Posted tagged ‘Motown’

That Time I Sang At Motown

October 12, 2016

Ray at MotownIn March of 2011, I had the good fortune of being taken to the Motown Museum by two friends and loyal Musers J.L. and J.C. No photographs were allowed inside the museum but the photo of me standing outside is relevant to the story.

Eventually we got to the garage that was converted into the legendary recording studio – the hallowed ground trod by, well, everybody. Stevie. Marvin. The Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Four Tops. My imagination racing, I could barely construct a coherent thought on the one hand and constrain myself from behaving like a 5-year old at Christmas on the other.

The docent snapped me out of my mania by asking me to take off my overcoat. That seemed like an odd request especially since he didn’t ask anybody else in our tour group to do so. He asked me to turn around and hang it on the hook on the wall behind me. He then directed me to stand directly underneath one of three mics hanging from the ceiling. Again, that seemed odd but I complied since I could still barely think straight and needed help managing basic motor skills.

The docent then asked me to sing. At that moment, in that place, only one song could come out of my mouth. “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day.” I totally nailed it, of course.[1] “And when it’s cold outside” – he stopped me and told me to turn around and look at a picture behind me.


There was David Ruffin, the lead singer on My Girl, under THAT mic. And behind him on THAT hook on THAT wall was a black overcoat exactly like mine! I STOOD IN THE SAME SPOT AS DAVID RUFFIN! I SANG INTO THE SAME MIC AS DAVID RUFFIN! WITH MY COAT LIKE DAVID RUFFIN’S HANGING IN THE SAME SPOT AS DAVID RUFFIN’S!

J.L. and J.C. will verify that I gasped and my knees literally buckled.

Best musical moment ever.

And that’s my story of singing at Motown.

P.S. One of the things I miss about Idol is picking what songs the Idolists should sing on Motown night. And a peak Idol memory is of Adam Lambert getting a standing ovation from Smokey Robinson for singing Tracks of My Tears, thankfully preserved on YouTube.


[1] And in my still semi-hallucinatory state, I was waiting for Berry Gordy to come out of the booth and sign me to a record deal on the spot.



A Cure for the Summertime Blues

August 20, 2015

Surely Eddie Cochran had August on his mind when he released his classic Summertime Blues during this lazy, hazy month in 1957. And while he sang that “there ain’t no cure” for this insidious disease, your friendly neighborhood Muser has some potent, fast-acting – and legal – medication: an epic Motown playlist that is sure to put mo’ glide to yo’ stride, mo’ pep in yo’ step and mo’ rock in yer roll.

These songs have a common legacy: they are all Grammy Hall of Fame recordings by virtue of their “qualitative or historical significance.” This is the complete list of songs recorded by Motown to have been awarded this distinction – 66 minutes of sonic joy and emotional bliss.

  • Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
  • Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
  • For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder
  • I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
  • I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
  • Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye
  • My Girl – The Temptations
  • My Guy – Mary Wells
  • Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations
  • Reach Out, I’ll Be There – The Four Tops
  • Shotgun – Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
  • Shop Around – The Miracles
  • Stop! In the Name of Love – The Supremes
  • Superstition – Stevie Wonder
  • The Tracks of My Tears – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  • The Tears of a Clown – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  • War – Edwin Starr
  • Where Did Our Love Go – The Supremes
  • You Are The Sunshine of My Life – Stevie Wonder
  • You Keep Me Hangin’ On – The Supremes
  • You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Miracles

Directions: Take as needed, the more often the better. Playing the list on Shuffle is highly recommended as this enhances the medication’s effectiveness. Operate moving vehicles only with the windows fully open or convertible top down. Side effects are recalling fond memories and irresistible urges to sing along.

The Musings of Scott Borchetta

April 21, 2015

In 1964, a fledgling company called Motown Records was at the crossroads. It’s leading artist Mary Wells went to another label in search of greener pastures (which turned out to be rather brown). In addition, there was pressure to fulfill the potential of a group Motown had been, to this point, futilely priming[1] for success – The Supremes.

