Tribute acts might be a dime a dozen, but few of them are lucky and enterprising enough to actually work with the artists they’re paying tribute to. That’s what makes Icons of Soul different from your average nostalgia trip.
The project – consisting of an album, Icons of Soul Vol. I, and a documentary film series – was conceived by Manitoban blue-eyed soul singer Luke McMaster and his songwriting partner, Arun Chaturvedi. They’re soulful to be sure, but their special guests are actual icons of soul: legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, who – with the Holland brothers – co-wrote and produced dozens of hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and others; and Felix Cavaliere, leader of The Rascals.
McMaster, who had success in the ‘90s with the soul-pop duo McMaster and James, and later as a solo artist, says it’s a natural, if fortuitous, progression. “I’ve always been in love with Motown and classic soul,” he says. “The first album I did after McMaster and James, All Roads, was very Motown-influenced, with lots of covers and a few originals.”
On a songwriting trip to L.A., McMaster and Chaturvedi met with Leeds Levy, a music publisher, and the son of publishing legend Lou Levy – who gave “Downtown” to Petula Clark and “Strangers in the Night” to Frank Sinatra. “Leeds published Elton John, and The Rascals played his bar mitzvah,” says McMaster. “So we bent his ear for awhile, and I ended up leaving him with All Roads.
“To my surprise, he called the next day and said, ‘I’ve always thought someone should do an album this way. What if I could hook you up with some of your heroes, so instead of doing another record influenced by that music, you could write with these guys?’ He was excited by that.”
McMaster and Chaturvedi were also excited, albeit doubtful that Levy could talk any legends into working with two relatively unknown Canadians. But it turned out that both Dozier and Cavaliere were interested, and McMaster thinks he knows why.
“Lamont has written with all kinds of artists, but they typically try and change him,” he says. “He said, ‘I end up in a lot of rooms where they want me to sample something, or write something more modern. You guys just want me to do me.’ He appreciated that, and I think both he and Felix got a kick out of seeing their music through our eyes.”
Dozier is the magnetic centre of the first episode of the documentary series – currently watchable only in the U.S. and at live shows, though they are looking for a Canadian broadcast partner – while Cavaliere will be filmed in Nashville soon, followed, they hope, by other icons. “Calling the album Vol. I is a not-so-subtle way of saying we want to keep going,” says McMaster.
Dozier and Cavaliere each wrote two songs with McMaster and Chaturvedi, and sang along with new recordings of their hits (“Groovin’” for Cavaliere and a medley of “Where Did Our Love Go”/”Stop in the Name of Love”/”Come See About Me”/”Baby Love” for Dozier). For McMaster, it wasn’t just an opportunity to honour them, but a chance to learn. “That was a big thing for us,” he says. “Like, ‘Think of what we’ll be able to learn from guys that helped invent pop music songwriting!’ It’s wild when I think about it.
“We came prepared, with a bunch of ideas. We didn’t want to find ourselves in the position of not knowing where to go with something, or what to do.”
One of their ideas was to write a song with and about Dozier, sprinkled with his song titles. “We presented him with the idea for ‘My Life Is a Song,’ and right away he sat down at the piano and started firing off melodies that no one else could come up with,” says McMaster. “And no one else could phrase things the way he was phrasing things. He’s an amazing singer, too. It was pretty mind-blowing.”
McMaster likes to play a game where he tries to go two weeks without hearing a Dozier song. “It’s impossible,” he says. “He’s full of ideas, he writes every day. And Felix is doing another album, and says he’s never going to stop touring. I don’t know, maybe their music is the fountain of youth, or something.”
Chaturvedi and McMaster usually start writing on piano and guitar respectively, but with the soul stuff, says McMaster, they’ll often put down a drumbeat and a bass line and start with that.
“I really feed off a bass line, I always have,” he says. “It’s funny because we were talking about that bass line in [Holland-Dozier-Holland’s] ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),’ and we came up with a similar one with Lamont. If it’d been anyone else, I would have been like, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t make this too much like ‘I Can’t Help Myself.’ But we’re writing it with the guy who wrote that. I doubt he’s going to sue himself, so we should be good to go!”