In this 60th anniversary year, we, as fans, have been treated to several memorable surprises, and I believe the news that – after a couple of false starts – Sondra Williams, known to us all as Blinky, is set to have a compilation released, is another unexpected gift. In fact, when I first got wind of this, I thoroughly checked in with my contacts to ensure it wasn’t another rumour. When the CD artwork and music came through, I knew contacting Blinky was next on the agenda. My exclusive chat between two pals, rather than a history lesson, follows. Titled “Heart Full Of Soul: The Motown Anthology”, this 2-CD package is released next month, although the exact date seems hard to pin down as I write this. So, do keep your eyes on internet links and there are many, such is the unprecedented interest in this release. With Janie Bradford writing the Introduction, the accompanying booklet offers a selection of striking visuals, quotes from her fellow artists, and an excellent essay by Joe Marchese that incorporates the singer’s own words, plus recording dates and details of each track. Nothing is left to chance here.
“I’m so excited but really humbled,” Blinky told me last week. “Actually I’m in total shock and disbelief. …. Why would someone be interested in my stuff now because Motown really wasn’t,” she added with a laugh. In fact, there was a lighthearted feel throughout our conversation, with several high points of ‘girlie gossip’. One such exchange went something like this – “Blinky, don’t you look young on the cover? I bet you looked at it and said ‘those were the days’”. She quipped. “Yeah, didn’t I? But I look like someone from The Mod Squad! I said to (the record company) why this one? It appears they had a problem finding photos they were satisfied with.” Universal contacted me, I told her, but I only had a pair of black and white shots, and suggested Chris Clark. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help either.
Born on 23 May 1944 in Oakland, California, and raised in Los Angeles, Blinky was a student at Fremont High School, later Los Angeles City College, where she majored in child psychology and elementary education. Before moving on, she was named ‘Blinky’ by a tenth grade student because she blinked a lot – “…I could blink faster than a 747!” – so she decided to keep it as a recording name. With a singing career that started in church functions, the eleven-year-old developed her talent until she was ready to record gospel songs. Long-story-short: after recording as a soloist, she joined The COGIC Singers with Gloria Jones, Billy Preston, Andrae Crouch, Edna Wright, Frankie Karl and Sandra Crouch. As such they toured the globe with stars like Mahalia Jackson. Singles and albums followed until the group dissolved. Befriending The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, Blinky walked the path to Motown, where the group’s manager introduced her to Motown producers Hal Davis and Frank Wilson. Originally working as a session singer, where she would regularly forgot her support role routines, Hal Davis hooked her out to record her own material.
We next chatted about the forty-plus tracks on “Heart Full Of Soul” with me pulling out my particular favourites like “Shine On Me”, the emotive “For Once In My Life”, “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”, “People Make The World Go Round”, “For Your Precious Love” and the sumptuous “This Time Last Summer” – the latter she did remember, “I love that song” – and starts to sing it down the phone line. “You recorded Brenda Holloway’s dramatic “I’ll Always Love You”. Did she kill you? “ “No Sharon! She’s like my play daughter. Anyway, Edwin and I did ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy’ on our ‘Just We Two’ album. Brenda and I are very close.”
Then she told me a tale about the picture on Brenda’s first album “Every Little Bit Hurts”, where she is pictured wearing a long pink gown, lounging against a white pillar. “If you look closely at the picture, she’s got long white gloves on. I drove Hal Davis’ car to my mother’s house to get them because she needed gloves like Marilyn Monroe. Then, because Brenda’s waist was so tiny, I pinned her dress from the back to show her shape. She was so naïve, so humble. ‘Oh no, you’re not going to show my body are you?’ Hal said, ‘Yes, we are!’
As Edwin was mentioned earlier, Blinky elaborated on their relationship while cutting “Just We Two” which they knew wouldn’t be a hit. “We were really close, but were never lovers. He was such a sweetheart. Many people tried to put us together….We felt so bad because we weren’t getting any attention from Motown so we would walk down the street holding hands. He consoled me, I consoled him.” He also taught her to dance. “I didn’t know how to! When we were on tour he would come to my room to teach me how to move. In the end, he would move for me, so it looked like I could really dance.”
After that slight diversion, we retuned to the tracks on “Heart Full Of Soul”. “I don’t remember recording those songs. I know I’d be pulled off the road sometimes to record but seriously I have no idea.” Elaborating further – “I was telling Cornelius Grant last night at rehearsals (she’s preparing for her performance at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles on 13 November) that when I got to Motown, The Temptations needed a hit, Diana was working with The Supremes, and Gladys Knight needed a hit. So I got there at a very strange time. Tammi (Terrell) had just died, so they were putting somebody else’s voice on ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ with Marvin. In between all of that, Motown’s getting ready to move to Los Angeles. So they didn’t really have time for Blinky. I was stuck on the road, and as Shelly Berger was my manager also, I toured with The Temptations for about two years.”
“Then I stayed with Sammy Davis Jr for (a long time) and that’s where I spent most of my time because Motown didn’t really have time for me, I never saw the ‘artist development room’. Actually, I saw it one time and that was because I was looking for Paul (Williams). They felt I was already prepared to be an entertainer because I had been on the road with Andre Crouch and the others. Sammy taught me everything.”
