Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory
Beauty in the Background
Published: February 13, 2013
It’s almost impossible not to think that watching one’s contemporaries performing in concert, selling records and soaring in fame while you remain in a studio — literally trapped in a padded room — wouldn’t give rise to bitterness and envy. Not so, they swear. To hear Jackie tell it today, given the gifts of wisdom and healing hindsight, their lack of renown was a blessing. “We were never, ever, ever upset about it, because you were considered the house band,” she says.
The few times the Andantes did appear onstage, “Frankly, we didn’t like it,” she maintains. “We preferred the background. It worked for us. We saw what the others had to go through as far as learning their routines, buses breaking down, crazy things going down on stage, all of that. It wasn’t easy for them. They had it better money-wise, but some of them didn’t make the money they thought they were due. It was easy for us being in the studio, and we did it well. I mean, you could go record in your pajamas — if you chose to.”
Or, as Marlene succinctly puts it, “You keep the background in the background. And that’s the way we looked at it.”
Theoretically, their one single, “Nightmare,” might have led to other Andantes singles. (The Girl Groups exhibit includes a rare acetate recording of the song.) But few copies of the record were pressed and promotion was sparse. “That to me was a pacifier, like you pacify a baby,” says Marlene. “To get the baby to shut up. I’m real serious. Because he [Gordy] knew we were going and doing things. We were in Chicago recording so much it was ridiculous. He would hear something on the radio, and he knew his sound. When we did the Jackie Wilson ‘Higher and Higher,’ he just went kind of ballistic. So that was just to appease us.”
The Motown magic ended for the Andantes in 1972, when Gordy packed lock, stock and turntables, and moved to Los Angeles. “Jan. 16, 1972,” Marlene sizzles. “I remember it real well. That was the last paycheck. One of the Funk Brothers called me and said, ‘Have you girls gone down and gotten your last check?’ I said, ‘Huh?’ So he repeated himself and let us know what was going on over there. ‘You better get over to the boulevard quick, because it’s all over.’ That’s how we found out.”
Louvain was more than willing to follow Motown to Tinseltown. “I thought that we were going, but, no, it was not offered,” she says. Another of the Andantes, however, held a different view. “We flat-out were not asked, and I would not have gone,” says Jackie, who’s still in same house she lived in at age 7. “I was so close with my family, and I was just a home person. Besides, we went out there in 1970 and the cost of living was astonishing! In order for us to go, shoot, our salaries would have had to be tripled, number one.”
The Andantes have experienced blips of post-Motown recognition. They received a Distinguished Achievement Award at the 2006 Detroit Music Awards, a HAL (Heroes and Legends) honor in California the year before and, after refusing West Coast author Vickie Wright for more than a year, finally agreed to be interviewed for a 2007 biography with the less-than-compelling title Motown From the Background. It didn’t do well.
“Between you, me and the gatepost, that was because we just don’t believe in slamming people,” Jackie contends. “And if you want a bestseller, you’ve got to slam somebody. That’s just not in my nature. I don’t want somebody who hasn’t even been born yet to read a book with bad stuff that we said about a relative of theirs. We were up there, and things went on and went down. But I just don’t care to speak badly of people. There’s enough books out there with bad news in it.”
The three remain close, though they don’t get together often. Instead of L.A., Louvain, 74, moved to Atlanta in 1972 on the promise of studio work that never materialized. She enjoyed Southern living and, after retiring last September, moved to tiny Douglasville, Ga., “where you can get peaches on the side of the road in the summer.” She still sings professionally in Atlanta-area churches and other venues, “whenever somebody will hire me,” and occasionally performs in Europe. Marlene and Jackie, 73, are retired too, Marlene from the State of Michigan Department of Labor, Jackie from the Detroit Water Department — real 9-to-5 jobs. “We had our time,” Marlene says. “Our 15 minutes. And we went on to Plan B.” But the music endured.
Last year JC Penney mounted a Father’s Day ad campaign that featured Mary Wells’ “My Guy” as soundtrack. “I turned on the TV and heard that and I’ll tell you, I was just elated!” Jackie says. “I called Marlene and said, ‘Girl, have you heard the new JC Penney commercial? They’re playing ‘My Guy.’ She said, ‘Really? What station?’ And I said, ‘All of them.’”
The Andantes receive no residuals, save for the residual memories they share and the legacy of timeless music they helped create. “It really did seem like a family back then,” says Marlene. “You were glad to go to work, and everybody can’t say that.”
“You know, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t turn on the radio and hear myself sing,” Jackie reflects. “Somebody is playing something Motown, and the fact we were on 80 percent of that stuff, it’s almost impossible for us not to hear ourselves.”
Come and get these memories. “It was just always a real fun, interesting thing,” she says. “You don’t know you’re making history at that particular time. You’re just having fun, enjoying what you’re doing and listening to the music. You have no idea that 53, 55 years later, you’re even going to be asked any of these questions. You’re just living your life, you know?”
The Motown Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and children. For more information, see motownmuseum.org or call 313-875-2264.
Jim McFarlin is a freelance writer in Detroit. Send comments to email@example.com.
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