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Tag Archives: Motown

Can’t Forget the Motor City

My exploration of Hip-o Select‘s Complete Motown Singles box sets brings me to volume 2, which covers the year 1962. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one too much, since at this point Motown was still a scrappy Detroit-based R&B label — interesting, but not quite the legendary hit machine it would become in 1965-69. Whatever it lacked in hits is gained in context, however. At four discs, it is somewhat shorter than the other TCMS sets — but I think that conciseness works in the set’s favor. Listening to all 112 tracks in order paints a picture of a small but upwardly mobile, positively African American enterprise guided by the sure hand of founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Gordy personally wrote and produced many of these tracks, both well-known and obscure. His touch adds a lot of quirky personality to these sets that would be smoothed out in the years to come.

By 1962 many Motown songs were crossing over to the (white) pop charts, but by and large it peddled energetic R&B to a primarily black audience. Gordy was also branching out to jazz, country and gospel with new sub-labels Workshop Jazz, Mel-o-Dy and Divinity — examples from which pepper this set, but never overwhelm as on the ’63 and ’64 volumes. Mostly it was R&B ballads and dance tunes, however, simply produced but with just enough of a “spark” to give it mass appeal and an enduring quality. Probably the best examples from this year came via trio of pleasant, Latin-influenced hits that Smokey Robinson crafted for Mary Wells — “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch,” and “Two Lovers.” 1962 was also the year that Marvin Gaye transformed from a limp Nat “King” Cole wannabe into a bona fide R&B star. His “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” is one of the more infectious tunes here, along with “Do You Love Me” by The Contours (later popularized on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). It was also a good year for The Marvelettes, who had a good run of wistful, quintessential Girl Group turns led by raspy-voiced Gladys Horton (“Beechwood 4-5789”). It’s also interesting to hear early, non-hit sides by The Supremes and The Temptations here; Gordy obviously knew that both groups had talented vocalists that deserved wider exposure. The effort would pay off in spades later on.

We all know that well-known “Golden Oldies” drive projects like this, but the obscurities and one shots on these sets are also, suprisingly, worth hearing. The 1962 set in particular has a lot of great, gritty R&B sides by the likes of Hattie Littles, Gino Parks and Henry Lumpkin that never caught on simply because that style of music wasn’t too hip in 1962. There’s also a few goofy novelties here that are worth mentioning. “Hang On Pearl,” about a guy frantically trying to save his drowning girlfriend, didn’t do much for singer Bob Kayli but it’s a hilarious tune all the same. “Exodus” by Hank & Carol Diamond is an earnest if kitschy jazz ditty that has a strong whiff of Happy Hour at the Holiday Inn. Another intriguing novelty was “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues,” the debut single from a precocious blind youngster called Little Stevie Wonder.

These are cool sets, beautifully packaged and worth it for the detailed track-by-track liner notes alone. The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 2: 1962 came out in 2005 in a limited edition run of 8,000; later years have already gone out of print, but new copies of this particular volume can still be had via Amazon Marketplace at this link.

Flick Clique: February 6-13

Dreamgirls (2006). Watched this a second time after finding the deluxe DVD edition at Big Lots (that place again?) for five bucks. Four years on, it’s still a very impressive and perfectly cast movie musical extravaganza. I’ve never seen the stage version, but have been a fan of the original cast recording for years. The arrangements for the movie have been snazzed up somewhat, but they’re still powerful in telling the story of a ’60s girl singing trio’s rise to fame aided by an ambitious R&B label owner with more than a passing resemblance to The Supremes, Berry Gordy and Motown. One of the fun things about this movie is spotting the Supremes/Motown references in the album covers, costumes, etc. Though it doesn’t aim to be a realistic depiction of ’60s R&B music, I can accept the stylization and even dig the many liberties it takes (the overblown “Fake Your Way to the Top Number” comes to mind). The casting couldn’t be more perfect — Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy all seemed to be at the right stages in their careers/singing abilities to play their roles to excellent effect (well, the ladies appear too old to play teens, but that’s just in the beginning). My only quibbles is that the film is too long and several of the new songs written for the film are inessential, including Beyoncé’s “she won’t sign on unless Deena gets her own diva moment” tune “Listen.” The feature length “making of” documentary on the DVD only makes me appreciate more all the hard work that went into this — it really shows!
Money Means Nothing (1934). A modest little programmer with the usual “rich girl marries poor guy and tries to make it work” storyline. Wallace Ford and Gloria Shea play the serviceable leads. This is the third Wallace Ford vehicle I’ve seen on the Comedy Kings 50 Movie DVD set. Although it’s earliest and most enjoyable of the three, Ford’s wishy washy personality places him closer to Comedy Peon than anything else. The film is a breezy, low budget affair typical of the Monogram studio. Probably the most watchable aspect to modern viewers is Edgar Kennedy as the couple’s neighbor. Kennedy was well-known for playing frustrated cops and the like in several Hal Roach shorts at the time. He’s no different here, and even gets to do one of his famous slow burns.
Monsters (2010) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010). A pair of recent low-budget films that put special effects to creative (and scary) effect. Monsters deals with an alien invasion in a Mexican quarantine zone, and the efforts of two Americans to journey northward by boat, car and foot. This was shot on videotape by a tiny British crew. Shooting in verdant, impressionistic small towns with native Mexicans as extras, the lush photography and subtle CGI in some scenes strike me as a District 9/Cloverfield hybrid. Unfortunately, the film plods along with two awful, unsympathetic leading actors. Combine that with some truly wonky geography (they can see the U.S.Mexico border from atop a Mayan pyramid?) and an unsatisfying finale and you have a film that might be better served as nourishment for a giant octopus creature. Paranormal Activity 2 improves on its predecessor with more scares and better production values, otherwise it’s more of the same. This one is a prequel taking place in yet another San Diego McMansion where the sister of the P.A.1 woman lives with her husband, step-daughter, infant son and Rin Tin Tin (okay, it’s just a regular German Shepard but the resemblance is striking). Weird things ensue in between long stretches of home movie-esque boredom (but not as much boredom as the first one). Unlike the somewhat stilted actors in the first one, the participants in this go-round are actually believable as a real-life, casual family. The scary parts are also much scarier in 2, for what it’s worth.
Not Without My Daughter (1991). Sally Field in the true story of an American woman married to an Iranian doctor (Alfred Molina), who carts her and their kid to his homeland and its oppressive, woman-hating society that she is unable to escape. I always wanted to see this one, which is a well made drama despite the seemingly Lifetime, Television for Women®-derived plotting. As Betty Mahmoody, Sally Field delivers a solid performance, even if she does this petulant thing in her scenes of anger which make her look like a young girl throwing a fit. Alfred Molina is even more impressive, giving his character more depth (and even some sympathy) than what would have appeared on paper. The film drags a bit and Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds jarringly dated, but overall I found this a compelling, top rate drama.
The President’s Analyst (1967). Another Big Lots find, for three bucks! This patently ’60s satire has a cult following and is a good vehicle for James Coburn, one of the more subversive leading men of his day. He plays a New York psychiatrist who is recruited by the secretive Federal Board of Regulations (F.B.R.) to be the president’s personal shrink. He goes along with the plan, then becomes paranoid and makes an escape, which doesn’t sit well with the government or the phone company/covert wiretapping organization they’re in cahoots with. This film is very much of its time, with plenty of groovy scenes with Coburn doing things like hanging out with a hippie rock group, getting chased by goons, or making sweet love to his willowy, straight-haired girlfriend. It does have a few sharp lines, but mostly I found it shrill and interminable. The one scene I liked the most was an animated demo of how the film’s omnipresent phone company intends to take the leap of invading its own customers’ brainwaves. Seen in the context of the iPhone/Twitter/Facebook generation, that was some forward thinking, indeed.

The Passing Parade

So sad to hear about the death of Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes at the age of 66 … Gladys’ irrepressible rasp can be heard on earlier Marvelettes hits such as “Please Mr. Postman” and “Beechwood 4-5789.” Although she was phased out as the group’s front woman in favor of the more honeyed sounding Wanda Young, she continued to record frequent leads right up until her departure in 1967. The energetic “Keep Off, No Trespassing” from 1966’s The Marvelettes LP is one of my favorite tunes of theirs, thanks in part of Gladys’ appealing voice. She will be missed!

It’s Like Quicksand, Quicksand (Yeah)

album_tcms3It’s that time of year again, when I splurge on one of Hip-O Select‘s “Complete Motown Singles” CD packages. I recently had a cartooning job that paid off, so some of the newfound booty went toward The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 3: 1963. Some background: I already own the peak volumes in this series, covering the years 1964-70. Now I’m in the process of hopscotching back and forth in time to get the last remaining sets, covering 1959-63 and 1971-72 (the final two volumes in the series covering 1972 haven’t yet been released, despite promises they’d be out in time for Motown’s 50th anniversary — in 2009).

