[26 December 2002]
Every Motown fan who hears this collection is nearly guaranteed shared reactions. The first one, common astonishment, with the realization that Motown had that much good stuff, so much that they barely knew what to do with it all. And, then inevitably surprise, when one of these songs digs straight under the skin, wraps itself around the heart, and instantly becomes an all time favorite. Perhaps at the exact moment the indefatigable electric bass line resonates through the bass drum to give an irresistible extra kick to the dance beat, and the Contours glide into the best version of “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead” ever, ever heard. Or it might be when the strings combine with Jimmy Ruffin’s sweet slightly wavering lead-in, “No place like home on the avenue” and the way the bass and low sax sashay arm-in-arm, everyone taking an easy stroll together “On the Avenue (In the Neighborhood)”.
There are 40 tracks like that on this double-disc collection. Prime ‘60s Motown grooves never officially released until now, culled and remastered from acetates recorded back when the Hitsville studio was in full swing recording music all day and night. The records that were released reportedly had to pass a famous criterion developed by Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy: “If you had a dollar, and you were hungry, would you buy this record or would you buy that sandwich?” Any young teenager of the time who push mowed neighbors’ lawns for 50 cents apiece and surreptitiously skipped the school lunch to add a quarter to the small change dropped into the hand of the smiling record store clerk knows the answer.
There’s a whole cellarful of unreleased material in that vault, so more of these double-disc volumes may come off the assembly line soon if the sales numbers are big enough. It’s a given that this compilation will eventually find a way into the soul music devotee’s collection. This whole Cellarful of Motown project reputedly came about because of the continuing popularity of vintage soul music in the UK’s northern soul scene, where people survived on scratchy vinyl or cassettes recorded off ancient 45s or old radio broadcasts. The first cut on this disc, Barbara McNair’s fruggin’ “Baby a Go Go”, recorded in 1966, was a major underground hit in the UK just a year or so ago, rather inexplicably as it had never been released on record and must have leaked out somehow. Gladys Knight’s rarity “If You Ever Get Your Hands on Love” was described as the equivalent of finding the hope diamond in a northern soul cavern, but how did it get there if it was locked away in the Motown vaults? However it was, this very active and vibrant, albeit obsessive and somewhat crazed, UK scene prompted the record company to respond to the bootlegging in the UK. Henry Weinger, the manager of the project for Universal, came up with the idea of putting a stop to it “by putting the tracks out for real.” Although he is the first to admit the track listing was dictated by collector demand.
The vaults are being pried open, Motown masters are accorded state of the art re-mastering, fans can get decent sounding records at last, and given the untapped mother-lode, additional volumes can be easily provided. Several British critics have the inside track and warn the company is very carefully monitoring UK sales figures in some all-knowing record company fashion. So, as long as nobody burns a copy of this budget-priced compilation, this project has all the makings of a happy ending.
The only thing I didn’t like about this was the feeling a big company is intruding on a local scene by saying they’re giving the people what they want, but this is perhaps years after they already have it. This northern soul scene by all reports has been going on non-stop for 40 years now, and yet this comes across as the first time they’ve been noticed by a big record company and certainly the first time anyone’s thought to dig through the vaults to supply a near unquenchable appetite. (My bet is the northern soulsters who have been avidly collecting this material for the past 40 years and listening to scratchy duped cassettes wouldn’t trade those for anything in the world, so I’m already betting this CD will sell a hundred thousand times better in the US, which given population ratios always seems to be the case). That then means the record company is hoping the northern soul scene’s street cred will rub off on them as part of their marketing plan for the US. In other words, I don’t get the feeling the record company really respects or appreciates the northern soul scene, and I didn’t like that feeling.