the groups of motown

Happy Birthday Mary Wilson!

View of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson of the Supremes standing on stage; Diana Ross stands at microphone. Banner in background reads: “Welcome the Supremes.” April 1971.

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library
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The Supremes –  Diana Ross - Florence Ballard - Mary Wilson

The Supremes were an American female singing group and the premier act of Motown Records during the 1960s. America’s most successful vocal group with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100.  At their peak in the mid-1960s, the Supremes rivaled the Beatles in worldwide popularity, and it is said that their success made it possible for future R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.

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Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - Ooo Baby Baby (1965)

When I was in sixth grade, my class put on a musical about the American Revolution. To be honest, I still think it was hilarious. There was a “Taxation Tango,” a song about John Hancock signing everything he can get his hands on, and a song about Paul Revere going on his midnight ride only to keep returning because he forgot something, including his pants and his horse.

But I really, really, really wanted the role of King George III. Partly because he was the baddie, partly because he got to use an accent, and partly because he had a killer disco song called “It’s Great to Be an Empire.” And partly because at the time, I was in my Voldemort phase and going by the name “Giorge” to differentiate myself from all of the Megans.

But the teacher gave the role to a boy. You know who you are.

Now, I did get to be in a Motown girl group trio of singing narrators, and I believe I also appeared as John Jay hosting a home shopping network show, but I still hold a grudge.

So what I’m saying here is, I will never forgive humanity until I get to play King George III in Hamilton.

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On this day in music history: April 19, 1969 - “It’s Your Thing” by The Isley Brothers hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 4 weeks, also peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 on May 3, 1969. Written by O'Kelly Isley, Ronald Isley and Rudolph Isley, it is the first chart topping single for the family group originally from Cincinnati, OH. After spending almost four years recording for Motown Records, the Isleys split from the company when they are offered a deal with New York based Buddah Records, that also includes reviving their label T-Neck Records. Once they sign with Buddah in early 1969, they quickly get to work recording their first album for the label. The brothers record at A&R Studios in New York City in January 1969 with a group of musicians that include Skip Pitts, Jr. (guitar), Herb Rooney (piano), George Moreland (drums) and their then sixteen year old brother Ernie Isley on bass. The basic track is perfected in only two takes. Released on February 16, 1969, the song is an immediate across the board smash, scaling the both the pop and R&B singles chart simultaneously. “It’s Your Thing” wins The Isley Brothers a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Group in 1970. Their former label Motown claim the Isleys recorded the song while still under contract to them. The lawsuit drags on for nearly seven years when matter is finally settled out of court, in the Isleys favor. “It’s Your Thing” is certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.

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On this day in music history: April 14, 1973 - “Masterpiece” by The Temptations hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 2 weeks, also peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 on April 28, 1973. Written and produced by Norman Whitfield, it is the eleventh R&B chart topper for the veteran Motown vocal group. Songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield gives the song its title when he feels that all of the combined elements of the piece add up to a “masterpiece”, though the word does not appear in the lyrics. Whitfield writes “Masterpiece” as a sequel to the Grammy winning smash “Papa Was A Rolling Stone (and the album "All Directions”), and features members of The Funk Brothers providing musical support and is arranged by Paul Riser. The single and album are recorded during a period where there is ever mounting tension between the highly strung producer and The Temptations, who are unhappy at having no say in the creative process, and are being referred to by music critics as “the Norman Whitfield Choral Singers”. “Masterpiece” is edited down from its nearly fourteen minute epic length down to under four and a half minutes for single release. Though the Tempts top the R&B chart three more times with “Let Your Hair Down”, “Happy People”, “Shakey Ground”, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, “Masterpiece” is the group’s last top 10 pop hit for eighteen years, returning to upper reaches of the chart when they collaborate with Rod Stewart on “The Motown Song” peaking at #10 in September of 1991. “Masterpiece” is certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.

VMP Interview - Jenn Atocha, Atocha Design

VMP: First off thanks for chatting with us, we’re super pumped to be giving away a piece of your beautiful furniture (see here)…it’s been creating a pretty big stir on the internets.

JA: Thanks, that’s so nice to hear! It’s a big deal for us as well-we have never done a give away before but we have gotten such great feedback from your members in the last few months that we felt like it was a perfect fit.

VMP: So your furniture line is designed with the vinyl enthusiast in mind, when did you get into vinyl?

JA: As a child! I have always listened to vinyl and have never downloaded a record-I don’t even know how. When I listen to CDs or someone else’s iPod it sounds really off to me. We have a pretty amazing vintage tube stereo system at home, and hearing music any other way (except live music of course) is only half the fun.

VMP: What’s your experience been working with and designing furniture for vinyl lovers? They’re kind of a different breed yeah?

JA: Yes, indeed, but they are MY breed so the experience has been fantastic thus far! Unlike other furniture designers, I am starting from a place of having quite a lot in common when a client comes to me. A passionate love of music, and a similar aesthetic are fairly significant things to have in common as it turns out, and I end up becoming friends with many of my clients. The conversation often veers toward taste in music, and we have plenty to talk about. Many of my friends who design more typical furniture never even speak to their clients, especially if they are working with an interior designer or architect. My custom clients tend to want to get very involved with the process because the piece is being made for a collection that they are passionate about. Upon delivery, I often get remarkably thoughtful and joyous emails or phone calls from clients, which I just never take for granted. It makes it all worth it!

Another funny thing about my clients is that some have stored away their vinyl collection ages ago. Often they don’t even have turntables anymore. By chance they come across my work in a magazine or blog, and start thinking about their favorite albums that haven’t been listened to in awhile and miss them. When they see a piece that can be used as a centerpiece in their living room, rather than just a bookshelf tucked away they can visualize a whole new way of relaxing and listening at home. These clients are aways so enthusiastic and fun to get to know as well. It’s so gratifying to help people figure out a way to make music the center of their home, rather than the television. I also like that it makes a statement about who you are, when guests come over. Nowadays so much about a person is stored digitally that homes have become less personal.

Then there are the couples. Once I designed a piece for a couple where he only listened to 45’s and she only collected LPs. I have sold many DJ Stands to couples were one person was going nuts from the messy pile of gear in the living room, and the furniture piece changed the vibe up and everyone was happy. There is obviously something gratifying about getting things organized nicely. But when you can get things looking stylish on top of it, it’s fantastic.

VMP: What is your creative process like for designing a new piece of furniture?

JA: When I start on a new design, I am always focused on the best design I can come up with for a particular concept. For example, the Record Stand came about because I got a lot of feedback when the Record Cabinet came out that some people really like to SEE their records. Now I get that, but seeing only the spines is such a waste given the incredible effort that goes into the album cover artwork. So I went about designing a piece that not only presented the users’ collection face-first, but with materials and shapes that were strong and sexy. The taper of the legs on that piece totally sets it apart from a bookshelf, which is the alternative way to SEE your collection.

Often I will come up with a concept, and draw until l come up with something I think looks good. Then I go about trying to figure out if it will actually hold the weight of the albums, and be structurally sound. I think that is where my ladies touch comes in. If you are ONLY looking at function, there is much less personality in a design. Focusing on the creative side, and not the cost, has presented difficulties, because I have set my designs into a more expensive category. I only recently learned that many big brands come up with a price point, and then design down or up from there. How crazy is that? But with me, I don’t have shareholders to please, so I do the most killer design I can realize, something that I would absolutely love to have in my own home. That in itself can be tricky, because it’s easy to come up with an idea that can’t be properly executed. Then I work with the best craftsmen and women I can locate, and believe me when I say I look far and wide. At the end of the day, I sleep at night knowing that I’m not putting another piece of crap into the world, and also that by working with the best artisans in America I am helping to keep these people doing what they love and are incredibly talented at. But really at the end of the day, it’s my clients who keep them employed and I am more of a conduit.

I think it goes without saying that using really high quality materials, and sometimes pulling back with my design to let them shine is also a big part of how I work. Little details are important and technology plays a part as well - I take full advantage of high quality, high tech hardware.

VMP: Our mutual friend Elijah Wood has posted a few pictures of your furniture in his home, how was it working with him?

JA: The first piece I worked on with Elijah was a custom cabinet for his treasured collection of 45’s. He collects them in his travels, and many are quite rare I assume. Some people may not realize that bands used to release songs on singles that weren’t available on their albums, and often only a few hundred copies were pressed. In other cases, especially during the Motown / Northern Soul era, amazing groups released singles that never got to the point of putting out an entire LP. One single and then gone. Actually that was the case with a lot of hardcore and indie bands as well as different types of music all over the world. In any case, I love working with people who collect singles because they are fanatical about vinyl on another level altogether!

Working with Elijah is always fun because he is so enthusiastic about his love for music. He is one of the more curious people I have ever met, and we have become friends because (I think) he was weirded out, or perhaps bewildered is a better word, at first that I was so focused on this vinyl niche. He asked a barrage of questions and we found that we had many things in common. But in general he is just like most of my clients-smart, good looking and fun! Ha ha! I really do have the best clients.

VMP: What’s the future look like for Atocha Design?

JA: At the moment I am in full stress mode prototyping some really challenging new designs. At least they are challenging for me! In March I will debut the new designs at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show here in New York. The big new piece came about from a very different source of inspiration. I went to Miami last year, and spent time staying in and visiting boutique hotels. It dawned on me that design has become, in it’s own way, a source of entertainment like dining out has. People now want to interact with environments and furniture, and those hotel environments are very aspirational for most of us. When I got back to New York I designed a piece that could hopefully fit into that world, and also work as a statement piece in someone’s home. Another new piece will be much smaller, hold fewer albums but also be more affordable. Yet I am keeping the design and materials very elevated, so it still is in keeping with the rest of my collection. I will start posting images of the new designs on social media in March- if you want to check them out follow Atocha Design.

Atocha Design has as much interest overseas now as within the US, and that’s a big accomplishment for a nut who loves to design and listen to music! So the other focus right now is trying to figure out how to get pieces to clients abroad more efficiently. I am looking into distributors and better ways to ship, because the demand is there but it’s tricky to do it well as a small business.

But to answer succinctly, more designs and better availability! Thank you so much for talking with me, I love what you are doing with Vinyl Me, Please!

See more of Jenn’s work at: www.atochadesign.com

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On this day in music history: January 12, 1959 - A twenty nine year old songwriter and aspiring entrepreneur named Berry Gordy, Jr. borrows $800 from his family to start a record label. With the loan from his family, Gordy starts Motown Records, with its first release being “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson (released as Tamla 101 on January 21, 1959). The single quickly becomes a local hit in Detroit and is picked up for national distribution by United Artists Records. It charts on both the Billboard R&B singles chart and the Hot 100 peaking at #6 and #30 respectively. Gordy sets up shop in a small house he purchases at 2648 W. Grand Blvd in Detroit, converting the photography studio at the back of the property into a recording studio, and living with his family on the second floor. Within a year, the label breaks its ties with United Artists, independently releasing Barrett Strong’s “Money” (#2 R&B, #23 Pop), setting the company on the path to the unprecedented success it experiences throughout the rest of the 60’s and beyond. Gordy maintains ownership of Motown until 1988 when he sells it to MCA Records and Boston Ventures for $61 million. Polygram Group Distribution takes over distribution from MCA in 1991, buying the label outright 1993 for $325 million. Since 1999, Motown has been owned by Universal Music Group, being relaunched as a free standing label within the company under the Island Def Jam Group.

The Beatles with Mary Wells, Motown legend and one of the opening acts during their 1964 Autumn tour of the UK, backstage at the Gaumont Cinema, Bradford, 9 October 1964.

Photo © Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Remembering Mary Wells on what would be her birthday, 13 May.

“[I]n the BBC’s Archive there is a mysterious undated reel with the Beatles requesting records to be played. Their introductions give intriguing clues to the music that was inspiring the group around May 1964.[…] George chose two Tamla Motown records - the Miracles’ ‘I’ve Been Good To You’ and the first UK hit for the label, ‘My Guy’ by Mary Wells.” - The Beatles At The BBC by Kevin Howlett [x]

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“Respect to the late George Harrison who turned me on to soul music in a big way. I was a massive Beatle nut when I was a kid and one week, I was watching ‘Ready Steady Go’ when 'The Fabs’ were on. When Cathy McGowan asked George what music he liked to listen to at home he replied, 'The Miracles, Impressions, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye’. That was the start of my love of soul in all its forms.
Of course George later produced Billy Preston, Doris Troy and Ronnie Spector on Apple, and great records they were too.” - Peter Young, Radio London website [x]

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Cathy McGowan: “What records do you like, other than your own?”

George Harrison: “All the Motown Tamla records, Mary Wells, Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Impressions, all that crowd.”
- Ready, Steady, Go!, 20 March 1964

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Baldwin Hills Elementary Motown Revue

A group of kids at Baldwin Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles put on a Motown Revue last year complete with incredible costumes and choreography. Here’s “Dancing in the Street” which served as the finale, but I urge you to watch all of them:

Stevie Wonder - Uptight

Jackson 5 - I Want You Back

The Temptations - My Girl

Martha & The Vandellas - Heatwave

Mary Wells - My Guy

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell - Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

The Temptations - Ain’t Too Proud To Beg