Gladys Knight singing ‘Just Walk in My Shoes’ is one of the most riveting examples of Motown artistry, with such a wonderful sense of drama, especially in the way she urges her lost love, her betrayer, to walk-ah-walk-ah-walk in her shoes, the source and origin of that trademark tic-ah of M.E.S., and there is the way Gladys wants that traitor to grieve like her, to try and wear a smile that isn’t real and to don that all too familiar cloak of loneliness.
Oh yes, she does hurt so well, so convincingly, she is such a great actress, but then she’d lived the life, and survived. Here she is the embodiment of the ¡No Pasarán! spirit, the fortitude possessed in abundance by the women who light up the pages of Caroline Moorehead’s remarkable resistance quartet. Gladys seems to say: “I suffer, so should you; you wounded me, I hope you’re hurting too”. It helps that the song accelerates so smoothly from the off, slipping straight into a powerful flowing movement, and oh those celestial harmonies, flung to the far winds so sweetly, adding to the dangerous poignancy.
A Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua production, ‘Just Walk in My Shoes’ was originally released as a single in 1966, Gladys’ first for the Motown organisation, and it made the lower reaches of the UK Top 40 in the summer of 1972, amid a Tamla resurgence buoyed by the burgeoning Northern Soul scene. A few months later Gladys and her Pips would have a far bigger British hit with the ballad ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’, featuring one of what would be her trademark spoken introductions, which would become so familiar.
Maybe growing up with Gladys Knight on the radio so often her music became something it was easy to like but equally easy to take for granted. What did register, subliminally, seeing the group on TV, was a subtle subversion of the norm, with Gladys out front and her guys in support, loyal as hell, always avuncular, singing harmonies, responding to her calls, and doing their immaculately choreographed routines. Who else was doing this so successfully? And, out front, there Gladys was: tough, matriarchal, majestic, beautiful, often hurt and angry, but wise and wordly.
Thinking of the Buddha years, specifically her U.K. hits in the second half of the 1970s, Gladys and her Pips had such a wonderful string of successes. Perhaps they became pop wallpaper in a sense, but in oh such a wonderful way: ‘The Way We Were’, ‘Best Thing That Ever Happened’ (which must have been at the back of Paul’s mind in the early days of the Style Council, and why shouldn’t it?), ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘Baby Don’t Change Your Mind’, ‘Come Back and Finish What You Started’, each one such a powerful short story.
Then into the 1980s, and best of all, their cover of Ashford & Simpson’s ‘Bourgie Bourgie’, one of the great performances from the last days of disco, and with such a special place in the heart of Postcard aficionados because of the story, rightly or wrongly remembered, about James Kirk suggesting it as the name of a new Jazzateers iteration with Paul Quinn sharing all the troubles of the world, drooping at the microphone, much to the delight of Dave McCullough in Sounds who momentarily thought they were part of a new pop uprising.
Quite probably this boy first really listened non-stop to ‘Just Walk in My Shoes’ around 1997, on buying This is Northern Soul! The Motown Sound, a Débutante CD, a budget-price compilation with liner notes by Chris King, who was the resident DJ at the Bretby Country Club All-Nighters, which suggests shades of The Associates alive and kicking inevitably. It was a collection of rare sides from the Motown vaults, several of which would become firm favourites for many of us, like Brenda Holloway’s ‘Reconsider’, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’, Linda Griner’s ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, Kim Weston’s ‘You Hit Me’, and of particular interest was the Marvelettes’ original of ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’, but here it is hard to accept anything other than The Action’s recordings of Motown songs because somehow they just don’t sound right sans Reggie King’s incredible vocal performances.
You can be pretty certain that in 1997 not too many of us realised ‘Just Walk in My Shoes’ had been written by the Lewis Sisters, Helen and Kay, as the credits say K. Miller and H. Mastor, which was their married names. Another Lewis Sisters composition on the CD was Marvin Gaye’s ‘This Love Starved Heart’ which was, apparently, “without a doubt the top record of 1996-97 on all-night dance floors”. Quite probably the name, Lewis Sisters, didn’t even mean that much back then.
