Until now, each Complete Motown Singles set has been released Stateside only. Faced with a choice of losing out or forking out, importing each one would have been costly. Now, however, they have officially reached these shores. Over 27 CDs in hardback book presentation packs, with detailed sleevenotes and a reproduction 7” of a key single from the period, the first five volumes take the Motown story from 1959-65: from being Berry Gordy’s homegrown operation to one of the biggest labels on the planet.
At the same time, Volume Six is released, adding a further five CDs and picking up the label in a key year, 1966. Taking the company’s expansion in his stride, Gordy didn’t (or at least pretended he didn’t) know how many buildings Motown’s operations now took over. The previous year had seen ‘The Sound Of Young America’ printed on each LP sleeve and 1966’s addition, ‘The Motown Sound’, further compounded that success. Gordy even started a line of Supremes bread.
Riding high off the success of 1965, as Eddie Holland attests in his sleevenotes, the Holland- Dozier-Holland hit machine showed no sign of stopping. Outstripping their in-house competitors by far, H-D-H notched up 32 credits in the year, with Smokey Robinson trailing at 15. With all this came a maturity. Sound and lyrics darkened (see The Four Tops’ Standing In The Shadows Of Love), while the label began branching out into a few different things. In the right light, Rick, Robin & Him sounded a little like a more soulful Jefferson Airplane; Gladys Knight & The Pips joined, adding a rootsier, more gospelinfused sound; and then there was the Rick James/ Neil Young-led Mynah Birds with a slight rock bent.
But amid all this, 1966 was the year for individual successes. Chart-wise, when This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) hit No 12 on the pop chart, The Isley Brothers enjoyed their biggest hit to date. The Four Tops’ Reach Out I’ll Be There hit No 1 in both the US and UK, and The Supremes’ Supremes A Go-Go LP (with the No 1 single You Can’t Hurry Love) became the first Motown LP to stay at the top spot for over a week.
Perhaps most importantly, however, were Norman Whitfield and Stevie Wonder’s leaps. Showing that no one was outside of Gordy’s encouraged in-house competition, Whitfield’s production work on the Eddie Holland co-write, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, took The Temptations out of Smokey Robinson’s hands and into his own. His expansive, dramatic productions capitalised on the relative failure of their previous single, Get Ready, and Whitfield repeated the trick the same year with Beauty Is Only Skin Deep and (I Know) I’m Losing You. He would shoot up in the ranks of Motown producers and, of course, come to invent psychedelic soul with The Temptations.
Comparatively, Wonder’s success may have seemed minor, but its echoes would transform the company. Following Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby, Wonder made a seismic shift in direction when he convinced Berry Gordy to allow him to release a cover of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind. Wanting nothing to do with ‘hippy idealism’, Gordy was dead against it. Wonder had made the song a favourite in his live shows, however, and was adamant that it be released. A duet with writer/ producer Clarence Paul, it made the US Top 10, UK Top 40 and hit the top spot in the US R&B charts. Maybe a small victory at the time, it showed Gordy that his label need not be confined to the black soul market. With one single, Wonder paved the way for his run of early 70s albums and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – a series of releases that, in the new decade, marked Gordy’s label out as something very different indeed.
1967 would see the Detroit riots, Summer Of Love, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jimi Hendrix, a move towards enlightenment through mind-expanding drugs and a shift of goalposts for music makers everywhere. For Mowtown, perhaps, 1966 was the crystallisation of the label’s ambitions, hopes and dreams.