Baby, I'm For Real

The members of late-'60s Motown hitmakers The Originals had all been performing for a decade or more - six singers coming up separately, crossing paths in a variety of scenarios - before finally getting together and achieving success (however fleeting; they had only two major hits a few months apart), then soldiering on as they'd done before, lasting through the early 1980s as a recording act and much longer as a touring act. These guys never knew any other way; if you love to perform, you do it, regardless of obstacles.

The story begins and ends in the Detroit area and traces as far back as 1953, when Crathman Plato Spencer joined The Thrillers, which featured future Motown men Lawrence Payton (of Four Tops fame) and Roquel "Billy" Davis (who within a few years would be one of Berry Gordy's main collaborators). The group recorded for the Thrillers label (presumably named after them), then signed with DeLuxe Records (part of Syd Nathan's Cincinnati-based King-Federal operation) and had five single releases in '53 and '54 under a new name, The Five Jets ("I Am in Love" and "I'm Stuck" got substantial radio play in Detroit). Spencer hooked up with The Domingoes later in '54, though they made no recordings under that name; their earliest discs (without Spencer) came in 1961 after rebranding as The Spinners (one of Detroit's all-time most popular acts with hits extending into the '80s). So that covers two groups (with four names) and you can put the earliest Original, C.P. Spencer (his more economical handle), on the board.

Freddie Gorman sang with Sax Kari and the Quailtones on the Josie label single "Tears of Love" in 1956; he would later play a notable role in Motown's early development, long before co-founding the Originals. Walter Gaines joined Spencer in The Five Stars, known for the '57 Berry Gordy-Tyran (Billy Davis) Carlo song "Ooh Shucks." The Falcons were formed in 1955 and Joe Stubbs joined the following year; in 1959 "You're So Fine," with Joe's lead vocal, became a hit for the group, but Stubbs was a wandering sort and put in time with a few other groups prior to his Motown phase. Now we're up to four eventual Originals whose ties with future boss Gordy were strengthening.

Gorman took a postal carrier "day job" to support himself between musical endeavors; he formed The Fideletones with Brian Holland and Sonny Sanders, releasing one single on Aladdin ("Pretty Girl") in 1959. The Five Stars, meanwhile, morphed into The Voice Masters and recorded two discs for Berry's sister Anna Gordy's Anna label in 1959; members at the time included Spencer, Gaines and eventual-fifth-Original Hank Dixon. Before the group disintegrated there were two more releases in 1960 by Ty Hunter and the Voice Masters; Hunter had been in The Romeos around 1957 and was fated for a stint with the Originals, though not as one of the founding five.

Separate roads led Gorman and Holland to Gordy's "Hitsville" house in Detroit; both were involved in writing The Marvelettes' milestone "Please Mr. Postman" (Holland was a producer as well), a number one pop chart hit, the first in Tamla-Motown history. Gorman (his mail route experience a likely inspiration for some of the lyrics) wasn't credited for many years. He had one solo single, "The Day Will Come," on Gordy's Miracle label in late '61 and continued writing with Holland and Lamont Dozier, supplying The Supremes with their first release, "I Want a Guy," and the Marvelettes with three hits, "Someday, Someway," "Strange I Know" and "Forever." Brian's brother, Eddie Holland, replaced him at some point and the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland turned into the label's hottest songwriters (mainly on Supremes and Four Tops superhits). If Freddie had stayed in the loop, his career would certainly have been much different. Another winner Gorman composed (with Bob Hamilton) was "(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet," a spring '64 top ten hit for The Reflections (the pair also penned the group's follow-up, the similarly-themed "Like Columbus Did").

In '64, Gorman left Motown for Ric-Tic (affiliated with the Reflections' label, Golden World). "In a Bad Way" and "Take Me Back" were dynamic productions, though neither furthered his case. But Motown had quite a "family" of singers, songwriters and producers coming and going...and Freddie was welcomed back into the fold. Joe Stubbs waxed "Keep on Loving Me" for Lu-Pine, but it failed as well. Hank Dixon had dropped out of the rat race altogether, having joined the Army five years earlier, serving much of his time in Germany; he was discharged in 1965 and shortly afterwards joined Spencer, Gaines, Gorman and Stubbs in the group we're all here for...a group that finally made it big...but not until four more years flew by.

The Originals (appearing on Motown's Soul Records label) weren't exactly the first to use the name. Rosie and the Originals of the 1961 smash "Angel Baby" had a claim, but there never really was much of group. There were a few other Originals over the years: a band with a minor instrumental hit, "Anna," in 1958, an early '60s girl group that started as the Originals but became better known as The Gleams, a New York vocal group ("'Gimme' a Little Kiss Will 'Ya' Huh?") on the Diamond label in '60 and '61 and a Wisconsin-based rock outfit circa '65. The Soul-men who ultimately owned the name debuted in late 1966 with "Good Night Irene," a dance-style version of the Huddie Ledbetter-John Lomax folk classic of the '30s that had been a long-running chart topper for Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers in 1950. Joe Stubbs was only involved with this first Originals effort; per his usual habit, he made his exit in early '67.

C.P. Spencer, Hank Dixon, Freddie Gorman, Walter Gaines

Continuing as a quartet, the Originals performed backing vocals on many Motown hits by Jimmy Ruffin, Stevie Wonder and others. A pair of 1969 singles ("We've Got a Way Out Love" by Holland, Dozier and Holland and "Green Grow the Lilacs") kept the disappointing stiff streak going. They'd hit it off with Marvin Gaye after singing on his 1968 session for "Chained" and Gaye, anxious to get into producing, felt he could make something happen for them. "Baby, I'm For Real" was that something, written by Marvin and his wife Anna Gaye (Gordy's sister and former Anna Records owner). The quartet cleverly alternated lead vocals on the song, produced by Marvin and Richard Morris (a former writer and producer at Golden World), the result standing out from anything else at the time. In November and December of 1969 it landed in the pop top 20 and racked up an impressive (and unexpected) five weeks at number one on the R&B charts.

"The Bells," another romantic song from the same sessions composed by Marvin and Anna with Johnny Bristol and first-timer Elgie Stover, reached the pop top 20 and R&B top ten in April 1970. The group soon learned that back-to-back hits were hard to duplicate; another Gaye production, "We Can Make it Baby" (penned by Marvin and James Nyx), briefly charted. Marvin had proven he could produce top-selling records and channeled the experience the following year into his landmark album What's Going On (Stover and Nix contributed songs to the project as well). Clay McMurray, a talented Motown multitasker, produced "God Bless Whoever Sent You," a mid-charter in early '71. Spencer decided to move on; his replacement was earlier cohort Ty Hunter.

Several Hitsville luminaries, including Bristol and Wonder, took turns at writing and producing for the quartet over the next half-decade of transition (as Gordy moved the entire operation from Detroit to Los Angeles), but results were disappointing until the summer of 1975 when Lamont Dozier's song "Good Lovin' is Just a Dime Away" made a mid-chart R&B showing. Dance track "Down to Love Town" fared better, reaching number one on Billboard's Disco Action chart in October 1976; its follow-up, "Call on Your Six-Million Dollar Man," had mirror-ball dance club success as well. The Originals wrapped the '70s on the Fantasy label and Freddie Gorman did a solo side project in 1980. In 1981 they emerged on Phase II Records with "Waitin' on a Letter/Mr. Postman," a medley containing the red-hot Marvelettes tune Gorman had helped create 20 years earlier. A few more Phase II releases culminated in a remake of "Baby, I'm For Real" by The Originals featuring Hank Dixon; at some point Dixon became the last member to keep the group going as a touring act.

As the program director for a commercial "oldies" station in the 1980s, I made sure "Baby, I'm For Real" received its fair share of airplay; listeners responded favorably and once that can of worms had been opened, requests were strong. Every so often "secret weapon" records reveal themselves (songs that no station in a given radio market plays, that is until someone does and reaps the ratings benefits while rival broadcasters remain baffled). I was always looking for those kinds of songs to gain a competitive edge. In the fall of '69, The Originals' breakthrough hit had captivated young adult women (the preferred, sometimes elusive listener for many formats); turned out it was still fresh and popular years later...and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that's the case even now.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Baby, I'm For Real