Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Motown's Magic

Motown Records celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this weekDuring my mid teens I embarked on a love affair with the music of Motown that has lasted to this day. My fixation began one day while perusing through my local library for music related biographies. I stumbled across a baby pink hard-back book (the title escapes me), which promised to take me on a journey through the corridors of one most successful record company in history. I read the book from cover to cover and in a matter of days was hooked. The story of Motown is nothing short of magical. It's a real life fairy tale, with more than a few gory bits thrown in for good measure. 

Of course there wouldn't be a Motown if there wasn't a Berry Gordy A former boxer, Gordy entered the music biz as a songwriter before cottoning on to the fact that the bulk of the profit lies in production and ownership. Young, ambitious, and full of entrepreneurial spirit, he decided to start up a family run record label in his home city of Detroit, which he christened Motown. Inviting local artists to come in and audition for his new label, soon enough the building became a hotbed of talent. Competition was fierce. It's no wonder then that the company has produced some of the most legendary figures in entertainment. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie are just some of the names who got their break at the label. 

Throughout the 60's the music of Motown dominated the charts not only in the US, but throughout the world, rightfully earning the nickname 'Hitsville USA'. Fifty years later and the records remain timeless. 'My Girl', 'The Tracks of My Tears', 'Baby Love' - these are indelible classics that whether young or old, most of us can identify within the opening bars. The success of Motown not only lies in the music, but Gordy's foresight and business acumen. As a Black organisation operating within the racially turbulent times of 60's America, Gordy adopted an ethos which ensured that the music crossed racial, age and class boundaries. All artists went through a vigorous grooming process. They took choreography classes, were taught how to talk, how to dress, and how to conduct themselves at all times. Yet despite the illusion of wholesomeness, behind the Colgate smiles lie many a tale of heartbreak. Marvin Gaye's drug battles, and subsequent demise have been widely documented. But there were other casualties too. Some succumbed to alcoholism, many ended up penniless. while others sadly never obtained the success they set out to achieve. Yet despite this, we can't take anything away from Berry Gordy and the remarkable legacy he has left with Motown. No doubt he has paved the way for the likes of other successful African American music moguls like P-Diddy, Russell Simmons and Dr Dre to follow. So cue drumroll, ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding: Happy Anniversary Motown! 

If like me, you're a fan, then check out this documentary which aired on BBC's 1-Xtra this week.  Want more? Then watch this special episode of the Culture Show which documents the history of Motown. 

My Top Ten Motown tracks:

1. Let's Get it On - Marvin Gaye

By far the sexiest record ever made, WOW, you can just feel the sexual tension ooooozing out of  the speakers. Absolutely love this song, and absolutely luuurved Marvin. He was such a hottie, and what a voice. I searched high and low on You Tube to find this video of him performing 'Let's Get It On' on America's Soul Train. It was filmed during the height of his popularity, and it each time I see it makes me chuckle watching the flock of females swooning all over him. 

2. Endless Love - Lionel Richie and Diana Ross

The perfect love song. So tender, so pure, so tear inducing. Whenever I hear this song I can't resist the urge to sing in a real pitch voice imitating Diana. She was my childhood hero. No matter what they say about you Ms Ross, you're still The Boss.

3. Do You Love Me - The Contours

Two words - Dirty Dancing! This track marks my favourite scene in the film when Baby enters the basement party carrying a watermelon (oh the shame of it), only to be confronted by a sea of contorted bodies bumping and grinding to the strains of this song: "Work work, you better shake it up baby"! 

4. Oooh Baby Baby - Smokey Robinson and The Miracles 
Another certified smoochie. I adore Smokey's sweet falsetto. Although before my time, I can't help but feel a sense of loss when you compare songs like these to the brash, explicit nonsense we have to put up with today. My dad tells me that when he was a young lad and would attend R&B dances in Jamaica, you couldn't even approach a woman unless your suit was neat, and your shoes nicely polished. My oh my, how things have changed. 

5. Ribbon in the Sky - Stevie Wonder
I had to include Stevie of course. This one came to mind because I heard it today at work. Lyrically beautiful, with such a simplistic arrangement, sang in the most tender and heartfelt way. Awww!

6. All Night Long - The Mary Jane Girls

In the early eighties Motown took a raunchy turn (guess they had to keep up with the times) and released this song by the Mary Jane Girls, a sexy girl group who were the protegee of soulful hell-raiser, Rick James. Another timeless classic. This song reminds me of family house parties, when the DJ would sneakily slip in a few soul tracks for us kiddies, before going back to playing 70's reggae.  

7. Distant Lover - Marvin Gaye
Oh the passion, the anguish, the despair. When Marvin sang a tune you can tell he meant every word. The ultimate break-up tune. Tissues at the ready.

8. My Girl - The Temptations

How could I not include this classic? With the remarkable lead vocals of David Ruffin, and the clever lyrics of song-writing dynamo, Smokey Robbinson, this song was always going to be huge hit. "I've got soooo much honey, the bees envy me/I've got a sweeter song than the birds in the tree". Brilliant!

9. Diana Ross - Upside Down
This track for me symbolises the moment when Diana arrived as a solo artist, shedding her goody two shoes persona for the role of a sassy disco diva. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic fame, this song hasn't aged in the slightest. DJ's can still play it at a club/party today and the dancefloor will be heaving. 

10. Never Can Say Goodbye - The Jackson 5

Michael, Michael, Michael, it still baffles me how someone so young managed to sing with such raw emotion. What a tune. Extremely soulful, and a definite departure from the more pop orientated stuff that Motown had come to be associated with. 

What's your favourite Motown track(s), or favourite Motown memory? Would love to know, so  drop me a line. 

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I am a thirty-something African Caribbean female from South East London. My blog will shine a light on Black British culture offering the best in entertainment, fashion, beauty, community, film & music, with the occasional personal musing thrown in from yours truly. Thank you for taking out the time to peek into the pages of my diary. Now grab a cup of cocoa, relax and enjoy.