Motown’s identity is understandably linked to the ’60s because so much of the historic label’s output mirrors events from that decade. Its exuberant explosion at the decade’s outset echoed the optimism of the baby-boomer generation, and its commercial breakthrough mid-decade paralleled the advances of the civil rights movement. Of course, much of the Motown-as-metaphor idea is a construct. After all, the infamous "Quality Control" meetings ultimately dictated what got boosted, not the latest headlines. But although Berry Gordy’s fixation on pop ascendancy (and California dreams) ultimately fractured the label by the close of the decade, the end of Motown’s epic first chapter closely resembles the downward spiral of the late ’60s.
Much of this upheaval can be heard in the latest edition of Hip-O Select’s The Complete Motown Singles. This comprehensive series, which chronologically documents every single released by the label year-by-year in a limited-edition boxed set, finally arrives at Hitsville’s most kaleidoscopic year: 1968. The departure of principal songwriters and producers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier the prior year over a royalties dispute forced the label to scramble for a new source of hits. Subsequently, the 144 tracks documented here include a broad range of releases.
On one end are the near aberrations of R. Dean Taylor’s loopy "Gotta See Jane" and the Detroit Wheels’ (formerly of Mitch Ryder fame) un-nuanced, drug rock-fest "Linda Sue Dixon." On the other end are the embarrassingly overt pop concessions of sexed-up starlet Barbara McNair, a sorely out-of-place Billy Eckstine and Eivets Rednow’s (get it?) lounge-y instrumental take of "Alfie." Although much of this material is true to the period, it is also aged and derivative — signs of a label struggling to keep up instead of establishing the pace.
However, in spite of the turmoil both behind and beyond Hitsville’s doors, Motown also used the opportunity to broaden its songwriting stable and reinvent its foundation. With a combination of experienced songwriters waiting in the wings, such as Norman Whitfield ("I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "Cloud 9"), Henry Cosby ("Once in My Life") and Frank Wilson ("Chained," "I’m Gonna Make You Love Me"), and cherub freshmen, particularly Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson ("Ain’t No Mountain High Enough") and Pamela Sawyer ("Love Child"), Motown’s hits that year broadened the aural and lyrical potential of popular soul music. That five of these singles were included in the Pop Top 10 at year’s end also certified that Motown still represented the Sound of Young America.