In November 1985 a genuine superstar came to my town. We rarely had any major bands visit our area and, although his heyday had been 15 years earlier, class is permanent, as they say. To put a thick layer of icing on this cake my band took to the stage before him. We never got to meet him backstage, but this was still a proud moment. We were on the same bill as Motown superstar Edwin Starr!
After our set I went out front to watch the great man. I stood at the back of the venue, which held about 600 people, as the view was good from back there and the acoustics of the room meant that the music sounded better there than right down the front. The show was great, but I was waiting for one song, ‘25 Miles’. Not a huge hit in 1969, but a song I’d always loved right from its groovy drum intro, and above all for the vocal performance. Edwin Starr sings like a guy who is fighting a burning building, but you know there is only going to be one winner. He’s got this.
After about an hour the band launch into ‘25 Miles’ and Edwin yells ‘Come on feet start moving, got to get me there…’ and the hairs stand on the back of my neck. And then…
…and then the microphone stops working! It cuts out completely, but Edwin carries on and at the back of the room I can still hear every word. ‘Twenty-five miles from home, girl, my feet are hurting mighty bad.’ Incredible! What a voice! What a Starr!
He remains the only Motown giant that I’ve ever seen on stage, but all of these have played a huge part in my life since I was thirteen and my auntie gave me a pile of 45s – Stevie Wonder, Junior Walker, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and The Temptations. I played them over and over.
Now I introduced the origins of the label in my Motown Girls playlist so we can jump straight in.
Having omitted some of the biggest hits from the Girls playlist I bookend this one with two works of sheer genius. And for a few years sheer genius comes as easily as Sunday morning to some of these cats. If Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ doesn’t sing to your soul and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ doesn’t reach your feet, then I suggest you visit your doctor immediately.
Talking of genius Motown was blessed with a roster of gifted songwriters who could churn out hit after hit, some of whom even performed them – the precocious Stevie, blind from birth, who even didn’t exit his teens until May 1970, Detroit local Smokey Robinson, and Marvin whose What’s Going On (from where ‘What’s Happening Brother’ is taken) is one of the most important and staggeringly great albums ever made. If you don’t know it then make that your next port of call, and then check out any or all of Stevie’s incredible albums from 1970-76. He pretty much ruled the planet in this era.
One thing I particularly like about Motown is that with a team of great songwriters and any number of talented people waiting to cut their next record, they would recycle songs incessantly, so that the same tune could be sung by several different artists but each one would take a slightly different journey.
So, I’ve included the first version of ‘Grapevine’, by The Miracles, two treatments of Whitfield-Strong’s ‘That’s The Way Love Is’, and three completely different takes of the Whitfield-Holland-Smiley song ‘He Who Picks a Rose’, all of which are superb.
And I haven’t yet mentioned Motown’s greatest male singer. At least when it comes to pleading sing-yourself-hoarse from the back of the throat floorfillers Levi Stubbs is your man. Detroit-born in 1936, Stubbs was cousin to the equally great Jackie Wilson (who curiously never recorded for Motown) and led the Four Tops to dozens of worldwide hits for more than twenty years. I heard Bernadette for the first time on the morning of my sixteenth birthday on the radio and went straight out to buy a copy. It’s one of the most amazing vocal performances in the history of pop.
And we haven’t even got around to two singing families. The Isley Brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio, cut some of the very best hits of the classic Motown era (‘Behind a Painted Smile’ is my favourite) yet became mega big in the 70s, when they moved to the Epic label and really pressed the genius accelerator.
Then there are the five brothers from Gary, Indiana who, with their eleven-year-old lead singer, brought an explosion of sunshine into the world’s televisions right at the start of the 1970s. It didn’t take a genius to recognise that we’d be hearing a lot more from young Michael Jackson in the years ahead.