Ever wondered about the amazing albums you’ve never heard, which the rock critics have barely noticed? There are many – and some were released by a legendary label known almost exclusively for releasing superb singles. When you really get into it, however, you’ll find that Motown’s overlooked albums are need-to-know essentials every bit as strong as the classics everybody talks about.
A profound change
As the 60s headed towards the 70s, there was a profound change in music bought by “the kids”. Prompted by the success of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it divided into two loose-fitting categories. One was pop, bought on 7” singles and designed for quick consumption. The other was rock, meant to be taken seriously on increasingly ambitious and lavish albums. When the 70s arrived, the difference was clear: a single flew for a few weeks but crashed; a classic album might sell for years.
Soul music was generally lumped in the former category, with superb one-off hits sold in the shorter format, and albums often arriving as an afterthought if the single sold enough copies. There were exceptions, but, for many fans, soul music simply meant three minutes of bliss.
Motown in the album era
At Motown, Berry Gordy, the label’s head honcho, was convinced that anything the rock bands could do, Motown’s artists could do better. They’d proved as much with Norman Whitfield’s increasingly heavyweight productions with The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye and the rest. If the kids wanted mature, grown-up albums with a message, he’d deliver the goods, with added soul that the progressive rockers could not match.
Not everyone was ready for soul as a serious album music. Even today, many 70s Motown albums remain under-appreciated in comparison to their rock equivalents. There is, however, a slew of superb Motown albums that are funky, thoughtful, deeply soulful, heavy and dancefloor-friendly, just waiting to be rediscovered.
What do you mean you’ve never heard…
Before we get to the heart of the matter, certain assumptions are made here: that you already know What’s Going On, which has enjoyed an extraordinary amount of retrospective acclaim, and therefore you are likely to have investigated the albums Marvin Gaye followed it with, such as Let’s Get It On, Here, My Dear and the rest. You’re also aware of Stevie Wonder’s unique 70s albums, which are timeless statements of an original mind. But they are only a part of Motown’s superb 70s-albums story.
The Temptations: Psychedelic Shack, Sky’s The Limit, Solid Rock, All Directions, Masterpiece
Let’s begin with one of Motown’s most established acts. The Temptations had been stars for six years when the 70s arrived and were scoring hits under the supervision of producer Norman Whitfield. He was prone to musical excess – but, back then, excess was best. Psychedelic Shack (1970) featured one song that didn’t use Melvin Franklin’s wonderful bass voice for anything other than talking: ‘Hum Along And Dance’ had very few words and instead took the Sly And The Family Stone path to percussive vocal harmony. ‘Take A Stroll Through Your Mind’ was full-on mock-drug-trip weirdness. It still sounds amazing – if naïve – today.
Their next album proper, Sky’s The Limit (1971), was more mature, utilising Eddie Kendricks’ beautiful high tenor to strong effect on the shimmering ‘Gonna Keep On Tryin’ Till I Win Your Love’ and the elegant hit ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’, both songs in a more traditional Tempts soulful vein, if updated. The album went full-on psych for the brooding, symphonic and paranoid ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’. ‘Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)’ was firmly in the mould of their previous ‘Ball Of Confusion’, and ‘Throw A Farewell Kiss’ was just immaculate Tempts soul. If you want just one 70s Temptations album, here it is.
The Temptations split, with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams quitting, and a reconstituted group released the transitional Solid Rock in 1972. Later that year, the more satisfying All Directions appeared, powered by the nigh-on 12-minute version of their smash single ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’. The group’s final Motown album with Whitfield, Masterpiece, was more his than theirs. (Whitfield also produced The Undisputed Truth, whose very decent self-titled debut album included the hit version of ‛Smiling Faces Sometimes’ and a poppy, punchy cut of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.)
Valerie Simpson: Exposed, Valerie Simpson
One of rock’s chief developments in the late 60s and early 70s was the rise of the singer-songwriter. Albums by the likes of Carole King, James Taylor and Don McLean sold by the truckload. This was clearly tricky territory for Motown: the label’s success was built on vocal talent singing other people’s songs. So Motown turned to its backroom composers in search of singer-songwriter success: could they deliver their songs as well as the artists they wrote for?
