Motown. Who doesn’t love it? The storied Detroit-based record label run by Berry Gordy, Jr. fused pop, r&b, soul, and gospel, and whatever else was around, into bite-sized two or three minute songs handed down to the fans by stylish, ultra-talented African-American singers the likes of which white America (and if you take Oprah’s word on it, Black America) had never before seen.
Motown stars and their songs became favorites all over the world. Motown became synonymous with “hit music” in the sixties. Hitsville, USA, in fact, is the name of the building where Motown used to be housed in its heyday. Smokey Robinson. Diana Ross. Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye. The hits from Hitsville, literally, just kept coming.
And forty years later, many Motown hits are still on our radios, playing at our wedding receptions and filling the soundtracks of our movies. Baby boomers still crank them up. Teeny-boppers watch contests belt them out on American Idol. Some Motown hits retain a place in our collective jukebox almost half a century since they first hit the charts. They’re not on the Billboard Top Twenty anymore, but they’ve never gone out of style.
Think about it and you can hear those Motown classics now. The infectious guitar twang leading up to the Temptations declaration that they’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day; that pounding bassline that cues Marvin Gaye to tell Tammi Terrell, listen baby, ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, ain’t no river wide enough to keep him from getting to her; that weird space-aged whiring sound then – bam- we get our marching orders from Diana, Flo and Mary – Stop. In the name of love. Yes, these classic Motown songs get overplayed, badly covered, and turned into commercials, but they’re always with us, and in their original form, in moderation, we will always love them.
But the thing is, the Motown song book is vast, and while some of these great songs remain on the American play list, songs by Robinson, Gaye, Wonder, and Ross – scores of other great Motown songs have gotten lost in the label’s prolific-ness. When was the last time you heard Brenda Holloway? When was the last time your local oldies station played anything by Martha Reeves and The Vandellas but “Heatwave”?
Here’s a quick, and completely subjective (and incredibly incomplete) list of some great Motown songs that deserve more popularity. You probably have some you’d like to popularize too. And I hope you will! Get the word out. Let’s hope more curious people will be joining us on obscure record searches on Ebay soon. Hitsville USA has so much to offer, there’s always something new to find.
1. “A Little More Love” (Kim Weston: The Greatest Hits And Rare Classics)
Kim Weston is best known, like Tammi Terrell, for her duets with Marvin Gaye (“It Takes Two”). She did, however, have some solo hits, including “Take Me In Your Arms (And Rock Me A Little While)”. This song, a ballad gently explaining to a boyfriend what she wants out of her relationship, is another great solo song. Weston’s voice conveys the song’s half-whimsical, half-serious lyrics. Weston’s voice is amazing. There’s none of the fast-paced angst of “Take Me In Your Arms” but she still gets to show off her serious versatility. Women looking for a little more from their guys could appreciate the lyrics. And any man could benefit from the song’s explication of often unspoken rules, like, for instance, you should like her friends, but make sure it’s clear she’s your favorite. Classic Motown in sound and theme.
2. “Needle In A Haystack” (The Velvettes, Hitsville USA Box Set)
I’ve never heard this song until I got the Motown box set. It’s fantastic. The Velvettes have a girl group sound as strong and dynamic as any other – Vandellas, Supremes, Marvelettes. This song, full of attitude, warns women their chances of find Mr. Right are, well, the title’s pretty obvious. Fun, sassy, girl group lyrics and voices that pull it off make this song fun and defiant. According to the Hitsville liner notes, this group never made an album and only toured once because their parents told them they had to graduate from college. Too bad these college girls don’t get some air time. Finding this song on the air is like…no, that’s just too easy.
3. “Every Little Bit Hurts” (Brenda Holloway, Hitsville USA Box Set)
Brenda Holloway is a Motown act that could have been. Her voice could easily compete with Martha Reeves or Kim Weston, but her place at Motown was a little shakier. Some sources say she disagreed openly with decisions the label made and danced to the beat of a different drummer to the point she just wanted to go. In any case, this song shows her power, is filled with mournfulness and that sort of edgy “You hurt me, but I’ll take you back! I’ll change” kind of blues woman thing going on. About as sad and bluesy as Motown gets. The slow bouncing bassline still keeps it thoroughly in sixties pop music vernacular.
4. “How Sweet It Is” (Junior Walker and The All Stars, Hitsville USA Box Set)
You’ve heard Marvin Gaye do it. You’ve heard James Taylor do it. But have you hear Junior Walker and the All Stars do it? How Sweet it will be when you do. Starting with a rip-roaring sax solo (it is Junior “Shotgun” Walker after all), this rendition of the song will not be confused with others. It’s faster, less smooth, more “party.” Where Gaye and Taylor seem to be talking to an individual love, something about this song makes it feel like Junior’s embracing everybody in the room. Shame you don’t hear it played more often.
5. “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (The Elgins, Hitsville USA Box Set)
Next to the Temps and Tops, Supremes and Vandellas, The Elgins don’t stand out as a Motown Supergroup. They had a hit with “Darling Baby” a slow, sad 60s broken heart tune. They also had this son, a “typical” (as in brief, likable, and good) Motown Holland-Dozier-Holland (the composers) uptempo love song with a girl singing the praises of her heaven-sent guy.
The co-ed quartet sounds great, with lone female Sandra Edwards on lead vocal pushing the song through its crescendoed last verse. Listening to the Elgins, you wish they did more and had a chance to become another of the classic Motown groups
Heaven Must Have Sent You is, incidentally, the title of a Holland-Dozier-Holland tribute album.
Maybe you’ll become – or already are- a lost Motown collector, cherishing the backing band (The Funk Brothers) and analyzing the H-D-H composing style as you seek out hidden hits. Or maybe you prefer to stick to the Motown you already know, the way you already know it- simple lyrics telling simple stories with engaging beats and great voices. Either way you want to enjoy Motown, the most important thing is – enjoy it! It’s great music any way you slice it.