Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Take Five: The Motown stars


Stevie Wonder Honored With ASCAP American Troubadour Awarddiana ross

Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music and early female blues legends, respectively. This month, we look at five artistes from the famous Motown label.

THOSE initiated into international music in the 1970s or early 1980s would have had some exposure to the Motown Sound. If not for anything else, this may be because even Michael Jackson had his roots with this style.

Motown, of course, was actually the name of a record label formed by the dynamic Berry Gordy Jr. It was based out of Detroit, the Motor Town, and thus got its name. Besides Motown Records, he also set up Tamla Records and Gordy Records, besides many subsidiary labels, to avoid making payments due when DJs played too much music from one label.

While Gordy was the brain and the brawn behind the label, the term Motown Sound was also associated with songwriters Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier who went by the name Holland-Dozier-Holland or HDH, and with the Funk Brothers, a group of musicians who played for most of the artistes.

As HDH wrote, produced and arranged many songs for the labels, they created a specific style which blended pop with soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues. After they split over royalty issues in 1968, Gordy continued to employ other songwriters, and kept the label going despite ups and downs. While focusing on soul and RnB, he also diversified into other genres like rock, jazz, country and hip-hop. Motown operations were taken over by MCA in 1988, and today, its music is managed by the Universal Music Group.

Motown has a very interesting story, which has been wonderfully captured in J Randy Taraborrelli’s biography of Diana Ross, which this blogger just read. It has a huge roster of celebrity artistes too, and shortlisting five wasn’t an easy task. We shall thus list the most prominent ones, and mention the rest at the end.

A note: Though Michael Jackson began with Motown as part of the Jackson 5 with his siblings, he achieved solo success after signing up with Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records. His is another story, and thus doesn’t figure in this list. The five that we choose are:

Diana Ross & The Supremes: Originally called the Primettes, the Supremes consisted of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Betty McGown. Betty quit early on and the others performed as a trio.

However, Gordy got increasingly involved with Diana Ross, and was to even father her first child. With problems caused by Florence’s drinking habit, he decided that Diana sing all the leads and renamed the group Diana Ross & The Supremes. Cindy Birdsong was to replace Florence. Eventually, Diana became a solo star, but differences with Gordy made her shift to the RCA label.

Five songs to check: Where Did Our Love Go?, Stop In The Name of Love, I Hear A Symphony, Love Child, You Keep Me Hangin’ On

Marvin Gaye: He was called the Prince of Motown and Prince of Soul. Besides a string of successful solo albums, he teamed up with other Motown artistes Tammi Tarell and Mary Wells.

Marvin started singing in church at age four, and was initially more keen on jazz standards. He never imagined himself to be an RnB singer. But with the Motown Sound slowly getting its own audience, and the fact that HDH wrote his songs, Gaye changed his style, and became one of the most sought after singers for the label. He eventually quit Motown, and died a tragic death at age 44, shot by his father following a dispute over misplaced business documents.

Five songs to check: I Heard It Through The Grapevine, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (with Tammi Terrell), Let’s Get It On, Sexual Healing (post-Motown song)

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: Besides being a singer-songwriter and frontman of the group The Miracles, Smokey was also known as a record producer in his own right. He had a long association with Motown, ever since he met Gordy in 1957 and had a say in selecting many artistes for the label.

Signed on to the Tamla label, Smokey also wrote many Motown songs, and after his marriage to Miracles singer Claudette Rogers, named his children Tamla and Berry. He pursued a solo career from the early 1970s, and was involved with the Motown group till it was sold in 1988, at which time he was its vice-president.

Five songs to check: Stop Around, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Baby Its Backatcha, Cruisin’, Being With You (first two with the Miracles, the other three solo)

Stevie Wonder: Blind since shortly after his birth, Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy who was signed on to Motown at the age of 11, and became one of the group’s biggest successes. He had his first hit ‘Fingertips Part 2’ at age 13 and has never since looked back.

Wonder became a huge commercial success in the 1970s and his 1980 Tamla album ‘Hotter Than July’ his first platinum seller. Many successful songs, his soundtrack for ‘The Woman In Red’, and collaborations with Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Julio Iglesias made him one of the most sought after stars in the 1980s. He continues to perform prolifically today.

Five songs to check: My Cherie Amour, Sir Duke, Ebony & Ivory (with Paul McCartney), I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover

Lionel Richie & The Commodores: The popular Lionel Richie started off as frontman of the Commodores in 1968. Initially, they were part of Atlantic Records before they moved to Motown as a support group for the Jackson 5. Lionel began concentrating on songwriting and soon moved to a solo career, even writing the Kenny Rogers hit ‘Lady’ in 1980.

Like Stevie Wonder, he peaked in the 1980s,following the success of his self-titled solo debut album, its follow-up ‘Can’t Slow Down’ and ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’. Today, he appears at numerous prestigious concerts, and performed ‘Jesus Is Love’ at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in July 2009.

Five songs to check: Three Times A Lady, Endless Love (with Diana Ross), Hello, All Night Long, Say You Say Me

Other Motown/ Tamla artistes: As we said, the Motown/ Tamla/ Gordy Records group had a list of many famous other artistes. The groups included the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Boyz II Men and Martha & The Vandellas. Solo artistes were Mary Wells, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Rick James and Teena Marie.

Subsidiary companies signed on Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Four Seasons and the Elgins. The group also had the rock subsidiary Rare Earth Records, which promoted the brilliant group Rare Earth, known best for its song ‘Get Ready’.

That’s some catalogue, really. Berry Gordy remains one of the biggest entrepreneurs in American music, having developed such an outstanding roster of artistes.

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