The Ultimate Playlist - Motown
A pox on me! I thought that putting together the ultimate playlist would be a relatively simple task. I started with the 1950s, and it just rolled. Well, let me tell you, I bit off a task that is monstrously huge. It’s fun and interesting, no doubt, but it’s also going to take me a year or two to pull this off.
Luckily, none of us have much better to do. Right? Right.
Now that I am committed, I have been trying to organize the list into sub-categories that make sense, and then within those sub-categories, to start compiling artists that are truly worthy of respect and adulation. I decided to do what I wanted to do first, and then to fill in the blanks later. But I’m also trying to do this on a bit of a timeline. What does that mean? License for BRP to do whatever! I did talk to the owner of this blog, and after careful consideration, he came around and said, yeah, do whatever you want. My powers of persuasion remain.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Motown (it actually started as a label named Tamla). For those not familiar with the story, a songwriter named Barry Gordy, Jr. had an idea to establish a black-owned record label to record African-American artists outside of the stronghold of the blues-based south. He also wanted to create a crossover label to get black acts heard by larger audiences, a gap that was not being filled by the major labels. Gordy did that in his hometown of Detroit, and he turned out to be a visionary. Motown went on a tear and put out a truly incredible string of singles and albums that are an essential part of the American songbook.
A lot of the artists/songwriters/musicians were originally from the Detroit environs. Why did Detroit have this tremendous talent base? I don’t know, probably something having to do with the automobile industry kicking out enough money up and down the employment chain to fuel a large middle class that had the money to foster the arts, even if inadvertently. But sometimes a confluence of talent just happens, and it is embraced and enhanced by the local culture until it explodes across the nation.
I’m pretty interested in Detroit and think that it remains one of America’s most interesting cities. I’ve been there a bunch of times, and all I can say is that it’s unlike any other American city. It has huge swaths of city blocks that have been razed and left fallow. The buildings that do remain seem randomly distributed; some are derelict and others still house people or businesses. The old industrial buildings, while often in dilapidated condition, have wonderful architecture that was meant to make a lasting statement.
The loss of population and abandonment of the city are well documented, but those that remain are determined to stage a comeback and that effort is well underway, at least in certain pockets – downtown and the area around Wayne State University for sure. The Detroit metro area has the largest Muslim population in the US, and has incredible middle-eastern food. The US automobile industry is still headquartered here, and there is a strong blue collar streak that permeates the city. The area has Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, and one of America’s best art museums with murals by Diego Rivera. It also has a fantastic musical heritage that includes, but goes beyond, Motown
Hitsville USA. We’ve all heard of it right? It’s the former home of Motown Records and ground zero for the Motown sound. It’s an unassuming former house – and now a museum – where some of the best songs to ever come out of the US were recorded. If you’re of a certain vintage (that’s a nice way of saying if you’re old), you grew up with these songs. That’s because Motown and its affiliated labels had 79 records in the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969. For a small label featuring African-American performers, that is stunning.
How about we get to the music and start talking about the best of the best artists that epitomize Motown? Just to note, not all of these artists recorded on the actual Motown label – to qualify here, if someone recorded on an affiliated label within the Motown family, they are included. BRP takes artistic license again, but in this case it’s entirely justified. I’m going to start big. I’m going to start with:
I love Stevie Wonder. What a legacy of music he has left for all of us! From the very early days when he was a child prodigy performer right up through the present, he is an American Treasure. The number of truly great Wonder tunes is breathtaking. If you remember, I’m only supposed to go with one tune per artist, but I can make exceptions if I clear it with the BRP boss, and this one got cleared. Let’s go with Superstition, and Higher Ground. There are so many more to choose from, and I’m ignoring the entire Songs From the Key of Life masterpiece. In fact, that would be a travesty, so I’m putting I Wish in here, too. Three songs! Whoa, but this is Stevie, and I’ve left off other worthy candidates, like You Are The Sunshine of My Life, Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, If You Really Love Me, For Once In My Life, … well, you get the point. Genius. Master. Oh, and Stevie is still out there performing. I’ve seen him a few times, and he’s worth it. Pay the money, get the experience.
Diana Ross gets a lot of the acclaim, and she’s worthy of it, but this trio was much more than Diana. Harmonies and that velvety lead voice knock you off your feet. But the songs! The group’s heyday was only 3 years – 1965-67, but look at the list! Many of these tracks are simply synonymous with the word Motown. We have a great friend of many decades who adored the song Baby Love, and that’s what I’ll put on this list. Shame on me for not going with Stop! In The Name of Love, Where Did Our Love Go?, or You Keep Me Hanging On. I am a big fan of the Supremes, but I can’t go with multiple songs by every Motown artist or we’ll never get to Dearborn. Well, maybe two from the girls because I think You Can’t Hurry Love is just too good to leave on the cutting room floor.
