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The Contours are widely remembered for their 1962 smash "Do You Love Me?," one of the early hits that helped put Motown on the map. Yet they aren't always associated with their contribution to the label; they were one of the roughest, hardest R&B groups Berry Gordy ever signed, and their sound simply didn't resemble the smooth, sophisticated blueprint that later became Motown's trademark. Nor did their stage presence; in contrast to the slick choreography and wardrobe of Motown's signature artists, the Contours were all wild, irrepressible energy, leaping and sliding all over the stage and even doing the splits. As a result, they fell out of favor once Motown got its crossover-friendly hit factory up and running, and never duplicated the success of their first hit.
Formed in Detroit in 1958, the Contours originally began life as a quartet called the Blenders. Lead singer Billy Gordon, Billy Hogg, Sylvester Potts, and Joe Billingslea were soon joined by Hubert Johnson, a cousin of the legendary Jackie Wilson, as well as guitarist Huey Davis. Changing their name to the Contours, the group landed an audition with Berry Gordy's fledgling Motown label. Gordy was not impressed and told them to try again in a year, and they enlisted Jackie Wilson's aid in honing their act. Wilson personally recommended the group to Gordy, who finally relented and signed them up in 1961. The Contours' first single "Whole Lotta Woman" sank without a trace, and Gordy nearly dropped them until Wilson once again interceded on their behalf. The move paid off handsomely when Gordy offered them a chance to cut "Do You Love Me?," a song originally intended for the Temptations, who couldn't quite nail down the rough and rowdy feel Gordy wanted. Released in 1962, "Do You Love Me?" zoomed straight to the top of the R&B charts in just a few short weeks, peaking at number three on the pop side.
Although the Contours were riding high thanks to their hit and their exciting live act, they found the momentum difficult to maintain. They were able to score a follow-up hit, "Shake Sherrie," in 1963, and ran off a string of R&B Top 40 singles over 1965-1966: "Can You Jerk Like Me?," the Top Ten "The Day When She Needed Me," the Smokey Robinson-penned "First I Look at the Purse," and "Just a Little Misunderstanding." Despite the often high quality of those singles, the Contours simply weren't getting the attention — either from the label or the public — that Motown's top stars were, and their sound was more of an anomaly at Hitsville than ever. By this time, the original quintet was no longer intact; new members included Joe Stubbs, brother of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, and Dennis Edwards, who went on to replace David Ruffin in the Temptations.
The Contours had their last charting single in 1967 with "It's So Hard Being a Loser"; Billingslea and Potts subsequently led versions of the group on the oldies circuit during the '70s and '80s. Sadly, Johnson committed suicide in 1981, and wasn't around to witness the 1988 revival of "Do You Love Me?" thanks to the wildly popular film Dirty Dancing. Billingslea, Potts, and their new cohorts hit the oldies circuit with renewed vigor, and also cut the album Running in Circles for U.K. Motown revivalist Ian Levine's Motorcity label in 1990. Stubbs passed away in 1998, and guitarist Davis did likewise in 2002.
- Detroit, MI
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