Statistics tell us that the economy is improving. The stock market is reaching new highs, lots of jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate is down. Here in Rhode Island however, it’s hard to see things getting better. The state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and in the recent election every single politician said that jobs were their first priority. In short, everyone here is looking at the purse, which brings us neatly to this week’s featured record. See what I did there?
In 1958 a quartet called the Blenders got together in Detroit. Billy Gordon, Billy Hogg, Sylvester Potts, and Joe Billingslea were soon joined by Hubert Johnson, and they added Huey Davis on guitar. At that point the Blenders became the Contours and the group got an audition with Motown Records, which was just getting started.
The Contours seemed poised for success, but there was one little snag — Berry Gordy wasn’t very impressed with them. He suggested that they spend a year working on their act and then try again. Fortunately, the group was able to call on the expertise of Jackie Wilson, who was Johnson’s cousin, to help them get their act together. Whatever Wilson did seemed to work because in 1961 Gordy signed the Contours although he was still unsure about them. It took Wilson’s recommendation to seal the deal.
“Do You Love Me” was originally offered to the Temptations, but the smooth quintet couldn’t give the song the rough edge that Gordy was looking for. He then offered it to the Contours, who hit it out of the park. The Contours take on “Do You Love Me” was released in 1962 and streaked to the top of the R&B chart, while reaching all the way to #3 on the pop chart. The early hit helped to put Motown on the map.
The Contours never had a another record as big as “Do You Love Me” but that’s not to say that they didn’t have more hits. Over the next two years “Shake Sherry,” “Can You Do It,” and “Can You Jerk Like Me” all scored to one degree or another. Then in 1964 the Contours underwent a huge lineup change. Hogg, Billingslea, Johnson, and Potts all left Motown, and Gordy replaced them with Council Gay, Jerry Green and Alvin English. The Contours were a quartet once again.
In 1965, the Contours were still led by Billy Gordon, and that lineup released a single called “First I Look at the Purse,” which was written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles. It was a respectable hit for the group, reaching #12 on the R&B chart. The Contours were known for their high-energy live act, and the outrageously comedic lyrics of “First I Look at the Purse” played right into their stage persona. It was the last hit that Gordon recorded with the group.
A year later Potts returned and English left, followed by Gordon. The reason all of this is worth mentioning is that Gordon was replaced by Joe Stubbs, Levi’s brothers. But Stubbs didn’t last long (in the ’70s he would be the lead singer for 100 Proof), and he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, who would take over David Ruffin’s spot in the Temptations in a few years. When Edwards got the call up in 1967, the Contours disbanded.
There have been a variety of resurrections for the Contours over the years. Billingslea led the first one in the early ’70s, and Potts returned once again in the ’80s. When the movie Dirty Dancing featured “Do You Love Me,” the song became a hit all over again in 1988. Like a number of other former Motown groups, the Contours signed with Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records, where they recorded two albums.
In 2004 Potts formed his own group of Contours, and he and Billingslea sued and countersued, each claiming their right to the Contours name. There was an out of court settlement which allowed for two groups of Contours, one led by Potts, and one by Billingslea. Both men continue to tour with their groups to this day.
The Contours were one of the most rough and tumble groups that Gordy ever signed. Their edge was both a blessing and a curse. Motown, of course, was going for the smoother sound with slicker choreography that was deemed to be more appropriate for the crossover success that Gordy was looking for. As a result, the Contours always played second fiddle to Motown’s big male vocal groups, the Temptations, the Miracles, and the Four Tops.
“First I Look at the Purse” has been covered a number of times. Probably the best known of these covers was recorded by the J. Geils Band on their 1970 debut album.
In 2010 the Contours were inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame.