Michael McDonald released Motown Two
Soul -- real, honest and unforced soul -- is at the core of Michael McDonald’s long and varied career in music.
Artist: Michael McDonald
Title: Motown Two
Release date: 10/26/04
Single: Reach Out, I’ll Be There
Buy at: Amazon
Whether playing with his early bands like Mike and the Majestics in the midwest, working on the road and in the studio with Steely Dan, famously revitalizing the sound of the Doobie Brothers, or, most recently, following his own muse as a soul artist, McDonald has always made music graced by a radiant and dignified sort of soulfulness.
With 2002’s surprise smash Motown album, McDonald and his collaborators like producer Simon Climie effectively showcased the groundbreaking and still relevant music once known as “The Sound of Young America.” A respectful yet contemporary salute to one of our most beloved musical legacies, McDonald’s album proved once again that the music of Motown is a global phenomenon that speaks not to just the Big Chill generation but to every generation. The great admiration and deep love that McDonald, his producers and fellow musicians conveyed for the great artists and songs of Motown came through loud and clear on his platinum, Grammy-nominated album. And in the best spirit of the music itself, Motown -– and now its brand new, equally impressive sequel Motown Two -- crossed over any imaginary boundaries of race or genre, something that McDonald’s music too has always done along the way.
Michael McDonald comes by his own distinctive soulfulness quite naturally. He was born in 1952, not in the Detroit of Motown fame, but not all that far way in another urban center of the American Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri.
“You could very easily develop a love of rhythm and blues in that town without really trying,” McDonald explains. “Even when I go back there today, it’s still a town where people put on some obscure soul records and go, `Have you heard these guys?’ The town seems to be just filled with kind of people who are connoisseurs of rhythm and blues. I grew up around guys like who were well versed in all the soul singers, and ended up playing with lots of them in bands. I remember thinking, at a young age, `These are the kinds of records I’d love to make some day.’ At that point the world was filled with the sounds of the Troggs and the Kinks – groups I loved too. But my leanings were always towards classic soul music.”
For McDonald, finding his own place in the joyful and meaningful music of Motown was not exactly a struggle. “I think the only reason I even considered doing the first Motown album was how much fun I thought it would be to sing these incredible songs,” McDonald explains. “And the experience didn’t disappoint me at all in that respect. It was probably more fun than I could have ever realized for all kinds of reasons.” Recording in the South of France was a pleasure, and not just because of the fine weather, food and accommodations. “Working with Simon Climie— and the whole team that made these records—has been just a complete joy,” McDonald reports. “Certain projects, you feel like you’re pulling teeth. Other times you think, `This has to be good on some level because it’s just too much fun not to be. This has been one of those kind of projects.”
Of course, Motown became a massive commercial success, helped in no small measure by exposure "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough' and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" were given in commercials for MCI. “The commercial was huge definitely, but in terms of the way that I tend to judge the success of an album, commercial success is one aspect, but not always the key ingredient. For me the album was a success when Simon signed on and I could see pretty clearly we were going to do the kind of record I hoped -- very respectful and possibly even bringing something to these copyrights that I love so much. We wanted to show our respect to the original performers and their original performances, but also to real qualities of the songs themselves.”
Since Motown was arguably Motor City’s single greatest production line, it seems only fitting that McDonald and company have a new model of Motown, a soulful sequel of sorts. “I think we all left the first record going gosh, some day we’ll do a Motown Two, whether it’s right now or not,” McDonald remembers. “Then the success of Motown made it all the more possible for us to actually do that. We didn’t blink because we already knew we could probably do five Motown records and never exhaust the catalog of great songs. At some point in the future there might be a Motown Three, for all I know. It’s just such a rich and resourceful wellspring of wonderful copyrights and wonderful songs and incredible performances to go to school on.”
Here’s what McDonald says of the classic songs that have found a beautiful and loving new home on Motown Two:
YOU’RE ALL I NEED TO GET BY: That’s one of my favorite songs written by Ashford and Simpson – I always loved the chord progression and the lyric. And like everyone, I loved Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of the song. Marvin Gaye was, well, Marvin Gaye, and Tammi Terrell is a singer who is so underrated. She had this angelic, sort of innocent voice with incredible range that you just fell in love with listening to her. When you heard those two sing together, you had to root for Marvin to land a chick as sweet as Tammy Tyrell. There was a great chemistry there.
I WAS MADE FOR TO LOVE HER: It’s one of those great quirky Stevie Wonder songs. The thing I always loved about Stevie, even in his early years, is that his records were so assured and had so much genius in terms of the rhythm patterns. The grooves were always just different. How do you make a pop record out of so many, you know, really sophisticated elements? His genius was undeniable even then with these songs about high school romance.
REACH OUT, I’ll BE THERE: The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is Levi Stubbs’ lead vocals. It’s one of my favorites of all the amazing things he did with the Four Tops. Levi just sang the hell out of that song. Actually he sang the hell out of all of them. It a great, dramatic song, but I imagine that when most people think of “Reach Out,” the first thing they probably think of is the passion that man brought that lead vocal. It’s what it’s all about – a great singer and a great song.
STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN (TO YOUR HEART): Just a great song -- the first thing I always think of when I think of a Thom Bell tune are those great chord progressions. Of course the words are great, because Linda Creed never wrote a bad word. I probably went through three copies of that Diana Ross- Marvin Gaye LP. That and Marvin Gaye’s Super Hits never left my turntable. And I get to sing the song with Toni Braxton who is an incredibly beautiful and incredibly passionate performer. She’s mesmerizing to watch. She is one of those singers I have to be careful not to look at her too much because then I’ll forget my next line.
BABY I NEED YOUR LOVING: One of my favorite Four Tops tunes. I love the form and the structure of that one. The chorus has an unusual key relationship to the rest of the song. It is really neat, kind of sophisticated, and a well written song. This is one of song I wanted to do on the last record, so I was really glad we got to do it on this one. At first wasn’t sure that we did it justice to be honest with you – I did the best I could but it’s hard to get close to Levi Stubbs on that one. Still, other people seemed to like it so much. People have told me that’s their favorite. Personally, I think they’re just responding to a truly great song.
LOVING YOU IS SWEETER THAN EVER: That was one we discovered in the course of making the project. I kept saying to Simon, “You know, I’m all for doing the big hits, but I really feel like we owe it to ourselves on this one especially to venture out into things the label might consider more obscure.” I think there’s a beauty in giving people not just the songs they know and love also something great they haven’t had the privilege of hearing. For whatever reason, I didn’t remember this song from Adam. I heard Marvin Gaye’s version on a compilation in Europe. I only heard The Four Tops version – which apparently was a big hit in England -- the other day in some restaurant. But when I heard Marvin Gaye’s version I fell in love with it. It’s one of those timeless soul songs that just rolls off your tongue.
THE TRACKS OF MY TEARS: Simon and Tony Swain really changed directions on this Smokey Robinson masterpiece. I just got in there and sang it the best I could, the way I felt the arrangement was taking it, which is a melancholy, introspective kind of thing. I think Smokey is one of the greatest American pop songwriters or American songwriters period, just way ahead of his game.
WHAT’S GOING ON: Of course, this is a daunting song to sing. The only comfort is we have been doing that song for quite a few years in our live show. I always felt that “What’s Going On” was just such an important message -- the song’s words are practically more timely today than when they were written. Marvin was one of a kind. We leaned a little bit more on the Donny Hathaway live version here than the original Marvin Gaye masterpiece.
I SECOND THAT EMOTION: Here’s another one we took a departure on. It’s another great Smokey Robinson song. We had fun with the rhythm cadence of it. Smokey’s lyrics remind me a lot of Cole Porter lyrics. They have that kind of playfulness, and at the same time it’s real poetry with the same kind of sense of humor of a great riddle.
AFTER THE DANCE: A great later song from Marvin Gaye that was written by Leon Ware who wrote some of my favorite songs for Marvin, including “I Want You.” Leon Ware was another one of the great Motown songwriters. That label had some incredible talent come through its doors.
NOWHERE TO RUN: One of my all time favorite songs and again one of those numbers I wanted to do on the first Motown album. Martha and the Vandellas did it wonderfully, and it had one of those great Phil Spector-ish kind of productions with a relentless beat -- kind of like “Dancing in the Streets.” It’s just undeniable.
TUESDAY HEARTBREAK: As far as I’m concerned, music never got hipper than Stevie did during this period of his amazing career. The lyric turns out to be almost a stream of consciousness – it was so inside and the vocal performance was so nuanced that I almost found I had to just surrender myself to the feeling of the track and the original performance. It was almost like a Zen exercise -- just becoming one with the groove and the track and the song.
MERCY, MERCY ME: Of course, I love the song and Marvin’s recording of it, but I think Simon really wanted to do that song more than I did. But when we got into it, we decided to take more of a Latino, almost Samba approach which sold me on the whole idea. The lyrics are still strong. I remember back when I was a kid listening to that song thinking, “fish full of mercury,” what the hell is that about? He really was ahead of his time.
BABY I’M FOR REAL: This is one of those classic great R&B ballads that was a big hit for the The Originals. It always reminded me of one of the great songs Teddy Pendergrass sang with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know it was written and produced by Marvin Gaye for them. In fact, it always reminded me of “Distant Lover” by Marvin. Like so much soul music, it’s incredibly romantic.
* * *
Finally, Michael McDonald is asked what makes him most proud of the Motown albums. The characteristically soft-spoken and humble singer-songwriter thinks for a moment, then says, “I think the thing I’m most proud of -- and hopeful that -- it, even in a small part, makes obvious , one more time -- for the 150th time probably -- just how great these songs are, no matter who is singing them.”
Motown Two Tracklisting
1 You're All I Need To Get By
2 I Was Made To Love Her
3 Reach Out, I'll Be There
4 Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)
5 Baby I Need Your Loving
6 Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
7 The Tracks Of My Tears
8 What's Going On
9 I Second That Emotion
10 After The Dance
11 Nowhere To Run
12 Tuesday Heartbreak
13 Mercy Mercy Me
14 Baby I'm For Real
"Motown Two" by Michael McDonald - release date: 10/26/04..