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Even the worst singles on a new limited-edition box set reveal something about what would make the label great.

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The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 1: 1959-1961 (Hip-O Select)

If the keepers of Motown's legacy understand anything these days, it's how to flog the back catalog. The hits Motown released in the 60s and 70s were meticulously groomed to begin with, and since then they've been repackaged and re-repackaged to the point of having lost their force, their ability to surprise--everything except their identity as boomer happy-time music. But Motown also released a lot of music that didn't make it big, and you can finally hear the successes and the failures side by side: The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 1: 1959-1961, released in January, is the first in a proposed 12-volume series that will compile every A and B side Motown put out through 1972, when it closed its Detroit offices and moved to LA. It's a fascinating document and a nifty object: six nicely packaged discs, liner notes worthy of the material, and a seven-inch of the label's first hit, Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)." (It's a replica of the original pressing, down to the misspelled title of the B side, "Oh I Apoligize.") Most, but not all, of the tracks are available on iTunes, but the set itself is limited to 5,000 copies and available only through mail order from hip-oselect.com.

Most of the 1959-'61 set belies Motown's reputation for perfection; some of it is actively awful. The Six Sigma-esque fanaticism about quality control that Motown later became famous for evolved slowly--at first, the label was willing to throw anything out there. Berry Gordy Jr. was an experienced songwriter and producer when he launched the label he first called Tamla in 1959, but he was also under pressure to make it profitable quickly--it was funded by his family, reluctantly, with an $800 loan. Early on, Gordy jumped on whatever seemed to be selling, cranking out knockoffs and answer records. When the Shirelles had a hit in 1960 with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," the Satintones answered with "Tomorrow and Always." When Larry Verne had a novelty hit that year with "Mr. Custer," Popcorn & the Mohawks recorded "Custer's Last Man." When Chubby Checker's "The Twist" hit the top of the charts a second time in 1962, the Motown house band that later became known as the Funk Brothers pumped out two singles as the Twistin' Kings, and the following week the Marvelettes adapted "Please Mr. Postman" into "Twistin' Postman."

Famous names on the label had clunkers too. The Supremes--initially a quartet of high school girls who hung around the Motown office hoping for a break--took so long to chart that they were informally known as "the no-hit Supremes." Their first two singles appear on 1959-1961, and they're not exactly immortal. On the second, 1961's "Buttered Popcorn," Florence Ballard sings about how her boyfriend "likes it greasy and sticky and gooey and salty . . . I said, 'Kiss me please' / He said, 'After I eat.'" (Gordy claimed to be shocked to learn that the lyric was a double entendre.) The B side is a version of the Miracles' "Who's Lovin' You," which is notable for its vocal: Diana Ross sounds like she's terrified at the thought of singing lead.

Sometime between "Buttered Popcorn" and, say, 1964's "Where Did Our Love Go," the Motown sound took shape. It's still inchoate on most of the early tracks, though, and when it does start to come together in 1961 it's almost by accident. The band on the very first Tamla single, Marv Johnson's "Come to Me," included bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin, and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, who all played on classic Motown tracks; the label's second single was "Merry-Go-Round" by Eddie Holland, later of the gold-fingered Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. The architects of the Motown style were there from the get-go, but they were flailing. Gordy didn't just race after trends--he micromanaged records after they'd been released. He repeatedly recalled singles that he didn't think were quite right--replacing a side, pressing a different take, or dubbing in a glutinous string section. For the first third of 1959-1961, he comes off as an indecisive meddler, pulling perfectly good records off the market to "fix" them.

But, in late 1960, one of his after-the-fact brainstorms paid off. Two weeks after the Miracles' "Shop Around" appeared in stores, Gordy reconvened the group at 3 AM to record a faster version. It would become Motown's first number one R & B single. And then Gordy reverted to type, milking the hit with Debbie Dean's answer record, "Don't Let Him Shop Around."

Gordy could be cunning, but his management style could also be alarmingly ad hoc, as if the songs were performed by whoever was on hand. In fact, that was often the case. "Money" was cowritten by Motown receptionist Janie Bradford, and features guitar and bass by a couple of high school kids who dropped by Motown headquarters that day and were never heard from again. Freddie Gorman, who sang "The Day Will Come" and cowrote "Please Mr. Postman," was indeed a mailman who hung around at the office until somebody noticed him; Mable John ("Looking for a Man") was Gordy's chauffeur. And it was Gordy's sister Gwen who insisted that he meet Marvin Gay (his birth name), who would begin his Motown career attempting to sing Nat "King" Cole-style ballads.

Surprisingly, most of the people Gordy surrounded himself with--or whom he allowed to glom on to his young enterprise--did have plenty of talent. Gordy wrote Motown songs for years--he's credited on half the songs on the final disc of 1959-1961--but he had enough foresight to encourage the development of writers who would eventually overtake him. Smokey Robinson first appears on the set with "It," a wretched knockoff of "The Purple People Eater"; toward the end of the final disc he appears with the amazing "What's So Good About Good Bye," and it's clear how much Gordy's support has done for him.

Even with all its embarrassments, 1951-1961 is a pleasure to listen to. A lot of it sounds off-key, derivative, and half-assed, but enough songs are such unpretentious fun that it's worth digging through the rest. And a handful are fantastic: Mary Wells's "I Don't Want to Take a Chance," a minor hit in 1961 and barely remembered now, is built around a throbbing, echoing heap of piano that approximates the effect of the orchestrations Motown worked out a few years later; Gino Parks's B side "That's No Lie" is cookie-cutter electric blues with a fanatical, wild-eyed vocal; Richard Wylie's frantic remake of "Money" is at least as exciting as Barrett Strong's version. It's also a lot less familiar, and unfamiliarity counts for a lot with this stuff. The earnest imperfections of Motown's earliest singles reveal the human art that animated later hits like "My Girl" and "You Can't Hurry Love"--the warmth and life behind the immaculate facades that time and overexposure have left petrified and sandblasted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Motown Records Archives.

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