Classic Album Review: Various Artists – Motown Chartbusters

Greetings pop pickers! This evening’s planned exploration of Scandinavian Death Metal has been unexpectedly postponed. This unfortunate occurrence is due to the recent and thoroughly welcome announcement of some rather splendidly splendid glad tidings – The Return Of The Maestro! Oh yes indeedy – Phil The Test Manager will make his much anticipated return next week to pick up the baton and reclaim his rightful Friday night throne. So this evening, if you’ll pardon the expression, is my final opportunity to fill his slot. Not ‘arf!

Now I’m fully aware that many of you were looking forward with great anticipation to my in-depth analysis of Putrid Liquid’s “Rectal Prolapse” and many other milestone albums of the universally popular Death Metal genre. However, in the spirit of celebration I’m afraid you will have to contain your disappointment as we switch mood and take a look at a classic album series more suited to the festive tone of the evening. Accordingly, tonight’s classic album series is the most successful single-genre album series of all time, the most successful single-label series of all time and, until the arrival of “Now That’s What I Call Music”, the most successful popular music compilation series of all time – Mowtown Chartbusters!

Stevie Wonder – For Once In My Life

This wonderful album series was released by the American record label, Motown Records. The label was founded in 1957 (initially as Tamla Records) by Berry Gordy Jr. The label’s subsequent switch to the name Motown (a portmanteau of motor and town) was inspired by the label’s original location in Detroit and that city’s status as the automotive capital of the USA. The label became so synonymous with the city that eventually the word Motown became the nickname for Detroit.

I Want You Back – The Jackson 5

Mowtown Records, along with Stax Records (a label  based in Memphis, Tennessee) would grow to utterly dominate the Soul and R&B market in the US, and maintained that dominance throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s.

The Supremes – You Can’t Hurry Love

However, enormous chart success was not the only thing these record labels had in common, as both organisations also produced a legendary house band that defined the distinctive sound of their label and the genres they dominated. Stax Records of course had the relatively high-profile Booker T. & The M.G.s, whereas Motown had the less well known, but equally influential Funk Brothers (which incidentally included two of the finest bass players in the business: the incredibly melodic Bob Babbitt and the legendary James Jamerson).

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – Dancing in the Streets

The first volume of the chartbuster series was issued in 1967 as UK-only release. The albums were actually first released in the UK on the EMI label under licence from Motown, and in total 12 volumes were released between ’67 and ’82.

Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke

The Chartbusters series focused on compiling the various Motown singles that had already been successful in the UK. However, the albums also included a number of recordings that had never been hits in Britain, and some that had not previously been released in the UK at all. Additionally, a significant number of UK hit singles were excluded from the series.

Four Tops – Reach Out (I’ll Be There)

Right from the outset, the series proved to be a great success. The first nine albums all charted in the UK top twenty, they significantly raised the profile of a number of Motown artists, and they encouraged the label to successfully release similar compilation series in other markets – including, most notably, the U.S. and Australia.

Unfortunately, after the success of the first nine volumes, the rest of the series failed to chart, leading to the eventual cancellation of the project in 1982. The decline in the series reflected a general decline in the fortunes of Motown Records, which is generally accepted to have begun when the label moved its base from Detroit to Los Angeles and parted company with the hugely successful song writing and production team of Holland, Holland & Dozier.

The Temptations Papa Was A Rolling Stone

However, the success of the series has left a substantial legacy. The albums have been successfully re-packaged and re-released over the years, and the original albums are now all highly collectable, with first pressings of early volumes in good condition fetching considerable sums.

To wrap things up, here’s a classic track from what is, by far, my favourite Mowtown album of the 1960s: Marvin Gaye’s utterly magnificent “What’s Going On”.

Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

And here’s a whopping great slab of the original Chartbusters series to provide the soundtrack to your Friday evening.


Featured image: Arnielee at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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