20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: Martha & the Vandellas.
What: The fifth album by the only Motown girl group – the Supremes aside – to score six Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. One of those hits, “Jimmy Mack,” was made more than two years before its release on Watchout!
When: Most of Watchout! was cut and completed during 1966 by a cross-section of Motown’s leading producers, including Holland/Dozier/Holland, William “Smokey” Robinson and the man for whom Martha first worked as a secretary, William “Mickey” Stevenson. The album was issued November 16 in ’66 as “I’m Ready For Love” was racing up the charts. (For more on Martha & the Vandellas, read here.)
Where: Motown’s Studio A, nicknamed the “Snakepit,” was where Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelley – the trio pictured on the album cover – recorded most of Watchout! Even Los Angeles-based writer/producer Frank Wilson was in Detroit for his contribution to the 12-track set, “Let This Day Be.”
Why: Holland/Dozier/Holland had created Martha & the Vandellas’ first back-to-back Top 10 hits in 1963, but then became preoccupied with the Supremes. Three years later, Berry Gordy got on the case. “I remember that Berry was looking for something for Martha,” said Lamont Dozier, “because her career was on a downward slope. He said, ‘Pull everything out of the can and let’s see.’ ” One of the songs Gordy heard was “Jimmy Mack.” The boss reacted, according to Dozier: “Get this thing ready to go out right away. This is a damn hit record.”
What else: The first smash from Watchout! was to Martha’s liking from the get-go. “ ‘I’m Ready For Love’ was exciting because it had that sort of a merengue beat,” she said. “Usually [H/D/H] had a shuffle but this one had more of a Latin beat to it. I really enjoyed it. I love the lyrics. I love the way we sing ‘I’m ready, right now’ in the middle of it.”
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?