Motown part 3 (of 3): From the vaults
Thanks to the people behind the Complete Original Singles sets and single-artist compilations on the now defunct Hip-O Select label, the Motown catalogue has been scrupulously mined for many of its treasures. Not all of them, however. Under a deal with Universal, the current owners of the Motown masters, permission has been granted for Ace Records to issue previously unreleased material from the label. One Track Mind! More Motown Guys is the title of the latest CD to appear under this arrangement, and as usual some of these 24 rejected tracks remind you of the astonishing level of creative activity maintained at Hitsville USA during the 1960s.
It’s usually possible to guess the reason why these tracks didn’t make it past the weekly meetings of Berry Gordy Jr’s quality control committee, which functioned according to the founder’s famous question: “If you only had a dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?” Maybe the song is not absolutely top-drawer, musically or lyrically, or maybe it’s too blatant an attempt to replicate the previous hits of the artist in question.
But you need no excuse to be swept away by Frank Wilson’s “I’ll Be Satisfied”, almost as fine a piece of Northern Soul heaven as his legendary “Do I Love You”, or the driving piano-and-strings instrumental backing track of Brenda Holloway’s “Think It Over (Before You Break My Heart)”, here credited to Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers. There are other gems, such as Edwin Starr’s “The Girl From Crosstown”, a transitional funk record produced by Norman Whitfield and located somewhere between “Function at the Junction” and “Ball of Confusion”, which is hardly a bad place to be. Jimmy Ruffin’s cover of “The ‘In’ Crowd” is rather fine, and the Temptations’ “I’d Rather Forget” would be given a warm welcome at any ’60s dance party.
The two Marvin Gaye tracks, “The Touch of Venus” and “Do You Wanna Go With Me”, are a long way below par, and the Miracles’ “My Oh My What a Groove” and “I’ve Gotta Find Myself (a True Love)” add little to their distinguished discography. Popcorn Wylie’s “Goose Wobbling Time” is an instantly disposable novelty, but there are decent discoveries from such second-division Motown acts as the Spinners, the Monitors, the Fantastic Four and Singing’ Sammy Ward. And there’s another Earl Van Dyke track, called “Heart to Heart”, on which the leader displays the B-3 sound familiar from his classic “All For You”.
An interesting light is shed on the Motown’s history by the release of an expanded double-CD release of Motortown Revue in Paris, recorded at the Olympia music hall on the Boulevard des Capucines during the celebrated 1965 European tour. The Miracles, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder are the featured attractions, backed by a six-piece band led by Van Dyke and including the great guitarist Robert White (the man who played the intro to the Tempts’ “My Girl”) and the percussionist Jack Ashford. A 19-year-old bass player, Tony Newton, and a drummer, Bob Cousar, who usually played trombone in Motown sessions, deputised for James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, whose presence in the Detroit studio was presumably deemed too valuable to allow them to undertake the trip. The sixth member is the saxophonist Eli Fountain, who would reappear to memorable effect on Gaye’s What’s Going On five years later. Uncredited local brass and reeds players are also added on some of the songs, which I don’t think happened on any of the 21 UK dates that preceded the Paris concert.
What’s noticeable is how the artists are forced into a particular mould through the inclusion of standard songs. Gordy, still misunderstanding the nature of their popularity and his own success, wanted to prepare them for supper-club careers. Martha and the Vandellas get off the lightest, including a respectable version of “If I Had a Hammer” alongside “Heat Wave” and “Wild One”. Steve Wonder, a few weeks past his 15th birthday, sings “Make Someone Happy”, sounding surprisingly like Jimmy Scott. The Miracles deliver “Wives and Lovers”. More distressing is the performance of the Supremes, whose tooth-achingly winsome seven-song set features “People”, “Somewhere” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”. You can see exactly where Gordy was trying to aim his young stars, Diana Ross in particular, and you can only be grateful that, in this respect, he failed.
On the brighter side, Martha and the Vandellas deliver piledriving versions of “Nowhere to Run” and “Dancing in the Street”, and the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” features Smokey Robinson at his most spellbinding. Wonder blows up a storm on harmonica on “Fingertips” and shares the lead vocal on “Funny (How Time Slips Away)” with Clarence Paul, his mentor and producer. Van Dyke introduces each of the two halves of the programme with three band instrumentals. All of these are clearly enjoyed by a capacity crowd at the Olympia, reminding me that in the days before pirate radio you could tune into Salut les Copains on France’s Europe 1 station any weekday evening in the mid-’60s and enjoy Motown records that were never heard on the BBC.
* The photograph, from the collection of Gilles Pétard, appears in the booklet accompanying Motortown Revue in Paris. Backstage photos from the UK concerts are included in the book Motown: The Sound of Young America, the subject of the previous post.