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Sunday, August 02, 2015

A Celebration of '60s Motown!

Hey there, groovy dudes and Georgy girls!  Hope you're ready for some 1960s goodness, as this week is SIXTIES WEEK in A Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life!

And, I have a confession to make.  I am so excited about doing this week's edition of the Sunday Jukebox entry because I absolutely love 1960s music.

From the rockabilly sounds of 1960 to the psychedelic guitar songs of 1969, and everything in between, there was just something special about the sounds of the 1960s.  Unlike other decades, the 1960s had a very special spark of originality and creativity.  Very few cover records were released during this period, and if any were, they usually sounded halfway decent enough that nobody really noticed.

(Seriously, 25%-35% of the songs that topped the charts in the 1980s and 1990s were cover versions of 1960s songs.)

And since I'm doing album spotlights in the Sunday Jukebox entries now, I thought that I would do a spotlight on a 1960s era compilation of songs.  Songs that not only are definitive for an entire generation of people, but songs that come from what could be one of my favourite eras of music.

In 2009, this compilation was released.  It's a collection of 40 songs intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Motown Records.  Founded on January 12, 1959 by Berry Gordy (under the original name of Tamla Records), it was definitely one of the powerhouses of the 1960s recording scene.  The roster of artists underneath the Motown label were small, but powerful.  And even though Motown started off as a very small label (it was based in Detroit, Michigan for the first thirteen years of its existence before relocating to Los Angeles in 1972), it packed a huge punch.  Between 1960 and 1970, the label boasted a whopping seventy-nine Top 10 Records on the Billboard Hot 100. 

These days, Motown is only a shadow of its former self, though it still exists in some format.  An independent company until the late 1980s (Gordy sold the company to MCA and Boston Ventures in '88), Motown was sold at least three more times before merging with Universal Records in 2005 and as of 2015, it now operates as a subsidiary to Capitol Records.

Anyway, the Motown sound is probably some of my favourite music to come out of the 1960s, and I have to admit that I have a lot of the old-school Motown music downloaded in my iPod.  There is just something special and whimsical about Motown music.  Most of it is happy, carefree, and thoughtful.  Even the songs about break-ups aren't nearly as depressing as some of the break-up songs sung by...oh...Taylor Swift, perhaps.

And Motown Records did more than just release great rhythm and blues music.  They shattered a lot of colour barriers in the United States as far as radio airplay went.  Prior to 1960, it was very difficult for artists of colour to get their music heard.  With the success of Motown Records, African-American artists thrived on the pop charts.  Motown basically helped these artists find their voice, and I think that the recording industry is all the better for it.

So, I thought that for today's edition, I'd pick out my favourite songs from this compilation, and provide a bit of trivia about the songs or the artists.

I think this could be a lot of fun!  So, sit back and listen to some of these Motown classics with me!

"SHOP AROUND" - The Miracles with Smokey Robinson
Disc One - Track 2
Released: September 27, 1960
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts: #2

All right, so this was an iconic single for the Motown label.  Not only was it the first major release for the label, but it was the first single that hit #1 on the R&B charts.  And, it was the first single for both Motown and the Miracles that sold one million copies.  It's a song with a great message as well, as the song is about a mother telling her grown son not to settle for any just girl.  He should "shop around" so that he can find the right woman to settle down with.  Great advice for any man, and a great debut record for a record company!

"DO YOU LOVE ME" - The Contours
Disc One - Track 4
Released:  June 29, 1962
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #3

Here's a song that actually charted twice!  Once in 1962, and once more in 1988 (the reason being that it was a song that appeared in the successful film "Dirty Dancing").  And it's a song that has been covered by a slew of other artists such as The Dave Clark Five, Westlife, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks!

And here's an interesting fact about this single.  It was intended for The Temptations to sing!  The reason Berry Gordy wanted the song for the Temptations was because he felt that it would be the song that launched them onto the Top 40 charts.

But when the band could not be found as they had already committed to performing at a Detroit gospel festival, the song was offered to The Contours.

And although the song didn't quite reach the top of the charts, it did do one positive thing for The saved them from being dropped by the record label!

"MY GUY" - Mary Wells
Disc One - Track 9
Released:  March 13, 1964
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #1

Okay, I have a confession here.  This is probably one of those songs that makes my Top 5 list of favourite Motown songs recorded.  Of course, having a song penned by Smokey Robinson himself probably helped keep this song on the top of the charts in the spring of '64.

Considered Motown's very first solo female star, Wells was barely 21 when she sang this hit.  But given the husk of her voice and the sensual way she sang it, you'd never know it!  Apparently, Wells started singing it the same way as if Mae West would sing it as a joke.  To her surprise though, they liked it!

Sadly, this would be Mary's last hit with Motown.  She left the company shortly after that.  But still, it's a great song!

"MY GIRL" - The Temptations
Disc Two - Track 1
Released:  December 21, 1964
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts: #1

I love this song for two reasons.  First, it was the title track for one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies, "My Girl".  The beehive scene still gets me right in the heart.  Every time.

But secondly, this was the signature song for The Temptations, and their first number one hit.  Not bad for a group who just three years earlier couldn't even get on the Top 40.  David Ruffin performed the lead vocals for this track - usually they were done by Paul Williams or Eddie Kendricks.  And another piece of trivia.  This song was originally supposed to be recorded by The Miracles, but only if Ruffin would sing the lead vocals.

It seemed to be a gamble, but it paid off in a big way!

"Uptight (Everything's Alright)" - STEVIE WONDER
Disc Two - Track 7
Released:  November 22, 1965
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #3

This is probably one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs...and would you believe that he was only fifteen when he sang this one?  If it weren't for the fact that he was blind, I'd remark that it was awesome that he had a Top 5 hit before he could legally drive!

And why do I like this song?  Well, it's upbeat, it's passionate, and it saved Stevie Wonder from being kicked out of Motown!

You see, Stevie's first hit was "Fingertips" in 1963.  Stevie was thirteen back then.  And during the period between thirteen and fifteen, puberty caught up with Stevie, and his voice deepened.  This posed a problem, as Berry Gordy believed that his voice had changed his sound too much, and he almost released Stevie out of his contract.

This song was Wonder's chance to prove himself, and although his voice had matured, it was at a high tenor, which proved easier for producers to work with.  And, well...let's just say that this was only the beginning for Stevie.  As of 2015, he's really the only artist from 60s era Motown that is still with the company in some manner.

"Reach Out I'll Be There" - THE FOUR TOPS
Disc Three - Track 2
Released:  August 18, 1966
Peak Position on the Billboard Charts:  #1

I'll save one of the best for the last.  I find it difficult to find a bad thing to say about the Four Tops.  They released some fantastic songs during their tenure at Motown Records.  But this song was particularly powerful because it conveyed a lot of different emotions all wrapped up in what could be considered a R&B classic.

You can think singer Levi Stubbs for that.  His delivery of the lines were so profound and so raw.  He was almost literally screaming his lines, that's how much he got into it.  It's a wonder he even had a voice left at the end of it all!

So, there you have it.  Six classic Motown hits from the 1960s!  Have any more to add?

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