By Lee Zimmerman
BERRY GORDY’S DREAM OF creating a record company that represented “The Sound of Young America” reflected an even bigger ambition in sociological terms, a homegrown enterprise that could bridge the cultural divide between black and white, young and old, pop and R&B, all the while forging a new sound that was uniquely American in its approach and philosophy.
When Gordy first laid Motown’s foundations in September 1959, it made stars out of ordinary kids and groups discovered singing on street corners, those who were armed with innate talent and the tenacity to achieve startling success both here at home and abroad.
Motown’s story has been well documented, although the numbers are still impressive. Between 1961 and 1971, the label achieved an astounding 110 Top 10 hits garnered from an impressive recording roster including Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas. Even now, these artists weigh in heavily against any of the competition that’s come along since, The Beatles and their British compatriots included. The so-called “Motown Sound,” an energetic, irresistible amalgam of pop and soul, became a standard by which all other artists measured their sound and success.
The string of hits spawned from Hitsville U.S.A., the name given Motown’s original Detroit headquarters, began with Gordy’s original imprint, Tamla Records, and the release of Barrett Strong’s durable “Money (That’s What I Want),” followed in short order by “Shop Around” by The Miracles, and The Marvelette’s No. 1 smash “Please Mr. Postman.” For the next decade or so, Motown songs dominated the AM charts before adapting to the age of FM radio by producing conceptual masterpieces like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On” and Stevie Wonder’s immortal trilogy “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.”
While the super stars that dominated Motown’s marquee were guaranteed a certain immortality, others like Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, Diana Ross, Bettye LaVette and Queen Latifah parlayed their Motown success into even greater fame after parting ways with the label. Gordy and his associates certainly knew how to spot talent. But they also knew how to help the artists get established and set up for long-term success, too.
But in the latter days of the Motown story, the company moved beyond the soul and R&B acts that put it on the map to feature fledgling artists whose music fell well outside the company’s signature sound. Motown and its many associated labels — Tamla, Gordy, Hitsville, Rare Earth, Prodigal, Gull, CTI and Manticore among them — were home to acts that were intriguing, obscure and anything but typecast.
Chris Clark achieved the majority of her success in the U.K., where she was known as the “White Negress” — a name conjured up in an era well before political correctness held sway. She achieved a pair of mid 1960s hits — “Love’s Gone Bad,” written by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and “I Want to Go Back There Again,” penned by Berry Gordy himself (due in part, no doubt, to the fact the pair were romantically involved.
Clark released two albums, “Soul Sounds” and “CC Rides Again,” on the short-lived Motown custom rock label Weed. Although a 2005 compilation collected tracks from both albums as well as unreleased material, Clark gained greater success later on, when she co-wrote the screenplay for Diana Ross’ award-winning film, “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Reba Jeanette Smith, who went under the stage name Debbie Dean, is best known as the first white solo singer signed to Motown proper. Indeed, she had little in common with the R&B music with which the label was identified. But her first Motown single, “Don’t Let Him Shop Around,” provided an ironic counterbalance to The Miracles’ far more successful “Shop Around.”
Sadly, Dean’s successive efforts proved ever less fruitful, and she eventually was dropped from the roster. However, Dean later rejoined the label as a songwriter, creating hits for The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha & The Vandellas and Edwin Starr prior to recording one last song of her own, “Why Am I Lovin’ You,” for Motown offshoot V.I.P.
Bobby Darin had a lot going for him as an artist. He was a successful songwriter, publisher and producer, and spellbinding performer known for his late ’50s/early ’60s hits for Atlantic Records — “Dream Lover,” “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.”
But he also recorded an eponymous album for Motown, which was released a little more than a year before Darin’s Dec. 20, 1973, death from heart failure at age 37.
Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ seemingly nonstop stream of hits throughout the ’60s and early ‘70s (“Walk Like a Man,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” etc.) proved sufficient to eventually turn the group’s story into a hit Broadway musical. Sadly that legacy seemed to hit the skids once the group signed to Motown in the early ’70s. The hits had pretty much dried up. The group had signed to Warner Bros. in the U.K., which yielded the single “Sleeping Man”/“Whatever You Say.” But the songs weren’t deemed worthy of release in the States. Motown stepped in, scooped up The Four Seasons for its new West Coast label, Mo-West, while also releasing some of the group’s material under the Motown banner, Unfortunately, after one album (“Chameleon”), a Frankie Valli solo single (“Love Isn’t Here”) and three singles credited to the Four Seasons (“Walk On, Don’t Look Back,” “How Come” and “Hickory”), it became clear that either the group had lost it spark or Motown was unprepared to promote it properly. A second album was scuttled after eight songs were completed, and the band and the label opted to part ways. Valli initially attempted to buy back the group’s master recordings from Motown, but given the prohibitive price, he settled for just one. The song, “My Eyes Adored You,” was then taken to the fledgling Private Stock label where it was released as a Valli solo single, thus marking the start of a stellar and successful solo career.
