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 53 –Marvin Gaye – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of – Marvin Gaye (Motown 1994)

UK Chart Position -3

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Following on from my appreciation of The Four Tops I would like to stay with the Motown label to take time out to celebrate one of the all-time great soul singers, whose life came to a premature end at the hands of his father on 1st April 1984 (on the eve of his 45th birthday).  This was a man with a story to tell and an intense, disturbed story it is as well but let’s not let his life (or death) overshadow the phenomenal creative talent.  I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not have been easy to live with but when on form he is almost peerless in the field of American popular music. I say on form, because this was not always the case.  Marvin released some albums which challenged the patience of even his greatest fans and for me, even his most celebrated albums have the odd dodgy track or have not aged well.  This is why I have opted for a Best Of compilation to join my Essential CDs list.  A lot of people would agree with me as this CD, released ten years after his death reached his highest ever UK album chart position, even though it was the 7th compilation album of his to chart since 1968’s “Greatest Hits”.

In the US, however, Marvin was more consistent as an album artist with a run of four Top 20 studio albums in the early 70’s.  His highest charting album “Let’s Get It On” reached number 2 in the US in 1973 yet only scraped to #39 in the UK.  Perhaps his most famous album “What’s Going On?” which is now seen as a milestone in pop music history got to #6 (US) in 1971 but has never made an appearance in the UK Top 40 album charts.  We seemed to love Marvin over here more as a singles artist and this collection of 22 tracks shows why.

Marvin came to Motown hoping to be the “Black Sinatra” crooning standards.  To begin with Berry Gordy was not that impressed,  using him as a session player and drummer.  Gaye’s ambitions were bigger than this and a marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna,  seventeen years older than him,  cemented his relationship with the Motown family .  His first break came with “Hitch Hike” (US#30 1963) with backing from Martha and The Vandellas –a typical Motown call and response type track which started off a run of hits with a similar feel.  Of these only the gospel-esque stomper “Can I Get A Witness” (US#22) is included on this CD.

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Someone at Motown had the good idea of pairing this good looking, growing in popularity male singer with their most successful female singer, Mary Wells and the two recorded an album together.  The single“Once Upon A Time” got to #15 (US in 1964) and made a very brief appearance in the UK Top 50.  Wells had recorded a string of US hits but was just coming off her worldwide smash “My Guy”.  This track turned Mary’s head.  She thought she was indispensible as Motown’s female star and became one of their first casualties – leaving the label at the height of her fame and finding little success elsewhere.  It was a hard lesson, no-one was indispensable to Motown, especially with the ambitious Diana Ross waiting in the wings.  The Gaye/Wells pairing was so well-received that it set a precedent for pairing him with other female artists over the years and eight of the tracks on this album are duets and are amongst his finest work.

Partner number 2 was Kim Weston and they also sounded good together.  The highlight of their association “It Takes Two” is an all-time classic and in reaching number 16 in the UK in 1967 (US#14) became his biggest British hit to date.

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Tammi and Marvin

Partner number 3 followed hot on the heels of Kim .  Marvin Gaye’s recordings with Tammi Terrell show such chemistry that they are probably the greatest duet act of all time. There are five Marvin and Tammi duets on this CD and three of them are outstanding tracks .  All are written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and are great examples of duet-songwriting.  Ashford and Simpson of course went on to score duet hits of their own (biggest hit “Solid” in 1985) and they knew just how to pitch the songs for two voices and as a life-long couple themselves could certainly write love songs.  Perhaps the best of all is “You’re All I Need To Get By” (1968 UK#19, US#7) closely followed by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (1968 UK#34 US#8) but I have a huge affection also for the UK only hit “The Onion Song” (1969 #9).  A rather heavy-handed metaphor for the state of the world telling us to “plant love seeds” this is just performed so beautifully and moves along at a great lick.  What was not known at the time is much of the female vocals are actually Valerie Simpson’s as Tammi was too ill with a brain tumour to finish the recording.  The single was actually released posthumously.  Surprisingly absent is their other essential duet the original of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which when reworked became a massive solo hit for Diana Ross.  I think I would have preferred this on the CD to the lesser “Good Lovin’Ain’t Easy To Come By”.  Albums of just Marvin and Tammi’s duets (they recorded three together) as well as CDs with all of his duets are available and very well worth considering should you like this aspect of Gaye’s work.  Tammi’s death sent Gaye into a spiral of depression which affected his life and his career.

