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Can't Forget The Motor City: Our Favorite Motown Jams

Can't Forget The Motor City: Our Favorite Motown Jams

She Said has always been a fan of Stax Records, the gritty Southern label started by a white brother-sister team in a movie theater in Memphis. Something about Stax' organic sound and integrated musical influences (this is the same city that gave us Sun Records) had always felt so raw and real. Motown, on the other hand, always seemed so cleverly manipulated to appeal to white audiences, contrived almost, and lacking the magnetism and je ne sais quoi that artists like Booker T. and the MGs and Arthur Conley had down in Memphis.

Of particular ire to She Said was the prissy, precious, frail-looking Diana Ross, who was famously made to attend etiquette school by Barry Gordy. (All the Motown artists, most of whom came from the ghetto, were groomed and choreographed to better appeal to white audiences.) Choreography is one thing - one awesome thing, as She Said will get to in a moment - but just look at Ross' overwrought facial expressions in this video. It's too fake! However, in 2008, while on a European Vacation, She Said visited the Victoria & Albert Museum, dedicated to the decorative arts and design, in London. The purpose of the visit was to view the V&A's extensive collection of Midcentury housewares and clothing, but the museum was featuring a special exhibit of personal items of Mary Wilson, including nearly her entire wardrobe during her affiliation with The Supremes. It was fascinating. To stand there and see video of the girls performing, and then to see the actual dresses they performed in right next to me; to see pictures of the girls in Detroit before they became internationally famous. All the while, The Supremes' hits blasted from a speaker system. The whole experience gave She Said a newfound love for the contrived band she used to shun. After all, how can you not get caught up in the catchiness of "Where Did Our Love Go"? The thing about Motown is that the system worked. In the years that Stax was declaring bankruptcy, Motown was grooming perhaps its biggest star of all time, the youngest brother of the Jackson 5. So, on the anniversary of the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special She Said looks back at some of her favorite songs from Motor City. The Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg:" Here comes the choreography. This remains not just one of She Said's favorite Motown songs, but also one of her favorite songs of all time. Like "This Magic Moment," there's something to be said for a song that endure cover after cover. Here's The Stones doing their version in 1974. The Four Tops, "Baby I Need Your Lovin': Anyone who knows She Said in real life knows about her undying love for Johnny Rivers, in part thanks to his amazing cover of this Four Tops song. Rivers would also cover another Motown song, The Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears." This has to be one of the most quietly wistful songs ever written. The backing vocals are particularly haunting, like a Greek chorus.  

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, "Going to a Go Go": She Said attended SXSW as a badge-less plebeian, so she wasn't able to get into the Black Joe Lewis/Raphael Saadiq/Smokey Robinson show, which is probably a good thing because she may have melted into the ground like a Rocket Pop in the Houston summer from all the heartthrobbiness on that stage. Good grief. Have you ever seen that Sinbad bit where he jokes about the women yelling SMOooo-KAY! during Motown performances? That would have been She Said. Stevie Wonder, "Uptight": Supposedly an answer song to The Stones' "Satisfaction" - they have similar backbeats - She Said loves this song because it's a got a great beat and you can dance to it. Also, nothing is more adorable than that young Stevie Wonder. Gladys Knight & The Pips, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine": When it comes to Gladys Knight, it was hard to choose between this song and her hit "Midnight Train to Georgia," but the truth is that The Pips' version of this song beats out both Marvin Gaye's and Creedence Clearwater Revival's, and that this particular sped-up version from 1972 is absolutely the best version of all, especially the part around 3:38 where they start to break it down.

The Temptations, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone": By the 1970s, Motown's bands were branching off into music a bit darker than the soul-pop that first made the label famous. Compare the theme of The Supremes' song linked above with the that of the Temptations' tragic ode to the wandering man. Now compare the way the music sounds. Not to mention The Temptations' collective vocal range and the fact that brass makes all music better. Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me": You know you thought this was Michael Jackson. It was actually Berry Gordy's son, who changed his name to try to make it in the music biz without his father's help. But it's an easy mistake to make - MJ sings backing vocals. Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean": Say what you will about MJ in his later years. She Said wasn't exactly a fan either. But it's difficult to debate the effect Jackson had on popular culture when he caused multiple generations of fans to fall in love with him. She Said's mother recalls thinking he was cute as the youngest brother in the Jackson 5, and in the mid-80s he represented the apex of cool to a young She Said. Incidentally, it was during the Motown 25 special when Michael Jackson first did the Moonwalk in front of an audience (check the 3:45 mark -- you'll know it when you hear the crowd go crazy).


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