One of the first white bands signed to Motown, Detroit’s Rare Earth had a damn good run in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those were peak times for psychedelic soul and R&B in general, and Rare Earth seriously benefited from Motown’s largesse (they even got their own imprint, also called Rare Earth). Oddly, though, Motown boss Berry Gordy often ordered Rare Earth to perform the same Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong compositions that the Temptations and/or Undisputed Truth recorded. The reasoning being, if one of them didn’t hit, well, maybe the other act would, as if each had their own distinct fan bases. As a fan of all three groups, I can’t discern great differences from their respective versions of those stone classic Whitfield/Strong numbers, but I’m of the persuasion to hear ’em all. That’s how strong my love is for that writing team.
Anyway, Rare Earth’s sixth album, Ma, consists of all Whitfield material, with Strong earning co-writing credits on “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Hum Along And Dance” (the Jackson 5 also covered the latter). Both are incredible jams that you have to go out of your way to mess up, and Rare Earth execute them like the slick professionals they are. Singing drummer Peter Hoorelbeke (aka Rivera) might be the funkiest, most soulful Caucasian dude to hold down those two tasks simultaneously. (I’m willing to be proved wrong, if you have counter examples.)
Talk about balls, though: “Ma” starts the LP with a 17-minute tour de force of stoic, stolid funk and an inspirational tale about a strong, generous mother who raised 13 children, against the odds, and was “stronger than any two men.” Ray Monette lets off some strafing guitar solos and Mark Olson adds percussive, striding piano that ratchets up the drama. As with other Whitfield epics, “Ma” accrues momentum and momentousness as it goes. The man was a songwriting god, and this is yet another masterpiece in his canon.
“Big John Is My Name” is your basic marauding, boastful party-funk anthem, with drum breaks ripe for the sampling, although whosampled.com shockingly reveals that nobody’s done so. That’s just crazy. The Rare Earth rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” differs from Undisputed Truth’s and the Temptations’ in that it’s more rock-oriented and laced with flamboyant keyboard embellishments. It’s probably my least favorite of the three, but it still bears some wicked wah-wah guitar punctuation, and it’s by no means a dud.
For “Hum Along And Dance,” Rare Earth again bring more rock energy—think the Rolling Stones circa “Can You Hear Me Knocking”—to this intense dance cut than do the J5 or the Tempts. Michael Urso kills it on bass, and there’s clenched-fist excitement from start to finish. “Come With Me” bears an acoustic guitar part that paraphrases the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which Rare Earth covered on 1970’s Ecology. It also boast plenty of female groans, a Santana-esque shuffle, and an expressive guitar solo. It’s a mellow denouement to a record that mostly funks festively or furrows brows with earnest platitudes about guarding against deceptiveness and honoring single mothers.
Ma might be the last great Rare Earth album, and I recommend it to anyone who worships Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong—which means all right-thinking people, to be completely honest. -Buckley Mayfield