Motown's "Tone Poet" Series—First Three Editions

I'd be surprised if someone at UMe didn't look at the success of Blue Note's "Tone Poet" series and say to themselves "maybe the way to launch a Motown reissue series is to do it with the highest possible quality" because Motown/ UMe's new 5 LP Motown mono series duplicates in every way Blue Note's "Tone Poet" series: Kevin Gray cut from mono master tapes, RTI plated and pressed on 180g vinyl and the records are packaged in Stoughton tip on jackets. Even the labels are authentic, including on The Miracles album the 2648 West Grand Avenue address of "Hitsville, USA".

UMe sent the first three off the presses (the rest will follow) and the results are as perfect as you'd expect. This is how all reissues should be produced! The choices are interesting beginning with The Fabulous Miracles (Tamla 238), the Miracles' 4th album originally released in 1963. It opens with "You Really Got A Hold On Me", later covered (not much later!) by The Beatles. Surely Smokey hit the royalty jackpot with that one! "I've Been Good To You" is said to be John Lennon's favorite Miracles song.

At this point in the "Motown Sound"'s development there's more Doo Wop than what later became known as "The Sound of Young America". Listening now it's interesting to note that in addition to Doo Wop, someone, probably pianist Earl Van Dyke was clearly paying attention to what was coming out of Nashville because side one's closer, "Won't You Take Me Back", combines Doo Wop with a Floyd Cramer-like piano part. This one is the oldest of the three LPs and by a wide stretch the best, most natural sounding, probably because the studio chain was at its most basic. You can hear deeply into the mix, which effectively blends the background vocals behind Smokey. Back up by The Funk Brothers is also well-captured to tape. Benny Benjamin's snare "snaps" lively and James Jamerson's bass "pops" really deep and naturally. The sound is so good and Smokey's voice is so masterful, it's easy to get past the somewhat dated quality of the material, but at this point it's "classic." If you're only buying one of these three, that would be it. I'm still waiting for the mono The Temptations Sing Smokey one of the greatest Motown albums.

The Four Tops Reach Out released in 1967 epitomized all that was bad and great about Motown, though the cover was just plain bad. The song selection is all over the place from greats like "Reach Out I'll Be There", "Seven Rooms of Gloom" and "Standing In The Shadows of Love" to two Monkees covers and The Association's "Cherish", plus Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" and Michael Brown's "Walk Away Renee". This was definitely not an album of "soul music", nor was much of Motown's output, which, face it, was aimed at "Young, white America", but even then this album went way too far! I remember buying the stereo version and at some point dumping it, but listening now makes clear that one cannot get enough of Levi Stubbs enormous, impassioned voice, though to more than a few generations now, he's best known as the voice of a carnivorous plant. Today it's easy to listen to the late Mr. Stubbs turn shlock into greatness. Don't be alarmed by the weird start: "Reach Out I'll Be There" is weirdly mixed with plenty of low end distortion but it gets better from there.

The Marvelettes of "Please, Mr. Postman" had long since given way to a more glitzy edition, probably transformed due to the success of The Supremes and Holland and Dozier having left the building, replaced by Ashford and Simpson. The transformation doesn't wear so well here though the opener is fun. Not sure why this one was chosen to be among the three, but your reaction may differ. The sound is kind of bright too.

Overall though this is a 100% successful reissue series!

robertaich's picture

I have an original "Reach Out" mono that I was fortunate enough to find sealed in 2017, when it had been waiting for 50 damn years to be found. I have zero problem with the pop material sprinkled in with some of The Four Tops' greatest tracks. Because the Tops take the frothiest pop and add soul. And that low-end distortion at the beginning of "Reach Out...?" The sound of tension and terror translated to a pop single. Agree completely about the LP's cover, though. As I agree that "The Temptations Sing Smokey" is a hell of an album.

Rashers's picture

did you open the record - how do you balance the temptation to play the album versus keeping it as a valuable collectors' piece?

robertaich's picture

Records are for playing. The joy was finding a record that old that no giant nail on a GE Mustang suitcase record player (or worse) had grooved out. I got that and its equally sealed Temptations mono (title escapes me...also from ‘67) home, opened it, cleaned it and marveled at my luck from first track to last.

doak's picture

A sealed record, IMO, is akin to a "show car" ... I am also prone and known to use an analogy that references women, butt I'll leave that one be.

Michael Fremer's picture
I got a copy of The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" with a sealed inner bag in which was a Columbia "360 Sound" in black 1A label. The jacket was stamped in red "Demonstration.....". I opened it, smelled the air that had been sealed in for decades and then played it! Was great! and I didn't worry that it was no longer sealed. It was played and enjoyed as it was meant to be!
Happy Will's picture

Ah, I remember buying a sealed US 360 copy of Highway 61 Revisited at a record fair in Reading (UK) back in the early '90's (when you had to use Goldmine and some years before e-bay). I then proceeded to open it in front of the stall holder who was gobsmacked :) Records are for playing aren't they?

doak's picture

Collectors no doubt all have their own versions.
Mine is a sealed copy of The Doors "Strange Days" turned up at a library book/media sale. That the cover had no barcode was a good sign. Upon opening was found to be a perfect Elektra tan label. Nice!! :-)

Pisces101's picture

How you can't sit back and enjoy a song like the theme to their 1968 film ("Head") "Porpoise Song" and admit, "That's pretty damn good!" is beyond me I guess. I love so many artists, bands and genres...if it makes me smile, it's good music!