In addition to pushing The Supremes to fill the revenue gap caused by the loss of Mary Wells, the decision makers faced another crucial decision. Who was going to sing the lead on their make-or-break single Where Did Our Love Go?, Mary Wilson or Diana Ross? There were advocates for each but in the end, Diana Ross was chosen. Mary Wells faded into history while Motown and The Supremes would go onto making new history of their own.

Why was the nasal, thin-voiced Ross picked over the more sweet-sounding Wilson? “[Diana] has a very unique sound – once you heard her you know it’s her, you see,” said the song’s co-writer Eddie Holland who actually preferred Wilson. “She doesn’t sound like any of the other singers. That’s one of the key things. Her ability is to have her own sound . . . a distinct sound that’s separated from other singers’ sounds.”[2]

There lies the natural tension faced by every music label. On the one hand, you have to sell the sound of what people are buying today. On the other hand, you have to figure out what’s going to be different from today that people are going to buy tomorrow.

That tension was reflected in two interesting comments Idol mentor Scott Borchetta made last week. In response to Woodbridge, VA’s own Joey Cook’s comment that Idol “dipped into the weird pool,” in allowing her to compete this year, Scott said, That’s where the next great artist will be. It’s always been that way.” And to My Girl Jax he said, “The greatest artists in the world are polarizing.”

These two comments show Borchetta living with the tension of being in the business, and by the business, I mean the industry, as you know. For all the considerable money he grosses from making Taylor Swift’s records today, Borchetta clearly understands that he needs to figure out where tomorrow’s revenues will come from. And tomorrow’s business will likely come from an artist who is perceived as being different by today’s standards.

With his label on the line to make a record for the Idol winner, I think Borchetta is quite happy that this season of Idol has been quite different (and to me very enjoyable) from the past. With three black males in the final eight, no country singer making the top ten, the biggest and best voice going home early (Sarina-Joi Crowe) and three highly stylized performers (My Girl Jax, My Boy Quentin, and Joey) in the final seven, Season XIV has broken away from the usual template. It’s very fascinating and exciting to me that Jax and Quentin with their sounds unlike other singers, i.e. what Eddie Holland found so compelling about Diana Ross, are still around, while Sarina-Joi who would have normally been a contender for the recording contract was sent home early.

Whether it’s one of the “oddballs” (Jax, Quentin) or one of the “traditionals” (Clark, Nick, Tyanna and Rayvon) that win remains to be seen. One thing that’s clear is that Idol voters have responded to this season in non-traditional ways. With an eye on what’s going to have to be different about the business than it is today – both his business and the Idol business – I think that Scott Borchetta has exerted considerable influence on the Evil Genius Producers to champion uniqueness even when it’s polarizing. While looking for an Idolist to follow in the footsteps of Kelly and Carrie, I don’t think he is looking for the next Kelly or Carrie. Ultimately, of course, the voters will have the final say.

And if Eddie Holland had his way and Mary Wilson sang Where Did Our Love Go?, would there even had been Motown weeks on Idol?


[1] Clever reference to this group’s original name, The Primettes, which was associated with another group who called themselves The Primes. That group later changed their names to The Temptations.

[2] Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound

Motown Week and I Pick the Songs

March 23, 2013

Ray at MotownRyan said this week’s Idol theme is Songs of the Motor City, boys and girls, and I am having fond memories of standing in the Motown studio and singing the opening words to My Girl[1]. Since none of the Idolists are likely to sound as good as me, that song should be banned this week out of respect.

There are two key questions that this week’s theme raises:

  • Which Idolists have never heard of any Motown songs other than ones by the Jackson Five or Boyz II Men?
  • Who will feel compelled to sing Endless Love this week?

