Things you need to know. This time: names you don’t normally associate with Hitsville U.S.A.
(ranked by album year of release)
Berry Gordy brought “different” singers, performers and musicians on board almost from the start, before millions of fans bought into the classic Motown sound. Pop singer Debbie Dean was among them (she was also the first white artist signed) with a debut 45 released in 1961. For another, there was jazz pianist Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s accompanist, no less.
With success came new horizons, and several old-school singers joined Motown as the ’60s advanced, including Billy Eckstine and Barbara McNair. There were comedians, too, such as ventriloquist Willie Tyler (plus his alter ego, Lester, of course) and Soupy Sales. Later, the Four Seasons, Meat Loaf and Pat Boone signed up.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Motown association was well-known, marked by two albums of his speeches released in 1963. Later, Berry Gordy introduced a label for political activism, Black Forum, which put out eight albums in two-and-a-half years. Other minor imprints catered for jazz, gospel and country music. None delivered chart-busting albums, but all make for interesting conversations. Below is merely a selection of the unexpected at Hitsville U.S.A.
BILL COSBY (1982)
The soundtrack of a stand-up show filmed in Canada was the comedian-turned-sitcom-star’s sole Motown album.
JOSE FELICIANO (1982)
The Latin/jazz/blues/pop singer even recorded a version of Berry Gordy’s hit for Jackie Wilson, “Lonely Teardrops.”
ALBERT FINNEY (1977)
The Oscar-nominated, British stage and movie actor “sang” on a London-recorded album, featuring his own lyrics and music by ace arranger/producer Denis King.
BOBBY DARIN (1972)
The versatile, middle-of-the-road star was in serious mode (mostly) while in the studio for Motown, and Smokey Robinson even duetted with him.
LESLEY GORE (1971)
The “It’s My Party” teenager had evolved into a thoughtful singer/songwriter by the ’70s, but her one MoWest album was a tough sell.
KIKI DEE (1970)
The British artist’s Great Expectations LP, recorded at Hitsville, was musically strong but commercially unfulfilled.
STOKELY CARMICHAEL (1970)
The black power icon had a powerful, provocative spoken-word album (Free Huey!) as his one and only release on Black Forum.
SAMMY DAVIS JR. (1970)
He was a showbiz superstar by the time Motown signed him, but one album (on a brief Motown offshoot, Ecology) did not match his prior record sales.
THE ABBEY TAVERN SINGERS (1967)
The popularity of beer commercials featuring this Irish folk group persuaded Motown to try their album We’re Off To Dublin In The Green as a one-off on the V.I.P. label.
RALPH SHARON (1963)
The British-born musician mixed jazz and country on his one Motown LP release, which Tony Bennett wrote in its liner notes should have been called The Cockney Meets the Cowboys.