Motown 50th Anniversary Collections
The only bad thing about the newly released 50th anniversary Temptations and Supremes anthologies is that they remind me of how many years have gone by. Has it really been half a freaking century since these groups started recording at Motown? Apparently so.
At any rate, the anniversary is being marked by the release of a blizzard of material, including the mighty Temptations’ 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1961-1971 and Diana Ross and the Supremes’ 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1961-1969, each of which contains three CDs. There’s also a two-disc reissue of More Hits By the Supremes. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s are three DVD collections: The Best of the Temptations on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Best of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show; and the two-disc Motown Gold from the Ed Sullivan Show, which collects performances from both groups, plus Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and others.
You could, I suppose, argue that these releases add up to overkill. The Temptations, after all, have already released Greatest Hits, The Ultimate Collection and The Millennium Collection (Vols. 1 and 2)–not to mention the mammoth five-CD Emperors of Soul box set. The Supremes, too, have been well collected, with assorted Greatest Hits, Ultimate and Millennium packages and a two-disc Anthology, which covers all the most important bases.
Some of us, though, can’t get enough of Berry Gordy’s Sound of Young America, and for us, the new collections prove that the earlier “ultimate” discs were slightly mislabeled. The latest CDs contain a treasure trove of remastered material, including hard-to-find B sides, foreign-language versions, alternate takes, interview clips and more. And of course, all the hits are here as well.
Begin with the set from the Temptations, arguably the most important group ever to emerge from Motown. What an arsenal it had, starting with a treo of fine lead singers (David Ruffin, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks) plus two strong backup vocalists (Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin). (Otis, incidentally, is the only one of the five still living.) It also had stupendous material, most notably by Smokey Robinson, including such classics as “My Girl” and “”I Wish It Would Rain.” And don’t forget the production: “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” is not only a magnificent song and performance, but is in its own way as imaginatively and effectively produced as anything Phil Spector ever delivered.
The Supremes collection is nearly as dazzling as the Temptations’. It begins at the beginning, when Florence Ballard led the group and the hits had yet to start coming (though the non-hits, some of which had a foot in the fifties, were largely first-rate). It then continues through a mind-bogglingly long list of smashes featuring Diana Ross, whose voice Patti Scialfa well described in Rolling Stone as “so tiny, but she has real self-knowledge and self esteem. It’s a whisper, like saying it over the telephone and you’re a little embarrassed but you say it anyway.”
Along with all the B sides and minor hits and misses, you’ll find a dozen No. 1s here, including “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” I Hear a Symphony” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The package stops just in time to spare you the group’s post-Ross decline in the 70s. (This does mean it omits at least one great track, “Stoned Love,” but you can easily get that elsewhere.)
More Hits By the Supremes partly duplicates the singles collection, but if you’re really a fan, you’ll want this too, as it offers a variety of noteworthy live, mono and alternate takes you won’t find on the other package or, in some cases, anywhere else.
The DVDs are less essential. It is great to see the Tempts do “Just My Imagination” live, not to mention a 13-year-old Stevie Wonder perform “Fingertips.” And there are other memorable moments as well. Still, if you’re getting used to widescreen Blu-ray video and HD-Master audio, these 50-year-old standard definition DVDs may feel a bit lacking. And it’s hard to become too involved with performances that get interrupted after each song by a stiff Ed Sullivan intro.
So the DVDs are probably just for completists. But the rest of these discs are for just about everyone who ever had a love affair with Motown.
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters, which Chicago Review Press published in April 2013 and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, which is due in April 2014.