Though he did not join Motown until 1967, and therefore his work will not be featured in this post, it nevertheless seems only right to starting by noting the passing earlier this week of Funk Brother bassist Bob Babbitt. Brought on board to handle the work Jamerson couldn’t, he was an excellent bassist in his own right, and several of his most famous bass lines will be making an appearance in this series later on. With only three Funk Brothers still living, this is a very sad moment indeed. My condolences to Babbitt’s family and fellow musicians. Thanks for the music, Bob; Rest In Peace.
In Motown history, 1963 is notable for many reasons, all interconnected. In 1963, Motown’s premiere songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland formed. Brian Holland was a young songwriter and producer whose biggest success had been Please Mr. Postman, and who had been in the Motown circle back when Berry and Ray were running Rayber. His older brother Eddie, also one of their earliest acquisitions, was a Jackie Wilson-esque singer with incredible stage fright but an equally incredible knack for writing lyrics. Lamont Dozier was also a singer — one who, unlike Eddie, would eventually return to performing — who found greater success behind the scenes. Brian and Lamont would be responsible for the music, arrangement, and productions, while Eddie was the primary lyricist, finishing the songs while the other two laid down backing tracks, and then recording vocal demos and teaching the singers their parts. They were an incredibly productive and efficient team, working their method out to a science, and this along with their incredible skill contributed to their prominence.
Not coincidentally, 1963 has been noted as the year that saw the start of the Motown assembly line. This is a difficult thing to pin down, with several of its features, or at least rudimentary versions, having already been in place in prior years. The “assembly line” is dubbed such because of its basis in inspiration from real assembly lines at Detroit’s auto factories, and represents the label’s regimented, efficient, and incredibly quick way of recording and releasing singles. The assembly line’s most famous feature is its Quality Control meetings, which eventually took place every Friday morning. Producers would play their latest recordings, and they would get voted up or down for release by other producers, sometimes from teenagers pulled off the street, and by Berry himself; these meetings could be rough and get incredibly heated, and standards were often set very high. Whether or not the assembly line really started in ’63 or had existed in some form prior, Motown released a lot more singles and albums that year than they had any year before. The studio started running longer hours; songwriters started getting more competitive; and producers started lining up outside Hitsville’s one studio, round the clock, waiting for their hour or two with the band to lay down what they hoped would be their latest hit (and its B-side).
Just as hard to precisely put your finger on but also notably given credit to this year, and inextricably intertwined with the emergence of both HDH and the assembly line, is the birth of the Motown Sound. I’ve said before that the Motown Sound, while instantly recognizable and inimitable, is something incredibly difficult to define. I’m surely not qualified for the task. While, as with the assembly line, many qualities of the Motown Sound could be found on countless previous recordings, 1963 was undoubtedly the year that the Motown Sound coalesced, the year you could start picking a Motown record off the radio before the singer came in.
It was a good year for Motown. It was a a good year for Martha and the Vandellas, a good year for Marvin Gaye, and an absolutely great year for Holland-Dozier-Holland. It was probably the last year before Motown completely lost its innocence, when artists would talk about Motown as “family” and do so with an entirely straight face. Though the music was still great — in fact, it got better — that would very soon no longer be true. One cannot help but relish in the youth and joy present on all of these tracks.
1. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave
VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas dance and lip sync to their song Heat Wave in front of a crowd of dancing teenagers. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave lyrics.
One of the most brilliant records Motown ever released, this song is on fire from start to finish. The backing track is all horns and drums, and the vocals are nothing less than a tour de force. Filled to the brim with verve, female lust hits the dance floor. Martha is at her very best, sounding truly overwhelmed with desire; the Vandellas are slaying it, making a much greater sound than two women should have been able; and with Richard “Pistol” Allen leading the way, the Funk Brothers are giving the performance of a lifetime. A blast of life and frenzy, it always feels over just as soon as it starts; and then you’ve got to play it again. If this isn’t the Motown Sound, I don’t know what the hell is. But in the end, who cares what you call it? It’s one of the best damn sounds that’s ever going to come out of your speakers.
2. Can I Get a Witness
VIDEO: A suit-wearing Mavin Gaye lip syncs his song Can I Get a Witness on a TV set, as white go-go dancers enthusiastically whip their hair around him. Can I Get a Witness lyrics.
