The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1: 1959-1961

Various Artists

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The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1: 1959-1961 Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

The Complete Motown Singles has been a dream project of Motown and soul fanatics for many years, ever since the first decade of Stax/Volt singles was compiled in an impressive nine-disc box set in 1991. Prior to that, no soul label had its output as thoroughly documented as that set -- there had been the Atlantic R&B box, which collected highlights, but it never attempted to capture the label's entire run -- and while The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 missed a B-side or two, it was an exceptional piece of music history, and pretty damn entertaining to boot. It was so good that it seemed like Motown would be a natural to receive the same treatment, since the label not only had a greater impact -- not just musically, but culturally -- but it had a much more diverse roster, which would make for an exciting set. The Complete Motown Singles might have seemed like a logical move to soul collectors and fanatics, but it remained in the realm of fantasy for many years because, as enticing as that set was, it was difficult to create. First, there was the perennial problem of Motown reissues, where the label is always inclined to recycle the familiar hits instead of dig deep into the vaults. That situation improved in the early '90s, after Universal acquired the catalog and began to release sturdy sets like the Hitsville USA box and multi-disc sets by the Temptations and the Four Tops, but even with the success of these releases, there was reluctance to launch a project like The Complete Motown Singles for two big reasons. One, it was a massive project, dwarfing the Stax/Volt output, which could be squeezed into three nine-disc sets by eliminating only a few B-sides and a handful of singles without anybody but scholars and obsessives knowing the difference. Motown's classic period of 1959-1972 featured hundreds of songs -- roughly 50 discs' worth of music, which lead to the second big problem, which is that even if the label approved such a set, it would not be commercially feasible, since no store would stock such a series, no matter how it was broken up.

Such was the state of affairs until the turn of the millennium, when speciality music retailing finally had an outlet via the Internet. Universal had its own Internet-only label, Hip-O Select, which finally provided an avenue for the release of The Complete Motown Singles, which was launched after a long, long wait in early 2005 with the six-disc set Vol. 1: 1959-1961. It was the first installment of a planned 12-volume series of box sets that would cover all Motown singles, including all variations of the singles and all of the label's subsidiaries, from 1959 to 1972, when the label moved its home office from Detroit to Los Angeles. All the songs would be presented in their original single form (usually meaning a mono mix), transferred from vinyl if necessary (since master tapes for many of the rarities have vanished), and each box would be packaged as a deluxe hardcover book, with a reproduced 45 of an original Motown hit incorporated as part of the cover artwork, while the inside would contain rare photos and contain a wealth of information in the track-by-track notes by Bill Dahl and Keith Hughes. In short, it's a lavish, ambitious series, and a pricey one as well -- the first set retails at 119.95 dollars, averaging 20 dollars a disc, which means that the whole series will cost about 1,000 dollars when all is said and done. So, it's a considerable investment, but there's little question of whether it's worthwhile: based on this introductory installment, the answer is an unequivocal, enthusiastic yes. And that doesn't just apply to Motown fanatics, either: this set, and by extension this series, is essential for anybody who deeply loves 20th century American popular music and culture. Naturally, a set this large demands the listener's attention, and while it will reward that close attention tenfold, it's also true that the set is not for everybody, perhaps not even Motown fans who love the classic mid-'60s sound at the expense of everything else. That sound is not heard here, although the driving, insistent dance beat of the label's earliest is, in the form of such early hits as the Miracles' "Shop Around," Barrett Strong's "Money," and the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." But the point of this set is not the hits, which are easily found elsewhere. The point of the set is to hear it all, to find the forgotten treasures, to hear the songs that were mistakes next to the songs that should have been hits, to hear the label evolve over the years.

