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by Jason Gubbels

January 24, 2014

Motown Nuggets, Vol. 4: 1968

by Jason Gubbels  |  January 24, 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.

Berry Gordy was a businessman first and foremost, and so as the Summer of Love turned into the roiling summer of '68, he did his best to keep his company and his fleet of performers on the steadiest of tracks. This wasn't always easy, however, and not just because the positivity espoused by the Motown ethos was beginning to look slightly dated as the nation tore itself apart via assassinations, riots and the quagmire of Vietnam. Motown itself was being shaken to the core. The songwriting/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label in the midst of a royalties and profit-sharing dispute, thus setting the stage for a nearly decade-long legal battle and depriving Motown of perhaps its most talented behind-the-scenes team.

But even with Motown scoring one of its all-time biggest hits courtesy of Marvin Gaye's epochal "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," some of the label's top acts were struggling to regain their footing, including lineup shifts in The Supremes (Florence Ballard departed amid disagreements over top billing) and The Temptations (David Ruffin was fired after missing several engagements, leading to yet more protracted legal battles). And both Motown and the city of Detroit were still suffering from the lingering wounds of the 1967 Detroit riot, when over 40 individuals were killed and more than 2,000 structures destroyed.

Even Berry Gordy knew that he couldn't hide some of these outside realities from the record-buying public, and so the famously conservative label boss gave the green light to a handful of controversial topical singles, from Diana Ross and the Supremes' single-mother anthem "Love Child" to Smokey Robinson's heartfelt tribute to his shattered city, "I Care About Detroit."

"Love Child" was a big hit, but "I Care About Detroit" went nowhere. And so here, we focus on several dozen other 1968 Motown tracks that went nowhere, from Marvin Gaye's rare, gospel-tinged "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas offering their own topical protest song of sorts, "I Can't Dance to That Music You're Playin'," and The Temptations' take on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the latter track evidence of how Gordy made a habit out of trying the same song with different ensembles until things clicked. Plus, hard rock boogie from local guy Mitch Rider's Detroit Wheels, a bit of Afro-spiritualism from a mysterious artist named simply Abdullah, and Stevie Wonder's instrumental rendition of movie soundtrack hit "Alfie," here credited to Eivets Rednow.

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