Although the label Berry Gordy started up was a factory more so than a collection of artists, Motown left its mark on American music. What’s sad is that, for a lot of people, they came to know several of these songs through film soundtracks like The Big Chill instead of hunting for these tunes on their own. While any press is good press, or so they say, the idea of that soundtrack album being the definitive collection is ridiculous. It’s the tip of a very deep, multiple cruise liner sinking iceberg. The latest disc from the label tackles the issue head on with 26 songs that were Number One hits for the talent and the label. The only downside might be having Michael McDonald as a tacked on tune, but we’ll save that for later. Some people might prefer double-disc Motown albums, but this one here isn’t too shabby either.
Opening with 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman” from the Marvellettes, the pop staple has one envisioning a lead singer with the three supporting female singers doing various choreographed moves that would bring a smile to your face. “You better wait a minute, wait a minute”, the song goes as hand claps are brought in over piano. “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” ensues with its fun-loving, good time flavor. Performed by Martha & the Vandellas, the track has a bigger chorus with horns accentuating the verses. The next two songs are basically peas in the same pod. “My Guy” by the Supremes’ second-in-command, Mary Wells, ambles along with a mix of jazz and pop, bringing the song to life with her hushed tone. “My Girl”, performed by the Temptations, is one of the band’s signature tunes that works just as effortlessly and is just stellar as it was back in December, 1964.
The album takes a noticeable “boogie” turn for the next eight to 10 songs, as the beats are up-tempo and a rich, sing-along feeling is embedded in each. Whether it’s the one two punch by the Supremes during “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” (cue the hand gestures) or the rollicking “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, which gives Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony” a run for his money, it’s a turn for the better. The pace continues on the lovable “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” courtesy of the Four Tops. The transition into more of a ‘70s sound also starts here during the mid-to-late ‘60s, although Little Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” is rounded out by horns, guitar, backing harmonies, and everything but the kitchen sink. Then there is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (cue The Big Chill kitchen sequence) by the Temptations, still just as catchy as it was back then.
One item worth noting is how each of these songs are basically snipped nearing the three minute mark. They could have easily gone on for four minutes, but the radio commandment of three minutes maximum is quite audible. The late Marvin Gaye’s appearance on four tracks makes up part of this breakthrough, although “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” with the late Tammi Terrell obeys the guideline. The Jackson 5’s (you know, the group that laid the groundwork for Tito’s career) “I Want You Back” seems to miss the mark on this record, but it’s still a pre-requisite for the label and any hits package. Perhaps the last true early-Motown-sounding tune on the record is the gorgeous “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
To change with the times, the party tunes give way to what most wanted to happen after the party, namely heading back to your place or hers and dimming the lights. This is nowhere more clear than “Let’s Get It On” by Gaye, which still has the desired effect. The ‘70s rear their head on the latter tunes, especially the disco anthem “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston and “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. And then there’s DeBarge and Boyz II Men. But to wrap this up with Michael McDonald? Please. He’s about as Motown as Lawrence Welk. It leaves a bitter taste after what is an otherwise very sweet 80 minutes of music.
// Notes from the Road
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