'Hitsville U.S.A.' brings back the joy of those golden-oldie singles from Motown


November 01, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"Singles are the essence of rock and roll," writes Dave Mars in the introduction to his book, "The Heart of Rock & Soul." As he rightly points out, singles are "the stuff of our everyday conversations and debates about music, the totems that trigger our memories." And anyone who has ever been riveted by a song on the radio, or transported by unexpectedly hearing a favorite ,, oldie knows exactly what he means.

As such, it would be hard to imagine a better synopsis of the Motown era than the one provided by "Hitsville U.S.A." (Motown 374 636 312, arriving in stores Tuesday). Its appeal isn't just that the set skims the cream from Motown's output between 1959 and 1971, offering 104 of the label's best recordings on four CDs or cassettes. What really makes "Hitsville U.S.A." worth celebrating is the fact that each and every one of those songs is offered in its original single version, the same potent mono mix that came with every 45.

This is Motown the way we remember it -- the way we heard it booming from jukeboxes or crackling out of car radios. Granted, the sound digital engineers Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch pull from those master tapes is both richer and cleaner than the old vinyl ever delivered, but the aesthetic and the impact remain the same. And that's the most important thing.

Why? Because few labels understood the importance of singles as clearly as Motown did. Naturally, a lot of that had to do with the incredible depth of Motown's talent pool. Reading through this set's artist listing is like thumbing through a soul music Who's Who: Smokey Robinson. Diana Ross. Marvin Gaye. Mary Wells. Jr. Walker. Stevie Wonder. Gladys Knight. Martha Reeves. The Supremes. The Temptations. The Four Tops. The Contours. The Isley Brothers. The Jackson Five. And on and on and on.

Even more important was the high caliber of songwriting the label fostered. With songsmiths like Smokey Robinson, William Stevenson, Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye and the immortal team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Motown's material rarely settled for anything as easy as merely being catchy and clever. At their best, these songs captured the full range of human emotion, and anything from simple puppy love to the most complex adult romances are described in their verses and choruses.

To that end, "Hitsville U.S.A." is most instructive where it moves beyond the familiar and reminds of some of the label's lesser-known gems. Almost everyone knows, for example, that Barrett Strong did the original "Money (That's What I Want)," and that the Beatles' version is virtually a note-for-note copy, but how many are aware that Shorty Long cut "Devil with the Blue Dress" long before Mitch Ryder got ahold of it? And here it is, along with such other overlooked gems as Long's "Function at the Junction," Kim Weston's "Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)," the Velvettes' "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'," and the Originals' "Baby I'm for Real."

But what really gave the company its commercial edge wasn't just that Motown knew the difference between a good groove and a great one -- it was that the label understood what it took to make that difference seem to leap from the speakers. Motown singles were engineered for maximum impact at minimum fidelity, an approach that emphasized the beat so effectively that even the least soulful listener understood the Motown groove.

"Hitsville U.S.A." brings that home with a vengeance. Take, for example, the Martha & the Vandellas hit "Nowhere to Run." Melodically, the song draws its power from the tension between Martha Reeves' bluesy vocal and the tension-building repetition of the verse's three-chord vamp.

But what puts the single across sonically is the way the mix downplays those aspects of the Holland-Dozier-Holland arrangement in favor of the relationship between the backbeat -- which is not only pounded out by the drums but reinforced with two layers of tambourine -- and James Jamerson's throbbing, syncopated bass line. It's a classic push-and-pull effect, one that brings the beat to life in all its hip-shaking glory.

Pure Motown, in other words.

Amazingly, that sense of musical affect was something the company had from the first, and held onto even as the styles changed. Cue up Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," and it's as audible in the throbbing tom-toms and surf-style guitar of that relatively primitive production as it is in the slick sophistication of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

Best of all, it's an approach that maintains its potency to this day. And that, much more than the memories these singles are likely to spark, is the real reason "Hitsville U.S.A." is a joy to listen to -- even if you've heard it all before.

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