2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan, a house bought by Barry Gordy in 1959 to serve as the recording studio for Motown Records. “Hitsville USA” said the sign, and that was no idle boast. For a whole decade, number 1 hits poured out of the place, from artists like the Four Tops, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, on and on, fed by a stable of phenomenal songwriters, most notably Holland-Dozier-Holland, and backed up by an uncredited group of expert session musicians who billed themselves as the “Funk Brothers”, all peerless in their own right, and none more so than the great James Jamerson, arguably the greatest bass player who ever lived. The Motown sound. There never was anything like it.
Their slogan said it all: “The sound of young America”. Yes, it was all black artists, singers, musicians and songwriters, but shit, man, you could be white as snow, didn’t matter. This was music for everybody, so melodically and rhythmically alluring that nobody who could so much as tap a toe could possibly resist it (as one member of the Funk Brothers said, “No offense to Diana Ross or nothin’, but Elmer Fudd could’ve had hits singin’ those songs”*). Hard to believe, now, but in that one amazing decade, while Bob Dylan waxed philosophical and the Beatles soared, chased by the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, God help us it never stopped, while constantly, almost metronomically, one Motown hit after another.
Biggest of all were the aforementioned Diana Ross and the Supremes, who didn’t just make the mainstream, but had twelve – twelve – Number 1 singles between 1964 and 1970, beginning with Where Did Our Love Go, and progressing through a litany of songs that remain familiar to just about anybody who adores good pop music: Stop in the Name of Love, Come See About Me, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Reflections, and many others including today’s pick, the one that had the chops to take over the top slot from Hey Jude, hitting Number 1 at the end of 1968. It’s always been my favourite, ever since I was a little kid, and it came as a surprise to learn that it wasn’t written by the stalwart team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, but instead by what amounted to a five person committee led by R. Dean Taylor, whose name might ring a bell to those of us of a certain age, being the singer behind the kind of hokey but still pretty good 1970 hit Indiana Wants Me.
Well, nothing hokey about this one. Listen to how it starts, those strummed chords on rhythm guitar and then the descending swirl of strings, it’s so frigging dramatic – that’s how you start a song you want played on the radio, kid – it just grabs you right by the throat, doesn’t it? Tenement slums sing the girls, right off the bat, and you know right away that this is no love song, and this shit is no joke. What follows could almost be described as feminist, almost political, laying out the fears and pressures that young women endure in their relationships with randy males, written at a time when something novel like the Pill wouldn’t have been readily available to a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, while, Lord knows, the guy was less likely than not to supply his own. He doesn’t care. He can just cut and run, like Daddy did, and look what awaits you and your sad fatherless child if you take just one wrong step:
I started my life
In an old cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married Mom
I shared the guilt my Mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name
I started school
In a worn torn dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt to always live in doubt
To be without the simple things
So afraid my friends would see the guilt in me
I defy you to find any song, recorded any time, that can cut through the background noise and seize your attention any better than this one. You can just see it in your mind’s eye, can’t you, the little dashboard radio glowing orange, the hum of tires on the road, and the kid in the passenger seat grabbing for the volume dial: turn it up turn it up! It’s a clinic in professional composition, arranging, and musicianship, and you can sense in it the excitement of artists who knew what they had their hands on, everybody all fired up, with the Funk Brothers really giving it their all, behind a palpably authentic vocal performance delivered by somebody who grew up wearing hand-me-downs amid the poverty of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project, and knew whereof she sang. Wait – can’t you wait now, just a little bit longer? You’re left wondering how it turned out. Was he persuaded? Did she hold fast? Maybe he turned out to be a stand-up guy? Or did it all end with one more fatherless child, growing up dirt poor in the projects?
*If you’ve never seen the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, seek it out!