Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory
Beauty in the Background
Published: February 13, 2013
Arguably more than the superstar artists whose songs they enhanced, Jackie, Marlene and Louvain were “The Sound of Young America.” Some music historians estimate the Andantes can be heard on nearly 20,000 individual recordings. “That’s absolutely correct,” Louvain, the soprano and lead vocalist, says proudly. “We’re on albums, we were with everybody. We’re everybody’s voices, really.”
Marlene and Jackie grew up together in the shadow of the old Hartford Avenue Baptist Church, off Grand River on Detroit’s west side. Jackie lived on Hartford, Marlene a few blocks away. “When we met, she was 7 and I was 5,” Marlene, now 71, says. “And we have been best friends all of that time.”
Marlene’s mother, Johnnie Reid, was Hartford’s minister of music. The girls sang in the youth choir and often performed duets, or were joined by their friend, Emily Phillips. They were accompanied by Mildred Doby, a prominent pianist and gospel artist of the era; it was she who christened the trio the Andantes. “You know, I don’t know where that came from,” Jackie admits. “I guess she thought of us being soft and sweet, or whatever. And it just stuck.”
Their vocal abilities ultimately caught the ear of noted Detroit songwriter and record producer Richard “Popcorn” Wylie, who would take the girls to Motown to provide background harmonies for his songs. In those days, one could pay Motown $100 for a block of studio time and record anything one pleased. After several sessions, Marlene and Jackie literally tried to run from their eventual vocation.
“Every time he would come over to teach us his songs, we would hide,” Jackie recalls. “We would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but we dreaded it. Mama said, ‘I’m tired of that boy. Y’all tell him that you do not want to learn those songs and go over there and sing. But you’re not doing anything else, so what’s the problem?’
“So we saw him driving up the street and we ran and hid in the closet. When he came up the steps and asked, ‘Mother Hicks, where are Jackie and Marlene?’ She said, ‘They’re in there, hiding in the closet! From you! Can you believe it?’ He took it as a joke! I think he almost died laughing! He came over and opened the closet door, and we just walked out, got in his car and went along to learn the songs.”
“Popcorn” grew stale at Hitsville, but the seamless musicianship of his teenage protégés left a lasting impression. “When things ended up not working out for him, we just thought it was over,” Jackie recalls. “Next thing we knew [Motown] started calling us and saying there were other people who were trying to get on their feet and they would need voices from time to time.” While Motown already employed the in-house Rayber Voices (the name a mash up of Berry Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma, and himself), some of its singers also were writing and producing their own works and sometimes were unavailable. Once again, the childhood friends attempted to evade their life’s calling: Phillips was a newlywed whose husband did not want her to work.
“We said, ‘Well, we really can’t come in because there are only two of us now,’” Jackie says. “They told us, ‘Well, there’s this girl here, Louvain, that sings, and maybe we can put her together with you guys and see how your voices blend.’”
Louvain’s parents envisioned her as a great opera singer, which could explain their choice of a first name that’s the hometown to the greatest music conservatory in Belgium. She grew up in the Six Mile-Arlington area, where her neighbors included R&B immortal Little Willie John. She made Pershing High School’s prestigious “Choir A” and, in a prime example of Detroit-as-giant-small-town irony, the chorus also included Abdul “Duke” Fakir, with whom she would harmonize again years later while backing the Four Tops. Like Willie and the Duke, singing was Louvain’s all-consuming passion. She went to Motown to record the demo of a friend’s song: everyone within earshot asked her to sing on their songs too. “Everybody played for me,” she recalls, laughing. “I thought I was big stuff.”
By 19 she had become one of the Rayber Voices. “I would go down to Hitsville every day and sit, just in case somebody needed a voice,” she says. “The day Jackie and Marlene’s soprano voice couldn’t make it, I was there.” The best friends and the stranger bonded immediately. “They liked my voice, thank God, and they asked me to become an Andante,” Louvain says. “We hit it off right away. I mean, right away. We had a blend like no other.”
So well matched was the newly formed trio that “it was amazing, because we never had to rehearse much,” Louvain says. “We’d just go into the studio and get the work done.” So in demand did they become that she says Motown eventually gave the Andantes a small upstairs office, a “green room” if you will, where they could relax between sessions. It also gave Louvain, who was married, an opportunity to care for her toddler, Max, whom she often brought to work with her. This was one distinct advantage of singing in the shadows of Motown as opposed to being a member of a big-name girl group, since the words “gender equality” had never been used in the same sentence at this time.
“Back then, if you chose to start a family, you were taken off the road,” Stephens says. “You were not seen in public. Once you were pregnant, you were home. In our exhibit, we show how the different groups changed their lineups, and some of those changes were for that very reason, because people wanted to get married and have children. The Velvelettes stopped performing altogether because they all wanted to start families.”
But Max became a Hitsville regular. “I would go into the studio with him,” Louvain says. “One time, the control room picked up something, a strange noise, and couldn’t figure out what it was. Turned out it was little Max. I had him on my shoulder, and he was humming along to the song.” Life in the studio also allowed for its share of playful pranks, still recalled in fond detail. “Like eating onions before a session and not telling me about it,” Louvain bemoans, “or one time Marlene took the mallet from the drum set and said, ‘Hey, cross your legs.’ Then she went whoom! with the mallet! It probably should have hurt, but I was just so stunned and she was too. I could have been in the hospital.”
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