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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1969

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

The Jackson 5 early in their career, sporting colorful 60s clothes and perfectly coifed afros, sit and pose for the camera.

Sadly, we must pause at the beginning of another post to note the passing of an under-appreciated Motown great. Mr. Frank Wilson, songwriter and producer for Motown from 1965-1976, died yesterday. I wrote significantly about Wilson in my post about 1965; as head songwriter and producer for one of my very favorite Motown artists, Eddie Kendricks, he is extremely well-represented in my record collection, and I am particularly saddened by this news. Thanks for all the music, Frank; Rest In Peace.

After an unexpected hiatus, I’m back to finish up the last three installments of this series. Still lacking, as they forever after would, the cohesion of their 1963-1966 period, Motown continued to rely on an array of songwriters and producers, with mixed results. Johnny Bristol was actually the most successful songwriter/producer of the year, according to my list, something that back in 1969 probably surprised even him. Norman Whitfield was still working out some of the kinks in his new sound, at the same time as Berry Gordy threw himself head-first back into the writing game and operations started to shift further to California. Diana Ross was preparing to strike out on her own, while Marvin Gaye struggled with depression, and Stevie Wonder kept working on finding Stevie. David Ruffin and Edwin Starr both tried valiantly to become Motown’s latest male star, though neither would achieve the lasting success they hoped for. And everything the Temptations touched still turned to gold, though they had some stiff competition in some young newcomers called the Jackson 5.

All in all, it was arguably Motown’s overall weakest year since their big 1963 breakthrough. But luckily, that’s a comparative measure, and the results still turned into a great list.

1. I Want You Back

VIDEO: I Want You Back plays over an image of a Jackson 5 greatest hits album. I Want You Back lyrics.

With the label gradually moving more into soul music with the departure of HDH, I Want You Back is Motown’s best pop single since Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and their best piece of pure bubblegum since You Can’t Hurry Love. Even more than that, it holds the highly esteemed position of being Michael Jackson’s very first masterpiece. A family group of young teen and pre-teen boys, the Jackson 5 were first brought to the attention of Motown by Gladys Knight and the Pips, only for Berry Gordy to ignore their praises, not wanting to deal with the labor law hassles of underage performers. Motown singer/songwriter/producer Bobby Taylor eventually got him to hear the group, at which point Berry signed them instantly — and then promptly gave credit for their discovery to Diana Ross. After knocking their ages down a couple of years in press releases to make them seem even more cute, all they needed was a hit; they found one in Berry’s new songwriting group, the Corporation.

Intended to replace HDH as Motown’s hit-making machine, the Corporation was deliberately anonymous, with the intention of avoiding the “big heads” Berry perceived HDH as having grown. Comprised of Berry Gordy and the virtually unknown Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards, the collective fell far short of living up to its overall goal, but did produce one legendary song. At the time, it was all the J5 needed. Recorded in LA — where the bulk of the group’s work was to be completed, strongly signalling a shift away from Detroit and the Funk Brothers’ sound — the track features an impressive bass groove by Wilton Felder and crisp, clear instrumentation. A story mature beyond little Michael’s 11 years, he delivers it with a precocious conviction, surrounded by bubbly backing vocals made for radio. This song would be covered by a plethora of Motown’s acts, including very, very well by David Ruffin, but none would match the pop perfection of the original. And though the Jackson 5 would carry on with many other worthy singles, their debut was to be the finest track by the last superstars of Motown’s golden age.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell smile and embrace against a blue background

As popular musical tastes continued to evolve away from the girl group craze and smooth pop-soul sounds of the early sixties, Motown continued to evolve with it. While 1968 was an overall less consistent year than the few before it — this was one of the easiest lists in the series for me to make — the label’s best work was truly brilliant, and the year saw some Motown’s most emotional and transcendent releases.

Traditionally, 1971 — or mid-1972 — has been recognized as the end of Motown’s “classic” period, being when they packed up and left their namesake Detroit; but I’ve always felt that 1968 was the last true year of the Motown Sound and the end of its golden age. With HDH gone, Smokey Robinson currently lying fallow, the Supremes stuck in a rut, and the Temptations and Norman Whitfield both going psychedelic, by 1969 the Motown Sound was done evolving. It had become something else entirely.

That’s not to say that Motown wouldn’t still produce a lot of great music in the last three years that make up this series. Indeed, a lot of great music would come out on the label even after the move to LA. It just wouldn’t be the same. There was no more formula, no more assembly line, and Quality Control had lost much of its power to individual producers. In 1969, you could no longer pick a Motown song of the radio from the first couple bars. Different artists were developing sounds more distinct from each other — which would soon be a great boost to singer-songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but eventually a detriment to classic Motown artists like the remaining Temptations and Supremes. 1968, though, was a year that saw the release of some of my very favorite Motown hits. It was, in my view, the Motown Sound’s last great hurrah. And it just might be my favorite list in this series.

1. I Heard It Through the Grapevine

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard It Through The Grapevine plays over photograph of the artist. I Heard It Through The Grapevine lyrics.

After seeing his biggest success in Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield was still not satisfied. Sure, he had proven to Motown’s doubters that the song was a hit. But Whitfield knew Marvin Gaye’s 1967 recording of the song was a masterpiece, and he wanted it released as a single. To Berry Gordy’s credit,[1. Feel free to take a screen shot. “To Berry Gordy’s credit” is not something that you will see me write often.] he apparently refused to release the single again, this time based not on quality, but a reported desire to not put his artists in the position of competing with each other via the same song.[2. Whit apparently had no such concerns. While re-cutting songs on different artists was fairly common practice at Motown, Norman Whitfield was easily the most notorious for it, and he seemed to show little concern for whether his determination to realize his various visions negatively impacted his artists’ careers.] Never satisfied until he got precisely his way, Whit placed the track on Marvin’s new album In The Groove — soon retitled I Heard It Through the Grapevine — sure that radio DJs would pull the track off themselves. That’s exactly what they did, forcing a single release. Marvin’s version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine soon replaced Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version as the biggest-selling Motown single to date.[3. Ironically, apparently friends with Norman, it is Berry who Gladys blames for the situation — which, despite having said herself that she likes Marvin’s version better, she understandably remains unhappy about.]

I Heard It Through the Grapevine is, simply, one of the greatest tracks ever recorded anywhere. Immensely ambitious, and entirely successfully so, it is Norman Whitfield’s greatest masterpiece. It is also one of the landmark vocals in Marvin Gaye’s long and legendary career. Norman Whitfield’s instruction to sing the song slightly above his natural register initially caused some tension between the hotheaded singer and equally hotheaded producer, but as with David Ruffin (on whom the trick was originally tried on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg), ultimately resulted in Gaye developing a whole new approach to singing; he’d put this strained, angst-filled style to good use throughout the late 60s and 70s. Swampy piano work by Johnny Griffith, an outstanding drum track made up of all three of Motown’s main drummers, and chilling tambourine by Jack Ashford create one of the Funk Brothers’ absolute greatest and most collaborative performances. Haunting Andantes backing vocals complete the atmospheric and hugely unique recording. Whit was right to be persistent; this is one for the history books.

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