There are, of course, two sides to every story. There are also two sides to every pop music single, or at least there were, back in the days when singles intended for radio play were released on 7-inch platters.
While “Motown: The Musical” recounts the phenomenal successes of Berry Gordy’s Detroit record label with portrayals of superstars Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, the overdue launch a decade ago of the ambitious “Complete Motown Singles” series revisited the vast, sometimes intoxicating contributions of hundreds of lesser lights.
Though the label became known for its “Motown Sound,” the truth is that it took years of experimenting — with torch songs, cocktail music, doo-wop, gospel, novelty songs, and mind-boggling missteps like the Supremes’ “(The Man With the) Rock and Roll Banjo Band” — to achieve it. To mark the arrival of “Motown: The Musical” in Boston, we’ve scoured the vaults to create a playlist of some of the best Motown B-sides by the label’s B players.
“Is It True (What They Say About You),” Hattie Littles (1962) A gospel singer from Mississippi, Littles was the opening act on Marvin Gaye’s 1963 tour, but her career in pop was not destined for greatness: she struggled in later years with substance abuse and reportedly spent some time in prison for killing an abusive husband.
“For This I Thank You,” Gino Parks (1962) A youthful partner of the outré R&B singer Andre Williams, Parks took an early shot at Motown stardom with “Blibberin’ Blabberin’ Blues,” an answer of sorts to the Coasters’ smash “Yakety Yak.” “For This I Thank You,” a stylish, Little Willie John-style rumba, was a prime mover in Parks’s rediscovery by the UK’s fanatical Northern Soul community.
“It Must Be Love,” the Contours (1963) Alongside the Miracles and the Marvelettes, the Contours had one of Motown’s biggest early hits with the raw, undeniable “Do You Love Me.” The group never quite reached those heights again, though they certainly tried, as they did on this twisting tune.
“Number One in Your Heart,” the Monitors (1966) Onetime schoolmates of some of the Temptations, the Monitors were a prime example of the jacks-of-all-trades on the Motown payroll: lead singer Richard Street also worked in the quality control department. This upbeat song could have raised the bar if it were the A-side of the single, which went to “Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam),” a Vietnam-era G.I.’s lament that represented a rare political statement for Motown.
“California Soul,” The Messengers (1967) Motown had its share of token Caucasians over the years, including local boy Tommy Good, Canadian R. Dean Taylor (“Indiana Wants Me”), and a late-career Bobby Darin. The Messengers, originally from Minnesota, were signed around the Summer of Love. This B-side, written by the husband-and-wife production team Ashford & Simpson, went on to a long shelf life with covers by the Fifth Dimension, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and Marlena Shaw, whose version has appeared in several TV commercials.
“Peace of Mind,” Bob and Marcia (1970) Motown’s Tamla label released the US version of this early reggae tune: “Bob” is Jamaican performer Bob Andy, and Marcia is Marcia Griffiths, who would become one of Bob Marley’s backing singers. The A-side was a reggae version of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black.”
“Mornin’ Train,” Arthur Adams (1971) Veteran bluesman Adams was signed briefly to the Chisa label, which Motown distributed. The A-side of this single was a plodder called “Uncle Tom,” but this funky song is reminiscent of the rock-soul hybrid of the late Paul Pena.
“Funky Rubber Band (Instrumental),” Richard “Popcorn” Wylie (1971) A Detroit native, Popcorn Wylie was an early fixture at Motown, serving as a touring bandleader and the label’s first head of A&R. Expelled after a disagreement with Gordy, he returned briefly in the early ’70s, landing a minor hit with the A-side of this funky Meters-like instrumental.
“You’ve Got to Make the Choice,” Sisters Love (1972) Originally featuring the supreme session singer Merry Clayton, the West Coast-based Sisters Love had an altered lineup by the time they signed with Motown’s MoWest subsidiary, which would release only three singles for the group. Heavy on the funk, with a little acidic edge, they might be one of Motown’s missed opportunities.
“Friendship Train,” The Undisputed Truth (1972) It sounds like Pops Staples playing the reverberating guitar chords that open this woozy, psychedelic version of a generational message song also cut by the Temptations and Gladys Knight. The group, the studio concoction of producer Norman Whitfield, had just come off its biggest hit, “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”
“Black Maybe,” Syreeta (1972) Stevie Wonder was briefly married to the former Motown secretary, who was also a backup singer. He produced her first two solo albums, included the starchild haze that distinguishes this song. “Black maybe,” Syreeta sang, “or maybe this is just your color for today.”