Although it was the year that rock and pop fans mourned the demise of Liverpool’s Fab Four as well as the tragically premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, 1970 was also a significantly sad one for soul music lovers, who were shocked by the news on March 16th of Tammi Terrell’s death from a brain tumour. The fact that the photogenic Philly-born Motown starlet – who had risen to fame in the late-’60s singing anthemic duets with the label’s male heartthrob Marvin Gaye – was only 24 years old seemed both supremely poignant and ironic given Berry Gordy’s assertion that the Motown sound was the ‘sound of young America.’ Soul fans also had to contend with the fact that the era of the Diana Ross-led Supremes was being consigned to history when the singer performed for the last time with the iconic trio in January 1970 prior to embarking on a solo career that her mentor and purported lover, Berry Gordy, hoped would culminate with the conquering of Hollywood. Indeed, in a bid to expand public consciousness of the Motown brand and take it to a global level, Gordy had already set his sights on moving his operations to the US West Coast to get closer to the TV and movie industry.
But socially and politically, America was going through a particularly turbulent time in 1970 – blood was not only being spilled in the killing fields of South East Asia (in the Vietnam War) but also on the streets of Uncle Sam’s backyard as racial tension resulted in nationwide riots and the rise of violent counter-culture dissension. It was a situation that would prompt Marvin Gaye to create his masterpiece LP, ‘What’s Going On,’ a year later in 1971, which was an album that sounded the death knell for Motown’s ethos of committee-made conveyor belt soul. The seeds of change were there, though, in 1970, as this magnificent 6-CD/145-track compilation devoted to that year’s Motown 45s vividly illustrates. By 1970, events like the death of Martin Luther King a couple of years earlier combined with the ascension of militant Black Power groups had finally prompted Motown to show some degree of politicisation and anti-war protest – naturally, the war raging in Vietnam received a lot of specific attention on Motown recordings in 1970: there’s Edwin Starr’s ‘War,’ of course, and it’s sequel, ‘Stop The War,’ as well as songs by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas (‘I Should Be Proud’) and even The Supremes (the B-side, ‘Bill, When Are You Coming Back?’). Wider social issues are covered by Stevie Wonder in the wonderful gospel-tinged message song, ‘Heaven Help Us All,’ which was one of the first tunes that helped transform the blind singer from a boy Wonder novelty act into a mature performer of stature and real substance (this set also includes Wonder’s marvellous ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’). And how can you forget The Temptations? Under the supervision of pool hall hustler turned ace producer, Norman Whitfield, they recorded lengthy psychedelic soul sermons that commented on societal issues – here, you’ll find the classic ‘Ball Of Confusion,’ an amalgam of soul and lysergic rock that positively overflows with righteous anger. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The Jackson Five’s chirpy blend of pop, soul and funk was filling Gordy’s coffers while established acts like the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes (fronted by Jean Terrell), Jimmy Ruffin, and Gladys Knight & The Pips all continued to make their presence felt on the hit parade. 1970 was also a year in which Motown was less insular than before and looked overseas to access music outside of America – it acquired the services of South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela, Jamaican reggae duo Bob & Marcia and blue-eyed UK soul songstress from Bradford, Kiki Dee. This set also includes tracks by less familiar Motown signings like The Originals (‘The Bells’), Bobby Taylor (‘Blackmail’), The Fantastic Four, Yvonne Fair (‘Stay A Little Longer’), Chuck Jackson, psychedelic rock group Rare Earth, and cult singer, Blinky (‘How You Gonna Keep It After You Get It’). The annotation and in particular, the track-by-track commentary, is exemplary – this includes an absorbing, anecdote-laden preamble by Elton John’s Scottish manager, John Reed, who worked for Motown in the UK when the company was under the aegis of EMI, and a thoughtful essay by scholar Mark Anthony Neal, who examines the music’s cultural and historical context. Overall, another amazing instalment in arguably the best ever retrospective series devoted to soul music. Roll on volume eleven!