[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75]
1968 was a time of upheaval and change at Motown Records. The company had moved its Detroit headquarters into a soulless commercial building, and founder and president Berry Gordy was spending much of his time in Los Angeles. Gordy was also being criticized for his relative silence on racial inequality – which was not an abstract issue for the company; among other things, many Motown artists were regularly subjected to racist threats or attacks while on tour. Other Motown acts were expressing frustration at the company’s focus on entertainment rather than on social commentary.
But amongst that uncertainty came ‘A Place in the Sun’, a song that spoke profoundly both of struggle and of hope for a better world. Although it was first recorded in ’66, more than a dozen artists –including, jointly, The Supremes and The Temptations – covered it in ’68, which indicates its relevance to those troubled times.
Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the song’s co-authors, both came to Motown through quirks of serendipity. Miller, delivering pizzas to pay the bills, happened to bring an order to Motown staff writer Mickey Stevenson, and took the opportunity to pitch him a few tunes. Stevenson subsequently set up a meeting between Miller and Gordy; in his autobiography, Gordy recounted that Miller’s first words to him were “Mr. Gordy, I don’t want to write that Blues shit”. Rather than being offended, Gordy saw potential in a songwriter whose tastes ran to Broadway musicals and “old standards” – and after a few false starts, Miller started churning out classics such as ‘For Once in My Life’.
Wells met Miller in May ’66, when, as a college student, he was playing an unexpected gig at a piano bar. “I was subbing for one of my agent’s other clients, and I was cramming for finals at the time so I didn’t really want to do it.” Miller approached Wells and asked if he had written anything himself. “So I played one, and then he told me who he was and that he was looking for someone to work with. And that’s how it started.”
In his songwriting partnership with Miller, says Wells, “there was a clear division of labour. I wrote the music first and then presented him with the melodies. And because we were both consummate professionals, it was impossible for him to write junk.” Some sources claim that ‘A Place in the Sun’ was inspired by the book and film of the same name, but Wells denies that – although, he says, they were glad to find out “that you can’t copyright a title.”
The song brought something different to Motown because, in Wells’ words, “it’s more of a country tune. Not like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, but the melody and the chord structure are like traditional country.” Wells and Miller wrote the song with Stevie Wonder in mind, but Clarence Paul, Wonder’s producer, seized upon it and recorded it himself. Paul took his version to one of Motown’s legendary “Friday meetings”, at which potential releases were presented and critiqued. Wells never attended those meetings – “those were for the executives and producers, I was too far down the totem pole” – but when Paul played his recording, Gordy’s response was, “No, this is for Stevie.”
‘A Place in the Sun’ debuted on Wonder’s ’66 album Down to Earth. “It really was a change from his earlier songs like ‘Fingertips’”, Wells recalls. “And for some people, that was too much of a departure. I remember the first time I heard it played on the radio, right after it finished there was a call-in. It was a teenage girl, and she said ‘Oh, I don’t like that at all’. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m doomed’”. Thankfully, that listener’s opinion was not widely shared, as the song charted in the US in ’66 and in the UK in ‘67.
The Supremes/Temptations collaboration, which began in ’66, was an example of the Motown strategy of “piggybacking” – putting two groups together to broaden each one’s audience. The hip, about-to-be-psychedelic Temptations could bring younger, cooler listeners into The Supremes’ older supper-club-and-Vegas audience, and vice versa. However, the pairing was not without its conflicts. Many within Motown suspected that Gordy’s real intent in teaming the two acts was to further promote his girlfriend Diana Ross as a lead singer – especially just after The Supremes had officially become “Diana Ross and The Supremes”. The members of The Supremes and The Temptations, most of whom had known each other since childhood, were also not particularly happy at being ordered to address the budding solo star as “Miss Ross”.
‘A Place in the Sun’ was chosen for inclusion on the first Supremes/Temptations album, work on which started in early ’68. Its progress was delayed when The Temptations fired lead singer David Ruffin; his replacement, Dennis Edwards, had to re-record Ruffin’s vocals on the tracks that had already been completed. Nevertheless, Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations was finally released in late ’68. The Supremes/Temptations’ ‘A Place in the Sun’ suffers somewhat from not sounding entirely unified – it’s more like the two groups are taking turns – but the vocal harmonies throughout are stunning.
‘A Place in the Sun’ was further covered in ’68 by acts in many different genres. Wells cites the versions by Glen Campbell and The Young Rascals as particular favourites. “The Young Rascals did an eight-minute-long version, it was an astonishing epic. And it was the only song on their record [Groovin’] that wasn’t an original. That was a great tribute.”
Wells and Miller subsequently wrote two more hits for Wonder: ‘Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’ and ‘Someday at Christmas’. Miller passed away in 2007; Wells is now a jazz pianist in New York, where he “holds court” as a performer at the Palm restaurant in Manhattan. And it’s a tribute to the timelessness of ‘A Place in the Sun’ that, 50 years after it was composed, Wells still gets requests for it. “People will ask for it and I’ll play it. I’m not a vocalist, but there’s the delight of hearing the interpretation.”
With thanks to Bryan Wells