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Diana and Marvin

By `1974 Motown were ready to pair him up again.  This time with Diana Ross.  For me the album they recorded together is a commercial triumph rather than a creative one.  There’s a little too much sweetness in the tracks chosen for the UK market “Stop Look (Listen To Your Heart) (1974#25) and even “You Are Everything” (1974 #5), both Thom Bell and Linda Creed songs which had been previously recorded by The Stylistics.  The duo had a couple of completely different US Top 20 hits released from this duet album – but they do not appear on this CD.

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I heard it through the grapevine it might be worth visiting the launderette

Marvin’s most famous solo single kicks off this CD.  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968/69.  In the UK it became Motown’s third chart-topper.  The song had previously got to number 2 for Gladys Knight and The Pips the year before and their version is something of a mid-paced gospel shouter.  Norman Whitfield decided to transform this song that he had co-written with Barrett Strong to turn out a completely different production.  Gaye’s version is chilling.  From the opening chords and the snare drum beat Marvin sounds like a doomed man as he lament the fact that gossip told him that his love had found someone new.  That ominous beat, excellent use of backing vocals and the tortured vocals make this an all-time classic.  If someone wants to know what Soul Music is all about this makes a perfectly good introduction.  A certain Levi jeans advert and a stripping Nick Kamen revitalised this track and on re-issue it gave Gaye a posthumous UK#8 hit in 1986.  There’s more classic soul in “What’s Going On?” the title track from a protest concept album that Berry Gordy did not want to release and in the title track from the follow-up album which went from protest to the bedroom with the sublimely sensual “Let’s Get It On”.  There’s the original and perky version of the track which became a huge debut hit for Paul Young “Wherever I Lay My Hat” which is full of charm.  Another high spot is the elegy for Lincoln, Luther King and Kennedy “Abraham, Martin and John” another Whitfield production which ranks amongst Marvin’s best.

Marvin Gaye did not just sing a track, he coloured it in and there were cases where there was more colouring than song.  Some of his post “Let’s Get It On” work could seem a little self-indulgent.  This was the man who was ordered by a judge to give royalties to his next album to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna as part of their divorce proceedings.  The result “Here My Dear” is an intense, brooding listen which many fans gave up on (was that the intention all the time?) .  From this we get the best track “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You”.  This was an album which tried my patience although it is now recognised amongst his classics by some.  Gaye’s second of this two US number 1 hits was the funk workout “Got To Give It Up (1977 UK#7).  I’m a little ambivalent about this party-in-the-studio track but it certainly remains influential.  The biggest song of 2013 “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke with Pharrell Williams and T.I found itself in breach of copyright infringement by not acknowledging the debt to Gaye’s track.

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After years in the doldrums and a departure from Motown to CBS including a period of rehabilitation in Ostend, attempting to put his life back together Gaye co-wrote and produced “Sexual Healing” a track which proved a thrilling comeback and happily sits there amongst his best recordings.  A UK#4, US#3 hit in 1982 gave Gaye his long-awaited Grammy award and with the big selling “Midnight Love” album it looked as if Gaye was back for good.  I’m very pleased that Motown have put this non-Motown track on this CD.  It all ended for Gaye just a couple of years later in tragic circumstances.

For twenty two tracks which shows the breadth, range and talent of this artist I think this is an essential CD to have in your collection.  Marvin Gaye may have been a troubled soul but just listening to his music his importance shines through.

“The Best Of Marvin Gaye”  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £1.99.  It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is available for $8.99 and used from $1.94.  It is also available to stream from Spotify.