'Motown Around The World': Classic Hits, Found In Translation Americans remember The Four Tops for "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." But Italians may know it by a different name: "Piangono Gli Uomini." A new compilation spotlights the Italian, German, French and Spanish versions of classic R&B songs.
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'Mein Girl': Motown's Hits, Found In Translation

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'Mein Girl': Motown's Hits, Found In Translation

'Mein Girl': Motown's Hits, Found In Translation

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(Soundbite of song, "Piangono Gli Uomini")

GUY RAZ, host:

Here's a song that needs no introduction. That is, of course, the Four Tops with their classic, "Piangono Gli Uomini."

(Soundbite of song, "Piangono Gli Uomini")

THE FOUR TOPS: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: The Four Tops recorded this Italian version of "I Can't Help Myself" in 1966. They do it in several other languages for many of their hits. And perhaps you've heard of The Temptations' romantic single "Mein Girl" or The Supremes' "L'Amore Verra."

Well, starting in the mid-'60s, Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records, had his biggest stars re-record phonetic versions of their hit songs in Italian, German, French and Spanish for European markets. And a new compilation of these recordings has just been released. It's called "Motown Around the World."

And the producer of the album, Harry Weinger, is in our New York studios.

Harry Weinger, welcome to the program.

Mr. HARRY WEINGER (Producer, "Motown Around the World"): It's great to be here.

RAZ: And I'm also joined by Otis Williams, the sole surviving original member of The Temptations. He's at our studios at NPR West.

Otis Williams, welcome.

Mr. OTIS WILLIAMS (Musician): Thank you.

RAZ: Harry, first to you. How did this all get started?

Mr. WEINGER: Well, I think it really comes down to Berry Gordy and his staff at Motown, particularly his sister, Esther, who worked there in artist management, having the vision that Motown would not be just a little label out of Detroit but a global force. And they started going having meetings overseas as early as 1963 thinking that perhaps these little records by these great singers and artists would mean something outside of America, and he was right.

And so the local companies began requesting songs and he went ahead and did it. They flew in and Otis will tell you they flew in people to help them learn the language.

RAZ: Otis Williams, in 1965, Berry Gordy...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

RAZ: ...had The Temptations record a German version of "My Girl." Here it is. Appropriately, it's titled "Mein Girl."

(Soundbite of song, "Mein Girl")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing in German)

RAZ: You know, German just makes that song sound so much more romantic. Otis Williams, what was the story there? What did you say when Berry Gordy ask you to do this? Did you say that's a little weird or were you okay with it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, we were okay with it. You know, we wanted to grow, you know, because at that time Motown was, you know, really growing and coming into its own that we wanted to be a part of whatever it would take to increase The Temps growing as well as Motown. So, we were okay with it.

RAZ: I just want to play the Italian version of the same song because it is you just got to hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Solamente Lei")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: That's more like it. Otis Williams, so you guys were taught to sing these phonetically. Did you guys sing it in any other language?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, we didn't.

RAZ: You didn't.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Just those two, right.

RAZ: Not in Dutch or Chinese or any other language?

(Soundbite of language)

Mr. WILLIAMS: No. We didn't get that far. We would have loved that but it was just German and Italian.

RAZ: Otis, when you went into the studio to record these songs, did you have to do it again and again? Like, describe the process.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, actually, it didn't take us long to really learn it. You know, we rehearsed it before we went into the studio just to get the gist of it and what have you. But once we got in there, we did not spend too much time in the studio. You know, we knocked it out rather quickly. So, no, we didn't spend, like, at the beginning of Motown when we would record our own songs in English. Sometimes we'd be up to 40 and 50 takes. But, no, it never got to that amount of takes.

RAZ: I want to hear a Marvin Gaye song. This is Marvin Gaye singing "How Sweet It Is" in German.

(Soundbite of song, "Wie Schoen Das Ist")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE (Singer): (Singing in German)

RAZ: Absolutely brilliant. Harry Weinger, what happened to these recordings for some of these? I mean, how did you get this project together? How did it come about?

Mr. WEINGER: Well, you know, like I said, these singles were really only produced for the local market. And it was tough to find some of the masters. I mean, frankly and I'm honest in the liner notes for a few of the songs, we had to go from the original 45, the vinyl. We had to clean up the vinyl. Because the tapes would have been shipped to Germany or to Spain or to Italy, the local office there, and some of them didn't come back.

And you do what you can to make it sound like the original recording.

RAZ: But they're great. I mean, they still work.

Mr. WEINGER: Yeah. That's why we wanted to do it. I think there was a consensus for many years among all of us Motown fans saying we got to get these out somehow. We got to figure this out, you know?

And I remember the first time I met Melvin Franklin and Otis for the first time the late, great Melvin and he turned to me and he said, are you going to find me a copy of "Bluebird," and that was the flip side of "Mein Girl."

Mr. WILLIAMS: Wow.

Mr. WEINGER: Those were the first things he ever said to me.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Wow.

Mr. WEINGER: Yeah.

RAZ: I just need to hear this song because I love it. I love them all, but this one, it just, well, this one blew me away.

(Soundbite of song, "L'amore Verra")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: You know what, it sounds as beautiful as the English version in Italian, doesn't it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes, it does. Really sound beautiful.

RAZ: I mean, "You Can't Hurry Love," wow.

Mr. WEINGER: And you just want to hear them again.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. WEINGER: You know, if you heard these songs over and over again, to hear them in a different language is so fresh.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It is, really is.

RAZ: When you hear these recordings, what does it take you back to?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, it takes me back to a lot of fun, wonderful memories, because, you know, I refer to Motown as my Camelot. So a lot of wonderful, fun memories about the growing of Motown.

RAZ: That's Otis Williams, an original member of The Temptations with a brand new record out, by the way. It's called "Still Here." I also spoke with Harry Weinger. He is the producer of the new complication called "Motown Around the World: The Biggest Motown Hits in Italian, German, French and Spanish." Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

Mr. WEINGER: Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of "L'amore Verra")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: Now, while this song may sound pretty great in Italian, we weren't sure about the quality of the Italian being sung, so we called up our favorite Italian speaker, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who is in Rome.

Sylvia, what do you think? Do they have it down?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: I think that they're really quite good. I think they got the sweetness of the language. I think it really works out.

RAZ: Had you heard this before?

POGGIOLI: I've never heard it before.

RAZ: And were you shocked when you heard it?

POGGIOLI: Yeah, because I kept sort of thinking in the English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POGGIOLI: I mean, I used to dance to these songs, right, so I knew the originals. But I actually have to say also that I thought, I was particularly impressed by The Temptations singing "My Girl," which in Italian is called "Solamente Lei." And they were even more sophisticated than The Supremes, I think.

RAZ: That's our Sylvia Poggioli, normally NPR's senior correspondent for Europe, but just for today, Italian pop music critic.

Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Guy.

(Soundbite of song, "L'amore Verra")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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