VARIOUS ARTISTS: ‘The Complete Motown Singles Volume 11A: 1971’ (Label: Hip-O Select)

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'The Complete Motown Singles Volume 11A: 1971'

In 1971 changes were afoot at Motown. The label’s supremo Berry Gordy – ambitious and upwardly mobile as ever – set the wheels in motion for his company’s relocation from its birthplace in industrial Detroit to sun-soaked Los Angeles. Despite all that he had achieved in a phenomenally productive 12-year period at a humble and rather quaint three-story wooden house located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, there was no room for sentiment in Gordy’s mind – to his shrewd and canny way of thinking, Motown had to grow and evolve and that meant expanding into the movie business. Indeed, Gordy had his sights set on conquering Hollywood and to do that effectively, it was imperative that he shift his whole organisation to the sprawling conurbation dubbed ‘Tinsel Town.’ While Gordy contemplated change, so did some of his principal stars. Reluctant heartthrob Marvin Gaye was tired of adhering to Motown’s strict, regimented, factory ethos and wanted to step off Gordy’s relentless conveyor belt and do his own thing. Still mourning the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell and affected deeply by the experiences his brother Frankie related to him about his time in the Vietnam War, Gaye sought to crystallise his thoughts about the chaotic state of the world in an album he helped write and produce called ‘What’s Going On.’ Gordy, of course, hated it – the music, with its heavy jazz inflections, was a world away from the bright, upbeat Motown signature sound. Also, Gordy was irritated by Gaye’s commentary on political and societal issues and thought the record, if released, would puncture his dreams of succeeding in Hollywood. So Gordy refused to release ‘What’s Going On’. Gaye, often a thorn in Gordy’s side and with a reputation for being a stubborn kind of fellow, stuck his heels in and said he’d refuse to record for Motown again if they didn’t issue the record. In the end, a compromise was released and the single ‘What’s Going On’ – recorded in the summer of 1970 – finally got released in January 1971. Of course, it was a big hit and Berry Gordy had to eat his words. More significantly, the record signalled the death knell for the production line mentality that had served Motown so well in the 1960s. After Gaye had succeeded in gaining artistic freedom, Stevie Wonder, another restless soul, followed suit – he released a self-produced funked-up version of The Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ in February 1971 in a style that presaged the work of later records like ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Innervisions.’ In fact, after ‘We Can Work It Out’ was released, Wonder refused to renew his contract with Motown unless he had total creative autonomy (that included him producing his own records without interference from Motown execs and setting up his own publishing company). Gordy, of course, had to concede ground otherwise he risked losing a multi-instrumentalist who was arguably the most talented musician on the label’s roster. Interestingly both the aforementioned Gaye and Wonder 45s are key tracks on Hip-O Select’s ‘The Complete Motown Singles Volume 11A: 1971.’ In terms of singles released, 1971 proved a bumper year – so much so, in fact, that this new five-disc set only covers the first six months of that year (hence its numbering, 11A – the next volume, 11B, which is due soon, focuses on the final six months of 1971). Even if Motown was a label in transition with seismic changes on the horizon, the hits continued unabated in the first few months of 1971. The Jackson Five scored several, including the lovely ‘Never Can Say Goodbye.’ Motown’s premier girl group, The Supremes, demonstrated with the infectious ‘Nathan Jones’ that they could still enjoy major chart success without Diana Ross. As for Ross ‘The Boss,’ her nascent solo career went from strength to strength, with her Ashford & Simpson-produced take on the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ proving mighty popular. Another Motown highlight from 1971 was from The Temptations, who momentarily ditched their psychedelic tropes and penchant for social commentary by releasing the dreamy old school ballad, ‘Just My Imagination.’ Eddie Kendricks sang the lead on it – shortly afterwards, though, he quit the group and released his first solo 45, ‘It’s So Hard For Me To Say Goodbye,’ though it was a flop (it’s also included here). There are plenty of other big Motown hitters on this 119-track retrospective – like Edwin Starr, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, The Undisputed Truth (included is their brilliant Norman Whitfield-helmed paean to paranoia, ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’), Gladys Knight & The Pips and funky rock group, Rare Earth – but some of the singles by lesser known Motown acts prove equally fascinating. Take, for example, ‘What You See Is What You Get’ released on Motown’s Rare Earth rock imprint by Stoney and Meatloaf. Long before ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ made him a superstar, Meatloaf (aka Marvin Lee Aday) was one half of a male-female double act that attempted to be Motown’s answer to Delaney & Bonnie. Other forgotten gems come from Kiki Dee (‘Love Makes The World Go Round’) and Gordon Staples & The Motown Strings (‘Strung Out’) plus forgotten Motown 45s from Brit rock group Brass Monkey, King Floyd, Arthur Adams, gospel act Ken Christie & The Sunday People and Ivy Jo. There’s also some tasty jazz from The Crusaders and South African horn man Hugh Masekela. Motown’s foray into the MOR realm of lounge and supper club music is represented by Sammy Davis Jr and Bobby Darin. Anyone who thinks that Motown’s sound was predictably homogenous will find real diversity here on a set that boasts superb annotation (including reminiscences from former Motown art director, Harry Webber, and an insightful essay by Andrew Flory, which puts the music into its relevant historical and cultural context). That’s not all – listeners will discover a wealth of information in the track-by-track commentary and marvel at the vividness of the accompanying archive pictures. And then, of course, there’s the obligatory vinyl 45 attached to the front cover, which unsurprisingly is Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ All these features add up to another absorbing instalment in what is probably the best soul music compilation series ever.
(CW) 5/5