Motown’s Magic: Soul-Searching at 5th Grade Camp

I work a lot with people who are from out of town. When they ask me what’s special about Michigan and Detroit, the thing I bring up first is always Motown. A lot of people who don’t grow up in the area aren’t as conscious about Motown and its history as we are here in Southeast Michigan. The thing about Motown songs, though—just like, I’d say, songs by The Beatles—is that even if you aren’t a hardcore fan, you still “know” every song. So when I tell people that “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” “Baby, I Need Your Loving” and “Do You Love Me? (Now That I Can Dance)” all came from Detroit’s most successful pop culture think-tank, Motown Records, everyone is always impressed and intrigued about Detroit’s cultural history.

And these songs and talents resonate with us so. Growing up, it seemed like 104.3 was always on in my car when mom was driving. I never complained, because the music was good. WOMC only played songs from the 60s and 70s, but in Detroit, that meant a plethora of Motown gems every hour. Everyone loves Motown, but we have a bias around here. Stax definitely tries to hold a candle to Berry Gordy’s conglomeration, but ask any native Detroiter, and it’s no contest. Motown tracks remind us of once was what good and that sometimes the simpler things in life can truly be perfection.
That’s what a lot of Motown recordings are: simple perfection. In particular, stands one of the greatest pieces of pop music ever created: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. There may be no other song that comes close enough.

When I’ve got a few more blogs under my belt and some serious over confidence after drinking three or four large iced Dunkin’ Donuts coffees, I will one day try to elaborately make the case that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the greatest piece of motion picture ever created. Obviously, to try and make some sort of scientific argument that one piece of art is the greatest of its kind is nonsense. That’s why it’s art, because it’s not science. But, it’s fun anyway, and we all have our opinions, and I have mine. And to me, there really is no song recorded that’s more magical than Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (we don’t talk about the Diana Ross version that Brad Curtis and I mistakenly chose at karaoke on Spring Break in Hawaii and didn’t know how it went and then were really embarrassed as a result).

Hawaii 088
   A picture from that trip that’s more pleasant than our rendition of Diana Ross

What makes a great song? 

A lot of things, of course. The song, written by the great duo of Ashford and Simpson, has carried its weight through the years. It’s just one of those songs. Like, at any special event ever, you want to hear this song. And if it comes up on shuffle, ya gotta just let it play through. It’s short, sweet, simple. And it has SOUL.

A bunch of soul. The thing about so many singers and musicians today that I have a lot of trouble liking is that I don’t really believe that they believe in what they’re singing. When you heard Tammi and Marvin sing, you bought it. Because it went beyond listening to music, you could feel the music as well. Part of that is also attributed to the musicianship behind the song. Frequently, when people hear this song, the musicianship behind Tammi and Marvin are washed out by the sounds of the person listening to it also belting out each lyric, in the shower, at a bar, or a wedding. But when one really stops to listen to the pieces that make up “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it’s really a marvel of organized noises. Really, really great recordings are recordings that can’t be replicated. Even The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie”—a silly song adored by early 70s frat boys and played loudly at sporting events in the 90s (by the same frat boys 20 years older)—is a prime example of a recording, whose sound just cannot be replicated.

Almost every Motown recording has “that sound”. There’s just that echoey, cool, Motown hook that Berry Gordy and company found, that no one could repeat. Part of that sound came from the layers of music found within each song. Particularly, the bass lines of James Jamerson (y’all should check out the documentary, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” for more. It’s all about The Funk Brothers, the group of musicians who recorded almost every one of Motown’s greatest hits). Check out the bassline from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, especially the bassline for the chorus, which is like its own song. No one back then, in pop music, was doing anything like this. In many ways, Jamerson reinvented how the bass guitar was used as an instrument for pop music. Nowadays, the “bass” is so heavily integrated (and, usually, compressed) in most pop music. But back then, to hear a bass line in a pop song with that kind of energy and motion within its rhythm and melody, was just something so incredibly unique, that it still sounds as fresh and original today.

Then there’s Marvin and Tammi: a duo whose stories are each so wonderful and tragic, it makes you wonder who at HBO is deciding to do biopics on Liberace instead of telling these two Motown stories (nothing against Liberace, but we want a Marvin and Tammi movie, damn it!). Maybe it’s because everyone is certain they wouldn’t do the duo justice because similar to the Motown sound, some talent just can’t be replicated. I mean, seriously, who’s gonna try and play Marvin Gaye? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and I don’t know of any actor on the planet ready to fill those shoes. Let’s face it, there simply ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby:

And yeah, this video is kinda hilarious. But this is before “Thriller” and MTV came along and shifted the paradigm of what music videos were and what they could be. Even MJ had some pretty bad ones (see: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, which is about “Star Wars”, I’m convinced. The Force don’t stop…). Regardless, there’s something so untouchable-y sweet about this video. The two just work together, Marvin and Tammi. Their body language is as articulate here as their voice is in presenting the marvelous lyrics penned by Motown legends Ashford and Simpson. I mean, these are really, truly incredibly love lyrics. As Jim Price might say about an accomplished baseball player, Ashford and Simpson have a “big book”. Out of all of their wonderful hits, “Ain’t No Mountain” is still the best—so good it would have the Tin Pan crew bustling, nervously, to write something that even comes close to it.

