On its opening in London last week, Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown: The Musical drew this comment from the Independent‘s reviewer: “As for the occasional new numbers written to plug emotional gaps — they’re cheesy, clichéd affairs, which wouldn’t pass muster as B-sides.” It reminded me of the endless pleasure afforded in the 1960s by the discovery that on the B-side of the latest Motown purchase could often be found a track just as good as the designated A-side.
What the great B-sides of the 1960s often did was show you another dimension of the featured artist. In the case of Motown, whose A-sides were usually aimed at dancers, the songs on the flip were frequently ballads. The work ethic of Gordy’s songwriters, producers, musicians and singers meant that they were often every bit as good as the “plug sides”. Here are half a dozen of my favourites.
The Miracles: “A Fork in the Road” (1965) What are the chances of the greatest record ever made — “The Tracks of My Tears”, of course — having an almost equally distinguished B-side? This is one of Smokey Robinson’s deepest ballads: “Seems like love should be easier to bear / But it’s such a heavy load / Worldwide traveller, you ain’t been nowhere / Till you’ve travelled down love’s road.” Voices, strings, vibes and Marvin Tarplin’s liquid guitar set up a mood of entrancement. But beware, danger’s there. Midway there’s a pause, while Smokey gathers himself in preparation for these lines of warning: “If there is something that you don’t see eye-to-eye / You’d better think before you tell your love goodbye / ‘Cause your paths may never cross again / Make sure you take the same bend / At the fork in love’s road…” Just listen to the way he delivers the word “’cause” at 2:41, with an ascending four-note phrase that is a lesson in the proper deployment of vocal virtuosity.
Kim Weston: “Don’t Compare Me With Her” (1965) If I had too choose one record to represent Motown’s dancefloor magic, it would probably be Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”. And here on the B-side is an utterly glorious ballad from Eddie Holland, Lamond Dozier and Janie Bradford. Apparently Kim didn’t like being given sad songs all the time, even when the tempo was up. But that bitter-sweetness was a Motown speciality.
The Temptations: “You’ll Lose a Precious Love” (1966) Released on the flip of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, this gorgeous Smokey Robinson ballad was cut in 1964 and harks back to the streetcorner doo-wop roots of the composer and the group. David Ruffin reins in his customary gospel rasp to make a delicate job of the lead vocal, with bassman Melvin Franklin stepping forward for a brief solo contribution.
The Supremes: “Remove This Doubt” (1966) Another B-side from 1964 coupled to a ’66 hit, this time “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Here’s the sweeter side of Holland-Dozier-Holland: a proper swoonerama for Diane Ross to get her teeth into. “Be more tender / Completely surrender your love to me / Be sweet and not discreet…” The swirly sound works better on a battered mono 45 than on this remastered stereo version.
The Isley Brothers: “There’s No Love Left” (1966) The B-side of the floor-filling “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, and I always preferred its combination of a heartbroken song with a deliberate mid-tempo 4/4, a small half-hidden masterpiece of the H-D-H oeuvre. Hear Ronald Isley cry as the melody hauls itself upwards: “Wondering what am I gonna do? Where can I go?” Answer came there none.
Four Tops: “If You Don’t Want My Love” (1967) The flip of “You Keep Running Away”, the last of the their great run of hits penned by the H-D-H team before the producers turned to brilliant covers of Tim Hardin and the Left Banke. This one isn’t quite like anything else: it’s a gospel take on doo-wop, with Levi Stubbs wailing over a short chord cycle. Brilliant use of harpsichord to italicise the changes, too. And it has one of the great trademarks of the Tops’ hits: the keening sound of the Andantes (Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow), Motown’s regular female session singers, layered above the male voices: somehow, the pure sound of love in despair.
Many others could be added to that list. The Miracles’ sublime “(You Can) Depend on Me”, for instance, which appeared on the flip first of the unsuccessful “The Feeling Is So Fine” in 1959 and then coupled with the local hit “Way Over There” the following year. The Supremes’ delightfully winsome “He Holds His Own”. The Temptations’ Smokey-penned tragedies “Fading Away” and “Don’t Look Back” (on which Paul Williams sang lead). Martha and the Vandellas’ “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”. Brenda Holloway’s “I’ve Been Good to You” and “Starting the Hurt All Over Again”. The Elgins’ “Darling Baby”. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Stepping Closer to Your Heart”. In those days at Hitsville USA, they really did have songs to burn.
* Parts 2 and 3 will look at Adam White’s new book, Motown: The Sound of Young America, and at One Track Mind, a new Ace Records compilation of material from the Motown vaults.