Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory 

Beauty in the Background

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.”

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.”

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 letters@metrotimes.com.

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