The music we play at work generally, to put it kindly, sucks. Especially during the middle part of the day, when I am either not-quite-close-enough to the end of my shift to look forward to leaving or when I’m right at the beginning of my shift and thinking the night will never end, I wonder if the music played piped in from corporate was chosen by someone who was a contemporary of Duke Ellington.
Still, every now and again, they will play something decent. One day not long ago, they were playing “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. I turned to one of my young employees and said, “Gotta love Motown.”
She looked at me with confusion in her eyes. “What’s Motown?”
And so, particularly for the younger generation who might read this, here’s my second playlist of the week, a compilation of some of my favorite hits from the Motown label.
—Standing in the Shadows of Love by the Four Tops. Levi Stubbs is one of the most powerful vocalists. Ever. Period. And he sings this song with such force that you wonder if his fingers have left impressions in the microphone when he’s done.
—Uptight (Everything’s Alright) by Stevie Wonder. Recorded when Wonder was still a teenager, this song displays all the energy and passion that became his trademarks throughout his career.
—I Want You Back by Jackson 5. No one that young, not even Michael Jackson, should be able to sing like that. It’s so good, you almost can’t hear his brothers singing their parts.
—The Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Nobody on the Motown label did such great story songs as Smokey and the Miracles. This is a prime example and the way they stretch the metaphor through the whole song, including a reference to the Italian opera, Pagliacci. I don’t know many other pop songs which cite operas in their lyrics. Okay, actually I don’t know any other songs that do.
—I Can’t Get Next to You by The Temptations. Five guys in the band. All five of them sing parts of the song. And it rocks.
—Reflections by The Supremes. I can’t leave the ladies out. Led by Diana Ross, the Supremes were the Destiny’s Child of the 60’s. Ross eventually outgrew the group, but not before they spent about a decade with hit after hit. This song, formerly the opening song to the short-lived show China Beach, is not their most famous number, but I like it anyway.
—I Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye. I could’ve gone with the Gladys Knight and the Pips version, but I don’t like their uptempo arrangement. I prefer the low-key Gaye performance. You can hear, in both the lyrics and the music, that he is really pissed about what he heard.
—Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell. Rockwell’s dad, Berry Gordy, founded Motown, but signed to the label without his father’s knowledge. It wasn’t until after the album and single, complete with background vocals from Michael Jackson, were released that the singer’s secret identity was revealed to his father. Not the first song that comes to mind when you think about Motown, at least not for me, but still pretty cool despite the singer wearing shorts in the shower in the video. Not that I’d rather he be naked, but come on . . . .
—Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops. Did I mention that Levi Stubbs can sing?
—Hello by Lionel Richie. Richie did some great work with The Commodores, also on the Motown label, with songs such as “Easy” and “Sail On”, but he became huge in the 80’s when he went solo. This song is simple and perfect.
—Who’s Loving You by Jackson 5. This song recalls the doo-wap era from its original recording by The Miracles in 1960. With all apologies to Smokey, Michael did it better.
—Overjoyed by Stevie Wonder. The radio version of this song leaves a lot out. In the original, there’s a lot of stuff going on–birds are singing, water is plopping, and Stevie is laying down some sweet lyrics.
And, even though it’s technically not a Motown song . . . .
—Let’s Just Kiss (And Say Goodbye) by The Manhattans. Yes, they were on the Columbia label, but these New York guys still had the same R&B soul as their counterparts in Detroit and this song, among others, really stands out.
Anyway, if any of my readers have any comments or suggestions regarding my list, please feel free to drop them to me below. Maybe I missed a song your particularly liked or you think my picks are the product of a mind warped from too much Elton John. Either way, feel free to let me know what you think.