Motown was an enterprise founded on the almost hubristic conviction that a regional label making “race music” could become Hitsville, USA, that at least as many whites as blacks would spin its records. Even as the label’s singles climbed the charts, Berry Gordy and company were too ambitious to remain complacent. Motown’s early successes proved that audiences would embrace stylish, catchy pop-soul, regardless of race. The next challenge, then, was not commercial but artistic. The Motown number ones covered so far succeeded primarily on performance and melody. Now, though, the label was beginning to cohere its sound. Motown needed a style that was both instantly identifiable (like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) and which popped from radio speakers (like the brightly produced Beatles singles).
The label had already made great strides by 1964 – just compare The Supremes’ arc from the muddled sound of “Where Did Our Love Go” to the tight, punchy “Come See About Me.” But it was The Supremes’ male counterparts, The Temptations, who released the record that set the gold standard for Motown’s sonic ambitions. Smokey Robinson co-wrote “My Girl” with Ronald White as an answer song/companion piece to “My Guy,” but the newer composition so outpaced the inspiration that the two scarcely appear to have been recorded in the same decade, much less by the same house band. The light-jazz touchpoints have been replaced with electric guitars; Mary Wells’ elocution-lesson delivery gives way to David Ruffin’s elegant roughness. Rather than the live-band-in-the-studio instrumentation of the past, “My Girl” has a very deliberate sound, in which the bass is distinct from the lead guitar is distinct from the horns, where each drum beat and finger snap is crisp and discrete, creating a depth of sound that envelops the listener as if it were a physical space. That’s not even touching the song itself, along with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” the best thing Robinson had penned up to that point, both of which are so satisfying in structure and seemingly effortless in composition that they scarcely seem of human provenance. The idea that either Robinson or The Temptations could ever top “My Girl” seems absurd, and yet they would. But more than just a glorious record, “My Girl” threw down the gauntlet for Motown’s songwriters and performers. The Supremes and Four Tops would attempt to out-do The Temptations, and Holland-Dozier-Holland and Whitfield-Strong would try to trump Robinson. The resulting discography elevated Motown from a label that released some great singles to the cultural force that forever changed the sound of popular music. 9
Hit #1 on March 6, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
129 of 1004 #1’s reviewed; 12.85% through the Hot 100
- I’m hoping to develop a schedule that’ll have me posting more than once every month or two. In the meantime, I’ve started contributing a few blurbs a week on current and would-be hits at The Singles Jukebox! So far, I’ve written about Adele, Jennifer Lopez ft Lil Wayne, Calvin Harris ft Kelis, Jason Aldean, Wild Flag, Selena Gomez & The Scene, Bon Iver, Martin Solveig ft Kele and Luke Bryan. It’s worth checking out if you like this blog but would prefer it if it were about contemporary music, the entries were shorter and it had other people’s opinions, too.