Michael Bolton mentioned three very special people in his note of thanks in the credits of his latest album. They are songwriter Nicholas Ashford and singers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They have all gone on to the Great Beyond, but while they were still on earth, they made beautiful music and were part of the soul explosion known today as the Motown Sound. It is only fitting that Bolton said “Thank you” to them because their music is what the album is all about.
The CD is called Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, A Tribute To Hitsville U.S.A. The title cut is a Motown classic composed by Ashford and his wife Valerie Simpson. The song was first recorded by Gaye and Terrell, and later became a huge hit for Motown’s biggest diva, Diana Ross, when she went solo after her initial success as a member of The Supremes. Hitsville, of course, was how the Motown office in Detroit, Michigan was often referred to back in the ’60s and ’70s eras.
The tag happened obviously because during that time, the label founded by a high school dropout and former boxer named Berry Gordy Jr., just kept churning out hit after hit. In fact, Motown brought the American music industry back to the top after the British Invasion. The little building which once housed an office and a recording studio which legend says was at work 22 hours a day, is still there, known as HItsville U.S.A., a symbol of how music can change the lives of so many.
Bolton, the ultimate interpreter of blue-eyed soul, has done Motown before. He had a big hit with his cover of Gaye’s Sexual Healing and it was really good. So, the idea that he would want to do more was not really far-fetched. Truth to tell, had he been around at the time, I am sure that Gordy would have made him Motown’s first blonde hitmaker. And he really went all out with this production. He chose 12 of those legendary Motown songs, put together an ace production team and then sang his heart out.
Listen and appreciate the Motown story again. As the cliché goes, they do not make them like those anymore. Listen and get lost in the beauty of these timeless tunes. Most of all, find out how well Bolton is coping with the years. The former Sexiest Man Alive is now 60 years old and he looks and sounds, still strained, but even more fantastic.
Bolton opens with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, which he does as a duet with the Australian pop star Delta Goodrun. And then he goes on to another Gaye hit, How Sweet It Is, composed by the hit factory team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. The record label billed them as Holland-Dozier-Holland and I still recall checking out the label of Motown records and finding that name in the credits and feeling assured I would be listening to a hit song. Like Ashford and Simpson, these guys helped define the sound of the Motown era.
Bolton also covers the trio’s hit for Martha & The Vandellas Nowhere To Run and You Keep Me Hanging On by The Supremes. Then in another sweet gesture, Bolton co-wrote a song, Somethin’ Out Of Nothin’ with Dozier and producer/songwriter Walter Afanasieff. It is one of two Motown sounding new originals included in the CD. The other one, also written by Bolton, is Gotta Keep Dreamin’.
There are also Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing by Ashford and Simpson for Gaye and Terrell; The Way You Do The Things You Do, Smokey Robinson and Robby Rogers of the Miracles for The Temptations; What”s Going On by Marvin Gaye; Signed Sealed And Delivered by Stevie Wonder; Money, which was Motown’s first big hit recorded by Barrett Strong and was composed by Gordy himself; and my favorite track in the collection and truly a song of extraordinary beauty, The Tracks Of My Tears, composed by Miracles Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore and Marvin Tarplin. This must be one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written and Bolton certainly knows how to sing about pain.
Bolton is not the only one celebrating the music of Motown this year. So is Broadway. Adjudged one of the most successful new musicals in the Great White Way is Motown, which tells the story of the music label through its hit tunes. Theater-goers are said to having a blast watching performers do their impersonations of Motown’s stars from Diana Ross to Little Stevie Wonder to the Jackson Five with the very young Michael Jackson.
I do not know if we will be seeing Motown hereabouts by a local theater group or a touring company. But the soundtrack album of the musical has been released and gives a good preview of the show. Fans would want more songs but the obvious hits are there, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, What’s Going On, My Girl and Stop In The Name Of Love. And I was really glad to find the early hits done with a Broadway twist, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), Dancing In The Street, Please Mr. Postman and others.