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Forget the Beatles. Forget the British Invasion. Forget Haight-Ashbury. The musical world of the 1960s was shaped and subsequently dominated by the entity known as Motown. Everything else is a distant second. The brainchild of Berry Gordy, Motown was crafted upon a blueprint of excellence. From its roster of acts, to its writers, choreographers, and backing musicians, every facet of the Motown business plan centered around perfection. And the results were astounding. Glancing at the top hits and artists of the decade provides a veritable “Who’s Who” of Motown’s stable: the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Supremes, to name just a few. No wonder that this chugging musical machine became known as “The sound of young America”.
In the ensuing years since Motown’s first decade, countless compilations have been issued to the point of market saturation. How, then, could another collection distinguish itself from the rest of what’s available? By giving listeners something more than just music
The Motown Story - Volume I: The 1960’s is not actually a new offering. First released in 1970 as a limited edition box set, the compilation was subsequently updated in 1983 and 1986, and now once again for 2003. The appeal of the package has come by way of a wealth of interview segments and anecdotes from Motown’s key players, most originally documented over 30 years ago.
Each of the twin-disc set’s 42 songs is introduced with enlightening, and often amusing, commentary. Every snippet of dialogue adds to the historical context of Motown’s legacy by granting listeners an opportunity to be in the studio as decisions were made and careers were built. Having Diana Ross recall her high singing school days, Pete Moore and Smokey Robinson discuss writing “The Tracks of My Tears”, and Jimmy Ruffin describe how he came to record “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” are priceless gems that greatly add to the tracks they precede. Further interview highlights include Stevie Wonder, Levi Stubbs, Mary Wilson, and Otis Williams among others. Additionally, hearing the voices of Marvin Gaye, Tami Terrell, and Flo Ballard is a wonderful glimpse back in time, and a sad reminder that these spectacular talents were taken from us far too early.
As for the music, the songs speak for themselves; the full extent of this collection can be fully appreciated only through the use of headphones and a top flight CD player. Listen as the intro claps of “Where Did Our Love Go” do not merely switch tracks, but actually “walk” from right to left; revel in the rhythmic precision of drums and bass on “Reach Out I’ll Be There”; note the crispness of the backing vocals in “Please Mr. Postman”; appreciate the inclusion of such less popular, but equally compelling hits as the Originals’ “Baby I’m for Real” and Edwin Starr’s “Twenty Five Miles”.
The fact that Motown aficionados will have most of this material in their collections is a given. That said, the two plus hours of classics, coupled with beautiful commentary throughout, makes The Motown Story - Volume I: The 1960s a worthwhile and welcome addition to any CD library.
As the word “great” is bandied about with reckless abandon, the essence of musical “greatness” has been sufficiently diluted over time. Repeated listening of these 1960s classics, however, will prove that Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise was not just great, it was simply the best. As such, this material should continue to serve as a model for pop musicians in the years to come.