Introduction to the Contours
The Contours were an R&B group, one of the first acts the Berry Gordy’s fledgling label Motown had signed. They were formed by Joe Billingslea and Billy Gordon in 1959. The group, who were considered different from Motown’s other smooth, slick top artists, were rough and wild. The band, who had at first been rejected by Gordy at their first audition, gave them a song “Do You Love Me” (after their earlier singles had flopped and Gordy nearly dropped them from his label). “Do You Love Me” was the Contours’ first and biggest R&B hit which even crossed over to the pop chart in 1962. Although the Contours never quite followed the same level of success of their first single, they managed to achieve other Top 40 R&B hits such as “Shake Sherry,” “Can You Do It,” “Can You Jerk Like Me,” “First I Look At The Purse” and “Just A Little Misunderstanding.” The band virtually were gone by the late 1960s, and the early 1970s Billingslea and Gordon reformed the Contours with new members, and at present they still perform for the oldies circuit.
The Contours’ formation and early days
The Contours are an R&B and soul group who was one of the very first acts of the then-fledgling label Motown. They were formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1959. The original lineup consisted of Joe Billingslea, Billy Hoggs, Billy Rollins (who would later be replaced by Leroy Fair), and Hubert Johnson. The group originally started out as the Blenders. When the Contours auditioned for Motown founder and head Berry Gordy, he turned them down. So they enlisted the help of a Gordy associate and R&B star Jackie Wilson, who also happened to be Johnson’s cousin. So in their second audition (singing the same piece), Gordy signed them up in his label.
In 1961, they released their first single “Whole Lotta Woman,” (written by Hoggs and Gordon) which didn’t chart. Soon after the release of their first single, personnel changes occurred — Fair left and was replaced by singer Martha Reeves’ brother Benny, who also himself quit the group for the US Navy service. Benny Reeves was then replaced by Sylvester Potts.
“Do You Love Me” – the Contours’ biggest hit record
Gordy wrote a song for them called “Do You Love Me,” which was reportedly meant for another group The Temptations. But Billingslea later refuted the story.
“Do You Love Me” was given to the Contours, who had been the first choice to perform it. The single rose to #1 on the R&B singles chart and #3 on the Bilboard Hot 100 in 1962. However, they never managed to sustain the momentum.
The Contours’ other charting singles
“Do You Love Me” was the only biggest hit for the band, and they never got to repeat such success. They missed top 40 hits on the pop charts such as 1962’s “Shake Sherry” (#43 pop, #21 R&B), “Can You Do It” (#41 pop, #16), and “Can You Jerk Like Me”(#47 pop, #15 R&B). They also recorded a song written by Smokey Robinson “First I Look at the Purse” (at #57 pop, #12 R&B in 1965) and a Stevie Wonder-co-written track “Just a Little Misunderstanding” (#85 pop, #18 R&B in 1966).
Becoming “out of place” in Motown
As Motown developed its own slick and sophisticated blueprint that later got them crossover success and fame, the Contours were becoming out of place (and out of favor) from either the public and the label. They had become somewhat of an anomaly in the label. By this time the original quintet had begun to be no longer intact, with Joe Stubbs (brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops) and Dennis Edwards coming in as new members.
Later career: The two Contours
The Contours’ last charting hit was in “It’s So Hard Being a Loser,” which became both a minor pop and R&B hit in 1967, and the following year the Contours disbanded. However, in the early 1970s Billingslea re-formed the group with newer members. The group slowly re-claimed popularity during the 70s and early 80s, mostly through playing for the oldies circutit. Before, they were gigs in their hometown Detroit, and eventually to local and eve international live appearances. Potts re-joined the Contours in the early 1980s. Sad news, though: Johnson committed suicide in 1981.
The sleeper hit film Dirty Dancing featured their popular hit “Do You Love Me” as one of its soundtrack. “Do You Love Me” gained a sort of renaissance on the charts, as the song rose to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.
In the present, Billingslea and Potts have led their own groups with the Contours name, as “The Contours with Joe Billingslea” and “The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts,” respectively. Most of the earlier members had passed away — aside from Johnson in 1981, Joe Stubbs also died in 1998, Gordon in 1999, Fair in 2004, and sometime member Huey Davis (a guitarist for the group) in 2000. Hoggs, who left the group in 1964 to become a minister, is now retired and resides in Michigan.
The Contours were inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame in 2010.