Clearwater Revival, but because they weren't completely self-contained (they wrote some, but not all, or their own hits) and were more rooted in pop/rock than basic rock & roll, it took decades for writers and pop historians to look with favor on Tommy James & the Shondells.
Tommy James was born Thomas Jackson on April 20, 1947, in Dayton, OH. He was introduced to music at age three, when he was given a ukulele by his grandfather. He was an attractive child and was working as a model at age four, which gave him something of a taste for performing. By age nine he'd moved to the next step in music, taking up the guitar, and by 1958, when he was 11, James began playing the electric guitar. In 1960, with his family now living in Niles, MI, 13-year-old James and a group of four friends from junior high school -- Larry Coverdale on guitar, Larry Wright on bass, Craig Villeneuve on piano, and Jim Payne on drums -- got together to play dances and parties. This was the original lineup of the Shondells, and they became good enough to earn decent money locally, and even got noticed by an outfit called Northway Sound Records, who recorded the quintet in a Tommy Jamesoriginal entitled "Judy" in 1962. That single didn't make much noise beyond their immediate locale, but in late 1963, the group came to the notice of a local disc jockey starting up a new label called Snap Records. They cut four sides, two of which were issued and disappeared without a trace on their first Snap single.
The second Snap label release, "Hanky Panky," was golden, at least in the area around Niles. A Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich song that the couple had already recorded under their nom de plume, the Raindrops, as a B-side that James and company had heard done by a rival band, "Hanky Panky," had become part of James' group's stage act. It was enormously popular on-stage, and the Snap single took off locally in Niles and the surrounding area, but it never got heard any further away. James and company picked up their marbles and went home, abandoning aspirations for a recording career in favor of pursuing music part time -- the singer/guitarist took a day job at a record store and confined his music efforts to the nighttime hours. The two years that ensued, from early 1964 until 1966, saw the original Shondells break up, as members left music or were drafted. This didn't seem to make much difference until a day came when James got an urgent request from a promoter to do a concert in Pittsburgh, PA.
Considering that the group had never even played there, he was puzzled. He soon found that the Snap Records single "Hanky Panky," recorded back in 1963 and overlooked in Chicago and Detroit at the time, had suddenly broken out in Pittsburgh. A promoter, having found a copy of the Snap single in a used-record bin, had liked what he heard and gotten the record played locally at dances. In one of those fluky instances that made the record business in those days a complete marvel, people suddenly started requesting "Hanky Panky," and in response to the demand, bootleggers began producing it, attributed to various labels -- some sources estimate that as many as 80,000 copies were sold in Pittsburgh before the smoke cleared.
James saw what he had to do, but he no longer had a band and was forced to recruit a new group of Shondells. The lucky winners were the Raconteurs, a local Pittsburgh quintet. They became the Shondells, with Joe Kessler on guitar, Ron Rosman on keyboards, George Magura on sax, Mike Valeon bass, and Vinnie Pietropaoli on drums; Peter Lucia and Eddie Gray, respectively, replaced Pietropaoli and Kessler, and Magura and his saxophone didn't last long in the lineup.
From near-total obscurity, this version of Tommy James & the Shondells went to playing to audiences numbering in the thousands, and were being courted by Columbia Records and RCA-Victor. It was Morris Levy and Roulette Records, however, who outbid everybody and won the group's contract, and got a number one national hit with "Hanky Panky," in the version cut by the original group nearly three years earlier.
Tommy James & the Shondells, revamped, revised, and reactivated, spent the next three and a half years trying to keep up with their own success. "Say Am I," their second Roulette single and the first by the extant group, only got to number 21, but it was accompanied by a pretty fair Hanky Panky LP, showing off the group's prowess at covering current soul hits by the likes of the Impressions, James Brown, and Junior Walker & the All-Stars. A third single, "It's Only Love," reached number 31, but the fourth, "I Think We're Alone Now," issued in early 1967, got to number four, and the fifth, "Mirage," was another Top Ten release. The latter record was truly a spin-off of the previous hit in the most bizarre way -- according to James, "Mirage" was initially devised by playing the master of "I Think We're Alone Now" backwards. Those recordings were the work of songwriter and producer Ritchie Cordell, who became a rich source of material for the group for the remainder of their history.
Tommy James & the Shondells were lucky enough to be making pop-oriented rock & roll in an era when most of the rest of the rock music world was trying to make more serious records and even create art (often even when the act in question had no capacity for that kind of activity). They were at a label who recognized the need to spend money in order to make money, and didn't mind the expense of issuing a new LP with each major single, despite the fact that Roulette was mostly a singles label where everything but jazz was concerned. The group members themselves were having the time of their lives playing concerts, making personal appearances, and experimenting with advancing their sound in the studio. Audiences loved their work and their records, and it only seemed to get better.
Their songs ran almost counter to the trend among serious rock artists. "Mony Mony," a number three hit coming out in the midst of Vietnam, the psychedelic boom, and just as rock music was supposed to be turning toward higher, more serious forms, was a result of the group looking for a perfect party record and dance tune; even the name was sheer, dumb luck, a result of James spotting the Mutual of New York (MONY) illuminated sign atop their building in mid-town Manhattan at a key moment in the creative process. The group did grab a piece of the prevailing style in late 1968 with "Crimson and Clover," an original by James and drummer Peter Lucia that utilized some creative sound distortion techniques. A number one hit that sold five million copies, it was the biggest single of the group's history and yielded a highly successful follow-up LP as well -- ironically, the latter album included liner notes by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had gotten to know the band in the course of their performing at some of his campaign events during his 1968 run for the presidency.
