Looking Back At 50 Years Of Motown Records
Fifty years ago this January, a budding young songwriter and record producer named Berry Gordy founded a small record label in Detroit. Tamla Records soon became Motown Record Corporation, and Gordy's ear for talent — and his business savvy — helped make Motown one of the most successful record labels ever.
Talent agent Maxine Powell was also behind the scenes. When Gordy started Motown in January 1959, Powell was already operating a modeling and finishing school in Detroit. In 1964, Powell was tapped to assist in artist development, coaching singers such as Marvin Gaye and groups including The Temptations in the finer graces of performing both on and off stage. She spoke to Rebecca Roberts about her role at the company.
Critic and author Gary Graff has covered music in Detroit for many years. He notes that though the biggest Motown hits are widely known, many great records never saw the same level of success. He tells the stories behind six overlooked Motown singles for NPR Music. (Adapted from an interview with producer Zoe Chace.)
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Gary Graff Picks Overlooked Motown Singles
Eddie Holland went on to fame as part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland production and writing team, which was responsible for so many hits, especially by the Supremes and the Four Tops. But before that, Eddie Holland was an artist. He grew up near Detroit's Davidson Avenue Baptist Church; he sang in the junior choir there, and was really headed for a career in business school. But he dropped out of college to work for Berry Gordy, to help write songs and record music and record demos. And Berry Gordy saw Eddie Holland really as another kind of Jackie Wilson: he had that kind of voice and personality, even though he was a little bit stage-shy as a performer. They recorded quite a few singles with Eddie Holland for a couple of other labels, for Mercury and United Artists, and then for Gordy's Tamla before Eddie Holland came on to Motown proper. And one of the songs that's completely been lost, even though it made the lower regions of the pop charts, is a song called "Leaving Here." But eventually, the demands on the Holland-Dozier-Holland creative team were so great that Eddie abandoned his pursuit as an artist and concentrated on being part of a team. Which is probably the reason that he's so sane today. (Hear a 60-second sample.)
We know the song "Devil with a Blue Dress On" from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and maybe from Bruce Springsteen. What a lot of people don't realize is that it was a Motown song first. It was written by Frederick "Shorty" Long and Mickey Stevenson, and then recorded by Shorty Long as his first single for the label. It came out in March 1964, and was the first release for the Soul Label (one of the several labels that existed under the Motown banner). Shorty Long's version did not chart. But two years later, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had a hit with it, when they covered it. And Shorty Long by all reports was just a character; guy from Alabama, really was more of a blues guy, but when you took the blues into Hitsville, it really came out like Motown Blues. Which means that it's a little bit smoother, a little less gutbucket (although when you listen to Shorty Long's "Devil With a Blue Dress" with 2009 ears, it certainly sounds pretty gutbucket and raw). Now, Shorty Long went on to do some better-known songs in Motown, specifically "Function at the Junction" and "Here Comes the Judge." He mostly established himself doing some writing with Motown. Sadly, he died in a boating accident in 1969 when he was 29 years old. (Hear a 60-second sample.)
Carolyn Crawford is one of the more interesting stories in Motown. She had one big hit in Motown, "My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)," that she recorded when she was 15 years old. She won a talent competition held by a local radio station, and that's where she met Berry Gordy. And this 15-year-old goes up to Berry Gordy, tells him all about how she's a song writer—I'm sure he was a little amused by this—but he invited her down to Hitsville, and they liked her voice! So they had this song that Smokey Robinson, Janie Bradford and Mickey Stevenson had written, and that Smokey Robinson produced, "My Smile is Just a Frown Turned Upside Down." And Smokey Robinson actually had to call Carolyn Crawford's mother to get permission for her to record this, because she was underage. And that was unusual for Motown: even though it was "The Sound of Young America" [ed. note: Motown's slogan at the time] it was not the sound of pre-pubescent America. The famous story is when Berry Gordy sent the high-school-age Supremes away when they first came to Motown and said, "Come back when you've graduated high school," and of course they did, and we all know what's happened there. Carolyn Crawford did not really have quite the same duration in her career, and "My Smile is Just a Frown" is largely forgotten. It was a minor R&B hit in August of 1964. What's interesting when you listen to it too, is it has that little Pagliacci-style motif that Smokey Robinson would use again about six years later in "Tears of a Clown," and so it was clearly a good idea that he came back to. (Hear a 60-second sample.)
"Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)" was one of the very first political songs that Motown recorded. This version came out in February 1966 by a group called The Monitors. However, it had originally been recorded by another group called The Valadiers in 1961. The song itself is interesting: it's a bit of a spoof. And it really talks about African American attitudes towards the draft at the time: the fact that [although] people did like to serve their country, they really didn't want to be drafted, even though 1961 (and even 1966) were early stages of the Vietnam war and the anti-war movement was really just beginning. It still was an interesting comment about the attitudes towards serving and towards being drafted in the military. Now, The Monitors, the group that recorded the song in 1966, had a minor hit before it was completely forgotten. This was a group formed by Richard Street, who used to be with a band called the Distants -- which later became the Temptations. Although Richard Street had come to Motown as a writer, he co-wrote The Contours' song "Can You Do It," formed the Monitors, they recorded "Greetings (this is Uncle Sam)," a couple other things. Again, this is one of those groups that was on the lower part of the Motown radar. and then Richard Street subsequently went back to the Temptations, in the '70s, and stayed with them for a good long time. (Hear a 60-second sample.)
"Love's Gone Bad" was a song recorded by Chris Clark; came out in July of 1966. A Holland-Dozier-Holland song that didn't chart, but a very good song. Chris Clark is one of those great, seldom-told stories in Motown. She was Californian, blond and white, at a time when Motown wasn't recording many white artists. She came to the label in 1963, and actually became a girlfriend of Berry Gordy. And he wrote her first single, a song called "Do Right, Baby, Do Right," but nothing happened with it. So he turned her over to Holland-Dozier-Holland with explicit orders to "get my girlfriend a hit." And it didn't exactly work. But Chris Clark was one of these blue-eyed soul people: when she would show up at TV stations or for radio interviews, they were shocked that this was a white woman in front of them, because they figured this was going to be Etta James walking in the door. She had that type of quality of voice. And though her career as an artist was short-lived, she did establish herself in a couple other areas: she photographed a lot of Motown artists, and you see many of her photos in the very common archives of Motown. She co-wrote the script for Lady Sings the Blues, which was nominated for an Academy Award. So she definitely made her mark in Motown, even though it wasn't as an artist. (Hear a 60-second sample.)
Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers
"Does Your Mama Know About Me" came out in February of 1968, and was inspired as almost a companion piece to the Sidney Poitier film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Same lyrical theme, and from a band that knew about it. This was a biracial group that came out of Canada; that's why they were Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, mixing a kind of soul and rock thing. [The band] had a guitar player—we would later come to know him as Tommy Chong, part of Cheech and Chong—and he co-wrote "Does Your Mother Know About Me." Once this song came out in '68, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers hit the road, and during their tour they made a stop in Gary, Ind. And they saw this group performing at a fair there, and it was what became the Jackson 5. Of course, Motown spun it that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, but it was really Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers who saw the band, [and] came back to Detroit to get in touch with Motown too. So it was Bobby Taylor who brokered that deal that brought the Jackson 5 to Motown, and created that aspect of the label's history. (Hear a 60-second sample.)