Date Of Induction: 01 November 2014 Category: Male Group
The Precisions singing group are enmeshed in Detroit’s golden era of soul music having actually had a record label established in the Motor City, specifically as a vehicle just for them. When high school friends Paul Merritt, Michal Morgan Willie Norris and Fred Shockley established the group in the early sixties little could they have imagined that the name of The Precisions would appear, (albeit a different line up), as a headline act on a different continent almost 50 years later, performing songs that had been tumultuously received by a legion of loyal fans!
After establishing the group, Fred Shockley decided to seek his fortune elsewhere and left the group which left a void that was ably filled by Arthur Ashford and it was this quartet that ventured into the recording studio having secured a tentative deal with Mike Hanks’ D-Town Records. The subsequent two 45s that Mike released sank without a trace insofar as sales and chart recognition was concerned but would, a few years later, become sought after outings by UK collectors with an insatiable thirst for Detroit mid-sixties soul. The first of these 45s, a 1964 release, The Precisions — “I Wanna Tell My Baby b/w My Lover Come Back” — D Town 1033 features two great mid-tempo, sweetish group sounds full of tight harmonies that have gained sporadic plays over the years and is extremely hard to find in any kind of decent playing condition which means it’s probably their most sought after collectors piece. Hanks followed it up with, The Precisions — “Mexican Love Song b/w You’re Sweet” — D Town 1055 which is a similar sound to their initial outing albeit a little more refined as Hanks developed his production and engineering skills. Neither of the 45s made any real impact (or money) and the group fell silent for a while as Mike Hanks developed his labels.
A move from D-Town to John Powers’ Sidra set up was facilitated by legendary producer Dale Warren in 1967 and it was soon after that that Dennis Gilmore arrived to take over from Paul Merritt who had decided to call it a day. Mr Merritt though had taken part in the initial recording session for their new label and was the original lead vocal on a song that would later come to identify the group’ sound so well. That particular cut wouldn’t make it to vinyl for another 40 years but more of that later. Shortly after Merritt’s departure, Willie Norris also looked to seek pastures new and was replaced by Ron Davis. The quartet now chose to add a fifth member, Mr Billy Prince, who was a former school mate of Dennis Gilmore’s and it is this line up of Michael Morgan, Arthur Ashford, Dennis Gilmore, Ron Davis and Billy Prince that would lay down the vocals that resulted in the five quintessential Detroit soul sides that were released on the Drew label that had been established specifically for them. With another legendary producer George McGregor now at the Drew production helm and fellow inaugural Inductee and equally legendary arranger Mike Terry also on duty the group set about creating their signature sound.
Straight out of the starting blocks the team launched a veritable monster! With Dennis Gilmore’s desperately pleading vocal leading the group, The Precisions — “A Lover’s Plea b/w Such Misery”— Drew 1001, combined the A side, a pleasant enough mid-tempo affair that gave the group an opportunity to harmonise to great effect but it was the flip that would blow people away over 3000 miles away on the UK’s Northern Soul scene. A full blown leviathan of a record it strings together all the fantastic signature components of the best of Detroit sixties soul scene when competing with Berry Gordy’s bourgeoning musical empire. A metronome inspired drum beat, a simple but highly effective rhythm guitar riff and horn section as tight as a duck’s chuff! Shove a few musical peaks and troughs in amongst the fantastic vocal mastery and hey presto...a classic in the making.
The second scheduled 45 for the group created one of Detroit’s most sought after 45s. Once recorded, The Precisions — “Sugar Ain’t Sweet b/w Why Girl” — Drew 1002 arrived back at Sidra having been manufactured off centre! A disaster in the making? Well not quite, as George McGregor had already made the decision to place Billy Prince’s distinctive vocal at the centre of the group supported by the rest of the guys’ voices in order to develop what became their signature ‘sound’. (1) He subsequently turned the potential drama into an opportunity to do just that and undertook another session resulting in The Precisions — “Why Girl b/w What I Want” — Drew 1002 replacing the damaged disc as Sidra’s second 45. As is usual in these cases a small number of the defective 1002 disc escaped the junk skip and have surfaced over the years revealing that “Sugar Ain’t Sweet” is in fact a great Northern Soul dance song and so it became something of a holy grail for Detroit collectors. The A side of the actual official 1002 release delivers another dancer that did solidify their ‘sound’ as required with signature drum fills, the chanking guitar and the odd break thrown in for good measure. The flip is a Dale Warren produced dancer that sounds a little weird to be honest and seems out of place with its darker overtones. It does however sound like it’s related to that other outing by Mr Warren, Ronnie and Robyn — “As Long As You Love Me” — Sidra 9011 and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that it was recorded by the very same musicians and maybe even at the same session as the two labels were intertwined. ‘Why Girl’ slid into the Billboard RnB chart finally resting at #28 and made a respectable #39 on Cashbox’s equivalent.
Buoyed by the early success of the group, they solicited three of Motown’s songwriters and were subsequently furnished the song that would come to define their careers as far as many Northern Soul fans are concerned. The opening string arrangement to The Precisions — “If This Is Love (I’d Rather be Lonely)” b/w You’ll Soon Be Gone” — Drew 1003, that the group recorded at United Sound Systems studio on 5840 Second Avenue, is as poignant and mournful as just about any vocal you’ll hear. Instantly recognisable it became an anthemic intro to what became a huge ‘hit’ with UK soul dance-floors. It became the group’s biggest selling 45 reaching #60 on the Billboard Hot 100 and delivered the group a Top 30 RnB hit peaking at #28. Billy Prince’s vocal on the song, which weaves a tale of love’s betrayal in amongst the spiralling “Aahs” from the guys and the swirling string and piano combinations played by some of Detroit’s finest, creates some of soul’s finest moments. Billy Prince was a student of Chadsey High School on the West Side of Detroit, (the same school as Spyder Turner who was a school friend). (2) A fan of Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard as a youngster, he came from a musical home, his father being a church organist/pianist who played at home a lot. Detroit’s Swing Time and eventually American Bandstand brought pop music into the Princes' home and influenced the young aspiring singer. All these influences come to fruition on his particular song, so much so that when Billy and the guys rehearsed the song on stage at The Prestatyn weekender in 2008 they blew folks away. The lead by Mr Prince and the vocal support from Dennis and Michael was indeed soul personified. (Michael had unfortunately had to miss the previous visit by the group). The flip of this iconic 45 is also worth investigating by those that file their 45s without checking flips. (We’ve all done it!). A moody, atmospheric mid-tempo dancer with just a hint of the funkier side of black music of the day.
As a matter of interest, "If This Is Love" received a contemporaneous issue in UK too as a 45, on the Track label (#604014) and also appeared on the LP the company issued of that included Al Kent's, "You Got to Pay The Price". In addition, the backing tracks to a couple of The Precisions outings also surface elsewhere, so the songs must have made an impact on people. A Jamaican born singer based in Canada used Bay Studios in Toronto to put his vocal onto “If This Is Love”, which saw a release as a B Side on the Canadian Arc label as, Eddie Spencer — “You’re So Good To Me b/w If This Is Love” — Arc 1206, which also picked up plays in UK resulting in a reissue on the Power Exchange label (#207) but with a different flip entitled “Power Of Love”, a song penned by Mr Spencer himself that had previously seen a release in its own right in Canada on the GoodGroove imprint (#5006). He'd maybe heard the song via the release on the Canadian Stone logo?
Meanwhile, in a Dallas, Texas studio named Sunset Studios, the co-owner of the largest black club in the US, Sam Coplin, was attempting to establish an entertainment empire around his artist management company and his Karma record label. Within his label’s A&R roster were Stemmons Express, a white group whose name was derived from the local Stemmons Expressway a major thoroughfare in the city. In a similar fashion to Eddie Spencer the group simply placed their vocals over an existing Precisions track, this time utilising, “Such Misery” but with different lyrics. The resulting 45, Stemmons Express — “Woman Love Thief b/w Love Power” — Karma 201 was a hugely popular dance-floor filler in the soul clubs of mid seventies UK. It was also re-released on Florence Greenberg’s Wand logo, (#1198) so it must have gained enough sales to garner some interest. Just how Such Misery came to the attention of Coplin I’m not 100% sure but he had lots of fingers in lots of musical pies and he was the main distributor for Detroit based Tri City Records whose head of promotion was none other than Choker Campbell.
