Mary Wells: Two Lovers
Marvin Gaye: I’ll Be Doggone
The Supremes: The Happening
Eddie Kendricks: Shoeshine Boy
T.G. Shepherd: Devil in the Bottle
Brenda Holloway: You’ve Made Me So Very Happy
All from The Complete Motown #1s (Motown, 2008)

As for many children of baby boomers, Motown was my introduction to soul music thanks to what I’d hear my dad listen to in the car. But even though I – like millions of Americans – would become intimately familiar with Motown’s train of hits over the years, it took much longer for me to actually, truly appreciate the label’s musical aesthetic.


I think partially that’s because even though Motown was my entryway into R&B, it was Southern soul – Al Green, Aretha Franklin with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Stax, etc. – that was my first love when it came to rhythm and blues. And while the whole Detroit vs. Memphis dichotomy is overbaked (the two unquestionably inspired one another through the years), for a long time, by throwing my camp in with Soulsville, that meant a frostier relationship to Hitsville. Motown’s sheer ubiquity certainly didn’t help, especially when I wanted my musical tastes to run deeper than The Big Chill soundtrack.

But once you get past the snobbery of not wanting to like what a billion other people like, it’s hard to deny the beauty and polish of Motown, whether you’re talking about the incredible songwriting from folks like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s expert writing and production to the musical mastery and output of the Funk Brothers. Alas, I don’t have the space to rap rhapsodic about the complexities of Motown’s grandeur, but you can read up on your own.

Just in time for the holidays, Motown has put out an impressive new, 10 CD boxset called The Complete Motown #1s which compiles, from 1960’s “Shop Around” (The Miracles) to 2000’s “Bag Lady” (Erykah Badu), all 191 of Motown’s chart-topping hits (plus 10 bonus songs). All this is packaged inside a stunning box designed to look like the original house Motown called its home. Good packaging may feel like a lost art these days but I have to say; this one knocks it out the park.

This said, I do have some nitpick critiques to make and I’ll just get these out of the way first. To begin, organizing an anthology by focusing exclusively on #1 hits is normally the compilation equivalent of preaching to the choir. You’re basically selling people the songs they already know. It’s lucrative, to be sure (just ask these guys), but musically speaking, it’s not meant to be adventurous.

Moreover though, it also raises the question of how you define what a “#1 hit” is and the compilers deployed some creative means in order to arrive at 191. Most of these songs were #1 on either the Billboard pop or R&B charts and that’s perfectly reasonable, but at times, they also dip into other magazines like Cash Box and Record World when the Billboard charts are not, shall we say, cooperative? The biggest stretches are for songs like the Commodores’ “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” which was #1 in the late summer of 1981…in New Zealand. At that point, you have to wonder if they’re just trying to pad the numbers.

That said, in all fairness, this boxset isn’t trying to be anything more than it is: the greatest of greatest hits collections and Motown hasn’t exactly slumped in plumbing the full depths of their catalog through other means, including the incredibly, exhaustive “Complete Singles” series, which (so far) has stretched from the first volume which covered 1959-61 up through the upcoming volume 11a which is just for the first half of 1971. (These series also fill in my other beef with the Complete #1s: the lack of liner notes in the booklet (which does have great photos and full discographic info). That’s not to mention the equally compelling Cellarful of Motown series of unreleased and rare vault selections.

As for the upsides of the boxset, the first is that despite having what you would think is song after song of “obvious” hits, it’s easy for even a seasoned Motown fan to get reacquainted with more than a few songs that weren’t always as monster as, say, The Supremes’ “Baby Love” or the Temptations’ “My Girl.” For example, I had forgotten about how excellent Mary Wells’ smoky ballad, “Two Lovers” was or how Marvin Gaye’s “I’ll Be Doggone” was so subtly funky and melodic at once. And then there were songs I had never heard before, including The Supreme’s “The Happening” (a #1 pop hit in May 1967) or Eddie Kendricks’ “Shoeshine Boy”, a slick 1975 R&B hit. You also get the idea that the compilers probably had a kick in including Motown’s two country hits, both by T.G. Shepherd who recorded for the Motown subsidiary, Melodyland and scored #1s in 1974 and ’75.

Appealing to my desire to want to go beyond just the top of the charts, I appreciate the bonus tracks, which were all Motown songs recorded by other artists who then hit #1 with them. This includes a few songs which you would have thought were #1s originally, such as Martha and Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” (which later would become a #1 hit – albeit done astoundingly cheesy – for David Bowie and Mick Jagger in 1985). But that also included a few songs that I didn’t realize originated with Motown, such as “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” which I’ve always associated with Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1969 but was first recorded by Brenda Holloway in ’67 (and done beautifully, I may add).

Analyzed by chronology, one of the things that surprised me about the Complete #1s was how quickly the comp is done with the ’60s, which I’ve always considered to be the label’s halycon era; by midway through Disc 3 (and this is a 10 disc set, remember), we’re already into the ’70s. Of course, those first three discs also contain probably the best known Motown hits within America’s collective memory, in terms of what we think of when we think “Motown.”

I was also struck at how strongly the sound of Motown shifted even as early as 1969 or so. New artists like the Jackson 5 with “I Want You Back” or producers like Norman Whitfield, working with the Temptations were radically shifting the style of Motown, partially in a nod to the changing sounds around them but also as a result of infusing the label with new blood. Equally striking is what ends up missing from Motown’s 1970s era – many songs you might associate with the label’s talented roster weren’t, in fact, ever #1 singles, such as Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today“, arguably one of the greatest composition he ever recorded. Likewise, while Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is duly represented, he doesn’t appear very often after that (only twice) but it’s not as if Gaye’s career ended in 1973. What you realize is that Motown’s great achievement wasn’t based around singles any more (even though the label enjoyed a slew of those still); it was really about albums at that point – a quality of Motown’s greatness that, unfortunately, this comp can’t capture given its basic concept.

This has to be contrasted against the vast breadth of the offerings though – even if just looking at singles isn’t the most accurate way to appreciate Motown’s evolution, it is awe-inspiring to realize that the same label that brought you the Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman,” would be the same one to also drop Obama’s favorite, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, Rick James’ “Superfreak” and Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.”

In the end, the Complete #1s is designed for the populist Motown fan, the one who will be drawn to its consolidation of 40 years of chart-topping smashes nicely boxed (and seriously, it is nicely boxed) into a neat, simple package. Ideally though, it’s meant to serve as a starting point rather than end. Once you cross the recreated door on the box’s front, it’s easy enough to lose yourself within Motown’s sprawling house of hits.

(Originally posted to Side DIshes)