Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Edwin Starr (1970)
Edwin Starr (1970)

With Motown Record's 50th Anniversary in full swing, Pete Lewis recalls interviewing - in October 1992 - the late, great Edwin Starr, one of the label's best-loved exports to the UK back in the late Sixties/early Seventies!

'Agent Double-O Soul' was his first hit, way back in 1965. The name has stuck, and so has the song - which has become the acknowledged theme-tune of its creator, Edwin Starr.

Today, Edwin is not only an undisputed living soul legend, but also one of the few artists who can rightfully claim to have entertained successfully three entirely different generations and cultures of music lovers...

... Back in the mid-Sixties he was sending out an 'SOS' from The Motor City... In 1970, he was warning the new, socially-aware soul generation of the dangers of 'War'... Nine years later he was making eye-to-eye 'Contact' with the world's chic disco crowd... Yet not many are aware that the story of Edwin Starr begins down South - in Nashville, Tennessee, where he spent his childhood years as plain little Charles Hatcher, before moving north to Cleveland, Ohio. Where he sang in his first vocal group in his local school - Cunard Junior High.

...Now a seasoned professional, a charmingly friendly Edwin Starr relaxes in his publicist's West London office and recalls his little-known early years: "I originally formed my first band - The Imperials - in Junior High School, and we used to do all the talent shows", he smiles: "But we found out - before we actually broke through in 1955 - that there was a very, very powerful group already out there called Little Anthony & The Imperials! So we had to change the name to The Future Tones! The band was very, very lucky for us from 1955 to 1960. We did a lot of TV stuff, won loads and loads of contests... On one occasion the first prize allowed us the privilege to work in a nightclub... The lady that we were supporting in the night-club happened to be Billie Holiday! It was absolutely magic! Especially for me, because I was quite familiar with who she was. So that's actually part and parcel of one of my greatest joys, that legacy of having worked with her!"

"But then I also had the pleasure of being with Big Jay McNealy, Redd Saunders and Bill Doggett - all legendary musicians, he continues proudly: "But that's from coming up through a very powerful music era. I remember the very first time I saw Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, James Brown, The Drifters. These people were almost record legends before I even walked into a recording studio! That was a lucky period for me - because it also gave me the opportunity to get the road experience before I got the RECORDS! I learned how to walk on to a cold stage as an unknown artist, and walk off the stage having done my job, with applause from the audience."

It was while touring with R&B bandleader Bill Doggett that Edwin cut his first solo record - the aforementioned Agent Double-O Soulâ - for the then-fledgling, now-legendary Ric Tic label in Detroit, which meant a relocation to The Motor City: "That was during the time when you had to be where the record company was based, he remembers: "At any given moment you may have to do something - go in the studio and do an overdub, or record something, or whatever. So you had to go where the record company was at. It's no longer like that. I mean, now you can live anywhere and commute."

"Agent Double-O Soul" began a string of classic Detroit stompers for Edwin on Ric Tic Records that also included "Stop Her On Sight (SOS)", "Headline News" and "Back Street". All became national US hits and spread further afield - in particular being adopted as anthems by British mods of the Sixties, and later becoming in-demand rarities on Britain's unique Northern Soul scene of the early Seventies. "SOS" - on its second re-release (!) - provided Edwin with his first UK Top 20 hit in late 1968. And, while he was over her promoting it, a major career decision was being made for him back home... On returning to Detroit, he discovered he had become a Motown artist overnight, with Motown having bought out its neighbour and competitor, Ric Tic!

"Yeah, as a company Ric Tic Records had become so successful in the City of Detroit that it was starting to make a lot of people nervous", explains Edwin: "And the first thing that happened was that Motown tried to blackball their musicians from being able to play on any sessions for the company! Then - once they'd bought out Ric Tic - they fired all its artists, but kept me! I wasn't pleased about it AT ALL, to say the least. Because I felt I'd been dealt a very shabby situation! You know, I'm sure there was a considerable amount of money that had transferred hands because of that whole situation. But I never saw ANY of it - not a cent!"

Edwin's career at Motown began with the evergreen 1969 soul masterpiece "25 Miles". Yet it was "War" in 1970 which gave him his first major taste of crossover success. With sales in excess of three million, the powerful progressive protest-soul classic also became one of the first Black American records to sell across-the-board worldwide. It paired Edwin up with Motown's then-creative genius producer Norman Whitfield, and their partnership went on to produce a steady flow of gritty funk smashes in the US soul chart that included "Stop The War - Now!" and "Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On". Yet, while this was probably Starr's most consistent period in terms of American chart success, he does not look back over his Motown years fondly.
"War" was one of the biggest records Motown ever had, that sold so far afield. But the ironic thing was that, although it was a prolific time for me as far as recording material was concerned, it was still a devastating time as far as being PAID for any of the products, he states openly: "Somewhere down the line there was a great deal of money that passed through ex-management hands - and inadvertently back into the company - in ways that meant I never saw any royalties. I saw one royalty cheque from "War" - the figure was absolutely ludicrous - and I never saw anything else from that point on. That's the reason why my live performances had to be so powerful, because that's all I had to rely on financially as an artist."

While being dominated in the studio by the allegedly-overbearing talent of Whitfield, Edwin also found his musical creativity stifled during his Motown days: "As far as Motown was concerned I was an artist, purely and simply! I was not a writer, I was not a producer! And they made SURE I didn't write and didn't produce! Because, when the few things that they DID let me produce became hits, they killed 'em off! I will not demean myself by saying that it was anything personal against me. But, you know, I do think their philosophy with acts like The Temptations or Marvin Gaye was "We MADE you, we can DESTROY you!! Whereas I'd already had a string of hits before I came there! So with me they couldn't SAY that!"

In the light of the above, Edwin's departure from Motown in 1975 was hardly unexpected. Though the full facts have never been revealed... UNTIL NOW! "We found out about a considerable amount of money that was owed to me - a German company had shown us the figures and the cheques that had been sent to Motown for European sales that should have gone to me. But, the money had gone to THEM! When we went back to the United States Motown tried to make amends of the situation, pay us off in bits and pieces. In doing so it kind of raised the hair on the back of their neck. Because they didn't like the idea of being put in that kind of position! It's like getting caught red-handed! So, when my manager went to them and asked them candidly what they were gonna do with me, she was told "We're not gonna do anything with him - we'll pay the money back, but we won't record him!! So my manager then said "Well OK, the best thing for us to do is part company. You just keep the money and we'll go!! Because, I mean, I couldn't miss the money cause I didn't know had it coming in the FIRST place! You can't miss something you never had!

After a few years recording with the independent Granite Records, Edwin returned with a vengeance on 20th Century Fox Records in 1979 at the peak of the disco era, with two of the biggest global smashes of the entire period - the all-time dance-floor and radio classics "Contact" and "H.A.P.P.Y. Radio". This time he was enjoying massive hits, AND getting paid! He recalls fondly: "Yeah, "Contact" was such a smash! I remember going to the Disco Convention in New York City, and I ran into The O'Jays - and they were saying to me "Man you must be paying everybody in the whole INDUSTRY! "Cause the only record we can hear ANYWHERE is "Contact"! So I was like "How can I possibly be paying anybody?! I haven't had a hit record in six years! Where would I get that kind of money? It's just a good record!" And they had to agree!

As one of the rare established soul artists who flourished - rather than disappeared - during the disco boom, Edwin has nothing but praise for the music itself and disgust for the industry politics that forced its premature demise by the early Eighties: "The era was cut so short because the major record companies couldn't control it! I mean, there were records being cut in basements; being cut in garages; Donna Summer came out of Germany; Village People came out of the San Francisco gay community... It was like "Where are these people COMING from?!. The records were being cut underground, and were being made smash hits before the radio had even HEARD about them! So the major companies had to try to kill disco because they couldn't CONTROL it!"

"The same thing happens every time there's an innovative type of music formula, he continues passionately: "The major companies will let it ride for so long, they'll sit back and see if there's any possible way that they can jump in there and make some money too... And if they can't, then they start to eat away at it! When the major labels couldn't manufacture punk, they killed it; same thing with disco! And rap was gonna be dead too, if it hadn't been for people like MC Hammer!"

Following the untimely demise of 20th Century Fox Records in 1983, Edwin left The States to become a European resident and went on to unsuccessfully record several singles for UK indies like the soul-oriented Streetwave Records and (prominent London club-owner) Peter Stringfellow's short-lived Hippodrome label over the years: "All of that represented a period of time of me trying to find direction", he confesses: "I didn't know Europe as well at that time as I know Europe now. So all I could do was be at the mercy of people saying "Hey, try this out for me! And all you can do is lend them your talent and ability. Luckily none of that ever hurt me, because I still had the live situation to fall back on."

1987 meanwhile found him recording a one-off single for Ten Records with the infamous, London-based Stock-Aitken-Waterman team, at the height of the production trios chart-topping pop success with the likes of Rick Astley and Mel & Kim. It was an experiment he now bitterly regrets: "They were never serious about what they were doing with me. At that time they'd never had any success with anyone that was an established artist, because their format was foreign to an artist that knows the ins and outs of performing. I mean, you don't call an artist on the day of recording, then show him the song two minutes before he walks in the studio, and then guide him through the vocals verbatim! They damn well wanted to treat professionals as novices!"

More recently, Edwin has been working closely with UK soul-dance producer (and Motown fanatic!) Ian Levine. His most recent single - "Darling Darling Baby" - is a faithful but updated revival of The O'Jaysâ 1976 Philly-soul treat, and released through Levine's Motorcity Records - a label specifically created to revive the careers of former Motown artists: "As you are aware, over the years I have been trying to help Ian as much as humanly possible, as far as writing songs, co-producing things, and trying to give some real credibility to Motorcity Records. But, with me at the moment actually being signed to East West out of Germany, they have only so far allowed me to do the product with Ian as a one-off endeavour. Whether or not they'll be prepared to pick up a whole album later, I don't know. But what I can tell you is, one way or another there's definitely an album coming, and it will be equally as strong - if not stronger - than the single. The "Headline News" would seem to be that a "Starr" is once again on the rise!

Edwin sadly died of a heart attack on April 2, 2003 at the age of 61 in his home at Bramcote (near Nottingham), UK.

As part of Motown's current 50th Anniversary, the 7inch vinyl single "My Weakness Is You" is released March 30. The album "Edwin Starr - Essentials" follows May 4

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