Coming off the wild ‘n groovy 1970 volume, to be immersed in the comparatively quaint atmosphere of 1963 comes as something of a shock. Listening to the 119 single a- and b-sides included on these five discs, I get the impression that Motown was still your basic local R&B label at this point — albeit a label whose energy and ambition speak of being on the verge of greatness. Berry Gordy had his fingers in several pots at once, with subsidiary labels delving into Jazz (Workshop Jazz), Gospel (Divinity) and Country/Novelty music (Mel-o-dy). These off singles, while interesting, make the volume less essential than the others. On the plus side, having the songs presented in strict chronological order gives a clear picture of how Motown was developing, constantly releasing and reissuing stuff until the right formula translates into bona fide hits. A case in point is Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips.” Stevie’s exciting live performance, split in two on the vinyl single, originally had “Part 1” on the a-side for its May 1963 debut. Deejays quickly found, however, that the “Part 2” flip with its “what key, what key?” musician’s ad lib was the more memorable side, so weeks later the single was remixed and re-released to chart topping success.

For me, the biggest development of 1963 Motown was the arrival of the dynamic team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland. The first disc in this set contains the first two a-sides written and produced by the trio — The Marvelettes’ “Locking Up My Heart” and Martha & The Vandellas’ “Come And Get These Memories.” Right away, you get the feeling that with these two tunes they hit upon something special. Their tight rhythms and sing-songy melodies sound especially great surrounded by relatively dull sides from Mary Wells, Kim Weston and The Supremes. Indeed, the paucity of HDH sides seems to hurt the set’s misfire and obscurity (good and bad) heavy first half – until they struck gold again with Martha & The Vandellas’ tremendous “Heat Wave” in July. After that, the jumpy, gospel-inspired sound characteristic of early HDH gets the full treatment with hits from The Miracles (“Mickey’s Monkey”), Marvin Gaye (“Can I Get A Witness”), Mary Wells (“You Lost The Sweetest Boy”), The Supremes (“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the tune that broke the girls’ “no hit” curse), and – again – Martha & The Vandellas (“Quicksand”). This is early, exciting Motown at its best, and that alone makes me happy I got this.

Little Bit ‘O Soul

Today’s video is a snippet of gold from the classic era of Motown records. This clip of the Temptations performing their funky b-side “Sorry Is A Sorry Word” in the Hitsville U.S.A. studios came from a 1967 CBS news report on Motown. Considering how little footage there is of the artists actually recording in the studio from back then, it’s pretty amazing. I like the lady sitting in on the conga drums. I know about the Funk Brothers, but could there have also been a Funk Sister?

This scene comes from the 2006 DVD Get Ready: The Definitive Performances 1965-72.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

album_tcms10Various — The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 10: 1970. Something I forgot to mention on last weekend’s mishmash was this box set, a holiday gift to myself. You know the drill by now: contained within these six discs are every single a- and b-side Motown (and its subsidiary labels) released during 1970 — 144 songs in all! It took me three weeks, but I’ve finally gotten through the whole thing. My blanket judgement is that overall the company’s output in ’70 wasn’t as good as ’66-69, but there are still a lot of highlights as they adjusted to a rapidly changing musical landscape. Starting the previous year Berry Gordy was on a mission to diversify his company’s output, and here you get the full picture of those efforts with singles that cover not only sweet soul but heavier funk, mainstream rock, jazz, and even reggae (Bob & Marcia’s charming “Young Gifted and Black”). Things also got much more slickly produced this year as epitomized by early efforts of the newly solo Diana Ross and the Jackson 5’s chart-topping bubblegum soul. Lots of hits got notched this year, but the set also contains several fascinating nuggets by Ivy Jo, Kiki Dee, Buzzie and Michael Denton which failed to chart. It wasn’t just the one-off artists having trouble, either — this might be the first year in a while where just about every major artist on the label had a dud single. Despite that, there are a lot of treasures to be had here. This was the best year for the post-Ross Supremes, the Temptations were rolling along with more hot Norman Whitfield-produced funk, Gladys Knight and her Pips were moving in a more adult direction with “If I Were Your Woman,” and Stevie Wonder was becoming a force to be reckoned with both on his own (“Signed Sealed Delivered”) and with others (The Spinners’ “It’s A Shame”). Oh, and I almost forgot Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s towering production on Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a diva-tastic moment for the ages. So, yes, I suppose this was a very good set.