Billy Preston was another artist signed to Motown when he was past his prime. Indeed, after a career spent in the company of Ray Charles, San Cooke, Little Richard, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones — as well as in the upper reaches of the charts, thanks to his solo hits “Nothing From Nothing,” “Outta-Space” and the song he and Dennis Wilson wrote and Joe Cocker recorded, “You Are So Beautiful” — Preston’s career was waning when Motown came calling. Still, he managed one more run up the charts with “With You I’m Born Again,” a duet with Syreeta Wright, which took him back to the Top 10 one last time.
Sadly, illness, legal problems and drug abuse began to taking a toll on Preston, and he eventually left the label to continue his career as a session man. In his later years, Preston contributed to albums by Eric Clapton, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and individual solo albums by members of the Rolling Stones. He returned to the spotlight one last time in 2005, when he was a guest on the fourth season finale of “American Idol.” A special three song set he performed at the Los Angeles press screening for the re-release of the “Concert for Bangla Desh” proved his final public appearance prior to his death on June 6, 2006, the result of complications related to kidney failure.
Likewise, Duane Eddy had long since etched his reputation as a master of the surf guitar when Motown issued a series of albums spotlighting Eddy’s reign as the king of rock ’n’ Roll instrumentals —Link Wray notwithstanding. Essentially a series of compilations, “Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel,” “$1,000,000 Worth of Twang” and “21 Greatest Hits” repackaged Eddy’s earlier recordings (“Because They’re Young,” “Pepe,” “Rebel-Rouser,” “Ramrod,” “Movin’ ‘N Groovin’”) with flashy cover art, presumably to sway all those yet unaware of his skill.
Kiki Dee grabbed the brass ring when she signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records label and subsequently sang “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” a playful duet with the man himself.
However her singing career actually dates back to the mid 1960s when she worked to little acclaim as a back-up singer for Dusty Springfield. Her 1965 single, “Why Don’t I Run Away From You” reaped modest success, as did “On a Magic Carpet Ride” in 1968. In 1970, she achieved the unlikely distinction of becoming the first white British artist signed to Motown’s roster.
Although he’s known primarily as an actor, Bruce Willis launched a singing career under the auspices of Motown in the late ’80s.
Willis’ pipes first found their way into the spotlight on the TV show “Moonlighting,” where his character David Addison would belt out lines from classic R&B hits such as “The Tighten Up,” “My Girl,” “Respect,” “Do Wah Diddy,” “Double Shot,” “Get Up” and “Money.”
Willis recorded two albums — “The Return of Bruno” and “If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger,” saw nine singles achieve varying degrees of chart success, and did his level best to persuade us to drink Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler (with an assist from two guitarists, a harmonica player, a guy snapping his fingers and a dog).
Willis scored his biggest hit with a cover of The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” which managed to climb to No. 2 in the U.K. He followed it later with a cover of the classic Drifters tune “Under the Boardwalk.”
Although Willis has occasionally recorded and performed since then, any major label affiliation appears to be a thing of the past.
With Sam Harris, Motown seemingly had it all: a singer, actor and energetic entertainer who seemed to be a show biz tour de force.
Motown snagged Harris in his formative years, fresh off of his prize-winning turn on the first season of “Star Search” highlighted by a stirring rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Harris rewarded his new label by landing the initial single “Sugar Don’t Bite” on the charts and shoring up his reputation in concert, on Broadway, in film and on TV. Although he’s been absent from the pop charts of late, Harris’ ongoing show business presence keeps him firmly entrenched in the public eye. Harris’ 2008 single, “Change Is On the Way,” which was written in support of then-candidate (and later president) Barack Obama, and “My Reclamation,” his 2010 ode to marriage equality, have kept him socially relevant.
After he brought new life to The Doobie Brothers and achieved success with his solo ventures, Michael McDonald was already a well-established star when he signed with Motown for a series of albums.
