Album Review: Various Artists – Detroit Harmonisers

Music licensing requirements in the UK and Europe are less stringent than they are here in the U.S.; what that means for listeners interested in compilations exploring music made in years gone by is that they will often find many of the most interesting collections coming from overseas labels. Case in point is Detroit Harmonisers (that’s the British spelling, of course). This new single-disc set brings together 27 sides by vocal groups from the Motor City. Recorded and/or released in the narrow time frame of 1959-62, these tracks feature four groups, all of which fit into the Motown category, whether the music was released on that label or one of its associated imprints, or not.

The disc begins by serving up the entirety of The Contours’ 1962 LP for Gordy Records, Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance). The roaring lead vocal and tight harmony backing on the title track ranks among the most exciting three minutes in soul/r&b. As was often the case in those pre-Beatles days, the album is best characterized as a collection of filler built around the title track. But there are occasional bright spots. The tunes aren’t weak, and they’re well-executed; it’s simply that none of them is especially distinctive, and they cannot help but pale in comparison to the thrilling title track.

“You Better Get in Line” is from the “that worked before so let’s do it again” school of songwriting; from its spoken intro on down, it’s a thin retread of “Do You Love Me.” For all its charms, “The Stretch” sounds like the sounds of the mid ‘50s, not 1962. But the uptempo “It Must Be Love” is a winner. “Claudia” features an impressive arrangement with thrilling stabs of brass and electric guitar.

On “Whole Lotta Woman” the group sounds as if it’s singing in a different key than the one the musicians are playing in; unless you’re a fan of dissonance, it’s best avoided. The country blues of “So Grateful” are unexpected. “Funny” is a close-harmony vocal number that again finds The Contours looking back to the ‘50s, this time with mixed results.

The remainder of Detroit Harmonisers collects tracks by two – or perhaps it’s three – other groups. Four tracks by The Satintones find the group jumping on to the pop bandwagon with titles like “Going to the Hop.” The arrangements are tame only occasionally inspired and sometimes out of tune, sounding a bit like Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ take on doo-wop circa Ruben and the Jets.

With The Satintones’ “Sugar Daddy,” Berry Gordy (who wrote most of the tunes on this set) seems to have had a notion to rewrite Leiber and Stoller’s “Poison Ivy,” released the same year.

A different lineup of The Satintones – featuring three of the original members plus two new ones – is represented by seven tracks on this collection. Song theft was a common practice in those days, and the group’s recording of a song called “Tomorrow & Always” was positioned as an “answer record” to The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Problem is, it’s the same song. The original record listed some of Berry Gordy’s associates as co-writers alongside Gerry Goffin and Carole King; that wrong has since been righted, and only Goffin/King credit survives today. For all that, it’s a decent recording, albeit with nothing special to recommend it.

The other Satintones tracks are sturdy if unremarkable (and occasionally overwrought) late-period doo-wop, Detroit variety. The set wraps up with a handful of tracks from The Valadiers, a white(!) group on Motown. That bit of trivia is the most notable thing about the group and its music. Technically Motown, this material is not at all representative of what most think of with regard to that style. And it certainly doesn’t classify as what the British call Northern Soul. But for fans and/or completist collectors of doo-wop, Detroit Harmonisers merits a listen, and the packaging, liner notes and annotation are all commendable.