Everybody wants to be Berry Gordy. Who wouldn't? Gordy didn't just have his own act -- he had a whole collection, as well as a stable of songwriters, producers, musicians, designers and managers to supply those acts with a consistent sound and image.
The stable was called Motown Records, and the acts included the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Gordy's grand design worked so well that Motown has been the model for rhythm-and-blues artists ever since.
Gordy's followers haven't been able to start their own record labels, but their production companies now dominate soul music.
These production companies have even invaded Gordy's own territory. When Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (the Chic Organization Ltd.) wrote and produced Diana Ross' "Diana" this year, it boasted the Chic sound, not the Motown sound. A similar thing happened last year when Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (Hopsack & Silk Productions), wrote and produced Diana Ross' "The Boss."
Ashford & Simpson, who record for Warner Bros., crossed labels again this year to write and produce Gladys Knight & the Pips' successful new comeback album, "About Love" (Columbia JC 36387). Knight has a spectacular gospel-trained voice that just feasts on the snappy soul melodies that Ashford and Simpson serve up.
Tunes like "Landlord," "Taste of Bitter Love" and "Bourgie, Bourgie" are instantly memorable. Knight takes their catchy choruses and extends them with improvised, shuddering shouts.
Ashford and Simpson will visit Constitution Hall Oct. 25 to support their own album, "A Musical Affair" (Warner Brothers HS 3458). Neither half of the husband-wife team can come close to Knight's singing. Without the overwhelming vocals, Nick Ashford's lyrics are exposed as limp banalties. Valerie Simpson's music is often catchy; but that's just not enough.
Another Gordy follower is August Darnell of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band -- the most dazzling and unjustly neglected band in R&B today. Darnell is the best soul lyricist since Smokey Robinson, and prolific as well.
Last year he wrote and produced a hit single, "There but for the Grace of God Go I," for Machine. This year he wrote and produced an exotic chanteuse album by the Nico-like Cristina Monet. But his most important project has been Kid Creole & the Coconuts, with Darnell assuming the role of Kid Creole himself.
"Off the Coast of Me" (ZE/Antilles AN7078) is the first effort by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, who make their Washington debut at the Bayou tonight. Hernandez contributes orchestrations, and Browder some tunes.
The Coconuts are four female vocalists who engage Darnell in richly ironic dialogues. On "Darrio," the women purr, "Darrio, can you get me into Studio 54?" Darnell protests that disco is dead and boring to boot. Wouldn't she rather go see the B-52s or James White?
She just repeats her request all the more seductively. One gets the feeling that Darnell is really dialoguing with the Dr. Buzzard fans who resented the band's move into more progressive music.
"Maladie D'Amour" contains some great lines about lovesickness: "People say I'm crazy, but they know who made me/Blushing in a garden; you'd think I was a daisy." Like all the album's songs, this one skitters along on a crazy calypso syncopation with soft, swirling harmonies everywhere.