When “Machine Gun,” the Commodores’ first hit, was climbing the Billboard charts during the summer of ’74, they were just about the funkiest act in a Top 30 populated by the likes of John Denver, Anne Murray, Olivia Newton-John and Abba.
In 1977, when sales of their “Brick House” exploded, the Commodores were still one of the few bands on the Billboard Hot 100 capable of formidably laying down the funk. And they were taking it to the people, too, that year: on a nationwide tour, inside the Top 10 of the album charts, and on the big screen, with “Too Hot Ta Trot” featured in the soundtrack to the Seventies’ most-talked-about disco movie, Thank God It’s Friday.
“Machine Gun” and “Brick House” are both contained in Motown Funk 2, a 19-track, two-LP set in heavy vinyl which helps to define the record company’s contributions to the genre during that decade and beyond. In addition to the Commodores anthems, there are chart-topping funk tracks by Marvin Gaye (“Got To Give It Up”), the Dazz Band (“Let It Whip”) and Eddie Kendricks (“Keep On Truckin’”).
Less well-known, but no less funky, are tracks by Yvonne Fair (“You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover”), Edwin Starr (“Runnin’”) and the Undisputed Truth (“UFOs”). The last two were produced by Motown’s funkiest producer, Norman Whitfield, whose work with the Temptations – beginning with “Cloud Nine” in 1968 – reshaped a strand of the classic Motown sound into psychedelic soul. Another track on Motown Funk 2 shows the extent to which Whitfield pushed the sonic boundaries of soul: “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by Rare Earth, a song previously a hit for the Temptations.
Not everything in the two-LP set is by an immediately-recognizable Motown name. “Haiku” is by Puzzle, a six-piece combo from Chicago which recorded two albums for the label in 1973-74. This particular piece of mellow instrumental funk features trumpet player Bob Williams, underpinned by bassman Anthony Siciliano.
Motown Funk 2 was compiled by record label exec and DJ Johnny Chandler, whose first encounter with the genre came when, as a teenager, he stumbled across a copy of James Brown’s album, Sex Machine Today. “I had some early ’60s singles by JB, but this looked a wholly different proposition,” Chandler recalls, “and I duly picked it up. The album included ‘Dead On It,’ a 13-minutes-plus funk opus. It was the start of a new love affair which, in turn, would lead me to hiphop, breakbeats and DJ’ing.”
Chandler, whose Motown appetite had begun some years earlier, remembers hearing at some point that “the Funk Brothers” was how the company’s house band was described. “Admittedly, there was nothing that sounded like JB, but this helped to explain some of the sublime ‘alternative’ funk offerings I’d discovered amongst the vast releases across all of Motown’s labels. I think it’s fair to say that Motown Funk comes in many forms.”
You can pick up a copy of Motown Funk 2 exclusively from the Classic Motown Store here