West Grand Blog


The Summer of '68



The weight of expectations…

      During the last week of August, a mere fifty years ago, Motown unveiled a dozen new long-players at once. It was the company’s second-largest such album release, featuring titles by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (solo and with Tammi Terrell), Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, Edwin Starr, and the Marvelettes, among others. Plus two – yes, two – albums by its flagship act, Diana Ross & the Supremes.

      Could all this music change what was proving, for Motown, to be a difficult year?

      How difficult? Well, the first seven months included the shock of the Supremes’ second – yes, second – consecutive failure to reach the Top 20 of the Billboard pop charts. (“Some Things You Never Get Used To” ignominiously fell short in July, just as “Forever Came Today” had done in April.) Then there was the acrimonious departure of Holland/Dozier/Holland, and the equally bitter ejection of David Ruffin from the Temptations.


      Since March, the firm’s employees had been settling into their new (but not newly built) HQ on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, downtown. Yet not all were happy with the transfer and the apparent loss of the Hitsville family atmosphere. “West Grand was like home, that’s where it began,” Jeana Jackson, one of Berry Gordy’s former secretaries, told me several years ago. “I never knew why we moved. It just wasn’t the same.”

      In the world outside, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had severely disturbed America’s racial climate. The politics of an election year were further up-ended by the killing of Robert Kennedy, as the Vietnam War continued to politicise and divide the country. Detroit, among other cities, was still feeling the effects of the previous summer’s riots.

      Still, people continued to go about their lives and their work. At the Motown Center, the mood was helped by the continuing success of Marvin and Tammi, whose “You’re All I Need To Get By” was on its way in August to becoming their fourth consecutive Top 10 hit. Moreover, record buyers had ruled in July that Shorty Long should have his first Top 10 pop success with “Here Comes The Judge.” The five-foot-one soul man also impressed reviewers at the trade press. “Not yet one of Motown’s brightest stars,” declared Cash Box about his appearance (with Diana Ross & the Supremes and Stevie Wonder) on August 3 at New York’s Forest Hills Music Festival, “Shorty is heading in that direction and should be there soon.”


      Here Comes The Judge was among the August hopefuls. It was Long’s first album, branded under the Soul label; it drew together such earlier singles as “Devil With The Blue Dress,” “Function At The Junction” and “Night Fo’ Last,” while opening with the title track. That was written by Quality Control queen Billie Jean Brown, Motown ingénue Suzanne de Passe, and Long. Moreover, Shorty produced five tracks himself, unusual for an artist at Hitsville then. Another song, “Here Comes Fat Albert,” was co-written by Charles Hatcher, a/k/a Edwin Starr, who had his own Gordy label debut, Soul Master, among the August dozen. Logically, it included pre-Motown hits (“Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.),” “Agent Double-O-Soul”) by Starr, whose Ric-Tic Records contract Gordy had recently acquired.


      There was one more debut album in the summertime shipment: Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. This racially-mixed combo had impressed at the beginning of ’68 with a provocative R&B hit, “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” The LP featured material by assorted Jobete authors, and even a Tin Pan Alley standard, “Try A Little Tenderness.” The artwork declared the producer to be Berry Gordy Jr., although three tracks were the work of others.

      If the welcome mat was unboxed for the above three releases, the same was true for Sophisticated Soul, the eighth – yes, eighth – Tamla album by the Marvelettes. The line-up for the first Motown group to score a No. 1 pop hit was by now down from five to three – Wanda Rogers, Ann Bogan, Katherine Schaffner – but this was as progressive an LP as any in the August assembly.

      It was partly due to blue-chip songs and production by Smokey Robinson, including “My Baby Must Be A Magician,” “You’re The One For Me Bobby” and “You’re The One.” Equally important: Wanda’s magnetic vocals, leading on all but one of the twelve cuts. Also notable was a pair of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson copyrights, “Destination: Anywhere” and “Your Love Can Save Me.”


