I’m taking a wild guess here – you already know all about the wonderful world of Motown, right? Operating out of a few houses in Detroit, Michigan, the whole set-up was literally a hit factory. Dozens of super-talented singers, songwriters, musicians, arrangers, and engineers would turn up for work every day and churn out hit after hit after hit. Not only did these records come to define their time and place – 1960s Detroit and 1960s America – they sold in their millions worldwide and still sound as fresh and vibrant as they fill dancefloors and blast from car windows half-a-century on.
We haven’t the time here to fully explain what Motown means, but the significance of the label went way beyond the exhilarating marriage of soul-packed arrangements, fat drums, invariably in 4/4 time, and some of the greatest pop and soul voices that ever escaped from human lungs.
Founded in 1959 by record store owner, jazz fan, songwriter, and ex-boxer Berry Gordy Jr, the Tamla Motown label showcased gospel and rhythm'n'blues, which gradually morphed into ‘soul’ music. Motown’s brand of soul achieved its founder’s goal of an instantly recognisable identity and probably discovered and nurtured more genuine superstars than any other stable of talent in history.
The global popularity of Motown and its predominantly black roster of artists literally gave America’s minority citizens a voice, and helped Dr King’s civil rights movement to bring down the physical and emotional barriers of segregation.
In 1972 the label moved from Detroit to LA and though the hits kept coming the sound changed in tune with the new decade, when the city of Philadelphia would come to dominate the soul market. Therefore, I have concentrated on the classic Motor City years for my playlists. I have omitted several big hits, as I couldn’t include them all, and anyway you’ll already know ‘Baby Love’, ‘My Guy’ and ‘Dancing in the Street’. I wanted to showcase some tunes that you may not have heard before. The Lollipops’ ‘Look What You Done Boy’ was never released in any format until it emerged on a rarities CD earlier this century. Check out lesser-known cuts that have filled northern soul dance floors by Barbara McNair, Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, and Martha and the Vandellas’ wonderful ‘Wild One’.
Or there’s the very early Supremes single with a Caribbean lilt, ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’. I make no excuses for The Supremes’ dominance of the playlist. From 1962 to 1970 Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross (Cindy Birdsong replaced Wilson in 1967) were Motown’s Beatles or, if you like, the original Spice Girls. The group even survived and prospered for several years after Ross went solo. I feature songs from all permutations and all are, of course, magnificent.
I have grouped three superb tracks by the beautiful and special Tammi Terrell, taken from us by brain cancer at the age of 24 in 1970. Her singing partner and friend Marvin Gaye never quite got over her tragic death. RIP Motown angel.
We end with Diana Ross in 1971, a #1 hit in the UK and described by Bob Stanley as ‘a faultless performance.’ His verdict is good enough for me.
And on this superb playlist we’re only listening to the women! Please also check out our Motown guys playlist.