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Issue 1101

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Edwin Starr: Motown's 40th Anniversary of the Release Of “WAR”

Edwin Starr @bluesandsoul.com
Edwin Starr @bluesandsoul.com

"Nobody really understood what we were talking about with that song” – 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 artist’s life because it spawned success for both of them, including the mighty “War” which was released as a UK single forty years ago on 9 October 1970! This article also includes a very exclusive conversation with Blinky, Edwin’s one-time duettist, because their “Just We Two” 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 teachers’ 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. “There were loads of groups – the Cadillacs, the Flamingoes..there were just all groups” Edwin once said. “And out of those groups there came three lead singers”. Entering the local “Uncle Jake’s Talent Hour”, Edwin and the guys won five weeks running, eventually winning the first prize of a Sealy Postrapedic mattress. “Luckily, one of the group’s father had a bad back, so he bought it off us and we split the money!”

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. “I had those moments in her dressing room and she was a real legend without a shadow of a doubt. I was a nobody who’d got the opportunity to perform through an amateur contest and she allowed me in her dressing room.” The group also recorded the single “I Know”/”Roll On”, 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 – “he didn’t drink and always stressed the importance of being congenial and receptive to people. I’d like to think all those great qualities about him have rubbed off on me.” Like his future boss, Berry Gordy, Bill operated a fine system and Edwin fell foul of this – “If you’d done something wrong, Bill would play a little riff on his organ which meant you’d be fined $5. One night, he introduced me as ‘Edwin Starr’ and played a riff. So I knew my new name would cost me $5”! Anyway, they travelled together until mid-1965 when Edwin met a DJ with the nickname ‘The Baron Taylor’, who made the right connection for him to record his first solo song, “Agent OO Soul”, a James Bond inspired release. The record company was Golden World owned by Ed Wingate, while Edwin’s 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 “OO Soul Meets 007”.

A poor selling “Back Street” followed a year later; only a blip though, because “Stop Her On Sight (SOS)” 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 “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea” and became intrigued by the Morse Code distress signal being used. He incorporated this into a song titled “Sending Out Soul” – “I changed it into a love song by calling it ‘Stop Her On Sight’. I know it should’ve been ‘S.H.O.S’ but the record company said nobody would notice it.” “Headline News” was his next British hit in August 1966, and when this title was a double-header with “Stop Her On Sight (SOS)” , Edwin shot into the UK top ten. Meantime, “It’s My Turn Now” was another 1966 title, while “My Kind Of Woman” in ’67 appeared to be his final commercial Ric Tic release, as “Meet Me Halfway”/”Throw In The Towel” was scheduled but not released. As well as his own recordings, Edwin composed and produced other Wingate acts like The Shades Of Blue’s “Oh How Happy”, Darrell Banks’ “Baby Whatcha Got For Me”, while also singing on The Holidays’ ‘I’ll Love You Forever”.

At this time, Ed Wingate’s set up had a rival. To be honest, it had several, but this one was a bigger threat than the others – Berry Gordy’s Motown. As it was, many of his musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, moonlighted for Wingate’s labels, a state of affairs Berry was unable to tolerate because of Motown’s musical exclusivity. So, while Edwin was over here on his debut tour, promoting “Stop Her On Sight (SOS)” , Berry Gordy purchased Ed Wingate’s labels to integrate them into his own company. “I was not elated at all when I found out the company had been bought by Motown” he told me one time. “I went home and discovered that while I’d been away, I’d become a Motown artist. It was like being sold without any say whatsoever.” Although he enjoyed his first taste of success at Ric Tic, he said, there was one aspect he regretted. “The 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).”

Once back on home soil, Edwin was locked into new contract negotiations that spanned over two years during which time, he said, he wasn’t able to record, although “I Want My Baby Back” was issued in ’67, while his Ric Tic material was incorporated on the “Soul Master” album during 1968. The same year “I Am The Man For You Baby” and “Way Over There” were issued, and also when a Motown executive saw him performing his own composition “25 Miles”. 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 wasn’t up to Motown’s standards. Released on the Gordy label, Edwin told Spencer Leigh in 2003 during an interview in The Independent – “They wouldn’t 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 ‘ok’. But they were on the song as writers. End of story. What could I do?” “25 Miles” 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. “Some people have actually acclaimed ’25 Miles’ as the first disco record” its originator said at the time of its release. Naturally, an album of the same name followed. “I’m Still A Struggling Man” was the final outing of ’69, and it’s title was, unfortunately, prophetic because it was a poor seller.