      The Marvelettes were, as noted, Motown’s first pop-chart rulers; its first R&B chart-toppers were the Miracles. Special Occasion was the latter group’s fourteenth album on the Tamla label, spiced with six Smokey songs, including their two R&B Top 10 hits of earlier in the year, “If You Can Want” and “Yester Love.” On the album’s release date, August 26, the Miracles played three shows at the annual Michigan State Fair, and three more on each of the following two days. Ten days earlier, Robinson had become a father for the first time – but the shows must go on.

      The same applied to the Four Tops, whose Yesterday’s Dreams was their August offering. They had received a rapturous reception at the Philadelphia Music Festival at the beginning of the month, followed by appearances on a couple of highly-rated network TV shows. For September, they were booked into the Ambassador Hotel’s prestigious Cocoanut Grove nightspot in Los Angeles.


      Yet in contrast to the group’s two previous hit albums, Reach Out and Greatest Hits, the alchemy of Holland/Dozier/Holland was mostly missing from Yesterday’s Dreams. On this, the Tops occupied the middle of pop’s road (“Daydream Believer,” “Sunny,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Never My Love”) and also crooned a Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer tune (“The Sweetheart Tree”). Motown footsoldiers such as Ivy Hunter, R. Dean Taylor and Frank Wilson were among the producers; the only H/D/H contribution was “I’m In A Different World,” the basic tracks of which “appear to have been their last for the company,” according to liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 8.

      Two titanic Tops tracks, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette,” were drafted onto A Collection Of 16 Original Big Hits Vol. 9. This was one of two compilation albums in the August batch, both featuring A-list stars, but the second was more unusual. In Loving Memory was a tribute to the late Loucye Wakefield, Berry Gordy’s sister, who had succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage in 1965. Married to Motown musician Ron Wakefield, she was, by Gordy’s account, “a real dynamo!” She joined the company early on, handling “everything from the pressing plants, shipping, billing and collections, to sales, graphics and liner notes for the album covers,” he wrote in his autobiography.


      In Loving Memory paid tribute to Wakefield with an extraordinary set of performances: gospel standards seldom sung – in public, anyway – by Marvin Gaye (“His Eye Is On The Sparrow”), Stevie Wonder (“Swing Low Sweet Chariot”), Diana Ross & the Supremes (“He”), Gladys Knight & the Pips (“How Great Thou Art,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”) and others. To this day, the material stands apart from much of what those artists recorded over the years.

      The Detroit funeral of Gordy’s sister took place on the morning of July 29, 1965. That night, the Supremes opened at the Copacabana. Had Wakefield lived, she would have been in New York. “As far as the girls were concerned, Loucye was at the front table, leading the applause and sharing with them, this great moment,” wrote journalist Al Dunmore and teacher Regina O’Neal in the liner notes of In Loving Memory.


      By 1968, the Supremes were the brightest stars in Motown’s galaxy, enjoying recognition and stature beyond record sales. That summer, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. With such a decision doubtless taken above them, the three women participated in a press conference with the politician in New York, speaking up for his support of civil rights, among other attributes. “If we expect to enjoy a full, free life,” Ross said, “we’ve got to participate in history in our own time.” (In November, Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon.)

      On August 26, Motown released Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” and ‘Live’ at London’s Talk of the Town. Both albums reflected the trio’s enthusiastic clasp of traditional showbiz: one, capturing a cabaret set stuffed with their own hits and Tin Pan Alley tunes, transplanted to the British capital; the other, embracing a Broadway box-office smash, complete with the involvement of its composer, Jule Styne.

      The Supremes’ London shows were recorded during January ’68, the subsequent album produced by Tony Palmer. (As a witness one evening, I can confirm the excitement and electricity in the room.) The track selection reflected the many medleys of the night; the liner notes reproduced positive press notices.

      The “Funny Girl” album selected ten of the hit musical’s tunes, recorded in June that year, with production in the hands of Berry Gordy and Motown arranger Gil Askey. “What Diana Ross does with ‘People,’ ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and the new title song, ‘Funny Girl’…is something else again,” wrote Styne on the (gatefold) album sleeve.


