Saturday, October 10, 2009

Motown's Greatest Artists

By Christina Pomoni

Motown has changed the course of music by being the first African-American label to capture a huge audience and the critics thanks to a brilliant group of extremely talented African-American artists, who produced unforgettable smash hits. Featuring a distinctive soul sound, full of energy and emotion, chord and percussion sections, melodic bass guitar slides and horn grooves, all orchestrated in groundbreaking pop production techniques, Motown gave birth to what became known as the Motown Sound.

The Supremes (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard) is, admittedly, Motown's best-selling female group. Featuring an innovative, refreshing sound, a flawless look, and a compelling vibe that reached any household in the 1960s, The Supremes developed practically a love affair with their audience around the globe. The group was actually the female response to the avalanche of male-dominated scene and it featured a completely feminine image.

Diana Ross's calm, high-pitched voice, the vocal harmony among the group's members, the simple, yet appealing choreography, the detailed, yet plain make-up onstage, their high-fashion gowns and wigs, and graceful movements created an image of absolute feminism that had a huge impact on the audience along with their excellent performance. 'Where Did Our Love Go' (1964), 'Baby Love' (1964), 'Stop! In the Name of Love' (1965), 'You Can't Hurry Love' (1966), 'You Keep Me Hangin' On' (1966), and 'Love Is Here and Now You're Gone' (1967) are some of the smash hits of The Supremes under the Motown label.

Diana Ross left The Supremes in 1970 to pursue a solo career in Motown. Her first huge success was 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' (1970) that topped #1 in the US Billboard Hot 100. Since then, she released a barrage of great songs that reached a huge audience worldwide such as 'Remember Me' (1970), 'Touch Me In The Morning' (1973), 'You Are Everything' (with Marvin Gaye) (1974), 'Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)' (1975), 'Love Hangover' (1975), 'Upside Down' (1980), 'Endless Love' (with Lionel Richie) (1981), 'Chain Reaction' (1986), 'When You Tell Me That You Love Me' (1991), 'One Shining Moment (1992), and 'Not Over You Yet' (1999).

Smokey Robinson is broadly recognized as the 'King of Motown' and one of the greatest contributors to the label. Being the founding member of the Miracles (Smokey Robinson, Claudette Rogers Robinson, Ronald White, Pete Moore, and Bobby Rogers) and one of the leading figures in Motown since 1960, Robinson was a songwriter and producer and he was involved in every aspect of Motown's operations. He was also auditioning many of the scores of young talent artists who were fascinated by Motown's growing reputation and he was promoting the label effectively.

Some of Robinson's smash hits with the Miracles are 'Shop Around' (1960), 'You've Really Got a Hold on Me' (1962), 'Tracks Of My Tears' (1965), 'Baby, Baby Don't Cry' (1968) and 'The Tears of a Clown' (1970). Besides his success with The Miracles, Robinson was the writer and producer of numerous successful singles of other Motown artists. He served as the major songwriter of The Temptations producing 'The Way You Do The Things You Do' (1964), 'My Girl' (1965), 'Since I Lost My Baby' (1965), and 'Get Ready' (1966).

Other famous songs written and produced by Robinson are, among others, Brenda Holloway's 'When I'm Gone' (1965), Marvin Gaye's 'Ain't That Peculiar' (1965), 'First I Look at the Purse' (1965) by The Contours, 'My Baby Must Be a Magician' (1967) by The Marvelettes and 'Still Water (Love)' (1970) by The Four Tops.

After having originally performed as a session drummer for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Contours and Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye signed to Motown in 1960 to become one of the most successful Motown artists. Changing his musical style in a variety of ways during his career, Gaye featured jazz covers, doo-wop and blues sections and an innovative blend of R&B, pop and rock-based grooves in his songs.

In 1971, Gaye released 'What's Going On', the album that is considered the highlight of his career. With 'What's Going On' Gaye changed the setting of R&B scene in the 1970s, but mostly he featured a social view about racism, war, drug addiction, police brutality, environmentalism and urban disintegration in the United States. Some of Gaye's smash hits are 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' (1967), 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)' (1971), 'What's Going On' (1971), 'Trouble Man' (1972), and 'Sexual Healing' (1982).

