Motorcity Records was a record label, in existence from 1987 to 1992, that aimed to record new material with former Motown artists.
The story of Motown is never complete without Motorcity Records. By the late 1980s – just as Motown was being sold off to MCA and Berry Gordy retiring from his position as the label’s CEO – many of Motown’s ’60s and ’70s artists had fallen on hard times, stopped recording altogether, disbanded or died. And yet almost all of them (well, not the dead ones) came out of retirement, reformed their groups and returned to the recording studios for the same label – Motorcity. In the biographies of almost all former Motown acts (except for big names like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, etc.) you will find something like “in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he/she/they returned to the recording studio for Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records, and released one/two/several singles and one/two/several albums of rerecorded and original songs”.
None of this would have happened if it were not for a certain Ian Levine, of course. Ian had met Kim Weston and her husband Mickey Stevenson when he was 11 years old, in 1967, on an aeroplane. Ian spent the whole journey chatting to Mickey, and Kim arranged to pick him up at the hotel next day. She took him shopping all over Los Angeles, and Mickey arranged for him to go to Motown’s West Coast warehouse, and buy singles for his Motown collection.
Eighteen years later, Ian, now a successful record producer and Northern Soul DJ, was presented with opportunity to record with Kim. His friend Henry Sellars was in touch with her, and he brought her over for Ian to record for his Hi-NRG label, Nightmare, in 1987. The resulting single “Signal Your Intention” topped the UK Hi-NRG charts and was met with enthusiasm from Motown fans. Kim Weston brought other former Motown acts to the label, including Mary Wells, The Velvelettes and Marv Johnson. Mary Wilson of The Supremes followed next and in 1988 a full Motown reunion began to take shape. In April 1989, more than 60 artists gathered in front of the legendary Hitsville USA studios in Detroit. Later that year Levine changed his label’s name from (the awful) Nightmare to (the brilliant) Motorcity Records.
He even collaborated with former Motown songwriters like Sylvia Moy and Johnny Bristol and former Funk Brother Earl Van Dyke. The guy even managed to get Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, and former Supremes Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence to cut some singles! Not to mention Edwin Starr, Syreeta, Brenda Holloway, and both Jimmy and David Ruffin. (I am literally going to list all the artists that recorded for him – it’s incredible). The Originals (and each member as a solo artist), The Contours, The Marvelettes (Gladys Horton and Wanda Young) and The Elgins (and Saundra Edwards as a solo artist) also recorded with the label, even The Andantes (including Pat Lewis) and The Undisputed Truth too! Carolyn Crawford, Sammy Ward, G. C. Cameron, as well as The Monitors and The Miracles (and Billy Griffin as a solo artist), pitched in to record some singles. Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops was even featured on one of the singles, and Marvin Gaye‘s brother Frankie Gaye released some material. Hey – even Smokey Robinson‘s first wife Claudette cut a single!!
Sadly none of the recordings made by these artists crossed over to the national pop charts – that is, except for Frances Nero’s “Footsteps Following Me” (which, may I add, is an absolutely brilliant song) which made #17 on the UK Singles Chart in 1991. Even this success, however, proved short-lived, as Frances received no royalties from the song and left the music industry shortly after. The deal for Motorcity was an exclusive one, and was frozen, as by this point Motorcity would make no more releases; the only way to free up its entire catalog was to waive all rights to royalties made by its songs.
Record companies proved reluctant to invest in artists of yesteryear, particularly in the US. Ian also ran into a string of distribution issues with various labels around 1990. Motorcity Records began to lose money, despite releasing so much material and putting on various reunion concerts and shows. Some of the albums did not sell well, and were criticised for not using real, live musicians in recordings. The relationship between Ian and some of his acts also proved tricky. (According to Ian Levine himself, he and Martha Reeves endured a weird love-hate relationship, and she was supposed to record an album but never did. Similarly, Mary Wilson demanded a large sum of money for an album that she never recorded, and after Ian paid up, she tried to claim that he was ripping off all the former Motown artists, before he proved that she was supposed to record an album and it was retracted. Apparently she still dislikes him. Sorry about the gossip.) Motorcity was desperately running out of money and, by 1992 (almost 1000 songs and 108 artists later), Ian was declared near-bankrupt.
Sadly, many of the artists who recorded for Motorcity have since claimed that they did not receive (enough and/or any) royalties. This is likely because a lot of Motorcity material did not sell well, and the label did not make enough money for them to receive royalties. Many artists were appreciative of the chance to record again, and some, like Marv Johnson, Edwin Starr, and Frank Wilson, became good friends with Ian Levine.
Nevertheless, Motorcity gave many of Motown’s former stars a well-deserved career revival. The company recorded artists that few other people wanted to record. Not to mention the fact that label managed to capture their brilliant music one last time; many of the artists have since passed away, and their Motorcity material became their last studio recordings.
Long live Motown, and long live Motorcity!
The Marvels of Motorcity
Although Motorcity cannot compare with the legendary Motown label, it still had some pretty good and unfairly underrated music. The rerecorded versions of old Motown songs are in almost all cases nowhere near as good. Often the label’s original songs – many of which were written by Ian Levine in collaboration with former Motown songwriters – were much better in comparison. Here are some of Motorcity’s best songs:
- FOOTSTEPS FOLLOWING ME by Frances Nero
- HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE by David Ruffin
- YOU’RE MY LOVELINE by Vee McDonald
- LAW OF THE LAND by The Undisputed Truth