Marvin wasn’t from Detroit – he’s a DC guy – but he’s also one of the biggest stars to record on the Motown label. He sang some of the most romantic and sexy songs ever put on vinyl, but with What’s Going On?, he also sang about the national dysfunction that gripped the nation at the end of the turbulent 1960s. I’m a romantic, so I’m going to skip that particular track. Here, instead, is Let’s Get It On, a song you shouldn’t play on your first date (I think Sexual Healing is more appropriate for that). Yep, I skipped I Heard It Through the Grapevine which many believe is the best song ever to come out of the Motown hit machine, but I disagree. I don’t think it’s even Marvin’s best track. And since its BRP, I’ll stake out the controversial position on this one and roll with my choice. Dig it.
I’ll get back to these guys in a bit when I talk about Rick James, but man, here’s another group that put out great single after great single. Just My Imagination, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, I Can’t Get Next to You. Jeez, most artists would kill to have just one of those songs as the flagship of their artistic output. But for me, the best Temptations song of all time is My Girl. It’s sweet, loving, and perfect to sing to your girl as you realize just how in love you are with her.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Smokey! Holy cow, look at this list so far and then realize we’re on artist number 5 who is, quite simply, one of the best singers of the rock/soul era. And Smokey wrote a ton of the best of the best of the Motown hits – I only included the songs that he performed here and not those that others recorded. I had a real struggle picking my favorite song. I quickly threw out Tears of a Clown, You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me and Shop Around, but needed to flip a coin between The Tracks of My Tears and I Second That Emotion. Heads! Here’s The Tracks of My Tears, a perfect BRP special because I can go dark sometimes and this elegant song about the false public face of a heartbroken lover is just amazing.
The Four Tops
The hit machine continues. They didn’t call it Hitsville USA for nothing! I was not a huge fan of Reach Out I’ll Be There, but when discussing this list, I was called a fool for not appreciating that song more than I do. Well, I’ve been called worse by better, and in this instance, I’m right, so there. There were other huge hits, like Standing in the Shadows of Love, but for me, the choice came down to I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and Baby I Need Your Lovin’. And the winner is … drumroll please … Baby I Need Your Lovin’.
The Jackson Five
It’s true that the J 5 is from Indiana, but they recorded on the Motown label. As a kid, I was a huge fan. I still am. Again, it’s hard to pick just one song, but for me, the standout track has always been I Want You Back. I love the way the song starts with the piano and then the bass line kicks in and we’re off. You can argue that I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There or Never Can Say Goodbye are better tracks, but you’ll lose that argument. Now, I know it’s popular not to listen to anything recorded by Michael Jackson because he turned out to be a child molester. But during the J 5 years, he certainly was not that person, and hey, if we start judging artists based on their personal lives, well, we’re going to be depriving ourselves of a lot of great stuff. You do what you want in this regard, but MJ is still getting played in my house.
The King of Pop. His musical output is in the stratosphere. Huge albums, number one singles. Yes, a bad guy in his personal life. But musically, there aren’t many that are bigger. Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller, Rock With You, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Wanna Be Startin’ Something. The best-selling artist of all time. Clearly a troubled man, but the musical and creative legacy just can’t be ignored. I’m going with Rock With You because I think Off The Wall was his best album.
Martha and the Vandellas
What’s a Vandella? You’ve got me. But if you want to hear one of the best songs from the Motown songbook, you simply have to include Dancing in the Street. Or is that Heat Wave? What about Nowhere to Run or Jimmy Mack? Uncle! These ladies were awesome. While I like all of these songs, I think Dancing in the Street is the cream of the crop, and I’ve included that track for your listening pleasure.
How big were the Commodores? They still get played constantly, with classics like Easy, Three Times a Lady, and their signature song, Brick House. I’m going with Brick House because everyone knows it and it’s got a great funk sound that will get you moving and grooving. Lionel Richie (see below) left the Commodores for a solo career and continued the huge commercial success story.
One of my friends was a huge Spinners fan. I didn’t really agree with him, thinking that they were a bit too saccharine for my tastes. Still, with songs like Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, One of a Kind (Love Affair), and Games People Play, they were all over the radio for a while there. My favorite is Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.