James and company were among the top pop/rock performers in the world during 1969, with two more major hits, "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion," to their credit. Indeed, their presence on the Crimson and Clover album, in addition to the title cut, helped loft that record to a 35-week run on the charts, an extraordinary achievement not only in the history of the band but also -- for a non-greatest hits album -- for Roulette Records, who weren't known as a strong album label. They also began experimenting more with new sounds during this period, most notably on their next album, Cellophane Symphony. The latter record, whose release was delayed for four months because of the extraordinary sales of Crimson and Clover, had its share of basic rock & roll sounds but also plunged into progressive/psychedelic music with a vengeance, most notably on "Cellophane Symphony," a Moog-dominated track that sounds closer to Pink Floyd than anyone ever imagined possible. Cellophane Symphony sold well without breaking any records by its predecessor, and proved in the process that Tommy James & the Shondells could compete in virtually any rock genre. The only miscalculation made by the band was their declining an invitation to perform at Woodstock; the mere credit, coupled with perhaps an appearance in the movie or on the album, might have enhanced their credibility with the counterculture audience.
The end of the Shondells' history came not from any real decision, but simply their desire to take a break in 1970, after four years of hard work and a lot of great times. The moment also seemed right -- James was getting involved in other projects and moving in other directions, including writing and producing records for acts like the Brooklyn-based band Alive and Kicking, whose "Tighter and Tighter" got to number seven, and his own solo recordings. The Shondells continued working together for a time as well, under the name Hog Heaven, cutting one album for Roulette before withdrawing back to the Pittsburgh area where they'd started.
James went through a lot of different sounds on his own records, including country (My Head, My Bed, & My Red Guitar) and Christian music (Christian of the World), and charted in the Top Ten one last time in 1971 with "Draggin' the Line," although he also saw more limited success for another two years with records such as "I'm Comin' Home" and "Celebration."
In the mid-'70s, he made a jump from Roulette Records, where he'd based his career for nearly a decade, to Fantasy Records, and he later recorded for Millennium Records. Following his 1980 Top 20 hit, "Three Times in Love," he resurfaced as a concert artist playing his old hits as well as new songs, although some of these shows were marred by reports of late arrivals and less-than-ideal performances; he has since reestablished a record as a serious crowd-pleasing act, cutting records anew with Cordelland even releasing a live hits collection in 1998.
Tommy James & the Shondells have even achieved something that they saw relatively little of in their own time -- respect. In the years 1966-1970, they were regarded as a bubblegum act and part of the scenery by the few discerning critical voices around, but in the '80s, their music revealed its staying power in fresh recordings (and hits) by Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Tiffany, with "Crimson and Clover," "Mony Mony," and "I Think We're Alone Now," respectively; indeed, in one of those odd chart events that would have seemed more likely in the '60s, in 1987, Tiffany's version of "I Think We're Alone Now" was replaced at the number one spot after two weeks by Billy Idol's rendition of "Mony Mony." Rhino Records' reissue of the Crimson and Clover and Cellophane Symphony albums, in addition to greatest hits collections and a survey of James' solo recordings from the decade 1970-1980, also seemed to speak for the group's credibility, and a 1997 Westside Records double CD, It's a New Vibration, offering unreleased songs from the '60s as well as all of the key single tracks, confirmed the level of seriousness with which the group was perceived.
Gerry Rafferty was a popular music giant at the end of the '70s, thanks to the song "Baker Street" and the album City to City. His career long predated that fixture of Top 40 radio, however; indeed, by the time he cut "Baker Street" Raffertyhad already been a member of two successful groups, the Humblebums and Stealers Wheel.
Rafferty was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1947, the son of a Scottish mother and an Irish father. His father was deaf but still enjoyed singing, mostly Irish rebel songs, and his early experience of music was a combination of Catholic hymns, traditional folk music, and '50s pop music. By 1968, at age 21, Rafferty was a singer/guitarist and had started trying to write songs professionally, and was looking for a gig of his own. Enter Billy Connolly, late of Scottish bands like the Skillet Lickers and the Acme Brush Company. Connolly was a musician and comedian who'd found that telling jokes from the stage was as appealing an activity to him -- and the audience -- as making music. He'd passed through several groups looking for a niche before finally forming a duo called the Humblebums with Tim Harvey, a rock guitarist. They'd established themselves in Glasgow, and were then approached by Transatlantic, one of the more successful independent record labels in England at the time, and signed to a recording contract. After playing a show in Paisley, Rafferty approached Connolly about auditioning some of the songs he'd written. Connolly was impressed not only with the songs but with their author, and suddenly the Humblebums were a trio. They were a major success in England both on-stage and on record, but not without some strain. Connolly was the dominant personality, his jokes between the songs entertaining audiences as much as the songs themselves.
Additionally, Rafferty began develop a distinctive style as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, and this eventually led to tension between him and Harvey: the latter exited in 1970, and Rafferty and Connollycontinued together for two more albums, their line-up expanding to a sextet, but their relationship began to break down. The records were selling well, and the gigs were growing in prominence, including a Royal Command Performance. Connolly, however, worked himself to the point of exhaustion amid all of this activity, and when he did recover, he and Rafferty ultimately split up over the differing directions in which each was going. Rafferty had noticed that Connolly's jokes were taking up more time in their concerts than the music he was writing. They parted company in 1971. Transatlantic didn't want to give up one of its top money-makers, however, especially if there was a new career to be started. Rafferty cut his first solo album for the label that year. "Can I Have My Money Back?" was a melodious folk-pop album, on which Rafferty employed the vocal talents of an old school friend, Joe Egan. The LP garnered good reviews but failed to sell.
Out of those sessions, however, Rafferty and Egan put together the original lineup of Stealers Wheel, which was one of the most promising (and rewarding) pop/rock outfits of the mid-'70s. Unfortunately, Stealers Wheel's lineup and legal history were complicated enough to keep various lawyers well paid for much of the middle of the decade. Rafferty was in the group, then out, then in again as the lineup kept shifting. Their first album was a success, the single "Stuck in the Middle with You" a huge hit, but nothing after that clicked commercially, and by 1975 the group was history. Three years of legal battles followed, sorting out problems between Rafferty and his management.
Finally, in 1978, Rafferty was free to record again, and he signed to United Artists Records. That year, he cut City to City, a melodic yet strangely enigmatic album that topped the charts in America, put there by the success of the song "Baker Street." The song itself was a masterpiece of pop production, Rafferty's Paul McCartney-like vocals carrying a haunting central melody with a mysterious and yearning lyric, backed by a quietly thumping bass, tinkling celeste, and understated keyboard ornamentation, and then Raphael Ravenscroft's sax, which you got a taste of in the opening bars, rises up behind some heavily amplified electric guitars. It was sophisticated '70s pop/rock at its best (and better yet, it wasn't disco!) and it dominated the airwaves for months in 1978, narrowly missing the number one spot in England but selling millions of copies and taking up hundreds of cumulative hours of radio time.
The publisher and the record company couldn't have been happier. Everyone concerned was thrilled, until it became clear that Rafferty -- who had a reclusive and iconoclastic streak -- was not going to tour America to support the album. The album, which finally reached number one, might've gone double-platinum and meant it (lots of records were shipped platinum in those days, only eventually to return 90-percent of those copies) had Rafferty toured. His next record, Night Owl(1979), also charted well and got good reviews, but the momentum that had driven City to City to top-selling status wasn't there, and Snakes & Ladders (1980), his next record, didn't sell nearly as well. Ironically, around this time, Rafferty's brother Jim was signed to a recording contract by Decca-London, a label that wasn't long for this world -- something that Gerry would soon have to face about his own situation at United Artists.
United Artists Records had seen some major hit records throughout the '60s and '70s, but by the end of the decade, the parent film distribution and production company was revamping all of its operations in the wake of the mass exodus of several of its top executives. The record label was one of the first things to go -- running a record company was a luxury that the current UA management felt it could do without. Rafferty was practically the last major artist signed to the label, and if City to City had been a hit when the label was sold to EMI, he'd probably have been treated like visiting royalty. But by the time United Artists Records was sold to EMI around 1980, his figures weren't showing millions of units sold anymore. His contract was merely part of a deal, and, in fact, almost none of the UA artists picked up by EMI fared well with the new company -- as with many artists caught up in one of those sale-and-acquisition situations, even if Rafferty had been producing anything comparable to "Baker Street" in popularity, it's doubtful the record would've gotten the push it would've taken to make it a hit.
Sleepwalking (1982), issued on the Liberty label, ended that round of Rafferty's public music-making activities, and he was little heard from during the mid-'80s, apart from one song contributed to the offbeat comedy Local Hero, a producer's gig with the group the Proclaimers that yielded a Top Three single ("Letter from America") in 1987. A year later, he released his first album in more than five years, North & South, which failed to register with the public. By that time, Transatlantic had begun exploiting his early recording activity, reissuing his early solo and Humblebums tracks on CD. On a Wing and a Prayer (1992) was similarly ignored by the public, although the critics loved it, and Over My Head (1995) was an attempt to reconsider his own past by rethinking some Stealers Wheel-era songs.
In January 2011, Gerry Rafferty died of liver disease at the age of 63 in Bournemouth, Dorset, England. At the time of his death he was still remembered primarily for "Baker Street" and City to City, which had been released as gold-plated audiophile CDs. And one might reasonably expect that when some Stealers Wheel track gets picked up for a soundtrack (as "Stuck in the Middle with You" was for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs) or commercial, his voice and guitar will continue to get a fresh airing.
Check out some of our favorite Gerry Rafferty Videos
Al Green was the first great soul singer of the '70s and arguably the last great Southern soul singer. With his seductive singles for Hi Records in the early '70s, Green bridged the gap between deep soul and smooth Philadelphia soul. He incorporated elements of gospel, interjecting his performances with wild moans and wails, but his records were stylish, boasting immaculate productions that rolled along with a tight beat, sexy backing vocals, and lush strings. The distinctive Hi Records sound that the vocalist and producer Willie Mitchell developed made Al Green the most popular and influential soul singer of the early '70s, influencing not only his contemporaries, but also veterans like Marvin Gaye. Green was at the peak of his popularity when he suddenly decided to join the ministry in the mid-'70s. At first, he continued to record secular material, but by the '80s, he was concentrating solely on gospel. During the late '80s and '90s, he occasionally returned to R&B, but he remained primarily a religious performer for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, Green's classic early- '70s recordings retained their power and influence throughout the decades, setting the standard for smooth soul.
