The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1: 1959-1961

By  Tim Neely

VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1: 1959-1961
Hip-O Select (B0003631-02) (Six CDs and bonus 7-inch single)
Hip-O Select, the new, Internet-only mail-order division of Universal, raised some eyebrows late in 2004 when it announced it was undertaking one of the most ambitious projects ever from an American record label — nothing short of a complete documentation of the classic hits (and misses) of the Motown Sound. 

It’s an ambitious undertaking, one fraught with peril. Would the proper mixes be used? Would anything be left off, either by mistake or intentionally? American labels associated with the majors — even Rhino Handmade — have shied away from projects of this breadth and depth. This is territory usually associated with the German label Bear Family, which has treated American country music with the respect and diligence that United States labels haven’t, and the Connecticut jazz label Mosaic, which is rightly praised for its limited box sets of classic jazz.

The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1: 1959-1961 is the first of a proposed 12-volume series, which, when complete, will contain the A- and B-sides of every single to appear on Motown and its associated labels from 1959-72. I’m happy to say that Volume 1 succeeds on every imaginable level.

First, it’s a wonderful package; it’s made like a bound album of 45 rpm singles. In fact, right inside the front cover is a newly pressed edition of the Tamla edition of “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong with “O I Apoligize” (sic) on the flip side, complete with a replica of the original “lines” Tamla label. (Smartly, they added a new catalog number to the label in addition to the original one, so it can’t be passed off as a rare original.)

Then comes a 92-page booklet, with a brief foreword personally signed by Berry Gordy; a reminiscence from Mable John, the first solo female on Motown; an introduction about the time leading up to the start; and then, most impressive of all, a record-by-record (sometimes track-by-track) annotation written by Goldmine contributor Bill Dahl, from “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson, all the way up to “Congo (Part 1)” and “Congo (Part 2)” by The Twistin’ Kings (The Funk Brothers in disguise). The notes are illustrated with photos correct for the era, plus photos of rare original Motown, Tamla and Miracle singles labels and even some picture sleeves. You’ll learn more about long-forgotten Motown acts such as The Satintones, Debbie Dean, and Reverend Columbus Mann than you ever thought you needed to know.

Following that are three indexes of everything on the set — alphabetically by artist, alphabetically by title, and alphanumerically by label and number — with the disc and track number of where they can be found. Then there are two pages of credits, including a list of all the tracks that had to be mastered from 45s because the tapes are damaged or gone.

Then we get into the individually packaged CDs, each in its own slot inside a 7-inch cardboard sleeve — a small enough slot so that the discs won’t move around on their own. All the titles on each CD are on the back of the facing sleeve. Finally, on the back of the sleeve for disc six there’s a reproduction of the back of one of the earliest Motown picture sleeves, which advertises albums from around 1961.

Even if the sound was bad, the set would be worth it for the packaging alone; it was treated as the historical document that this set is. But unless you can find mint original 45s, you won’t hear these songs sound better anywhere else.

Everything is in mono, as it should be; after all, this is a collection of singles. Songs from tape sources sound sterling. I’ve never heard the three most familiar songs on the box — “Money” by Strong, “Shop Around” by The Miracles, and “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes — sound better anywhere else. “Money” sounds especially outstanding to these ears. I get the idea why this record would have been so exciting to listeners in late 1959–early 1960 — it throbs, it rocks, it shakes.

Those mastered from 45s are hit and miss, but mostly hit. “Let’s Rock” by Strong sounds like it was recorded in the Gordy bathroom, but the original tape is damaged and it had to be mastered from one of the two known remaining copies of the original 45. And “Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)” by The Valadiers (later remade by The Monitors) sounds as if the single was off-center when it was mastered.

Before getting this box, I was unfamiliar with almost everything on this set. But that is part of the fun. Listen to all six CDs in one sitting, and you’ll hear the evolution of a sound, with lots of sidetracks along the way. I got a kick out of “Ich-i-Bon, #1” by Nick & The Jaguars, which sounds like proto-surf music (it was released in August 1959). And listen to that saxophone honk on “I Love Your Baby” by The Miracles, the B-side of “Bad Girl”! There are parodies, answer records, novelties, homages to Jackie Wilson and, finally, a few hits. You’ll hear the first flop singles by The Supremes, The Temptations, and Mary Wells. You’ll also hear both versions of songs that were remade, such as “Shop Around.” If it appeared on a 45 on one of the Motown labels in 1959-61, it’s here.

The biggest griping I’ve heard about the box is its price — $119.98. (In case you’re wondering, I paid full price for my set.) But think of it in a couple ways. Consider that if you were to try to find all the original 45s — and for many of these song this is their first reissue since the original 45s — you’d probably have to pay more than $10,000 and spend the rest of your life trying to fill in all the gaps. Most of the records on this set didn’t sell, and the prices on the collector’s market reflect that. Also consider that when a volume loaded with hits comes out — 1965, for example — and only then you decide you want to ante up for Volume 1, the 5,000 copies of this could be all gone, and you’ll have to pay a heck of a lot more to either a rare record dealer or on eBay to add this set to your collection.

For any serious fan of American music, especially R&B and soul, this is a must, not only for all the historical information but for the care that was taken in putting all this seldom-heard music on CD. I am eagerly awaiting Volumes 2-12.

(Limited to 5,000 copies; the set is available at www.hip-oselect.com/catalogue_motownsingles1.asp)

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