Which Motown Records Should I Buy?

A Guide to Collecting Motown on Vinyl

If you’ve been bitten by the bug and are wanting to dive into Motown’s catalog, well, you’ve made the right choices with your life. Undeniably, Berry Gordy and his Motown label changed not only the landscape of popular music, but the music industry itself. Much has been written about Motown and rightfully so. From the late '50s through at least the mid-’70s, Hitsville U.S.A. was the engine driving American music. The history of the label and the context of its rise are well worth the study. Before we dive in to that long history, here are a few quick picks.

If you want to hear what all the fuss is about.

If you want one huge, classic album.

If you want something from the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team.

If you want an instant, affordable collection.

If you want something crazy rare.

Before we get started, it’s important to understand that “Motown” covers not just the Motown label, but also the 29 other labels owned by Gordy. We’ll mostly be talking about Motown, Tamla, and Gordy releases here, but there’s a lot more to the corporation than its famous moniker. Berry Gordy really did capture a full picture of American life and art.

In addition to Tamla, which was actually the first label, and Motown, which released the big name R&B acts, there were labels for every genre of music. Jazz (Workshop Jazz, Blaze), country (Mel-o-dy, Hitsville), hip-hop (Mad Sounds, Wondirection), rock (Rare Earth, Morocco), and spoken word (Black Forum) all had a home under the Motown umbrella. Foreign issues were typically handled by Tamla/Motown (not to be confused with Tamla or Motown).

As unlikely as it may sound, a large part of the magic of the early Motown era was the result of Gordy’s running the label like an assembly line. Writers wrote songs, artists went into the studio to record them, Berry inspected every aspect of the product being produced, and—if everything was approved—the artist went on tour while the record went out to stores and radio stations. Repeat. There was no room for drawn-out studio experiments or downtime between albums. Gordy wanted every song to be a hit and every one of his artists to have as many as possible. He even had a code of conduct for his roster.

Many of the label’s enduring songs were written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. This would be brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier. All three men had been writing and performing for Motown and its affiliated labels in the early ‘60s. They had all had a hand in early hits, but when they teamed up, their work brought Motown some of its greatest successes: “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Leaving Here,” “Can I Get A Witness,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “Baby Love,” “I Hear A Symphony,”, “Baby Don’t You Do It,”, “It’s the Same Old Song,” and many, many more. Unfortunately, by the late ‘60s the team had an acrimonious split with Motown. Lawsuits were filed and counter-filed. It got ugly. So ugly in fact that they were legally unable to put their names on any new songs they wrote outside of Motown and had to go by the pseudonym Edythe Wayne.

Hits by Holland-Dozier-Holland

The early ‘70s saw Motown start to branch out into television. Since L.A. ruled the world of TV production at the time, more resources were sent out west, until eventually the company re-headquartered there. The change was not just one of locale. Berry Gordy had begun to allow artists a bit more freedom in their production and style. The factory gave way to the laboratory. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On spurred real changes to how the label cultivated its talent, opening up avenues for other artists to lean away from the assembly-line model and lean into their own creativity.

Now, this guide isn’t intended to take a critical view of the music itself (although I’ve been known to sneak that in from time to time), but rather a reference for listeners beginning to grow their Motown collection. Pouring over all the pressing and label variations and their subsidiary labels would unfortunately take up far more room than we have here. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some specific records from the Motown, Tamla, and Gordy labels to get you going. But there’s enough information here to offer some insight into other Motown records of similar time periods.

The Detroit Years

A great place to start with Motown might actually lead you temporarily to Chess Records. Motown’s early (and essential) release of The Miracles’ “Bad Girl” b/w “I Love Your Baby” was originally issued only locally on the Motown label. Nationally, it was released by Chess. Original copies of the Motown are exceptionally rare and expensive. The more common Chess pressing or a later repress are what you’re most likely to find. Keep in mind that the early Motown singles for this group were credited to The Miracles or The Miracles Feat. Smokey Robinson. Any single with a song from this era credited to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles is a later pressing. It wasn’t until 1965 that the band changed their name to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Robinson left the group in 1972.
Early Motown pressing of The Miracles’ “Bad Girl”

Another great look at the early influence of Motown is “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong. This Tamla single was one of many that grabbed the ears and imagination of what would soon be called the British Invasion. First pressings have an early fade out on the A side so, depending on why you’re collecting, that may not be the version you want to get. Later pressings have a 10-second-longer cut. More rock, but… worth a little less cash.

Speaking of a bit of Liverpool, 1962’s Meet the Supremes is an excellent place to start with this timeless group—and not just because it is their first LP. Early pressings have a cover that features the group sitting on stools, the address 2648 West Grand Blvd Detroit Mich on the lower left corner of the back cover (with a car-shaped Motown logo at the bottom middle), and a red star where Detroit is on the map that makes up the top of the center label. The recording will be in mono and has 11 tracks. It’s going to set you back some cash if you find it at all.

