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Issue 1080

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Edwin Starr: Motown's 40th Anniversary of the Release Of âWARâ

Edwin Starr
Edwin Starr

"Nobody really understood what we were talking about with that songâ â Edwin Starr

During the long time I knew Edwin, I never heard anyone being negative about him. A consummate singer; a performer with few rivals, and a composer of considerable note. As a man he was always friendly, caring and obliging. And it was this that kept Edwin in the public eye for most of his working life. Although he recorded for a variety of record labels during his lifetime, this is an overview of his time under the Motown banner, a most significant period in both company and artistâs life because it spawned success for both of them, including the mighty âWarâ which was released as a UK single forty years ago on 9 October 1970! This article also includes a very exclusive conversation with Blinky, Edwinâs one-time duettist, because their âJust We Twoâ album is forty years old as well!

Edwin was born Charles Edwin Hatcher on 21 January 1942 in Nashville, Tennessee. When he was three years old, the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended the Cunard Junior High School. During play periods Edwin and a bunch of friends would practice singing popular songs of the time, much to their teachersâ disgust. Developing a love for the singing word, the youngster formed a doo-wop vocal group with four pals, and called themselves The Imperials. As there was already an outfit with this name, they chose The Future Tones. âThere were loads of groups â the Cadillacs, the Flamingoes..there were just all groupsâ Edwin once said. âAnd out of those groups there came three lead singersâ. Entering the local âUncle Jakeâs Talent Hourâ, Edwin and the guys won five weeks running, eventually winning the first prize of a Sealy Postrapedic mattress. âLuckily, one of the groupâs father had a bad back, so he bought it off us and we split the money!â

On a more serious note though, The Future Tones engagements stepped up as they found themselves working with star names like Billie Holiday, as Edwin remembered. âI had those moments in her dressing room and she was a real legend without a shadow of a doubt. I was a nobody whoâd got the opportunity to perform through an amateur contest and she allowed me in her dressing room.â The group also recorded the single âI Knowâ/âRoll Onâ, so their future looked settled. However, that was to change, because Edwin was drafted into military service, where during his three year tenure (extended from 2 ½ years because of new legislation laid down by President Kennedy at the time) he performed for his fellow officers, notably in America and Germany.

When discharge day arrived in 1962, Edwin hooked up with organist/band leader Bill Doggett who asked him to tour with him. Years later Edwin admitted that Bill was the best influence in his life when it came to artist discipline â âhe didnât drink and always stressed the importance of being congenial and receptive to people. Iâd like to think all those great qualities about him have rubbed off on me.â Like his future boss, Berry Gordy, Bill operated a fine system and Edwin fell foul of this â âIf youâd done something wrong, Bill would play a little riff on his organ which meant youâd be fined $5. One night, he introduced me as âEdwin Starrâ and played a riff. So I knew my new name would cost me $5â! Anyway, they travelled together until mid-1965 when Edwin met a DJ with the nickname âThe Baron Taylorâ, who made the right connection for him to record his first solo song, âAgent OO Soulâ, a James Bond inspired release. The record company was Golden World owned by Ed Wingate, while Edwinâs single was issued on another of his labels - Ric Tic. To promote this unusual, yet saleable, release in July 1965, Edwin appeared in a short film with Sean Connery titled âOO Soul Meets 007â.

A poor selling âBack Streetâ followed a year later; only a blip though, because âStop Her On Sight (SOS)â re-launched him almost overnight. Released by Polydor here, the single elevated the singer into the UK chart, thus cementing the start of a continuing love affair with the British public. The story goes that Edwin had been watching the tv programme âVoyage To The Bottom Of The Seaâ and became intrigued by the Morse Code distress signal being used. He incorporated this into a song titled âSending Out Soulâ â âI changed it into a love song by calling it âStop Her On Sightâ. I know it shouldâve been âS.H.O.Sâ but the record company said nobody would notice it.â âHeadline Newsâ was his next British hit in August 1966, and when this title was a double-header with âStop Her On Sight (SOS)â , Edwin shot into the UK top ten. Meantime, âItâs My Turn Nowâ was another 1966 title, while âMy Kind Of Womanâ in â67 appeared to be his final commercial Ric Tic release, as âMeet Me Halfwayâ/âThrow In The Towelâ was scheduled but not released. As well as his own recordings, Edwin composed and produced other Wingate acts like The Shades Of Blueâs âOh How Happyâ, Darrell Banksâ âBaby Whatcha Got For Meâ, while also singing on The Holidaysâ âIâll Love You Foreverâ.

At this time, Ed Wingateâs set up had a rival. To be honest, it had several, but this one was a bigger threat than the others â Berry Gordyâs Motown. As it was, many of his musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, moonlighted for Wingateâs labels, a state of affairs Berry was unable to tolerate because of Motownâs musical exclusivity. So, while Edwin was over here on his debut tour, promoting âStop Her On Sight (SOS)â , Berry Gordy purchased Ed Wingateâs labels to integrate them into his own company. âI was not elated at all when I found out the company had been bought by Motownâ he told me one time. âI went home and discovered that while Iâd been away, Iâd become a Motown artist. It was like being sold without any say whatsoever.â Although he enjoyed his first taste of success at Ric Tic, he said, there was one aspect he regretted. âThe biggest mistake was letting the company use its name as a producer when, in fact, I produced myself. It really is unbelievable how much before its time Ric Tic was. If they had survived they could have been a monster (company).â

Once back on home soil, Edwin was locked into new contract negotiations that spanned over two years during which time, he said, he wasnât able to record, although âI Want My Baby Backâ was issued in â67, while his Ric Tic material was incorporated on the âSoul Masterâ album during 1968. The same year âI Am The Man For You Babyâ and âWay Over Thereâ were issued, and also when a Motown executive saw him performing his own composition â25 Milesâ. It took some persuading but Edwin did agree to record it. His reluctance was due to already being told by other company A&R staffers that the song wasnât up to Motownâs standards. Released on the Gordy label, Edwin told Spencer Leigh in 2003 during an interview in The Independent â âThey wouldnât let me produce it and said I would have to work with Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol. They thought the song needed a better intro and I said âokâ. But they were on the song as writers. End of story. What could I do?â â25 Milesâ hit the US top ten and the UK top thirty. The American success was helped by a nationwide tour during 1969, the same year as he toured over here for the ninth time. âSome people have actually acclaimed â25 Milesâ as the first disco recordâ its originator said at the time of its release. Naturally, an album of the same name followed. âIâm Still A Struggling Manâ was the final outing of â69, and itâs title was, unfortunately, prophetic because it was a poor seller.

Then came Blinky and the âJust We Twoâ project! She was an ex-member of the Cogic Singers (name means Church of God In Christ, and included Gloria Jones, Edna Wright, Billy Preston, among others) and soloist in her own right under her real name Sondra Williams. Born in California, she was a pastorâs daughter, who sang in church choirs. From Atlantic Records, and now known as Blinky , she switched to Motown, where her debut release was the amazing âI Wouldnât Change The Man He Isâ which attracted much attention with pure soul fans. Edwin once recalled â âThe company suggested we record together because I was a hot name and they hoped that putting us together might draw attention to Blinky.â In our recent conversation, Blinky told me - âAt the time, the duo thing was happening at Motown. In fact, when I first got there, literally on the first day, Motown was working on a release date for âYouâre All I Need To Get Byâ on Marvin and Tammi. Since that hit was so great (and) Edwinâs hit â25 Milesâ was flying, and as I was the new kid on the block with a song from the writers of Marvin and Tammiâs hit â Nicky Ashford and Valerie Simpson â the powers that be thought it was a match madeâ¦..wrong! We were both pulled off the road to a studio recording âblockoutâ for about a month. Maybe less. Motown was really in a hurry to crank this out. Edwin and I werenât exactly ecstatic about the idea, but we were crazy about each other.â

The result of their musical liaison was, of course, the album âJust We Twoâ, from which their version of âOh How Happyâ was lifted for single release. After a false start in the UK, due to technical reasons, the song was eventually released during August 1970. (The original pressing was under TMG 720 while the later release was TMG 748). Motown/UK used all their marketing techniques to secure a hit for them but nothing worked. Blinky wasnât that surprised. âNeither Edwin nor myself had much confidence in the product because we had so little say, or little input. Motown had so much confidence in this project. Many of the songs were thrown at us at once. Every writer and producer seemingly were offering us material.â They were learning the songs in the studio to save time because the finished project had been given a release date before it was actually finished! Then there were the obligatory photo sessions for the album cover and promotional material. Blinky, by the way, was most emphatic that she hated the albumâs front artwork, and whenever she was asked by fans to autograph it, sheâd insist on scratching out her face. âEverything was hurried. Our voices didnât match, but the chemistry sure was there. We loved the songs as most of them matched our mood at the time. We were madly in love for at least three months!â

To promote both single and album, they did the rounds, often performing together on stage, as Blinky remembered. âHe out-moved me but he made me look good because of his dancing skills. He was all over the stage and dragging me like Fred Astaire. It was fun but scary as heck! He never pressured me, just told me to trust him. So he made it work on stage for two tunes that weâd doâ¦I was extremely nervousâ¦. He even had a chimp on the road with us once. Post Michael and Bubbles. (In fact) Michael used to love to watch Edwin practice a dance.â

