I thought it was about time we lent space to another of Motown’s unsung heroes, who rightly deserved their own special niche in the company’s history, but about whom, little or nothing was known at the time, let alone acknowledged. Thankfully, as time passed, company rules were relaxed, with the result that musicians, session singers and the like received their due credit on label copy. So let’s TCB…
They were Motown’s sought-after session singers at the Los Angeles studios, yet, unlike the Andantes for instance, The Blackberries never scored an official single or album release, despite recording sufficient tracks for both. Often uncredited too on other artists releases, Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King and Venetta Fields were finally singled out as contributors to Tom Clay’s milestone 1971 single “What The World Needs Now Is Love”/”Abraham, Martin & John”. A respected DJ on Los Angeles’ KGBS radio station, Clay created the social commentary single to enjoy a somewhat surprising summer hit. Highlighting segregation, bigotry and prejudice on several levels, soundbites of gunfire effects, a drill sergeant training a platoon, the two songs are linked by The Blackberries. Excerpts of speeches by the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr, with flashbacks to news coverage of the assassinations, reshaped the single into a history lesson of chilling proportions. This was Tom Clay’s only hit but its million-plus sales status encouraged the release of the “What The World Needs Now” album in August ’71. And, of course, the status of The Blackberries.
Pulling on the notes from the outstanding box set “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 12A:1972”, which, among other gems, includes The Blackberries’ “Somebody Up There” and “But I Love You More”. It appears that once recorded, a purchase order was raised for the single to be pressed at the Columbia and Eastern plants early in July 1972. The order was never completed; subsequently the tapes collected dust. However, purchasers of the box set were thrilled to discover the disc (Mowest MW5020) slotted into the packaging – its debut on vinyl! Worth the wait? I think so. The topside “Somebody Up There” is upbeat, and so typical of Motown’s commercial girl group sound, with the added edge of the lead vocals being shared between two singers. Likewise “But I Love You More”, a re-visited version from The (new) Supremes’ “Right On” album. As you know, Diana Ross left the trio to be replaced by Jean Terrell, with her distinctive warm voice, and who actually began recording her vocals for this album while Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued to tour with Diana.
So, who are The Blackberries, another group that falls into Motown’s unsung heroes category? A quick overview coming up…
Sherlie Matthews was born in 1934 in Los Angeles, and at the age of two years was a soloist in her local church, before practising harmonizing with her younger sister. With their grandmother being an accomplished musician and composer, the sisters were tutored from an early age, leading to performances at weddings, church services and other functions. On her website (sherliematthews.com) the singer wrote “From her (grandmother) early nurturing I continued to develop my natural abilities for all phases of the performing arts, through school, college, community and professional workshops.” At ten years old, Sherlie set Bible verses to music as a means to encourage children to learn religious teachings. Decades later, she added “I’ve written and arranged over five hundred songs, both secular and sacred, three children’s musical comedies, two movie themes and several commercials.”
Graduating from the University of California with a BA in Pre-Social Welfare, Sherlie earned a living as a medical social worker until she took the plunge to embark upon a career in the music business with former Vee Jay executive Randy Wood’s Mirwood Records. As a composer and lyricist she was responsible for a large chunk of the label’s output between 1966 and 1967, via her group The Belles, where she shared lead vocals with Brenda and Patrice Holloway. “The three of us did a lot of background singing before I started singing with Vernetta and Clydie. The Belles cut several Mirwood singles including 1966’s ‘Don’t Pretend.’” A second single, “Cupid’s Got A Hold On Me” featured Patrice on lead and can be found on Kent’s 2006 compilation “The Mirwood Soul Story Volume 1”. Again on her website, Sherlie wrote she also created most of the early hits for acts like The Olympics, Bob & Earl and Jackie Wilson, as well as working with James Carmichael, a future Motown arranger, notably with the Commodores.
Her Mirwood tenure stood her in excellent stead when her friend, producer/writer Frank Wilson elevated her professional career by introducing her to Motown in December 1964, where she was signed as a singer, composer and producer. “When I performed at the church that Frank attended, I guess I caught his eye or something. His wife was a member of his gospel group and when that group broke up, he needed someone to take her place,” she explained in the Motown box set’s essay. Incidentally, the pair recorded a single “Come Back To Me” for the Power label using the moniker Sheri Matthews and Sonny Daye, while Frank also recorded solo sides. Alongside performing on stage with the Commodores and Diana Ross, Sherlie noted on her website “I wrote and produced recordings for The Supremes, Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Jackson 5.” With the latter, she worked with Deke Richards on two tracks “Corner Of The Sky” and “Skywriter” from the musical “Pippin”. Out of interest, and as I love Celebration, a mixed-gender vocal group, Sherlie co-wrote and produced their sumptuous single “Since I Met You There’s No Magic”, among other titles, earmarked for their lone eponymous album released on Mowest during 1972. However, the single, with “The Circle Again” on the flipside was pulled for some reason, but can, thankfully, be heard, for instance, on “The Complete Motown Singles:Volume 12B:1972”.
