155 tracks of early Motown

Music : In concert, CDs

February 24, 2005|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

The real precedent for The Complete Motown Singles is the three volumes of The Complete Stax-Volt Singles, a compilation of every A and B side issued by the Memphis soul label. The first Stax set covered 244 singles over 10 years. This quite remarkable six-CD set collects the first 155 tracks recorded by Berry Gordy Jr. for his affiliated labels (Tamla, Gordy, Anna and all the other offshoots that would come to be collectively known as Motown) during just a three-year period.

Those numbers give us some perspective on the Complete Motown compilation project that will, if plans pan out, eventually include every Motown single over a whopping 12 volumes.

Because two-thirds of the tracks on Volume 1 were either misses or minor hits that have been all but forgotten to everyone save die-hard fans and collectors, the decision was made to sell the handsomely packaged box as a limited edition through the Internet for $119.98, which includes an impressive 92-page booklet.

The revelation of Volume 1 is the quality and variety of the music issued in the early years. Gordy's first Tamla single, the raw but sweet "Come to Me," by Marv Johnson, proved so popular that Gordy was not equipped to distribute it, and made a deal to issue it on United Artists. But the next release, a song called "Merry-Go-Round" and the recording debut of Eddie Holland, went nowhere, and neither did the next, a jump blues by Barrett Strong titled "Let's Rock."

But Strong's follow-up, the raucous "Money (That's What I Want)" took off, and so did Motown: Smokey Robinson's group the Miracles cracked the Hot 100 with its debut "Bad Girl" (distributed by Chess) and the label had another Top 10 R&B hit in 1960 with "Bye Bye Baby," a song that 16-year-old Mary Wells had written in hopes Jackie Wilson might record it. Instead, it heralded the direction the label would take: smart, soul-inflected pop that was perfect for dancing and listening, for teen record hops as well as rent parties, written and sung by teens and twentysomethings who understood maybe even better than Gordy what was going on in the streets.

Other than Wells, none of the Motown superstars to be - the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations and Marvin Gay (who had yet to get the "e" affixed to his last name) - grabbed the brass ring on their first attempts, all heard here, but when 1961 draws to a close, everything is in place: Next stop: Hitsville.

Various artists

The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 1: 1959-1961 (Motown/Hip-O) **** Available at www.hipo select.com.

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