Mining the Grooves of Music History

SideTrax: Ball of Confusion

The musical magic that Berry Gordy and his crew created at Motown spread across the Atlantic to influence numerous UK bands. The Beatles, The Stones and The Who were a few that recorded Motown songs. This SideTrax explores a great Motown Moment.

When I was a young kid, the radio airwaves where I grew up were filled with Detroit stations which is how I got my a special love for Motown. So, on my journey exploring the history of rock, here’s a SideTrax to The Motor City – Detroit.

Ball of Confusion from The Temptations peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 on June 27, 1970.

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote the song but its creation and impact owes a lot to the individual players whose talent and creativity created a masterpiece.

Bob Babbitt of the Funk Brothers says it all happened quickly. He was asked, on the night before, to show up to the session the next day. When he arrived at the studio it was stacked with players…. Uriel Jones, Pistol Allen, Jack Ashford, Eddie Bongo, Earl Van Dyke on clavinet, Johnny Griffith on organ, Joe Messina, Dennis Coffey.

The band wasn’t given much to go on when they began crafting the music. Norman Whitfield just said he had been listening to a lot of Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. He wanted to bring that funky psychedelic sound to Motown.  He also provided some ideas, chord patterns, and a section of bassline. In the 3 hour session, that included time for the band to eat some BLTs, they found a funky sound to align with what was in Norman Whitfield’s head. 

The lyrics for Ball of Confusion were a rework of an idea. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong had crafted a song for The Temptations called “War”. Motown rejected it for the band because of fear it would upset conservative fans. So when crafting the lyrics for Ball of Confusion Whitfield and Strong design a political, strong, yet neutral message for the Temptations. “War” had been passed to Motown solo artist Edwin Starr and he took it to Number 1.

When The Temptations saw the sheet music for Ball of Confusion they were concerned that they couldn’t deliver the lyrics at the speed required but they brilliantly mastered the song. Their rapid fire repetition and the deep punctuation of Melvin Franklin’s “And the band played on” gave the message it’s power.

Just four days after the band recorded the music for the song Bob Babbitt heard Ball of Confusion playing on his car radio. Having never heard it with lyrics he was surprised to hear that it was a political song. 

Ball of Confusion has been covered numerous times over the decades and it has had a hand in other people’s success.

Tina Turner’s recording of it appeared on a 1982 album called “Music of Quality and Distinction Volume One”. It featured various new wave artists and guest vocalists covering 60’s & 70’s classics.  Tina Turner’s version of Ball of Confusion was released as the single for the album and became a Top 5 hit in Norway. Following that success she recorded Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of Heaven 17. That song became a hit in the UK and on the US Hot 100 in 1983, in fact it was the catalyst that kicked off her massive comeback.

Ball of Confusion is a masterpiece with a message that still resonates 50+ years later.  Artists from Tina Turner to Tesla, Anthrax to Love & Rockets have covered it but nobody has nailed it like The Temptations in the original.

I’m exploring the history of rock in podcasts and short music related SideTrax. If you want to join me on the journey subscribe here or follow along on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or TikTok. The journey starts here with RockDocs Episode #1 Setting the Stage. Thanks for Listening!

SideTrax: Britain’s First Real Rock n Roll Song

The two and a half minute song that is known as Britain’s first real Rock n Roll song was written on the upper deck of a Green Line bus as guitarist Ian Samwell travelled to a rehearsal at Cliff Richard’s house.

It was 1958 and Ian Samwell was one of many British youngsters fanning his Rock n Roll dreams. He’d met a group of musicians a few months earlier at the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho and had recently joined them to become Cliff Richard and the Drifters. Samwell’s catchy composition “Move It” caught the ear of producer Jack Good who insisted the band play it on his TV show Oh Boy!. Samwell hadn’t finished writing the second verse of the song but no one seemed to notice when Cliff simply resang the first verse.

“Move It” quickly became the band’s first single, and a cover of US singer Bobby Helms’ Schoolboy Crush was relegated to the B side.

It was a savvy switch because when Cliff Richard and the Drifters released “Move It” as their first single in August 1958, it climbed up the UK charts to hit #2, claiming its place as Britain’s first real Rock n Roll song. “Move It” proved that UK musicians could write and perform great rock n roll and it bolstered enthusiasm for others to give it a try.

Ian Samwell was edged out of the band shortly after but he continued to write songs for them and others. While the Drifters evolved into the Shadows, Samwell established himself as a DJ, playing his records for lunchtime dances at the Lyceum Ballroom in London and parlayed that into regular Sunday and Tuesday sessions that attracted a large mod audience. Some say he actually created the first discotheque. Later Samwell became a staff producer for Warner in London and in that capacity he discovered the folk rock trio “America” and produced their debut album in 1972.

