Thanks to the dedication of labels like Ace Records, it would be impossible to “forget the Motor City.” Along with the U.S.’ flagship Hip-O/UMG Select imprint, Ace has led the charge in issuing vintage 1960s-era Motown material, much of it unreleased. The recent release of Finders Keepers: Motown Girls 1961-1967 compiles 24 tracks from girls both famous (The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells) and all-too-unknown (LaBrenda Ben, Thelma Brown, Anita Knorl) for a potent overview of songs that slipped through the cracks at Hitsville, USA. Sweetening the pot is the fact that, of the 24 songs, twelve have never been released before. It’s always cause for celebration when the seemingly endless Motown vaults are dipped into, and this is no exception.
Listen to a track like The Velvelettes’ “Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer),” cut in 1965 and first released in 1999, and you immediately realize that it has all the elements of Classic Motown. Why wasn’t it released at the time it was recorded? Would it have been a hit? Chart success can hardly be ascribed to one particular factor, and maybe the track just didn’t have that intangible “it.” But what “Let Love Live” and most of the other tracks here do have is the unmistakable presence of the Funk Brothers, some of Motown’s brightest songwriters and producers, and the frisson of the Sound of Young America in its prime.
Naturally, no Motown Girls compilation would be complete with songs from the label’s top female acts. The Marvelettes, who made Motown history with the label’s first No. 1, “Please Mr. Postman,” are represented with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s stomping “Finders Keepers.” Recorded in 1964 but not issued until 1980, it makes a welcome reappearance here. (The Marvelettes are credited with “The Grass Seems Greener,” too, but the notes reveal that this previously unreleased song was actually sung by Bettie Winston.) Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1967 “When Somebody Loves You (You’re Never Alone)” has been oft-bootlegged over the years, but has never appeared in the top-notch sound quality it’s presented in here. And where would any Motown compilation – girls or otherwise – be without an appearance by The Supremes? Finders Keepers producers Keith Hughes and Mick Patrick have opted for two songs with Florence Ballard in the spotlight. 1961’s “Buttered Popcorn,” written by Berry Gordy and longtime Motown sales manager/veep Barney Ales, is the object of some good-natured derision in Gordy’s book to the now-running Motown: The Musical on Broadway. “Long Gone Lover” is a track from 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go album, written by another Motown mainstay, the legendary Smokey Robinson.
Smokey’s imprimatur is all over Finders Keepers. No fewer than six tracks composed by the Miracles man are present. With its finger-snapping beat, a haunting title refrain, and the slinky bass of James Jamerson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ 1966 “No More Tear-Stained Makeup” is a low-key treat. (Keith Hughes suggests that the group’s other song here, H-D-H’s “Build Him Up,” could have been withheld from release because Gordy might have found it dated compared to “Heat Wave.” That theory seems to be a good one. And yes, despite a volume of Motown Lost and Found and an entire disc of previously unissued material on the recent Singles Collection, there’s still more Vandellas in the Motown vault!)
Mary Wells’ coquettish vocals are immediately familiar on Smokey’s “What’s Easy for Two is So Hard for One” from 1963. Just predating “My Guy,” this hand-clapping track stands out for Earl Van Dyke’s prominent organ. Mary wasn’t the only female solo vocalist to work magic with Mr. Robinson. Carolyn Crawford’s previously unreleased “Lover Boy” is brassy and lightly swinging, with a strong bass part and rich strings creating a definite “uptown soul” feel. Brenda Holloway’s Smokey-penned “Till Johnny Comes” was recorded in 1966 but remained on the shelf until 1999; it’s a sad and soulful song from the “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” artist. Less known than Holloway or Crawford is a singer by the name of Anita Knorl. Very little is known about Knorl, but Smokey gifted her with another quintessential Robinson melody, and she makes his “Star light, star bright” lyrics sound sultry! This marks the first appearance anywhere of one of Knorl’s Motown tracks, of which four were cut and none were released! Of course, there’s a Miracles cut here, too. 1962’s “He Don’t Care About Me” has a delicious lead by Claudette Robinson, though this arrangement seems under-cooked compared to some of the later productions here. With its piano out-front, it feels a bit like a demo, but it boasts a nice vocal arrangement and a lightly Latin feel.