âJust We Twoâ may have failed commercially but itâs now considered a real Motown classic by connoisseurs. Needless to say, both artists were upset by the lack of company support which, in turn, had led to poor sales. Edwin once summed up how he felt about the situation â âBlinky and I were orphans because we werenât the flavour of the month. It was a blazing album and was a potential chart-topping album but we werenât Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye so we didnât have the support needed for a hit.â

When âOh How Happyâ was first pulled from single release, Edwinâs solo outing âTimeâ arrived. Dealing with world issues, the sound and feel of this song probably paved the way for the monster lurking in the background. Producer/writer Norman Whitfield, who joined Motown during the early sixties, first worked with Marvin Gaye, among others, before transferring to The Temptations. In 1968, he and Barrett Strong drastically altered the groupâs musical output by writing and producing ebullient, bone-raw funky sounds for them that befitted the growing psychedelic market. The gamble paid off, and a succession of similarly arranged singles and exaggerated album tracks followed until the somewhat melodramatic, and often uncontrollable, bubble popped when the subservient Temptations rebelled and the public turned elsewhere for musical stimulation. Nevertheless, the music trips into the psychedelic unknown were fantastic to enjoy and extremely rewarding financially. However, before the multi-coloured bubble burst, Edwin re-worked a track from The Temptationsâ album âPsychedelic Shackâ titled âWarâ. Edwin said the song was too controversial for The Temptations â âand Motown didnât want a smear campaign against one of their top groups.â So, as the company considered him to be a reasonable risk, he re-recorded it into a Grammy winning title and an American number one, selling in excess of three million copies. Upon its British release in October 1970, the single soared to the top three, despite his lack of promotion here. A solitary spot on the tv music show âTop of the Popsâ was all, he recalled. âI seemed to get no real recognition. Lord, if I could ever have been a superstar, then that was the time.â

Fusing passionate lyrics against a backdrop of hard funk, most folks believed âWarâ to be relevant to the Vietnam War that America was locked into. But he was talking about a war of people that they wage against each other on a daily basis, and cited neighbourhood altercations, and racial tensions as examples. âWar! What is it good for? Thatâs what the song is about, at least for me.â It was a message record - âan opinion record, and stepped beyond being sheer entertainment. It could become a smash record, and thatâd be fine. But if it went the other way, it could kill the career of whoever the artist was.â Berry Gordy was so impressed with Edwinâs version that he acknowledged it âwas an anthem of the times, voicing the deep anti-war feelings of a growing number of people.â Years later, the BBC banned its DJs from playing the single during the 1991 Gulf War, and in 2001, the US network Clear Channel Communications likewise banished it from the airwaves following the 9/11 atrocity. Indeed, the song had touched a nerve!

Keen to cash-in on such an extraordinary hit sound, Motown released âStop The War Nowâ as follow-up, a song the singer loathed. âI thought it was much too similar, but I didnât have too much say in the matter.â He also believed this single actually contributed to his fall from chart grace because of its obvious âWarâ cloning. âFunky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me Onâ, with its dancefloor groove, followed, and was probably one of the best tracks from his 1971 album âInvolvedâ, the follow-up to âWar And Peaceâ a year earlier. Edwin then switched labels to Soul to release âTake Me Clear From Hereâ, âWho Is the Leader Of The Packâ and his next US hit âThere You Goâ in 1973. A further label change to Motown that year saw âYouâve Got My Soul On Fireâ on release, a much loved R&B hit. and âAinât It Hell Up In Harlemâ, which wasnât. This title was included in the 1974 film âHell Up In Harlemâ, Larry Cohenâs gangster movie, and the sequel to âBlack Caesarâ.

Regrettably, the rot had set in and Edwinâs talent was being side stepped by Motown executives. When âBig Papaâ and âWhoâs Right Or Wrongâ bombed in 1974, the singer knew it was over; his love affair with Motown had ended. âI was a foreign artist to Motownâ, he admitted. âTheyâd never had to deal with a funk artist for funkâs sake. They had this great middle-of-the-road attitude, whereas I, Wilson Pickett and James Brown were still kickinâ doors down, doing what people called raw gut funk music.â Despite having no particular place to go, Edwin was relieved to leave Motown. Basically, he said, because he was free â âI was never allowed freedom there. They allowed me to cut myself on a few occasions and that brought hits like â25 Milesâ, âThere You Goâ and âWhoâs Right Or Wrongâ, but they would never allow me total freedom.â

From Motown, Edwin Starrâs journey took him into international stardom, and his extraordinarily successful career spanned many years. As his fan base was huge over here, he made the UK his permanent home, as he told DJ Tony Blackburn â âI knew I had a following here, and that if I came over here maybe I could cultivate it, but I never dreamt it would be as great as it has been.â

Edwin Starr died from a heart attack at the age of 61 on 2 April 2003.

Another star shone brighter than the others in the sky that night.

(My heartfelt thanks to Blinky. Release dates are American unless stated)

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