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"Top Five" Underrated Motown Songs

In honor of Black History Month, this week’s top-five list commemorates some of the tracks that might have slipped through the cracks from the legendary Motown Records, which was the first record label owned by an African American. Started by Barry Gordy, Motown Records was incorporated in 1960 and played a substantial role in the racial integration of popular music in America. It’s safe to say that without Motown Records, the spectrum of pop music would be drastically different. The Motown sound, which is largely attributed to The Funk Brothers, a nickname for the adept session musicians who provided the backdrop for most Motown recordings, was the inspiration for countless artists and is one of the most iconic musical institutions in our society. Here are five of the best songs released on the label, which featured some of the most talented musicians ever to walk the face of the Earth.

“Function at the Junction” – Shorty Long
Released in 1966, this song only reached No. 42 on the national R&B charts, but it’s a buried treasure chest of soul. Set off by a funky piano, a rhythm section that’s on-time like an employee on their first day of work, and topped off with Long’s bluesy vocals, this jam will have you cutting the rug from note one. A talented musician who could play many instruments including piano, organ, drums, harmonica and trumpet, Long died way before his time in a 1969 boating accident at age 29. To add to his mystique, the Birmingham-born prodigy was the only Motown artist besides Smokey Robinson who was allowed to produce his own recordings.

“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” – Marvin Gaye
First of all, it’s no secret that Marvin Gaye was a complete musical genius. In his typical smooth-as-silk style, this meaningful song is less a call-to-action and more a voice of frustration pertaining to the economic hardships and bleak outlook faced by minorities and the counter-culture of the 1970s. “Inner City Blues” was the third single released off of Gaye’s seminal album “What’s Going On?,” and though it is not one of his best-known songs, it stacks up to anything else he ever made. The laid-back, funky soul tickles the eardrums with pleasure when Gaye intimates the turbulence of the decade by soulfully singing “Hang ups, let downs/ Bad breaks, set backs/ Natural fact is I can’t pay my taxes/ Oh, makes me wanna holler/ And throw up both my hands/ Crime is increasing/ Trigger happy policing/ Panic is spreading/ God knows where we’re heading.”

“(I’m a) Roadrunner” – Junior Walker and the All-Stars
You know you have your priorities straight when you sing: “Don’t a-want no woman/ Just have me bound/ Got to be free, baby/ To roam around/ All my life I’ve been like this/ If you love me, it’s your own risk/ When the dust hits my shoes/ I got the urge to move/ Said, I’m a roadrunner, baby/ Just keep on, keepin’ on.” Set off by Walker’s own tenor sax skills and a rough-edged R&B feel, this down-and-dirty classic was overshadowed by the All-Stars signature hit “Shotgun,” which reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1965. Also a hired gun as a well-respected saxman, Walker, oddly enough, played on the group Foreigner’s “Urgent” in 1981.

“Too Many Fish in the Sea” – Marvelettes
This just wouldn’t be a Motown “best of” list of any sort without including at least one of the many fantastic female groups on the label. Though the label launched the careers of Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin, just to name a few, the Marvelettes were highly underrated and overshadowed by the aforementioned divas. Though they recorded the Motown label’s first No. 1 hit with “Please Mr. Postman,” singles like this one seem to be lost, destined to gather dust in a record bin in the basements of the elderly. A groovy dance number is the backbone for this beautifully-sung gem, which is laced with a touch of humor.

“Cloud Nine” – The Temptations
Characterized as “psychedelic soul” by many, this song – and the album of the same name – was important for a couple reasons. It was the first studio album to feature new lead singer Dennis Edwards, who replaced David Ruffin after he was fired. It also marked the Motown label’s first Grammy Award, which admittedly defies the definition of “underrated.” However, this song seems to get swept under the rug despite the fact it’s one of the funkiest jams of its time, marking a staunch departure from The Temptations earlier works like “My Girl.” Taking a cue from Sly & the Family Stone’s music, this song marked a four-year trip into a more psychedelic and funky period for the group. Crank this one up and feel the funk flow through your bloodstream.

Compiled by Jason Yurgartis.

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    Ronald BegleyFeb 3, 2010 at 8:59 am

    “Statue Of A Fool” by David Ruffin of The Temptations. I have almost 300 Motown songs on my IPod and consider this to be the most underrated Motown song I know. It’s better known as a country song, but I haven’t heard another version even close to being as good as Ruffin’s.