The Real Motown Magic

A revamped box set collects every No. 1 single out of Hitsville U.S.A.; all 10 hours’ worth!

The stunning new box set housing the complete no. 1 singles from Motown

Having a party this summer? Just cue up Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, and you’ll be all set for the next 10 hours.

Seriously.

Just consider the evidence: “Please Mr. Postman” (the Marvelettes). “Heat Wave” (Martha & the Vandellas). “Stop! In the Name of Love” (the Supremes). “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (Four Tops). “ABC” (the Jackson 5). “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye). “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder). “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Thelma Houston). “All Night Long (All Night)” (Lionel Richie). “Super Freak” (Rick James). And that’s just ten tracks.

This 11-CD set is actually an expanded reissue of the 10-CD set first released in 2008. It’s in the same nifty packaging, a box that’s a replica of the original “Hitsville U.S.A.” at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard in Detroit. If that eleventh disc seems skimpy (it’s only six tracks), never fear, there are bonus tracks on all of the other CDs, bringing this new iteration to a grand total of 208 tracks. And as that first set has been long out print, this gives you another chance to pick up the cream of the Motown label in one fell swoop.

Motown not only flooded the world with hit records. As Smokey Robinson says in the accompanying booklet’s introduction, the label also broke barriers, at time when white artists were tagged as “pop,” while black artists were “R&B.” “But from the day Motown started, Berry Gordy [the label’s founder] said to us, ‘We are not going to make “black music.” We are going to make music for everybody.” Hence the label’s slogan, “The sound of young America.” This was music for a new generation that was anxious to leave old prejudices behind.

Motown The Complete No. 1’s, unboxed

The label’s most iconic period is captured on the first two CDs, when the company was largely based in Detroit (Motown began relocating to Los Angeles in 1969, with the move completed by 1972). The uniformity of sound wasn’t just due to the records being made in the same place; in the early years, there was a camaraderie, a sense of everyone working together toward the same goal. You can hear it in the breezy deliver of Mary Wells in “My Guy,” the jaunty swing of the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the sublime harmonizing of Marvin Gaye  and Tammi Terrell on “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” It was a remarkable era in music history; from 1964 to 1968, the label landed 17 No. 1’s on the pop charts, and 32 No. 1’s on the R&B charts.

There’s more to Motown than just that storied period, of course. And by way of demonstrating the breadth of the label’s reach, the number ones on this set are drawn from all across the board. The pop and R&B charts; that’s a given. But there are also number ones from the dance/disco, adult contemporary, and urban adult contemporary charts. International success is spotlighted by songs that hit number one in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands, as well as songs that only reached the top in non-US countries (such as “Lady [You Bring Me Up]” by the Commodores, No. 1 in New Zealand). And there are number ones that weren’t hits for the original artist, but later attained hit status in a cover version (Brenda Holloway’s “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” a No. in Canada for Blood, Sweat & Tears; Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” a No. 1 R&B hit for Jodeci).

 

VIDEO: “Lately” by Jodeci

One thing that’s missing are comprehensive liner notes to match the musical bounty. The accompanying booklet is pretty skimpy, with minimal information; if you don’t know your music history, you won’t know that by the time of “Stoned Love,” Diana Ross is no longer in the Supremes, for example. Nor are there any musician credits; nothing about the classic crew of studio musicians dubbed the Funk Brothers, for example, who were so much a part of creating the original “Motown Sound.” Yes, just listing the basic data for each song (song title, artist, songwriters, producers, arrangers, release date, chart stats) already takes up a lot of space when you’re dealing with over 200 songs. But filling out the story would have surely been worth the effort in making this set truly definitive.

Maybe the intention was to keep the focus on the music. And over the course of 11 discs, you can hear how Motown learned to adapt to the constantly changing music styles over the course of nearly 60 years. Some of those musical barriers Robinson speaks of in his introduction seem to have reasserted themselves; on the tenth disc, just about all of the number ones are from the R&B charts, the only pop hits coming from Boyz II Men. But look beyond that need to categorize. From the Miracles’ “Shop Around” in 1960 (the set’s first track) to the Eric Kupper remix of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out”/“Upside Down” in 2018 (the final track), there’s a breathtaking amount of diversity in The Complete No. 1’s that surely rivals any other label that started as a plucky indie and succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

 

STREAMING: Motown The Complete No. 1’s

 

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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