Green was born in Forrest City, AR, where he formed a gospel quartet, the Green Brothers, at the age of nine. The group toured throughout the South in the mid-'50s, before the family relocated to Grand Rapids, MI. The Green Brothers continued to perform in Grand Rapids, but Al's father kicked the boy out of the group after he caught his son listening to Jackie Wilson. At the age of 16, Al formed an R&B group, Al Green & the Creations, with several of his high-school friends. Two Creation members, Curtis Rogers and Palmer James, founded their own independent record company, Hot Line Music Journal, and had the group record for the label. By that time, the Creations had been re-named the Soul Mates. The group's first single, "Back Up Train," became a surprise hit, climbing to number five on the R&B charts early in 1968. The Soul Mates attempted to record another hit, but all of their subsequent singles failed to find an audience.
In 1969, Al Green met bandleader and Hi Records vice president Willie Mitchell while on tour in Midland, Texas. Impressed with Green's voice, he signed the singer to Hi Records, and began collaborating with Al on his debut album. Released in early 1970, Green's debut album, Green Is Blues, showcased the signature sound he and Mitchelldevised -- a sinewy, sexy groove highlighted by horn punctuations and string beds that let Green showcase his remarkable falsetto. While the album didn't spawn any hit singles, it was well-received and set the stage for the breakthrough success of his second album. Al Green Gets Next to You (1970) launched his first hit single, "Tired of Being Alone," which began a streak of four straight gold singles. Let's Stay Together (1972) was his first genuine hit album, climbing to number eight on the pop charts; its title track became his first number one single. I'm Still in Love With You, which followed only a few months later, was an even greater success, peaking at number four and launching the hits "Look What You Done for Me" and "I'm Still in Love With You."
By the release of 1973's Call Me, Green was known as both a hitmaker and an artist who released consistently engaging, frequently excellent, critically-acclaimed albums. His hits continued uninterrupted through the next two years, with "Call Me," "Here I Am," and "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" all becoming Top Ten gold singles. At the height of his popularity, Green's former girlfriend, Mrs. Mary Woodson, broke into his Memphis home in October 1974 and poured boiling grits on the singer as he was bathing, inflicting second-degree burns on his back, stomach, and arm; after assaulting Green, she killed herself with his gun. Green interpreted the violent incident as a sign from God that he should enter the ministry. By 1976, he had bought a church in Memphis and had become an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Though he had begun to seriously pursue religion, he had not given up singing R&B and he released three other Mitchell-produced albums -- Al Green Is Love (1975), Full of Fire (1976), Have a Good Time (1976) -- after the incident. However, his albums began to sound formulaic, and his sales started to slip by the end of 1976, with disco cutting heavily into his audience.
In order to break free from his slump, Green stopped working with Willie Mitchell in 1977 and built his own studio, American Music, where he intended to produce his own records. The first album he made at American Music was The Belle Album, an intimate record that was critically acclaimed but failed to win a crossover audience. Truth and Time (1978) failed to even generate a major R&B hit. During a concert in Cincinnati in 1979, Green fell off the stage and nearly injured himself seriously. Interpreting the accident as a sign from God, Greenretired from performing secular music and devoted himself to preaching. Throughout the '80s, he released a series of gospel albums on Myrrh Records. In 1982, Green appeared in the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God with Patti Labelle. In 1985, he reunited with Willie Mitchell for He Is the Light, his first album for A&M Records.
Green tentatively returned to R&B in 1988 when he sang "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" with Annie Lennox for the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged. Four years later, he recorded his first full-fledged soul album since 1978 with the U.K.-only Don't Look Back. Al Green was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year, he released Your Heart's in Good Hands, an urban contemporary record that represented his first secular album to be released in America since Truth and Time. Though the album received positive reviews, it failed to become a hit. Green did achieve widespread recognition eight years later with his first album for Blue Note, I Can't Stop. One and a half years later, he followed it with Everything's OK. His third Blue Note album, 2008's Lay It Down, featured an updated sound that still echoed the feel of his classic earlier soul style.
Huey Lewis & the News were a bar band that made good. With their simple, straightforward rock & roll, the San Francisco-based group became one of America's most popular pop/rock bands of the mid-'80s. Inspired equally by British pub rock and '60s R&B and rock & roll, the News had a driving, party-hearty spirit that made songs like "Workin' for a Livin'," "I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Hip to Be Square," and "The Power of Love" yuppie anthems. At its core, the group was a working band, and the bandmembers knew how to target their audience, writing odes to nine-to-five jobs and sports. As the decade progressed, Huey Lewis & the News smoothed out their sound to appeal to the aging baby boomers who adopted them, but by the beginning of the '90s, the appeal of their formula had decreased. Nevertheless, the group remained a popular concert attraction, and continued to have radio hits on adult contemporary stations.
Upon their return to America, Lewis and Hopper began jamming at a Marin County bar called Uncle Charlie's, which is where they formed American Express with Mario Cipollina (bass), Johnny Colla(saxophone, guitar), and Bill Gibson (drums), who had all played in Soundhole, one of Van Morrison's backing bands in the late '70s. American Express recorded a disco version of "Theme from Exodus," calling it "Exodisco." Mercury released the single, which was ignored. In 1980, the group added lead guitarist Chris Hayes and was offered a contract by Chrysalis, who requested that the band change its name. The members chose Huey Lewis & the News and the band's eponymous debut was released later that year to little attention.