Stevie Wonder signed to Motown in 1961, at the age of eleven. His extraordinary musical talent and tremendous musical potential made him one of Motown's hot shot selling artists, in spite of his retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) condition. Having produced excellent music with a deeply developed sense of harmony and having featured the sound of the clavinet keyboard in his best-selling hit 'Superstition' (1972), Stevie Wonder has influenced popular artists and culture to a great extent.

Some of his best-selling hits are 'Fingertips - Part 2' (1963), 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)' (1965), 'For Once In My Life' (1967), 'I Was Made To Love Her' (1967), 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours' (1970), 'Higher Ground' (1973), 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' (1973), 'Boogie On Reggae Woman' (1974), 'Sir Duke' (1977), 'Ebony and Ivory' (1982) and 'Part Time Lover' (1985), among others.

The Temptations (Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eldridge Bryant and Otis Williams) are considered the most successful male group in the history of African-American music. Originally formed in 1961 as The Elgins, the quintet was renamed to The Temptations by Berry Gordy Jr. and signed to Motown the same year. Their influential funk, soul, R&B, disco and doo-wop sounds, distinct harmonies and recognizable choreographies are believed to have had a huge impact on soul music.

Being the Motown's best-selling male group of the '60s, The Temptations released numerous smash hits such as 'The Way You Do The Things You Do' (1964), 'My Girl' (1965), 'Get Ready' (1966), 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (1966), 'All I Need' (1967), 'I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)' (1968), 'I Can't Get Next To You' (1969), 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)' (1971), and 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' (1972).

The Four Tops (Levi Stubbs, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, Lawrence Peyton and Abdul 'Duke' Fakir) signed to Workshop, Motown's jazz subsidiary, in 1963. Their consistency in producing great hits and their homogeneity as a team made The Four Tops inseparable without a single change of personnel for more than 40 years (1953-1997). By featuring a variety of sounds that mixed elements of soul, disco, R&B, jazz, and inspirational doo-wop and jazz vocals, The Four Tops had a huge appeal with 'Baby I Need Your Loving' (1964) - their first million-selling hit - 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)' (1965), '(Reach Out) I'll Be There' (1966), 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' (1966) and 'Bernadette' (1967) among others.

The Jackson Five (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael) signed to Motown in 1969. Being originally talented and musically comprehensive, The Jackson Five had immediately a universal appeal with their superb vocal harmony, teenage lyrics, energetic sound, and Michael's charismatic persona. By 1970, they had become a pan-American sensation, while Motown, capitalizing on their huge success, licensed Jackson Five album stickers, posters, and patches. Besides, the 'Jacksonmania' was supported with teen magazines focusing on the Jackson Five, TV cartoons and own TV specials. The Jackson Five's smash hits are 'I Want You Back' (1969), 'ABC' (1970), 'The Love You Save' (1970), and 'I'll Be There' (1970).

Formed in 1967 as the Mystics and performing as the opening act of The Jackson Five on their European tour, The Commodores (Lionel Richie, William King, Thomas McClary, Milan Williams, Ronald LaPread, and Walter "Clyde" Orange) signed with Motown in 1972. Their funky dance floor sounds, with horn sections and pop orchestration such as 'Fancy Dancer' (1976), 'Brick House' (1977), 'Say Yeah' (1978), and 'Too Hot Ta Trot' (1979) made The Commodores one of Motown's best-selling male group of the '70s with over 75 million copies around the globe.

However, the group had a huge success with the ballads 'Easy' (1977), which topped #1 on Billboard R&B chart and #4 on Billboard Hot 100 and 'Three Times A Lady' (1978) which was the first hit to become #1 on Billboard Hot 100, topping the chart for two weeks. Besides, 'Machine Gun', the instrumental title track from the debut album of The Commodores in 1974, is widely used at American sporting events having practically become a staple.

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