Valerie Simpson certainly could. Alongside her husband, Nick Ashford, Simpson was a genius of the three-minute soul symphony (‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘California Soul’, etc) and they’d started their career as a singing duo. Simpson had shown some interest in returning to a vocalist’s role when she sang on Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari album in 1970, and, in the spring of 1971, Motown released her debut solo album, Exposed. Imagine one of pop’s most gifted singer-songwriters with added gospel influences, singing in a beautiful soul voice, and that’s the bare bones of Exposed.
It’s a brave record. Any album that opens with two minutes of a cappella vocals reveals an artist wanting to express herself despite commercial imperatives. The more urgent ‘Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow’ and the supportive, uplifting ‘I Just Wanna Be There’ are more direct. Gospel arises on the punchy ‘Sinner Man (Don’t Let Him Catch You)’ and the mellow and reflective ‘There Is A God’. Best of all, arguably, is the lilting ‛Love Woke Me Up This Morning’, where you’ll find Simpson’s vocals at their most Diana Ross-like (though her approach is more dynamic).
Fourteen months later, a second wonderful album arrived: Valerie Simpson. If anything, it was more accessible than the first, dialling down the religious references. The tender ‘Silly Wasn’t I’, the strolling ‘Believe I’m Gonna Take The Ride’ and the slow-building ‘Drink The Wine’ were all superb. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready: neither album was a hit, and Simpson had to construct a singing career with her hubby away from Motown. Today, her 70s solo records sound wonderful.
Gloria Jones: Share My Love
Simpson wasn’t the only Motown tunesmith to step behind the mic. Gloria Jones had been a minor soul star in the mid-60s with the singles ‘Tainted Love’ (yes, the song both Soft Cell and Marilyn Manson covered) and ‘Heartbeat’. Times had changed, and so had Gloria on Share My Love, released by Motown in 1973. The title track offered baroque strings and harp before breaking into a funky clavinet groove of a sort you’d heard from Stevie Wonder. ‘Tin Can People’ combined a touch of Labelle, a slice of Sly Stone and the nastay vibe of Betty Davis. ‘What Did I Do To Lose You’ was a fab ballad that could be mistaken for Gladys Knight at a casual listen. This fine album flopped, regrettably, and Jones didn’t record for Motown again, spending much of the 70s in England as the partner of pop idol Marc Bolan.
Commodores: Machine Gun
So, you know Lionel Richie as a smooth, squillion-selling 80s balladeer? That’s only half the tale. Motown signed him in 1974 as joint lead singer (alongside drummer Walter Orange) of Commodores, and the band was a funky sensation. While they became known for gushy gear such as ‘Three Times A Lady’, their debut album, Machine Gun, was full-on phonk. The burbling, buzzy title track was a synth-laden instrumental hit; ‘Rapid Fire’ followed a similar template; the thumping ‘I Feel Sanctified’ offered a Fatback Band-styled street groove; ‘Gonna Blow Your Mind’ fused both styles. But we can again thank Gloria Jones for writing (alongside Pam Sawyer) two tunes that drive the record into a different dimension, ‘The Zoo (The Human Zoo)’, an all-kinda-people song that’s like a busy city street in summer, and ‘The Assembly Line’, one of the best funky tracks Motown released during the entire decade. It muses on the modern human condition, and is so absorbing that, though it’s only five minutes long, you feel like you’ve spent half an hour in its multi-level world. Sheer prog-funk magic.
Four Tops: Nature Planned It
Soul superstars in the 60s, Motown seemed to have lost interest in Four Tops by 1971, and it would take a move to the Dunhill label in 1972 to revitalise this wonderful vocal group’s chart status. So it would figure that their final Motown album would be a lacklustre love-free zone, right? Nope. Nature Planned It (1972) is a gem of a record, full of tunes that deserve to be heard anew.
The feeling throughout is mellow and warm. Levi Stubbs never sounded more sincere and understated than on the title track; ‘If You Let Me’ has Lawrence Payton singing lead and making a great job of it; ‘Hey Man’ sounds like it’s going to turn into ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ but goes Latin-soul before segueing into a version of Todd Rundgren’s ‘We Got To Get You A Woman’, which surely should have been written for the Tops (it wasn’t). A few months later, Dunhill’s Keeper Of The Castle came out, restoring Four Tops’ place in the pop charts, and Nature Planned It went sadly overlooked. A proper album rather than a stack of random tracks, Nature Planned It deserves star status.
