Any female Motown troupe arriving at Hitsville in the wake of the Supremes, and indeed Martha and the Vandellas, were inevitably going to invite comparisons. In the second half of the 1970s, one such outfit came to the company from Pasadena, California and made sufficient impression to stay for no fewer than eight albums, if only one major hit. Their name was High Inergy.
The group came together in 1976, originally featuring four friends aged between 16 and 19, sisters Vernessa and Barbara Mitchell with Linda Howard and Michelle Rumph. Motown’s Gwen Gordy Fuqua, sister of founder Berry, brought them to the company’s family-named Gordy subsidiary after seeing them perform in their home city, and they made a dream start to their tenure at Hitsville.
High Inergy’s first album Turnin’ On was produced by Kent Washburn, Al Willis & Dee Ervin, and Jimmy Holiday. Washburn was a former band member himself with the 1960s outfit the Shadow Lake 8. His extensive industry credits included another, almost simultaneous, Motown connection as a producer during soul man Major Lance’s brief time on its Soul label. He would oversee the single from the High Inergy album that became their signature, and by far their biggest hit.
That track was the spicy “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On),” written by long-standing hitmakers Pam Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod. The pair’s extensive resumé as collaborators included the disco-era sensation that had given new lifeblood to Diana Ross in 1976, “Love Hangover.”
“You Can’t Turn Me Off” captured the imagination of US radio programmers and listeners alike, entering Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles at No.82 for the week of September 3, 1977. It went on to spend no fewer than four weeks at No.2 on that survey.
As the song began a pop crossover that would take it to No.12 in that genre, Billboard noted that the group “combined the funky rhythms of rock and the emotional intensity of gospel.” The magazine also noted that their new notoriety was part of a distinct upswing for female groups on the pop chart, citing modest success for First Choice’s “Doctor Love” and a huge soul-to-pop smash for the Emotions with “Best Of My Love.”
While the High Inergy single was tearing up the charts, Motown took out an advertisement for their album which described them as “the next female supergroup.” Their next single from Turnin’ On, “Love Is All You Need,” reached No.20 R&B, but despite prolonged attempts and some superior singles from a long run of LPs – including an underrated entry into the disco annals with 1979’s “Shoulda Gone Dancin’,” the title track of their third album – they were unable to fulfill their early promise.
Vernessa Mitchell left the group in 1978 after their second set, Steppin’ Out, and High Inergy continued as a trio. Further long players such as Frenzy and Hold On followed, and in a late moment in the spotlight, they were part of the May 1983 anniversary special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. That year, Barbara Mitchell duetted with Smokey Robinson on his 1983 R&B Top 40 entry “Blame It On Love.” As she went solo, the group called it a day, left with the memory of one huge smash and the thought of what else might have been.
Buy or stream “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)” on the Motown: Ladies First compilation.