All month in this blog and in my social media channels, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite African-American musical artists, noting some of their influences and accomplishments. From Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones (give this “Hymn to Freedom” a listen if you want a good case of the feels) to Art Tatum to Erroll Garner, our black musicians have made our world incalculably richer.
Today, I’d like to turn up the dial on Motown, on the artists who inspire us to sing along, tap our toes and get up and groove. There are too many hits and artists to mention. I’m having a hard time narrowing it down to my top eight, but here’s my unofficial list in no particular order. By the way, if you were to ask me to name my top eight tomorrow or next week, they’ll change. But, I’m confident that you’ll agree that these folks deserve a spot on everyone’s playlists.
- Diana Ross and the Supremes
Let’s see, from “Baby Love” to “Come See About Me” to “I Hear a Symphony,” these glamourous ladies knew a few things about harmony and how to engage audiences. They were a worthy addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 1988.
- Michael Jackson
His thriller songs span four decades. How can anyone dispute him as the “king of pop?” I’d like to give him the additional title Master of Motown. Favorite song? Can’t choose. Today, though, I’m going with “Billie Jean.”
- Marvin Gaye
No one, I mean no one, can groove a mic like Marvin Gaye. Yes, we all know his hits “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” But, did you know he managed to groove the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game? You’ve never heard the anthem sung like this.
- The Temptations
Everyone loves The Temptations. It’s hard enough to remember melodies, harmonies and arrangments without being able to execute scripted choreography. Yet, these guys did it night after night, year after year. Favorite song? Today, I’ll go with “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” OK, I’ll add “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
- Stevie Wonder(ful)
I love Stevie Wonder. His songwriting. His singing. His playing. His smile. “Superstition” is always a good go-to tune to get the energy moving. But, “As (I’ll Be Loving You Always)” is a can’t-miss song to be uplifted.
- Billy Preston
Anyone who jams with the Beatles is good with me. But, Billy Preston is more than a jam player. This guy had amazing technique, and could pull off anything from Bach to the Beatles. If you don’t recognize his name, you definitely know his music. Check out “My Sweet Lord” and “Nothing from Nothing.” (Cool piano riffs on that last one, huh?)
- Lionel Richie / Commodores
When you’re driving, and “Brick House” comes on the radio, you better be at least tapping your fingers on the steering wheel. But, it would be better if you were singing at the top of your lungs. “Sail On” couldn’t sound more different, and it shows Richie’s versatility.
- Gladys Knight and the Pips
A lead lady with three male backups? That was a bold move back in the day, and Gladys Knight not only pulled it off, but wore it with authority. Her version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, and “Heard it Through the Grapevine” is a great jam.