If you were asked to name an act that was signed to Motown, you might say “Marvin Gaye” or “Diana Ross”. Maybe “Stevie Wonder” or “The Temptations”. But for every artist that has come to represent Motown, there are those that you would never have even imagined were signed to the label. Here are some of them:
The Isley Brothers
Family vocal group The Isley Brothers are best remembered for their time before and after their brief tenure at Motown. Success really started in 1959 with the gospel-tinged uptempo classic “Shout” and then “Twist and Shout” two years later. Chart appearances began to elude the group and after briefly starting up their own label, T-Neck, they signed with Motown Records in 1966. Although they recorded a lot of material they had but one hit, 1966’s “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)”. Several unsuccessful singles and two albums later, the group were fed up with being treated like a second-string act and left in 1968. Restarting T-Neck, they hit back at Motown by not only having a massive hit with the funky “It’s Your Thing” but also intended the song as an artistic response to Berry Gordy’s demanding hold on his artists. Success only continued with songs like “She’s A Lady” and “Summer Breeze” in the 1970s. The Isley Bros. maintained their run of hits way up until the 2000s, and have become one of the most long-lived and influential acts in R&B and soul.
The Detroit Spinners
Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
The Pointer Sisters
The Fifth Dimension
Tony Martin was a “traditional pop” and “big band” singer – think Frank Sinatra. Way back in 1938 (before even WW2) this guy was scoring hits. This continued throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, and he appeared in numerous (black and white) film musicals. He signed with Motown in 1964 at the age of 50. Why? Motown were looking for prestige acts to boost their artist roster with, and Tony wanted to resurrect his career. Three singles and zero career revivals later, he left, in 1965. He had scored one minor hit, “Talkin’ To Your Picture”, which reached #133 on the Hot 100 (I wasn’t even aware that was a viable chart position). He left Motown to pursue a career revival elsewhere, and lived until the grand old age of 99. Almost forgotten entirely as someone who recorded for Motown, his legacy will live on through his traditional pop hits and TV and radio. (Although I do rather like his 1964 song “Spanish Rose”, which I would describe as “oddly enjoyable” – it combines his 1940s-style rich and romantic voice with the classic 1960s Motown sound!)
Yes, you read that right. Bruce Willis – star of action and thriller movies like Die Hard – was at Motown.
Yes, the Eddie Murphy. The actor and comedian is best known for his work in the 1980s and 1990s, starring in films like Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor. But in 1993 he recorded an album for Motown Records entitled Love’s Alright. This was not actually his first musical studio album, as he had recorded two previously, How Could It Be? (1985) and So Happy (1989), for Columbia records. He even collaborated with Motown punk-funk star Rick James on several occasions. Although his previous albums were not exactly critical successes, they did achieve some commercial success. His Motown album, however, was a failure on both counts. One single, “Whatzupwitu”, even featured former Motown singer Michael Jackson. Rick James would later make a cameo in Eddie’s 1999 film Life as the character Spanky.