Then came Blinky and the “Just We Two” 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 pastor’s 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 “I Wouldn’t Change The Man He Is” which attracted much attention with pure soul fans. Edwin once recalled – “The company suggested we record together because I was a hot name and they hoped that putting us together might draw attention to Blinky.” In our recent conversation, Blinky told me - “At 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 ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ on Marvin and Tammi. Since that hit was so great (and) Edwin’s hit ’25 Miles’ was flying, and as I was the new kid on the block with a song from the writers of Marvin and Tammi’s hit – Nicky Ashford and Valerie Simpson – the powers that be thought it was a match made…..wrong! We were both pulled off the road to a studio recording ‘blockout’ for about a month. Maybe less. Motown was really in a hurry to crank this out. Edwin and I weren’t exactly ecstatic about the idea, but we were crazy about each other.”

The result of their musical liaison was, of course, the album “Just We Two”, from which their version of “Oh How Happy” 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 wasn’t that surprised. “Neither 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.” 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 album’s front artwork, and whenever she was asked by fans to autograph it, she’d insist on scratching out her face. “Everything was hurried. Our voices didn’t 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!”

To promote both single and album, they did the rounds, often performing together on stage, as Blinky remembered. “He 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 we’d do…I was extremely nervous…. 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.”

“Just We Two” may have failed commercially but it’s 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 – “Blinky and I were orphans because we weren’t the flavour of the month. It was a blazing album and was a potential chart-topping album but we weren’t Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye so we didn’t have the support needed for a hit.”

When “Oh How Happy” was first pulled from single release, Edwin’s solo outing “Time” 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 group’s 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 Temptations’ album “Psychedelic Shack” titled “War”. Edwin said the song was too controversial for The Temptations – “and Motown didn’t want a smear campaign against one of their top groups.” 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 “Top of the Pops” was all, he recalled. “I seemed to get no real recognition. Lord, if I could ever have been a superstar, then that was the time.”

Fusing passionate lyrics against a backdrop of hard funk, most folks believed “War” 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. “War! What is it good for? That’s what the song is about, at least for me.” It was a message record - “an opinion record, and stepped beyond being sheer entertainment. It could become a smash record, and that’d be fine. But if it went the other way, it could kill the career of whoever the artist was.” Berry Gordy was so impressed with Edwin’s version that he acknowledged it “was an anthem of the times, voicing the deep anti-war feelings of a growing number of people.” 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 “Stop The War Now” as follow-up, a song the singer loathed. “I thought it was much too similar, but I didn’t have too much say in the matter.” He also believed this single actually contributed to his fall from chart grace because of its obvious “War” cloning. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On”, with its dancefloor groove, followed, and was probably one of the best tracks from his 1971 album “Involved”, the follow-up to “War And Peace” a year earlier. Edwin then switched labels to Soul to release “Take Me Clear From Here”, “Who Is the Leader Of The Pack” and his next US hit “There You Go” in 1973. A further label change to Motown that year saw ”You’ve Got My Soul On Fire” on release, a much loved R&B hit. and “Ain’t It Hell Up In Harlem”, which wasn’t. This title was included in the 1974 film “Hell Up In Harlem”, Larry Cohen’s gangster movie, and the sequel to “Black Caesar”.

Regrettably, the rot had set in and Edwin’s talent was being side stepped by Motown executives. When “Big Papa” and “Who’s Right Or Wrong” bombed in 1974, the singer knew it was over; his love affair with Motown had ended. “I was a foreign artist to Motown”, he admitted. “They’d never had to deal with a funk artist for funk’s sake. They had this great middle-of-the-road attitude, whereas I, Wilson Pickett and James Brown were still kickin’ doors down, doing what people called raw gut funk music.” Despite having no particular place to go, Edwin was relieved to leave Motown. Basically, he said, because he was free – “I was never allowed freedom there. They allowed me to cut myself on a few occasions and that brought hits like ’25 Miles’, ‘There You Go’ and ‘Who’s Right Or Wrong’, but they would never allow me total freedom.”

From Motown, Edwin Starr’s 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 – “I 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.”

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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Words SHARON DAVIS

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