Smokey Robinson’s mama famously told the young singer-songwriter that he’d better shop around, but happily, those looking for the definitive chronicle of Smokey and Diana and Mary and Flo and Martha and Marvin and Stevie and co. need shop around no more. To mark the label’s 60th anniversary, Motown: The Complete No. 1s is back in print in a slightly-expanded edition, and this 11-CD box set is, simply, one-stop shopping. Impressively housed within a sturdy replica of 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, this collection features all of the company’s chart-toppers between The Miracles’ “Shop Around” (1960) and Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” (2000) for a total of 208 songs compiled from various charts and including a handful of bonus tracks that hit No. 1 via samples or cover versions. (How did “Dancing in the Street” not reach the top until David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s cover? Thankfully, the original is here.) The result is positively staggering, not only detailing the history of pop music in the second half of the 20th century but illustrating how Motown indeed changed the world. As Smokey wrote in his 2008 introduction to the first release of the box, “These songs helped do away with all sorts of stupid man-made prejudices and the negative ideas people had about each other, because they gave people something in common, something they could all love.” The songs emanating from Hitsville, USA and its various branches are still loved today.
The classic Motown sound, as we think of it today, is in full blossom on the first two discs of the box set. An optimistic, can-do, competitive spirit infused the finely-crafted songwriting by talents like Robinson, the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Ron Miller, Frank Wilson, Deke Richards, and of course, label founder Berry Gordy himself. (Individually or collectively, H-D-H were responsible for 19 out of 52 chart-toppers on Discs 1 and 2. Smokey Robinson wrote or co-wrote 12.) Even more impressively, most of these talents were producing their own material, as well.
The loose collective known as The Funk Brothers brought those timeless yet truly of-their-time songs to life with infectious percussion, honking brass, lithe bass, crisp guitar, and rollicking keys. Their names – including but not limited to bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt; pianists Joe Hunter, Johnny Griffith, and Earl Van Dyke; drummers Richard “Pistol” Allen, William “Benny” Benjamin and Uriel Jones; percussionists Jack Ashford and Eddie “Bongo” Brown; and guitarists Robert White, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Dennis Coffey – might have been unknown, but their sound incorporating pop, soul, rock, jazz, gospel, and funk was unmistakable. Then, the artists sprinkled their own magic on the tight tracks: Mary Wells’ blend of smoothness and sass, Smokey’s otherworldly falsetto, Diana Ross’ coquettish sensuality, David Ruffin’s emotional growl; Levi Stubbs’ fiery power; Marvin Gaye’s insinuating croon. The combination of these elements was alchemical and the results singular. Classics like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” and “My Guy” need no introduction, even today. It might have been called The Sound of Young America, but the Motown sound was for the young and the young at heart, universally breaking barriers of age, race, and gender.
The first song on The Complete No. 1s to have been written outside of the Motown stable, Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” reflected the social conscience that pulsed throughout Motown’s records, whether subtly or overtly. The likes of Martha and The Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” and Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Love Child” paved the way for such seismic, era-defining singles as The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” But even as Motown was changing with the tumultuous times, culminating in the 1972 move from Detroit to Los Angeles, its songs offered comfort, healing, love, and joy via the gorgeous harmonies of The Originals’ “Baby, I’m for Real,” the big, irresistible groove of Jr. Walker and The All-Stars’ “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” the triumph of Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the beautiful romance of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” or the jubilant, youthful sounds of The Jackson 5 with “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” “Mama’s Pearl,” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Between 1970 and 1973, as heard on Discs 3 and 4, an expanded Motown roster was welcoming artists like The Undisputed Truth (the moody “Smiling Faces Sometimes”) and Rare Earth (a psych-rock take on The Temptations’ Smokey Robinson-penned “Get Ready”). The label weathered the loss of the Four Tops to ABC/Dunhill, but saw The Temptations, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the solo Ross and Ross-less Supremes, Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the solo Michael Jackson all score major successes.
