To the average listener, Detroit means one thing with regard to '60s soul: Motown. While it's difficult to ignore the seismic impact of Motown, it wasn't the only thing happening in the Motor City, as Ace's 2017 compilation Birth of Soul: Special Detroit Edition proves. Collecting 24 sides recorded between 1961 and 1964 -- six of these weren't released at the time, all but one making their debut here -- Birth of Soul: Special Detroit Edition focuses on an era when the Motown sound was yet to crystallize, so there isn't a uniformity of styles here. Instead of the big bouncing beat of Tamla, most of the music glides along smoothly, filled with cool rhythms, slick harmonies, and nimble arrangements. The touchstone for the collection is Barbara Lewis, who is heard at the outset with 1963's "Think a Little Sugar," a song that has some echoes of her big hit "Hello Stranger" and has many cousins here, including Priscilla Page's "My Letter" and Laura Johnson's "I Know How It Feels." The featured male singers also work a similar uptown sophistication on their tracks, but the collection also finds space for uptempo dance numbers by vocal harmony groups, sleek updated R&B, and early work from Richard "Popcorn" Wylie, Norman Whitfield's Sonnettes, Martha & the Vandellas' first incarnation as the Del-Phis, and the Donays, whose original version of "Devil in His Heart" was later popularized by the Beatles. Combined, this shows how rich Detroit soul and R&B were outside of the confines of Berry Gordy, Jr.'s empire, and this music sounds as alive and vital as some of the second-string singles coming out of Motown during the early '60s.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine