January 3, 2020

From the Vaults: The Andantes

  How could anyone sing on more than 20,000 songs and yet not be recognized?  Such was the hand that fate dealt to a trio of young singers from Detroit called The Andantes.  Unless you have jumped into a time machine and escaped to the distant past before radio was invented,  I am willing to bet that you HAVE heard the Andantes sing. To understand the story of The Andantes, one must go back to the birth of Motown Records.  The story follows a twisting path from that point to Berry Gordie’s decision to pack up his label and relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. The Andantes were there for 90% of the ride, yet they were unceremoniously left behind when Motown moved west.

     Berry Gordy’s business model was imprinted on him when he was making $86.40-a-week on a Lincoln-Mercury assembly line.  He hated the work but often credits his short stint there with his vision of making records as efficiently and proficiently as Ford made cars.  As Gordy explained it, “Every day I’d watch how a bare metal frame rolling down the line would become a spanking brand-new car. What a great idea!  Maybe I could do the same with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown, go through a process and come out a star.”  He had already moved on to writing and producing records when he decided that he was going to start his own studio. The music recording business then was largely owned by lawyers and money people for whom the music biz was more like a hobby or sideline.  Musicians, especially Black artists, were not getting paid what they should have been paid and Gordy decided he should do something about it!

     In 1959, the five people who would become the staff of his various record labels (Tamla, Gordy, and Motown) gathered together to hear Berry Gordy’s vision:  “We aren’t going to make records for Black radio, we are going to make music for the world!” The second group Gordy signed for his new label was William ‘Smokey’ Robinson and the Miracles.  Robinson not only wrote more than 4,000 songs for the Miracles and countless other Motown groups, he also became Motown’s vice-president and talent scout. The studio they worked in was set up in the garage of a bungalow that Gordy purchased at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.  It was functional but not fancy. His ambition was stenciled on the outside of the building: HITSVILLE U.S.A. The studio was so cramped that a sentry was posted outside the bathroom to make sure the sound of a flushing toilet wouldn’t carry through the thin walls and ruin a recording session.  They had a premier group of studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers to lay down the music being written by the likes of Robinson, Dozier-Holland-Dozier, and Stevie Wonder. Gordy had an ear for music and a formula for creating radio hits. He also had a secret weapon: The Andantes.

     Any one of the young women in The Andantes could have been a lead singer, but their ability to create memorable background vocal parts on the spot made them invaluable to the Motown Sound.  At $10 per hour, the pay was good and they worked constantly, but Berry Gordy didn’t want anyone outside the label to know too much about them. Like a chef guarding a secret ingredient in their signature dish, Gordy didn’t want anyone else luring away the three voices who were capable of turning a so-so record into a hit.

     The Andantes included Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks, and Louvain Demps.  When the original high soprano quit, Barrow and Hicks weren’t sure they could continue without her voice in the mix.  It was a studio staffer who suggested they listen to Demps who was performing as part of the studio’s choral ensemble.  “Can she sing?” they asked?  The were told, “Oh yeah, she can sing!”  Demps recalled her audition: “We just seemed to click right away.”  Hicks also remembered the chemistry was apparent immediately: “First time, first song, perfect blend.”  All three women had grown up singing in Baptist and Catholic church choirs. By the time they were finished, they had contributed to more than 20,000 Motown songs (the ‘90%’ mentioned earlier) before the label moved west without them.  Their perfect blend and the ability to come up with their own vocal arrangements effortlessly made them one of the key elements that turned Motown records into crossover hits on all the record charts, not just on R&B (read: Black) radio stations.  

     According to Hicks, to this day, “I hear myself on the radio every day.”  Mary Wells’ My Guy? That is the Andantes responding to Wells in the background; What you say?  Tell me more. They can be prominently heard testifying on Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine.   The Temptations My Girl?  There they are again.  Writer-producer Lamont Dozier said that they were often used to fill in the lead singer’s parts and to, “give the harmony more substance.  If I had some very intricate background parts and the harmonies didn’t have the sound that I wanted, I would tell the famous singer, ‘It’s OK – we’ll fix it in the mix.’  They would take a break and I’d have the Andantes come in the back door. We liked to call them the ‘cleanup girls’. They could always come in and fix whatever we couldn’t fix with the big acts.”  Some of the acts they worked their magic for were none the wiser, but a few were miffed to have these women buffing up their tracks. When asked if they sensed any resentment from stars such as Diana Ross, Hicks replied, “Sometimes there was a little ill feelings.  But hey, it was what it was. It wasn’t our choice. [Producers liked us because] we could walk in that studio and lay that stuff down in five or ten minutes. If you had anybody else, it would take you a few hours.” It sure did not hurt the artists and songwriters when a little buffing up translated into hit records. 

