10 surprising Motown acts

Sam Harris
Sam Harris Motown

Motown once boasted that it was “the sound of young America,” a cheeky and some would say brazen title for a black-owned company making a splash at the height of the contentious civil rights era.

But, through such hit makers as the Supremes, the Temptations and the Jackson 5, the label proved the tag wasn’t just hyperbole. Motown had become an integral part of the cultural soundtrack of the ’60s and ’70s.

But not all Motown acts achieved such extraordinary success and, contrary to popular opinion and image, not all those signed to Motown were black or even R&B.

Here are some of the acts signed to Motown or its subsidiaries that you probably never knew were ever affiliated with the same corporation that gave the world Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.

Bruce Willis: Don’t laugh. The action actor fancied himself a singer at the height of his popularity as the dapper David Addison on the hit TV show Moonlighting. So he signed with Motown and in 1987 released The Return of Bruno, an album that turned out to be more than celebrity novelty.

The album of R&B-pop was not only a hit, peaking at No. 14 on Billboard, but it produced a single, Respect Yourself, a duet with June Pointer and a cover of the classic Staple Singers track, that reached No. 5.

If nothing else, Willis showed good taste in song selection and collaborators, as the album featured tunes written or co-written by Ry Cooder, Allen Toussaint and Luther Ingram among others. There was even an HBO special.

Video: Respect Yourself

Rare Earth: While Motown’s bread-and-butter was classic R&B, Berry Gordy and other Motown execs were not blind to what was going on in rock ’n’ roll with the Beatles, the Stones and the revolution they started. In 1969, Motown launched a rock label, Rare Earth, named after the white band from Detroit that became the division’s flag bearer.

The group had a string of hits, including (I Know) I’m Losing You and Get Ready (both covers of Temptations tracks) as well as I Just Want to Celebrate, Hey Big Brother and Born to Wander. Rare Earth may have sunk into anonymity, but the music lives on. I Just Want to Celebrate was rediscovered a generation later and used to great effect in the season finale of HBO’s Six Feet Under as well as in the movies Three Kings, A Knight’s Tale, Land of the Lost and a commercial for Nicoderm CQ.

Though none of its other bands reached this level of success, the Rare Earth label continued through the ’70s with a slate of acts, some of whom (such as Kiki Dee, the Pretty Things and the Planets, a spin-off of the British cult art-rock band Deaf School) earned good critical reaction, if not big sales. Others, such as Toe Fat and the Rustix, never made much of a splash.

Video: I Just Want to Celebrate

Meat Loaf: Dallas’ own Meat Loaf — aka Marvin Lee Aday — began his recording career on Rare Earth as part of the duo Stoney & Meatloaf in 1971. The pair, who met while performing in the Detroit cast of the stage musical Hair, released one album, simply called Stoney & Meatloaf. It would be re-released in 1978 after Meat Loaf had gone on to greater glory on another label with his breakthrough bestselling album Bat Out of Hell in 1977.

Audio: Stoney & Meatloaf

Pat Boone: Yep, the white country-pop crooner who was emblematic of ’50s Leave It to Beaver America was part of the Motown family. In the ’70s, the label had launched a country division, Melodyland (later changing its name to Hitsville), to which Boone signed in 1974. One of the tracks from this time is called Texas Woman.

Other acts on the label like T.G. Sheppard and Jud Strunk were well-known at the time. This wasn’t the first time Motown had tried its hand at country, having launched the Mel-o-dy label in 1962; it was shuttered three years later.

Audio: Texas Woman

Michael McDonald: In the early 2000s, the former Doobie Brother hooked up with Motown for his Motown tribute albums, Motown and Motown Two, and his 2008 album, Soul Speak, which hit the top 20 on Billboard’s Top 200 and No. 10 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.

Video: What’s Goin’ On

Sam Harris: Long before the likes of Kelly Clarkson and American Idol used TV as a launching pad for pop stardom, there was Sam Harris and Star Search. Like AI, Star Search, which ran from 1983 to 1995, was about finding the next big music star, and it seemed to do just that when it discovered Cushing, Okla.’s Harris and his dramatic voice.

Known for his big, blustery version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Harris signed to Motown and had a Top 40 hit in 1984, Sugar Don’t Bite.

Video: Sugar Don’t Bite

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: The pairing of the Jersey boys with the Detroit label turned out not to be a good fit. The Chameleon album from 1972, released on the MoWest subsidiary, flopped. Songs for a second album were never released, though one of the tracks, My Eyes Adored You, went on to become a hit for Valli as a solo act on a different label.

Video: My Eyes Adored You

PFM, UFO, the Easybeats: European prog-rock, British hard rock and Down Under garage-rock seem far out of Motown’s wheelhouse, but Italy’s Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM for short), England’s UFO and Australia’s Easybeats briefly called Motown home.

PFM came to the label through a deal with Manticore, a prog label started by prog pioneers Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

UFO’s first album, UFO 1, came out on Rare Earth in 1970, but the band wouldn’t make it big in the U.S. until moving to Chrysalis Records.

The Easybeats signed to Rare Earth long after their lone 1967 U.S. hit, Friday on My Mind, and their association with Motown didn’t last long.

Video: The Easybeats

Video: PFM

Audio: UFO

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

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