Beautiful, talented and possessor of one of the most soulful voices to grace the label, Brenda Holloway recorded sultry ballads and powerhouse dancers for Tamla Records between 1964 and 1967. With Brenda’s hugely anticipated appearance at Modstock fast approaching, she chatted to us about her experience of being a West Coast artist signed to the Detroit hit factory.
Are you looking forward to coming over to London for Modstock?
I’m very excited about this trip, I’m really happy, thank you for inviting me. And The Velvelettes, I look forward to being with them. Those are some beautiful sweet women. They were very nice to me when I went over to Motown. I like to do live shows because you can put more feeling in it. When you have a good crowd you can perform better. You feed off your audience, and they love you, so you have to do a good job.
I think British audiences have always taken you to their heart. Have you noticed that?
I have. When British audiences listen to the music it’s just an everyday thing for them but over here they don’t regard it as hit music because it’s not in the charts at that moment, so it’s a totally different feeling you get, like it’s back in the day when you first recorded those songs. They appreciate the artistry and they’re so happy to see us when we come over, it’s a treat for the artist.
Can you tell us how you came to sign to Motown?
I used to sing and was raised in Watts in Los Angeles and I had a group called the Watesians. This was five local girls who went to high school with me, including my sister Patrice, and we used to sing at Record Hops. When Hal Davis heard about the group and came to hear us. He took a liking to me and took me to a disc jockey’s convention in Los Angeles, at Coconut Grove. I had on this gold pantsuit and gold heels and was singing Mary Wells songs from room to room to every DJ. I sang from about ten o’clock until four o’clock and then said to Hal “Look, these heels, and this pantsuit, I’m getting tired”. There was this group of men that came in to the room, listened, and left. So when told Hal I wanted to go home they came back in. This man spoke out and said “I like what I see and I like what I hear and I want to sign you up”. I said “Sign me up to what?” and he said Motown and I was like “Oh my God!” I was so excited and said “Call my mum, call my mum, and tell her to put on her best clothes as I’m going to sign.” I didn’t ask her if I could, I was just going to do it, but I needed her to okay it. She got dressed up, looked so pretty, and I signed with Motown that day. I was seventeen years old. Berry Gordy told me there was one stipulation to this; I needed to graduate at high school before he’d let me put anything out.
The first record Motown put out was “Every Little Bit Hurts” in 1964 and it was a hit. Was that a surprise?
I was walking around in college, nobody ever noticed me before, but then everybody was like “Are you Brenda Holloway?” I said, yeah, I guess. They said “you have a record out”. I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t tell me when they were going to release it. It was only when everybody told me I had a record out, and I got all bashful, and everybody was on me at school. I just stopped going to school. I couldn’t study anyway; I was so excited to have a hit record. I did graduate from high school but not from college, but I later went back and got a degree in dental work.
How did you manage to get on the 1965 Beatles tour of the United States?
When the Beatles had their tour I spoke to Jackie DeShannon, who’d been on their tours overseas, and said “Please Jackie, can I get on the tour, I’ll do anything”. And they called me. I used to go to sleep listening to their records like “Eleanor Rigby”. It was so much fun. We had pillow fights in the air. And John would figure out the meals and say we could have whatever we want. See, I came from a family with one parent, my mother, raising us and we never got enough food, so when told I could have whatever I want, it was so wonderful. I had steak, I had string beans and I had mashed potatoes.
How were your performances received? Did the crowd like you or were they just waiting for the Beatles?
Really they were waiting for the Beatles to come on, I was too. But they did accept me, they clapped and they were happy, but you know, it was a Beatles tour. The crowd broke loose and just charged, the audience looked like cattle. We just threw wigs, and guitars, and everything, to get out of their way. We flew with the Beatles to each venue; they were so down to earth, such good guys.
You were a trained musician. Didn’t you play the violin and the flute and other instruments?
I was going to be a concert violinist before Motown invaded my life. I studied professionally. I just loved the violin. For the first twelve, thirteen, fourteen years of my life I was in orchestras and played symphonies. My boyfriend was my violin. I used to practice in the backyard and dogs would bark and people would be “Can you get off that squeaky thing?” My neighbours hated me. I had to practice outside as my Mum didn’t want to hear it either. But I could really play.
Did you play your violin on any of your records?
I played it on one of my albums, The Motown Anthology. A live version of “Summertime” recorded in Detroit in 1966. I played and I sang and it sounded really very well.
Motown got a good deal with you: you were a singer, a musician, a songwriter.
Yes but everyone at Motown was scared I was going to take their boyfriends. I already had a boyfriend in Los Angeles. I don’t like to have boyfriends at work; they just think they have power over you.
Were all the Motown guys hitting on you?
They were talking to me but I was like “Oh no, I don’t do that”. So they kind of left me alone. I went and practiced my violin by myself. Because I was from the West Coast and would fly in and be in a hotel room and they were doing their own thing.
Did it feel different being from the West Coast and then going up to Detroit? Did you feel any separation from the other artists based in Detroit?
They felt like I was another type of star because I didn’t come from their stable. The girls were kind of feeling I was going to be some kind of competition for them. But I just feel like I always had my own slot, you know. But I became very envious of them with their hits when I got there. Say, when I got to Detroit, they’d be cutting a session with me and if Gladys Knight flew in for just one night they’d cut my record on her, and I’d be like where’s my stuff? That would really upset me and disturb me because I wanted to get all my stuff done too. But I was so young and very inexperienced.
What was Smokey Robinson like to work with in the studio?
He was wonderful. He was very relaxed, he knew everything. Knew all the songs, he could sing them and show them to you. He would let you be yourself in the studio. I did “Operator” with him and “When I’m Gone”, which was a good song for me. If only I’d stayed in the studio with Smokey but I ran away.
At Motown some of the ladies had etiquette lessons and guidance from Maxine Powell. Did you have those?
Maxine showed me a lot of things about how to sit and stand but Berry actually sent me to charm school here in California for a whole year and a half. So although Maxine showed me a lot of stuff, because that was her nature, she just wanted you to be a lady at all times, the major stuff I learned out here.
Your clothes caused some comment as they were different, a bit more hip, than some of the other girls. Did you choose your own wardrobe?
I was so fortunate because my mother had a best friend who owned a dress shop so I dressed out of her store. She was able to go get everything I needed, everything to match, all the new stuff. When I went to Motown I had a full wardrobe and a lot of them didn’t, so it was “What is she trying to do?” I was just trying to sing but I had a lot of beautiful clothes.
I read Berry Gordy thought you were too sexy for British audiences which was why he wouldn’t let you tour over here.
For real? Oh my god, there’s no such thing as too sexy! That’s just somebody’s opinion. No such thing. I don’t know, they just labelled me like that but I never saw myself like that in any way. I was just regular. I didn’t think I was anything special, although evidently other people thought I was.
Did you know what songs you’d be recording when you got into the studio? Did you have much time to prepare or were you presented with them there and then to sing?
I don’t know what the other artists did but I liked to live with my songs. I would come in a week ahead and just stay there and go over and over and over the song until I could put me into it. That was why my songs had so much feeling because I lived with them before I ever went in the studio. Day and night, because I didn’t have any children, I didn’t have any connections with people in Detroit, so all I did was stay there and rehearse the tunes over. So if Smokey cut the record, and I cut the record, it would have a Smokey Robinson feel to it and a Brenda Holloway feel to it. I like to study my songs, I’m not Aretha Franklin, I can’t just go in and sing. My sister Patrice could hear something once and sing it but I’ve never been able to do that.
“Reconsider,” is a great song and one which is huge over here yet didn’t see a release at the time. When where you aware that song was so popular on the soul scene?
Oh, I love what you guys did to that. I only knew about it when I came over to the UK for the first time for the Northern Soul shows I was doing, because it had another title – “Think It Over” – in the United States, but you guys made it “Reconsider”. I like “Reconsider” better because that’s what the song was all about. And “Crying Time”, I forgot I ever did that. My nephew found it on YouTube. “Granny, did you cut this?”
My favourite is “Starting The Hurt All Over Again”. Such an adult narrative to that song and your delivery is so strong, so emotional.
Well thank you. I didn’t have a real happy childhood, you know, because my Mum she worked so hard, she was a single parent and my Father he had so many problems, but that was how I released all my energy was through my singing. If I had something to say I could convert it into a melody and sing it, so that’s how I released a lot of stress, even today. It’s good therapy for me.
“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” was at the end of your time with Motown in 1967 and was a significant hit.
Oh it was a big hit. It sold over four million copies and is still selling. I wrote it with my sister and Frank Wilson, and Berry Gordy was the executive over everything. When I got stuck writing the bridge Frank Wilson was able to put that bridge in there. Berry and I fought in the studio; we were like back and forth. “I don’t want to do it like that Berry”. “You’re gonna do it like that”. The way I wanted to do it was the way Blood Sweat & Tears cut it. I put mine out, it was okay, but Blood, Sweat & Tears somehow got the idea and they really, really did that song justice. I’m really happy but when I go and sing it I have to try and remember how I sang it because theirs is bigger than mine and theirs is more familiar to me.
What prompted you to leave Motown?
Because I was just fed up with not having hits out and everyone around me were having hits. I didn’t have the foresight because I left the company in the middle of a Smokey Robinson session. I could have killed myself. He was cutting all these songs on me and I wanted a hit, like everybody else, but I didn’t have any patience. You know, there’s so much that goes along with the entertainment business backstage. You see a lot of other stuff that goes on that people don’t see and it kind of confuses you. I was a young kid.
After you left Motown what happened to your career?
I just laid it down. I went in the church, married a minister, and just left it and tried to do the best raising my kids but a lot of times we don’t think that if you have a talent you have to use it or it dies out. By me being in the church we have this stereotype of what we think God wants us to do but what he really wants us to do is to use that talent. Then I met this guy in the ‘90s, he was my boyfriend, and he said I needed to be back out there. So I started singing at this high school called Inglewood and then Brenton Wood – the “Oogum Boogum” man – came and he saw me and so I started touring with him. After that I just got back into it and have some friends overseas who were telling me about the Northern Soul and everybody started hooking me up and I did some things for Nightmare Records. So, I’m still singing and thank God I still have a voice and plan to use it as long as I can. It’s really wonderful. I’m just one of the other people until I get over there and I’m a superstar! I love it.
When you look back is there anything that sticks in your memory as highlight: a record, a concert, anything particularly special?
Cutting the album, Every Little Bit Hurts, where I did “I’ve Been Good To You” and “Unchained Melody” and those type of songs, that was one of the highlights, because I did that for my Mother. Then the other highlight was when I first went to Europe in the 1980s and Ian Levine and I wrote a song over the telephone and I really loved it, “Give Me A Little Inspiration”, it turned out so well. And when I first went to Motown and saw snow for the first time in my life and I saw Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Martha & The Vandellas, Diana Ross, Florence Ballad, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Smokey Robinson, Ivy Jo Hunter; that was like being in Disneyland. It was like, if I could just grab you guys and keep you with me. It was such a thrill to see The Temptations, The Four Tops, to see everybody in person. People told me I’d never get on Motown; I was three thousand miles away. When I got to Detroit and I saw the Motown family, it was just too much. It was awesome. So, my life has been beautiful.