Picture This, the group's second album, was released early in 1982 and the record became a hit on the strength of the Top Ten single "Do You Believe in Love," which was written by former Clover producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange. A couple other minor hits, "Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do" and "Workin' for a Livin'" followed, and the band began building a strong following by touring heavily. Sports, the group's third album, was released in the fall of 1983 and it slowly became a multi-platinum success, thanks to touring and a series of clever, funny videos that received heavy MTV airplay. "Heart and Soul" (number eight, 1983), "I Want a New Drug" (number six, 1984), "The Heart of Rock & Roll" (number six, 1984), and "If This Is It" (number six, 1984) all became Top Ten hits, and Sports climbed to number one in 1984; it would eventually sell over seven million copies. Late in 1984, Lewis sued Ray Parker, Jr., claiming that his song "Ghostbusters" plagiarized "I Want a New Drug." The suit was settled out of court. The News had their first number one single in 1985 with "The Power of Love," taken from the soundtrack to Back to the Future.
The band returned with its fourth album, Fore!, in 1986. The record sailed to number one on the strength of five Top Ten singles: "Stuck with You" (number one, 1986), "Hip to Be Square" (number three, 1986), "Jacob's Ladder" (number one, 1987), "I Know What I Like" (number nine, 1987), and "Doing It All for My Baby" (number six, 1987). Huey Lewis & the Newswere riding high on the charts when they decided to expand their musical reach with 1988's Small World, dipping tentatively into various American roots musics. While the record produced the Top Ten hit "Perfect World," it was a commercial disappointment after two chart-topping, multi-platinum albums, stalling at number 11 on the charts and only going platinum.
The News took three years to follow up Small World with Hard at Play, which was released on their new label, EMI. Hard at Play failed to break the Top 20 and only produced one hit, "Couple Days Off." With its commercial heyday clearly passed, the group took the remainder of the '90s rather easy, touring sporadically and releasing the covers album Four Chords & Several Years Ago in 1994. The band's first release for Elektra Records, the album generated one adult contemporary radio hit, "But It's Alright," and failed to go gold. It would be over six years before the next album appeared, Plan B, which was released by Silvertone Records in 2001. A Stax Records/Memphis soul tribute album, Soulsville, appeared nine years later in 2010; it debuted at 121 on the Billboard charts. As the group prepped an album of original material, they decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sports! in 2013, releasing a deluxe double-disc edition of the album and supporting the reissue with a tour and a sizeable press campaign.
Check out some of our favorite Huey Lewis & The News Videos
The most successful black performers of the '60s, the Supremes for a time rivaled even the Beatles in terms of red-hot commercial appeal, reeling off five number one singles in a row at one point. Critical revisionism has tended to undervalue the Supremes' accomplishments, categorizing their work as more lightweight than the best soul stars' (or even the best Motown stars'), and viewing them as a tool for Berry Gordy's crossover aspirations. There's no question that there was about as much pop as soul in the Supremes' hits, that even some of their biggest hits could sound formulaic, and that they were probably the black performers who were most successful at infiltrating the tastes and televisions of middle America. This shouldn't diminish either their extraordinary achievements or their fine music, the best of which renders the pop vs. soul question moot with its excellence.
The Supremes were not an overnight success story, although it might have seemed that way when they began topping the charts with sure-fire regularity. The trio that would become famous as the Supremes -- Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard -- met in the late '50s in Detroit's Brewster housing project. Originally known as the Primettes, they were a quartet (Barbara Martin was the fourth member) when they made their first single for the Lupine label in 1960. By the time they debuted for Motown in 1961, they had been renamed the Supremes; Barbara Martin reduced them to a trio when she left after their first single.
The Supremes' first Motown recordings were much more girl-group-oriented than their later hits. Additionally, not all of them featured Diana Ross on lead vocals; Flo Ballard, considered to have as good or better a voice, also sang lead. Through a lengthy series of flops, Berry Gordy remained confident that the group would eventually prove to be one of Motown's biggest. By the time they finally did get their first Top 40 hit, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" in late 1963, Ross had taken over the lead singing for good.
Ross was not the most talented female singer at Motown; Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight in particular had superior talents. What she did have, however, was the most purely pop appeal. Gordy's patience and attention paid off in mid-1964 when "Where Did Our Love Go" went to number one. Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it established the prototype for their run of five consecutive number one hits in 1964-1965 (also including "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Come See About Me," and "Back in My Arms Again"). Ross' cooing vocals would front the Supremes' decorative backup vocals, put over on television and live performance with highly stylized choreography and visual style. Holland-Dozier-Holland would write and produce all of the Supremes' hits through the end of 1967.
Not all of the Supremes' singles went to number one after 1965, but they usually did awfully well, and were written and produced with enough variety (but enough of a characteristic sound) to ensure continual interest. The chart-topping (and uncharacteristically tough) "You Keep Me Hangin' On" was the best of their mid-period hits. Behind the scenes, there were some problems brewing, although these only came to light long after the event. Other Motown stars (most notably Martha Reeves) resented what they perceived as the inordinate attention lavished upon Ross by Gordy, at the expense of other artists on the label. The other Supremes themselves felt increasingly pushed to the background. In mid-1967, as a result of what was deemed increasingly unprofessional behavior, Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong (from Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles). Ballard become one of rock's greatest tragedies, eventually ending up on welfare and dying in 1976.