     Hicks and Barrow didn’t plan to become professional singers.  When a local bandleader who wanted to record with them came looking for them, they were hiding, at least until Hick’s mother told him, “They are hiding in the closet.”  When Hicks asked her mother why she ratted on them, she simply replied, “How much money are you making in that closet?” Demps parents wanted her to sing opera while she dreamed of singing pop music professionally:  “I’m not saying that I wanted to be a star, but I wanted more. I just wanted more.” The trio wanted to have their own shot at the big prize, but their time never arrived. When they asked about recording their own tracks, they were always told to be patient and their time would come.  The Andantes did release one jump tune (Like a) Nightmare in 1964, but without the full on artist support Motown was known for, it faded fast.  Most historians figure that Gordy really didn’t want them to be a successful recording group on their own because, according to journalist Adam White, “Berry Gordy was very protective of what he had.  He didn’t want the names of the musicians to be out there so they could get offers that might tempt them to leave.”

     During the Motown 60:  A Grammy Celebration special taped in the spring of 2019, Gordy said, “My dream came true.  I want to thank all of you fans, and your parents, and their grandparents.  All around the world. I could say their great grandparents, but that would make me older than I want to be.”  Diana Ross, one of Gordy’s earliest superstars with The Supremes, gushed at the same event, “This is your legacy.  I want you to know that you have been a gift to us all.” Now that I know a little more about the Motown creation story, I find the omission of The Funk Brothers and The Andantes a glaring hole in the Motown 60 celebration.

     Did the Andantes have an inkling in 1972 that the label was getting ready to move to Los Angeles lock, stock, and barrel?  In 2007, Barrow explained in the book Motown from the Background how they found out:  “ We had heard it in the air.  We would ask them repeatedly if it was true.  They would deny it.” When Barrow and Hicks weren’t able to collect their mid-January paychecks, they contacted Demps and the three of them and demanded their pay.  After finally being informed of the move, they made the label’s quality and control head drive them to the bank just to be sure the checks didn’t bounce. According to Demps, “That is how we found out.  I guess if they hadn’t owed us money, they might not have said a word.”

     Hicks and Barrow told AARP Magazine (Motown at 60:  Hidden Figures of Hitsville January 2019) they weren’t overly upset about it at the time:  “They were trying to get into the movie thing. They were going in a different direction.”  Neither continued pursuing music as Hicks took a job with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and Barrow found work with the Michigan Department of Labor.  Demps was a divorced mother of two and took the label’s departure much harder. “For me it was devastating. I just couldn’t adjust,” Demps says now. “Our songs would come on the radio and I would cry.”  

    Demps relocated to Atlanta and began working with disabled children, a move that she said, “Softened my heart and pulled me out of the dumps.  There is a passage in the Bible that says, ‘and when he came to himself…’ You know, when I came to myself, that’s when I realized I had wasted time being depressed when I should have been happy.”  She got back into singing again both in church and commercially. The group was joined by another Detroit singer named Pat Lewis when they made a stab at a reunion in the early 1990s for Motorcity Records.  They enjoyed tracking an album worth of material, but the company folded and their final work together was never released.

    Before Barrow passed away, the three had come to accept the fact that the more recent recognition they have received has been a blessing.  Visiting the Motown Museum in Detroit in 2013, they were pleased to see The Andantes enshrined next to the ‘big’ acts like The Supremes, The Marvelettes, and the Vandellas – groups that sold records with The Andantes help.  New reissues of Motown hits now list the women by name, right where they probably should have been from the beginning. The Andantes were paid a flat rate for their work back in the day. Now the supporting artists are paid on-going residuals for their work.

     Hicks appreciates the new found attention, but would also have been fine with remaining in the background:  “I’ve always been proud of myself and thankful to the Lord to have allowed me to do that. I don’t care how high anybody goes, it does not lower me any lower.  Because I know what I did.” Next time a classic Motown hit comes on the radio, think about The Andantes and the Funk Brothers. The part they played making Motown Records a mover and a shaker in the music business may not have been common knowledge back then, but at least they are now getting their due credit.

Top Piece (no) Video:  I could not find any video of The Andantes singing, but this is (Like a) Nightmare, The one and only single recorded and released by The Andantes.