Sunday, 24 June 2012
ELDER MUSIC: Motown Top 20 – Part 1
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Recently, I read a Mojo magazine from two or three years ago and the main article centred on Motown Records. The main point of the article was listing what they thought were Motown’s top 100 singles.
I thought I could get an easy column out of that by including their top 10, then I thought, “Hey, I can drag this out to a couple of weeks and have a Top 20.” Never miss a chance to pad out the columns.
I stopped at 20 as after that I started to run out of songs I have in my collection. I may not agree with Mojo's choices, although all the songs are worthy of inclusion, but I would have bumped some songs higher and others down a bit. I imagine everyone would do the same. However, it sure saved me thinking about who to include and in what order.
So, counting down (just like on the old top 40 radio stations when we were kiddliewinks), here are songs number 20 to 11.
20. THE TEMPTATIONS
This is the first of several visits by the Temps. David Ruffin was the lead singer at this stage and his vocal performance here is a tour de force. After this and several other fine performances, he demanded top billing (as “David Ruffin and The Temptations”). The others maintained that no one member was bigger than the team and sacked him after he wouldn’t back down.
David had a desultory solo career and eventually died from serious drug and other abuses. The Temptations became, or already were, one of the most important groups in rock & roll history.
Here is I Wish It Would Rain while David was still in top form.
19. THE FOUR TOPS
The Four Tops. What an amazing group they were. They performed for more than 40 years with the same members. There would be few groups in any musical genre with that longevity.
A lot of their songs were written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and Eddie Holland, the lyricist of the writing team, said that they always kept their best efforts for the Tops. It shows in the quality of the songs this group produced over the years.
This is one of HDH’s tunes, Bernadette.
18. THE TEMPTATIONS
The Temps again and with this track they are already moving away from the slick Motown sound that characterized most of the label’s tunes until this point.
This was done in little steps; it’s not too far removed from the slick sound of only a year or so previously. It took a couple more years before they really broke away in a big way. This will be demonstrated in later songs of theirs.
Here we have Ain't Too Proud To Beg.
17. SMOKEY AND THE MIRACLES
Smokey Robinson said he wrote this song for Barrett Strong. However, Berry Gordy suggested that he, Smokey, should sing it as it was really suited to his voice. This was way back before Smokey had recorded anything.
He and the Miracles recorded it and the record had been out for about three weeks when Smokey said he received a phone call from Berry at three in the morning saying he didn’t like the arrangement of the song and the group should get into the studio right now and redo it.
They did and the new version became Motown’s first million seller. Smokey said that it showed how we (Motown) never stopped reaching for quality; the record’s been out three weeks and Berry wanted to change it.
I think he could have at least waited until the morning but then, I’ve never had a million selling record so what do I know? This is the rerecorded version of Shop Around.
16. THE TEMPTATIONS
In my opinion, this song deserves to be nearer the top. Here David Ruffin sings as smoothly as anyone apparently making every girl who hears it wish they were his girl, or so it seems according to my very limited survey.
As you can probably guess by now, this is My Girl.
15. THE CONTOURS
The Contours’ song started as a six-and-a-half-minute epic and in the way of these things back then, it was cut to under three minutes for the single release. Unusually though, this time I find the cut version superior to the original.
It removes the rather unnecessary and repetitive instrumental bits that really were quite boring and cuts back on the drums which were rather overwhelming in the original. I bet the kids today would love all that though.
The song was written by Berry Gordy and he got the Contours to perform it. After several tries, he was dissatisfied with the results and threatened to give the song to The Temptations. They nailed it next time.
Joe Billingslea, one of the Contours, later said that it was an idle threat as it wasn’t really suited to the Temps. However, the ruse worked at the time to get the best out of them. Here is Do You Love Me.
14. THE SUPREMES
The label says this is The Supremes but for most of the song it’s just Diana Ross singing; the other two barely get a toe in the musical water. This was Berry Gordy’s doing, grooming Diana initially to be the focal point of the group and later for a solo career.
In spite of all that, it’s still a terrific song, one of their best. You Keep Me Hangin’ On.
13. THE MARVELETTES
The Marvelettes had a more famous song mostly due to having had it covered by The Beatles early on. That was Please Mr. Postman (that one came in at number 30 on the Mojo list).
The song today was written by Smokey Robinson especially for the Marvelettes and in particular their lead singer, Wanda Rogers, who was married to Bobby Rogers who was one of Smokey’s own group, the Miracles.
The song is The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.
12. BRENDA HOLLOWAY
Brenda Holloway was reluctant to record this song. She thought that Barbara Wilson, who recorded the demo, did a better job than she could do and deserved to perform it herself. She also thought the song was far too sad and broke down several times when she tried to record it.
Finally Brenda achieved a take that satisfied everyone. The song became a hit although Brenda didn’t realize that until a couple of people mentioned they’d heard her on the radio.
On the basis of this, she was scheduled to appear on one of the Dick Clark tours. Berry Gordy said that she could only go if they’d also take one of the other groups who had a few songs released that were flops to give them a bit of exposure. Unfortunately for Brenda that group, The Supremes, suddenly hit it big with their first smash and she was pushed into the background somewhat.
Anyway, her song, Every Little Bit Hurts, is still a fine performance in spite of what she thought at the time.
11. EDWIN STARR
When I first heard this way back in 1970, and for some time after, I didn’t realize it was a Motown track. It sure didn’t sound like the usual output from the label. However, things were changing around about then mostly due to Marvin Gaye but to Edwin Starr as well.
The song hit the nail on the head back in 1970 and it still does the same thing. Even now there are radio stations that refuse to play it. Moral cowardice I call that. This means War.
Next week, Part 2 - counting down from number 10 through 1.