More places to watch: The AARP documentary, The Andantes: Motown’s Secret Blend — the story of the most important singing group you’ve probably never heard of — is also airing on the ALL ARTS TV channel (available in NY metro area). It’s available for FVOD nationwide on allarts.org and the ALL ARTS streaming app.
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.”