April 14: Motown

MotownBy 1959, the young songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. had established himself as a talented composer. In fact, “Lonely Teardrops”, a song he wrote for Jackie Wilson, had gone to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Gordy was not satisfied and believed that he deserved better royalties than he was currently getting. After realizing that he could make more money producing and publishing records, he created two small record labels, Tamla Records and Motown Records. On this day in 1960, Gordy combined the two labels into the Motown Record Corporation. A year later Motown would score its first number one hit with the Marvellettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and the rest was history.

Chances are that if you’ve listened to the radio anytime over the last fifty years, you probably know the hits from Motown’s biggest acts (The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and many many more). So, rather than look at the hits, I’m going to share with you five of my favorite lesser known Motown records.

Frank Wilson, “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”

Wilson was a songwriter at Motown when he cut this record and Gordy forced him to choose between being a songwriter or performer. Wilson decided to remain a songwriter, and very few copies of this single were ever pressed. However, a few copies wound up in England where it became popular in the Northern Soul club scene. Although it was never a charting hit, “Do I Love You” eventually received a special edition re-issue (actually it’s first real release) in 1979. It’s my opinion that if this infectious song had been given a proper release in the mid-60s it would be one of Motown’s most famous hits.

The Wright Specials, “Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do”

There were actually a few gospel groups signed to Motown, including The Wright Specials, whose catalog included this hot gospel rave up.

The Supremes, “Nathan Jones”

Contrary to popular belief, the Supremes actually had eight Top 40 hits after the departure of longtime lead singer Diana Ross in 1970. 1971’s “Nathan Jones” peaked at number 16 on the Billboard chart and has a slight reggae groove.

The Messengers, “That’s The Way A Woman Is”

The Messengers were the first white act signed to Motown and released records on Motown’s rock sub-label Rare Earth. “That’s The Way A Woman Is” from 1971 is delicious bubblegum power pop.

Marvin Gaye, “Yesterday”

On their second record, With The Beatles, the Beatles covered two Motown hits, “Please Mr. Postman” and Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold on Me“. The Motown stars would reciprocate many times, although Stevie Wonder’s take on “We Can Work It Out” was the only Motown Beatles cover to make it as a hit. With all that said, the best Motown take on a Beatles composition is probably Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “Yesterday”, from his 1970 album That’s The Way Love Is.

Today when you’re spinning these and other Motown records, sip on a Motown Smash. It’s a sweet little cocktail of unknown provenance.

Motown Smash

  • 1 1/2 ounces Spiced Rum
  • 1/2 ounce Raspberry Liqueur
  • 1 ounce pineapple juice
  • lemon-lime soda

Pour all ingredients into an ice filled highball glass, fill with lemon-lime soda.

Tomorrow: And the band played on?


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