Various Artists - Motor City Hits (2011)

Various Artists

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Detroit businessman/entrepreneur Herb Strather is a music lover, and he has spent the better part of a decade creating several businesses around Detroit's great soul music heritage.  He built neighborhoods with streets named after the likes Freda Payne and the Four Tops; he created Motown-based lotteries for various states; and, most importantly, he created a music label, Motor City Hits, focused on old and new Detroit artists.

A few years ago Strather brought in acts like the Dramatics and the latter day versions of the Four Tops and the Miracles to record tracks for his fledgling label. The cuts have been kicking around on the web, in various stages of availability, for some time, but now have been released in the form of the multi-artist compilation, Motor City HitsHits is a combination of remakes of classic Motown hits and recordings of original material by both familiar and unfamiliar names.  And for all the reasons you wouldn't expect - and despite its convoluted history - the project is generally a winner (sorry, Charlie Sheen).

The supposed "draws" on the disc are the covers of former Motown hits like "Come Get to This" (the disc's first single, here performed by the Dramatics' L.J. Reynolds) and "Baby Come Close" (handled by romantic soul man Keith Washington).  And both of those performances are fine, though, at six-plus minutes, "Come" is about five refrains too long.  But the unexpected pleasures on Hits are the surprisingly strong performances of new material.  The disc's high point is "Miles Away," a terrific ballad by the Four Tops that was briefly issued to radio a few years ago (as "East Coast, West Coast") on JennyJenny Records. Current group member Theo Peoples' understated lead vocal is the perfect complement to former Anita Baker board-man Michael Powell's smooth production.  Nearly as good are "Step On By," a steppers' cut on which the Dramatics' Winzell Kelly wraps his attractive tenor voice, and the love song "Nothing Compares," performed by longtime Detroit engineer Quentin Dennard.  And its good to hear the remaining members of the Miracles for the first time in years, as they deliver the decent "Leaving You."

Other than the throwaway cut "Motorcity Hits Hall of Fame," (essentially a four minute musical commercial for the label with guest vocals from Payne and other notable singers), Hits boasts strong material from a variety of sources. Unfortunately, the disc can't hide its long, sordid history, as many of the songs, especially "Leaving You," Carla Cooke's "Could It Be That All I'm Missing (In My Life Is You)" and Paul Hill's cover of Smokey's "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game" bear arrangements that sound about a decade out of date. But, despite the slightly tired instrumentation, overall Motor City Hits is a success, bringing back some great classic soul artists we haven't heard in awhile and introducing some worthwhile new artists and songs.   Moderately Recommended.

By Chris Rizik