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Can she sing? Marlene Barrow and Jackie Hicks sounded downright skeptical. It was the summer of 1961, and the young women — then 19 and 21 years old, respectively — were at the Motown recording studio on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Barrow, tall and slender, and Hicks, bubbly and full-figured, had grown up singing in the choir of the Hartford Avenue Baptist Church. They had been to the Motown studio before, had laid down some backup vocals at the fledgling label as two-thirds of a trio, but then the high soprano in their group had quit suddenly, and Barrow and Hicks weren’t too interested in working without her.
A studio staffer, thinking of a young soprano in the studio’s choral ensemble, made a suggestion: “We’ve got a girl in here who can sing.”
Barrow and Hicks had the same question. “Can she sing?”
“Oh, yeah” came the reply. “She can sing.”
More than 50 years later, no one remembers which song the three worked on that day, but the new girl, Louvain Demps — a reserved Catholic woman of 23 — still remembers how it went. “We just seemed to click right away,” she says.
“First time,” Hicks adds. “First song, perfect blend.”
That’s how Louvain Demps joined the Andantes, which would become perhaps the most important singing group you’ve probably never heard of. The trio sang background on more than 20,000 Motown songs, upward of 90 percent of the company’s output before its 1972 move to Los Angeles. Theirs are the voices you can hear responding to Mary Wells in her 1964 hit “My Guy” (“What you say? Tell me more — ”). They testified on Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And, significantly, they provided the oohs and ahs and baby-babies — the depth and sweetness on countless tracks where their separate voices can’t even be picked out, except maybe by the women themselves. To this day, Hicks says, she hears herself on the radio every single day.
The Andantes’ perfect blend was critical to the Motown sound, part of the secret seasoning that listeners could hear only on that label. These women, unsung in so many ways, were a key reason so many people loved Motown music. Yet most Motown fans still don’t know the Andantes’ story.
Today, Hicks, 79, and Demps, 80, have returned to their old workplace, walking around the popular museum built on the site of the famed Hitsville U.S.A. buildings. They remind me that their friend Marlene Barrow, the beloved peacemaker in the trio, whose married name was Barrow-Tate, died in 2015, at age 73, so the group is now incomplete.
Hicks, the Andantes’ alto, is wearing a green pantsuit with matching socks set off by pink sneakers. On first meeting, she seems serious, but that’s only because she hasn’t yet revealed the side of herself that marked her as the group’s prankster, an identity she still seems to take pride in.
During one recording session long ago, Demps recalls, she was having a minor issue with her part, and Hicks was holding what she thought was an empty water cup.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to throw this water in your face if you don’t get the song right,’ ” says Hicks, picking up the story. “She just looked at me. So I said, ‘Boop,’ ” she says, as she pantomimes thrusting a cup forward. “There was water in the cup. It was just running down her face. I was shocked!”
Demps laughs, adding, “And I was wet.”
“Yeah, you were,” Hicks responds. “Hey, one of these days I hope you forget that story.”
That’s not likely. Demps is the historian of the group — the one who remembers who said what to whom, most everything that happened to them in Studio A.
She speaks in a high, breathy voice — Demps is the first soprano, after all — and has a sweet, delicate manner. She seems to end every sentence with a big smile, no matter what she’s saying. That’s true even when she’s talking about the loss of second soprano Barrow-Tate, their lifelong friend.
Marlene was the one who would always patch things up — the one that would say, ‘Don’t worry about it — it’s going to be OK.’ I really loved her,” Demps says.
When Motown stars and songwriters try to describe the musical debt they owe to the Andantes, they get downright religious. “They could sing together like angels,” says Martha Reeves, lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas. Ivy Jo Hunter, who wrote songs for Marvin Gaye, the Spinners, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, says, “It was a heavenly gift that they had. It’s something that you really can’t manufacture.” Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s first A&R man, describes their talent as a “gift that’s given by God.”
This reference to divinity is no coincidence. In the classic sound of the African American church, the interplay between a lead singer and the rest of the choir — the call and response — creates a powerful structure that has tremendous emotional resonance. Motown’s arrangers built on that structure, which originated in West Africa and is found in many genres of African American music. Unlike in the white pop recordings of the same era, background vocalists at Motown didn’t just harmonize on a song’s choruses; they created a back-and-forth with the whole melody that deepened the listening experience. Berry Gordy may have sought to present a safe, apolitical version of his performers to appeal to a crossover audience, but he couldn’t take the church out of their voices.
The Andantes sang on “Baby I Need Your Loving” by the Four Tops, “Love Child” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder, and countless other classics. “They were on every song,” Stevenson says. “All the ones that were hits.” In fact, the group was so critical to Motown’s sound that if they weren’t available, Stevenson would stop the session. “If one of them wasn’t feeling well, we would hold that tune until she felt better. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Like the label’s house band, known as the Funk Brothers, whose distinctive grooves were always heard but never credited on early Motown records, the Andantes provided anonymous support for the label’s biggest stars.
For years, the three young women practically lived at the studio, called upon to record something new almost every day. “They gave us a cozy office upstairs, where we would stay overnight if we needed to,” Demps recalls. Eventually, they were paid upward of $10 an hour — it was considered good money.
“We were family,” Smokey Robinson says. “We were kids growing up there together. And the Andantes were part of that family.” Robinson used the women on many of the thousands of songs he wrote and produced, including “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “My Girl” for the Temptations. “The Andantes were three of the greatest singers ever in life,” he emphasizes. “Any one of them could have been a lead singer or solo artist.”
