THE MOTOWN STORY
"YOU CAN MAKE IT IF YOU TRY"
By Simon Frith
FROM THE SOUL BOOK
(Seymour Lawrence/Delta Books)
c 1975 Simon Frith -- Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
In 1963 two more Motown acts made it big: twelve-year-old Stevie Wonder, introduced to Tamla by one of the Miracles, Ronnie White had a Number One record with "Fingertips" and Martha and the Vandellas (who had, the previous year, been the first group signed to the Gordy label after working as session singers for Marvin Gaye) came big with "Heat Wave." In retrospect these two records, so similar in their energy and bluesy vocals, point a clear contrast: Motown past and Motown future.
Gordy had had a problem in deciding how best to record Stevie Wonder, and, after his first two singles had flopped, he was put in the hands of writers Hank Cosby and Clarence Paul. "Fingertips" is a superbly raucous R&B record -- live effects, crude horns, Stevie's clumsy harmonica and wailing child's voice. It's an old-fashioned black sound; the enthusiasm, the reality of it all, make the record.
"Heat Wave," written for Martha by Holland, Dozier and Holland, is equally energetic but tightly controlled: everything -- the restrained brass, the Vandellas' chorus lines -- is designed to enforce the compulsively insistent beat. Only Martha herself is controlled, and it's the resulting rhythmic tension, the precision of it all, that makes it a classic.
"Fingertips" was a nod to the music from which Tamla-Motown had emerged; "Heat Wave" had the elements of what was to become the Motown Sound. In one sense Smokey Robinson's Motown era was coming to an end; he had written (and was to write) more brilliant pop songs than anyone else ever, and sang them with an inimitably expressive voice; without them Tamla/Motown would never have survived its early years -- but songs, however perfectly produced and performed, are not a sound, and it was a sound that Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier (never such good songwriters as Smokey) were on the verge of creating.
It wasn't there yet -- neither Martha Reeves nor Smokey Robinson (in "Mickey's Monkey") nor Marvin Gaye (in "Can I Get A Witness") were quite malleable enough. These were three classic hits but they were too individual to establish a style. That was to come. o
(Continued next week)
From THE SOUL BOOK edited by Ian Hoare. Copyright c 1975 by Simon Frith. Reprinted by permission of Dell Pub., Co./Delta Books/Seymour Lawrence Books.
Photo caption: Martha & the Vandellas