Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking column (JUNE)

Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking (June 2011)
Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking (June 2011) Tata Vega Tata Vega: Full Speed Ahead Tata Vega: Totally Tata

Well, let me explain. Last month Marvin Gaye’s 'What’s Going On' piece attracted several positive reactions – it was liked, basically. So I thought, why not do the same thing this time, and revert to ‘normal’ next month. So that’s what we’ll do. Hold my hand, and let’s go………


With the eighties looming Motown continued in its search for new artists needing grooming into stardom. The company signed many acts that were as diverse as they were unusual, while signed acts continued to make their presence felt. New names ranged from Albert Finney, Jerry Butler, Rose Banks, and one of the most successful, the loveable Ms Tata Vega. So, to celebrate the release of her first two Motown albums – Full Speed Ahead and Totally Tata on cd, let’s talk - and that’s something we can both do with considerable ease! No pussy cat-ing around, let me tell you. So with her music blaring and a glass of red wine at my side, will waste no more time.

Born Carmen Rose Vega in October 1951 in Queens, Long Island, she travelled the world as a youngster with her airman father living in Puerto Rico, Colorado Springs and Miami, among other places. At 17 years old, with her father’s permission and a letter of introduction to the Youth For Christ Ministry, she headed for Los Angeles, where she sang as a street busker. “…I fell in love with Sunset Boulevard” she told David Nathan in the Full Speed Ahead cd notes. “…there was a Pioneer Chicken on Sunset and ..I would sleep under the stand, right on the concrete”. Prior to leaving home, Tata’s father also gave her an introduction to the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a local company, and from that she joined the Los Angeles’ cast of Hair, considered to be the most controversial musical of the sixties. She stayed there for seven/eight months, and became friendly with another struggling entertainer, Dobie Gray, who, as it happens, later left the cast to form his own group, Pollution. Eighteen-year–old Tata later joined him as a group member, but after a two-year stay she’d had enough and decided to turn her back on the business. Disillusioned and frustrated, the singer had survived a period of craziness which, she told John Abbey in a 1976 B&S interview, was due to being - “involved in so many strange things. We were, first of all, essentially on a small label (Prophesy, distributed by Atlantic Records) and it was at the time when drugs was such a big thing. And some of the people around us were into that scene so heavily that it clouded their judgment on things.” It was a disappointing result because Pollution played well together and enjoyed moderate success in concert and on vinyl. However, despite the unhappy ending, Tata had nothing but praise for Dobie Gray, but added – “he had such a hard time of it, when I look back. He taught me such a lot about singing and about the business, more than probably he even knows!” And the attention she attracted, Tata said, should have gone to him – “too much emphasis was placed on me…(and) his talent wasn’t recognised for what it was.” Being caught up in the big Hollywood music game, meant she learned a great deal, some of it the hard way – “I know that at the time I wasn’t a nice person to be around because of the confusion”. So the period of self imposed inactivity, gave her time to clear her head before being persuaded to join a second band, Earthquire. It was a drug-free zone this time, with two other female vocalists, and five musicians. The story goes that the group chanced to be playing at The Troubadour when Berry Gordy was in the audience. According to Tata, Earthquire was signed on the spot. “I was supposed to be a backing vocalist but when we went into the studio to record an album, the other singers couldn’t cut it “ she once told me. “So I did the lead singing and was subsequently sued by the other two singers! I was totally disgusted, there was a lot of bad feeling in the group and I just had to get away”. Their eponymous album was eventually released in January 1973 on Motown’s Natural Resources label, and includes two Tata Vega compositions. Unfortunately, the album bombed because, she recalled, Motown wasn’t that sure how to market them. So, Earthquire was released by the company, but she stayed. In the same cd notes, the lady explained that some of the group members were upset with her – “but I was just a kid…not very savvy about anything…all I wanted to do was sing. I didn’t care about having a record deal (because) I was always working.”

Motown executive Iris Gordy and producer Winston Monseque persuaded the cautious singer, who was at the time enjoying her Bohemian lifestyle, to embark upon a solo career. “I was reluctant to go back into the record business because the situation was too political. The people were concerned more about politics than they were about me.” Apparently, both had heard Tata on a Jobete demo recording and knew a star was in the making, but it was convincing the singer herself that was hard work. Anyway, they did - thankfully - whereupon she sat down with Winston and Iris to discuss the project which was to be Full Speed Ahead. There were the inevitable arguments of course; disagreements over the track listing, and so on, but when an A-list of musicians were in the studio working with them, Tata knew she had made the right decision to return to the music business.

As her confidence grew, and when her debut album Full Speed Ahead was issued late in 1976, Tata comfortably accepted the whirlwind of promotion. Nightclubs had lifted the title track to full their dance floors, although it was never the intention to record a dance album as such. Then Tata further told John Abbey – “Personally, I like three tracks more than the others. They are Try Love From The Inside, Try God and Music In My Heart. But I’m more than happy with the album.” And so she should be! There’s tracks written by Ashford & Simpson (check out the wonderfully smooth, evocative, Valerie original Keep It Coming), and Stevie Wonder (her controlled yet emotional version of “Never Had A Dream Come True). Many said she also sounded like him: even the man himself thought so too. They had met when Tata had hidden herself away in one of Motown’s smaller studios to play the piano, and he walked by. Surprised at what he heard, he stopped, saying – “don’t you sound like me! Critics have also compared her voice with that of Chaka Kahn, Minnie Riperton and Janis Joplin. Indeed, Tata’s voice is a highly tuned and toned instrument, covering several pitches and ranges – she works it to suit the lyrics and melody with the utmost ease. She can wail, chop, moan, cry and inject happiness into her lyrics, taking the listener with her. Full Speed Ahead was the first lifted single, followed by Try Love From The Inside, while the album as a whole introduced the world to a multi-talented singer, who’d struggle a little while longer to enjoy the success she deserved.

Within a year from her debut album, her second Totally Tata was released, revealing a more mature, soulful lady; probably a more confident one too. The project is a pot pourie of sounds but the highlight surely is the nine-minute-plus Come In Heaven (Earth Is Calling) co-written by Anna Gordy, Elgie Stover, Terrence Harrison and Tata herself. “…(It’s) my favourite song of all time of my own recordings” is her quote in the Totally Tata cd notes. “It’s like Marvin’s What’s Going On, you can put it on any time and it applies. If it were released today, it would stand.” Following that, there’s the wonderful Jesus Takes Me Higher penned by The Lewis Sisters (hah, remember them?) which Tata said was just so much fun to record, or the track that reduced her father to tears – Deep Inside. Then there’s Brenda and Brian Russell’s You’ll Never Rock Alone which makes compulsive listening, especially the duet version with Jermaine Jackson which apparently Tata hadn’t previously heard. The strength in her voice is awesome, and once again, the emotion she ploughs into the lyrics is quite breathtaking. Certainly the lady is one in a million but, as she acknowledges in those notes, if it hadn’t been for the solid support of Iris Gordy and Winston Monseque, Tata might have been felled at the first hurdle. “They really stood by me. They were protective of me …(they) thought so much of me and respected what I believed in even if that was not (necessarily) popular with others in the company.”

So, for the singer who has been compared to/mistaken for Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, I can assure you this pair of albums is pure Ms Vega. I understand there maybe more to come, but, hey, for the present, why not return to the magic that was associated with one of Motown’s finest signings. Welcome back Tata Vega! Have missed you!

Til next time, keep the faith


PS/ I know you’re thinking where did the name “Tata” come from? Well, as a little person she tried to say “dada” and “tata” came out instead. That’s the truth as we know it. She later officially adopted the name by deed poll.

PPS/My thanks also to John Abbey and David Nathan

Please feel free to contact Sharon with any Motown news that you feel would benefit others - Thank you.

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