Many of the other performers here are unknown to all but the biggest Motown diehards, which makes their inclusion here all the more welcome. Very little has ever been released from the Motown catalogue of Hattie Littles, whose take-no-prisoners “My Black Belt” is far-removed from the smooth elegance of Smokey Robinson’s songs! Littles isn’t afraid to use that belt, either, in this gritty, growled 1964 song: “Boy, I’m gonna hit you so hard, you gonna forget where you came from!” A couple of dance-themed songs make a strong impression. Thelma Brown’s “Dance Yeah Dance” is her first Motown recording to be issued anywhere. This raucous, party-time song from writer-producer Harvey Fuqua with bleating horns was also recorded by The Spinners and Stevie Wonder, per the notes, but their versions are still in the vaults. LaBrenda Ben’s “I Can’t Help It, I Gotta Dance” is less uninhibited than “Dance Yeah Dance,” but is in the same vein. The singer captures the excitement of a youthful dance (“Turn me loose, please let me go! Every time I hear that beat, I feel like movin’ and a-groovin’ from my head to my feet…”) much as Saundra Mallett and The Vandellas do with “Camel Walk.”
The Andantes lent their golden voices to support just about every Motown artist in Detroit, but they’re heard here, too, with a song of their own. “(Like A) Nightmare” is instrumentally a dead ringer for H-D-H’s Supremes productions of the time (1964) but it’s hardly nightmarish with Mike Terry’s storming baritone sax solo. The compilation concludes with three ballads among the most adult-oriented cut by Motown. Linda Griner’s “So Let Them Laugh at Me” comes from the pen of Marvin Gaye and Clarence Paul, with Marvin definitely in his adult crooner style. Griner’s ballad with cocktail piano is right at home with Liz Lands’ torchy “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” the standard by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. The gorgeous, string-laden ballad “It’s Too Soon to Know” definitely shows another side of Kim Weston (“Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” “It Takes Two” with Gaye).
Unsurprisingly, Finders Keepers is outfitted with a deluxe 16-page color booklet, although the decision to offer artist-by-artist notes rather than track-by-track ones might leave you flipping the pages back and forth while you listen! Nick Robbins provides the stellar remastering. Losers weepers, indeed, to those who don’t take the chance to hear these rare Motor City grooves. Perhaps Motown Boys is coming up next?
- Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer) – The Velvelettes (Motown CD 31454 9507 2, 1999)
- Don’t Turn Your Back on Me – Brenda Holloway (previously unreleased)
- When Somebody Love You (You’re Never Alone) – Gladys Knight and the Pips (previously unreleased)
- No More Tearstained Makeup – Martha and the Vandellas (Gordy LP G 920, 1966)
- Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers – The Marvelettes (Tamla Motown TMG 1000, 1980)
- Do You Know What I’m Talkin’ About – LaBrenda Ben (previously unreleased)
- What’s Easy for Two is So Hard for One – Mary Wells (Motown 1048, 1963)
- Dance Yeah Dance – Thelma Brown (previously unreleased)
- (Like a) Nightmare – The Andantes (VIP 25006, 1964)
- Long Gone Lover – The Supremes (Motown LP M 621, 1964)
- Lover Boy – Carolyn Crawford (previously unreleased)
- Till Johnny Comes – Brenda Holloway (Motown CD 31454 9505 2, 1999)
- Camel Walk – Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas (Tamla 54067, 1962)
- My Black Belt – Hattie Littles (previously unreleased)
- Build Him Up – Martha and the Vandellas (previously unreleased)
- I Can’t Help It, I Gotta Dance – LaBrenda Ben (Gordy 7021, 1963)
- Buttered Popcorn – The Supremes (Tamla 54045, 1961)
- Grass Seems Greener (On the Other Side) – The Marvelettes (sic) (previously unreleased)
- He Don’t Care About Me – The Miracles (Tamla LP 7 230, 1962)
- You’ll Never Cherish a Love So True (‘Til You Lose It) – The Vells (Mel-O-Dy 103, 1962)
- If Wishes Came True – Anita Knorl (previously unreleased)
- So Let Them Laugh at Me – Linda Griner (previously unreleased)
- I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues – Liz Lands (previously unreleased)
- It’s Too Soon to Know – Kim Weston (previously unreleased)