Prior to the early Seventies, the struggle for power between record companies and artists wasn't much of a contest. Because imprints held the winning hands in virtually every contractual dispute, performers frequently became the equivalent of indentured servants. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't jump ship. But while this reality was bad for them, it was very, very good for labels, which were able to transform themselves into entertainment juggernauts simply by playing hardball with the talent. The best example of this phenomenon was Motown, a little Detroit concern that developed a signature style, then parlayed it into an empire.
But times have changed at Motown and elsewhere. Now successful artists are able to command huge salaries--and if another corporation offers them even more bullion, said musicians (and their attorneys) are generally able to collect it. This employee latitude makes it virtually impossible for Motown or any of today's major imprints to develop and establish a sonic thumbprint. There isn't a Motown sound anymore: For the most part, those who record for the company could make the same music for practically any other firm with an R&B department, and no one would be the wiser.
The differences between the Motown of lore and Motown '95 are made abundantly clear by the latest reissues to escape from its vaults. To their credit, Motown executives recognize that their back catalogue is among their most treasured resources. And while they're abundantly aware of the music's profit potential, they've treated it with respect: The four-CD package The Master: Marvin Gaye, 1961-1984, for example, is an intelligently programmed, well-annotated model of the boxed-set form. However, their efforts to imply that latter-day Motown product is of a piece with its splendid predecessors simply doesn't wash.
The series Motown Year by Year: The Sound of Young America is a case in point. At first glance, the concept of bringing together the finest material from a single twelve-month period seems solid--but it soon becomes apparent that for Motown, some years (particularly those during the Sixties) were better than others. The newly issued 1969 edition is a high-water mark: It combines strong singles (the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," Gaye's "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby") with lightweight but enjoyable efforts (Chuck Jackson's "Are You Lonely for Me Baby," the Originals' "Baby I'm for Real") and rarities such as "Fever in the Funk House," credited to James Jamerson, whose subtly powerful drumming style anchored the Motown house band during its most glorious days. But 1975 finds the Motown machine running rough: The offerings by Smokey Robinson ("Baby That's Backatcha"), the Temptations ("Shakey Ground") and other veterans are tepid by comparison with their previous peaks, and the new blood (the Commodores, particularly) doesn't come up with much that qualifies as inspirational. Worse are the 1982 and 1987 chapters, which juxtapose the occasional guilty pleasure (the Dazz Band's "Let It Whip") with dross like Jose Feliciano's yawn-inducing take on "I Second That Emotion" and actor Bruce Willis's mega-dreadful "Respect Yourself." (As an act of desperation, producers of 1987 also tossed a remix of the 1972 Temptations smash "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" into the mix.) If this is the best stuff compilers could assemble, you can imagine how completely depressing a place Motown was circa the Eighties.
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Baddest Love Jams and Funkology, a pair of just-released, two-volume repackages, have problems of their own, but they're considerably worthier than the Eighties Year by Years. Subtitling the first Love Jams disc Quiet Storm is appropriate, since the 1975 Smokey Robinson ditty of the same name provided the moniker for what's become a successful radio format in numerous urban locales. Moreover, the platters reveal how the artists spotlighted--Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Eddie Kendricks among them--influenced smooch-music provocateurs like Boyz II Men, currently Motown's most lucrative franchise. The two Funkology discs are more quizzical, since Motown resisted, rather than led, the funk movement of the Seventies. Nevertheless, the twenty songs on these platters (including Teena Marie's "I'm a Sucker for Your Love," Rick James's "Give It to Me Baby" and the Commodores' "Brick House," the single best tune to which Lionel Ritchie has contributed) are upbeat and danceable enough to blunt the impact of historical quibbles.
Of course, there's no need to make allowances for another series of Motown reissues, dubbed Motown Milestones. The heading designates a new batch of greatest-hits collections, and those of you who already own earlier salutes to the same Motown artists shouldn't run to your friendly neighborhood CD retailer with wallets open. Anyone who doesn't, on the other hand, could do far worse than checking out the two latest Milestones, featuring the Undisputed Truth and the Marvelettes. The former, best known for the track "Smiling Faces Sometimes," was decidedly minor, a pet project of producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, but the set's pre-disco grooves go down smooth and easy.
The Marvelettes, by contrast, supplied some of the most enjoyable girl-group fodder of the early Sixties, much of it powered by percussionist Jamerson's sticks and drum pedal. "Please Mr. Postman" and the rest bear the unmistakable stamp of Motown prior to the advent of musical free agency--and while the Marvelettes no doubt suffered under this antiquated system, at least they left some wonderful songs behind.