Monday, January 12, 2009

Motown Turns 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of arguably the most influential record company in pop music history, Motown (founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit back in 1959). Some of my fondest childhood musical memories are hearing songs like The Temptations’ My Girl (whose opening bass line, in terms of recognizability, is the R&B equivalent of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5) , You’re A Wonderful One by Marvin Gaye, Honey Chile by Martha and the Vandellas, If You Can Want by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, I Want You Back by The Jackson Five, and Shotgun by Jr. Walker & the All-Stars on the radio (courtesy of WAMM-AM 1420 out of Flint) and at weekend family get-togethers.

Years later when I went off to college, my friends and I would often have Motown music (via the “Big Chill” compilations and various mix tapes) playing as the backdrop to our dorm parties. I recall jokingly debating with a friend about who was better, The Temptations or The Supremes (my choice was the former). Another recollection is that although those classic Motown tracks were decades old when we were jamming to them, it didn’t matter because great music never goes out of style. For example, Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On was and still is powerful even though it was released back in 1971.

One of the great aspects about the creation of the CD is that it has caused labels like Motown to make available songs that were either forgotten or never released. Some of the best aural investments I’ve made were when I purchased discs by the aforementioned artists, plus other Motown acts such as Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Marvelettes, The Isley Brothers and Mary Wells. In addition to these single-artist discs, I also had the good fortune to come across a various artists two-CD set titled “A Cellarful of Motown”. It consists of 40 tracks from Motown’s vaults, most of which had never seen the light of day. Included in this amazing set were tunes by most of Motown’s major acts, plus gems by such artists as Barbara McNair (Baby A Go-Go), The Contours (Baby Hit and Run), and Chris Clark (Do I Love You). That’s one of the amazing things about Motown; the quality of their material was so high that even their unreleased tracks were superb.

To help set the mood while typing this post, I put together a “Motown Mix” including such tunes as Nowhere to Run by Martha & the Vandellas, Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby by Stevie Wonder and The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game by The Marvelettes. I’m not ashamed to admit that it took me longer than expected to write this post because there were several times when I stopped to clap my hands, snap my fingers, and play “air drums” to some of the greatest music ever created. Now that’s what I call Motown Magic!

What are some of your favorite Motown tunes? Who are your favorite Motown artists?


clnmike said...

Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder.

Now that being said I would like to know more about the artists relationship with the label as opposed to the music.

Sheri/Cookingmom said...

Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up" is one of my favorite songs of all time. My youngest loves it, too; she put it on her iPod and she's only 10. Not a big Supremes fan, but I do love Stevie Wonder and just got a greatest hits CD for Christmas. Jr. Walker is also great, but I think my very favorite would be The Spinners. They provided a great soundtrack of my childhood into my teens. I actually saw them at a "Toys for Tots" concert back in 1981 (along with Rick Springfield, Juice Newton and Quarterflash), and got a kick out of them playing with a giant rubber band during "Rubber Band Man." Great post, Malcolm!

Malcolm said...

Clnmike: I'm not sure if they are still in print, but I would recommend the books "Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme" by Mary Wilson and "Deliver Us From Temptation" by Tony Turner. Both give some insight into some of the Motowner's relationship with Berry Gordy and with each other. In the former book, Mary talks about how Diana's romantic relationship with Berry adversely affected the Supremes. Mary also talks about an incident during the Motown 25 special where Diana pushed her during their reunion performance. Of course, that was edited out of the broadcast. The latter book mainly deals with 3 of the lead singers of the Temptations (David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Dennis Edwards) during their time with the group and after. The author talks about David's bluntness in regards to getting paid. According to the author, David would storm into Berry Gordy's office and say, "Where's my money motherfucker!"

Sheri: Thanks... I'm glad you liked it! By the way, that's so cool that your daughter likes Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up". I always enjoy hearing stories about children who get into music made decades before they were born.

Because they didn't have a lot of success during their time with Motown, a lot of people don't assoc. the Spinners with the label. Two of their singles from their Motown years that I really like are "I'll Always Love You" and "Truly Yours". With the exception of 1970's "It's A Shame", the Spinners didn't really take off until they left Motown for Atlantic and recorded hits like "I'll Be Around", "One of A Kind Love Affair", and "Rubberband Man". As you mentioned, I also remember The Spinners performing with giant rubberbands when they sang this song.

The Mad Hatter said...

Stevie, for sure. Four Tops, and oh, even though I'm pretty sure he wasn't from Motown, Sam Cooke is awesome -- if I remember a lot of his songs were later reworked by Motown artists.

pjazzypar said...

How did I miss this post??? I have read so many books on Motown, most of them out of print. One of my favorites was "Divided Soul" about Marvin Gaye. My favorite artists were Marvin and Gladys, but I have much love for all of the crew from Shorty Long to Diana Ross.

Malcolm said...

Mad Hatter: One would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't like Stevie. You are right, Sam Cooke wasn't a Motown artist (he recorded for Keen, Specialty, and RCA). Although many of his hits were remade, I don't believe it was by Motown acts (unless they were remakes that were album cuts). However, I know that Otis Redding did "Shake", The Spinners remade "Cupid", and Aretha had a version of "You Send Me".

Pjazzy: You are a Motown expert extraordinaire! I'm ashamed to say that I never finished "Divided Soul". Maybe as the release of the Marvin Gaye movie with Jesse L. Martin draws near, that will push me to read it.

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