Once again, I will turn my Clive Davis-like skills towards finding songs that will propel the Idolists higher on this season’s very competitive leaderboard. And like last week, I will try to recommend songs that take them out of Ballad Land, even though I know I can count on somebody ignoring me to sing Three Times A Lady.[2]

My Girl Amber – I’d really like to hear her sing The Supremes Up the Ladder to the Roof (I can hear it and trust me, she looks and sounds fantastic!) but she needs a crowd pleaser so let’s go with the Jackson Five – and Mariah cover[3]I’ll Be There.

Angie – If she’s a rock singer like Randy thinks, then she’s an 80’s pop/rock singer. So I’ve got her doing Kim Wilde’s 1986 pulsating version of The Supremes You Keep Me Hangin’ On. My alternate choice is the Phil Collins version of The Four Tops Standing In the Shadows of Love.

Brunell – Brunell is one of the people who could actually do Stevie Wonder pretty well so I’m picking the super funky Signed, Sealed, Delivered or the fun and playful Part-Time Lover. But if he hadn’t done so many ballads already, I would pay cash money to hear him sing Stevie Wonder’s tenderly exquisite You and I.[4]

My Girl Candice – Frankly, she can sing anything she wants. But we all want her to blow the doors off Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way. I’m already dancing and have my gospel hands waving just thinking about it. Alternatively, she could open up the Gladys Knight and the Pips catalog: their rollicking version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine; the insistent If I Were Your Woman; or the classic Midnight Train to Georgia. But I’m praying for Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Devin – Despite Devin thinking he’s a Brian McKnight-type R&B singer[5], I had a hard time hearing Motown songs for him outside of Ballad Land. Maybe the Jackson 5’s Never Can Say Goodbye. Maybe The Four Tops Walk Away Renee. Maybe Smokey Robinson’s I Second That Emotion. Maybe he gets voted off this week so it doesn’t really matter.

Janelle – Lionel Ritchie’s Stuck on You and the Commodores Sail On are positively country. But I also think she can throw some rockabilly swag[6] at the song that started it all for Motown, Barrett Strong’s Money.

Kree – I would love to hear her sweet tone show some emotion (finally?) on Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted. And even though it’s a ballad, I would be OK if she sang Lionel Ritchie’s wistful Hello. But wouldn’t it be fun to hear her sing the Jackson 5’s bluesy Who’s Loving You?

Lazaro – What the heck. Let him sing Endless Love or Three Times A Lady.

Paul – Yes, he’s gone but admit it – you know you would pay money to see him sing Johnny Gill’s randy Rub Me The Right Way. You know you’d laugh like it was a Saturday Night Live parody. And it’s OK because he’d probably be laughing at himself, too.

Once again, all of these songs are on Spotify and samples are on iTunes if you want to check them out. And look for live tweets during the show at

P.S. Truly one of the great moments of my life was visiting the Motown Museum and standing in Studio A, where the classic Motown sound was created. There was that moment – the tour guide told me to hang up my black overcoat; directed me to stand in a specific spot on the floor; and to sing into the mic above me (I sang the above-mentioned, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.”). Then he told me to turn around and look at the picture behind me. My knees immediately buckled. It was a picture of David Ruffin (only one of my favorite singers ever) singing into that mic in that spot with his black overcoat hanging in the exact same spot as mine was. Rapture.

But that spectacular moment was only slightly better than my friends telling me that they wished I could be their tour guide rather than the Motown staffer. Jenny and Julie, how do I say thank you for such an amazing treat?[7]


[1] I’m referring to the song My Girl and not any one of the countless My Girls. I know it can be confusing.

[2] Are you listening to me, Brunell?

[3] A risky but strategically smart move as a breakout performance on that would get the voters’ attention.

[4] From the 1972 album Talking Book, one of my all-time favorite records.

[5] I want to like Devin but that’s as laughable as Paul Jolley wanting to be a male Taylor Swift. I wanted to play in the NBA. Case closed.

[6] Rockabillies can swag, can’t they? Or is that just an urban thing?

[7] Imagine how much more thankful I’ll be when you arrange it so I can come to Detroit and see an NBA game. 🙂