It would likely have been when Paul Nixon’s A Cellarful of Motown! came out in 2002 that the Lewis Sisters were first heard here as performers, as Kay and Helen sang ‘Don’t Make Me Live Without Your Love’, written and produced by the big boss himself. It has become a particular favourite for many of us who have, no doubt, been busy singing along and getting right into the drama, waving arms around all over the place when playing this song, in private of course. The second volume in the series, which came out in 2005, features the Lewis Sisters performing their own composition ‘Breakaway’ which is a delight in every way.
The Lewis Sisters only released two singles for the Motown corporation, both on the V.I.P. label in 1965, and the four tracks were collected together on a French EP. One song, their own ‘He’s an Oddball’, is a gem it is easy to become irrationally fond of, as was apparently Bernard Rhodes, who first heard it in May 1968, while staying in Charlie Steiger’s atelier, and hanging out with Lawrence Ferlinghetti during the days of rage. Bernard liked the subversive ordinariness of the sisters’ ‘singing schoolteachers’ persona, and later borrowed Oddball as the name for his production company.
The sisters’ second Motown single, ‘You Need Me’, is a favourite of Sharon Davis, Motown historian and Dusty’s biographer. Aptly Dusty did a cover of ‘Just Walk’ on her TV show, and Billie Davis recorded a great version too. But a personal favourite is the Bruce Cloud cover version, a more reflective rendition, where the singer sounds genuinely broken up by all the hurt, and the arrangement by the great Phil Wright is brilliant. The 1969 Capitol LP it comes from, California Soul, links it to another Lewis Sisters song, ‘Why Can’t I Be Born Again’, which is incredibly intense and brilliantly disturbing, very much the sound of a man falling apart.
The Lewis Sisters’ salvaged recordings are scattered hither and thither, and there are a couple of tracks to be found on Ace’s Motown Girls series, ‘Many Good Times’ and ‘Honey Don’t Leave Me’, but best of all is ‘Can’t Figure It Out’ on a CD of unreleased Motown tracks from 1965. That same year the Lewis Sisters appeared as vocal support on Chris Clark’s V.I.P. debut ‘Do Right Baby Do Right’ which is on her fantastic Motown Collection 2CD set where there’s a great photo of the towering CC goofing around outside the Hitsville U.S.A. HQ with Esther Edwards, and the Lewis Sisters are there in the background, and the ladies look anything but square.
Of the sisters’ compositions for the Motown organisation a few for Brenda Holloway are of particular interest here, with ‘Where Were You’ and ‘I See A Rainbow’ being first heard on her essential Motown Anthology 2CD set, and the excellent ‘My World is Crumbling’ which appears on the first A Cellarful of Motown CD collection. Another highlight of that was little sister Patrice singing ‘The Touch of Venus’, one of the great Ed Cobb songs, like Brenda’s signature tune, the immortal ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’.
After a frustrating time at Motown Patrice Holloway moved on to Capitol where her triptych of 1960s singles can be considered extraordinary works of art. The first two releases in this sequence were written and arranged by Gene and Billy Page, and the third was produced by David Axelrod and features a Lewis Sisters composition, ‘Stay With Your Own Kind’, an incredibly powerful performance, which is laceratingly emotional and moving. The song itself is a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, on opposite sides of the racial divide, the treatment of which is strikingly direct, even more so than Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’ which was making waves, not least because it was written and performed by a kid, and Patrice was only a kid too. This was all just before Sidney Poitier lit up the silver screen in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.
With Patrice singing the Lewis Sisters’ song from the perspective of a young black girl there are associations here, mentally, with A Bronx Tale, a particular favourite film, which has a theme of doomed love across the tracks, and that sequence of the movie uses music incredibly well, from The Impressions’ ‘I’m So Proud’ to the life-changing inclusion of Donald Byrd’s ‘Cristo Redentor’, all of which made such a powerful impression in a West End cinema one Sunday morning (oh those lovely days of free preview cinema tickets from Time Out etc.) back in 1993 that it seems impossible to revisit the film again somehow, just in case.