After Ballard's exit, the group was billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes, fueling speculation that Ross was being groomed for a solo career. The Supremes had a big year in 1967, even incorporating some mild psychedelic influences into "Reflections." Holland-Dozier-Holland, however, left Motown around this time, and the quality of the Supremes' records suffered accordingly (as did the Motown organization as a whole). The Supremes were still superstars, but as a unit, they were disintegrating; it's been reported that Wilson and Birdsong didn't even sing on their final hits, a couple of which ("Love Child" and "Someday We'll Be Together") were among their best.
In November 1969, Ross' imminent departure for a solo career was announced, although she played a few more dates with them, the last in Las Vegas in January 1970. Jean Terrell replaced Ross, and the group continued through 1977, with some more personnel changes (although Mary Wilson was always involved). Some of the early Ross-less singles were fine records, particularly "Stoned Love," "Nathan Jones," and the Supremes/Four Tops duet "River Deep -- Mountain High." Few groups have been able to rise to the occasion after the loss of their figurehead, though, and the Supremes proved no exception, rarely making the charts after 1972. It is the Diana Ross-led era of the '60s for which they'll be remembered.
Motown initially paired her with writer/producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who gave her four Top 40 pop hits, including the number one "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (July 1970). Ross branched out into acting, starring in a film biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues(November 1972). The soundtrack went to number one, and Ross was nominated for an Academy Award.
She returned to record-making with the Top Ten album Touch Me in the Morning (June 1973) and its chart-topping title song. This was followed by a duet album with Marvin Gaye, Diana & Marvin(October 1973), that produced three chart hits. Ross acted in her second movie, Mahogany (October 1975), and it brought her another chart-topping single in the theme song, "Do You Know Where You're Going To." That and her next number one, the disco-oriented "Love Hangover" (March 1976), were featured on her second album to be titled simply Diana Ross (February 1976), which rose into the Top Ten.
Ross' third film role came in The Wiz (October 1978). The Boss (May 1979) was a gold-selling album, followed by the platinum-selling Diana (May 1980) (the second of her solo albums with that name, though the other, a 1971 TV soundtrack, had an exclamation mark). It featured the number one single "Upside Down" and the Top Ten hit "I'm Coming Out."
Ross scored a third Top Ten hit in 1980 singing the title theme from the movie It's My Turn. She then scored the biggest hit of her career with another movie theme, duetting with Lionel Richieon "Endless Love" (June 1981). It was her last big hit on Motown; after more than 20 years, she decamped for RCA. She was rewarded immediately with a million-selling album, titled after her remake of the old Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," which became her next Top Ten hit. The album also included the Top Ten hit "Mirror, Mirror."
Silk Electric (October 1982) was a gold-seller, featuring the Top Ten hit "Muscles," written and produced by Michael Jackson, and Swept Away (September 1984) was another successful album, containing the hit "Missing You," but Rosshad trouble selling records in the second half of the 1980s. By 1989, she had returned to Motown, and by 1993 was turning more to pop standards, notably on the concert album Diana Ross Live: The Lady Sings...Jazz & Blues, Stolen Moments (April 1993).
In 2006 Motown finally released Ross' lost album Blue, a collection of standards originally intended as the follow-up to Lady Sings the Blues. The album I Love You from 2007 featured new interpretations of familiar love songs. That year, her contributions to the performing arts were acknowledged at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, and BET honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the course of the following decade, she toured regularly and held a residency at The Venetian in Las Vegas. President Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. All the while, Motown issued a handful of Ross anthologies, most notably Diamond Diana: The Legacy Collection.
Check out some of our favorite Diana Ross & The Supremes Videos
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Check out some of our favorite Diana Ross Solo Videos
.Elton John was the biggest pop star of the '70s, grabbing headlines and generating hits throughout the world. As it turned out, this was merely the first act in a remarkable career that kept him at the top of the charts for over 25 years. He charted a Top 40 hit single every year between 1970 and 1996, a sign that he knew how to both change with the times and mold the times to fit him. Initially marketed as a singer/songwriter, John soon revealed he could craft Beatlesque pop and pound out rockers with equal aplomb. He could dip into soul, disco, and country, as well as classic pop balladry and even progressive rock. His versatility, combined with his effortless melodic skills, dynamic charisma, and flamboyant stage shows, became his calling cards and many of his songs -- including "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- became contemporary pop standards.
The son of a former Royal Air Force trumpeter, John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in 1947. Dwight began playing piano at the age of four, and when he was 11, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. After studying for six years, he left school with the intention of breaking into the music business. In 1961, he joined his first band, Bluesology, and divided his time between playing with the group, giving solo concerts at a local hotel, and running errands for a London publishing house. By 1965, Bluesology was backing touring American soul and R&B musicians like Major Lance, Doris Troy, and the Bluebells. In 1966, Bluesology became Long John Baldry's supporting band and began touring cabarets throughout England. Dwight became frustrated with Baldry's control of the band and began searching for other groups to join. He failed his lead vocalist auditions for both King Crimson and Gentle Giant before responding to an advertisement by Liberty Records. Though he failed his Liberty audition, he was given a stack of lyrics left with the label courtesy of Bernie Taupin, who had also replied to the ad. Dwight wrote music for Taupin's lyrics and began corresponding with him through mail. By the time the two met six months later, Dwight had changed his name to Elton John, taking his first name from Bluesology saxophonist Elton Dean and his last from John Baldry.
John and Taupin were hired by Dick James to become staff songwriters at his fledgling DJM in 1968. The pair collaborated at a rapid rate, with Taupin submitting batches of lyrics -- he often wrote a song an hour -- every few weeks. John would then write music without changing the words, sometimes completing the songs in under a half-hour. Over the next two years, the duo wrote songs for pop singers like Roger Cookand Lulu. In the meantime, John recorded cover versions of current hits for budget labels to be sold in supermarkets. By the summer of 1968, he had begun recording singles for release under his own name. Usually, these songs were more rock- and radio-oriented than the tunes he and Taupin were giving to other vocalists, yet neither of his early singles for Philips, "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "Lady Samantha," sold well. In June of 1969, he released his debut album for DJM, Empty Sky, which received fair reviews, but no sales.
For his second album, John and Taupin hired producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster, who contributed grandiose string charts to Elton John. Released in the summer of 1970, Elton John began to make inroads in America, where it appeared on MCA's Uni subsidiary. In August, he gave his first American concert at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, which received enthusiastic reviews, as well as praise from Quincy Jones and Leon Russell. Throughout the fall, Elton John continued to climb the charts on the strength of the Top Ten single "Your Song." John followed it quickly in late 1970 with the concept album Tumbleweed Connection, which received heavy airplay on album-oriented radio in the U.S., helping it climb into the Top Ten. The rapid release of Tumbleweed Connection established a pattern of frequent releases that John maintained throughout his career. In 1971, he released the live 11-17-70 and the Friendssoundtrack, before releasing Madman Across the Water late in the year. Madman Across the Waterwas successful, but John achieved stardom with the follow-up, 1972's Honky Chateau. Recorded with his touring band -- bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson, and guitarist Davey Johnstone -- and featuring the hit singles "Rocket Man" and "Honky Cat," Honky Chateau became his first American number one album, spending five weeks at the top of the charts.
Throughout the mid-'70s, John's concerts were enormously popular, as were his singles and albums, and he continued to record and perform at a rapid pace until 1976. That year, he revealed in an interview in Rolling Stone that he was bisexual; he would later admit that the confession was a compromise, since he was afraid to reveal that he was homosexual. Many fans reacted negatively to John's bisexuality, and his audience began to shrink somewhat in the late '70s. The decline in his record sales was also due to his exhaustion. After 1976, Johncut his performance schedule drastically, announcing that he was retiring from live performances in 1977, and started recording only one album a year. His relationship with Taupin became strained following the release of 1976's double album Blue Moves, and the lyricist began working with other musicians. John returned in 1978 with A Single Man, which was written with Gary Osborne; the record produced no Top 20 singles. That year, he returned to live performances, first by jamming at the Live Stiffs package tour, then by launching a comeback tour in 1979 accompanied only by percussionist Ray Cooper. "Mama Can't Buy You Love," a song he recorded with Philly soul producer Thom Bell in 1977, returned him to the Top Ten in 1979, but that year's Victim of Love was a commercial disappointment.
John reunited with Taupin for 1980's 21 at 33, which featured the Top Ten single "Little Jeannie." Over the next three years, John remained a popular concert artist, but his singles failed to break the Top Ten, even if they reached the Top 40. In 1981, he signed with Geffen Records and his second album, Jump Up!, became a gold album on the strength of "Blue Eyes" and "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," his tribute to John Lennon. But it was 1983's Too Low for Zero that began his last great streak of hit singles, with the MTV hit "I'm Still Standing" and the Top Ten single "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." Throughout the rest of the '80s, John's albums would consistently go gold, and they always generated at least one Top 40 single; frequently, they featured Top Ten singles like "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" (1984), "Nikita" (1986), "Candle in the Wind" (1987), and "I Don't Want to Go on with You Like That" (1988). While his career continued to be successful, his personal life was in turmoil. Since the mid-'70s, he had been addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and the situation only worsened during the '80s. In a surprise move, he married engineer Renate Blauel in 1984; the couple stayed married for four years, although John later admitted he realized he was homosexual before his marriage. In 1986, he underwent throat surgery while on tour, but even after he successfully recovered, he continued to abuse cocaine and alcohol.
Following a record-breaking five-date stint at Madison Square Garden in 1988, John auctioned off all of his theatrical costumes, thousands of pieces of memorabilia, and his extensive record collection through Sotheby's. The auction was a symbolic turning point. Over the next two years, John battled both his drug addiction and bulimia, undergoing hair replacement surgery at the same time. By 1991 he was sober, and the following year he established the Elton John AIDS Foundation; he also announced that he would donate all royalties from his single sales to AIDS research.
In 1992, John returned to active recording with The One. Peaking at number eight on the U.S. charts and going double platinum, the album became his most successful record since Blue Moves and sparked a career renaissance for John. He and Taupin signed a record-breaking publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music in 1992 for an estimated 39 million dollars. In 1994, John collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on songs for Disney's animated feature The Lion King. One of their collaborations, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. John's 1995 album Made in England continued his comeback, peaking at number three on the U.K. charts and number 13 in the U.S.; in America, the album went platinum. The 1997 follow-up, The Big Picture, delivered more of the same well-crafted pop, made the Top Ten, and produced a hit in "Something About the Way You Look Tonight." However, its success was overshadowed by John's response to the tragic death of Princess Diana -- he re-recorded "Candle in the Wind" (originally a eulogy for Marilyn Monroe) as a tribute to his slain friend, with Taupin adapting the lyrics for what was planned as the B-side of "Something About the Way You Look Tonight."
With the profits earmarked for Diana's favorite charities, and with a debut performance at Diana's funeral, "Candle in the Wind 1997" became the fastest-selling hit of all time in both Britain and the U.S. upon the single's release, easily debuting at number one on both sides of the Atlantic; with first-week sales of over three million copies in the U.S. alone and 14 weeks in the top spot, it was John's biggest hit ever. For his next project, John reunited with Lion King collaborator Tim Rice to write songs for Disney's Broadway musical adaptation of the story of Aida; an album of their efforts featuring a who's who of contemporary pop musicians was released in early 1999, going gold by the end of the year. In late 2000, John landed a TV special with CBS, performing a selection of his greatest hits at Madison Square Garden; a companion album drawn from those performances, One Night Only, was issued shortly before the special aired. Released in 2001, Songs from the West Coast was a return to form for John, who found critical success for the first time since the '80s. However, it wasn't until 2004's popular Peachtree Road album that he managed to match that success commercially. In 2006, John and Taupin released The Captain & the Kid, a sequel to 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. John busied himself with stage work and a Vegas show before he unexpectedly recorded a duet album with Leon Russell, releasing the T-Bone Burnett-produced The Union in the fall of 2010.
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson are the creative spark behind Heart, a hard rock group who initially found success in the mid-'70s only to reach greater heights after engineering a major comeback a decade later. The daughters of a Marine Corps captain, Ann (born June 19, 1950) and Nancy (born March 16, 1954) grew up in both Southern California and Taiwan before the Wilson family settled in Seattle, Washington. Throughout their formative years, both were interested in folk and pop music; while Ann never took any formal music lessons as a child (she later learned to play several instruments), Nancy took up guitar and flute. After both sisters spent some time at college, they decided to try their hand as professional musicians, and while Nancy began performing as a folksinger, Ann joined the all-male vocal group Heart.
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Heart was actually formed in 1963 by bassist Steve Fossen and brothers Roger Fisher and Mike Fisher; initially dubbed the Army, they later became White Heart before settling on simply Heart at the beginning of the '70s. After her arrival in the group, Annbecame romantically involved with guitarist Mike Fisher; when Nancy joined in 1974, she in turn began a relationship with guitarist Roger Fisher. Soon after Nancy's arrival, Mike Fisher retired from active performing to become the band's sound engineer. After gaining a following in Vancouver, Heartwas approached by Shelly Siegel, the owner of the Canadian label Mushroom and, augmented by keyboardist Howard Leese and drummer Michael Derosier, they recorded their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, in 1975.
After selling more than 30,000 copies north of the border, Mushroom issued the LP in the U.S., where it quickly achieved platinum status on the strength of the hit singles "Crazy on You" and "Magic Man." In 1977, Heart jumped ship to the CBS affiliate Portrait, resulting in a protracted legal battle with Siegel, who in 1978 released the unfinished LP Magazine on Mushroom shortly after the band issued its true follow-up, Little Queen, on Portrait. The single "Barracuda" was another massive hit, and like its predecessor, Little Queen sold over a million copies.
In 1985, however, Heart emerged with a self-titled effort that ultimately sold more than five million copies on its way to launching four Top Ten hits: "What About Love?," "Never," the chart-topping "These Dreams," and "Nothin' at All." 1987's Bad Animals continued their comeback success; "Alone" was another number one hit, and both "Who Will You Run To" and "There's the Girl" achieved considerable airplay as well. Brigade, issued in 1990, featured the number two smash "All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You," as well as the Top 25 hits "I Didn't Want to Need You" and "Stranded." In the early '90s, the Wilson sisters took a brief hiatus from Heart to form the Lovemongers, an acoustic quartet fleshed out by Sue Ennis and Frank Cox; in 1992, they issued a four-song EP that included a cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore." Heart returned in 1993 with Desire Walks On, on which Andes and Carmassi were replaced with bassist Fernando Saundersand drummer Denny Fongheiser. With 1995's The Road Home, Heart enlisted onetime Zeppelinbassist John Paul Jones to produce a live acoustic set, reprising hits like "Dreamboat Annie," "Crazy On You," and "Barracuda."
Heart picked up the pace in 2012. In June, Legacy released the retrospective box set Strange Euphoria. In September, the Wilson sisters became authors with the publication of their memoir, Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll. Capping off the year was Fanatic, a collection of all-new studio material that appeared in October. A seasonal Christmas album, Home for the Holidays, appeared in 2014. The Wilson sisters and a host of collaborators completed the recording of a new album in early 2016. Entitled Beautiful Broken (for a bonus cut from Fanatic), the album included ten tracks that balanced new material and re-recordings of songs that originally appeared on albums between 1980-1984 -- the band felt they weren't captured correctly the first time. The set also featured a guest appearance from Metallica's James Hetfield on the title cut. Beautiful Broken was released by Concord in July.