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by Jason Gubbels

February 14, 2014

Motown Nuggets, Vol. 7: 1971

by Jason Gubbels  |  February 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.

With Berry Gordy now spending almost as much time inking television deals in Hollywood as overseeing quality control for his record label, Motown in 1971 was suffering from a little bit of a personality crisis. On one hand, Marvin Gaye delivered What's Going On, a highly personal conceptual album examining the evils of contemporary society (institutional racism, ecological disaster) and their resultant psychological despair -- one of the first albums in the label's history driven more by the individual artist's vision than as a collection of potential singles (although several tracks did become huge chart successes).

On the other hand, Motown nearly doubled its singles output in 1971, and it's safe to say that a massive rise in music quality wasn't the reason. Sure, Marvin Gaye wasn't the only label artist to have a good year: The Jackson 5 continued their domination (and Michael scored his first few hits as a solo artist), while old favorites The Temptations delivered a brand-new classic in "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)." But much of the year was given over to schmaltzy indulgences that the old Berry Gordy might never have stooped to: Sammy Davis, Jr.'s supper-club pap, Bobby Darin tackling some soul numbers, white boogie bands, string and horn ensembles churning through instrumental versions of recent hits, and even the debut single from Meat Loaf (in the form of a male/female duet record credited to Stoney & Meat Loaf -- suffice to say, they weren't Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell).

We've spared you most of these 1971 low points. But here's the twist: Given the increased production levels for the year, there were almost more hidden goodies and unjustly ignored album cuts than we had room for. Smokey Robinson delivers a psychedelic/garage rock ode to a "Flower Girl," Valerie Simpson (in pre-Ashford & Simpson days) detonates some sanctified soul on "Can't It Wait Until Tomorrow," Arthur Adams wiggles around on the infectious, forgotten B-side "Mornin' Train," and Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin deliver extended soul-pop tracks suggesting Marvin Gaye wasn't the only Motown performer stretching the limits of Gordy's show-biz machine. And, OK, we did sneak one little bit of schmaltz into the mix: Detroit Symphony Orchestra concertmaster and Motown string conductor Gordon Staples adding a little wah-wah on "Get Down."

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