Like most independent record moguls of the early '60s, Berry Gordy, Jr. had grand plans but unlike many of his peers, he was more than ready to enact them. Crafting an R&B crossover was part of the plan but he wasn't limited to that: he had other markets in mind, markets that held cash and credit. Gordy tried everything -- folk, country, gospel, jazz, supper club crooning -- seemingly opening up a new subsidiary for every style, very rarely with much success. He dabbled in these digressions earlier in Motown's history but as the five-disc box The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 3: 1963 shows, 1963 was the year Gordy went berserk with subsidiaries, pursuing Workshop Jazz for jazz and vocal recordings, Mel-O-Dy for folk, country, and comedy, and Divinity for gospel, all of these in addition to the Gordy and Tamla imprints that released R&B just like their flagship Motown. Several of these labels were launched the previous year, but in 1963 they were all going concerns with rarely a month passing without a new 45 from one of these subsidiaries. There were so many in 1963 that it's not surprising they dominate the flavor of this volume of The Complete Motown Singles; even if they produced neither hits nor forgotten gems, there are so many of them they leap out amidst what is the formation of the classic Motown sound.
Which isn't to say that these subsidiaries were bad -- some of them were, but not all of them. Johnny Griffith and George Bohannon served up some strong jazz, Howard Crockett was a good straight-ahead country singer pitched halfway between Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, but much of this was simply generic, embodying a style without being distinctive. This can result in some fun listening -- depending on taste, either the Kingston Trio harmonies of the Chuck-A-Lucks or Paula Greer's jazzy vocal stylings or Liz Lands' earnest gospel sides are appealing -- but the sheer volume of these stylistic digressions steers 1963 toward the territory of mere pop archaeology. With the sudden changes in mood and preponderance of odd generic material, this box commands attention, and for listeners of a certain stripe, it is certainly compelling, as these non-traditional Motown sides replicate the sound of 1963 outside of the Gordy empire, one where crossover jazz, folk singers, and novelty records took up a significant portion of the charts. It shows that Motown was not immune to chasing trends, which is a minor revelation in itself, but having these here provides a context to the rise of the patented Motown sound, which truly started to flourish this year -- and a large reason why is the emergence of the writing and production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, along with the groups that were fueled by their work.
Berry Gordy and Lamont Dozier called Martha & the Vandellas' "Come and Get These Memories" as the beginning of the Motown Sound, and listening to 1963, it's hard not to agree: it arrives with a blast which is all the more bracing when it's surrounded by the subsidiaries' generic murk. After that, the classics from Holland-Dozier-Holland arrived rapidly -- most notably "Heat Wave" and "Quicksand," and the first big Supremes hit in "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," plus Eddie Holland's own spectacular "Leaving Here" -- but that trio was not the only Motown musician to come into its own. Stevie Wonder bursts into the forefront with the exuberant "Fingertips," and Marvin Gaye has "Pride & Joy" and "Can I Get a Witness" this year, two artistic breakthroughs that help set the stage for Motown's smashing success in 1964. That following year the label had almost every gear working smoothly, but in 1963 they were still getting the machine in motion, and while there are some rough spots, the thrill of The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 3 is hearing the label come into its own even as it's searching to find its own identity.