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In Rotation: Mowest, Motown’s West Coast experiment

July 3, 2011 |  7:30 am

A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...

Motown mowest 1

Various artists, “Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love: Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-1973.”

The accepted narrative of Motown Records’ early years as a powerhouse Detroit soul label ignores the many-tentacled business that the imprint’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr., built as he gained money and power in the industry. After Motown’s initial burst onto the singles charts in the mid-1960s with the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations and the Four Tops, Gordy and company starting aggressively expanding the empire to include subsidiary labels such as Rare Earth, V.I.P., Gordy and a revived Tamla, the name of his first label.

By the late 1960s, Motown had an L.A. office, but it didn’t have a proper label in Southern California. That changed when Gordy launched Mowest Records in 1971 with the goal of tapping into the region’s lucrative marketplace and deep talent pool. The label only lasted two years, but in that time it released a number of essential sides that are collected on the new compilation, “Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love: Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-1973.”

Compiled by the lauded Seattle reissue label Light in the Attic (which itself recently opened an L.A. office), “What We Love” offers a snapshot of that moment when Stevie Wonder- and Sly & the Family Stone-style soul, hippy anthems out of “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” light danceable pop and James Brown’s ideas on groove were becoming romanticized with strings and a certain gentility that foretold the rise of disco later in the decade.

The peaks are way up there. For example, the main question after hearing Syreeta Wright’s “I Love Everything About You,” is why it isn’t a song you know every word to. Best known as a co-writer with Stevie Wonder (her then-husband) of his “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Everything” was recorded in 1972 with Wonder, and has the same driving vibe as his “Superstition.”

Those not down with the flute should run for the hills; there’s a lot of it on the collection, a sign of the times. But there’s no arguing with its use on the Love Sisters’ take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love.” Filled to the brim with a funky, danceable brass section, strings, tambourine and the five Sisters’ voices (founding member Merry Clayton is best known as the female voice on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter), who yowl and plead their way through the song, it’s one of the release’s highlights, as is vocalist Thelma Houston’s “I Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

There’s certainly a reason why some of this music didn’t hit — it was subpar, and was drawing inspiration from the lesser work of acts like the Fifth Dimension (whose primary arranger, the great Willie Hutch, is represented within) and the nascent soft-rock movement. Even the mediocre stuff is instructional, though, because it showcases a unique moment in time in L.A., offers itself as part of a continuum that extends to this day in the genre-busting, groove-oriented work of Carlos Niño’s Build an Ark, in the soulful sounds of Mia Doi Todd, in Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s more groove-oriented projects and in the work of beatmaker Flying Lotus. In fact, in the case of Lotus, a.k.a. Steve Ellison, that connection is genetic. His grandmother (and Alice Coltrane’s sister), Marilyn McLeod, was the vocalist for the Nu Page, whose “A Heart Is a House” is one of the collection’s standout tracks


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--Randall Roberts