100 Essential CDs – Number 78- Motown Chartbusters Volume 9

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 9 (Spectrum 1998)

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Motown Chartbusters was a brilliant initiative from the UK branch of Motown over at EMI Records. It began in 1967 with the first of two which were entitled “British Motown Chartbusters” giving UK fans the chance to buy an album of their favourite Motown singles which had proved themselves commercially. This was of course some years before the “Now” and “Ministry Of Sounds” compilations, even the budget sound-alike “Top Of The Pops”/”Hot Hits” albums which found their way into so many British homes had not been launched at this point so the concept felt original. They did not seem to have a regular release pattern I think the powers that be waited until there had been enough hits to fill up an album.
By 1974 they had reached Volume 9. (There would go on to be 12 releases lasting until 1982). This edition featured chart hits from 1973-74. The vinyl edition was amongst the first albums I bought and I did so because of the familiarity of so many of the tracks (when you were reliant on saved pocket money purchases you did not want to make any mistakes). This CD came out on 1998 from the budget label Spectrum who re-released the whole series. This is not the best Motown Chartbusters but it is still an essential release.
By the mid 70’s Motown had undergone changes. Most significantly they were no longer based in Detroit but had moved to LA with some rejiggling of artists on their roster. They were very aware of the power of their back catalogue and two of the tracks here were old favourites that scored chart hits the second time around due to public demand. There’s also a significant disparity between the UK and US markets with UK Motown beginning to release different tracks as singles to the US and chart placings for songs released internationally looking very different. In fact out of the 17 tracks on show here only two scored a Top 30 placing in both the UK and US markets.
Despite these changes in how the business was run the label was still very much relying on the stars from its golden sixties days to keep the Motown flag flying. Here really only The Commodores represented what could be seen as names that hadn’t been around since the previous decade. Two lead singers from hit-making groups Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks also had solo tracks for consideration here, Eddie with great success at that time in his homeland but otherwise it was business as usual for artists such as Diana Ross (represented on a hefty six of tracks here), Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

1. Diana Ross – All Of My Life (1974) (UK#9)

1974 was a great year for Diana Ross in the UK with six Top 40 hits thanks to solo tracks from her “Last Time I Saw Him” album, some shrewd marketing in pairing her with Marvin Gaye for an album and a Supremes hit from ten years before rebranded to put her name out in front. This track came from her 1973 album “Touch Me In The Morning” and was not released as a single in the US. This is one of those big sweeping pop ballads for which she became known for at this point in her career before disco kicked in for her she became once again more relevant as an R&B artist.  It’s a good track and we Brits liked it as it became her sixth UK Top 10 hit as a solo artist.

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2. Stevie Wonder – Higher Ground (1973) (UK#29, US#4)

3. Jackson 5 – Dancin’ Machine (1974) (US#2)

4. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – My Mistake Was To Love You (1974) (US#19)

5. Syreeta – Spinnin’ And Spinnin’ (1974) (UK#49)

An inexplicably low chart placing for this joyous song which just undulates gleefully with a lovely vocal performance.  Syreeta had certainly waited for her moment since joining the label as a receptionist in 1965, progressing to demo recordings for The Supremes and her own unsuccessful solo career as Rita Wright in the late 60s.  She was considered as a replacement for Diana Ross when she left The Supremes and was married to Stevie Wonder between 1970 and 1972.  Her ex re-launched her career in 1974 by producing an album for her and this classy composition was penned by the two of them.  It sounds like a Stevie song down to its almost fairground like ending.  Syreeta would go on to reach the upper sections of the singles chart with “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and the stately duet with Billy Preston “With You I’m Born Again” which was a translatlantic Top 5 hit in 1980.  These are three very different tracks but this is undoubtedly my favourite of hers.

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6. Eddie Kendricks – Keep On Truckin’ (1973) (UK#18, US#1)

Big things were expected when Temptations lead singer Kendricks began working on solo tracks.  Initially, not much happened but his voice was perfect for the developing disco scene and this Frank Wilson track made great use of his falsetto over a driving rhythm with a title which became a catch-phrase as the song ascended to the top of the US chart.  There’s more of the same with his US#2 follow-up “Boogie Down” on this CD but that doesn’t quite hold together as well as this track is which is dominated by that driving trucking beat and recalls some of the ground-breaking work Norman Whitfield had done with The Temptations.