The writer-producer Lamont Dozier used their voices to “fill in the lead singer’s parts and give the harmony more substance. If I had some very intricate background parts and the harmonies didn’t have the sound that I wanted, I would tell the famous singers, ‘It’s OK — we’ll fix it in the mix.’ They would take a break, and I’d have the Andantes come in the back door,” he notes, laughing. “We liked to call them the cleanup girls. They could always come in and fix whatever we couldn’t fix with the big acts.”
Both Hicks and Demps say that despite the hard work and lack of public recognition, Motown was a loving atmosphere where almost everyone treated them with great respect. Did they sense any resentment from stars such as Diana Ross, about being added to their tracks? Sometimes there was a little ill feelings,” Hicks allows. “But hey, it was what it was. It wasn’t our choice.” Producers loved the Andantes because they created their own arrangements on the spot — no easy thing. “They could walk in that studio and lay that stuff down in five or 10 minutes,” Stevenson says. “If you had anybody else, it would take you a few hours.”
Demps wanted the Andantes to have their shot as featured recording artists, but it never seemed to come. Whenever the young women asked Motown staff about it, Barrow once recalled, they would be told to have patience. Maybe due to their persistence, the Andantes did record one single at Motown under their own name: the 1964 jump tune “(Like a) Nightmare.” But they were never sent through Motown’s storied artist-development program to craft a stage presence, and when the single received no promotion, it quickly vanished from view.
Why didn’t Motown founder Berry Gordy ever try to make the Andantes stars? Was it because they were a few years older than the label’s higher-profile girl groups? Was it because, as young mothers by then, both Barrow and Demps would have had difficulty going out on tour? Perhaps. But according to journalist Adam White, author of Motown: The Sound of Young America, there was also a business case to be made for keeping the Andantes under wraps. “Berry Gordy was very protective of what he had,” White says. “He didn’t want the names of the musicians to be out there so they could get offers that might tempt them to leave.”
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Jacqueline Hicks hadn’t planned to be a professional singer. Neither had Marlene Barrow. In fact, as teens they avoided working with a bandleader who wanted to record with them, even hiding in the closet when he came to Hicks’ home. “He asked my mother, ‘Where are Jacqueline and Marlene?’ ” Hicks remembers. “She said, ‘In the closet — hiding from you.’ He took it as a joke, so we opened the door and started laughing and came out. As we were going to the car, I said, ‘Mama, why would you tell on us?’ She said, ‘How much money are you making in that closet?’ ”
Demps, by contrast, had always aspired to perform professionally. Raised in the Catholic church, she was familiar with formal liturgical music, and her parents had always thought she should sing opera. Instead, Demps pursued pop, and though she was proud to be part of the Andantes, she wanted to perform under her own name, too. “I’m not saying that I wanted to be a star,” Demps explains, “but I wanted more. I just wanted more.”
Life after Motown
Early in 1972, rumors were flying that the label was planning a move to Los Angeles. “We had heard it in the air,” Barrow recounted in the 2007 book Motown from the Background. “We would ask them repeatedly if it were true. They would deny it.” But when she and Hicks went to pick up their mid-January paychecks, there weren’t any checks there for them. The two called Demps in the middle of the night in a panic, and the following day, Demps went down to Motown to find out whether the label was leaving. When she was told that it was, she was outraged. She demanded that checks be cut for all three Andantes, and she had the head of the label’s quality control department drive her to the bank to make sure hers cashed.
“That’s how we found out,” Demps says. “I guess if they hadn’t owed us money, they might not have said a word!”Barrow and Hicks took the loss in stride. “They were trying to go into the movie thing,” Hicks says of Berry Gordy’s motivation. “They were going in a different direction.” Hicks eventually landed a job at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and Barrow found employment with the Michigan Department of Labor. Demps took it much harder. She was a divorced mother of two young boys, and she feared, rightfully, that her dreams of stardom were ending. “For me it was devastating,” she says. “I just couldn’t adjust. Our songs would come on the radio and I’d cry.” Demps left her hometown, moved to Atlanta and found work at a Georgia state center for children with intellectual disabilities. “I loved working with the children,” she points out. She was able to identify some nondisabled children at the center who had been caught up in the system, and she helped to get them out. “That softened my heart and kind of pulled me out of the dumps. There’s a little passage in the Bible that says, ‘and when he came to himself ...’ You know, when I came to myself, that’s when I realized that I’ve wasted time being depressed when I should have been happy.” Eventually, Demps began to sing again, doing commercial jobs as well as performing in church. In the early 1990s, the Andantes reunited in Detroit to sing for Motorcity Records, an effort by a British producer to market the city’s Motown-era acts. The company quickly failed, but not before the Andantes — turned into a four-person group with the addition of their fellow Motown alumna Pat Lewis — recorded an album’s worth of songs under their own name. Those sessions were the group’s final foray into the studio together. In recent years the Andantes have begun to receive the notice that many feel they ought to have had all along. Reissued Motown records now bear the Andantes name if the women sang on them. After being paid a flat hourly fee during their recording years, the women are now receiving some residuals for their work. And in 2013, while Barrow-Tate was still living, all three Andantes were able to visit an exhibit at the Motown Museum that celebrated the Supremes, the Vandellas, the Marvelettes and — right alongside them — the Andantes. While she appreciates the belated recognition, Hicks says she would have been just as happy remaining in the background. “I’ve always been proud of myself and thankful to the Lord to have allowed me to do that,” she notes. “I don’t care how high anybody goes, it does not lower me any lower. Because I know what I did.”
—Additional research by Caitlin K. Rossmann and Dana Voorhees