Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory
Beauty in the Background
Published: February 13, 2013
Amid all the Motown stars, the sound of the unsung Adantes lit up countless records despite its enduring legacy, we can still forget just how rich Motown’s musical history actually is. After all, we’ve been peeling back the layers for more than 50 years now, gradually recognizing the people behind the stars. Largely unknown at the time, we can now appreciate songwriting teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland or session players like the Funk Brothers. Even smaller labels in the orbit of the Motown sound, such as Ric-Tic and Golden Records, which have long been celebrated overseas, are only beginning to be properly appreciated here.
And now, another layer is about to be peeled back, revealing yet one more group of talented but unheralded performers whose contributions were vital to that glorious chapter in Detroit — and music — history.
The occasion is the newest exhibit at the Motown Museum, Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory, which was unveiled this month. (Just step into the reflected light from the sequined gowns; you can’t miss it.) More than a year in preparation, it is only the third display in the storied history of “Hitsville, U.S.A.” to revolve around a specific star cluster in the Motown galaxy.
“We have done two other exhibits that focused on a single act,” explains Lina Stephens, the museum’s chief curator. “One on the Jackson 5 and one on Marvin Gaye. Because of the way the museum is laid out, you get a taste of everybody. But this gives us an opportunity to give you a little more on each group, a more in-depth look at them.”
The label’s usual, legendary suspects are well represented, through never-before-seen photos, vintage concert posters and related memorabilia. There’s Detroit’s first and fiercest homegrown diva, Diana Ross, and the Supremes; the globetrotting former City Councilwoman Martha Reeves and her group, the Vandellas; the Marvelettes, who were pleading to Mr. Postman (and achieving Motown’s first No. 1 pop single) 52 years before the decision to discontinue Saturday delivery, and those silken-voiced Western Michigan University “imports,” the Velvelettes.
Even without all this collective glitter, however, you might have to squint to catch a glimpse of Motown’s most prolific, yet astonishingly unsung girl group: the Andantes.
Never heard of them, you say? It’s like a needle in a haystack, R&B devotee. The most devoted Motown aficionado may be hard-pressed to name the members of this pitch-perfect trio: Jackie Hicks, Louvain Demps and Marlene Barrow (now Barrow-Tate). Stephens concedes that in the vastness of the Motown archives, there exists only one preserved, professionally posed photograph of the group in its heyday, “because that PR machine wasn’t working for them the way it was working for others,” she says. “They weren’t being pushed and put out front to do that.”
The Andantes almost never toured, clambering onto that fabled bus to join their labelmates on a Motortown Revue. They seldom performed onstage; when they did, the gigs generally took place at the Fox Theatre, the 20 Grand or some other venue no more than a mile or two from the Motown stronghold. “Kim Weston took us on the road with her, because she wanted our sound,” recalls Marlene, the second alto. “But that was it.” They released only one Motown single as the Andantes, the ominously-titled 1964 tune “(Like a) Nightmare,” with “If You Were Mine” on the B side, for the subsidiary label V.I.P. Records.
Whether you have heard of them or not, you absolutely have heard them. Because, over an 11-year span, the Andantes, Motown’s pre-eminent studio background vocalists, lent their blended harmonies to many of the company’s most unforgettable tracks. “My Guy” by Mary Wells. Barrett Strong’s “Money.” Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “Save the Children” on his timeless LP What’s Going On. “Love Child” by the Supremes. And every hit recorded by the Four Tops during their Holland-Dozier-Holland production zenith, including “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and many more.
They overdubbed and polished the vocals of the Marvelettes, eventually replacing them completely in the studio. They stood in for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on Supremes recordings of the late 1960s. Marlene even substituted for Florence Ballard on numerous Supremes live concerts. Yet they still found time to moonlight, adding their talents to such classics as Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and “Stay in My Corner” by the Dells. (With the paltry session fees Motown paid in those days, they had little choice.) Of the three descriptive words in the exhibit’s title — grit, glamour, glory — they were undeniably the grit. The Andantes were the vocal equivalent of the Funk Brothers and — until the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown elevated the veteran studio musicians to the limelight — just as anonymous.
Of the more than 400 pages in Motown founder Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved, here is the totality of all references to the Andantes: “Another regular aspect of our early productions was the background voices of the Andantes — Judith Barrow, Louvain Demps, Jacqueline Hicks — another backup group.”
(“Judith was my name at work,” Marlene clarifies, “because it’s ‘Judith Marlene Barrow.’ And it’s always ‘Judy.’ It’s never ‘Judith.’”)
Nice to be remembered. Sort of.
Andante. It’s a musical direction, from the Italian, meaning “in a moderately slow tempo.” And while it’s a lovely-sounding name for a gospel-R&B singing group in the 1960s, it could not possibly be more inaccurate. The young ladies were in near-constant motion, on call practically 24-7 to producers and headlining artists who coveted their skills. “They were recording like a factory, so sometimes you’d just go home and clean up, change and come back,” Jackie, the first alto, remembers. “Or you’d finish a day and go home and they might call and say, ‘So-and-so is in town, the lead singer, and he can only be here a couple of hours, so we need you guys to come back.’ It didn’t matter what time. A lot of times we were there all day and half the night too.”
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