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7. R. Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House (1974) (UK#3)

I always see this as a companion to The Four Tops’ “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”.  Canadian  R. Dean Taylor was a bit of an all-rounder and was signed to the label as a song-writer, producer and artist although this track recorded in 1967 has the Holland-Dozier-Holland stamp all over it.  Not at all successful on its first release this became a staple of the UK Northern Soul Scene and when re-released in 1974 gave Taylor a huge hit.  He was known to British audiences through his 1968 hit “Gotta See Jane” and three years before “Ghost” he had almost made number 1 (and a #5 US hit) with the country-flavoured “Indiana Wants Me”.  This was a very different sounding track and it has always been a big favourite of mine with a definite Four Tops feel and a theme which makes it an essential track for a Halloween party made creepy with the feel of those footsteps of the departed clumping around the house.

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There’s a ghost in his house!

8. Smokey Robinson – Just My Soul Responding (1974) (UK#35)

Another artist going it alone by 1974 was Smokey Robinson and a track from his debut album as a solo artist.  By this time Vice-President of the company Smokey has always been seen as the poet of the label through his song-writing achievements whereas Stevie Wonder is seen as the social commentator and Marvin Gaye as the visionary but all elements are combined with this odd but effective track for him which didn’t really do the business it could have been expected to do as an early solo track from one of Motown’s greats.  Beginning with a “Happy Birthday” refrain and Native American rhythms (written with Miracles band-mate Marvin Taplin) this focuses on life in the ghetto.  It’s the combination of Smokey’s wistful vocal and Indian style chants which is decidedly curious and lyrics like “too many roaches and not enough heat to keep my babies warm” makes this some distance away from “Tears Of A Clown”.

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9. Diana Ross – Last Time I Saw Him (1974) (UK#35, US#14)

10. Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – You Are Everything (1974) (UK#5)

A fat bonus due to the person in the Motown offices who suggested this as an idea.  Marvin had previously been paired with great success with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell but an album of duets with the Queen of Motown was always going to be a huge commercial proposition.  The songs that made it bigger in the US were a little edgier but over here the big hit was a cover of the song that had been the first US Top 10 hit for the Stylistics three years before but had not charted in the UK but was a well-known song.  From its wheezy intro into Marvin’s spoken opening you just know it is going to go well and the song works perfectly as a duet.  It seems that things in the studio were not always as harmonious as they appear on vinyl and because of commitments and Diana being pregnant some tracks were recorded separately with the vocals being mixed together.  This is common practice with all those “featuring” tracks which litter the pop charts today but it seemed odd in 1974 that one of the all-time classic duet albums was recorded in this way.

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11. Stevie Wonder – He’s Misstra Know It All (1974) (UK#10)
12. Diana Ross & Supremes – Baby Love (1964) (UK#1,US#1) 1974 (UK#12)
13. Jimmy Ruffin – What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (1966) (UK#8,US#7) 1974 (UK#4)

Both this and the preceding Supremes track show how loved the back-catalogue of Motown was in the mid 70’s with this re-release performing even better than it did the first time round.  This is not surprising as it is an all-time classic which fully deserved its Top 5 chart status.  Jimmy, older brother of Temptations lead David was always better received in the UK and this reissue became the 8th of his 11 Top 40 hits (in his homeland he scored four).  This is an exceptional song written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean and Jimmy needed to do a bit of persuading to be allowed to record it as it was intended for The  (Motown/Detroit) Spinners.  Jimmy’s version flows beautifully which builds up the heartbreak.  A song which has survived many cover versions including a US hit for Paul Young and a UK one for Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone  and inexplicably topping the charts for thespian songsters Robson and Jerome this is one of those songs that every artist tackling it should know that they are not going to surpass the original.

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14. Stevie Wonder – Living For The City (1973) (UK#15, US#8)

15. Diana Ross – Love Me (1974) (UK#38)
16. Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down (1974) (UK#39, US#2)
17. Commodores – Machine Gun (1974) (UK#20, US#22)

A track to catch them out in pub quizzes up and down the country.  “Who recorded this song?” The debut hit from who would go on to become one of the top funk and soul acts of the 70’s with lead singer Lionel Richie going on to dominate charts in the 80s and well beyond with his brand of sophisticated pop is this zinging instrumental which did well on both sides of the Atlantic and was certainly not typical of the sound they came to be associated with.  It’s the clavinet which gives this its machine-gun feel, hence its title.  Motown were not known for its instrumental hits but rival label Philadelphia International had topped the US charts earlier in 1974 with MFSB and “TSOP” which showed the market was there.  This gave Motown the confidence to get behind the title track from the debut funk-filled album from their new signings, one of its two instrumental tracks.  It paid off as it introduced the group to the world.  In the US they followed it with a steady run of ballads and uptempo tracks although in the UK it would be take three years for them to get another Top 40 hit with “Easy” a classic track which really established the blueprint for what this group and its fledgling superstar lead singer was going to be all about.