Before he was the legend he is today, Marvin Gaye was one of the most sought-after artists at Motown by writers and producers. At a company where producers carefully guarded their own acts against encroachment, anybody who was ever anybody at Motown nevertheless eventually wrote and/or produced a hit for Marvin. This one was another by the untouchable HDH, and it’s as soulful a track as Motown ever produced. With a gospel organ, big drums, a fervent vocal, and common church refrain used in a secular context, this is a deliberate attempt at pure soul music, from a company that otherwise shunted its few artists they thought were pure soul to a separate label.1 Along with work from Gladys Knight and the Pips and a several Temptations cuts, it’s among the most authentic soul Motown ever made in the 60s.
Not dissimilar to HDH’s prior Heat Wave, but out of step with a great deal of their later catalog, this is a raucous little number, and another true band record. Strangely, however, it’s one that doesn’t feature most of the regular Funk Brothers, with Benny Benjamin on drums and Eddie Willis on guitar being the main usual suspects. All the same, George Fowler’s organ is killer, as are the horn players. The Supremes fail fill the big hole left in Marvin’s backing vocals by Martha and the Vandellas’ departure for their own recordings, and their absence, along with James Jamerson’s, is the one big regret to be found. But this is a fantastic record, the kind you’re inclined to play over and over again, with Marvin’s occasionally strained, soulful shouts giving us a hint at the places he’d later go.
3. Come And Get These Memories
VIDEO: Come and Get These Memories plays over an animation of various images of and relating to Martha and the Vandellas. Come and Get These Memories lyrics.
A brilliant kissoff, and both Martha and the Vandellas’ and HDH’s very first hit. Secretary Martha Reeves had been attempting to work her way into the studio for some time when Mary Wells one day failed to show up to a session, and Martha got her big break. A few cuts later, the Vandellas would be the first recipient of the HDH boon, though neither its biggest nor last. While surely debatable, this song has been noted by many as the first true “Motown Sound” record, including by an excited Berry Gordy, who upon hearing the track supposedly exclaimed something like “That’s the Motown Sound! That’s the sound I’ve been looking for.”2
On this letter to an ex who she has freshly realized doesn’t deserve her, Martha sounds mildly miffed, but mostly breezy and businesslike. Eager to be rid of her ex’s ubiquitous and insidious presence in her home — precisely the kind of thing you don’t notice until you break up — she wants his things gone so she can start over again. More annoyed than mournful, there is no expected plea for his return, but rather the declaration that she’s found somebody new, and can he please come and get his shit already. The snide entreaty to “give them to your new love” is fresh, cheeky, and delicious, while the Vandellas’ chipper enjoinder to “come and get it!” provides an almost comedic backdrop to the surely-resulting deflated male ego. Recorded slightly too slowly, this song always sounded a bit better to me at the faster tempo the group used during live performances. But every time I hear it, it is stuck in my head for positively hours. And yet, I rarely find myself resenting that fact. With a big Benny Benjamin drumbeat taking inspiration from both jazz and military styles, classic piano by Joe Hunter, and danceable horn section, it’s not exactly something you want to stop humming. If not the first Motown Sound record, it is among its better representations. And it’s definitely one of Martha and the Vandellas’ most brilliant tracks.
4. Mickey’s Monkey
VIDEO: The male members of the Miracles lip sync to Mickey’s Monkey in low-cut shirts on a small stage, surrounded by dancing teenagers. The video occasionally switches to a clip of the group performing the song on Ready, Steady, Go with the help of the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and Dusty Springfield. Mickey’s Monkey lyrics.
Not one of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s more dignified attempts, it nonetheless scored a hit, sparked a dance craze, and inspired spontaneous outbursts of Lum De Lum De Lai all across the nation. Perhaps the most gimmicky track in Motown’s catalog, one feels compelled to protect their personal claim to good taste by turning their nose up at it. But if one is smart, they’ll eventually realize that it’s fruitless to resist — and coolness points aside, stubbornly refusing to dance along is hurting you rather than serving you well.
One thing to be said for Smokey is that he’s always been a good sport, and just as it’s hard to imagine anybody else doing this song justice when he sweetly hits that high note on Lai, it’s equally hard to imagine anyone throwing themselves as completely into this vocal. He’s utterly convincing here — he makes you think that he really wants you to do Mickey’s Monkey with him, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Smokey walked in on Lamont Dozier working on the song, when it was mainly a piano part and refrain, and wisely snatched it up before anyone else got the chance. Sure, the lyrics are vapid; but unlike with Do You Love Me, I find the quality of the hook cancels it out, if it doesn’t quite justify it. Claudette sounds great on this song, too, as do the horns and Benny Benjamin’s utterly enormous back beat. A silly song, absolutely, but a hell of a catchy one all the same.