      Rounding out the Motown dozen were Marvin Gaye’s In The Groove and his second union with Tammi Terrell, You’re All I Need. The latter album was the equal of the pair’s first, and supercharged by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” – two of the finest duets in popular music, then and now. Those, and the charisma on, say, “You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’” and “Come On And See Me.” No wonder Marvin was wrecked by Tammi’s illness and eventual demise; this was the perfect partnership in song.  


      For its part, In The Groove was stuffed with a variety of tracks, supervised by a variety of producers: Ivy Hunter, Ashford & Simpson, Norman Whitfield, Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, Mickey Gentile, Frank Wilson and George Gordy. It included two commercially-disappointing 45s, “You” and “Chained,” an unconvincing “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” redeemed only by James Jamerson’s supernatural bass lines, and two – really, two Drifters covers. Fortunately, Gaye’s peerless voice held it all together, and soon the mystical “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” obscured everything else.

      Looking back, we now know that “Grapevine” was the only blockbuster to explode from the albums of August – all the more ironic, considering that it was shoehorned into In The Groove at the last minute, and only then because of Whitfield’s persistent lobbying and self-belief. None of the individual LPs generated impressive sales, nor significant chart stats beyond the R&B listings. Both Supremes releases ranked lower than anything of theirs since 1965. Even In The Groove couldn’t reach high on the Billboard Top LPs countdown. (There’s a full list of chart peaks below.)

      Fortunately, other forces were at work, including Norman Whitfield’s powerful reboot of the Temptations with “Cloud Nine” – with its heightened sense of social awareness – and Team Gordy’s resolve to regain a No. 1 single for Ross & the Supremes, yielding “Love Child.” Producer Hank Cosby correctly calculated that a well-thumbed Jobete copyright, “For Once In My Life,” could – with the right groove – be a huge hit for Stevie Wonder, and there was Gordy’s shrewd fusion of the Supremes and the Temptations on disc and on network television, bringing home “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and two chart-topping albums.


      By December, “The Sound of Young America” was fully refuelled and record-breaking. It had a lock on the Top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100 for four consecutive weeks that month, and owned half the Top 10 in the final chart of the year. “Motown Rocks Out Triple Play With Triple Header” declared a Billboard headline in the inimitable language of the trade press, adding that “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” – the stepchild of In The Groove – had passed two million in sales.

      While Marvin remained at No. 1 for the entire first month of 1969, Motown’s executive VP and general manager, Barney Ales, bestowed a beachside break in Puerto Rico upon his sales and promotion team, in appreciation of their efforts. That, and a $1,000 bonus (worth more than $6,500 today) for each of them. “At that point,” Ales told me, “Berry was very happy with everything that was going on.”

      The weight of expectations...


THE ALBUMS OF AUGUST (with Billboard chart peaks):

MARVIN GAYE & TAMMI TERRELL You’re All I Need (Tamla 284)  R&B: 4  Pop: 60

MARVIN GAYE In The Groove [retitled I Heard It Through The Grapevine 1/69] (Tamla 285)  R&B 2  Pop: 63

THE MARVELETTES Sophisticated Soul (Tamla 286)  R&B: 41  Pop: –

SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES Special Occasion (Tamla 290)  R&B: 1  Pop: 42

VARIOUS ARTISTS In Loving Memory (Motown 642)  R&B: –  Pop: –

VARIOUS ARTISTS A Collection Of 16 Original Big Hits Vol. 9 (Motown 668)  R&B: 46  Pop: 173

DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” (Motown 672)  R&B: 45  Pop: 150

DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES ‘Live’ at London’s Talk of the Town (Motown 676)  R&B: 22  Pop: 57

THE FOUR TOPS Yesterday’s Dreams (Motown 699)  R&B: 7  Pop: 91

BOBBY TAYLOR & THE VANCOUVERS Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers (Gordy 930)  R&B: 20  Pop: –

EDWIN STARR Soul Master (Gordy 931)  R&B: –  Pop: –

SHORTY LONG Here Comes The Judge (Soul 709)  R&B: –  Pop: –


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