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by Jason Gubbels

March 14, 2014

Motown Nuggets, Vol. 11: 1975

by Jason Gubbels  |  March 14, 2014

Motown Nuggets is a multipart series highlighting lesser-known corners of the Motown warehouse: deep album cuts and flipside goodness from the early days of the long-player and the glory years of the single.

Our final installment of Motown Nuggets considers 1975, a fitting endpoint given several events taking place at the label that year. Berry Gordy's film projects were finally taking a financial toll on Motown, and the hits were beginning to dry up as well. Perhaps sensing trouble, longtime songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield left to form his own label, Whitfield Records, yielding nearly immediate success with Rose Royce's disco smash "Car Wash" (unfortunately, this proved a bit of a fluke -- Whitfield Records wouldn't pump out many more hits). Motown's financial troubles wouldn't severely cripple the label until the 1980s, eventually leading Gordy to sign his ownership over to MCA in 1988. And acts like The Commodores were still moving units, especially as Lionel Richie assumed a greater role within the group. But the rise of disco challenged Gordy's instincts, and his inability to embrace the new sound would help determine the label's direction for the rest of the decade.

Still, given Motown's deep roster, even an off year like 1975 yields plenty of treasure, especially once you start digging beneath successful singles. The Miracles may have reached their post-Smokey Robinson apogee with the No. 1 hit "Love Machine," but hip DJs liked to spin "Ain't Nobody Straight in L.A.," a somewhat clumsy if well-meaning nod to gay pride. Likewise, The Supremes (minus Diana Ross) saw chart success after a two-year absence with hit single "He's My Man," yet one of the most engaging tracks from the accompanying album was deliberate throwback "It's All Been Said Before," with an intro that sounded for all the world like The Supremes at their 1965 peak.

You'll also hear G.C. Cameron's original rendition of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," which peaked at a rather disappointing No. 38 on the Billboard R&B chart that year (over 15 years later, Boyz II Men would take it to the top of the charts for the label), along with deep cuts from Eddie Kendricks and Michael Jackson, who cut his final album for Motown before breaking off to Epic for [Off the Wall]. And we conclude both this playlist and our entire series with Smokey Robinson, undoubtedly the label's longest-running success story. Sixteen years into his Motown career, Smokey's album A Quiet Storm delivered the sizable hit "Baby That's Backatcha". But it was the slow-burning title track that proved most influential. While it only rose to No. 25 on the R&B charts, "Quiet Storm" would help define and name an entire school of R&B when radio DJ Melvin Lindsey appropriated the title for his popular late-night slow-jam program. Motown might no longer have been The Sound of Young America, but the fire was still burning.

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