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 9 is currently available in the UK from Amazon used from £1.95 and from $10.76 in the US.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 74 – Lionel Richie – Back To Front

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Back To Front – Lionel Richie (Motown 1992)

UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position –19

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The Commodores were signed to the Motown label in 1972 and built up a following as a support act for the Jackson 5. Pretty much a funk band in the early days the group member initially playing the saxophone was one Lionel Richie from Tuskagee, Alabama. The group’s first hit “Machine Gun” (1974 UK#20 US# 22) was actually an instrumental where Lionel’s sax work can be heard. As the group diversified into ballads alongside the funk Lionel’s vocals began to be heard in hits such as “Sweet Love” (1976 UK#32, US#5) and the all-time classic “Easy” (1977 UK#9, US#4) and a song penned for his wife “Three Times A Lady” became the group’s first chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic and opened doors for Richie. Asked to write and produce a hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, “Lady” saw Richie crossing into new markets and scored his biggest hit to date, his first US #1 in 1980. The following year saw Richie pen a song from the throwaway Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love” and record it as a duet with Diana Ross. In the US that became Motown’s biggest selling single to date with a nine week run at number 1. (In the UK it stalled at number 7). A solo career inevitably beckoned.

From “Machine Gun” to “Natural High” the Commodores became one of Motown’s biggest groups.

By 1992, after three huge selling albums Richie had experienced a five year career hiatus and to remove the pressure of having to come up with a whole new album Motown green-lighted “Back To Front” which would feature three new recordings alongside 13 of his biggest hits, predominantly from the solo career. The title explains the format- the new material was not tucked in at the end but led the recording. It brought Richie back into the limelight and topped the charts in the UK. It’s a great one- album introduction to what Richie was all about.

The format, does mean, however that the CD opens with the weakest track on display. “Do It To Me” like the rest of the new material was written by Richie and produced by Stewart Levine. All three were released as singles in the UK. This came out about a month before the album was released and is a pleasant enough early 90’s laid-back ballad with plenty of saxophone. It is a long way from the classic Richie songs and feels the most like album filler of the three tracks. It gave Richie his first UK Top 40 hit for over five years when it reached number 33. In the US it did better and became the highest placed track of the new material, scoring him his fifth solo R&B chart-topper and making 21 in the pop charts. In the UK we favoured the second release, “My Destiny” which is, as far as I am concerned, his last great single release. Its number 7 placing was his highest since 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling”. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands. It feels the most contemporary of the three, a slinky mid-tempo number which felt like just what Richie should have been releasing in 1992. It’s a great little sing along track

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Major anthem status was sought out for the third of the three tracks, “Love Oh Love” which has the feel of “We Are The World” the all-star USA for Africa song written by Richie with Michael Jackson as part of Live Aid. This tracks hovers very close to the cheesy with its chorus of children, “Little Drummer Boy” rhythm and big themes of world peace and eradicating sorrow but rather like Mr Jackson’s “Earth Song” I personally think Richie gets away with it and it’s all rather charming. At the end of 1992 I thought this could garner the Xmas single market and be a big hit but it didn’t happen, falling short of the Top 40. Once again it had its strongest approval in the Netherlands where it was a Top 20 hit.

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I don’t feel that these new tracks let the album down in any way but it is more likely that people purchased it for the remaining thirteen tracks, probably to replace on CD what was already owned on vinyl. There’s no chronological approach as suggested by the title, we just get a mixture of tracks from the back catalogue. As a solo artist Richie released three solo albums on Motown and here we get the cream of those tracks – just one from the first album, five of the original eight tracks from the second and two from the third. As well as this there is the non-album duet and four of his biggest Commodores hits to make up the 16 tracks. It made better sense to buy this on CD to replace a vinyl copy of “Can’t Slow Down”, that second Motown album, as you got the best tracks from that and much more besides. I don’t think it totally encompasses the cream of the Commodores output – for that I would recommend the 2005 double CD “Gold”.

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The thing that slightly overshadows Richie’s career as far as I am concerned is that with both his solo hits and works with the Commodores, the biggest hits, the ones that have come to define the artist are some distance from his best. “Three Times A Lady” with its quite traditional waltz feel and ever so cheesy lyrics sounded alright at the time of release and certainly broadened the group’s appeal with an older generation above their usual market falling for this schmalty track and it gave the group their first Pop #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Solo Richie’s pretty-enough ballad from his second album “Hello” was the third single release off a very big release so something was needed to bring it to record buyers who had not gone for the album. A cheesy video, which at the time seemed more like a movie with a blind girl fashioning the head of Richie out of clay was fine for the first few viewings but then its out and out cheesiness became indelibly linked with the song in my head and is often the first thing people remember about Richie. This track also topped the Charts in the USA and became his only solo number one in the UK. I tolerate both these tracks on the CD but don’t exactly look forward to either of them, but probably for many people, these may have been what decided them to part with their cash for “Back To Front”.

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So, that’s the negatives done with. Let’s look at what is really special about this album. Firstly, that’s all the rest of the Commodores tracks, particularly “Easy”. How great a track is this? Penned by Richie and produced alongside James Anthony Carmichael, it is real laid-back sophisticated soul, stopped being totally as “easy as a Sunday morning” by one of the great guitar solos in a pop hit. There’s a great echoey feel to the whole thing. It’s one of the best not-out-of-Detroit Motown singles of all time. “Still” is also excellent and became their second US chart-topper in 1979 (in the UK#4) a real piece of calm amidst all the Disco that was released that year and sounding pretty much like a deep soul ballad with an orchestral backing. “Sail On” (1979 US#4 UK#8) perhaps underlines more than any of the others how close this group could go towards country music, and may have been behind the idea to have Richie work with country legend Kenny Rogers, this kind of musical boundary blurring quite unusual in the days of genre-specific radio play in the US. There’s a lovely build to this track.

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To launch his solo career Richie took producer James Anthony Carmichael with him and with him now penning much of the Commodres material it was really the smoothest of transitions to solo stardom as first solo hit “Truly” fits in perfectly with The Commodores ballad sound. Another calm ballad very much in the feel of “Still” with the build of “Sail On”. It was an unsurprising US Pop #1 and reached 6 in the UK in 1982.

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The album “Can’t Slow Down” was a clear statement at propelling Richie towards super-stardom. It fused musical styles ending up really as one of the early classic black pop albums and won the Grammy for the Album of The Year in 1985 and topped charts all around the world. The infectious “All Night Long (All Night)” proved that Richie wasn’t just a ballad singer but was also no longer the funk singer who snarled his way through “Brick House”. This was bright and breezy and intended for the masses and they loved it as it topped the US chats and got to number 2 in the UK. Its carnival feel ensured its worldwide success. Less showy but successful tracks from the album here included are “Penny Lover” (1984 US#8, UK#18), Stuck On You (US#3,UK#12) and the rock-lite of “Running With The Night” (US#7, UK#9) where a rock guitar which made “Easy” holds this track back .

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The third Richie solo album, “Dancing On The Ceiling” didn’t impress me nearly as much. The tracks included here, the title track, (1986 US#2, US#7) and “Say You Say Me” (US#1, UK#8) actually sound better now than they did at the time of release when I found one cheesy and one a little dull. Other single releases from the album, especially “Ballerina Girl” and “Sela” seemed to suggest Richie had lost his way somewhat as far as this record buyer was concerned. They are not included on “Back To Front” and led to a burnt out Richie beginning his extended break from recording and the public arena.

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Lionel Richie was not able to build on the success of this album and it was not until 1996, four years after this compilation and ten years after his last studio album that he re-emerged on the Mercury label with “Louder Than Words”. Over the years his subsequent albums have seen him toying with R&B and hip-hop influenced tracks with varying success. Nothing he has recorded since I would consider essential, although there was a triumphant return to form in 2012 when a back-to-his-country roots album “Tuskagee” topped the US charts marking his first Number 1 hit in 26 years. This revisited his hits alongside collaborations with country music stars including Shania Twain, Willie Nelson and with Kenny Rogers on a new version of “Lady” which helped catapult him into solo fame. This was too much country for me, but it was great to have him back in the limelight.

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Richie has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and features on lists of the biggest selling stars of all time. This album reminds us why.

 

Back To Front is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.85 and used from £0.05.  It can be downloaded for $7.89 .In the US it is available new from $12.11, Used from $0.08 and can be downloaded for $6.99.used for $3.00.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.