Though this made the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1970 I still think it’s something of an unknown gem. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson, it’s more laid back than The Tops’ usual shouty passion and is utterly gorgeous.
The Drifters 1963 version of “On Broadway” is a classic as any fule kno, but I also love George Benson’s live version from 1978, probably more so.
The Drifters’ rendition has a melancholy feel as if they didn’t really believe they could make it there, which was probably the case for a black man in early 1960s. Benson, on the other hand, sounds completely convinced that he will be successful, especially the way he shouts “Cause I can play THIS HERE GUITAR!” — which, given that he made his name as a Jazz guitarist, wasn’t just bragging.
While I tend to side more with the world-view of The Drifters version, it’s hard not to get caught up in George Benson’s peppy positivity. Plus, it’s funky as hell.
It took a while for us Brits to make soul and dance music as good as the Americans. Our efforts were decent but, from Dusty Springfield’s Motown-esque pop to early Britfunk like Hi-Tension and Linx, often suffered from thin production and lacked the warmth and oomph of our Yankee cousins.
As a consequence British soul music didn’t cut the mustard across the Atlantic and the acts which did make it were white and made their records over there. It wasn’t until 1982 that Londoner Junior Giscombe’s debut single “Mama Used To Say” became the first record by a black British soul artist to be a major success on the American R&B charts. In addition to that barrier-breaking he was also the first black Brit to appear on “Soul Train” which is a real badge of honor.
We hadn’t completely cracked the code though. To become an R&B smash in the States the single still needed the help of a punchier American remix which beefed up the original. But we must have learned something because after that America opened its hearts and charts to other Brit soul acts Loose Ends, Sade, and Soul II Soul.
My copy of the single is a 12″ white label promo, bought in a record store I used to frequent which had a lot of review and promo copies of records probably offloaded by music journalists for booze and drug money. It has a sticker on it that says “Special New Mix” which is different to the others I’ve heard so I’ve no idea if it was ever a commercial release.
You’ll know this song if you have Stevie Wonder’s 1980 album Hotter Than July where it first appeared. He actually wrote it way back in 1966 when it was originally recorded by Tammi Terrell but her version was never released.
Motown’s quality control was famously strict but one listen to this beauty and you’ll think they crossed the line between perfectionism and insanity if they deemed this to be not good enough.
What’s even crazier is it remained buried and unheard until 2002 when it was finally released on the amazing A Cellarful of Motown! collection which is chock full of similar unreleased gems and can’t be recommended enough.