Last week at the Rock Hall the buzz was all about Hitsville USA. On Wednesday the Education Department featured a Rock and Roll Night School program on Motown, and on Friday we welcomed Inductee Dennis Edwards of the Temptations for an afternoon Hall of Fame Series event. And don’t forget that this week is your final chance to see the excellent exhibit MOTOWN: The Sound of Young America Turns 50.
This month’s Rock and Roll Night School, our second on the music of Motown, focused on the years 1964 to 1967, when the label was hitting its stride, cranking out hit after hit, and going head to head with the sounds of the British invasion. Several factors lead to Motown’s success during this period. One was Berry Gordy’s vision and business smarts. By owning the recording, publishing, marketing, distribution, and management he was able to connect every part of the music business and control the sound and image that became the Motown brand. Another key development was connecting a team of songwriters to a specific musical group. In the case of Holland-Dozier-Holland this meant teaming with the Supremes and the Four Tops, and the result was pure gold. For the Supremes it yielded a string of number one hits including “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Baby Love,” and for the Four Tops it was hits like, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “Bernadette.” These songs worked as one long chorus, with the hooks obvious and upfront, and all held together by the driving rhythms of the Funk Brothers – and James Jamerson’s bass in particular.
During my interview with Dennis Edwards on Friday we talked about another one of these classic Motown pairings. When Edwards was in the Temptations, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong began writing what would become known as psychedelic soul songs for the group. Songs such as “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” all featured the group’s members trading lead roles over thick harmonies and a funky rhythm track that was based on the newer sounds of the funk based Sly and the Family Stone. Edwards also told the audience how he got started with Motown. He had been signed to the label payroll for some time as a backup, waiting for his big break. It finally came when David Ruffin left the Temptations in 1968 and Edwards was recruited to be the new lead singer. The first few months were a whirlwind, performing at the Copacabana nightclub in NYC, recording at the famous Motown Studio A in Detroit, and appearing in an NBC television show in Los Angeles with the Supremes. The afternoon ended as Dennis talked about his excellent 1984 solo album Don’t Look Any Further, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his current performing group the Temptations Review.