The Complete Motown Singles, 1959-1972
Various artists

In 2005, Universal (which owns Motown) began re-releasing every Motown single ever made. Volume 1 covered 1959-1961. The end of the series, volumes 12A and B, covered 1972. These 14 years set loose a tidal wave of 2,000 songs. When I heard about this, I was STOKED.

Sadly, most of the songs I swam through in this series are not good. For every famous track by Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles there’s a Who’s Who of the ignored and the unknown. There are also plenty of lackluster tracks by Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. Some of those songs didn’t deserve obscurity (Barrett Strong’s “Money”), but most are right at home in that unlit cul de sac.

The first couple of volumes of this series are interesting in that they show how Motown founder Berry Gordy was willing to try anything to produce a hit song. (Even surf.) opines that hearing the classics alongside the not-so-classics helps us to hear the former in their original context and appreciate them anew.

But the boys (it’s mostly boys) writing for are nerds who are still living in their parents’ basement. They have nothing better to do than listen to 2,000 songs, most of which had the staying power of a Republican governor running for president, and argue over bass lines, back-up singers, and catalog numbers.

What I discovered with these comps, each of which has about 150 songs, is that I only have so much time left on this planet. I tried listening with deep attention, but it would take me months to digest 150 songs, and anyway I have to go to work in the morning. I started clicking Skip after 30 seconds or a minute of something that struck me as uninspired or derivative so I could wade ashore at last with a good song. And you know what? I appreciate the classics just fine!

I don’t want to skip 15 forgotten tracks to get to “Indiana Wants Me,” then do it all over again for “Ball of Confusion” and “War” (which I did with the 1970 edition). Sure, “Indiana Wants Me” is above average, but in this crowd it’s a towering inferno!

Today’s lesson: Producing a hit record is harder than Chinese algebra.

Any one of these volumes is worth a chunk of your time. They’re like your own personal radio station. Except if you owned this station, you’d yell at the program manager, “You’re fired!” Sad.

Random Pick of the Day, barely
Various artists, Blue Note Salutes Motown (1998)
Twelve Motown classics redone by a major-league lineup of jazz musicians. The results are mostly quiet…too quiet. The voltage meter jumps modestly with guitarist Earl Klugh’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” However, the female chorus tells us three times that they heard it “on” the grapevine. If you can’t get something as simple as a preposition right, I suggest you go back to your seat and study. Another guitarist, Charlie Hunter, tries to get his arms around “You Keep Me Hanging On.” He manages to let all the anxiety out of the song, plus he gets upstaged by the vibes player.

There are two tracks I can recommend, both originally from Marvin Gaye. The first is organist John Patton’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” (which is so good that Blue Note should salute John Patton). The second is “What’s Going On,” which belongs to the sax player, Adam Kolkers.

Two tracks aren’t much out of 12, but these two are good enough that I’m keeping the disc.

(Shot of redemption: This isn’t Motown, but Charlie Hunter triumphs with his cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” on his 1995 album, Bing Bing Bing!)


  1. mikener says:

    Yes, the 70’s was filled with story songs about the tough trials and tribulations of home life. Ushered in with “Patches” and closing out with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. I’m signing out before my welling tears spill forth onto the electronic key pads below.

  2. Accused of Lurking says:

    “If a man ever needed dyin’, he did.
    No one had the right to say what he said about you.
    And it’s so cold and lonely here without you.”

    I haven’t thought about Indiana Wants Me since the early 70s, but really liked it at the time. Despite 40 years apart, here it is in my music library, on one of those Super Hits of the 70s collections, where one-hit wonders go to retire. I especially like the police siren that opens the song and the voice on the bullhorn that closes the song.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Early ’70s story-songs that became hits:

      Indiana Wants Me
      Papa Was a Rolling Stone
      Please Come to Boston
      Smoke on the Water
      Walk on the Wild Side (more of a vignette-song)

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