Arts/Culture
11:03 pm
Thu July 14, 2011

The Strange Sound Of Motown's Early Hollywood Years

Originally published on Thu July 14, 2011 11:09 pm

Everyone has heard of Motown Records, but few probably remember its Los Angeles offshoot, MoWest. It didn't last long — only two years — but during its life span, MoWest allowed Motown to try out new styles and genres and create one of the most eclectic rosters in the label's long history. Most of MoWest's releases have been out of print the past 40 years, but a new anthology called Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown's MoWest Story 1971-1973 finally highlights the label's life and legacy.

The early 1970s found Berry Gordy and Motown Records in transition. They'd weathered the 1967 Detroit riots and the fractious departure of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and were now riding high on Diana Ross' solo career and the youthful sounds of The Jackson 5. Gordy wanted to expand his empire, especially into TV and movies, and as a beachhead, he founded MoWest Records in Hollywood in 1971. Its first release was Tom Clay's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," a collage of found-sound snippets set to a syrupy arrangement of the Burt Bacharach tune.

That song became a surprising Top 10 hit and also helped set the tone for what would be a short and often strange history for the label. Other Motown subsidiaries were genre-specific, such as the R&B-focused V.I.P. or rock-oriented Rare Earth Records. MoWest, however, was wide open: It collected a motley crew of new and veteran artists that included Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. A decade after becoming huge pop stars in the early 1960s, the group's members sounded less like teen idols than a funkier Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Though the label art on the records prominently featured a sun setting into the Pacific, MoWest's sound was less geographical than experimental. This was Motown's chance to get away from the weighty baggage of its Hitsville legacy. One of its great discoveries was the local Los Angeles ensemble Odyssey, whose sublime "Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love" also gives the new anthology its title. At the height of MoWest's activity, its roster included everyone from the then-up-and-coming Commodores to Stevie Wonder's partner in music and marriage, Syreeta Wright, to Motown's first Asian-American artist, Suzee Ikeda.

In spite of all that diversity, MoWest couldn't mint another hit to save its life. By the summer of 1972, Berry Gordy moved the entire Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles, making MoWest more or less redundant. It shut down the following year and most of its catalog went quickly out of print. This new anthology can't fill that vacuum on its own; it features less than half the total number of artists who recorded for the label. But what it does do is provide a long-needed window back into this era, when Motown gazed westward toward a beckoning California dream.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Spotify catalog includes music from the venerable Motown label. Everyone has heard of Motown, right? Well, few may remember its Los Angeles offshoot, MoWest Records. That label didn't last long, just two years. Most of its releases have been out of print for 40 years. But now a new anthology brings some of them back to highlight the label's life and odd legacy.

Oliver Wang has our review.

OLIVER WANG: The early 1970s found Berry Gordy and Motown Records in transition. They had weathered the 1967 Detroit Riots and the fractious departure of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland and were now riding high on Diana Ross' solo career and the youthful sounds of The Jackson 5. Gordy wanted to expand his empire, especially into TV and movies, and as a beachhead, he founded MoWest Records in Hollywood in 1971. Its first release became a surprising top 10 hit.

(Soundbite of song, "What the World Needs Now is Love")

Mr. TOM CLAY (Singer): What is segregation?

Unidentified Child: I don't know what segregation is.

Mr. CLAY: Ah, what is bigotry?

Unidentified Child: I don't know what bigory(ph) is.

Mr. CLAY: What does hatred mean?

Unidentified Child: I don't know what that is.

WANG: The audio collage of found-sound snippets set over a syrupy arrangement of Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now" helped set the tone for what would be the label's short and often strange history.

Unlike Motown's other subsidiaries, the R&B-focused V.I.P. or rock-oriented Rare Earth Records, MoWest was wide open. It collected a motley crew with both new and veteran artists that included Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons...

(Soundbite of song, "You're A Song (That I Can't Sing)")

WANG: ...huge pop stars of the early 1960s. A decade later, they sounded less like teen idols than a funkier Crosby, Stills & Nash.

(Soundbite of song, "You're A Song (That I Can't Sing)")

Mr. FRANKIE VALLI & THE FOUR SEASONS (Musical Band): (Singing) You've only given me a flower. I wish I had the whole bouquet. If I should ask you for an hour, is there a chance that you would stay and maybe spend the day?

WANG: Though the label art prominently featured a sun setting into the Pacific, the MoWest sound was less geographical than experimental. This was Motown's chance to get away from the weighty baggage of its Hitsville legacy. One of its great discoveries was the local Los Angeles band Odyssey, whose sublime "Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love" also gives a title to the new anthology.

(Soundbite of song, "Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love")

ODYSSEY (Musical Band): Where are you today? Do you know your way? Are you searching for (unintelligible) lost? Just wanting your win at any cost? Our lives are shaped by what we love.

WANG: At the height of MoWest's activity, its roster included everyone from then newcomers the Commodores to Stevie Wonder's musical and marriage partner, Syreeta Wright, to Motown's first Asian-American artist, Suzee Ikeda.

(Soundbite of song, "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You")

Ms. SUZEE IKEDA (Singer): (Singing) Here's a promise you made to me, of the tomorrow that I'll never see, and then you're free to go. But I can't give back the love I feel for you.

WANG: Despite all of that diversity, MoWest couldn't mint another hit to save its life. By the summer of 1972, Berry Gordy moved the entire Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles, making MoWest more or less redundant. It shut down the following year, and most of its catalog went quickly out of print.

This new MoWest anthology can't fill that vacuum on its own; it features less than half the total number of artists who recorded for the label. But what it does do is provide a long-needed window back into this era when Motown gazed westward towards a beckoning California dream.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) Yellow skies, red sun, blue trees, how I want...

NORRIS: The anthology is called "Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love: Motown's MoWest Story." Oliver Wang teaches sociology at Cal State, Long Beach, and writes the audio blog "Soul Sides."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Take your time, no questions, live your life, caressing time. You can't be alone...

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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