In these early years covered on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1, Berry Gordy was trying a little bit of everything with Motown, seeing what would stick. He would imitate the sound of other labels, like Chicago's Vee Jay, or artists like Jackie Wilson. He would jump onto trends, like the twist, or blatantly rip off hits on the chart. He recorded outright novelties, including several songs to President Kennedy. He recorded lite jazz, gospel, blues, even surf rock. He did a little bit of everything, seeing what would sell. Not all of this was good, some of it was lame, some of it was outright silly, but some of it was great, including a lot of hard-driving R&B dance numbers that have the roots of the classic Motown sound. Gordy may have steered Motown all over the place during the early years documented on this set -- and not just before they had hits, because he was just as scattershot after the hits started to come -- but there's a raw, invigorating vitality to his attempts to hit pay dirt, which makes the lesser songs here rise above curiosity to being quite compelling music. Plus, there's a nice side effect to having Motown try so many different sounds: it winds up giving a good idea of what the R&B market sounded like in the early '60s, giving a good context for Motown's big hits. And in this context, these shopworn standards sound as vital and exciting as they did when they first hit the airwaves, which is something that smaller, concentrated sets just can't provide. That ability to re-create the sound, feel, and excitement of the early days of Motown -- something that has long been forgotten due to the overfamiliarity of much of this music -- is the reason why this set is so essential to anybody who loves soul and pop music. The fact that it also has a treasure trove of great, largely unheard early Motown singles almost seems like a bonus in comparison, but it's also another reason why this set isn't merely worth the long wait, but why it comes close to seeming like a dream finally fulfilled.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Marv Johnson 02:19 Amazon
2 Marv Johnson 02:32 Amazon
3 Eddie Holland 02:15 Amazon
4 Eddie Holland 02:20 Amazon
5 Barrett Strong 02:02 Amazon
6 Barrett Strong 02:43 Amazon
7 Chico Leverett 02:29 Amazon
8 Chico Leverett 02:31 Amazon
9 The Swinging Tigers 02:26 Amazon
10 The Swinging Tigers 02:44 Amazon
Ron & Bill 02:44 Amazon
12 Ron & Bill 02:01 Amazon
13 The Satintones 02:09 Amazon
14 The Satintones 02:30 Amazon
15 Barrett Strong 02:37 Amazon
16 Barrett Strong 02:23 Amazon
17 Nick & the Jaguars 02:25 Amazon
18 Nick & the Jaguars 02:13 Amazon
19 The Miracles 02:42 Amazon
20 The Miracles 02:42 Amazon
21 The Miracles 02:44 Amazon
22 The Miracles 03:06 Amazon
23 The Satintones 02:25 Amazon
24 The Satintones 02:48 Amazon
25 Eugene Remus 03:12 Amazon
26 Eugene Remus 02:11 Amazon
27 Eugene Remus 02:30 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 The Miracles 03:02 Amazon
2 The Miracles 02:45 Amazon
3 The Miracles 02:55 Amazon
4 The Satintones 02:25 Amazon
5 Eugene Remus 03:10 Amazon
6 Barrett Strong 02:17 Amazon
7 Barrett Strong 02:46 Amazon
8 Popcorn and the Mohawks 03:56 Amazon
9 Popcorn and the Mohawks 02:33 Amazon
10 Mable John 02:44 Amazon
11 Mable John 02:22 Amazon
12 Barrett Strong 02:11 Amazon
13 Barrett Strong 02:53 Amazon
14 Mary Wells 02:53 Amazon
15 Mary Wells 02:38 Amazon
16 Singin' Sammy Ward 02:30 Amazon
17 Singin' Sammy Ward 02:45 Amazon
18 Sammy Ward 02:51 Amazon
19 The Miracles 02:59 Amazon
20 The Miracles 03:04 Amazon
21 Herman Griffin 02:10 Amazon
22 Herman Griffin 02:03 Amazon
23 The Miracles 02:45 Amazon
24 Sherri Taylor / Singin' Sammy Ward 02:52 Amazon
25 Sherri Taylor / Singin' Sammy Ward 02:04 Amazon
26 Henry Lumpkin 02:30 Amazon
27 Henry Lumpkin 02:39 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 3