Up next, release wise came two further dancers but this time as a quartet because they were without Ron Davis, who had decided to quit as he struggled with the now more concentrated Huey Fluke choreographed dance steps that the group were perfecting for their stage show. (3) The Precisions — “Instant Heartbreak (Just Add Tears) b/w Dream Girl” — Drew 1004, which was written by the group members, scraped only the bottom rung of the Hot 100 despite its obvious quality and failed to make the most of the success garnered by “If This Is Love”.
The final outing on Drew that bore the group’s name was The Precisions — “A Place b/w Never Let Her Go” — Drew 1005 and drew on the combined talents of three of the city’s musical royalty the Fred Bridges, Bobby and Richard Eaton aka The Brothers Of Soul. With a female spoken intro and its cleaner, fresher presentation, it’s a departure for the group but one that remains true to the group’s vocal strength which lay squarely steeped in harmonising around the one lead. The flip is fantastic. Once again a Bridges-Knight-Eaton penned song but this time the trio concentrated their efforts on a ballad, subsequently delivering a beautifully crafted slice of Motortown crossover as you’re likely to hear.
The group had resisted a move of label when Capitol had come a-knocking on the back of their success with, “If This Is Love” but with Laurie now distributing their records when Doug Morris, Laurie’s conduit to the group left for Atlantic Records the group moved with him. After two Jerry Williams, (Swampdog) produced 1969 releases on the Atco subsidiary failed, the group were let go and the guys, as a group at least, faded from the scene.
That wasn’t quite the end of the group’s vinyl output though as just prior to their first appearance at the Prestatyn Weekender in UK in 2006, JoeBoy Records struck a deal John Powers and issued an EP on the group which not only included a number of their already issued Sidra sides but included much lauded “Sugar Ain’t Sweet”. For their second appearance at the same event a couple of years later, JoeBoy again released Precisions material as an EP but his time also included the original studio cut of "Such Misery", with the lead vocal recorded by Paul Merritt. In addition JoeBoy released an album simultaneously which contained the whole catalogue of The Precisions Drew recordings.
The template of the musical story of The Precisions could probably be placed over a huge number of groups that saw their well produced but weakly promoted and distributed records flounder in the mass of weekly releases that swamped the US 45 market in the mid sixties but I wonder how many could compete, pound for pound with the quality of the groups outings? The Precisions delivered on all counts, from fantastic dancers to beautifully harmonised ballads and we are proud to have them as inaugural Inductees in our Northern Soul Hall Of Fame.
Dave Moore November 2014.
Notes and References:
- Sleeve notes by Neil Rushton : The Precisions — Why Girl - Joeboy/Inferno EP 2008
- Colton Thomas Interview with Billy Prince http://www.blogtalkradio.com/soul-fm/2009/11/20/billy-prince-of-the-precisions-1
- Groovesville USA: by Keih Hylatt, Page 234. Dated 2010.
My Lover Come Back b/w/ I Wanna Tell My Baby - D Town 1033
Mexican Love Song b/w You're Sweet — D Town 1055
Such Misery b/w A Lovers Plea — Drew 1001
Sugar Ain't Sweet / What I Want — Drew 1002
Why Girl / What I Want — Drew 1002
If This Is Love (I'd Rather Be Lonely) b/w You'll Soon Be Gone — Drew 1003
Instant Heartbreak (Just Add Tears) b/w Dream Girl — Drew 1004
A Place b/w Never Let Her Go — Drew 1000
Into My Life b/w Don't Double With Trouble — Atco 6634
New York City b/w You're The Best (That Ever Did It) — Atco 6669