Speaking next about Gloria Jones, one of her best friends from teenage years – and part of the female elite at Motown, tagged the ‘L A Girls”, with Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway and Tammi Terrell – she admitted “If I Were Your Woman” was written for her. “When Gloria first got to Motown, she said ‘this is for you’ and gave it to Shelly Berger.” It was then plans went astray with the Pam Sawyer and Gloria composition because it bypassed Blinky. “Motown said ‘Blinky just got here and she’s got plenty of time to get a hit and Gladys (Knight) needs a hit’. So it was cut on her, and I never did get to record it. I guess I wasn’t one of Motown’s favourites. I also played the piano but I wasn’t allowed to because Aretha (Franklin) did that. Yet when I got with Sammy Davis Jr., I played the piano and still play it in my show.”
Briefly then, as we’re running out of space here, the second CD premiers never-heard-before items, while the first is the aborted “Sunny And Warm” album in its entirety, and some songs will be recognised from previous compilations. It was these add-ons that prompted Motown fans across the world to spearhead the ‘Free Blinky From The Vaults’ campaign. Whether or not this was responsible for this new release is irrelevant because Blinky has been liberated for the world to share! All credit and thanks to Andy Skurow and Joe Marchese for getting this project together to free Motown’s ‘lost’ artist.
Finally, and personally speaking now, Blinky lost her husband William Powell five years ago but enjoys an incredible relationship with her two daughters, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. “They take wonderful care of me. Whenever I see them, I feel like a queen.”
With the last Skegness Northern Soul Survivors weekender still ringing in people’s ears (including mine), something rather unique was also born from those fun-packed few days and announced just recently by two performing artists – Gloria Jones and Paul Stuart Davies.
As you probably know, Gloria founded The Marc Bolan School Of Music and the Light Of Love Foundation to provide music education for those children in Makeni, Sierra Leone, who have been denied the opportunity, in memory of her late partner, the T Rex front man. The School takes its inspiration from Marc’s creativity and energy, where his music touched people through time and over great distances. “It’s something that Marc would very much have approved of” Gloria explained. “And our son, Rolan, is also involved with the running of the school. Nearer home in Lancashire, Paul Stuart Davies and Mark Bateson founded the Darwen School Of Music, with the key focus of providing live performance experience for students.
In a recent chat, Paul confirmed the official twinning of their music school with Gloria’s set up in West Africa. “We are a small school, but we have everything we need to provide a top level experience for our students. We also offer recording sessions and grade exams,” he explained. “We don’t realise how lucky we are sometimes in the UK and we are looking forward to visiting Sierra Leone to provide some free music workshops. We also have some ideas up our sleeve for ways of bringing our students together with like-minded learners on the other side of the world! It’s baby steps at first, but we are keen to see what we could come up with together. As fans of both Gloria and T Rex, we’re proud of the association.”
Adds the “Tainted Love” singer, “We have great expectations for our schools creating a mixture of our cultures, exchanging ideas in music….We will also exchange ideas in incorporating our natural habitat using the sounds of the wonderful wildlife and magic of Africa.” In the pipeline are exchange visits to work with students, and a British concert next year to raise funds for the project.
Now dusted off and re-mixed is the 1972 recording of Marvin Gaye’s live performance of “What’s Going On” at The Kennedy Centre on Washington DC’s “Marvin Gaye Day” on 1 May. It was a full-on day of celebrations marking the singer’s return to his hometown. Kicking off with a visit to his old school Cardozo High, he and his parents were ushered by motorcade to several points of interest around the city, before visiting DC’s mayor, Walter Washington, who presented Marvin with the key to the city. A reception followed at the US House of Representatives before the main evening event at The Kennedy Centre, where Marvin was due to perform following a four-year hiatus. He took to the stage at 11pm!
In 2001 the concert was finally released as part of Motown/Ume’s expanded deluxe edition for the “What’s Going On” album and this month it is released as a stand-alone item on CD and vinyl, newly mixed by John Morales at M+M Mix Studios. Marvin starts his concert with a thirteen- minute “Sixties Medley” of hits in no particular order, followed by “Right On” and “Wholy Holy”. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is missing because during the concert there was a time delay when switching the first reel-to-reel tape to the second one which resulted in the track not being recorded in its entirety. New sleeve notes by David Ritz and rare photos from the actual performance on both CD and vinyl, is another bonus in this 60th anniversary year.
While writing this, Diana Ross has announced British dates for next year. It was to be expected that Glastonbury wouldn’t be her only performance, so it really wasn’t a huge surprise when the following dates were announced for her Top Of The World Tour:
30 June: Leeds 1st Drive Arena
1 July: Liverpool M&S Bank Arena
3 July: Manchester Arena
4 July: Glasgow The SSE Hydro
6 July: Birmingham Arena
8 July: The London 02.
Tickets on sale 1 November.
Well, a lot to take in this month for sure. But all good – and certainly a terrific way to celebrate such a special birthday. Berry Gordy may have retired, but, let me tell you, his music certainly hasn’t!