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Nightshift - the Commodores

While "Sweet Soul Music" listed the male royalty of soul music, the Royal Earlswood Hospital had its own royal residents. While I was there, working on the night shift, it was often remarked by staff that there were two women who were members of the Royal Family resident at the hospital. Not that I ever had anything to do with them. Male Nursing staff were only permitted to look after male patients, although the females could work with either sex. People said they liked to dress up in fancy dresses and coats, and that they curtsied a lot, but not much was said about them, they were just fairly typical, non-speaking residents. In 2011 this became widely publicised as a result of the Channel 4 documentary "The Queen's Hidden Cousins". The pair were sisters by the name of Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, who were daughters of the Queen Mother's brother and therefore direct cousins to the Queen. Born in 1919 and 1926 respectively, they were admitted to the hospital in 1941 aged 22 and 15. This has recently hit the headlines as the original documentary and the Netflix tv series "the Crown" have variously suggested that they were seldom if ever visited by their family, that they were both registered in the 1963 edition of Burke's Peerage as having died (in 1940 and 1961) and that when Nerissa died while in care no family members attended her funeral and her grave at nearby Redhill cemetery was marked only with plastic tags that listed her hospital identification number.* Over the past few weeks, representatives of the Royal Family have said that this was not the case, that they were visited frequently up until the deaths of their parents and that their mother was of a vague disposition and probably made an error when filling in the forms for Burke's. Whatever the actual facts, there were certainly no visits by the time I was working there in the 1970's - this would have been talked about amongst the staff - and the details of Nerissa's burial were typical of the arrangements made for ordinary residents. Unlike most of these, a proper gravestone was erected for Nerissa a year after she died. Being a firm monarchy abolitionist - having met four members of the Royal Family myself has strengthened this belief immeasurably - the idea that only in a mental hospital were they treated just like every other member of the hoi polloi is a curious one . This was the fate of the average resident of the Royal Earlswood, they drifted through their lives, wandering around the large buildings and extensive grounds, received less and less visits from their relatives until eventually they dried up completely and when they died, just like Wilfred (see last post), no-one came to their funerals and their grave was marked by their identity numbers.

Nightshift is a tribute to the aristocracy not of soul but of Detroit soul, namely Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. After becoming the most successful independent record company of the sixties operating from their Hitsville USA studio in Detroit, Motown moved operations to Los Angeles at the end of the decade, leaving behind them some of their lesser performers and musicians. The company's new wave of acts was famously headed by the Jackson Five, but close behind them were the Commodores. Unlike the other Motown groups who were comprised exclusively of singers, the Commodores played their own instruments. Interviews with band members reveal that early on they genuinely thought they were going to be the "black Beatles" but after Lionel Ritchie left them in 1982 for a stellar solo career, their phenomenal succession of hit singles and albums came to an abrupt halt. Their last hurrah came three years later with "Nightshift" co-written by drummer Walter Orange and songwriters Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. "Nightshift", refers to the two soul legends who had both died the year before, but who both were part of Motown's beginnings in Detroit: the songs Berry Gordy had written not only kick started Jackie Wilson's solo career, but also provided the first stake that led to Gordy's setting up the record label, and Marvin Gaye's hits from 1962 to 1976 were a constant tone setter for the label and soul music itself. The new Motown in LA, or at least the Commodores' recording, are paying homage to their predecessors on their musical journey. Neither of the two who share the vocals, Orange and J D Nicholas, an Englishman from Romford who replaced Ritchie as lead singer in the group, knew either Gaye or Wilson, but they sing beautifully, and cite some of their greatest songs (Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Wilson's"(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and "Baby Workout). Towards the end, as all five sing the chorus accompanied only by the laid back drumming of Orange, they reach ethereal vocal heights that resonate like a choir in a church service.

Metaphorically, they are turning up for the funeral.


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