Gladys Knight and the Pips
The Empress of Soul. Gladys did a lot of covers in her day, but Midnight Train to Georgia was a MONSTER hit. I love it and am including it here because it’s just so good. I have a question: why do songs always reference midnight trains? There aren’t many midnight trains. And why would you take one? I guess it sounds better in a song than it does in reality.
Ooooh, I love Rick James! While Super Freak, a catchy song about a nymphomaniac with background vocals done by the Temptations, gets all the props, for my money the best RJ song is Give It To Me, Baby. The bass riff that introduces this tune is enough to get your head bopping, and then the song kicks in and you’re just gone. Don’t believe me? Listen to this and try not to bite your lower lip as you keep time.
The very first number one song for Motown was Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. I’m putting that on the list even though they also recorded a song near and dear to my heart, Don’t Mess With Bill. There are just so many good songs about Bill. I may have to revisit a long-ago BRP post about the great Bill songs.
It’s easy to underestimate Mary Wells. While other Motown performers went on to greater fame and acclaim, she was the first “star” to come out of Hitsville, USA. I love My Guy, her signature song and the one featured on this list, but please don’t overlook songs like Two Lovers and The One Who Really Loves You.
The former Temptation had a monster hit in 1973 with Keep on Truckin’. What is it about the word “truckin” that makes its use so ubiquitous in the rock/soul lyric book? I don’t know, I think it was just a hippie slogan (along with things like “take it easy”) but this song makes me think of my young teenage years. The album version is much longer – the single got cut back in order to make it more commercially viable. And it worked.
How good is the song All Night Long, with its catchy Caribbean-influenced groove? It’s good enough to put Lionel in the Motown stratosphere. This is one fantastic track and my favorite Richie song. The former Commodore also had big hits with You Are, Stuck on You, That’s What Friends Are For, and My Love. He was a mega-star and also a good performer – I’ve seen him live a few times.
Boyz II Men
Yes, this group from Philly actually recorded on Motown. While they have a string of singles that make younger hearts pound, I’m going with their first single, Motownphilly, which mixes the Midwestern funk with the Eastern doo wop into a slammin’ combination.
A white rock band in the Motown quiver? Yep, Rare Earth was that unlikely group. They made a living covering songs by other Motown artists but I Just Want to Celebrate was theirs alone. It’s a great song and still sounds fresh today. I’m a pretty big Get Ready fan, too, and prefer the Rare Earth version to other covers of that song.
Junior Walker and the Allstars
OK, we’re in that portion of the list where artists just had one big hit to their name. Hey, one is better than none, and some of these hits are such great songs that they shouldn’t be overlooked regardless. Such a song is Shotgun which came out on the Soul label where the harder, less commercially oriented R and B artists were recording.
A virulently anti-war song, War was a huge hit for Edwin Starr. It’s been covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and Jackie Chan bothered Chris Tucker by singing the signature verse over and over during Rush Hour. Are those James Brown grunts in there or what?
Who? Most of you know David Ruffin of the Temptations, but this is his older brother. So, yeah, you might not know the artist’s name, but when I say What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, you go, oh, right, that’s a great song. It is. This song was originally meant for the Spinners, but they didn’t get it. Go Jimmy.
I know one song by Thelma Houston, but it could well be my favorite disco song: Don’t Leave Me This Way. I love how the song builds to the chorus and it is just so danceable. It’s a Gamble and Huff song from Philly, and was a cover by Thelma. Motown was originally going to have Diana Ross do the cover, but somehow it ended up with Thelma. Remember that cheesy slut movie, Looking for Mr. Goodbar? It was the big song from that soundtrack as I recall.
Wow. Seriously, take a look at that list. How can you not be bowled over? And let’s not forget that some great artists, like the Isley Brothers, also briefly recorded for Motown. Moreover, the Motown label is still functioning, but I decided not to get into more current artists because for me and my generation, “Motown” means the 1960s – 1980s music featured here.
Did you watch those videos? What a simpler time. I love the synchronized dance moves and the matching outfits. But the songs! And remember that I just featured one or a couple from each artist. The catalog is just so freakin’ deep that it’s still hard to comprehend.
And it would be wrong to go this far with a Motown list and not acknowledge one of the best group of session musicians in the history of popular music: the Funk Brothers. They played backup on so many signature Motown tracks that it’s hard to figure that they never got much credit for driving Hitsville USA to its Everest of heights. Hats off to you, guys.
I’m tired. That was a lot. But it’s great and I’ve got many more such lists to go. Any requests for what’s next? Arena rock? British Invasion? Punk? C’mon, give it to me baby.
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My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.