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To be a pilgrim

Diving deep into ‘Don’t Forget The Motor City’

 

In music, what separates the casual fan from the pilgrim? A discography.

      The former needs only to hear the music. For the latter, a discography is a duty, an article of faith, a tablet from the mountain top.

      To locate and compile record-release information during Motown’s dawning days was difficult for young pilgrims. In Britain, there were a few R&B fanzines, including Dave Godin’s Hitsville U.S.A. and Clive Richardson’s Shout. In France, there followed the sterling discographical work of the late Kurt Mohr.

      From America, a primary source was the trade press: Billboard and Cash Box, for instance. These were sacred texts, offering the catalogue numbers of 45s and LPs, as well as record reviews, all manners of charts, and business news. But such publications were tough to access in the U.K. in the early ’60s outside professional circles, and to subscribe…well, that was beyond the means of most Motown followers.

      The availability and calibre of Hitsville data has much improved since then. Today, the most detailed, compelling source of such information is online: Don’t Forget The Motor City, the website created in Britain by Keith Hughes and Ritchie Hardin in 2003. Billed as “the ultimate guide to Motown (and related) recordings 1956-1972,” the site has virtues which are evident at the click of a mouse.

      The content is primarily categorised by song title and artist’s name. The A-Z title listings identify each of a song’s writers; when it was first published; the Motown artists who recorded it, where and when; the name of the producer(s) and, where possible, the arranger(s); and release dates, from a track’s first availability and format (45, LP) to reissues on CD and, where applicable, legitimate MP3.

      The site’s artist category is an A-Z of all those with Motown releases during the 1956-72 timeline, so that a click on the name of, say, the Velvelettes will list all of the group’s released recordings (a total of 45, in their case). A click on each song title takes the user to the details shown under the title category.

      Don’t Forget The Motor City has recently undergone content revision, and Keith Hughes says this has increased the depth and quality of data about songs, in particular. “Professor Andy Flory, whose Motown book is about to be published, researched the Library of Congress song publishing archive for his work, and shared his findings with us. Where there’s a record of a Motown-owned song at the Library, we now show the date when the song was registered [there].”

      Also, Keith notes, dedicated Motown/Supremes fan John Rothenberg read every page of the site’s titles section, and offered a huge number of additions and corrections. “And, of course, the latest releases, up to The Supremes A’ Go-Go expanded edition, are all included.”

      This resource began in 1994, when Keith – a Motown fan for 30 years by that point – created it as a book. “The ‘master’ was printed from my computer and copies were made by a local print firm,” he says. With support from Motown devotee Mick Wilding, the news spread, and Keith sold copies for £15 each. The goal then was to produce a list of all Motown and Berry Gordy-related recordings made up to the end of 1972 that had ever been released.

Paperwork from the Motown archives

Paperwork from the Motown archives

      This was an ambition shared by others. In North America, David Bianco’s Heat Wave: The Motown Fact Book (Pierian Press, 1988) and Reginald J. Bartlette’s Off The Record: Motown By Master Number 1959-1989 (Popular Culture Ink, 1991) were physical volumes of comparable depth and purpose. Both contained invaluable data. In Bartlette’s case, that included, for example, matrix numbers. In Bianco’s book, there were U.S. and U.K. discographies which stretched beyond Motown Records’ output in Detroit. The late Don Waller’s The Motown Story (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985) contained an essential discography when it was published. Naturally, Motown pilgrims must own these volumes, too.

      For his part, Keith Hughes is quick to credit Hitsville aficionado Roger Green for encouragement and information. “A soul fanzine called Black Sounds published a letter from Roger asking for help in compiling a discography of Motown 45s. I replied, telling him what I knew, and asking him to fill my gaps in return. He published his discography in 1985.” Roger introduced Keith to many Motown collectors, enabling the project to advance even further.

      (Roger’s role is no surprise. He and I became acquainted during my time at the Clifton Record Shop in Bristol, operating its specialist Motown service, and his Hitsville ardour became obvious. Roger succeeded me at the shop, and among other achievements, upgraded our customer newsletter, Groove.)

      Ritchie Hardin is another longtime Motown fan. His skill and experience as a website designer and host helped Keith, a career computer-programmer himself, to bring Don’t Forget The Motor City into the digital domain. “Ritchie told me that if I supplied him with the DFTMC content, he could and would publish it.” At first, the site’s content came from the few published sources of Motown data, and record collections. “These, and hence DTFMC, contained a legion of ‘Motown myths,’ many of which took years to bust,” says Keith.

      The most significant advance came when a paper copy of Don’t Forget The Motor City reached Harry Weinger, a vice president at Universal Music’s recorded-music catalogue division in the U.S. Weinger has since earned the reputation as “keeper of the flame” as far as the Motown legacy is concerned – notably, for producing a number of Lost & Found packages, The Complete Motown Singles CD series, and definitive boxed sets such as the Temptations' Emperors of Soul and the Four Tops' Fourever.

Behind every great record: file documentation

Behind every great record: file documentation

      For the daunting workload of The Complete Motown Singles, Harry enlisted Keith's help and knowledge. As co-producer of the 14-volume project, the Briton had access to all the available surviving Motown paperwork, to ensure the best-possible accuracy in compiling and chronicling the series. “Moreover," notes Keith, "Harry agreed to allow me to use the information as the basis of the newly-emerging DFTMC website.”

      In the course of his work both for Universal Music and the site, Keith encountered surprises and contradictions. “The ones that stick in the mind are the LPs and 45s that had appeared in published Motown discographies for which there was no paper evidence, and usually no tape source – such as ‘Disintegrated’ by the All Stars.” He continues, “As a Miracles fan, my biggest surprise was that ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ was issued as a B side of ‘Happy Landing,’ and that it was disc jockeys who decided which side as going to get the play. Don’t let anyone tell you that Berry Gordy was an infallible hit picker!”

      Don’t Forget The Motor City attracts scores of e-mails about the site, many of them containing corrections and additions. The daily average of unique visits is 33, according to Keith Hughes, and the total during the last 12 months was almost 12,000. “The purpose of the site is to document the original Motown paperwork in an accessible way,” he reiterates, “for the benefit of music historians, and that’s why I feel a kind of obligation to maintain it. But I’m very happy that it serves fans and record collectors as well.”

      Back in those dawning days, it was impossible for Motown fans and collectors to imagine a time when this information, these articles of faith, would be available as they are today, online. (The notion of a popular music historian would have seemed unlikely then, too.) Another iteration of the Hitsville data is sure to materialise in the future, perhaps coupled with the music which inspired everything in the first place. Whatever happens, pilgrims will never forget the Motor City.

Adam White5 Comments