The list of great Motown albums doesn’t start to fill in until 1971 or so, when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder used their new creative freedom to make fully realized wholes. For Motown’s first decade, the focus was on singles, mixed on a rickety three-track machine in that little house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit for maximum sonic punch on the radio (car radios, especially) and on 45s.
In the mid 60s, the most popular sonic punch out of Motown came from the Supremes, whose hot streak rivaled that of the Beatles for a while. Their second studio album, Where Did Our Love Go, had reached #2 in 1964. In customary Motown fashion, it included a lot of filler—in this case, old tracks recorded before they were famous—plus three #1 singles: the title song, “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me.”
Berry Gordy was a master marketer, so in the next two years the Supremes followed Where Did Our Love Go with A Bit of Liverpool, featuring familiar British Invasion hits (mostly Lennon/McCartney songs), and The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, which includes a version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” that’s pretty much indescribable. Other albums in this period included a live album, a tribute to Sam Cooke, a Christmas album, and a couple of other albums assembled on the hits/filler plan.
The master marketer’s master plan reached its apex in 1966 with Supremes A’ Go Go. It includes only one big single, “You Can’t Hurry Love,” but also includes eight Motown songs made famous by other acts and versions of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “Hang on Sloopy.” It hit #1 on the Billboard 200 on October 22, 1966, and stayed two weeks, the first Motown album ever to make #1. It undoubtedly propelled many a party in late 1966 and 1967—with nary a ballad on it, it’s a straight-up jam with the Sound of Young America.
Eight of the songs were written by the Motown production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, so the album could just as easily have been called The Supremes Sing Holland Dozier Holland. It wasn’t. The master marketer gave that title to their next album, with 12 more HDH songs.
Here are the Supremes performing the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” on TV.
In our next installment: a final week in the sun for a genre that had ruled the album charts for a decade.