Patrice’s ‘Stay With Your Own Kind’ exploded into this boy’s life on one of the early Kent Soul compilations, Leapers, Sleepers and Creepers, and God bless the day that was bought in the local hipster’s store along the Broadway, Cloud 9 (sort of appropriately), a family business run by a genuinely nice guy called Eddie, as part of a mid-1980s ritual of buying some old soul on a Saturday afternoon, taking it home and playing it while getting ready to go out dancing at a Jasmine Minks or June Brides show, somewhere in town, dodging the skinheads on the way home. What a collection that was: Clydie King’s ‘If You Were A Man’, the O’Jays’ ‘I’ll Never Forget You’, Irma’s ‘What Are You Trying To Do’ and ‘The Hurt’s All Gone’, Bobby Paris’ ‘I Walked Away’, Gene McDaniels’ ‘Walk With A Winner’, and Patrice’s ‘Ecstasy’, but her ‘Stay With Your Own Kind’ was the one here, for always and ever.
That wasn’t the only Lewis Sisters song that David Axelrod produced. His close comrade H.B. Barnum recorded the sisters’ ‘Heartbreaker’ on a 1967 Capitol single that a decade later became a firm favourite on the Northern Soul scene. It appears on the Stateside CD, Talcum Soul 2, which came out early in the new millennium as part of a very useful if cheap-and-cheerful series overseen by Dean Rudland, inevitably at the time.
This volume was co-compiled by Kent’s heroic Ady Croasdell, which may be why there’s some overlap with that Leapers etc. set, plus some real life-savers like Timi Yuro’s ‘It’ll Never Be Over For Me’, Dean Parrish’s ‘I’m On My Way’, Jerry Williams’ ‘If You Ask Me’, and a particular favourite, discovered on this compilation, which is Shawn Robinson singing ‘My Dear Heart’, and one assumes this is the same lady that somehow went on to sing for Piero Piccioni and is featured on the third instalment of the Beat at Cinecittà series on Crippled Dick Hot Wax!
After their time at Tamla and the dalliance with Capitol the Lewis Sisters went on to work for the Canterbury label which is one of those fascinating 1960s imprints, partly so appealing as often they defied logic. This one was run by Ken Handler, scion of the Mattel toy corporation, and seemed to split its activities between soft pop and psychedelia on one hand and pretty deep soul on the other, with the lines becoming blurred at times. The great Gene Page was responsible for arrangements on the label’s early releases which include singles by Don Grady of the Yellow Balloon, The New Wave’s incredibly beautiful ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, and The Tempos’ ‘(Countdown) Here I Come’. Another soul classic released on Canterbury was The Younghearts’ ‘A Little Togetherness’.
For Canterbury the Lewis Sisters wrote and produced a 1967 single for Sandy Wynns, later better known as Edna Wright of the Honey Cone, who had previously recorded Ed Cobb’s ‘Touch of Venus’, first heard here (and never forgotten) via Neil Rushton’s Inferno compilation Out On The Floor Tonight. Sandy’s Canterbury single was the superb pairing of ‘Love is Like Quicksand’ and ‘How Can Something be So Wrong’, two incredibly infectious songs which still sound fantastic and so very full of life.
The Lewis Sisters also oversaw recordings for Kay’s daughter, Lisa Miller, who while still in her early teens was already an industry veteran having been an aspiring child star at Motown, recording as Little Lisa, and her ‘Choo Choo Train’, written by her mum and aunt, was an unexpected highlight of the second A Cellarful of Motown! set, and it was a song which seemed to share with ‘Just Walk in My Shoes’ a curiously irresistible sense of motorvating rhythm, of the sort usually associated with German groups like Neu!, and it’s great fun too, which seems right for a kid’s song.
A little older by the time she got to record for Canterbury, but presumably still barely into her teens, if that, Lisa made an LP in 1967, Within Myself, overseen by the Lewis Sisters, which got lost along the way until Sundazed salvaged it in 2010, making it the ideal accompaniment to the Wendy and Bonnie CD they’d put out. Musically, Lisa’s LP is a prime paisley pop and bubblegum soul delight, with some terrific arrangements which came courtesy of H.B. Barnum, Gene Page, and Jack Eskew who it seems had a lot to do with The Banana Splits, very early favourites here.
