100 Essential CDs – Number 8 – Motown Chartbusters Volume 10

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 10 (Spectrum 1998)

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The development of the Motown label is one of the most important cultural aspects of the second half of the twentieth century.  I never tire of hearing how Berry Gordy crammed young talented artists into the little Hitsville studio in Detroit and through hard work, determination and drive to succeed turned a significant number of these artists into household names and maintained success throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.  The seventies side of things tends to be overlooked.  Gordy decided to up sticks and move out of Detroit and relocate in LA, a decision which rankled with many fans and was seen as selling out for the glamour of Hollywood and the general feeling was that Motown was never the same again.  Not so, the 16 tracks on this CD which first appeared on vinyl in 1979 are of a quality so high that this is probably my favourite compilation album of all time.  The recordings date over a period of four years which does show that the pace of hits had slowed down from the time when they could put out two of these hits compilations a year and it had been five years since the preceding volume which I also have on my Essential CDs list.   Not everyone who was entitled to have tracks on this album has done so, there’s no Stevie Wonder for the first time ever on a Chartbusters recording and he was probably at his commercial peak at this period, there’s no David Ruffin, who had made a strong comeback with tracks produced by Van McCoy.  Some of the old guard are represented, especially Diana Ross with three tracks, the three track award is also given to newer act The Commodores who had featured on Chartbusters 9 with their debut instrumental hit but had in the intervening years gone on to become a supergroup.  There’s also newer names such as Rick James, Teena Marie and Tata Vega who were paving the way for Motown’s continued success.  Statistically, the tracks look impressive with 9 of the 16 being Top 10 UK hits and six US number 1’s.  There was no way that Motown was a spent force, a great number of these tracks are amongst my all-time favourites.  However, this was the last essential Motown Chartbuster CD as far as I am concerned.  Volume 11 was released just a year later and despite highlighting Diana Ross’ work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic and having big hits from the likes of Teena Marie, The Commodores and Billy Preston & Syreeta a lot of the magic and creative inspiration which fills Volume 10 had gone.

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.Three Times A Lady – The Commodores (1978) (UK#1,US#1)

2. Love Hangover –Diana Ross (1976) (UK#10, US#1)

3. The Night – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (1975) (UK#7)

When I focused on the essential 20 Greatest Hits by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons I lamented the absence of this particular track. In the early 70’s the band signed to Motown with fairly disastrous commercial results. Berry Gordy put them on his subsidiary Mo-West label which was set up to branch out with more rock orientated acts when the band, with their brand of blue-eyed soul could have been very much at home on the main Motown label. Mo-West wasn’t such a great priority and the albums recorded for them (although history has seen them critically well-received) did not sell. “The Night” however found its way to the UK charts via the Northern Soul clubs who pounced on its rarity and forced a commercial release. This is a superb, driving  track which is a great British favourite for the group which almost certainly would not have appeared on any US hits compilations.  The Chartbuster series was an innovation from the UK arm of the label which is why we are treated with gems like this.

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4. Got To Give It Up (Part 1) – Marvin Gaye (1977) (UK#7,US#1)

5. Get It Up For Love – Tata Vega (1979) (UK#52)

6. The Boss – Diana Ross (1979) (UK#40, US#19)

Another track which was left off another of my Essential CD’s which got me moaning when I reviewed it.  On 40 Motown Greats by Diana Ross & The Supremes there was no room for this solo classic from Ross. I’d even specified the track I would have sacrificed for this superb Ashford and Simpson song which behind the disco gloss tells the story of a woman claiming to be totally in control and not prepared to be sideswiped by love.  There’s some lovely touches in the lyrics and a great performance from Ms. Ross.  At the time we might have expected this to be a bigger hit, certainly in the UK, where it just scraped the Top 40 but time has been very good to this track.  I did buy a considerable number of Motown singles at the time this was released but I never bought this and it was only hearing it in a nightclub probably 15 years later and the response it got that I realised I had missed out on how good this sounds.  Its continued popularity tempted girl group (and sisters of Toni) The Braxtons to revisit it which performed nine places better than the original in 1997 and topped the US Dance charts but which isn’t a patch on Ross’ version.  The production and songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson is still under-rated and this is one of their finest efforts.

