VARIOUS ARTISTS: ‘The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9: 1969’ (Label: Hip-O Select)

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9: 1969'

1969 was the final year of what had been a turbulent decade. The so-called ‘Age of Aquarius’ had begun with the threat of Armageddon when the USA and USSR played a tense game of brinkmanship over the presence of nuclear missiles in Castro’s Cuba. When that crisis was averted – much to the relief of the whole watching world – more were to follow, especially in regard to the USA: there was a neo-colonial war raging in Vietnam, of course, and on Uncle Sam’s home soil, much blood was spilled (and lives were lost) on the streets as African-Americans sought to achieve equality via Civil Rights protests. American popular music vividly reflected the zeitgeist and even at Motown – which had resisted making records that commented on events in the ‘real’ world earlier in the decade – many of label’s songs had become politicized by 1969, thanks to writers and producers like Norman Whitfield, who gave the company a reality check and helped The Temptations claim the company’s first Grammy award. 1969, then, was a year characterised by both idealism and loss; of Woodstock and Altamont, of the first moon landing and the Manson murders – Motown, too, couldn’t resist the inevitability of change and in 1969, Diana Ross stunned Supremes’ devotees by announcing that she was leaving the group. Also, Berry Gordy quit the Motor Town to live in LA while his company shifted its business operations from the quaint Hitsville building to plush, new, state-of-the-art offices in downtown Detroit (three years later the company would follow Gordy to LA). On a sadder note, Shorty Long and the Funk Brothers’ drummer, Benny Benjamin, both died. But on the plus side, Motown signed the Jackson 5, a young Afro-topped quintet from Gary, Indiana, that burst on the pop scene with the infectious Stateside chart topper ‘I Want You Back’ in November 1969. Significantly, that momentous Motown smash, which ushered in a new era for Berry Gordy’s Detroit company, is the vinyl 45 attached to the front cover of Hip-O Select’s latest instalment of their incredible retrospective series, ‘The Complete Motown Singles.’ Anyone familiar with the series format will know that the packaging to each volume is unimpeachable – the track by track annotation is richly informative, while archival colour photos bring the era vividly to life. And then there are personal recollections of Motown that give an insight into how the company was run – this time, it’s the turn of Shelley Berger, former west coast man for Berry Gordy who also managed The Supremes, The Temptations and the Jackson 5. There’s also a thoughtful essay by Stu Hackel, who expertly puts the music into its historical, political and cultural context. But it’s the music that’s the true star of this compilation series and in 1969, Motown was still on fire and its hit records kept burning up the charts. Former Temptation, raspy-voiced David Ruffin, made his solo debut with a slice of cathartic deep soul called ‘My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me).’ It stalled at Number 2 in the R&B charts, but the Mississippi singer’s career was off to an auspicious start. Other Motown hits in 1969 came from big hitters like Diana Ross & The Supremes (the line-up’s valedictory single, ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’); The Temptations (‘I Can’t Get Next To You’); Marvin Gaye (‘That’s The Way Love Is’); the Four Tops (‘Don’t Let Him Take Your Love Away’ – the group’s only chart entry that year); Gladys Knight & The Pips (‘Friendship Train’); Edwin Starr (’25 Miles’); Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (‘Baby, Baby Don’t Cry’) and Stevie Wonder (‘My Cherie Amour’). Lesser known acts, too, were cutting singles the same year but not all made a huge commercial impact – like white ‘comedian’ Soupy Sales, whose ‘Muck-Arty Park’ (a lame parody of Jimmy Webb’s ‘MacArthur Park’) is possibly the worst ever record to come off the Hitsville presses. Other unfamiliar names present here are The Honest Men, Joe Harnell, funk guitarist Wes Henderson, blue-eyed soul group The Rustix, The Five Smooth Stones, Dorothy, Oma and Zelpha, Terry Johnson, The Lollipops, Stu Gardner and the brilliantly named novelty group, Captain Zap and the Motortown Cut-ups, who issued the zany comedy single ‘The Luney Landing.’ Some of the above acts recorded for Rare Earth, a new Motown subsidiary aimed at the rock longhairs and which also spawned a group of the same name (their debut 45, ‘Generation,’ is included here). This stupendous 6-CD set also features great 45s from Bobby Taylor, The Originals, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Shorty Long, Earl Van Dyke, Chuck Jackson, The Marvelettes and the Spinners. As retrospectives go, ‘The Motown Complete Singles’ series is arguably the best there’s ever been in the CD age – and this current volume, like previous instalments, is a musical cornucopia that will bring hours, even years, of pleasure and enjoyment to Motown aficionados the world over. It’s limited to 5000 copies, so buy it while you still can.
(CW) 5/5