His shift to a more soulful style — a natural fit for his rich-as-molasses vocals — began with his Grammy-winning 1985 duet “Yah Mo B There” with James Ingram, and continued with pairings with Patti LaBelle (“On My Own”), the gospel group The Winans (“Love Has No Color”) and Aretha Franklin (“Ever Changing Times”). He ultimately reached full throttle with the aptly titled “Motown,” his tribute to the label’s signature songs. The album garnered two Grammy nominations, inspired a sequel, “Motown Two,” which led to 2008’s “SoulSpeak,” an album that had McDonald covering classics including “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” “Walk On By,” “Living For The City,” “For Once In My Life,” along with three of his own original songs.
Motown expanded its reach the furthest in 1969 when it signed its most successful rock act: Rare Earth. Originally known as The Sunliners, the group had changed its name to Rare Earth in 1968, recording an unsuccessful album for Verve titled “Dream/Answers.” Nonplussed, Motown signed Rare Earth as the label’s first bona fide white band and as an initial contender to compete in the budding rock music market. Motown lacked a name for its new rock subsidiary, so the band suggested that the label borrow its name. While no one thought the company executives would take the offer seriously, the Rare Earth banner stuck. As if to pay the label back for its show of support, Rare Earth gave Motown a number of hits early on, including covers of The Temptations’ “I’m Losing You” and “Get Ready,” which not only got the group to the uppermost reaches of the charts but secured its place on classic rock radio. Ironically, Rare Earth received additional attention when Gil Scott-Heron name-checked the group in the lyrics to his epic poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: “The theme song [to the revolution] will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdinck, or the Rare Earth.” At least the band found itself in some rarified musical company.
R. Dean Taylor
R. Dean Taylor gave the Rare Earth label one of its biggest successes with “Indiana Wants Me,” his unlikely hit about a fugitive from justice that made it into Billboard’s Top Five.
Taylor’s success was even greater in England, where he scored hits with “Gotta See Jane” and “There’s a Ghost in My House.” Taylor he shared his songwriting abilities with other Motown acts, including The Four Tops, who recorded his song “I’ll Turn to Stone,” and “The Temptations,” for whom he wrote “All I Need.”
Taylor’s ongoing collaboration with Motown staff songwriter Bryan Holland also resulted in Diana Ross & The Supremes’ No. 1 hit “Love Child,” which was his biggest hit until “Indiana Wants Me” took Taylor to No. 1 in his native Canada.
Another signee to Rare Earth, The Cats, were an unlikely candidate for stardom. Indeed, The Cats’ trajectory proved that pronouncement was warranted. The group achieved some measure of fame in its native Netherlands and a few far-flung territories (thanks in large part to the group’s fastidious attempts to emulate an English sound), as well as a modest string of hits that stretched into the 1970s. But The Cats’ successful streak didn’t last long.
Nevertheless, the band’s two mainstays, Cees Veerman and Piet Veerman, attempted to claim the band’s legacy as their own with varying degrees of success. In March 2006, the band regrouped to receive national honors and record a final single for inclusion on a belated best-of LP.
Rare Earth also claimed The Easybeats, Australia’s answer to The Beatles and the best-known band to emerge from Down Under. The group’s international smash, “Friday on My Mind,” propelled The Easybeats to the upper echelons of stardom and set the stage for a successful writing and producing career for guitarists Harry Vanda and George Young following the band’s demise.
True, The Easybeats were signed to Rare Earth past the band’s prime. The group’s initial effort for the label, a song called “St. Louis,” bore some similarity to “Friday On My Mind.” A subsequent album, titled “Easy Ridin’” (renamed “Friends” outside the U.S.) showed little merit, which prompted Rare Earth to drop the band.
Then there were The Messengers, a group signed to the Rare Earth label after a Motown A&R man caught the band opening for The Dave Clark Five.
The Messengers had ample talent, but as one of the first white bands groomed for Motown’s venture into the white rock market, the group fell victim to the label’s inexperience. The Messengers achieved some distinction, at least superficially, thanks to a die-cut rounded album cover that served to visually separate their release from the other contenders crowding the bins. The Messengers managed to score a regional hit with “That’s The Way a Woman Is” in 1971.
Meat Loaf and Stoney
One of the more auspicious debut discs Rare Earth released featured the duo Meat Loaf and Stoney. Yep, that Meat Loaf.
