A Cellarful of Motown


By 1968 Brenda Holloway should have been a star. Or so the 22-year-old singer figured at the time. That’s what Motown did, after all–it created stars. That’s why, as a girl in Los Angeles, she had dreamed of signing with the Detroit label. That’s why, when she was scouted by Motown president Berry Gordy at a Los Angeles DJ convention in 1964, Holloway inked a deal that made her Gordy’s first west-coast signing. That’s why she seethed as Motown honchos passed songs written for her on to other women–most often to Diana Ross. And that’s why, in 1968, after airing her frustrations to Gordy, Brenda Holloway stormed out of a recording session run by Smokey Robinson, fired off a letter claiming mistreatment, and all but disappeared from popular music.

Now the label that Holloway once felt had failed her has shed new light on her career. Motown (today a Universal subsidiary based in LA) recently exhumed 40 tracks, all but one unreleased, from its vaults. This two-CD set, A Cellarful of Motown, features major acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder as well as second stringers like Barbara McNair, Tammi Terrell, Kim Weston, and Chuck Jackson. It also includes five tracks from Brenda Holloway. Holloway is best known for her hit “Every Little Bit Hurts” and a few smaller follow-ups. (She cowrote one of these: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” a number two hit for Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1969.) These tracks finish the project begun by 1999’s The Very Best of Brenda Holloway (Motown), revealing her distinct style. Holloway’s voice, which sounds strikingly adult for her age, glides over the rhythms of LA session men–rhythms smoother than the Detroit norm, lighter on the bass, swaying rather than grooving, closer to the easy sound Scepter records was sculpting for Dionne Warwick at that time.

Motown actively discouraged stylistic variety–it was official company policy to follow up a hit with as close an imitation as possible, and only a few successful hit makers like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder ever gained creative control. Cellarful offers not just another look at Holloway’s career, but a new lens through which to view Motown’s familiar history, defining the label by what it did not release as much as what it did. And Holloway’s story illustrates the sad, obvious point that an artist and her label don’t always share the same goals. Motown’s obsessive quality control made no space for artists whose personas deviated from the label’s strict expectations. Maybe Brenda Holloway was right. Maybe she should have been a star.

Holloway was born in 1946 in Atascadero, California, nearly 2,500 miles from Detroit. But she shared one quality with heaps of Motown’s homegrown stars: she used music to escape the hood. When she was two, her family moved to LA, where Holloway studied violin and listened to Motown artists (Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, and the Marvelettes were her favorites). She honed her singing chops in church and high school, earning lunch money alongside future Whispers founders Wallace and Walter Scott with impromptu performances for students on campus and singing backup at recording sessions for Johnny Rivers and Tina Turner. Another school chum introduced her to producer Hal Davis, who put her in a female singing group called the Wattesians. Davis also cut a few records with Holloway at Del-Fi, where her sister Patrice also recorded.

Shortly before Holloway graduated from high school, Davis told her Berry Gordy would be scouting talent during a disc jockey convention at the Ambassador Hotel’s famed Coconut Grove lounge. Holloway, then 17, wore a tight gold pantsuit and sang Wells’s “My Guy” for several hours. Afterward the tired and irritable youngster told a short stranger who had been watching that she was waiting to meet Gordy. An hour later the stranger returned, introduced himself as Berry Gordy, and offered Holloway a contract at Motown.

Her first single for the company’s Tamla imprint, a ballad in waltz time called “Every Little Bit Hurts,” reached number 13 on Billboard’s pop charts in spring 1964. This success earned Holloway gigs touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars and opening for the Beatles on their 1965 U.S. tour. When Wells jumped to 20th Century Records, Holloway got an additional boost. She recorded two songs in 1965 that had originally been done by Wells and produced by Robinson, the coy “Operator” and “When I’m Gone,” which cracked the Top 40.

But Holloway soon established her own niche. Her rich, sensuous voice fell between Gladys Knight’s gospel-bred rasp and Diana Ross’s soft chirp. Holloway also became known for the crispness of her enunciation, which prompted company producers to give Ross her tapes to study. And Holloway’s plainspoken delivery was ideal for relating the narratives of the songs she was given. “A song to me is like a script,” she says, speaking by phone from LA. “Motown would let me live with one song at least one and a half weeks, and I would really get into the character.”

Several of the unreleased tracks on Cellarful showcase Holloway’s best-acted role: the woman struggling (and generally succeeding) to remain graceful as her heart breaks. Holloway merely maintains her composure on “My World is Crumbling,” but on the apologetic “How Can I” she rises above her pain entirely. After her backup singers deliver a staccato “How can I,” Holloway stretches “goooo onnn” so proudly it’s easy to forget the desperation written into the lyric.

