It’s finally here. Six months after the last volume dedicated to the singles of 1966, the seventh set of a projected twelve arrives. Five CDs containing every A and B side of every 45 issued by Motown, Tamla, Gordy, Soul and VIP through 1967, including unissued promo singles and a few alternative mixes.
1967 was a benchmark year for the company. In commercial terms it had grown into a hugely successful hit machine with a strike rate unprecedented and subsequently unequalled. The box tells that tale with familar classics like “Jimmy Mack”, “Bernadette”, “The Happening”, “There’s A Ghost In My House”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” etc etc. There are enough songs of that stature to fill a CD on their own!
It wasn’t all good news. Hitsville found itself in the middle of the Detroit riots that year which left 43 dead and the city in ruins. They precipitated a rapid decline in fortunes for the ‘Motor Town’. The relatively prosperous black middle class saw their businesses burned, looted, and otherwise destroyed by both the rioters and the brutal, racist police force that acted more like an occupying army than a force for law and order. It was the beginning of a flight from the city that, five years on, would include Motown itself.
The family vibe of the organisation was becoming seriously strained. It was in 1967 that the Supremes became Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Miracles became Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (and in his dreams, the increasingly wayward singer would have led David Ruffin and the Temptations – that one was scotched, and he was out of the group within a year). Ross, in particular, was acting more and more like a diva. Florence Ballard was ousted from the group that she’d founded, and in five years would be dead. Tammi Terrell collapsed in Marvin Gaye’s arms on stage at a gig in Virginia in October 1967, and was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Acts like the Spinners, the Contours and Jimmy Ruffin were all getting cheesed off with the lack of opportunities they were afforded as the cream of the company’s songwriters worked with the big acts like the Temptations, the Supremes and the Four Tops.
Despite the problems, the quality bar was probably set higher than ever before. Even many of the B sides here would have been deserved hits in their own right. Berry Gordy’s desire to succeed in other areas outside of the company’s pop and soul traditions was reined back somewhat. The country experiments had been abandoned. Barbara McNair and Billy Eckstine were the sole remaining purveyors of slick AOR. There were a couple of attempts at infiltrating the white rock market. The Messengers’ “Window Shopping” sounded like the Monkees, The Ones a lot like the Rascals, but the Underdogs’ “Love’s Gone Bad” was a classic garage rock tune that could and should have been a hit. Mostly, though, the company was concentrating on what it did best.
The writers and producers were becoming more confident, and the trademark Motown sound was evolving fast, with ever more complex arrangements. There was gritty soul from Gladys Knight, the best female singer the label ever had, and pure pop swinging sixties style in the form of the Supremes’ “The Happening”. Norman Whitfield’s relationship with the Temptations was well established, although the groundbreaking ‘psychedelic soul’ experiments were still a year away. Lyrically, despite 1967 being the ‘summer of love’ and seeing the rise of groups as diversely political (with a small ‘p’) as Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground, Motown songs still concerned themselves with love – lost and found. They did it very well, but there were criticisms being aired that there were other issues to be dealt with – civil rights, poverty, police brutality and the Vietnam war to name but four. These topics and others would eventually be tackled.
Anyone familiar with the series will know the score. The five CDs come bound into a 112 hardback book with a cover-mounted bonus vinyl single (Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” on Soul). The text is meticulously researched and well written, with stacks of great contemporary photographs. The series sets a standard for catalogue material that would be hard to surpass. Favourite track of the 116 here? Probably “I Wish It Would Rain” by the Tempts, although on another day it might be “Bernadette” (as the book points out, it’s almost impossible to come in on time with Levi Stubbs’ last cry of the title near the end – try it. You’ll fail!). I’m already looking forward to 1968.