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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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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967

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

A black and white phot of Gladys Knight and the Pips demonstrating a dance move. Turned to the side, they each pump one arm down while raising the knee high up.

The Motown Sound was changing. In 1967, the label’s most reliable songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, would decide they weren’t making what they deserved and walk out, waving a lawsuit, to start their own label. Smokey Robinson, past his prime, no longer boasted his incredible hit-making power. And that left a series of up and comers, who had largely toiled in the lower echelons of Motown’s staff, to break on through with hits of their own. The most successful of those songwriters and producers — at least immediately — was to be Norman Whitfield, who then preferred a slightly earthier, more soulful sound to those put out by HDH and Robinson. But the HDH void was also to be filled by the glossy productions of newcomers Ashford and Simpson, who had long aspired to get their foot in Motown’s door. And Stevie Wonder’s ever-maturing and increasingly complex work was becoming a force to contend with.

The year also saw a couple of important artist breakthroughs. Gladys Knight and Tammi¬† Terrell were to be the last two women to become stars during Motown’s golden years, the first women to break through after Diana Ross’ meteoric rise, and two of the very best female vocalists ever signed to the label. While Ross would still receive a vast majority of Motown’s resources,[1. This was to be a key reason why Knight eventually left for Buddah (sic) in 1973.] Knight and Terrell restored the gender-balance of Motown’s roster and served up some of the label’s hottest tracks.

In turns funky, melancholy, and exuberant, all representing an evolving Motown Sound, my top 5 tracks from the year are below.

1. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell lip sync their song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough on the grounds of the 1967 World’s Fair. Marvin wears a maroon mock turtleneck and gray blazer; Tammi wears a matching blue plaid coat and skirt with cap. The two unabashedly flirt throughout their performance. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough lyrics.

Let’s get straight to it: this is one of the greatest pop records ever made. Opening with a vibes part so shimmering and dazzling that it verges on disorienting, the greatest duet team in history enters to claim their rightful title. Though technically about a couple that has already parted, you’d be hard pressed to find a more exuberant or romantic song in Motown’s catalog — as always, Marvin and Tammi sound like young people very much in love. Featuring rock solid drumming by Uriel Jones and smooth, grounding bass line that James Jamerson apparently considered his own best work, this track does not contain a solitary misstep; it’s hard to imagine anything else on pop radio ever being this perfect.

Gaye and Terrell’s first duet — something so extraordinary reportedly inspired quite simply by the fact that both artists were considered for the song — they did not record this track together, but it sounds as though they did. Marvin’s frantic vocal combined with Tammi’s smooth, confident delivery was to set up the overwhelming future dynamic on their recordings. It was one that consistently worked. This song was also songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s first song for Motown. And while Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol would do an unarguably brilliant job recording the newcomers’ track, Ashford and Simpson soon get to start cutting the material as producers themselves. Their work with Marvin and Tammi would soon take them all to new heights.

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