5. Pride and Joy
VIDEO: Marvin Gaye, wearing a sports coat, open shirt collar, and no tie, lip syncs Pride and Joy on a television show, in front of a mostly-white teenage audience. White female dancers in tee-shirts perform behind him. Pride and Joy lyrics.
Enter Norman Whitfield. A quiet, skinny kid with a staring problem, Whitfield got himself into the Motown control room through sheer persistence (which always seemed to impress Berry Gordy more than anything else). Creeping out engineers by silently studying their every move, Norman absorbed all and would put it to good use. Becoming Motown’s primary hit-maker after Holland-Dozier-Holland walked out in a huff, until then he would have to subsist on their and Smokey Robinson’s scraps, fighting tooth and nail in quality control meetings for releases. This charming and elegant number, which he wrote with Gaye and Mickey Stevenson, but undoubtedly to his chagrin did not get to produce3, was his first success.
Starting with a series of distinctive, infectious hand claps (a Motown Sound staple), Pride and Joy is a bubbly, ambling track, driven by Joe Hunter’s fabulous and prominent piano work. Trying to slip a little of his old crooner’s style under the radar, Marvin’s starts singing in a style clearly influenced by Sam Cooke before gradually sliding into something a rougher and looser. In their last of three sets of backing vocals for Marvin, the Vandellas shine as brightly as ever, and are one of the track’s highlights and main attractions. (Marvin used to joke that the group got it’s name from a tendency to “vandalize” all of his songs by upstaging him.4)
Bonus Track: I Want a Love I Can See
VIDEO: I Want a Love I Can See plays over an image of the Temptations’ first album. I Want a Love I Can See lyrics.
Almost two years down the line, Motown was running out of options for the hitless Temptations. In their most bizarre move yet, the label rebranded the Tempts “the Pirates” for one single release, and to the Tempts’ great relief, that, too, failed. Berry Gordy sure as hell couldn’t write them a hit, but maybe Smokey Robinson could. In fact, he did, and would turn out to be one of two magic ingredients that assured the group’s success — but it would take a while. His first A-side for the group was this little number, with a great groove, excellent musicianship, and big old soulful vocal by none other than Paul Williams.
Originally sharing lead vocal duties in the Tempts with Eddie Kendricks, Paul found his voice long before Eddie did, but would eventually be overshadowed by him. Paul’s story is an incredibly sad one, and not only because health problems, including alcoholism, forced him to leave the group against his will in 1971, or because he committed suicide in the summer of 1973. Paul Williams was the heart and soul of the Temptations; no one ever believed in the Tempts the way that Paul believed in them. He choreographed their dance routines, was in charge of making sure every one was on point onstage, and gave everyone much-needed pep talks when they thought their moment would never come. Without Paul, though we likely would have heard from a couple of its members, the Temptations would have never happened. They needed him desperately.
But the Temptations weren’t necessarily good for Paul. Had he found himself in a different group, his big, emotive, and commanding yet restrained vocals would have automatically rendered him lead singer, and he might be a legend today. Instead, he had the bad luck to end up in a group with Ruffin and Kendricks. When The Way You Do The Things You Do hit the next year with Eddie on lead, Paul surely thought his moment would come next. It never did. He struggled to get more than a solitary lead on the group’s albums; his best studio performance never saw release; though eventually billed as a double A-side, even his excellent Don’t Look Back was looked over for the pop-oriented yet clearly inferior My Baby. He had a brief shining moment in the sun during a wild reception to his brilliant performance of For Once In My Life on national television, and would hear his voice on the radio for a few seconds at a a time once David Ruffin was out of the group and the five lead singers format was put in his place. But mostly, he would be faded to the background, for Kendricks, for Ruffin, even for late-comer Dennis Edwards. And he surely didn’t belong there. This is not his best track, but it is a fantastic one nonetheless.
One can view a full list of Motown singles released in 1963 here. Maybe you prefer Mary Wells’ or the Marvelettes’ output from this year. The Miracles released quality songs in 1963 that bombed on the charts, and Little Stevie Wonder had his first hit with Fingertips (Part 2). Feel free to leave your own top 1963 tracks in the comments. In the next installment of this series, we’re about to visit one of Motown’s best years ever.
- the aptly titled Soul ↩
- As quoted from the essay in Eddie Holland’s recently released CD set. ↩
- His first produced A-side would come in late 1964, on the excellent Marvelettes’ song Too Many Fish in the Sea ↩
- The group’s name was actually a portmanteau of Detroit’s Van Dyke Street and Martha Reeve’s idol Della Reese. ↩