Motown at 50: Funky Motown! part 2

By  Dave Thompson

Stevie Wonder was one of the artists who helped establish Motown as a force to be reckoned within the music world. (Motown)

Stevie Wonder was one of the artists who helped establish Motown as a force to be reckoned within the music world. (Motown)
Inspired by both the emergent rock-funk fusion sounds of Sly & The Family Stone and the socially aware songs of Motown’s latest writing team, the Clan (R. Dean Taylor, Pam Sawyer, Frank Wilson and Deke Richards, authors of The Supremes’ “Love Child”), Whitfield and partner Barrett Strong commenced their assault on Motown’s ingrained sensibilities with “Cloud Nine,” a psychedelic-soul synthesis which combined momentum and message to emerge utterly unique.

With The Temptations set to record the song, Babbitt, Jones, Coffey and Ragin were all present for the session, the first named to lay down the pulsing beat which drove the song inexorably on, the latter to layer the rock-inflected guitars which Whitfield required.

According to drummer Jones, interviewed by author Nelson George, Whitfield “ … came into the studio one day and said ‘I wanna do something different. I wanna do something fresh’.” And he succeeded. “Cloud Nine” blasted into the R&B chart in November 1968, eventually spending three weeks at #2 — it was held at bay, ironically, by another Whitfield/Strong composition, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”

Of the two, “Grapevine” was subsequently adjudged one of the greatest records ever made. “Cloud Nine” was simply one of the most important. As George remarked in his history of Motown, “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield … Gamble and Huff, men who became the cutting edge of black music in the early 1970s, all owed a debt to ‘Cloud Nine’ for opening up black music and preparing the black audience for more progressive directions.”

Neither would the innovation end there. The accompanying album of the same name followed the title track first with a new, supremely funky rendition of “Grapevine,” its signature riff subverted to the ghost of a piano fighting to be heard through the drums. Then with “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” a sprawling nine-minute soundscape which added spacey organ and heartbroken “I want my momma” wailing to the mix — and still emerged a mere shadow of what the same team would create the following year.

1970’s Psychedelic Shack caught The Temptations not only tracing the title track’s convulsive funkadelia, but followed through with the eight-plus minute “Take A Stroll Thru Your Mind,” possibly the most adventurous (and certainly the most experimental) cut ever to grace a Hitsville release. A crazy-paving acid trip, “Take A Trip” was the culmination of a Whitfield vision which returning bassist Jamerson summed up, so succinctly, as “monstrous funk.”

Familiar refrains and beats raced past like highway signs, and ghostly guitars scythed through the walking bass. the history of Motown itself was drenched in a lysergic dreamscape which alternately lulled and lured the listener, before the entire thing climaxed with one monstrous gong blast, as shattering to the senses as the firearm blast which opened “Shotgun” five years earlier. 

Neither were The Temptations to be the sole beneficiaries of Whitfield’s inventiveness. Throughout 1970-71, Rare Earth (the first white rock act to be signed to Motown, albeit for the shortlived Rare Earth subsidiary) and Edwin Starr were both propelled to glory on the back of Whitfield’s funk-caked streams of socio-political consciousness, with Starr’s “War” — reprised from Psychedelic Shack to become a pop #1 during fall 1970 — swiftly ascending to the stature of social anthem. 

Starr’s Christmas-time follow-up, “Stop The War Now,” was even more outspoken, while the new year’s “Funky Music Sho’ Nuff Turns Me On” (backed by a dangerous new interpretation of “Cloud 9”) evidenced just how strongly the winds of change had blown through Motown. Once, Gordy wouldn’t even allow the word “funk” on the sleeve of an album which, in all fairness to the Brothers, was highly unlikely to bother the chart. Now it was emblazoned across a follow-up to one of Motown’s biggest hits of the past 12 months.

If Whitfield and (suddenly, less significantly) the Clan were the spearhead which drove Motown into the new decade, they were not alone. Funk Brother Earl Van Dyke released a solo album, The Earl Of Funk, in September 1970, a set of lunging lounge-piano recreations of the day’s biggest hits, complete with stylized renditions of Sly Stone’s bass splurge “Thank You Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Again” and The Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” while Jobete staff writer Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’  Renaldo Benson took advantage of the new climate to present Marvin Gaye with “What’s Going On,” a reflective and apparently all-encompassing contemplation of the state of the nation.

It was a powerful song and, in its implications, a frightening one. Gaye himself resisted recording it for several weeks before throwing himself into first the song itself, and then an entire album in a similar vein.  

Now it was Motown’s turn to draw the line. With Gordy allegedly pronouncing What’s Going On the worst record he’d ever heard, Gaye’s album sat on the shelf for close to six months, even after “What’s Going On” itself, reluctantly released as a single, topped the R&B chart. It was June 1971 before Motown saw fit to release the parent album, their reluctance to commit either artist or label to this radical new direction so strong that it even broke another of the company’s most ironclad traditions of always having a fresh smash ready the moment the last one began slipping down the chart. 

Of course, once What’s Going On proved its commercial worth, there was to be no holding back. Two further singles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” topped the chart, making 1971 Gaye’s most successful year in such terms since 1968 and “Grapevine.” What’s Going On topped the R&B chart for nine weeks while, across the spectrum, music critics flocked to heap fresh and further accolades upon it. 

In 1985, Nelson George described What’s Going On as “a recording on par” with Sly Stones’ Stand and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ten years later, Mojo magazine adjudged it #6 in a wide-ranging poll of the 100 Greatest Albums Ever Made. (Stand came in at #65, Pepper at #51.)

Even more important, however, was the opinion of Gaye’s own peers. It is no coincidence whatsoever that What’s Going On should be followed, almost immediately, with commentary as hard-hitting as Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. Indeed, Hayes himself acknowledged that his soundtrack was inescapably informed by “ … what happened in the ’60s, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam issues and so forth.”

All three were cut in the shadow of What’s Going On, and all three brought to the mass marketplace a black consciousness which had hitherto been buried away either in the polemic of one-off 45s (“War,” the Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion”), or else consigned to the obscurity of underground cult acts.

Certainly Stevie Wonder understood the implications of Gaye’s new stance, instantly combining the despite-it-all success of What’s Going On with his own plans for artistic independence. Wonder’s 21st birthday on May 13, 1971 also marked the expiration of his existing contract with Motown. Of course he renewed it, but only after leaving the company on tenterhooks through weeks of renegotiation, and only after informing them that he now intended to explore his own creativity as thoroughly as he and his advisers had explored their options before signing the deal.

He proved true to his word. Absolutely inspired within the recently (September, 1970) deceased Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York, a year’s worth of sessions saw Wonder complete the heart of all four albums — Music Of My Mind and Talking Book, both 1972; Innervisions, 1973; and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1974.

Each kept pace with developments not only elsewhere within the worlds of soul, funk and R&B, but in the heart of rock territory, too. During this same period, Wonder guested on recordings by Peter Frampton, Dave Mason and James Taylor. He toured with The Rolling Stones and wrote songs for Jeff Beck. It was a ferocious burst of creativity which only let up when Wonder was involved and almost killed in a highway accident in 1973.

By the time he returned to action in 1976 with the Songs In The Key Of Life double album, Wonder was one of the biggest stars in the world — his new album being one of the most eagerly anticipated in history. And his record label, home now to acts as far apart as The Commodores and The Undisputed Truth, Jerry Butler and the Dynamic Superiors, actor Albert Finney and diva Thelma Houston, was now home to some of the most esoteric and adventurous sounds around. It was, indeed, all a very long way from the Motown of old.

Leave a Reply