by Will Ejzak
In the relatively high-stakes world of classical music—where words like “sublime” and “heroic” are thrown around like a football at a barbecue—it can be essential to have a musical comfort food. Some would argue, of course, that classical music is already full of comfort foods: Rachmaninov, or Verdi (or the Flaming Hot Cheeto of the Romantics: Liszt). That’s a conversation for another time. For the purposes of this article, comfort food requires a change in genre—a dip into the suspiciously warm, shallow waters of Populist Music. And what better comfort food than Motown? With its heavy beat, rich vocals, and syrupy lyrics, the legendary R&B/Soul record label of the ‘60s seems an ideal candidate.
The rhythm section was the label’s calling card. A huge snare on weak beats 2 and 4 lends the songs a sort of explosive buoyancy, a convention at the heart of Motown’s most bodaciously danceable hits. But the beat wasn’t the main attraction—just the elephant in the room, overshadowed by even more dynamic elements elsewhere in the song. Motown’s lush melodic instincts were irresistible, and their dazzlingly emotive singers even more so. The lyrics may have been shallow—or at least, no less cloying than anything else selling at the time—but paired with the right performer, these hits took on genuine passion and profundity.
Some think Motown just got lucky with its incredible line-up of vocalists. This strikes me as a bit ridiculous—crediting coincidence and ignoring the symbiotic relationship between performer and material. Yes, Motown was blessed with legendary singing talent; but the “Motown Sound,” with its grandiose arrangements and swooningly romantic melodies, also demanded a level of dynamism that brought out the very best in these performers. Regardless how you feel about this chicken/egg problem, every artist discussed in this article has probably been called “The Greatest Singer of All Time” at some point. (On Rolling Stone’s list, Jackie clocks in at #26, Smokey at #20, Marvin at #6, and Stevie at #9.) And this trend probably has as much to do with the material as it does the singers.
For me, each of these artists represents a distinct, essential angle into Motown. Each has his own outsized persona; his own inimitable vocal style; and his own snappy name (the sort you want to be reincarnated with). As an added bonus, they appeared on the music scene in roughly chronological order, tracing a makeshift evolution of the genre. While these four don’t exactly represent the Mount Rushmore of the label—that would require Diana Ross and baby Michael Jackson, at the very least—they’re the ones I know and love best.
Jackie Wilson…isn’t technically a Motown artist. There, I said it.
But as far as I’m concerned, he was grandfathered into the label. Wilson’s connections with Motown may be indirect, but they’re undeniable. Nearly all of his early hits—“To Be Loved,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “I’ll Be Satisfied,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” and “Reet Petite”—were co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy in the ‘50s, when the label was just a twinkle in his eye. What’s more, the influence seems to have been mutual: in his autobiography, Gordy writes that Wilson was “the greatest singer I’ve ever heard […] he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever.”
So what was that standard, exactly? This video, from the Ed Sullivan show in the ’50s, gives a compelling sense of the Jackie Wilson experience:
“To Be Loved” gets the kind of sappy, laid-back arrangement you might hear behind an early Sinatra track—but in Wilson’s hands, it might as well be an aria. (And what aria is complete without falling to your knees for emotional emphasis?). Wilson’s operatic interpretation required him to hit it out of the park every night on tour. By all accounts, he had no problem carrying out these demands. But this vocal style is all well and good for a gooey love song like “To Be Loved.” What about “Lonely Teardrops”? A track so poppy, it’s got literal “shoo-be-doo-bops” in the studio recording?
Well…what about it? Wilson brings the same operatic approach to his second song, along with some wiggly dance moves you won’t see Andrea Bocelli doing any time soon. The effect is stunning—a virtuosic, dynamite performance disguised as an easygoing song-and-dance number. Wilson’s stage presence is almost a paradox: simultaneously large-than-life and perfectly casual. This contradiction would become a classic Motown aesthetic, though none managed it quite as elegantly as Jackie Wilson.
That said, the balance seems to break down in the final song of his set. “Alone At Last,” a reworking of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, errs on the side of sticky-sweet romanticism (Tchaikovsky feels pretty subtle by comparison). Still, the ultra-romantic melodic sensibilities don’t feel too of place. Motown owes a lot to these sensibilities, even if they never took matters quite so far.
Where Wilson’s voice was well-suited to match huge Motown arrangements, Robinson’s hummingbird falsetto seemed destined to drown in them. Listening to “Tracks Of My Tears,” Smokey’s most enduring hit, it’s hard to imagine how that voice will rise above the thunderstorm of horns, drums, and backing vocals in the chorus
And in the first chorus, he nearly does get swallowed up; but by the second, he’s gracefully sidestepping the gales of accompaniment, finding undisturbed pockets of air, and letting his falsetto soar higher and higher above the tumult. What Robinson’s voice lacks in raw power, he makes up for in sensitivity and sheer vocal range: he’s always the highest note on the musical horizon. If Jackie Wilson is a mountain, shoving entire landscapes out of the way to make room for himself, Robinson is the gull swooping over the peaks.
But unlike Wilson, Robinson wrote most of his own tunes—and, for that matter, everyone else’s. Some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s were Smokey Robinson originals: “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5, and The Beatles’ “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” to name just a few. And all were written before his 30th birthday. Motown prided itself on its little Mozarts—pre-adolescents like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson—but Robinson, who had his first hit when he was 19 years old, was the label’s hit machine and MVP. His first crop of lovely melodies put Motown on the map.
Motown didn’t really have any “bad boys.” That was sort of the point. Gordy tailored his acts to be as clean-cut, family-friendly and non-threatening-to-whites as possible (…going so far as to force his top performers to attend “social grooming school”).
But if you had to pick a bad boy, you’d pick Marvin. Gaye flat-out refused grooming school, grew disillusioned with being one of Gordy’s “puppets,” and—in one of pop music’s most famous stories—fought the executive’s obstinate veto to release “What’s Goin’ On,” the most politically charged song in Motown’s history. According to legend, Gordy called the song “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” It made Gaye into an international superstar.
If this sounds a little too Hollywood to be true—well, that’s the case with most stories about Marvin Gaye. During the mid-‘60s, he recorded dozens of gorgeous love duets with his close friend, Tammi Terrell. In 1970, Terrell died of a brain tumor, and Gaye fell into a deep depression: he stopped recording music, seriously considered leaving Motown, and eventually tried out (unsuccessfully) for the Detroit Lions. His unexpected return to music, launched by “What’s Goin’ On,” landed him the most lucrative recording contract of any black artist in history. This glamorous lifestyle eventually derailed him in the late ‘70s—but just as Gaye was being written off as an addict and an afterthought, he released “Sexual Healing” in 1982, the biggest hit of his career. A year later, he was murdered by his own father.
Before all this, though, Gaye was just another Motown workhorse—and my favorite recording of his will always be his first big hit, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow”:
From the track’s opening moments, all Motown trademarks are present and accounted for. Between aggressive drumming, honking horns, and yelping back-up vocals, the song crackles with unbelievable energy; Gaye has to spill his guts into the vocal just to keep up. But unlike Jackie or Smokey, Marvin’s feverish intensity feels somehow dangerous. He’s bringing a grenade to a water balloon fight; the vocal feels almost too emotionally invested for the trite romance the lyrics provide. Two minutes in, his voice cracks from the strain: “I tell you a FEW / Have a kissed me TOO!”
And then the song is over, as brief as it is breathtaking.
Stevie Wonder has been a Motown recording artist for 2½ times as long as I’ve been alive. Joining the label in 1961 at the ripe age of eleven, he remains there to this day, running victory laps as Motown’s greatest success story. He’s sold more than 100 million albums and won more Grammys than any pop artist in history, including “Album of the Year” three times in the mid-‘70s. (Though he’s still eating George Solti’s dust in the overall count).
But Stevie’s most famous work doesn’t sound like Motown. It sounds like Stevie: funky grooves, slinky basslines, and a state-of-the-art palette of electronic sounds (Wonder always took advantage of the latest in music technology). “Motown Stevie” was way less popular. Like Marvin Gaye, his ‘60s recordings will always be overshadowed by his more mature work.
Still, I’ll take early Stevie over late Stevie any day. In his late teens, Wonder’s voice underwent a metamorphosis, blossoming from a pitchy twelve-year-old’s instrument—his early recordings pale in comparison to Michael Jackson’s—into something gorgeously ebullient, something exultant and exhilarating. This could feel slightly out of place when he recorded desolate protest songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”:
But on other material, Stevie does what Motown does best: express an inexpressible joy; comfort the people. “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” released in 1969 near the end of Motown’s golden age, feels like an elegy to this sound, to this feeling. It might also be the crowning example of it.
And for everyone but Wonder, it was the end—or close to it. Marvin Gaye’s numerous tragedies and untimely death have already been described. Smokey Robinson suffered from a serious cocaine addiction for much of the ‘80s that would nearly kill him. Jackie Wilson was defrauded by his manager for years, a fact he only discovered when the IRS seized his home. Wilson never retrieved the more than $1 million stolen from him; in 1975, he had a heart attack on stage and slipped into a coma, where he stayed until his death ten years later. Wonder seems to have led a charmed life, but he might be the only one who escaped unscathed.
The music has aged gracefully, though. Which makes me question my metaphor. “Comfort food” implies a guilty pleasure, an unhealthy indulgence—and in retrospect, this doesn’t seem like an accurate representation of Motown at all. These songs are musically sensational and emotionally nutritious. Plus, they come in refreshingly small portions. Maybe a little rich for everyday consumption, but essential to a healthy Spotify playlist.