Musically Lisa’s LP was superb, and the settings would have suited, say, Petula Clark (didn’t Richard Searling say H.B. Barnum wrote ‘What’ with Pet in mind before Judy Street sang it?) or Lulu, whose ‘To Sir with Love’ Lisa covered convincingly. She also sang a great version of ‘White Rabbit’ which kind of reclaims for kids the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland theme. The seven songs the Lewis Sisters came up with for Lisa’s LP were on one level a little like nursery rhymes, though in the true tradition of the form there was usually a twist and a moral to the tale. Lisa also got to cover ‘Fool on the Hill’ and appropriately Lisa later got to sing with Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’77 and ’88 outfits.
Ironically for Lisa, while her LP may have disappeared, before long the pop world would be overrun by child stars, with the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family, and lots of little Osmonds. Stranger still, among the Osmond family’s early recordings are ‘Let My People Go’ and the footstomping wonder ‘He’s The Light of the World’, both of which came from a religious-themed rock opera Truth of Truths, a popular form at the time, for which Kay and Helen Lewis composed half-a-dozen numbers, including these two. On the soundtrack LP the singers include Lisa Miller and Patrice Holloway.
Apart from Lisa’s lost LP, probably the most concentrated gathering of Lewis Sisters songs is on Les McCann’s 1970 Atlantic set, Comment, where four of the numbers are composed by Kay and Helen. On two of these Les duets with Roberta Flack who also wrote the sleevenotes, returning the favour for the fervent words Les supplied for her immortal First Take, very much a record for troubled times. Particularly wonderful is Les and Roberta’s performance of ‘Baby Baby’, a Lewis Sisters number also performed by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on their 1966 LP, Away We A Go-Go, which also featured the original of ‘Save Me’ that The Undertones much later covered so wonderfully. Les McCann’s singing on Comment is so rich, deep, warm and wise that it is a total joy, a little like the Grady Tate records of the same era. Les had the advantage of Valerie Simpson leading a choir to support him.
The name of Les McCann first registered here, in tandem with Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes’, when their performance of ‘That Healin’ Feelin’’ (a very Van-like title that) featured on a 1986 NME cassette, Low Lights and Trick Mirrors, compiled by Roy Carr and Fred Dellar, presumably to complement their illuminating book The Hip: Hipsters, Jazz and the Beat Generation. That cassette got played to death here (literally) and served as an important signpost, particularly with the vocal jazz tracks from Chet Baker, Mark Murphy, Jeri Southern, Peggy Lee, Lord Buckley, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Dakota Staton and, inevitably, Billie Holiday, which all seemed so incredibly sophisticated, cool, and glamorous, in sharp contrast to many of the scrappy things that were on a different tape, of new music, the NME released that same year.
Les recorded another of the Lewis Sisters’ songs, ‘Universal Prisoner’, on the Second Movement LP, a 1971 collaboration with Eddie Harris and an all-star cast, including Judy Clay and Cissie Houston on backing vocals. It is such a powerful, insightful song: “Do you share yourself and love what’s inside? Or do you run to the phony world where most people hide?” Sarah Vaughan also recorded the song beautifully on her 1971 LP A Time in My Life, a Mainstream title of the same vintage as Alice Clark’s classic set. Sarah’s incredibly special record also included her superb covers of John Sebastian’s ‘Magical Connection’ and Marvin’s ‘Inner City Blues’, and intriguingly several Brian Auger songs.
The bond between Les McCann and the Lewis Sisters went back to the late 1950s when they became friends on the Los Angeles jazz scene, and together made an LP, for Liberty in 1959, which is quite extraordinary. This title, Way Out Far, is one that got a new lease of life as the file-sharing blogs took off early in the new millennium when for a short, glorious time ridiculously rare records and all sorts of lost sounds were shared freely, effectively changing the accepted story of pop overnight, simply by highlighting how much had been missed along the way.
The basic premise of Way Out Far was to record a selection of jazz standards (including ‘But Not For Me’, the song performed by Chet Baker on that NME tape) sung by the sisters, accompanied by a small group led by Les. “Spiced by drifting dissonants and subtly shifting tempi, these old songs are skilfully regenerated by two girls with remarkable imagination and projection. This album is an experience you will want to renew periodically. There is magic in it that surpasses the mundane,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gene Sherman of the L.A. Times to close his sleevenotes. He was right, for what Kay and Helen did was to create a new way of singing jazz, which was exactly what they and Les were aiming for. Apart from anything else, were there any other pairings of female jazz singers at that time? There were female vocal groups, sure, but duos?
