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|Do You Lo-o-o-ove Them?: The Contours Featuring Sylvester Potts, at Riverfront Pops, September 8|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 05 September 2007 02:39|
Excepting a brief hiatus at the tail end of the 1960s, recording artists The Contours have been performing and touring every year since 1960. It's just that, as original group member Sylvester Potts says, "People just didn't hear of us.
"But we was workin'," he continues. "Playing, goin' overseas, you know. We kept doing that 'til Dirty Dancing came out. And that shot us back out there." And how.
The Contours' 1962 hit "Do You Love Me" - famed for lead singer Billy Gordon demanding "Watch me now!" as he did the Mashed Potato and the Twist - was an unquestioned musical landmark; Berry Gordy Jr.'s first million-seller for his Motown Records subsidiary Gordy, the song hit number two on the Billboard Top 100 within its first two weeks of release, and eventually claimed the number-one spot on the R&B charts.
And in 1988, "Do You Love Me" celebrated its 26th anniversary in a most extraordinary way: by returning to the charts. Thanks to a low-budget, relatively unheralded movie called Dirty Dancing - which went on to become 1987's fifth-highest-grossing film - the Contours, and their signature number, found a whole new audience, and with it, a whole new career trajectory. As Potts says during a recent phone interview, "We're more fortunate now than we were back in the early '60s." (The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts will perform at September 8's Riverfront Pops concert in LeClaire Park.)
One of the first R&B groups signed by Motown Records, the Contours released unsuccessful singles in 1960 ("Whole Lotta Woman") and 1961 ("The Stretch"). But with 1962's "Do You Love Me" - written and produced by Gordy - the group's fortunes, says Potts, "changed overnight.
"We started going to places that he hadn't been to," he says. "Goin' to the Apollo Theatre, and the Uptown in Philadelphia ... places where we dreamed of goin', you know? It was a big experience for us."
And, to hear the singer tell it, a surprising one. "We felt that it was gonna go," says Potts of the song's appeal, "but we didn't know it was gonna go like that. We just thought it was gonna be a nice little hit."
Although the Contours never released a song to match the success of "Do You Love Me" - 1965's "Just a Little Misunderstanding" reached number 18 on the R&B charts and number 85 on the pop charts - the group's fame was such that they continued to perform and tour through the mid-1980s, barring a two-year break after their Motown contract expired in 1968.
The Contours may have eventually faded into anonymity if not for Dirty Dancing, as Potts says that current awareness and appreciation of the group is "thanks to Eleanor Bergstein," the film's writer and co-producer.
Based on Bergstein's own experiences of summering in the Catskill Mountains, Dirty Dancing - "a true story," Potts calls it - featured a soundtrack filled with '60s hits, including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and Otis Redding's "Love Man." Yet it was "Do You Love Me" that became the movie's dirty-dancing anthem, for which the screenwriter, says Potts, played no small part. "‘Do You Love Me' was her [Bergstein's] favorite song. She insisted on that song being in the movie."
The phenomenal success of Dirty Dancing led to a phenomenally successful pair of albums: 1987's Dirty Dancing and More Dirty Dancing, the latter of which featured the Contours' 1962 hit. Both albums went multi-platinum, and in July of 1988, "Do You Love Me" returned to the pop charts, where it stayed for eight weeks, peaking at number 11.
"We [the Contours] had the pleasure of meeting Eleanor Bergstein in New York," says an obviously grateful Potts, "at a performance at Radio City. And we all gave her a red rose and kissed her and hugged her and loved her dearly."
The Contours' popularity resurgence was solidified by 1988's subsequent Dirty Dancing Concert Tour, a 10-month outing that found the group performing alongside the likes of Bill Medley, Eric Carmen, and the Ronettes' Ronnie Spector.
Echoing his response to the 1962 success of "Do You Love Me," Potts says, "We went places we only dreamed of going to," but this time adds, "Australia, Germany ... ," as the tour found the Contours playing to some 2 million concert-goers in eight countries. "We went all over the world. It was a much bigger thing than it was in '62.
"What happened was we had a brand-new audience," he continues, "especially with the kids. Some of them probably wasn't even born when ‘Do You Love Me' came out. And because of that Dirty Dancing tour, we still have been working, pretty much solid, ever since. It's a blessing."
In 2004, Potts and Joe Billingslea - with the group since its 1958 inception as The Blenders - decided to, as Potts puts it, "go separate ways," and a licensing agreement allowed the Contours to split into two separate entities: Joe Billingslea & the Contours, and The Contours Featuring Sylvester Potts. ("He got his group," Potts says simply, "and I got mine.")
This weekend's Riverfront Pops concert finds Potts' outfit sharing the stage with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, performing both the group's past recordings and numerous hits by fellow Motown artists, among them the Miracles' "Second That Emotion" and the Temptations' "Just My Imagination" and "My Girl." The experience of singing with orchestral backup isn't a new one for Potts, but he says it's always a welcome one.
"We've been doin' quite a few of them," says Potts. "And they're fun to do. You know, to have all these strings playing behind us ... . It's awesome. That's all I can say. I love it."
As for thoughts of retirement as he nears his 50th year as a Contour, the artist says, with a laugh, "They're gonna have to carry me off the stage. I'm gonna sing for as long as my voice and the good Lord keeps me goin'."
The Quad City Symphony Orchestra's 25th annual Riverfront Pops concert - with guests The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts - will take place in Davenport's LeClaire Park on Saturday, September 8, beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit (http://www.downtowndavenport.com/events/pops.htm).
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