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How Motown Defined the Psychedelic Soul Sound

The ideas that emerged when R&B’s heaviest heads let it all hang out make for a compelling chapter in the story of American music.

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Norman Whitfield
Norman Whitfield - Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By the time the psychedelic revolution dosed America’s collective consciousness in the late 60s, Motown Records had spent the decade’s first half at the front of just about every new move in R&B and soul. And the label wasn’t about to lag behind when it came to keeping pace with the wildly blooming counterculture.

R&B artists were used to being a step ahead of rock ‘n’ roll, with the world’s most influential rockers scrambling to adopt the sounds of the soul artists they adored. With psychedelia, though, rock had gotten to the table first for a change, but the soul slingers were quick to catch up.

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Motown didn’t invent the psychedelic soul concept. The Chambers Brothers snuck in the door before anybody even noticed. Their first version of “Time Has Come Today” was an entirely different recording from the one that made them famous in 1967. Shorter but still undeniably psychedelic – especially for the time – it arrived in September of 1966, just weeks after The Beatles’ psych milestone Revolver.

In 1967, overzealous music journalists started misapplying the “psychedelic soul” tag to The 5th Dimension, whose flower-power pop was neither psychedelic nor soul. Ironically, proto-prog rockers Vanilla Fudge were among the first to cotton onto the hybrid, bringing their fuzzed-out sonic assault to tunes made famous by the likes of Curtis Mayfield and The Supremes on their self-titled debut album, released in August 1967.

They were followed quickly by their spiritual cousins on the other side of the rock/soul fence: The Rotary Connection, overseen by Charles Stepney and possessing the vocal power of a young Minnie Riperton. In February 1968, they turned tunes by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Sam & Dave (as well as originals) into symphonic, cinematic, tripped-out epics on their first album. Around the same time, Sly & The Family Stone were starting to lay the psych-soul groundwork with early hits like “Dance to the Music.”

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But the psychedelic soul era at Motown began thanks to two men who had practically been part of the label’s crew from day one. Producer/arranger/composer Norman Whitfield and singer/songwriter Barrett Strong had long since been involved in hits for the label, from the smash “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to Strong’s own single “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Tamla-Motown gang’s very first success.

In October of 1968, Motown released the Temptations single “Cloud Nine,” penned by Strong and Whitfield and produced by the latter. It arrived loaded with wah-wah guitar and lyrics addressing social issues. The record leaped into the Top 10, and the Strong/Whitfield psych sojourn was underway. The Cloud Nine album came out in February of the following year, complete with a cover depicting The Temptations in an appropriately head-swirling setting. There was no moss growing on Motown – the next single was “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” a fuzz guitar-laden track with another socially relevant theme. It followed “Cloud Nine” into the Top 10.

Runaway Child, Running Wild

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The Temptations were reportedly nervous about altering the sound that had served them so well in the past, but by 1969, the shift’s success seems to have allayed their uncertainties. On their next LP, Puzzle People, they were all in on psychedelic soul. Another Strong/Whitfield brainchild, it features extended, issue-oriented tracks like “Message from a Black Man” and “Slave.” Musically, the No. 1 hit “I Can’t Get Next to You” doesn’t boast any psych trappings, but its lyrics are among Strong’s headiest.

Released the same month as Puzzle People, Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Nitty Gritty put a greater emphasis on the gritty and the groovy than the group ever had before, thanks to Strong and Whitfield. Somebody’s getting their money’s worth out of an electric sitar on “Aint No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone” and a cover of The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” Even the non-LP single “Friendship Train,” a No. 2 R&B hit, is a funky message song with some of the dirtiest, fuzziest guitar tones ever to occupy a Knight release.

Friendship Train

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By the dawn of the 70s, psychedelic music had largely exited the rock realm, but it was in full locomotion on the soul side. The phenomenon had extended well beyond Motown, making for a crowded field including the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic, Swamp Dogg, The Isley Brothers, and Shuggie Otis.

But Strong and Whitfield were just getting warmed up. Their raging Vietnam statement “War,” originally a Temptations track, fully flowered as a 1970 Edwin Starr smash. And when it appeared on Starr’s album Involved, it was accompanied by plenty more freak-flag-flying tracks.

Whitfield brought The Undisputed Truth together himself as poster children for the scene he and Strong had turned into a national sensation. UT scored big with the subtly politicized “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” originally a Tempts track. Their second album, 1971’s Face to Face with the Truth, though less popular than the first, remains one of the heaviest slabs of stoner soul in the Motown discography.

Smiling Faces Sometimes

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The Undisputed Truth also debuted the original version of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” even though it failed to ignite on the charts. The Temptations, of course, eventually took it to the top. By then, Barrett and Norman’s paisley period had already yielded hard-grooving Top 10 head trips like “Psychedelic Shack,” the soundtrack to the greatest lava lamp-lit party you never had, and “Ball of Confusion,” later covered by everybody from Duran Duran to Tesla. The latter may be Motown’s finest countercultural fruit, a churning cauldron bubbling over with the era’s societal ills, stirred by a riff as unrelenting as it is unforgettable.

Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today) (Alternate Mix)

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Of course, Motown had other writers and producers fully capable of adapting to the psychedelic soul moment. That was made clear by items like former Temptation Eddie Kendricks’ Frank Wilson-produced solo albums, and Detroit band Rare Earth’s mind-bending 21-minute take on the old Motown hit “Get Ready” (heroically edited to less than three minutes for the hit single). And while not overtly psychedelic, Marvin Gaye’s legendary early 70s work was as heady, street-relevant, and atmospheric as any of the above and then some.

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By the mid-70s, the scene had shifted. The trippy, hippie hash dreams of rock and soul alike were receding as American music slicked up and straightened out for the arrival of disco. But the ideas that emerged when R&B’s heaviest heads let it all hang out populate a crucial, compelling chapter in the story of American music.

Listen to The Temptations’ Masterpiece on Apple Music and Spotify.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anthony K Simon

    September 15, 2023 at 4:13 pm

    Love this recap of Motown’s delving into the most exciting time for soul music to me.

    I wasn’t even that big of a fan of that early Motown “sound”(more in the Stax records artist) but the artist and song’s Strong and Whitfield produced changed motown with some of the best psych soul ever.

    There were a couple more Motown artist that delved into the genre that you failed to mention: Stevie Wonder’s earlier ’70s albums: ‘Music of my Mind’ and Where I’m Coming From. the Four Tops ‘Still Water’, ‘Changing Times’ and “Keepers of the Castles. And even the Jackson 5 ‘G.I.T’ album, is a psych soul trip.

    Great article, but I disagree with you that the th dimension wasn’t psych soul, they very much were.

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