So soul, talent, writing. Good production and musicianship. This is what makes a great song, sure. But what really brings the best out in any given song is the memories we make with it.

I’ve never seen “Stepmom”, and I never want to. The movie looks really dumb and cheesy (Kale translation: if I watch it, I will probably cry and be embarrassed about it). This scene, though, I can relate to. I mean this girl walks in, and she’s obviously down about something. And, she doesn’t seem to really care for Susan Sarandon’s character, probably because (1) she’s got some weird mid-to-late 90’s hair thing going on and (2) she’s never seen “Bull Durham”. Anywho, Susan Sarandon and little mushroom-top 90’s boy start lip-synching and dancing to “Ain’t No Mountain” and all of the sudden everything is better! This girl is now having fun with strangely-hair’d Susan Sarandon because they are all groovin’ to the greatest song for friends, family or significant others ever created. Dancing on beds, singing with hair-straighteners and toothbrushes (yes, I know that’s actually a curler. Also, what is the girl singing with? Is that a Wii-remote?)—that’s the kinda thing a great pop song like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” can do to the soul of a human being.

When I was in 5th grade, one of the most popular movies out there was “Remember the Titans”. Everyone loved this flick! Guys, girls, our teachers, our parents. And, man. Has anyone watched this movie recently? A lot of movies we love as children we go back and watch and realize they’re not that good. But “Remember the Titans”? This movie is fantastic. What a script! What performances! And that score and soundtrack! I think a lot of people my age my first associate the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with this wonderful Disney sports movie. Our 10 year old selves were introduced to this song in a scene in the flick where the black kids and the white kids are all starting to figure out that they don’t really hate each other. And, here we go again, this song comes in to put every character’s issues aside for two minutes while they jam out to the greatest song ever produced. Even pre-“Notebook” Ryan Gosling gets down in this scene!

The best part of this scene is they aren’t even singing the right lyrics, which just lends to an authentic spur-of-the-moment singing feel.

(Sometimes, I wonder if the producers of “Remember the Titans” sat in a room during pre-production and one of them goes, “Hey, we can’t do this scene, because they used this song in a similar fashion in ‘Stepmom’ and that came out only two years ago!” And then a smarter producer snaps back, “What? No! Screw ‘Stepmom’! ‘Stepmom’ didn’t copyright jamming out with your friends to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. Besides, we all know that the first film to do it was ‘Sister Act II’, which not only has the best sequel title of all time, but has one of the best ending credits dance routines in history.”)

For our 5th grade trip, the school took every 5th grade class to Camp Tanuga for a weekend. I was in Mr. Smith’s class, which was the best class—naturally. On our way to Tanuga, the in-flight entertainment was, of course, the biggest hit on VHS that spring, Remember the Titans.  Everyone was into it. I’m pretty sure we watched it on the way back, too. For me and my friend Antoine, the Motown gems in the flick were not new to us, but now, all of the sudden, all of our classmates wanted to join in on the magic that we had grown up with in our households. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was THE song for our Camp Tanuga trip. By the end of the weekend, with Antoine and I leading the verses, our whole bus was singing the chorus that Marvin and Tammi had made so popular.

Mr. Smith was a musician himself, and loved every minute of our spontaneous singing escapades. He loved it so much that he insisted that the male group of our class go up on stage at the 5th grade talent show and perform it, with Antoine and I leading. Damn, I remember being so nervous about it. Nervous to the point of backing out right before we went on stage, especially since neither Antoine nor I really knew the third verse of the song. This is funny now, because if you really know me, I’m no stranger to singing in front of people (I’m looking at you, Irish Tavern crowd). Back then, however, this was my worst nightmare. When it came to the day of the talent show, I brought the Titans CD with me and suggested to Antoine that we tell Mr. Smith to play it in the background and we’ll just sing along with it. Somehow, after much deliberation, and discussion slash peer pressure from my dear 5th grade friends, we decided that we needed not a CD to help us, we needed only the ruach-summoning call of the greatest song ever written to lift us to 5th grade greatness. And thus, memories—

We now know the third verse.

About Kale

Kale is a proud MSU Detroiter with filmmaking and social media aspirations. Currently in Production Assisting Purgatory, Kale has two goals in life: (1) Have a million followers on twitter and (2) Never pay a mortgage. So help Kale reach one of those goals, follow him @kaledavidoff
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Motown’s Magic: Soul-Searching at 5th Grade Camp

  1. Scott Brown says:

    I’m sure you’ve taken a trip to the Motown Museum. Y’know how they made that echoey sound of Motown? They ran a speaker up into the attic of the house on West Grand Blvd, set a mic up in the attic and recorded the ambient sound. Yep. Analog Echo Chamber. You can’t replicate it because there is only one attic on West Grand Blvd.

    • Kale says:

      Yes! I have been to the Motown Museum and have sung The Contours into that very echo chamber. Pretty incredible. They do a great job with that museum, too. I’ve been to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, STAX Records and more, but the quaint, little Motown Museum is seriously the best one of them all.

      • Med says:

        Tammi and Marvin…we dressed like that before the age of real music videos.
        Jamie Fox could easily do Marvin. I wanna see Kale or Antoine do it today! Who’s your Tammi? How ’bout Adia Dobson?