One of the most monumental achievements of the '60s and early '70s was Berry Gordy's musical empire at Motown Records. Previously an accomplished songwriter for the likes of Jackie Wilson, Gordy started the company with an $800 loan and built a roster of black artists who consistently (if not constantly) crossed over onto the (white) mainstream pop charts. This amazing success story is too long for me to go into detail just how incredible Gordy's accomplishments were (and his stamp is all over everything that ever happened at Motown), but his single-minded vision produced some of the purest and greatest pop music ever recorded.
There were too many magnificent talents under Gordy's watchful eye to even list here, but a mere handful of his top flight artist arsenal included The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5, most of whom are represented here by their best songs from that period. You should own at least one compilation apiece for all of these wonderful artists, certainly more in the case of Gaye and Wonder, but it's not like you're likely to get tired of hearing these songs here, either (they are among the best songs ever, after all). Still, where this collection is really useful is in showcasing classic songs from fondly recalled but less well remembered acts, such as Barrett Strong ("Money (That's What I Want)"), The Marvelettes ("Please Mr. Postman"), The Contours ("Do You Love Me?"), Mary Wells ("My Guy"), Junior Walker & The All Stars ("Shotgun"), Jimmy Ruffin ("What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"), Edwin Starr ("War"), The Undisputed Truth ("Smiling Faces Sometimes"), and Rare Earth ("I Just Want To Celebrate"), to cite some examples. Artists who are well known but who aren't generally remembered for their association with Motown also appear, such as Glady's Knight and The Pips ("I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "I Don't Want To Do Wrong"), The Isley Brothers ("This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)," and The Spinners ("It's A Shame"), but perhaps best of all is the few hidden gems by comparative unknowns such as Brenda Holloway ("Every Little Bit Hurts"), The Monitors ("Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)")," The Elgins ("Heaven Must Have Sent You"), and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers ("Does Your Mama Know About Me").
How great was Motown? One of their second tier acts, Martha & the Vandellas, had no less than 3 of the greatest songs of all time ("Nowhere To Run," "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave," "Dancing In The Street"). Motown also boasted the Funk Brothers, one of the greatest house bands ever (led by brilliant bassist James Jamerson) who were finally given some belated acclaim and recognition with the Award winning documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (there are many books about Gordy's controversial business methods that allegedly took advantage of his musicians and employees, but this is a music review so I won't get into all that here), and were blessed by wonderful songwriters and production teams, including Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Gordy himself. Needless to say, amid all that talent there was much in the way of healthy competition, and Motown even employed choreographers, dance instructors, and a "manners specialist" to ensure that all Motown performers appeared polished and professional.
During their '60s heydey Motown was an extraordinarily consistent singles machine, and this box set provides a chronologically sequenced juke box of great music that should be mandatory for any pop music collector (conveniently, it ends in 1971, when the label, which previously had been all about hit singles, went in a more album oriented direction as a result of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On). Yes I said "pop," for Motown's soul was often a slick, polished, some would say airbrushed soul sound (accurately dubbed "the Sound Of Young America" by Berry) that often seemed almost the polar opposite of the gritty Southern soul provided by labels like Atlantic and Stax. As such, some may take issue with the music's obvious commercialism, and many of these songs do seem to share similarities over the course of its 4 fully packed discs. There are a handful of questionable selections as well (do we really need 3 different versions of "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)?"), but by and large this essential compilation is hard to fault, as it provides impeccable soul pop songs that are perfect for any possible occasion. For whatever reasons, they simply don't make music like this anymore, but this music will live on so long as radios exist.
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