And, anyway, even if there were, did anyone else manage to combine their voices in such celestial harmony, weaving patterns to these ears, in a way not too far from a Hildegard Von Bingen antiphon, as the sisters float exquisitely, languidly, dreamily. The only possible comparison would be if Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis from the fabulous Fleetwoods had ventured out on their own, with accompaniment from the Modern Jazz Quartet and Herbie Mann. Sadly, they didn’t, and as the Lewis Sisters sang on their own divinely fatalistic composition: “It matters not at all”. For we have Way Out Far, albeit on one of those Japanese CD replicas of the original vinyl edition, which is very lovely in every sense.
This may not bear too forensic an examination, but what that Lewis Sisters LP seems closest to is the early recordings of Quarteto Em Cy for Roberto Quartin’s Forma label and Aloysio De Oliveira’s Elenco imprint in the mid-1960s. While the Brazilian ensemble was four sisters singing together, still somehow the effect was at times rather like they had been inspired by Way Out Far. Is that far-fetched? Perhaps, but then again there is a niggling suspicion that there was a family connection between the blog where the LP was discovered (along with so many other vocal jazz treasures, not least Jackie Paris, Jackie & Roy, and so on) and Oscar Castro Neves, who certainly worked with Quarteto Em Cy before moving to the States and joining Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, so maybe the Lewis Sisters were big in Bahia?
That may all be ridiculously wrong, but the fact is that the early bossa nova participants were huge fans of American jazz and had a penchant for vocal groups and the quieter, softer sounds, so Les McCann and the Lewis Sisters would fit perfectly, and Paul Horn’s flute playing on the LP, where he seems to be an additional voice, has a very strong sense of what we have come to associate with the bossa nova sound. And there is something about Quarteto Em Cy’s way of singing in unison, becoming one voice, without anything too flash or too emotional, that shares the sense of delicate, unworldly ease which pervades Way Out Far.
There is a completely essential él CD that serves as the perfect introduction to Quarteto Em Cy, which has at its core the Som Definitivo LP, the one they made with the Tamba Trio, which has a few early Edu Lobo songs on and an arresting version of the bossa standard ‘Agua de Beber’. The accompanying CD booklet has a screenshot from a remarkable appearance the girls made with Marcos Valle on the Andy Williams TV show, singing Oscar Castro Neves’ ‘Até Londres’, where the Brazilian performers look remarkably like they have escaped from the pages of Richard Barnes’ Mods! book. The song itself is a particularly joyous example of the art of wordless singing.
Of the Edu Lobo songs on Som Definitivo it is ‘Aleluia’ that is perhaps the closest to the Lewis Sisters’ Way Out Far. It is the track that provides the title for the él collection, and in his liner notes Christopher Evans writes that the performance has “passages of liturgical beauty and playful intricacy”. Arguably it is a theme and feel Edu returned to on his magnificent Missa Breve LP. Around the same time Edu and Quarteto Em Cy worked together on their self-titled 1972 album which is, for this boy, one of the greatest albums ever, and from it their recording of Edu’s ‘Incelensa’ is one of the most incredibly spiritual and strangely dramatic recordings in the history of pop music, almost like one of Monteverdi’s songs of love.
The Lewis Sisters followed up Way Out Far with Voices, Strings and Percussion, an LP for Verve, recorded in 1960 with the Russ Garcia Orchestra, where Kay and Helen reinvent works by Tchaikovsky, using their voices to replicate the orchestral parts. Russ, coincidentally or not, was a pioneer of creating wordless soundscapes, notably on his Sounds in the Night set, which again él helpfully released on CD. Presumably, with this Tchaikovsky record, the Lewis Sisters were a year-or-two ahead of the Swingle Singers and their much-loved jazz variations of works by Bach?
There is an element of doubt, yes, having neither seen nor heard anything of Voices, Strings and Percussion, which in itself is quite something these days, and seems oddly appealing somehow in an age where we are frequently told everything is too easily available. And it is a fitting twist in the Lewis Sisters’ tale, for it is hard to think of many career trajectories in the story of pop music that are quite as strange as that of the siblings who, memorably, were once pitched by the Motown machine as being the epitome of ultra-normal, which should tell us something really.