27 April 2010

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 116]

Twenty-Five Miles
b/w "Way Over There"
Edwin Starr
Written by Johnny Bristol, Henry Fuqua & Edwin Starr
Produced by Norman Whitfield (?)
Gordy/Motown Records
Released 1969

Rock critic Dave Marsh called Edwin Starr a "Motown minor leaguer." Did he mean this as a put-down or a simple statement of fact? After all, when Barry Gordy bought out the small Detroit label Ric Tic in the late 1960s, The Sound of Young America, though starting to wane, was still flush with a galaxy of stars: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Temptations and Diana Ross.

Born in Cleveland, Starr (real name Charles Hatcher) had made his musical bones with a couple of hits that flirted with the Top 20: "Agent Double-O Soul" (1965) and "Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.)." After toiling away for a year at Motown with only a mediocre album and no hits to show for it, Starr cut "Twenty-Five Miles," a song that brought his powerhouse soul voice to national attention.

Ironically, Starr's vocal style was more akin to the Stax gut-bucket rhythm and blues than the sweet, clean sound that Gordy had made famous resulting in hit after hit (after hit). "Twenty-Five Miles" could have been under the influence of hot new Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who had recently given the The Temps a harder-edged pop to their records. More likely it was the writers' nod to Wilson Pickett's "32 Miles From Waycross (Mojo Mama)," recorded in 1967.

Either way, good move. Starr's strong baritone more than fits the bill, accompanied by the muscular drumming of the legendary Motown session man Benny Benjamin and a horn chart that is familiar to anyone who has heard a marching band at half-time of a football game.

The lyrics are just as much of a hook for the listener. We never find out what happens when Starr reaches his destination, but the energetic vocal definitely proves that getting there is half the fun.

"Twenty-Five Miles" made it all the way to #6 on the Hot 100 Pop Chart. Yet for some reason it seldom appears in the Motown canon of classics. Despite its stomping beat, the only notable group to cover the song regularly over the ensuing years was Charles Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. (Maybe we'll drop a line to Galactic or Kings Go Forth with the suggestion.)

Edwin Starr, of course, would follow Whitfield into the studio again a year later and be handed a song that was deemed too socially controversial for The Temptations to release as a single: "War." It went to #1.

After a few minor hits in the disco era of the 1980s, Edwin Starr moved permanently to England and became an icon of the Northern Soul movement. He died in 2003.

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