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7. Theme From “Big Time”- Smokey Robinson (1977)

8. Your Kiss Is Sweet – Syreeta (1975) (UK#12)

9. Theme From “Mahogany” – Diana Ross (1975) (UK#5, US#1)

10. Easy – The Commodores (1977) (UK#9,US#4)

11. I’m A Sucker For Your Love – Teena Marie (1979) (UK#43)

An influential artist who was not as big as she should have been.  When I first heard Madonna I thought she was somebody who wanted to be another Teena Marie.  I’m sure there would not have been a Madonna without Teena Marie to pave the way.  This was her debut hit for the artist born Mary Brockert signed to Motown and recording material that was being left unreleased by them until Rick James, the label’s new hot act, passed on producing Diana Ross and asked to work with Teena instead.  This first single was actually a duet with an uncredited James which would have gained it radio play but the title was open to misinterpretation which might have caused some anxiety to radio programmers.  There was also the difficulty of how to market the artist, it was assumed she was black and she became the first white artist to perform on “Soul Train” showcasing this track.  In the late 70’s with the restrictions from American radio Teena probably suffered but she was largely embraced as a soul act getting more play from R&B radio because of her voice and obvious love of black music.  Her biggest hit in the UK would come a year later with “Behind The Groove” and she put out some excellent material for the label.  Ironically, her biggest US hit would have to wait until 1985’s “Lovergirl” made it into the Top 5 three years after becoming dismayed by the handling of her career by Motown which saw her move to the Epic label.  Incidentally, mentor Rick James’ best track, his debut hit “You And I” is also on this CD.

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12. Love Machine – The Miracles (1976) (UK#3, US#1)

Containing members of the first group to make serious money for Motown with 1960’s “Shop Around”, by 1976 lead singer Smokey had gone solo but by the time this album was released he was struggling to find material.  The track by him here the theme to some long forgotten film was an attempt to make himself relevant in the way Ross and Marvin Gaye had done, by embracing disco, it’s a fair enough result which the label had high hopes for but is the only track on this album not to have pop success on either side of the Atlantic.  His old band-mates The Miracles were having a completely different experience in the mid 70’s with this classic chart-topping track with Smokey’s replacement Billy Griffin as lead vocalist.   It’s a joyful piece of music which combines 70’s disco with a feel of the doowop type song The Miracles would have begun their career with.  It was a great comeback for the group, but unfortunately, the Motown of the 70’s would struggle with consistency and couldn’t come up with the goods for this group to continue this success.  No longer having the cream of song writing and production teams on staff to build on this great commercial sound this was the last time this incarnation of the group would make the charts.

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13. It Should Have Been Me – Yvonne Fair (1976) (UK#5)

The history of Motown is peppered with extremely talented artists that the label did not really know what to do with and Yvonne Fair is another of these.  She’d been around long enough on the label to have had a small part in the game-changing “Lady Sings The Blues” movie and had already proved her musical worth as part of the James Brown Revue before coming to Motown.  Working with Norman Whitfield they came up with the idea to reinvent a song that Whitfield together with Mickey Stevenson had penned for Gladys Knight & The Pips and as in a previous reinvention of a Gladys song “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” which was reworked for Marvin Gaye the end result was extraordinary.  It’s no easy feat to outdo Knight’s vocal but Yvonne turned this into a blistering soul shouter which begins menacingly quiet set in a church where Yvonne’s love is about to get married to somebody else.  Well, not if she has anything to do with it.  Knowing this song it’s impossible to attend a wedding ceremony and get to the bit where the celebrant begins “if any objection to this wedding” without Yvonne’s response coming to mind.  The UK loved this song giving her a Top 5 hit, extraordinary for a raw soul performance but it was seen as somewhat as a novelty which meant that Fair’s continued success was probably doomed. This was a tragedy because follow-up single was even better, there were few emotional tour-de-forces out there as “It’s Bad For Me To See You” which I think is an all-time Classic Motown track which did get radio play but didn’t make any inroads in the pop charts.  It took 34 years for Motown to put Yvonne’s only album “The Bitch Is Black” out on CD which showed someone as at home with raw funk as the deep soul which made her name.  Yvonne Fair was also another of the Motown artists who passed away too soon, of cancer at the age of 51 in 1994.

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14. You And I – Rick James (1978) (UK#46, US#13)

15. Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston (1977) (UK#13, US#1) (also on “Nights In Heaven“)

16. Sail On – The Commodores (1979) (UK#8,US#4)

This review is the final piece of the puzzle of my 100 Essential CDs which is now complete.  It’s taken almost five years to run through these which means my list is now already five years out of date.  Even though there’s been good music over the last five years these 100 CDs are so entrenched in my psyche that it might be hard for me to move one out of the list to put something else in so it’s going to stay exactly as it is.  I  hope you enjoy reading my CD selections and that it might have prompted you to rediscover some of the artists I have written about.  A quick word count suggests something in the region of 187,000 words have been written in this section so many thanks if you have read all, some or any of them.  I’m going to be leaving writing about music for a little while but no doubt a new thread will be back soon.  In the meantime if you have just stumbled across this review there are another 99 to go!

Happy New Year!

 

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.