The Motown label single-handedly put Detroit on the musical map, thanks to a series of astonishing soul singles released by Berry Gordy Jr.'s label (and its subsidiary Tamla) from 1959 onward through the watershed years of the '60s.
Many — with the exception of the Motown insiders — were shocked when, in 1972, Gordy up and transplanted his entire operation to Los Angeles. But Motown thrived as part of the West Coast Sound, fueled first by the showbizzy cuteness of the Jackson 5, the hedonistic head pieces crafted by a coke-fueled Marvin Gaye, the adult masterpieces of Stevie Wonder in his prime and (also the not-so-secret reason behind the move West) the transition of Gordy favorite Diana Ross from main Supreme to world-class superstar of both stage and the silver screen.
The Sound of Young America grew up fast in porny, polyester El Lay and rode the city's corporate glitz all the way to Boyz II Men and the New Jack '90s. (Remember Today?)
But there is a strange interlude between the Detroit and L.A. eras of Motown with which most people are unfamiliar. Between 1971 and 1973, Gordy opened up an L.A.-centric subsidiary of his empire that served as an experiment in a new, urbane kind of West Coast soul, miles away from the steady, rhythmic discipline of the Hitsville U.S.A. music factory back in Michigan. The imprint was called Mowest.
Mowest albums now are sought after by pretty much every hip retro club subculture in the world, from British Northern Soul fiends and Japanese rare groove DJs to New York's ultracool cut-and-paste trendsetters like Danny Krivit. Their cult success was unexpected, since one of the reasons Gordy pulled the plug on the whole SoCal operation after a couple of years was that it failed to deliver a massive hit along the lines of what the parent company was getting with its heavy hitters.
Mowest's stable was a motley crew of acts as diverse as Stevie Wonder's talented wife, Syreeta; multiracial hippies Odyssey; soul belter G.C. Cameron; child-voiced Japanese-American Suzee Ikeda; pre–hit records Lionel Richie and the Commodores; and Thelma Houston and crackerjack producers Willie Hutch and Hal Davis.
Strangest of all, Mowest also was temporary home to New Jersey transplants Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, trying to apply their falsetto and pop hook skills to a kind of stoner California soul sound and, miraculously, succeeding. (No, really.) The Four Seasons' Mowest track “The Night” has been a long-appreciated, sought-after underground hit among those in the know.
Now one of our favorite archival labels, Light in the Attic, is releasing Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love: Motown's Mowest Story 1971-1973, with a superb selection of the label's best, including choice tracks from all of the above, lovingly restored in an indispensable package.
Mowest might have not threatened the Temptations or Michael Jackson and his siblings in the charts, but what it did deliver was a unique twist to the Motown sound, heavily sprinkled with our beloved Pacific Ocean mist. Light in the Attic's curators Kevin “Sipreano” Howes and Matt Sullivan have assembled a compilation that pays loving tribute to the missing, jazzy, California-baked link between “What's Going On” and “Quiet Storm.”