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Jimmy Ruffin 02:15 Amazon
2 Jimmy Ruffin 02:45 Amazon
3 Debbie Dean 02:38 Amazon
4 Debbie Dean 02:26 Amazon
5 The Miracles 02:35 Amazon
6 The Miracles 02:34 Amazon
7 Barrett Strong 02:35 Amazon
8 Barrett Strong 03:03 Amazon
9 Little Iva & Her Band 02:53 Amazon
10 Little Iva & Her Band 02:27 Amazon
11 The Contours 02:49 Amazon
12 The Contours 02:40 Amazon
13 The Supremes 03:05 Amazon
14 The Supremes 03:02 Amazon
15 The Gospel Stars 04:02 Amazon
16 The Gospel Stars 02:45 Amazon
17 Mickey Woods 02:42 Amazon
18 Mickey Woods 02:39 Amazon
19 Richard Wylie & His Band 02:23 Amazon
20 Richard Wylie & His Band 02:53 Amazon
21 The Satintones 02:38 Amazon
22 The Satintones 02:42 Amazon
23 The Satintones 02:51 Amazon
24 The Contours 02:55 Amazon
25 Gino Parks 02:27 Amazon
26 Gino Parks 01:52 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 4

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 The Satintones 02:32 Amazon
2 Marvin Gaye 05:12 Amazon
3 Marvin Gaye 02:25 Amazon
4 Marvin Gaye 03:03 Amazon
5 Marvin Gaye 02:43 Amazon
6 Mary Wells 02:47 Amazon
7 Mary Wells 02:26 Amazon
8 Andre Williams 02:28 Amazon
9 Andre Williams 03:51 Amazon
10 Barrett Strong 02:27 Amazon
11 Barrett Strong 02:42 Amazon
12 The Miracles 02:56 Amazon
13 The Miracles 02:39 Amazon
14 Mable John 02:54 Amazon
15 Mable John 02:34 Amazon
16 Gino Parks 02:20 Amazon
17 Gino Parks 02:35 Amazon
18 The Satintones 02:35 Amazon
19 The Satintones 02:27 Amazon
20 Mable John 02:32 Amazon
21 The Supremes 02:55 Amazon
22 The Supremes 02:50 Amazon
23 Diana Ross & the Supremes 02:33 Amazon
24 The Temptations 02:20 Amazon
25 The Temptations 02:48 Amazon
26 The Golden Harmoneers 02:28 Amazon
27 The Golden Harmoneers 02:55 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 5

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 The Marvelettes 02:29 Amazon
2 The Marvelettes 02:52 Amazon
3 The Contours 02:41 Amazon
4 The Contours 02:58 Amazon
5 Debbie Dean 02:48 Amazon
6 Debbie Dean 02:52 Amazon
7 Rev. Columbus Mann 02:18 Amazon
8 Rev. Columbus Mann 03:21 Amazon
9 Equadors 02:06 Amazon
10 Equadors 02:22 Amazon
11 Pete Hartfield 02:34 Amazon
12 Pete Hartfield 02:13 Amazon
13 The Miracles 02:57 Amazon
14 The Miracles 02:50 Amazon
15 Joel Sebastian 02:53 Amazon
16 Joel Sebastian 02:08 Amazon
17 Mary Wells 02:39 Amazon
18 Mary Wells 02:14 Amazon
19 Freddie Gorman 02:22 Amazon
20 Freddie Gorman 02:11 Amazon
21 Popcorn and the Mohawks 02:29 Amazon
22 Popcorn and the Mohawks 02:26 Amazon
23 The Satintones 02:59 Amazon
24 The Satintones 02:48 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 6

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Eddie Holland 02:25 Amazon
2 Eddie Holland 02:34 Amazon
3 The Valadiers 02:46 Amazon
4 The Valadiers 02:12 Amazon
5 Mable John 02:51 Amazon
6 Mable John 03:10 Amazon
7 Sammy Ward 02:28 Amazon
8 Sammy Ward 02:49 Amazon
9 The Temptations 02:45 Amazon
10 The Temptations 02:51 Amazon
11 Bob Kayli 02:41 Amazon
12 Bob Kayli 02:13 Amazon
13 Don McKenzie 02:24 Amazon
14 Don McKenzie 02:19 Amazon
15 Twistin' Kings 02:44 Amazon
16 Twistin' Kings 02:30 Amazon
17 Mickey Woods 02:32 Amazon
18 Mickey Woods 02:45 Amazon
19 The Marvelettes 02:30 Amazon
20 The Marvelettes 02:37 Amazon
21 The Miracles 02:23 Amazon
22 The Miracles 02:42 Amazon
23 Twistin' Kings 02:13 Amazon
24 Twistin' Kings 02:56 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick