Friday, January 23, 2009

Late on the "Motown 50" Thing

Gladys Knight & The Pips - The End of Our Road

I suppose I really shouldn't have the ambivalence I feel about Motown. The contributions of the label to the fabric of American music are legion, and the material released on the Motown, Tamla, Gordy, Soul and other labels is very good and, as the Complete Motown Singles series of boxed sets has demonstrated, more diverse than the standard "oldies" radio station would lead one to believe. I suppose it's a battle any anorak faces: how do you dive deep into the rare and obscure yet embrace the "common" stuff?

That philosophical issue will have to be resolved another day. I have been remiss in not joining the celebration of Motown Records' 50th anniversary, and so today I'll feature something that sort of bridges both sides of the problem. By 1968, Gladys Knight and the Pips had been with Motown awhile, and they had scored a major hit on the Soul label with their version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which topped the Billboard R&B charts for six weeks. (Marvin's version would come later in the year and would be a sit at #1 even longer on its route to music immortality. Truth be told, I like Gladys and the Pips' version better.) "The End of Our Road" clearly went back to the "Grapevine" well in its feel, but to me the tune represents what I like best about a lot of Motown stuff: the groove is hot, full of that funky drumming and churchy tambourine; Gladys' vocals are full of gospel fire, and the Pips provide their usual top-notch backings. You can't just sit still with it, as was the case of a lot of uptempo Motown stuff, and I'm comfy with it being my "Motown 50" post, despite my Motown conundrum.

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