A later 1964 pressing will have a cover featuring the group in a close-up shot. The back of the jacket will have a large stylized “M” logo instead of the car. This version will only have 10 tracks with “Let Me Go The Right Way” missing. There are several transitional pressings of this album that may only have 10 tracks listed on the back, but with 11 tracks on the wax or an M logo with a stool cover. If you like variations, this is a fun one to collect.

If you get into the Supremes’ singles, keep in mind that from 1968 to 1970, they were Diana Ross & The Supremes. Any earlier singles with that credit are not first pressings. Diana Ross left the group in 1970.

Meet the Supremes early pressing vs. later pressing

1971’s Sky’s The Limit by The Temptations will keep being rediscovered by future generations until the end of time. It’s seriously that good. An amazing mix of soul music and mellow psychedelia, Sky’s The Limit is a must-have for anyone collecting Motown (or in this case, Gordy) albums. Or any albums for that matter. You should have this! Standout tracks are “Just My Imagination,” which was covered by The Rolling Stones, and “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Early copies have the “Smiling Face Sometime” misprint.

Motown releases of this era mostly have the map-and-star design on the center label. Very early Motown has a salmon-colored center label with black type. The top half of these center labels feature evenly spaced 45 degree black lines that intersect with the word “MOTOWN” vertically justified on the far left.

Tamla labels are most commonly yellow background with black type and have evenly spaced horizontal black lines that intersect with a vertically justified “TAMLA” inside a diamond on the far left side. Some Early Tamla labels are black type on yellow label with Tamla in a serif font at the top and two stacked horizontal lines that intersect at the spindle hole.

Classic Detroit-Era Motown Records

The Los Angeles Years

1971’s What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is always going to be a top recommendation. While technically recorded in the Detroit years, it was mixed (kind of secretly) on the West Coast and its production values indicate a shift in the label’s in-house rules. This album was such a game changer that it’s strange to think of it as almost not happening. Disagreements between Gaye and Berry almost caused it to get completely derailed. Fortunately, Gaye prevailed.

Early pressings are on the unfairly maligned Dynaflex vinyl and come with a gatefold. (Dynaflex is a thinner type of vinyl that has plenty of audiophile detractors.) The inner sleeves of early What’s Going On pressings advertise other Motown releases. The LP and single version of the title track are wildly different from one another and it is absolutely worth buying both. The single doesn’t feature the conversations at the start of the song and has a false ending, where it fades out and then back in for just a little more. The drums are also mixed a bit more forward and the vocals just a tad back. Both were released on the Tamla label.

Ads found on inner sleeves of early What’s Going On pressings
I tried my best to avoid putting two albums by the same artist in this section but, I also think of these following two albums as a double album of sorts: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and Innervisions on Tamla. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to one without immediately following it with the other. If you’ve ever been within 500 yards of a karaoke bar, you’ve heard “Superstition” off of 1972’s Talking Book. The entire album is as solid as it gets. From airy love songs to serious funk to protest songs, everything is here. First pressings of Talking Book have braille on the front cover and inside the gatefold. Later pressings may or may not have the gatefold, but will not have the braille. The good news is that first pressings are still pretty affordable. Innervisions was released in 1973. There are a few versions out there, but I’d keep an eye out for the pressings cut by Kent Duncan. Look for “KENDUN” in the dead wax for his stamp. They all sound good, but the Kendun’s are known for having a bit of extra magic.
Lionel Richie - Can't Slow Down

My next recommendation veers pretty far from the classic Motown sound, but proves that the label always had its fingers on the pulse. They were a hit factory, after all, and this album spent all of 1984 in the top 10. 1983’s Can’t Slow Down by Lionel Richie. It may not get you any cool points with those only after ‘60s R&B or ‘70s soul, but this album shows how the label and the artists weren’t going to stop short of success. Besides, there’s “All Night Long”—10 bucks says you’re singing it to yourself right now. The main differences in pressings here are that some later pressings were distributed by MCA. No real change to the sound, but it previews the upcoming ownership change.

Another ‘80s release that’s definitely worth having is 1981’s Street Songs by Rick James, released on the sublabel Gordy. It’s super freaky. Get all the jokes out of your system, because this album is going to party your face off. First pressings were mastered by Chris Bellman at Allen Zentz. If it has “Mastered at Allen Zentz, L.A.” stamped into the dead wax, it’s a first pressing.

The center labels for Tamla singles from this period are yellow background with brown type. The top near-quarter of the label is a brown stripe that has a centered yellow square with “TAMLA” and a wireframe globe within it. Some singles have yellow background with black type with a record silhouette and wire mesh globe next to each other at the top. The globe says “TAMLA” with “Tamla Records, Detroit Michigan” under it.

Motown labels are of the map-and-star variety. Foreign pressings may have a label with a large stylized “metal” M at the top and the rest of the label printed to look like shiny chrome. It’s very 80s. Gordy labels will be a maroon background with a yellow “pie wedge” taking up the center of the label. The printing is in metallic gray.

Classic L.A.-Era Motown Records