Though Hal Davis (to whom Holloway was briefly engaged) produced or coproduced all but one song (“All Your Love,” producer unknown), these mostly uptempo songs are closer to the Motown sound than their other collaborations. (The ominously descending bass line that chases Holloway on the chorus to “Trapped in a Love Affair,” for instance, is a Motown trademark.) She takes as much delight in the taunting “Who You Gonna Run To” as the Temptations, who also recorded the song. “All Your Love” is structured much like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” while the melody of the speedy verse on “Trapped” recalls Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.” At Motown, those similarities should have been major selling points.

By the mid-60s, however, Berry Gordy’s vision of crossover gold limited the success of every female artist at Motown who wasn’t named Diana Ross. The company devoted resources to the Supremes, and the move paid off with 25 Top 40 records, including 12 number ones, between 1963 and 1969. But the careers of other women suffered. Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell only found Top 40 success singing duets with Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight never felt fully at home at Motown.

Holloway had her own personal clashes with Ross, whom she had initially befriended. Their relationship changed when Ross told Gordy that Holloway had a man in her room and hung out drinking during road trips. Holloway still insists she stayed alone in her room and speculates Ross envied her elegance. “She wanted to be Mary Wells,” Holloway says. “She wanted to be Brenda Holloway. She always wanted what someone else had. You can quote me on that. She was so gorgeous, but by her ways, she made me not want to have anything to do with her.”

Ross’s conduct did not concern Holloway as much as the company’s business practices. She claims Motown pulled back promotional efforts for “I’ll Always Love You,” a 1964 cut, to help sales for a Supremes release. But missing out on songs galled her the most. Holloway says living in LA kept her from performing tunes tailored for her. “Say for instance you had written a song for me and Diana Ross or Gladys Knight comes in town and then they’re back on the road the next day,” she recalls. “They’ll say ‘Well, Brenda will be here next week and Gladys is going to be leaving. We’ll do this song for Gladys and we’ll write another one for Brenda.’ That used to piss me off.”

The stringent practices of Motown’s quality control team, which held weekly sessions to decide which recordings would be released, clearly affected Holloway. By 1968 she had released only one album. She had had enough. She wrote Gordy a letter claiming that the company discriminated against her. “During my four and one-half years as an artist with Motown, there have been four other artists who affiliated with Motown less than two years, who have had several hits and also one to two album releases,” she wrote. She also complained that, unlike other artists, she was responsible for her own choreography and “personal grooming,” and that she was not receiving film work or being scheduled to perform in Las Vegas. Gordy never officially responded to these charges, and let her contract lapse.

After leaving Motown, Holloway joined forces with another set of deserters, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The songwriting team had left Motown following a dispute over royalties and formed the Invictus label. (They later won a court settlement of several hundred thousand dollars from Motown.) Though she recorded an album, the only music Holloway released on Invictus was a 1972 single. She continued to work occasionally as a backup singer, but she faded into obscurity during an 18-year marriage to a minister with whom she had four daughters. At one point she preached and sang at services every day. “That’s not being spiritual,” Holloway says now. “That’s being messed up.”

In 1991, while attending a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at an LA middle school, Holloway met a sickly Mary Wells. (Wells died of throat cancer a year later.) The women bonded; Holloway gave Wells her watch. The encounter reminded Holloway of her love of singing, and she received further encouragement from the teacher who arranged the event, Jerome Richardson. The two began dating. Although the pair broke up, Holloway still credits him with spurring her on. By 1993 she began performing solo and with Brenton Wood, who sang the 1967 classics “The Oogum Boogum Song” and “Gimme Little Sign,” in oldies shows around the state. She discovered that her Motown sides were popular among the rabid northern soul enthusiasts of the UK, and recorded It’s a Woman’s World, a set of mellow R & B songs released by Volt three years ago.

The meeting with Wells also convinced Holloway to embrace her connection to Motown. She has not only granted several interviews regarding the company, she attended an event honoring the label’s female singers at the Motown Historical Museum, housed in the same building as the Detroit studio and managed by Gordy’s sister, Esther Edwards. A blue minidress that belonged to Holloway is displayed there. She has also chatted with Gordy cordially when bumping into him at parties and other events in LA. Last month she performed at a tribute to him. She acknowledges now that Gordy may have been partially right. “I was so young and so wanting to be out there,” she said. “Not having patience again. You have to have patience. That’s what I didn’t understand as a young artist.”

In place of stardom, Holloway now has a career as a professional musician. She performs regularly and has plans to record. It’s a life less glamorous than she imagined, but she’s satisfied overall. Still, she harbors one serious regret. “I’m glad I went to Motown,” she says. “I just wish Berry had given me more songs to sing.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Motown Archives.