The Late Movies: Happy Birthday, Motown!

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Fifty years ago, Berry Gordy, a songwriter for local Detroit acts like The Matadors and Jackie Wilson, borrowed $800 from his family and founded two record labels that became incorporated a year later as Motown Record Corporation. In its half-century of existence Motown forged an unmistakable sound in popular music, turned a number of artists into superstars and legends (from 1961 to 1971 alone, the label churned out 110 top 10 hits), and helped bridge the racial divide with songs that everyone, regardless of their color, could dance to.

To celebrate the last 50 years and, we hope, many more to come, here are some of my personal favorite (highly subjective and whittled down from a much larger list) Motown classics, plus a few surprises at the end.

Too Busy Thinking About My Baby

"Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and Janie Bradford (the receptionist at Mowtown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio who helped Strong write Motown's first big hit, "Money (That's What I Want)", while the two were still in high school) was first recorded by The Temptations and later by Jimmy Ruffin and Marvin Gaye. Gaye's 1969 is my favorite of the three, mostly because the bass line that drops in 10 seconds into the song hits you like kick in the chest.

I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

"I Can't Help Myself" was written and produced by Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr., who were Motown's main production team and considered by many critics to be one of pop music's greatest songwriting teams (I concur). The Four Tops recorded the song in 1965 and it hit number one on the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for two non-consecutive weeks. Rolling Stone ranked the song #415 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Baby Love
Another Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, "Baby Love" was recorded by the Supreme in 1964. It was the groups most successful single, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, number one on the UK Singles Chart for two weeks and #324 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This song also made the Supremes the first Motown artists to have more than one number-one single (they continue to hold the record for most number-one hits with twelve).

Ball of Confusion
I'm putting up two videos for this song. One is a live version from The Smokey Robinson Show, because why bother doing a Motown video post if you don't get to see the Temptations dance? The other is an imovie project that falls into my favorite YouTube genre: music video for a song that is composed of generic images of things mentioned in the lyrics.

The Tears of a Clown
Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby wrote the music for "The Tears of a Clown," but wonder struggled with a song to go with the instrumental track. He brought it to the 1966 Motown Christmas party to see if Smokey Robinson could come up with anything for it. Robinson noted that the song "sounded like a circus," and ran with it. The song became the number-one hit on both the pop and R&B charts was The Miracles only #1 hit during Robinson's time as lead singer. Fun fact: Robinson has two children named Berry (after Motown founder Berry Gordy) and Tamla (after the Motown subsidiary label).

Dancing in the Street
The idea for the song came to producer William "Mickey" Stevenson after watching kids in the Detroit streets open up fire hydrants to keep cool in the summer. While Martha Reeves' recording was intended as a party song, "Dancing in the Street" took on additional meaning during the Civil Rights movement when organizers used it as an anthem at demonstrations. The Martha and the Vandellas' version of the song is preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry.

Uptight (Everything's Alright)
"Uptight" was the first Stevie Wonder single that Wonder actually had a hand in writing. It also saved his career. The then-fifteen-year-old singer had had only one number-one hit and only two other singles in the Top 40. To top things off, his voice was changing and Berry Gordy worried that Wonder wouldn't be commercially viable anymore. Wonder was in danger of being dropped from the label, but "Uptight," based around an instrumental riff that Wonder had written, hit the top of the Billboard R&B Singles chart and sat there for five weeks. This video is from a 1972 Rolling Stones concert. Wonder and his entire band join the Stones for "Uptight" and then kick into "Satisfaction."

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary about some of the great unsung heroes of pop music. The Funk Brothers were an uncredited collection of studio musicians who performed on Motown Records' recordings between 1959 and 1972. According to the film, they played on more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.

The Motown Song
I'm not normally a fan of Rod Stewart. However, seeing as we're both white guys who love soul music and can't dance, I have a soft spot for this song (and its video) about how awesome Motown is. Also: The Temptations. In a flying Cadillac. OMG. WTF. [Because this last video may start to play automatically, I've stuck it on its own page. Click the "2" below.]

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November 17, 2009 - 5:00pm
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