MOTOWN Question

Continuing the Berry Gordy, Jr./Motown groove:

There have been a number of artists that have appeared on Motown records, including its affiliated labels Tamla, Soul, Gordy, rare earth (yes, named for the band), Mowest and others. These artists include everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Soupy Sales to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr; I actually own one of the latter.

The question is simple: who are your favorite Motown artists? OK, not so simple. Lots of artists only really thrived when they actually left Motown, notably Gladys Knight & the Pips and Michael Jackson. But you don’t need to be as fussy about those boundaries as I inevitably will be.

1. Stevie Wonder – though he hasn’t put out a great album in almost three decades, the albums he put out in the 1960s and especially the 1970s were among the finest ever made. Paul Simon, winning the 1975 Grammy for Album of the year specifically thanked Stevie Wonder for not putting out an album that year. Stevie was busy putting together the double album Songs in the Key of Life. Moreover, stevie still dorsd some decent performances.

2. The Temptations – In the the mid-1960s, they were largely backup singers for David Ruffin (My Girl). The big switch in producers from a wide variety of people, including Smokey Robinson, to Norman Whitfield, corresponded to Dennis Edwards replacing Ruffin, with the group then talking the five-vocalist motif (Can’t Get Next To You). The group seemed to fade in the mid-1970s, but then were revitalized in the early 1980s with the brief reappearance of Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, when I first saw them live.

3. The Supremes – I was a fan from that very first non-hits album Meet the Supremes, when Florence Ba;lard and Mary Wilson occasionally got a lead, through the big hits period, when the only time Diana Ross relinquished the lead was on some of the more oddball albums (We Remember Sam Cooke; Sing Country, western and Pop; A Bit of Liverpool; Sing Rogers & Hart). Then they became Diana Ross and…, as Flo was replaced by Cindy Birdsall. Diana left for a solo career, and Jean Terrell, gfor a time kept the Supremes on top.

4. Marvin Gaye – one of the most versatile artists, he was popular as both a session drummer early on, then both a solo artist and paired with female singers such as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and most notably Tammi Terrell. Like Wonder, Gaye’s really came into his own when he fought with Berry Gordy to have more control over his career; the initial result was the What’s Going On album. Though some of Gaye’s material got a bit weird, dealing with his divorce in a most public and uncomfortable way, he got back to form with Sexual Healing*. *Yes, this was on Epic records, but it shows up on the Motown anthology.

5. The Jackson 5ive – I initially gave them the short shrift as a teeny-bopper. But the strength of the material, and the performers, carried the day.

6. The Four Tops – this group should rank higher, based just on the strength of the magnificent voice of Levi Stubbs. The problem, I think, is that after Holland-Dozier-Holland left the company, the group didn’t get the good material.

7. Martha & the Vandellas – Most of the female groups got lost in the shadow of the Supremes; too bad, as groups like the Marvelettes and this group did some fine songs.


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