HITSVILLE

The 2019 documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown has the slug-line “The soul of a city, the rhythm of a nation”. Very catchy and with some truth, no doubt, though an equally valid subtitle might have been “The house that Berry built”.

Berry Gordy cheerfully admits—several times, in fact—that his reason for getting into music production was to make money and meet women. His gleeful laugh and air of quiet opulence suggest both were achieved. It is truly fascinating to hear how Gordy’s time working in the Ford motor car plant laid the groundwork for the soul and R&B empire he subsequently built and ran (for many years) out of a modest house in Detroit.

Dancing classes, clothes and deportment, etiquette, A&R, songwriting. With departments for every aspect of music and music business, Gordy ran a tight ship. In fact, he was a benevolent patriarch; doling out love, money and decisions and constantly pushing his roster of songwriters and singers to exceed their own expectations. Their success was indeed his success. Motown was the complete package with a passionate, driven leader.

The boxed set Motown—The Complete No.1’s sat on the coffee table as I watched this lively and hugely entertaining documentary. I remember buying it, a dozen or so years ago, party because I’ve always felt light on in the soul/R&B area of the collection and… because it’s so cute! 

I mean really, look at that little house, attic and all, just like the real thing. (That’s Gordy and constant side-kick Smokey Robinson about to mount the front steps, a still from the film). Inside are five 2-CD sets of all those Motown hits, plus a few welcome bonus tracks of brilliant songs that didn’t make #1. Hello, “Dancing In The Street” by Martha & The Vandellas, and welcome Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”.

The film focuses on the early days, the electrifying years of the mid-60s where The Supremes reigned, Stevie Wonder grooved and The Temptations emerged. The first two discs are simply wall-to-wall classics; fifty or more songs that provide the core curriculum for the era.

Things changed. Both the world, and inevitably the black artists finding their individual voices in a turbulent American society. Gordy admits that he struggled as first Marvin Gaye, closely followed by Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, strained against the rigid scaffolding of the Motown production line. That makes discs three and four exciting and more diverse as those voices rise. Marvin Gaye sings “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” while The Temptations deliver their classic epic, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”. Some of it is goose-bumpy thrilling, all these years on.

Into discs five and six and although I know almost all the artists, fewer of the songs make neural connections. I suspect that my musical interests were going in a very different direction by the time The Commodores and Thelma Houston were strutting their stuff. That trend continues for eight and nine, but with an increasing number of ‘Who dat?’ experiences. I may not have ever listened to a Lionel Ritchie album but I know who he is. Same with Diana Ross and later Stevie Wonder.  But what is an El Debarge with Debarge? Some kind of European canal craft? 

By the time we get to the final pair of CDs it is easier to count the artists I know, although simply seeing Stevie Wonder  and Smokey Robinson listed at all is an amazing testament to their enduring talents and strangely comforting. As for The Boys, and Boyz II Men, huh? 

I suppose some day I should listen to discs 7—10, but not today. Today I’ve grooved to The MIracles and early Marvin Gaye, sung along with Martha and the Vandellas and swooned as Diana and the Supremes first explained that you can’t hurry live then, ten minutes later, kept me hanging on. And when Marvin relates how he heard it through the grapevine, you can’t help thinking that ‘rhythm of the nation’ was an understatement. I reckon more of the same might be a very good thing indeed. Let’s get it on.

 

23 comments

  1. The first time that I came across a really good stereo (bought by Victor, father of my friend Rod) I got to listen to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let”s Get it On’ album for the very first time too. Loved it.
    Motown: the rhythm of a nation, or two, or three or….

    Thank you Victor.

    Thank you Bruce. This is a great review,

    DD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love the way pictures of music experiences pop into your mind when you read, DD. And I thank you for sharing them. Hope you are enjoying some Spring.

      Like

  2. Like jazz, motown represents a huge hole in my musical knowledge, Sure, I know lots of the songs from movie soundtracks, but I rarely know who’s singing them. I think it would do me good to give your boxed set a listen. I’ll be more aware going forward. It’s a little shocking they can put together most of 10 CDs of #1 hits. What a dynasty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your responses Jeff. Yeah, it was a dynasty. And because it was, for the first 5 or 6 years, primarily a factory for producing singles, compilations serve us well!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    That Debarge pun! Nice one. And yes, cute and tantalizing collection that…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Confession: All week I’ve been dancing around the house with my beehive hairdo and a floral apron.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. A photo is clearly called for… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’ve found me out, JDB. All hairdressers are still closed as the lockdown drags on.

          Like

      2. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Doubt that

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s creative non-non-fiction.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a fun set. Motown was my entry into soul. In my early teenage years, I taped a vinyl box titled “The Motown Story.” It included all the big hits and interviews with many artists.

    While the classic Motown sound can be a bit formulaic, these were catchy, neatly executed songs with great grooves. Nowadays, I’m more into Stax soul, though I still like Motown as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice one Christian. Yes, there is something earthy about Stax, and a bit more funk too.
      As Motown literally was a production line, I guess they worked out what the formula was then produced a hundred variants on the theme. In a way, that isn’t unfamiliar nor out of step with the mid-1960s.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is my third go at a comment here – have you activated your anti-Welsh filter again?

    This looks like a great package Bruce, I like the classic stuff, anyone with a pulse has to but it isn’t until they were allowed to get a bit wiggy that I started to love them, once the straitjacket came off a bit.

    If you haven’t already read it there’s a brilliant book called ‘Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul’ by Stuart Cosgrove, an absolutely cracking read on this very subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Never turned it off, Joe.
      That book sounds great. It’s a ripping yarn, that’s for sure.
      On books, I’m reading Nick Wall’s bio of Black Sabbath. It’s remarkably frank, cringingly so, but riveting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s a great read, he doesn’t spare anyone at all. From memory he was their publicist for a spell? It’s a sordid tale.

    I really recommend the soul one, very well written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Duly logged for the next Book Depository order!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Watch out for the grassy knoll.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Too many ants for a picnic?

          Liked by 1 person

      2. One would imagine infinitely preferable to a book suppository.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. The packaging is fantastic, the music even more so. Discs 3 and 4 contain some of the earliest music I remember hearing and loving on the radio as a kid. To Joe’s comment: I definitely had a pulse! LOL re: your DeBarge pun. (El DeBarge’s first name was Eldra). He and his family had some peppy hits (e.g., Rhythm of the Night). Boyz II Men’s End of the Road is an early 90s gem, with some lovely harmonizing. And Shanice’s I Love Your Smile always lifted my spirits on my way to see patients in the AIDS clinic back in 1991/92.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you suggesting I move beyond disc four? Radical!

      (I knew you’d appreciate the packaging, JDB. A wonderful combo of craft and self-promotion!)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sounds like a ton of fun. Motown! Huh! Good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely everything. I play the 4 Tops and Stevie Wonder for dinner music, well actually for dancing-around-the-kitchen-while-cooking-dinner music, and a Marvin Gaye collection is on the top 20 car trip list. And Martha & the Vandellas of course! Boyz II Men came out of Philly, not Detroit, and not a frequent thing for me, but I agree with JDB, lovely harmonizing & when you’re in the right mood, their a cappella stuff is pretty cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Loving how this lil’ post brought all the pantry soul fans out of their kitchens, Robert. We’re dancing in the virtual streets.

      Liked by 1 person

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