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The Magnificence of Motown

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

Mention the word Motown and a classic song, singer or group will invariably come to mind. So many greats graced the label in a magical Sixties period when the Berry Gordy-driven Detroit music factory churned out nearly as many classy groups and unforgettable songs as the city’s car industry production lines. The quantity was astounding, yet the qualitynever wavered. The sound was the thing: instantly recognizable, delivered with sophistication and distinction, and it was always memorable. You could say that in its heyday, Motown was like a well-oiled Cadillac purring smoothly and stylishly along the highway.

It was at a recent concert by the Sounds of the Supremes that my interest was rekindled not just in The Supremes but the whole canon of Motown music. To tell the truth, I’d forgotten just how good it was, how enjoyable it was in the Sixties eagerly waiting for the latest Motown release, knowing it would without fail be something special, such was the excellence of the song-writing, vocals, and catchy arrangements.

Although it was The Supremes who by the mid-Sixties had become the ultimate Motown girl-group, gaining worldwide fame and adoration, it was The Marvelettes who led the way for me. In late summer 1961, they gave the label a resounding US Number One hit, the classic Please Mr Postman, helping to put the company firmly on the map. It was an infectioussong, full of zest. It was well-liked by The Beatles. They included it in their live performances throughout 1962 and showed how much they admired it by putting it on their second LP, the 1963 release With The Beatles. I liked the song from the off and though The Marvelettes never enjoyed massive support in Britain they did have a small, but enthusiastic, hard-core of followers, myself included.

I also had a soft spot for The Velvelettes, another of the early all-girl groups that Motown nurtured so successfully. Their punchy Needle In A Haystack and He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ caught my imagination. Both were minor hits on the British charts. Like The Marvelettes they never hit the big time in Britain, but they were much appreciated by those among us who recognized the quality of their music and the professionalism of their live performances.

So, with such a superb output of soul that were imaginative, polished and beautifully packaged and marketed, what was there not to like about Motown’s magnificent music? That’s why selecting 10 favourites from the label’s Sixties output is such a hard task. For every song you pick, there are at least two or three others lurking in the wings, all worthy of inclusion. But 10 it is, so here goes:

I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye: Not the original version of this classic (that credit goes to Smokey Robinson) but it’s the cream of the crop. I never tire of hearing it. It’s one of those songs that get under the skin. It can lie dormant for years and then suddenly, and often quite surprisingly, swoop to the surface, a pleasant reminder of its potency. It came to my attention soon after its release late in 1968. It was a massive hit in Britain and it filled the radio airwaves for several weeks throughout the autumn and winter months. The infectious beat provided by The Funk Brothers, the label’s highly talented and respected backing musicians, was impossible to ignore. Unbeatable, although I also love Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version, best described as a driving, hypnotic interpretation that cries out for attention.

My Girl by The Temptations: So easy to sing-along to. It was an instant winner with me. Not just the lyrics and the melody, but those dance routines were cool too. I saw the group a couple ofyears ago on the same bill as The Four Tops, and the magic was still there.They don’t write ‘em like that anymore! This is truly soul music at its very best.

I Was Made To Love Her by Stevie Wonder: Ya! Hey, hey, hey, as the young Stevie sung way back in 1967. The harmonic and string arrangements make this a special record. For me, it cried out that the singer was not going to go away — he let you know that he would be around for a long, long time. He was making a statement with this splendid slice of soul — and that was that his talent would not be denied.

Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes: A real classic from the summer of 1964. It was the record that first acquainted me with the trio, though it was their album Meet The Supremes, which was released in Britain a few months later, which really made me a fan. I had left school in the July of that year and was just starting out on my journalistic career. I was lucky enough to get a job in London on The Guardian daily newspaper, albeit a very junior role as an editorial assistant. But mixed in with the mundane routine tasks was the chance to get my hands on pop and rock music albums — usually factory samples — that came into the office, and one gem that landed on my desk was the aforesaid Meet The Supremes. I played it innumerable times during that summer. It held a special place in my vinyl collection for many years.

Reflections by The Supremes: Another Supremes classic, this time embracing psychedelic influences, a nod in the direction of the experimentation that was reshaping popular music in the late Sixties. The girls still had their distinctive vocals but the feel of the whole enterprise was fresh and joyous. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, some detractors said the group had sold out their soul roots, but that was just nonsense. It’s a corker of a record, and one of which the Supremes can be proud. I rate it highly as among their best work.

Reach Out I’ll Be There by The Four Tops: Number 1 on the British charts in the summer of 1966, this is THE TOPS for The Four Tops. They were turning out some tremendous records during their halcyon Sixties period, each one worthy of making a Top 10 list, but this sits proudly on the pinnacle. It was a great summer for us Brits, well the English among us at least, as the England team won the soccer World Cup by beating West Germany 4-3 at Wembley. It was a euphoric time and this song seemed to capture the fun and fizz of the time.

The Tears Of A Clown by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles: This was originally an album track that seemed destined to be enjoyed for a short while and then forgotten. Fortunately, the powers that be at Motown belatedly saw the song’s potential and issued it as a 45rpm. It was a huge hit, much to the satisfaction of those who like me thought it was the album’s outstanding number. It has so much going for it — catchy intro, a toe-tapping tune, marvelous rhythm, and, most importantly, the fabulous voice of Smokey Robinson.

Do You Love Me? by The Contours: I’ve written about this song before, but I make no excuses for doing so again. It’s the one that I always want to get up and dance to. And I defy anyone not to feel the same! It brings back so many happy school-day memories. It’s a gem and it fully deserves its recognition.

Please Mr Postman by The Marvelettes: A standout record in a year that produced some timeless classics, this one included. In my book, it’s the great all-girl song of the year. I do like The Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow, but this just pips it at the post for popularity. It’s a pity that the group never really emulated the success of Please Mr Postman, not that they didn’t turn out some fine singles over the ensuing years. With Motown putting most of their energy into promoting The Supremes, it was inevitable that The Marvelettes would suffer. Still, you can’t take away the groundbreaking glory that they delivered with such panache.

Needle In A Haystack by The Velvelettes: It’s a close call between this and He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’, but this narrowly triumphs. It’s delightful. Full of verve and pizzazz, it’s one of my most liked ditties from 1964.

So, that’s the 10 and just thinking of the ones that didn’t make the list, makes me realize just how great the Motown machine was. I doubt they’ll ever be matched for such excellence and consistency.

 

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

 

 

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