Lost tracks from Hittsville, USA's Gospel operation.
Motown Unreleased 1962: Gospel
Motown (digital only)
Motown Records wasn't unusual in being an R&B record label with a soul gospel division to take advantage both the secular and sacred music preferences of its African-American core demographic. But, before the changing over of management and ownership hands however many times that has led to the current Motown Gospel operation under the Capitol/Universal umbrella, the Divinity imprint among Berry Gordy, Jr.'s Hitsville U.S.A. empire lasted only a brief while in the early '60s.
A couple of Divinity's acts released an album each on Motown's Tamla division--onetime home to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among others--but there was still apparently gospel aplenty that went unheard by the public. Until a few years ago, that is, when the 26 selections comprising Motown Unreleased 1962: Gospel saw the light of day, at least as a digital release without physical counterparts. The compilation's existence only came to my attention when a track from it was played earlier this year on a radio show that should be on every soul gospel lover's radar, Sinner's Crossroads on Jersey City, NJ's WFMU-FM.
The difference between any other R&B specialist label and Motown was Gordy's conscious aim to not cater primarily to Black listeners and work at pop crossover selectively or haphazardly. If "The Sound of Young America," without ethnic distinction, wasn't already used as a Motown marketing slogan at the time of recording of this material, it soon would be. Did the same Detroit savvy employed to reshape popular music extend to Motown's offerings deriving from the church?
Sometimes, at least, it sounds like it did. As with many of the operation's early general market stars, its gospel talent was largely or exclusively native to Motor City. The bluesy approach occasionally lent to The Burnadettes' seems almost appropriate for a Saturday night at a juke joint as it is for Sunday morning jubilation. The Latin and jazzy undercurrents given to some of what's heard here by the acts who would have their contracts transferred to Tamla upon Divinity's dissolution, female vocal ensemble The Gospel Stars* and singing choir-director Rev. Columbus Mann (who is represented most on Unreleased with nine tracks), could pass for some of Curtis Mayfield's production for soul crooners such as Major Lance, if a bit less fulsome than what The Impressions' leader worked behind studio controls back then.
However, much of this collection is polished and purely gospel as what was emanating from the best of bigger contemporaneous African American sacred music specialist labels like Peacock. The male quartet closing out the album, the awesomely-named The Pronouns, should appeal to listeners who already have a liking for The Soul Stirrers after their heyday of Sam Cooke's lead vocal tenure. Similarly, the other choral leader present, Rev. Chas Glover, isn't far removed from James Cleveland's conducting and singing from the same period. Still, there's enough originality in both The Pronouns' and Glover's output to keep them from being categorized as entirely derivative.
Apparently, Motown Unreleased 1962: Gospel was only issued as a set of downloads to satisfy copyright law and keep the music from going into the public domain. If the current handlers of one of the world's most famous record company names won't allow all this godly goodness to see release on compact disc and/or LP, they would do well to allow another label to license the master recordings to produce the album in at least one physical format. Should that day never arrive, this is nonetheless an intriguing peek at a short-lived aspect of a nascent colossus that left some largely theologically sound, overwhelmingly effecting songs.
-Jamie Lee Rake
*One of The Gospel Stars' and another of The Pronouns' selections in the album's YouTube playlist, starting here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIw401trLq8&list=PLlh5iXHMMtcQajoRJhkjae209Ij5QBBKh , contain what sound to be brief turntable scratching or tape rewinding, I'd hope that these glitches aren't on the digital files or streams that are for sale or may be available on streaming sites such as Spotify. If anyone reading can direct me to glitch-free availability of the album for contact information for whomever is currently handling Motown's digital-only releases, i'd be much appreciative. I'd extend similar gratitude to anyone who could supply me CD duplicates of The Gospel Stars' and Rev. Mann's Tamla long-players, as, much as I wish it weren't the case, I don't have the spare $100-$1,000+ to afford any of the vinyl copies I've seen listed on Ebay and Discogs at the time of writing this.
In addition to Motown Unreleased 1962: Gospel being given physical stature, it would be great to see the Stars' and Mann's albums reissued, as well as the curiosity of In Loving Memory, a 1968 anthology paying tribute to Gordy's sister, Loucye Gordy Wakefield, featuring largely public domain gospel numbers performed mostly by the label's marquee names, including Wonder, Gaye, The Four Tops, The Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Another Motown curio in the vicinity of the sacred that it would be a blast to see back in print is one I was fortunate to buy at a Goodwill store. Rock Gospel: Key To The Kingdom is a 1971 collection likely conceived to exploit the era's Jesus hippie mania and including, among other acts, a couple who appeared on Memory, Valerie Simpson (signed at the time to Motown as a solo act, apart from her songwriting- and, later, duet-partner husband, Nickolas Ashford) and Meatloa - yes, he of "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and Roadie fame-paired with a lady named Shaun "Stoney" Murphy on "(I'd Love To Be) As Heavy As Jesus."