Last week’s Soul Serenade column was #260 in this series. That’s right, I’ve been writing the column for five years now and what an education it’s been. I was going to make a big deal of the anniversary but somehow I lost count. I’ve never been much of a fan of the belated birthday thing so I’ll just say thank you to all of those readers who have taken the time to read my ramblings over the years.
Over the last few years there have occasionally been subjects that I found so interesting that I continued my study of them for a second week. That’s the case this week. If you’ve been playing along you know that last week I celebrated the great Motown producer Norman Whitfield by featuring one of his greatest productions, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” by the Undisputed Truth. This week I want to look at a very different Whitfield effort.
In 1961 Bertha Barbee McNeal and Mildred Gill Arbor were students at Western Michigan University. The two students decided to put together a vocal group and drafted Arbor’s younger sister Carolyn Gill, who was in ninth grade at the time, into the fold. Gill in turn got her friend Betty Kelley, a high school junior, involved, and McNeal recruited her cousin Norma Barbee. Once the cast was assembled, it was decided that the group’s youngest member, Gill, would be the group’s lead singer.
Sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and McNeal and Arbor knew a Western Michigan classmate by the name of Robert Bullock who just happened to be Berry Gordy’s nephew. There was an audition, then a contract signing in late 1962, and then the Velvelettes began recording in early 1963. Their first single was recorded at Motown’s Hitsville USA studio and produced by Mickey Stevenson.
“There He Goes” b/w “That’s the Reason Why” was released on the IPG (Independent Producers Group) label. Perhaps the most notable thing about it was the appearance of Stevie Wonder, who played harmonica on the record. The single didn’t chart, but the Velvelettes kept themselves busy by recording with several producers. Some of the tracks they recorded originally became hits for other groups like the Supremes and Martha & the Vandellas.
Their break came in 1964 when Norman Whitfield produced “Needle in a Haystack” for them. The record was released on Motown’s VIP imprint. The song was written by Whitfield and Stevenson and reached #45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the middle of the year. Whitfield produced the follow-up, “He Was Really Saying Something,” as well, and the single made it to #64 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #21 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart in 1964. Later that same year Betty Kelley left the Velvelettes to become a member of Martha & the Vandellas.
In 1967 three of the remaining four Velvelettes, founders McNeal and Arbor along with Barbee, decided to devote themselves to their families and left the group. The sole remaining member, Gill, recruited two new Velvelettes, Sandra Tilley (who also went on to become a Vandella) and Annette Rogers-McMillan. The group was touring and an album project was in the works, but the Supremes were so hot at the time that Motown’s attention was diverted away from the Velvelettes and never returned.
There were more singles but songs like “Lonely Lonely Girl Am I” and “A Bird in the Hand,” both released on VIP, failed to strike gold. Even the Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson song “Bring Back the Sunshine” failed to resonate for the Velvelettes. Their final single, “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” did manage to make it #43 on the R&B chart in 1967, and became a hit on the UK Singles chart four years later.
Tilley moved on and Gill married Richard Street (later of the Temptations). The only thing that made any sense was to disband the group at that point. They reunited in 1984 with a combination of various sisters and cousins. Together they were one of those former Motown groups that went on to record for Motorcity Records, releasing an album called One Door Closes. It wasn’t until decades after the Velvelettes peak years that Motown finally released the Very Best of the Velvelettes album, and that was followed in 2004 by the more comprehensive The Velvelettes: The Motown Anthology.
When the Velvelettes encountered Norman Whitfield both the group and the producer/songwriter needed a hit. Together they got a couple. Whitfield went on to a legendary career as the pioneer of psychedelic soul while the Velvelettes toiled for a few more years before giving up. They are one of those groups that are often forgotten when the story of the early years of Motown Records is told, but they contributed some indelible records to the label’s catalog.