The Miracles: Do It Baby, City Of Angels
Staying with Motown icons coping with change, what chance did The Miracles stand when their lead singer and songwriter, Smokey Robinson, quit in 1972? Little or none, you might think, but Smokey’s replacement, Billy Griffin, was a great singer with an appealing voice, and the group had decent writers in their ranks. Two post-Smokey albums stand out: Do It Baby (1974) hit an urban niche and its title tune was a big pop hit, much covered in the next two years by everyone from reggae star Horace Andy to jazz guitarist Jimmy Ponder. ‘Give Me Just Another Day’ mixed wah-wah funk and lush strings in an unusual style, ‘Up Again’ was Blue Magic-esque and ‘What Is A Heart For’ boasted a glorious silky groove. City Of Angels (1975) was a self-written concept album that which delivered the floor-filling hit ‘Love Machine’, the similar thriller ‘Night Life’, and a song which featured the daftest name for a human being since The Dells’ ‘Agatha Von Thurgood’: ‘Waldo Roderick DeHammersmith’. (It is, however, a top tune.)
Eddie Kendricks: People… Hold On, Eddie Kendricks
Eddie Kendricks faced the opposite problem to The Miracles: he’d been a lead singer in a star act, The Temptations, trying to launch a solo career in 1971. For a few years, the career shift worked. His second and third albums have aged best. People… Hold On (1972) is a magnificent affair: ‘My People… Hold On’ held resonant African drumming, delivering a heavyweight rootsy feel; ‘If You Let Me’ was a superb gentle jam; ‘Girl You Need A Change Of Mind’ may not be lyrically PC, but its dramatic approach and steady-rolling beat implores you to move your feet – fans of Diana Ross’ disco smash ‘Love Hangover’ should hear it.
His next album, Eddie Kendricks (1973), was driven by the smash funky single ‘Keep On Truckin’’, a title that became a motto for the era, but the songs ranged from the dreamy floater ‘Only Room For Two’, featuring fabulous orchestrations by Jerry Long, to the slippery plea of ‘Darling Come Back Home’, which is grown-up without being tiresome. These days, only a select few fans are aware of Eddie Kendricks’ brilliance as a solo artist. Tell your friends: at his best, this guy was a great.
Jackson 5: Lookin’ Through The Windows, Skywriter, Get It Together
On the other hand, Jackson 5’s fame remains, but their music between the early hits and their departure from Motown is underappreciated. Michael and co released fascinating albums that found them seeking their mature sound while retaining the undeniable charm of youth. Lookin’ Through The Windows (1972) was by no means mature but the title track remains exhilarating; their version of Jackson Browne’s ‘Doctor My Eyes’ was exuberant; and their total rework of ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ is still effective. Skywriter (1973) was more focused, though only the tender ‘Ooh, I’d Love To Be With You’ was as classy as the driving and gritty title track, which used phasing to give the mix a sense of endless space. Best of all was Get It Together (1973). The title track really grooved; ‘Don’t Say Goodbye Again’ answered a previous hit, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’; ‘Hum Along And Dance’ is proper psychedelic funk and licks The Temptations’ version; and the chunky ‘Dancing Machine’ was strong enough to somehow become the title track of their next album. There was life after major stardom – and before it.
Syreeta: Syreeta, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta
When Stevie Wonder wasn’t busy breaking new ground with his own albums, he was producing or playing on others’, including those of his ex-wife, Syreeta, who had first recorded at Motown in 1968 as Rita Wright. Syreeta’s self-titled debut album, released in 1972, was firmly aimed at an AOR market and featured a few unlikely covers. Her second offering, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (1974), was also designed for a mature audience, but was more playful and fully realised, and packed with tunes she and Wonder had composed. It delivered the synthesised circus reggae of ‘Your Kiss Is Sweet’, which was a hit, but there was deeper stuff too, such as the crunching ‘I’m Goin’ Left’, the silken ‘Heavy Day’, the waltz-time ‘Spinnin’ And Spinnin’’ and ‘Universal Sound Of The World’, which worked well despite its title. Syreeta’s future was as a duet specialist, but her solo material is well worth checking out if you like a little sugar in your soul.
Willie Hutch: Fully Exposed, The Mack
Willie Hutch was Motown’s great funk hope in the 70s, though his roots were firmly based in soul. He funk-tioned as a commercial songwriter, too, co-composing Jackson 5’s ‘I’ll Be There’. Hutch didn’t cross over to any great degree, retaining his cred for an African-American audience through a series of fine albums in the 70s. His first album for the label, Fully Exposed (1973), managed to sound both authentically independent and “company” at the same time, with gutsy grooves like ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’; ‘I’ll Be There’ refashioned as a floating wah-wah slow jam; and the bubbling two-step groover ‘California My Way’, which could almost be a contemporary Marvin Gaye production. The same year he delivered The Mack, a bristling, funked-up monster that’s among the era’s best Blaxploitation soundtracks. An underrated vocalist, Hutch really put a song across and had the beats to make feet fleet.
Edwin Starr: Involved, Hell Up In Harlem
Hutch wasn’t the only Motown artist to record a Blaxploitation movie soundtrack. Edwin Starr, not the most likely candidate for such work, created Hell Up In Harlem in 1974. Produced by the rapidly rising Fonce Mizell and Jackson 5 producer Freddie Perren, with top talent such as guitarist Dennis Coffey and Crusaders’ pianist Joe Sample in support, this spunky, funky record was not typical Edwin Starr fare. His last Motown album, it still sounds fresh today. If you’d prefer the hard-hitting soul man of ‘War’ fame, try Involved (1971), which features his take on a couple of hits by The Temptations, Starr’s own ‘Stop The War Now’ and the gutsy ‘Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On’.
Riot: Welcome To The World Of
Motown’s output grew more diverse as the 70s moved on. Riot’s Welcome To The World Of (1974) was a funky rock record with heavyweight beats such as ‘Put Your Gun Down Brother’ and the proggy, spacey ‘Just Beyond’. It doesn’t sound like Motown.
Yvonne Fair: The Bitch Is Black
Yvonne Fair’s The Bitch Is Black (1975) brought success to a singer who had been around since the mid-60s as a member of James Brown’s revue. Fair delivered soul with the sly and sassy attitude of Millie Jackson and an Etta James-esque gravelly voice; just check out that antique electronic beat opening the hit ‘It Should Have Been Me’.
An Italian band, Libra released two albums on Motown; their first, Libra (1975), was excellent, but you’d never guess this was Motown as it’s very much Euro prog.
Major Lance: Now Arriving
Chicago 60s soul legend Major Lance failed to find a new audience with the fine Now Arriving, which lacked a killer hit single to draw attention to it.
Rick James: Bustin’ Out Of L7
Motown’s most significant late-70s signing was the Canadian funkateer Rick James, who delivered a string of loud and badass punk-funk albums, including the superb Bustin’ Out Of L7 (1979). He also pointed the label in the direction of Teena Marie, the female funk’n’soul supremo who kicked off her career with the statement of intent Wild And Peaceful in the spring of 1979.
Jr Walker And The All Stars: Moody Jr
For more traditional Motown material, try Jr Walker And The All Stars’ Moody Jr (1971), which includes his alluring take on The Crusaders’ ‘Way Back Home’ and his lovely ‘Walk In The Night’. Shockingly, the US branch of Motown did not even release his Jr Walker And The All Stars (1974), leaving the UK label to issue this solid album which featured Stevie Wonder as a guest star on two tracks.
The Supremes: Right On
The Supremes developed through the 70s, and two albums in particular stand out: Right On (1970), their first without Diana Ross, featuring the fabulous ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’, and the Smokey Robinson-produced Floy Joy (1972), which boasted the delicious bass-led ‘Automatically Sunshine’.
The Originals: Naturally Together
Another “traditional Motown” album that should not be overlooked is The Originals’ Naturally Together (1970). A mixed blessing in terms of material, the vocal group was nonetheless brilliant throughout and, in the opening track, ‘We Can Make It Baby’, provided a prototype for the sound its writer and producer, Marvin Gaye, would triumph with on What’s Going On. Soul fans still wish Gaye and The Originals had delivered an entire album together. Dream on…