As a session singer, Sherlie contributed to hundreds of recordings ranging from Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, through to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back”, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”, Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning”, The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. To be honest, the list is awesome….Barbra Streisand, Lionel Richie, Ike and Tina Turner…in fact, it would be easier to list those she hadn’t worked with!
Between 1984 – 1988, the singer lived and worked in Australia, where she performed in three groups, formed and recorded an eight member children’s group named Babe, recorded voice overs and commercials, and toured the country as a background singer. Upon her return to the States, she concentrated on her family, while studying for three years to earn a Degree in Computer Graphics/Animation. Moving on, and at the invitation of Ace Records, during 2005 Sherlie performed her Mirwood Records repertoire at a Cleethorpes weekender: Marva Holiday and Jim Gilstrap joined her. Three years later, she released “We Come As One” album with her sister Donna Samuel, plus “A Band Of Angels”, a compilation of children’s songs, followed in 2010 by her solo outing “I’m A Cute Little Gay Boy Inside”. Having penned and arranged 500+ songs, commercials, film themes, children’s musical comedies, her resume is a lifetime experience put to music.
Clydie King, born in 1943 in Dallas, Texas, was raised by her older sister following the death of their mother, and later the family re-located to Los Angeles during the early fifties. The church-trained singer was discovered by Richard Berry to begin her recording career with “A Casual Look” as Little Clydie & The Teens, released on the Bihari brothers’ RPM label, one of several they owned, including Flair and Meteor Records. Moving on from here, Clydie joined Speciality Records where she recorded a pair of singles during 1957-58, namely, “Our Romance” and “I’m Invited To Your Party” (to be found on 1994 “The Speciality Story” 5-CD box set). Following this was a trio of singles carrying the Philips Records logo, with her group The Sweet Things (“The Boys In My Life” and “Only The Guilty Cry”), and as a soloist and duettist with Mel Carter (“Turn Around” and “Who Do You Love” respectively).
During 1965 she joined Sherlie Matthews in Bonnie & The Treasures to record “Home Of The Brave” for Phil Spector’s Phi-Dan imprint and a year on became a core member of Ray Charles’ backing group, The Raelettes (established in 1958) where she stayed for just over two years, and which went on to produce several celebrated soloists. Minnie Riperton, Edna Wright, Marilyn McCoo, Merry Clayton, Susaye Green, among them. Following a further two outings for Imperial, Clydie joined Minit Records to release a handful of singles during 1967-69 – “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” and “Love Now, Pay Later” being two – plus “Ready, Willing And Able” with Jimmy Holiday.
Jumping a decade, and after savouring success with The Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles, Clydie enjoyed an R&B top four hit with “‘Bout Love” from her “Direct Me” album via the Lizard label, and another R&B hit with “Loneliness (Will Bring Us Together Again)” as Brown Sugar featuring Clydie King. An album for Chelsea Records was next. Moving on further, the singer joined Bob Dylan for his 1970 album “New Morning”, before becoming a regular touring crew member. Dylan had recently converted to evangelical Christianity, so, it’s said, the two bonded over faith and music, before becoming lovers for several years. Clydie King died in January 2019 at the age of seventy-five. Bob Dylan said of her passing “She was my ultimate singing partner. No-one ever came close. We were two soul mates.”
Venetta Fields was born into a religious family during 1941 in Buffalo, New York. Like Sherlie and Clydie, she was an early-aged gospel singer in church. Citing Aretha Franklin as her all-consuming inspiration, she kicked off her singing career with The Templaires, later The Corinthian Gospel Singers. While working as a beautician in 1961, Venetta spotted a poster advertising an Ike & Tina Turner Revue at a nearby venue. After being told there was a vacancy in their support group. The Ikettes, she auditioned, was successful and went on to enjoy a five-year stay as a touring and recording member. Her solo slots like “The Love Of My Man” can be heard on 1964’s “The Ike & Tina Turner Revue Live” album.
As a member of The Ikettes, Venetta recorded “Crazy In Love” and “Prisoner In Love” for Ike’s Teena record label, after which their material was released on the Innis and Phi-Dan labels. A move to Modern Records in 1964 clocked up interesting sales with “The Camel Walk”, “Peaches ‘N’ Cream” and “I’m So Thankful”. In time though Ike Turner had two sets of Ikettes: a new line-up that toured with Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars, while the other, that included Venetta, toured with him. At the height of the Revue’s success, the Turners decided to move to Los Angeles in 1965, whereupon Venetta, Jessie Smith and Robbie Montgomery morphed into The Mirettes. “I was an Ikette for five years. It was a rough job, but a very good experience,” explained Venetta in an unidentified interview. “It’s just like a school…and when you graduate you have to leave…staying too long you get stagnant and stifled by what you’re doing.” The new group landed a deal with Mirwood Records, where their 1967 single “Now That I Found You, Baby” was penned and produced by a certain Sherlie Matthews. Switching to the MCA imprint Revue during 1968, they recorded “In The Midnight Hour”, pre-loved by Wilson Picket, among other titles, before moving to Minit where “Help Wanted” was another poor seller. From this, and under a deal with UNI Records, their “Whirlpool” album was issued, with extracted singles unfortunately attracting minimum interest.
