[9 October 2005]
No matter how you feel about media conglomeration, you have to admit that at least one good thing came from the record label mergers of the 1990s: under Universal, Motown’s amazing back catalog is finally getting the care and respect it deserves. For years, reissues of Motown’s classic 1960s and 1970s output were scattershot. Compilations were short, cheaply packaged, and rarely featured remastered tracks; anything that wasn’t a chart hit was presumably left to rot in a vault somewhere. Frankly, it was one of the most shameful stories in American music, as some of the best popular music ever recorded was ignored or treated with disrespect. This has changed dramatically in the last decade, as numerous box sets, multi-disc anthologies, budget-priced hits sets, and deluxe versions of classic albums have hit shelves.
Now we get another fine addition to Motown’s digital-age catalog. Judging from the simplicity and authority of its name, you might think The Motown Box is the ultimate collection of Motown hits, and in some ways that’s true. At a generous four discs and 72 tracks, the set features every big name from the peak hit-making years covered (1960-68): the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and others. Even today, it’s remarkable to think how many legendary artists recorded for this little label in working-class Detroit, Michigan. The list of hits included here is a whopper, too: “Shop Around”, “Dancing in the Street”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (both Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye’s versions), “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “Bernadette”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “My Girl”, and many, many more. Of course, the curse of Motown producing so many hit records is that it’s difficult to include them all on a single compilation. Among the classics that didn’t make the cut are the Supremes’ “Baby Love” and “Someday We’ll Be Together”, the Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown”, Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is”, and Gaye’s duets “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “It Takes Two”, with Tammi Terrell and Kim Weston, respectively.
In place of a few missing classics, the box offers a number of tracks that were hits in their day but don’t get extensive airplay today, like the Marvelettes’ jubilant “Too Many Fish in the Sea”, the dance-themed “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye and “Mickey’s Monkey” by the Miracles, and the Supremes’ hit “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”. There is also an entire disc (although, at 12 tracks, it’s skimpy) of B-sides and other rarities that should entice collectors. Among the rarities are ‘50s-flavored b-sides by Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, and the Marvelettes, and a Florence Ballard-fronted track from the Supremes’ debut album. The other big selling point to collectors is the all-stereo sound and inclusion of several extended mixes. Mostly, these longer mixes are good, although the biggest exception occurs on one of Motown’s greatest songs, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, which is made tiresome by the repeating verses on this version. Oddly, the full version of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” is not among the longer tracks featured; instead, we get the slimmed-down (but admittedly still great) “Fingertips, Pt. 2” yet again.
It’s debatable whether The Motown Box is the best choice for those seeking their Motown fix in a single package; spanning 1959-71, the four-disc Hitsville USA 1, released in 1992, is just as likely a candidate. Mostly, it depends on what songs you’re willing to part with, and whether you prefer the mono single mixes or lengthier stereo mixes. In its favor, though, the sound on The Motown Box is warm and rich, the mixes are generally good, and the songs, as anyone who’s ever turned on a radio knows, are simply fantastic. The vocal, musical, and songwriting talent at Motown in the ‘60s remains unparalleled, and The Motown Box is a testament to the label’s great achievements. It’s an absolute joy to hear, and will leave a smile on all but the sourest of faces.