Something prompted Samwell to finally finish the second verse of “Move It” in 1995. He sent the lyrics to Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin who, along with Cliff Richard on vocals, recorded the completed version for his album Hank Plays Cliff. The song received a distinguished live debut that same year for Queen Elizabeth II during the Royal Variety Performance.

The Cliff Richard Show – March 19, 1960
The Royal Variety Performance – November 25 1995

Cliff Richard released the song again in 2006 on a record with Brian May of Queen and Brian Bennett of the Shadows. It was a double A side single with “21st Century Christmas” and it debuted at #2 on the charts.

“Move It” launched the career of Cliff Richard in 1958, a career that has spanned more than 6 decades. He now sings the complete version of the song when he tours, which he still does. He has dates scheduled for late 2021.

SideTrax: Rock Music Started Here?

How does a song that was written in 1929 by a railway freight yard worker in Little Rock, Arkansas get credited with launching rock music as we now know it?

The story behind this SideTrax starts with Clarence Wilson. He worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and they encouraged their employees to promote the rail line to the public. So Clarence Wilson wrote about buying tickets on the Rock Island Line for his “Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet” and his catchy song spread. Singers adapted the lyrics to suit their situation and the song eventually it found its way to England to launch an entire music movement.

The man who would take “Rock Island Line” across the Atlantic first heard it on September 29, 1934 when it was sung by inmates at the Tucker Arkansas prison farm.

A former prison inmate himself, Lead Belly was working as a driver and assistant to musicologist Alan Lomax, who was traveling the country recording traditional folk music songs for the Library of Congress. On a state-of-the-art 315 pound phonograph uncoated-aluminum disc recorder, that was installed in the trunk of a Ford sedan, they recorded the prisoners at Tucker performing Rock Island Line. When they heard the same song a few days later at the Cummins prison farm they recorded it again, sung by 9 prisoners.

Lead Belly “King of the 12 String” finally recorded the song himself in June 1937 but it’s his January 1942 recording, with the introductory train driver monologue, that was actually released as a record. It’s that version that made its way across the Atlantic with America troops during World War II and it changed everything. Because recorded music was in limited supply, American Service radio transmitted Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line regularly to Allied troops and the song took root.

English jazz and blues singer George Melly was the first in the UK to record the song in 1951 but it was Lonnie Donegan’s version that kick started the UK Skiffle scene and launched the musical adventures of the Beatles, the Who and the Stones and any other would be guitar picker in postwar England. Without that song, as recorded by Lead Belly and then filtered through Lonnie Donegan, rock music as we now know it, as Van Morrison says in this interview, “probably wouldn’t have happened at all.” 

Watch this BBC 2 Newsnight segment with Lonnie Donegan, Van Morrison, Ron Wood, Chris Barber where Van Morrison makes that comment at 8:10 mark)

SideTrax: Britain’s First Rock n Roller

Tommy Steele has been called Britain’s first rock n roller. He started his entertainment career in his mid-teens while working in the merchant navy. During his time at sea he learned to sing and play guitar, entertaining his shipmates with country songs. While on shore leave he saw Buddy Holly at the Grand Ol’ Opry and from then on he turned his talents to rock n roll.

Tommy Steele’s first success was in 1956. The UK charts were dominated by American acts but Rock With The Caveman went to #13. It was a significant achievement. He wrote the song with his band mates Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt. (Mike Pratt would later go on to star in the TV show Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), playing the original Randall. As a kid I loved this show and it’s so cool to watch it online now!)

That same year Tommy Steele’s entertainment career expanded to film with The Tommy Steele Story. The band wrote the accompanying album for the movie and when it was released in 1957 it made them the first UK based band to reach the coveted #1 spot on the UK charts.

With his big smile and good looks Tommy Steele was a natural for stage and screen. In 1963 his New York performance in the musical Half a Sixpence was seen by Walt Disney who signed him on to star in The Happiest Millionaire with Fred MacMurray. Tommy Steele’s career has spanned the decades with other films and stage performances, as well as writing, directing, art and graphic design and in the fall of 2020 his contribution was recognized when he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

It’s not hard to see why Tommy Steele was a success. Along with his multi-talents he had a big infectious smile, good looks and was generally likeable and down to earth. That, along with his breadth and depth of talent, reminds me of Dave Grohl, the nicest guy in rock n roll.

SideTrax: early photo of Tommy Steele

Photo Credit: Godfrey Argent – National Portrait Gallery

SideTrax: Photo of Tommy Steele

Photo Credit: The Herald Scotland

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