As a session singer, Venetta often hooked up with Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, earning themselves the reputation of being vital contributors to A-listed acts – Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, to mention a few. With Clydie, she recorded with The Rolling Stones on their “Exile On Main Street” album in the early seventies, singing on the “Tumbling Dice”, “Let It Loose”, “Shine A Light” and “I Just Want To See His Face” tracks. “All wonderful songs” said Venetta. “And they were just right for us. We know gospel (and) that’s what most people wanted from us, a gospel sound.”
After touring Australia as part of Boz Scagg’s support group during 1978 and 1980, Venetta decided, two years later, to move there permanently. “I had all that experience and a good reputation, but I felt like I was stuck in a stereotyped box….I had to get away to somewhere where I could start again.” One settled, she threw herself back into work once more; lending her voice to touring American acts like Randy Crawford, Dionne Warwick and George Benson, and recording with a host of Australian artists. By 1980 she had formed a new group, Venetta’s Taxi, in Melbourne, with Sherlie, became a singing coach and presented vocal workshops. Nine years later, the stage beckoned, as she debuted in musical theatre playing Alice in “Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn” in Sydney. Other stage appearances were next, including forming, and touring with, her own musical “Gospel Jubilee”.
After hanging up her microphone for other artists, and living a quiet life on the Gold Coast, the singer received the 2002 Australian Gospel Singer of the Year award, and recorded her own “At Last” album three years later. (venettafields.com)
Like Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King, Venetta Fields’ voice was a premium to any recording, and when they joined ranks in the early seventies to become The Blackberries to work from Motown’s Los Angeles offices, their future looked secure. With the Mowest single recorded, Sherlie worked with Marva Holiday and producer Deke Richards to create an album for the trio. “Kidnapped”, “I Found A Friend”, “Let’s Get Married” and “Love Child” were in the selection of titles, as confirmed by Reel Music, who were considering releasing the album canned by Berry Gordy, who rejected it without good reason, although Sherlie believed he felt The Blackberries posed a threat to The Supremes at the time. “…And the company was unused to a female group alternating leads. Motown didn’t have enough faith in our new concept to take a chance. Today it’s the common denominator,” she explained in the essay for “The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 12A:1972”. Deke Richards agreed. He was responsible for the unique recording style that achieved the sound he wanted, but not one that was recognised by Motown, as it involved the trio singing as one, then individually, and then with one lead supported by two backing vocalists. “The result was a fat but very tight sound,” he said. “It also gave me complete control over the voicing of the harmonies.” Like the single before it, the album likewise collected dust.
From here, and during 1972, Steve Marriott asked the trio to join Humble Pie. Sherlie opted out as she had a young family: Billie Barnum (late of Apolla) replaced her. The line-up subsequently toured and recorded with the group throughout 1973, issued their own single, a version of “Twist And Shout”, on A&M Records, while Marriott produced an album which, like its Motown predecessor, was canned. The two groups parted company at this point, whereupon Billy Preston produced a further single on them in 1974 titled “Yesterday’s Music”. The Blackberries last outing by all accounts. However, by now, Clydie had recorded with Brown Sugar for other labels including RCA Records.
Despite ongoing battles to record their own material, The Blackberries were the crème de la crème in session and performing singers. And as such they were constantly on the most-wanted list. However, the industry was changing and by the mid-seventies recording techniques were different. “That was around the time of the end of all the background singing in Los Angeles” Sherlie said. “We were one of the last groups actually to do that type of thing, because most of the new groups emerged with self-contained vocals.”
As with this type of overview, some items are probably missing, particularly when the ladies branched out individually. I’m reliant on several different and diverse sources for this information and, like a jigsaw, have attempted to put the pieces together. With this in mind, I’d like to acknowledge the ladies’ two websites, plus Wikipedia and the numerous sites advertising obscure records and discographies. The visuals I also acknowledge with grateful thanks, most of which are uncredited.
So, all that’s left for me to say this month is….”Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” will be premiered in Los Angles on 8 August, with Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson expected to walk down the red carpet. The film is premiered in Detroit on 23 August, before being screened on Showtime at 9pm the following day. British screenings are expected but I have no confirmation yet, I’m afraid.
That’s it for now and, as always, I look forward to your company next month.