Many years before they hit it big with "Solid," the duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were actually better known as songwriters who helped crank out some of Motown's biggest hits in the late 60s. They were especially prolific on behalf of two artists who acted as their proxies: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, penning "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," among other classics.
But one of their best songs from their Motown period never it it big with the label.
Sure, Marvin and Tammi recorded "California Soul" But it was the smooth and slick Fifth Dimension who reached No. 25 on the Billboard charts in 1969 with a rendition produced by Ashford & Simpson. (The pair also produced the Marvin and Tammi version, with backing from the Funk Brothers)
Download "California Soul" by the Fifth Dimension
Ah, but that wasn't the end of the road for this song. No way. No how.
Later in the year, on the tiny Cadet label, Marlena Shaw would cut her own version on her album, The Spice of Life. Mostly known as a jazz singer (in fact, she was in the middle of a four-year gig with Count Basie), Shaw put together an solid collection of songs that navigated through jazz, the blues and soul – all with her own distinctive style.
Ah, but "California Soul." The quick staccato of the opening violins. The steady handclaps. Then Shaw's brassy voice, which almost outdoes the surging horns. The song propels itself to greater heights as it goes through it's all too brief three minutes in the spotlight.
Download "California Soul" by Marlena Shaw
By comparison, the Fifth Dimension version sounds almost flat. Which is surprising, considering the way their harmonies usually ramp up ordinary songs that need a little extra oomph. The harmonies are indeed one of the song's highlights, but the song never slowly builds to a funky crescendo the way Shaw's does.
Part of it, I think, is that as producers, Ashford & Simpson were still grounded in the conventions of Motown. But those conventions were about to give way to the more progressive sound of Philly Soul, thanks to innovators such as Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Whereas The Fifth Dimension goes somewhat timidly into that territory with the horns and strings that would become hallmarks of that genre, Shaw doesn't hold back – and then, thanks to her background as a jazz vocalist, holds her own in ways that the Fifth Dimension could never pull off.
Indeed, to many people, the Shaw version has become the definitive version. Witness the 2003 remake of the Italian Job, which uses it to illustrate the protagonists' trip to the Golden State.
See? Sometimes, Hollywood does have taste.