MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose Up)

“Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)”
Cornelius Brothers & Sister  Rose (1972)
Billboard: #23
Billboard R&B: #28
Billboard Adult Contemporary: #27
Recommended source: Classic Masters

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If you want to speak of artists who get little respect, speak of Supper Club Soul, a typically lilting, often ballad-oriented, variation on what came to be called “Beach Music” after the dance music preferred by Carolina shaggers in the sixties and seventies. Even at its most insistent (say, The Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time”) the sound tended to be lighter and brighter than the main streams of Southern and Urban Soul that dominated both the charts and the critical discussion (such as it was) of what black people were up to in the period.

As little real understanding as the crit-illuminati evince of Stax and Motown, Supper Club Soul remains barely noticed at all. Its geniuses–Dionne Warwick, The 5th Dimension, Lionel Richie–collectively await a single nomination on those Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballots that, year after year, find room for artists (mostly white and male) from other genres who are, shall we say, less than genius.

I don’t know if Eddie Cornelius, the lead singer and songwriter for Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, was a minor genius who just didn’t get the right opportunity to fulfill his entire destiny, or a superb craftsman who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m continually fascinated by those who walk up to the very edge of fame and then recede from our view, having left behind a few beautiful memories, but I don’t profess to understand why one voice goes on and another falls by the wayside.

I do know that Eddie’s vocal on this record is a great, forgotten moment in seventies soul–his characteristic dry, distinctive baritone on the verses gently pierced on the chorus by one of the loveliest falsettos this side of heaven, mounting to transcendence as it repeats.

It was the follow-up to “Treat Her Like a Lady” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” two monster hits (which he also wrote) that, in nearly half a century, have never left the radio. And it was every bit as good. Whether its air of melancholy–common to Eddie’s vocals but accentuated here into something that reaches just an inch or two further–was the cause of its slightly less impressive chart showing, or simply a cosmic indicator of the group’s subsequent rapid fade (which occurred despite a sting of fine releases which are collected on the comp recommended above), is impossible to say. But, sometimes, time is the best revenge. That might be worth remembering in the days ahead:

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Commodores Up)

“This Is Your Life”
The Commodores (1975)
Billboard R&B: #13
Did not make the Pop Chart
Recommended source: Commodores Gold

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“This Is Your Life” was the Commodores fifth single. After some fair-to-middling success as a (first rate) hard funk band, it was meant to launch them as a ballad act, featuring their rather odd-looking and odd-sounding crooner in residence, Lionel Richie.

It didn’t. Their previous release “Slippery When Wet” had been their most successful to date, topping the R&B chart and reaching #19 Pop, outdoing even their debut killer “Machine Gun.” Maybe the shift was too sudden, but “This Is Your Life” was a severe comedown on the charts.

Their label, Motown, had once held a reputation for sticking with acts it believed in and having it pay off with legendary careers once the sweet spot was identified. But with the Commodores, it might have seemed that the sweet spot was already identified–a place next to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players as purveyors of reliable funk to a devoted audience who could provide the basis for occasional pop crossover and a place to come home to once the crossover moment passed. And, anyway, what Motown had once done routinely, it was not so committed to doing at all by the mid-seventies.

And so there it might have stayed.

Except Lionel Richie had other ideas. In later years, he put it pretty simply: “I wanted us to be the black Beatles.” That meant doing all kinds of music and selling all of it to a multiracial audience.

“This Is Your Life” was his first reach for the stars and he more or less came up empty…at least on the charts.

He–or somebody–kept on believing. The followup single, “Sweet Love,” was the first from their next album. It went #5 Pop, #2 R&B, and sent The Commodores/Lionel Richie on a decade long run of crossover success that made them, if not the black Beatles, at very least superstars in their own right and, more significantly, last stand upholders of an aspirational cultural and political black bourgeoisie tradition that has since been lost at no small cost to us all. If it hangs around, waiting to be redeemed, it hangs around at least in part due to them and their ability to extend it a decade past its natural sell-by date.

That their contribution wasn’t lost in the cradle was due to persistence and belief.

Because “This Is Your Life” has every element that made Commodores’ balladry great (especially the killer arrangement). There was no good reason for it to fail and no good reason to keep believing future attempts at the same would succeed.

It wasn’t like even the greatest of them–not “Sweet Love,” not “Easy,” no, not even “Sail On,”–would be better. But believe they did….

(Note: This is the longer album version. Just because it’s better. Maybe the record company should have believed in it enough to avoid a radio edit!….Talk about an alternative universe.)