Motown entered 1967 a well-oiled juggernaut of success. The previous year, Berry Gordy, Jr.’s musical empire-in-the-making had dubbed itself “the Sound of Young America”, and 1967 reinforced such boastful sloganeering with copious hits: three-quarters of the A-sides released on the company’s various imprints made the charts that year. The great pop-R&B crossover continued with incredible singles from acts like the Four Tops (“Bernadette”), the Supremes (“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”), the Miracles (“I Second That Emotion”), Martha & the Vandellas (“Jimmy Mack”), the Temptations (“All I Need”), and, for the first time, the inspired pairing of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, among many others). “Hitsville USA”, as Gordy had christened his operation when he first opened shop in a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit eight years earlier, was nothing if not a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Behind Motown’s façade of factory-line efficiency, however, things were changing. In 1967, emphasis was placed on the emergence of the superstar at the expense of the collective: the Miracles became Smokey Robinson & the Miracles in January, and with the July release of “Reflections”/”Going Down for the Third Time”, the Supremes were officially renamed Diana Ross & the Supremes. The shift took its emotional toll on the Supremes’ Florence Ballard, who, feeling debased by Ross’s ascension, turned to alcohol and was replaced later in the year by Cindy Birdsong. It was also the year that Motown’s premier songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, left due to royalty disputes and started their own label. And in October, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms while on stage in Virginia as a result of a brain tumor, effectively ending her career (she would pass away in 1970 at the age of 24). Through it all, Motown’s music showed no signs of fracture and the company ended the year higher than it began (the final four singles of the year all made the R&B Top 10), though its future, a brave new world where LP-length artistic statements by Gaye and Stevie Wonder would usurp the weakened singles production line, was literally right around the corner.
The year’s music is exhaustively documented, 40 years later, on The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 7: 1967, the latest installment in Hip-O Select’s impressive reissue series. The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 7: 1967, a limited-edition five-CD box set, collects every A-side and B-side released that year, including planned and deleted singles, as well as alternate and promotional mixes — 120 tracks in all. Packaged as a hardcover book with a replica pressing of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”/”It’s Time to Go Now” 45″ in the front cover, the set sequences the singles in chronological order and offers in-depth liner notes, track recording details, and photos — all in all, it’s a beautifully compiled, comprehensive overview of a significant year in the label’s history.
As an overview, Volume 7 places the well-known next to the lesser-known, offering equal time to the staples of oldies radio, the B-sides that have led unjust lives in cellared obscurity, and, in a few cases, the tracks that haven’t held up so well — in other words, the big picture is judicious. (The big picture even manifests itself across the short span of a single’s two sides: the Miracles’ “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”, Robinson’s classic piece of emotional devastation, is coupled with “Come Spy With Me”, which, despite a nifty modulation in its chorus, remains an awkward theme song for a dated espionage film.) Most remarkable is how the consistency of Motown’s methodology runs through each and every recording, from the houseparty R&B of Jr. Walker & the All Stars to the saccharine luster of the San Remo Golden Strings, as if a single pair of hands inspected every last track to ensure the presence of an aesthetic trademark.
It was multiple pairs of hands, actually, that streamlined the Motown sound into one of the most distinctive in 20th century pop music: the writers, the producers, and the consummate house band, the Funk Brothers, were all integrated into each others’ processes. They answered to Gordy’s Quality Control department, which approved and vetoed performer-song match-ups and arrangements in accordance with the maintenance of Motown’s public image. (The most famous veto in Motown history happened in 1967, when Gaye’s brilliant interpretation of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was shelved and re-arranged for Gladys Knight & the Pips.) Writers and producers experimented at times by recycling previously recorded songs from inside and outside Motown for different artists. On Volume 7, Shorty Long romps through Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace”; Barbara McNair cuts the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” off at the knees; Jr. Walker & the All Stars supercharge “Come See About Me”; and Barbara Lewis exploits the sentimental bias of Wonder’s “For Once in My Life”.
Gladys Knight & the Pips
At the same time, some Motown artists began to use the company’s procedures as a way to assert their own individuality. Wonder, the label’s child genius and resident prankster, turned 17 in 1967, and released a number of fine singles, including “Travlin’ Man” and the effervescent “I’m Wondering” (dig the guitar’s ebb and flow in the latter’s verses). The real turning point, however, was “I Was Made to Love Her”, his second single of the year, released in May. A rare piece of pop minimalism — four bars repeated for the song’s duration; no bridge or compositional sleight-of-hand — it broke from the genteel-pop orthodoxy Wonder was often attached to and effectively predicted the arc that his songwriting would pursue over the course of the next ten years. The feverish repetition, the preacher-esque grip on the mic, the escalating demolition of a few deceptively simple bars of music: “I Was Made to Love Her” deconstructed the ornate web of Motown’s fastidious system while anticipating similarly euphoric repetition pieces of Wonder’s future, like “As” and “Another Star”.
Likewise, Gaye found his musical soul-mate in Terrell, who became his new duet partner when Kim Weston left the label. Their short-lived yet star-crossed collaboration began with the release in April of the transcendence-prodding “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which, despite the fact that Gaye’s vocal was recorded weeks after Terrell’s, overflows with electric chemistry. On other duets they recorded that year, like the finger snap-dominated “Your Precious Love” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”, they recorded their vocals together, and the sound of two lithe voices hypnotically entwined set a high bar of quality that has never really been equaled.
Motown’s if-it-ain’t-broke philosophy was challenged numerous times throughout the year by songs that tossed experimental monkey wrenches into the existing formula. For the Supremes’ “Reflections”, Holland-Dozier-Holland, inspired by new psychedelic touchstones like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, incorporates sound effects from an oscillator into the song’s opening; it was the sort of space-age touch that had never graced a Motown record before. The Four Tops’ “7-Rooms of Gloom” ravages the Motown formula and leaves only the guts: it’s a hauntingly minor-key portrait of isolation, dominated by waifish harpsichord, tambourine, and Levi Stubbs’s encroaching vocal, which seems to reach across decades to establish itself in the now.
This isn’t to say that the status quo wasn’t maintained, because despite the behind-the-scenes changes and slow affirmation of eccentricities, Motown’s bubbly product in 1967 was largely comprised of business-as-usual offerings. While this means that some songs safely toe the party line of well-mannered dinner-pop (the Contours’ “It’s So Hard Being a Loser” and pretty much anything by Brenda Holloway (“Just Look What You’ve Done”) or Barbara McNair (“Here I Am Baby”), for example), the majority of 1967’s singles are strong illustrations of just how well Motown’s persnickety system worked, at least for the time being: Jimmy Ruffin, older brother of the Temptations’ David Ruffin, scored with “Gonna Give Her All the Love I’ve Got”, a phenomenal blast of heavy orchestration that was actually bested by its B-side, the incendiary “World So Wide, Nowhere to Hide (From Your Heart)”; and Chris Clark, Motown’s unofficial answer to Dusty Springfield (she was one of the few white artists to record for the label), turned in her greatest performance of the year on the Gaye-produced B-side “I Love You”.
While a system such as Motown’s could never be sustained in today’s impatient climate, it’s nevertheless romantic to fantasize about a 21st century factory system with a contracted roster of writers, producers, and musicians. As Volume 7 proves, a strict set of creative rules begets tenacious consistencies and, from time to time, a renegade concept that succeeds by beating the system at its own game. In 1967, Aretha Franklin arrived and Otis Redding died, and Motown kept up appearances, kept on rolling, its mind made up and its music reflecting yet another 12-month cycle.