Discs 5-6 (1973-1979) saw Wonder and Ross, as well as Robinson, Gaye, and The Temptations, reliably continue to rack up hits. Room was also made for more surprising names like country singer-songwriter T.G. Sheppard, represented by the back-to-back No. 1s “Devil in the Bottle” and “Tryin’ to Beat the Morning Home” on the short-lived Melodyland imprint. Motown notched one of its most enduring disco hits by looking eastward to its so-called competitors in Philadelphia for Thelma Houston’s sizzling “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” co-written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert, and first recorded by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. Ross’ epic “Love Hangover” and “The Boss” and Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up (Part I)” likewise filled the dancefloors. The biggest impact on Motown history during this period, however, was arguably made by Tuskegee, Alabama’s Commodores. Scoring Number Ones was easy as Sunday morning for Lionel Richie, William King, Walter Orange, Milan Williams, and Thomas McClary. Rick James, previously a Motown artist as part of The Mynah Birds alongside Neil Young (!), returned to the company with a vengeance, making his first appearance on the box with 1978’s “You and I.”
If there was ever any doubt that the stars of Motown could adapt, the early 1980s rendered such doubts moot. Electronics and synthesizers were in the air – an area in which Stevie Wonder had long been pioneering. The label’s first chart-topper of 1980, Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” was a slice of deliciously breezy escapism. The same year, Miss Ross teamed with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of CHIC for the empowering anthem “I’m Coming Out” and rhythmic “Upside Down.” Rick James’ “Super Freak,” later to form the basis of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” topped the Dance/Disco chart in the U.S. but also received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. As ever, the Motown sound couldn’t fit into an easy box.
Lionel Richie’s first solo appearance on The Complete No. 1s comes with “Endless Love,” his soaring duet with Ross; he dominates the eighth disc with seven tracks including “Hello” and “All Night Long (All Night).” Ron Miller, co-author of previous No. 1s like “Touch Me in the Morning” and Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All” and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” wrote the single-named Charlene’s touching “I’ve Never Been to Me.” Wonder himself continued to follow his own remarkable muse, reinvigorating genres from reggae (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)” to pure pop (“I Just Called to Say I Love You”). Detroit family group DeBarge returned Motown to its roots, and Michael Jackson even returned to the fold to lend his uncredited vocals to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Much as The Supremes had pressed on without Diana Ross, The Commodores survived the loss of Lionel Richie with “Nightshift,” a tribute to their fallen colleagues Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.
If not for the titanic accomplishment of decades prior, it would be easy to view the 1980s as a golden age for Motown, what with the aforementioned tunes and other indelible Number Ones such as Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover” and “Overjoyed,” DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” Smokey Robinson’s “Just to See Her,” and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.” A younger crop of artists populates the latter discs of this set, most notably the California group The Boys, Johnny Gill, and Boyz II Men. Producers like L.A. Reid and Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis nudged Motown towards hip-hop – soon to become the dominant sound in R&B – but the production teams found, in Boyz II Men, a true successor to the lush harmony groups of Motown’s early years even as “legacy artists” like Diana Ross (back at Motown after a stint at RCA) and The Temptations still scored chartbusting hits. The original box set ended with Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” from 2000. While the Texas-born singer employed samples, beats, and harsh language far removed from the Motown sound, the song’s message of “Bet ya love can make it better” could have come right out of Smokey’s songbook.
The 2019 iteration of the box adds a 6-song bonus disc of odds and ends. “Who’s Lovin’ You” was a B-side to not one, but two, Number One hits: The Miracles’ “Shop Around” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Hence, the Smokey-penned tune gets a special dispensation to appear here. Michael, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, and Jackie’s ebullient rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” a chart-topper on the Billboard Christmas survey and still a radio staple every holiday season, was left off the original box as was Stevie Wonder’s 1995 Adult R&B No. 1 ballad “For Your Love.” They’ve taken their rightful place here. The set concludes with Eric Kupper’s energetic dance remixes of Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Coming Out/Upside Down” which went to the top spot on the Dance Club Songs chart in 2017 and 2018, respectively – underscoring the eternal appeal of the artist, productions, and indeed, the Motown label.
The original box helmed by producer Harry Weinger, associate producer Andrew Skurow, and executive producer Pat Lawrence has been painstakingly re-pressed here, right down to the squarebound 100-page book filled with photos and detailed annotations for each track. Kevin Reeves’ superlative mastering has been retained on the set proper, while Phil Nicolo has mastered the bonus disc. As before, the discs are housed in colorful digipaks; the bonus disc is in a sleeve that’s viewable through the window of 2648 West Grand.
Motown means something different to each generation. Happily, there’s something for everyone on The Complete No. 1s – a true testament to the strength of Berry Gordy’s vision of creating great music for all people. How sweet it is.