Sunday, April 23, 2017

70s Motown: Smiling Faces Sometimes

Rare Earth: Smiling Faces Sometimes


70s Motown strikes me as a curious choice for our theme, although there are great riches to share. We have heard some of that already, and there is much more to come. But the 1970s were a period of decline for Motown. Starting in the 1950’s, and lasting all through the 1960s, Motown was a music industry leader. The label perfected a distinctive sound, and other labels scrambled to catch up. By the end of the 70s, however, Motown had become a follower. They caught on first to funk and later to disco after their rivals had begun to move into the same space. Motown’s 70’s efforts to innovate largely failed to catch on with the masses. Oh, sure, there were still individual artists making vital new music on Motown, but the label overall would never again be the trend setter it had been in its heyday.

The song I am featuring here, Smiling Faces Sometimes, shows how Motown tried to stay relevant in the 70s. The song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971. The two were Motown in-house writers, and it was standard practice at the label to record versions of the same song with different artists. So Smiling Faces Sometimes was first given to the Temptations, and then, later in 1971, was a hit for The Undisputed Truth. Both versions were produced by Whitfield. By 1973, Motown was trying to adapt to a changing musical marketplace, so they launched a rock label. Their first signing to this new imprint was a band whom they asked for a suggestion of what to call the new label. As a joke, the band suggested that Motown name it after them, and they were quite surprised when Berry Gordy said yes. Both the band and the new imprint were Rare Earth. For Rare Earth’s 1973 take on Smiling Faces Sometimes, Norman Whitfield once again produced. This version was never a hit, but I like the sparseness of the production compared to the earlier versions. What you hear is just the instruments played by the band itself, without the lush arrangements of the older takes. But whoever heard this version at the time did not see it that way. Motown did not become a power in rock music, and the Rare Earth imprint was eventually shut down.

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