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A love letter to Motown

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in August 2022

A needle drops smoothly into a groove. 

The vinyl, dark and shiny as coal crystals, spins hypnotically. 

My mam, a cloud of blonde curls and hairspray, hands me a toy Fisher Price phone. I clutch the handset between my tiny fingers, ready for my big moment.

When she’s sure I’m good to go she picks up our brown, equally plastic house phone handset. 

Mouthpieces become microphones. Positions are assumed. Deep breaths are taken. 

My mum leads on vocals as the opening bars burst forth from the gauze-covered speakers.

“No new year’s day…. to celebrate…no chocolate-covered candy hearts to give away”, she croons into the BT handset, smiling at me, the prettiest turquoise kohl shimmering from her lined eyelids.

“I just CAAAAAAALLED….TO SAY…I LOVE YOU” I wail right back into my toy handset, minutes later, with ALL the gusto, as my mam joins in the chorus. We sing our hearts out. I am happy. The music is all there is in this moment. 

I feel safe as the warm keyboard notes fill the living room and envelop me. 

My mam is smiling. She is happy. Just a mother and child, duetting into telephones, pretending we’re Stevie Wonder. Almost as if Netflix hadn’t been invented yet or something. 

Whatever year this weird transgenerational phone duet took place (hey, it was the 80s! We only had three channels! We made our own fun!) is the year Motown records emerged into my young consciousness for the first time. I remember staring at the record as it rotated on the turntable, obsessed with the bold, angular ‘M’ boldly printed on the label. 

I wondered what “Tamla” meant. A name, perhaps? It sounded exotic, to me anyway. An imagination fired. 

A burning curiosity led me to other records in my mam’s collection with that giant M imprint. Michael Jackson. Marvin Gaye. The Marvelettes. And other artists that didn’t start with M, probably, too. 

It was another decade and a half before I became obsessed with the Supremes, The Temptations and the Four Tops. It’s almost as if I found Motown backwards, really.

It’s all upside down to me now that Stevie Wonder’s 1984 cheese-fest was my gateway drug to all the musical genius that preceded it. But it’s not how you find it; it’s that you find it at all that matters, right? 

From there, Motown became like a musical comfort blanket. It came everywhere with me. Long car journeys. Mixtapes. Dancefloors. Heartbreaks.

From the assembly lines of Detroit to the south Wales valleys, the sound of young America transcended borders. There was a pounding, driving energy to this string-soaked pop music that got under your skin, turning legs into metronomes and hands into air tambourines.

I’ve seen that very energy transform a dying festival dancefloor into an explosion of utter corporeal joy. When Clwb Ifor Bach DJ legend Gareth Potter opened a 2am festival set with the Martha Reeves classic “Heatwave”, I witnessed an entire field lose its collective mind. 

“WHENEVER I’M WITH HIIIIIIIM…..SOMETHING INSIDE….STARTS TO BURN…AND IT FEELS LIKE DESIRE….”

It is my favourite time I have danced in wellies alone, in a field, surrounded by strangers.

Because “Heatwave” is my happy song. It’s the sound of boundless young optimism and that heady rush of first love seared into shellac. It is, to me, the perfect pop record. And that is a hill I’m prepared to die on. 

That’s what the spinning ‘M’ logo meant to me. A quality mark that told you whatever your ears were about to hear, it would be not just good but great. It had the all-important stamp, after all. 

So imagine my excitement when, in the late 90s, I secured an interview with the one and only Martha Reeves. The ambitious young secretary plucked from obscurity to become one of the stars of the Motown roster turned out to be an absolute joy. Her eyes twinkled as she recounted her early days on the road with the Motown revue, getting to meet the Beatles, and perfecting dance routines with her best friends. She become a bigger star than young Martha, growing up in the Detroit projects, could ever have imagined possible. And that, as Martha put it, was the magic of Motown. 

I was saddened to read that Lamont Dozier, the legendary songwriter behind many Motown hits, passed away this week. The news filtered through to my camping holiday in Pembrokeshire via the wonder of patchy 4G. And I felt a genuine pang of sorrow, in that way that makes no sense when you’ve never met someone and have little idea what they even look like until their picture pops up in the obituaries. 

I guess it’s the idea that one man could have a hand in so many songs that have lit up my life. 

From duets with my mam to northern soul dancing with my best mates, Dozier’s Motown records have run like a shimmering, golden thread through the timeline of my life.

That won’t stop with his passing, of course. His music will live on. Tonight, it pours out around the campfire. I bore my partner to death about my lifelong obsession with Motown, and he listens patiently, like an actual saint. I’ve found my groove. And I don’t ever want the beat to stop.

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