The Complete Motown Singles has been a dream project of Motown and soul fanatics for many years, ever since the first decade of Stax/Volt singles was compiled in an impressive nine-disc box set in 1991. Prior to that, no soul label had its output as thoroughly documented as that set -- there had been the Atlantic R&B box, which collected highlights, but it never attempted to capture the label's entire run -- and while The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 missed a B-side or two, it was an exceptional piece of music history, and pretty damn entertaining to boot. It was so good that it seemed like Motown would be a natural to receive the same treatment, since the label not only had a greater impact -- not just musically, but culturally -- but it had a much more diverse roster, which would make for an exciting set. The Complete Motown Singles might have seemed like a logical move to soul collectors and fanatics, but it remained in the realm of fantasy for many years because, as enticing as that set was, it was difficult to create. First, there was the perennial problem of Motown reissues, where the label is always inclined to recycle the familiar hits instead of dig deep into the vaults. That situation improved in the early '90s, after Universal acquired the catalog and began to release sturdy sets like the Hitsville USA box and multi-disc sets by the Temptations and the Four Tops, but even with the success of these releases, there was reluctance to launch a project like The Complete Motown Singles for two big reasons. One, it was a massive project, dwarfing the Stax/Volt output, which could be squeezed into three nine-disc sets by eliminating only a few B-sides and a handful of singles without anybody but scholars and obsessives knowing the difference. Motown's classic period of 1959-1972 featured hundreds of songs -- roughly 50 discs' worth of music, which lead to the second big problem, which is that even if the label approved such a set, it would not be commercially feasible, since no store would stock such a series, no matter how it was broken up.
Such was the state of affairs until the turn of the millennium, when speciality music retailing finally had an outlet via the Internet. Universal had its own Internet-only label, Hip-O Select, which finally provided an avenue for the release of The Complete Motown Singles, which was launched after a long, long wait in early 2005 with the six-disc set Vol. 1: 1959-1961. It was the first installment of a planned 12-volume series of box sets that would cover all Motown singles, including all variations of the singles and all of the label's subsidiaries, from 1959 to 1972, when the label moved its home office from Detroit to Los Angeles. All the songs would be presented in their original single form (usually meaning a mono mix), transferred from vinyl if necessary (since master tapes for many of the rarities have vanished), and each box would be packaged as a deluxe hardcover book, with a reproduced 45 of an original Motown hit incorporated as part of the cover artwork, while the inside would contain rare photos and contain a wealth of information in the track-by-track notes by Bill Dahl and Keith Hughes. In short, it's a lavish, ambitious series, and a pricey one as well -- the first set retails at 119.95 dollars, averaging 20 dollars a disc, which means that the whole series will cost about 1,000 dollars when all is said and done. So, it's a considerable investment, but there's little question of whether it's worthwhile: based on this introductory installment, the answer is an unequivocal, enthusiastic yes. And that doesn't just apply to Motown fanatics, either: this set, and by extension this series, is essential for anybody who deeply loves 20th century American popular music and culture. Naturally, a set this large demands the listener's attention, and while it will reward that close attention tenfold, it's also true that the set is not for everybody, perhaps not even Motown fans who love the classic mid-'60s sound at the expense of everything else. That sound is not heard here, although the driving, insistent dance beat of the label's earliest is, in the form of such early hits as the Miracles' "Shop Around," Barrett Strong's "Money," and the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." But the point of this set is not the hits, which are easily found elsewhere. The point of the set is to hear it all, to find the forgotten treasures, to hear the songs that were mistakes next to the songs that should have been hits, to hear the label evolve over the years.
In these early years covered on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 1, Berry Gordy was trying a little bit of everything with Motown, seeing what would stick. He would imitate the sound of other labels, like Chicago's Vee Jay, or artists like Jackie Wilson. He would jump onto trends, like the twist, or blatantly rip off hits on the chart. He recorded outright novelties, including several songs to President Kennedy. He recorded lite jazz, gospel, blues, even surf rock. He did a little bit of everything, seeing what would sell. Not all of this was good, some of it was lame, some of it was outright silly, but some of it was great, including a lot of hard-driving R&B dance numbers that have the roots of the classic Motown sound. Gordy may have steered Motown all over the place during the early years documented on this set -- and not just before they had hits, because he was just as scattershot after the hits started to come -- but there's a raw, invigorating vitality to his attempts to hit pay dirt, which makes the lesser songs here rise above curiosity to being quite compelling music. Plus, there's a nice side effect to having Motown try so many different sounds: it winds up giving a good idea of what the R&B market sounded like in the early '60s, giving a good context for Motown's big hits. And in this context, these shopworn standards sound as vital and exciting as they did when they first hit the airwaves, which is something that smaller, concentrated sets just can't provide. That ability to re-create the sound, feel, and excitement of the early days of Motown -- something that has long been forgotten due to the overfamiliarity of much of this music -- is the reason why this set is so essential to anybody who loves soul and pop music. The fact that it also has a treasure trove of great, largely unheard early Motown singles almost seems like a bonus in comparison, but it's also another reason why this set isn't merely worth the long wait, but why it comes close to seeming like a dream finally fulfilled. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine