KIM WESTON: SEPTEMBER 1990: B&S` CLASSIC INTERVIEW
With Sixties Motown songstress Kim Weston performing at this month’s Legends of Soul & Motown weekender at Prestatyn, Pete Lewis recalls talking to her in September 1990 when she was recording for UK producer Ian Levine’s Motorcity label
"Well, I've no way of knowing. Is that so?... They release product over there, and you've no way of knowing what Motown Records release overseas unless you're a writer. So I don't feel very good, considering I'm not getting any royalties! They don't PAY us, and they don't TELL us... And that album was in the Top 20, you say?"
"Fact is, I haven't done anything about getting my royalties from Motown, and that's my fault. But I think I'd better do SOMETHING! I'm not a spring chicken, you know! But, at the same time, I am happy that that the music is still selling. The fact that the Motown Sound is still going on makes me feel very good. As they say, 'The rhythm lives on!`!"
... The response from Sixties Motown legend Kim Weston, on my asking her how she felt about her classics ‘Helpless' and 'It Takes Two' (duet with Marvin Gaye) selling again as part of the recent UK compilation album 'Motown Dance Party 2'.
So just what does make the Motown back-catalogue almost certainly the biggest and most consistent-selling back-catalogue of any record company in the world? “Probably because of the sound of the music and the simplicity of the lyrics”, replies Kim, speaking from her Detroit home: “Gospel is doing real well right now here in The States. And most of the contemporary gospel, I feel, is based on your original Motown Sound. You know, gospel music has always had a heavy bass beat and heavy rhythm. And it still has a sound like the vintage Motown, which in itself was like a step up from the rhythm and blues.”
“But then, having said that, I feel Motown can also still be heard in today’s pop music too, when you think of your people like Anita Baker and the things that Aretha has done recently - and even records like Rick Astley’s. But, though it’s influenced all these contemporary musics, I don’t actually feel Motown was ahead of its time - I feel the Sixties was the time for it, and that the Motown Sound is now like a song that’s considered a standard. Which means it’s timeless.”
Over the past couple of years, meanwhile, Kim has been recording in the studio with London-based Ian Levine producing, as part of Ian’s Motortown Reunion project. For which he has of course tracked down (with the exception of about three) virtually every single act who recorded for Motown in the Sixties - while obviously not including those who already have current major label contracts (Temptations, Diana Ross, etc) - and signed them to his newly-formed Motorcity label. In fact, Kim actually has the honour of being the first ex-Motown artist he worked with in the UK. Initial 1987 sessions resulting in a remake of ‘Helpless’ plus two new Levine songs; the stomping ‘Signal Your Intention’ and the more contemporary ‘Who’s Gonna Have The Last Laugh’. All of which are currently included on a newly-released, Ian Levine-produced Kim Weston LP ‘Investigate’.
Interestingly, Kim had actually met Britain’s forthright Mr. Levine many years prior to their recent recording sessions - way back, in fact, in 1969: “Yes, Ian - who was just a teenager at the time - was actually on the same plane coming to LA as my then-husband Mickey Stevenson. Some way or another he’d found out that Mickey had been involved with the Motown Sound, and introduced Mickey to his parents. So, when I came to pick Mickey up at the airport, he in turn introduced me to this little fourteen-year-old English guy called Ian, and I promised that I’d spend some time with him at the studio. It just so happened I had some errands to run - shopping and stuff like that to do - and after that I think I had a dubbing session. So Ian actually spent the day there at the studio with me! Then, about three years ago, (British promoter) Mr. Henry Sellars was talking to me about doing something over there in England. And, during our conversation, he brought Ian’s name up and asked me if I’d be interested in working with him. So I told him I’d like to see what stuff Ian was producing. And, after that was arranged and I got to England and I saw that Ian knew what he was doing, I said ‘Well, what can it hurt?’.”
“As I said, I feel the Motown Sound is timeless. So, for Ian to bring it back - even though it’s not appreciated as it should be - of course I consider a blessing”, she continues: “What he’s doing is similar to the old Motown but, being an artist, I can tell that - with the synthesizers - it feels a little more computerised. And, as far as the Motorcity record label itself is concerned, I’m very pleased Ian has formed it. Because a lot of your companies like Motown now are looking for younger talent. They’re not recording any of the artists that Ian is dealing with. In fact, people from our era in general - not only the old Motown artists - are not really recording, unless they’ve been recording all the time. So I think it’s done a lot of good for the artists, though the City of Detroit itself has not really been able to benefit from it. But we are getting ready to do a show here, which I think will be good for the city.”
Interestingly, one of the tracks Kim has recorded for Ian is a re-make of her duet with Marvin Gaye, ‘It Takes Two’ - one of Sixties Motown’s best-remembered international hits. This time the male vocalist is none other than Frankie Gaye, Marvin’s brother: “Ian had asked me some time ago about doing it. And, because Marvin was so special to me, I didn’t wanna do it with just anyone. So doing it with Frankie had to make it special! But, having said that, I did my vocal in Detroit and he did his in LA. So I didn’t get a chance to experience actually recording with him.”
Hailing originally from Detroit, Michigan, Ms Weston sang in church as a child and had her heart set on becoming a top gospel singer. But, while recording some demos to make extra pocket money, she attracted the attention of songwriter Eddie Holland (of Sixties Motown’s multi-million-selling Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/production team) who introduced her to Motown boss Berry Gordy. She initially recorded on Motown’s Divinity label with gospel group The Wright Specials before meeting Motown writer/A&R manager Mickey Stevenson, who she of course later married. As well as the ‘Take Two’ duet album with Marvin Gaye, she is also remembered for her solo Motown recordings like ‘Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)’; ‘It Should Have Been Me’; and the aforementioned 1966 classic ‘Helpless’.
“It was definitely a learning experience”, remembers Kim of her Motown days: “That was the beginning of my career as a professional, though I’d been singing in church all the time. And Motown’s reputation for being a family really grew around the way the artists worked with each other. We genuinely were a family of artists who looked after each other. While the producers were young people, just like we were - and they were basically experimenting on us. So it was like a school. Today we’re not in touch on a regular basis. But, whenever we do see each other, we’re usually very glad and there’s a lot of embracing - like at the Motorcity Reunion that Ian held here in Detroit last year.”
On leaving Motown in 1967, Kim moved to Los Angeles to join MGM Records. Where, in addition to cutting two albums, she scored a hit with the since-huge Northern soul classic ‘I Got What You Need’: “I left Motown because my husband (the aforementioned Mickey Stevenson) was leaving. He was the moving force behind my career, and I felt no-one else had really done that much to assist me. He left, and so I felt better being where he was. Of course there’s no comparison between a Motown and an MGM, what with MGM being such a large company and Motown being the family-type label it was. Plus, while we did have some success, overall MGM was really not into black music. Even when we recorded similar product to Motown, they didn’t have the distribution or promotion to handle that end properly. Basically they just were not geared so much towards black soul music.”
She later left MGM for the legendary Memphis-based Stax Records: “Stax was more of a blues company. So that was definitely a contrast! I went from like R&B (Motown) to a pop/jazz thing (MGM) to a blues company (Stax)! At the time I went to Stax, they were having a quite a few internal problems. But I feel, if they’d not been going through that - or if I’d signed at an earlier time - my stay there would have been very good. Because they did give me a lot of freedom.”
In the early Seventies Kim split with her husband and returned to Detroit where she became a well-known radio DJ, presenting many soul shows on local radio through the Seventies. During this period, she also cut some records on small independent Detroit labels which have since become collectors’ classics. Since the Eighties, meanwhile, she has been active in Detroit running a workshop to discover new, young black talent - to either nurture as groups, or set up in solo careers.
Kim performs at this month’s Legends Of Motown & Soul weekender at Prestatyn Sands Holiday Centre, Prestatyn, Denbighshire, which runs October 10 to 13
Words PETE LEWIS