Although the duo was short-lived — Motown ditched Meat right after the debut but retained Stoney, AKA Shaun Murphy — both artists went on to greater glories.
Meat Loaf made “Bat Out of Hell” one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, and Murphy left her mark on a slew of sessions for high-profile artists including The Moody Blues, Bob Seger, Herbie Hancock, Phil Collins, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Maria Muldaur, Bruce Hornsby, Michael Bolton, J.J. Cale, Coco Montoya, Alice Cooper and Little Feat. Good gigs if you can get them.
Cast in murky realms between hard rock and heavy metal — a moot divide, to be sure — British quartet UFO became the prototypical insurgents: part sci-fi posers, part brash revisionists, tempered with a hint of grit and glory.
Rare Earth scooped up UFO in the band’s formative years via the chronologically dubbed twosome “UFO 1” and “UFO 2.” (The band’s name was actually inspired by the well-known London haunt where they were discovered.)
The band was hugely popular in Japan, but that band’s efforts mostly ignored in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of the civilized world, which brought Rare Earth next to no return on the label’s investment.
An adrenalized take on the Eddie Cochran chestnut “C’mon Everybody” and a penchant for extended cosmic excursions notwithstanding, the finally found its footing when it inked a deal with Chrysalis.
The Pretty Things
On the other hand, Motown’s Rare Earth imprint caught The Pretty Things at an opportune time, when the band’s ambitions were in full flush. The Pretty Things were a potent part of the mid-’60s British rock renaissance, with early hits “Rosalyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Honey I Need” in the U.K. (The band also boasted a reputation for having the longest hair of their contemporaries.)
But it was the explosion of psychedlia that helped to launch The Pretty Things’ career, thanks to often under-appreciated rock opera “S.F. Sorrow.” Although that album preceded The Who’s “Tommy” by several months, it remained a bit of a sleeper; its release was delayed in the States.
Nevertheless, “S.F. Sorrow” paved The Pretty Things’ way to attain the distinction of becoming the first British band that Motown signed. The band’s follow-up, “Parachute” proved to be another masterpiece for the label. Artistic ambition aside, neither album sold well. The group’s next label, Led Zepellin’s Swan Song, brought the group the greater notoriety.
Rare Earth also caught Love Sculpture at an opportune time, releasing the first of two albums the group recorded during its brief tenure. Formed in 1966 from the remnants of Cardiff, U.K., band, The Human Beans, Love Sculpture group helped launch Dave Edmunds’ career; his later solo success as a producer, solo performer and erstwhile member of the short-lived combo Rockpile with Nick Lowe established him as one of the kingpins of the pub rock scene.
Etched with a razor-sharp instrumental prowess, Love Sculpture’s debut, “Blues Helping,” was an ideal showcase for the band’s futuristic blues sound. In fact, the band’s best-known track, a revved-up version of the classical composition “Sabre Dance,” became something of a phenomenon, reaching No. 5 on the U.K. singles chart in December 1968.
Toe Fat, Howl The Good and Sunday Funnies
While some acts gave a certain prestige to the Rare Earth roster, there were others that seemed doomed to obscurity from the start. Aside from its awful name, Toe Fat’s main claim to fame lay in the fact that it birthed two future members of Uriah Heep: keyboardist Ken Hensley and drummer Lee Kerslake.
Howl the Good shared its label mate’s penchant for an unfortunate choice of name, but had a star connection in the form of Spooky Tooth’s Gary Wright, who helped oversee production of the band’s sole album.
Speaking of high-powered producers: Rare Earth’s Sunday Funnies might have otherwise languished in obscurity were not for the fact that Rolling Stones Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham sat behind the boards.
Premiata Forneria Marconi
Ultimately, Motown’s most unlikely venture came through its distribution of the quintessential prog label Manticore, which had been launched by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
When ELP formed Manticore, it shared ownership with Island Records. Once that partnership fell apart, Atlantic Records picked up Manticore’s distribution. Eventually, Manticore was put in Motown’s care, although there was precious little of significance on the label, save for an album called “Cook” by Italian rockers Premiata Forneria Marconi (or, PFM, as they were known stateside), which was released with the shared Motown banner.
Although Manticore went defunct in 1977, Motown was able to one release through the Manticore label the seemingly was in sync with the Motown sound: a one-off single by Little Richard titled “Steal Miss Liza (Steal Liza Jane).” GM