TERRY GROSS, Host:
1966 was a great year for popular music in the United States and Britain. So it should come as no surprise that it was also a great year for Motown Records. Our rock historian, Ed Ward, has been reviewing the sets that Hip-O Select has been issuing of Motown's complete output of singles. Today, Ed takes a look at volume six, which covers 1966, a signature year in Motown's history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG")
THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy. I don't mind 'cause you mean that much to me. Ain't too proud to beg and you know it. Please don't leave me, girl, don't you go. Ain't to proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl, don't you go. Now, I heard a cryin' man is half a man with no sense of pride. But if I have to cry to keep you, I don't mind weepin' if it'll keep you by my side. Ain't to proud to beg, sweet darling.
ED WARD: In July of 1966, Berry Gordy of Motown Records solemnly announced that, we will release nothing less than top 10 product on any artist. And because The Supremes' worldwide acceptance is greater than the other artists, on them, we will release only number-one records. For any record company at any time, this sounds either naive or insane. But at Motown, it must have seemed like an ordinary mission statement.
By the end of the year, 22 singles had reached the pop top 20, three had hit number one, and a full 75 percent of the company's releases had at least charted on the pop charts. The statistics for the soul charts were even stronger because the year's excellent pop records weren't competing for the slots. Listening to the 225 songs in this set is almost like listening to a hits compilation so many of the songs are familiar.
Even the B sides are tremendous. I remember my friends flipping The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" over and discovering an incredible ballad on the other side.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YOU'LL LOSE A PRECIOUS LOVE")
TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) One day you will begin to realize By the look that's in my eyes, How much I love you, love you. And if you leave, you'll lose a precious love, You'll lose a precious love. Somehow...
WARD: It was just another jam by Smokey Robinson, who, along with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, were writing and producing masterpieces like there was no tomorrow. In fact, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team made a discovery in 1966 that would revolutionize their output, Bob Dylan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "REACH OUT (I'LL BE THERE)")
SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) Now, if you feel like you can't go on because all of your hope is gone, And your life's filled with much confusion until happiness is just an illusion, Happiness is just an illusion. And the world around is coming in doubt. Darling reach out. Come on girl. Reach on out for me, Reach out. Reach out for me. I'll be there with a love that will shelter you. I'll be there with a love that will see you through. When you feel alone.
WARD: Lovers of German opera called Sprecht leise (ph), that not-quite-spoken, not-quite-sung quality Dylan made popular with "Highway 61 Revisited," and the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs found was something he could do real well himself. What's ironic is that, in 1966, Motown had, if not Bob Dylan, someone very much like him, but he left the label under bizarre circumstances. He played guitar in a Canadian band the label would sign, the Mynah Birds.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "IT'S MY TIME")
THE MYNAH BIRDS: (Singing) I really love you, darling with a love that's so strong and so fine. Nothing in this whole wide world would ever make it change my mind. It's my time, baby. I really don't care what you say. I truly love you anyway. Yes, I say that I'm going to love you anyway, yeah.
WARD: With a black lead singer who called himself Ricky Matthews, the Mynah Birds had had a small hit in Canada when Motown signed them to their VIP label. But Ricky was an AWOL sailor from America, and for some reason, the band's manager told Motown. The label advised him to turn himself in and come see them when he paid his debt. Disgusted, the guitarist and bassist, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, headed to L.A., where they'd start Buffalo Springfield.
Ricky went to jail, and on his release, went back to Motown, where he was eventually reborn as Rick James. Not every group on Motown was successful, even with great material. The best example is the Isley Brothers, who, in their years with the label, seemed to suffer from indifferent treatment. One fascinating document from 1966 was a B side in which they performed the song another Motown group would hit with the next year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I HEAR A SYMPHONY")
ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony, A tender melody pulling me closer, closer to your heart. Then suddenly, ooh your lips are touching mine. A feeling so divine til I leave my past behind. I'm lost in a world made for you and me.
WARD: The arrangement here is far superior to the Supremes' version, more fake classical and, in my opinion, a stronger version over all. As the year came to an end, a record appeared that summed it up while pointing to the good and bad things about to happen. Stevie Wonder was getting older and in just a couple of years would make history by bucking the Motown factory system. In 1966 though, all he did was record a Christmas single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS")
STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Someday at Christmas, men won't be boys, Playing with bombs like kids play with toys. One warm December, our hearts will see a world where men are free. Someday at Christmas, there'll be no wars, When we have learned what Christmas is for, When we have found what life's really worth, There'll be peace on earth...
WARD: No candy canes or Christmas trees in this song, just wishes for a world free of bombs and racial intolerance. The spirit of Bob Dylan and the times had begun to infiltrate Motown in 1966, and things would never be the same there again.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He reviewed the "Complete Motown Singles Volume Six" 1966 on Hip-O Select. You can download podcast of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.