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Unsung backup singers get acclaim

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DETROIT -- More than 40 years have passed since the recording of Marvin Gaye's Save the Children, but a replay of the song in the studio where it was recorded compressed time and brought tears to the eyes of Louvain Demps.

Demps was no mere fan visiting what's now the Motown Historical Museum. She was one of the women singing the angelic, high harmonies on the recording -- and hearing it in Hitsville USA's Studio A was too much.

"It's my heart, it's my heart," she said.

For Demps and her fellow Andantes, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow-Tate, moments like these have been private, since the wider world knew only their voices, not their faces. But now in their 70s, the unsung backing group who sang on thousands of Motown songs is finally getting acclaim for its contributions to the groundbreaking, chart-topping music made in Detroit in the 1960s and early '70s before the label moved to Los Angeles.

The trio gathered recently to see the exhibit, Motown Girl Groups: The Grit, the Glamour, the Glory, which will run through the summer. The Andantes are featured -- with equal billing -- alongside the Supremes, Vandellas, Marvelettes and Velvelettes.

The joyous but rare reunion was made possible by a sad event the day before: the funeral of former Miracles member Bobby Rogers. For the Andantes, it made their meeting more poignant.

"It is unfortunate that so many are gone and thank God that we are still here -- all of us -- to be able to see this and see our dream come true," said Barrow-Tate, who still lives in Detroit, as does Hicks. The two are retired, but Demps, who lives near Atlanta, still sings solo or with others.

The Andantes were the go-to backup singers for most Motown artists, including Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops and the girl groups themselves. Save the Children came from Gaye's What's Going On, one of Motown's greatest -- and last -- albums recorded in Detroit. The Andantes sang backup on many of the record's cuts -- including the title track -- and even travelled with Gaye to his hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1972 to perform the disc in its entirety at the Kennedy Center.

Motown Museum officials say the trio, almost always anonymously, sang on more songs than any other group at Motown. They were the female and vocal equivalent to the Funk Brothers, the label's house band that itself was largely anonymous in its time but gained acclaim through the 2002 documentary film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

The Andantes' peerless ability to vocally blend -- not only with each other but also with stars such as Gaye, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and many others -- was one of the factors that kept them in demand behind the scenes. They were so successful that they were seen as essential backup artists, and that limited them from growing more.

The Andantes don't exactly sing the same old song now when it comes to how they felt about standing and singing in the shadows.

"We did not mind not having our name on someone else's record," Hicks said.

"I did," said Demps, who had dreamed the Andantes might one day be like the Supremes. "I always minded."

"Well, I didn't," said Hicks, who was seconded by Barrow-Tate.

Allen Rawls, the museum's acting chief executive, said Motown Records founder Berry Gordy understood the role everyone played in creating and maintaining Motown's sound.

"The Andantes ... were so instrumental to the foundation of the Motown sound," Rawls said. "Imagine if a song like Standing in the Shadows of Love was out there (without them). The harmonies behind it may not be the same thing. That's why they were established in that particular role, helping to create the foundation."

Gordy called the Andantes "wonderful people" in a recent interview and fondly remembered their contributions: "I recall so many of the sounds from The Four Tops."

So does Abdul (Duke) Fakir, the group's lone surviving original member. He recalls the trio's work on Baby I Need Your Loving, The Four Tops' first hit.

"They were just as important in their background (part) as The Four Tops," he said. "Their voices on that song made that song."

As a tour group gathered in Motown's original Studio A, a guide led them in a spirited take of The Temptations' My Girl. Sitting alongside were the Andantes, smiling and singing every word. It's the closest the "girls" get these days to a musical reunion, though Demps doesn't give up hope.

"My dream hasn't ended yet," she said. "It still goes on for me."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 D10

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