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The Strange Sound Of Motown's Early Hollywood Years

Soul group The Nu Page was one of the few artists who released music on MoWest in its brief history.
Courtesy of the artist
Soul group The Nu Page was one of the few artists who released music on MoWest in its brief history.

Everyone has heard of Motown Records, but few probably remember its Los Angeles offshoot, MoWest. It didn't last long — only two years — but during its life span, MoWest allowed Motown to try out new styles and genres and create one of the most eclectic rosters in the label's long history. Most of MoWest's releases have been out of print the past 40 years, but a new anthology called Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown's MoWest Story 1971-1973 finally highlights the label's life and legacy.

The early 1970s found Berry Gordy and Motown Records in transition. They'd weathered the 1967 Detroit riots and the fractious departure of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and were now riding high on Diana Ross' solo career and the youthful sounds of The Jackson 5. Gordy wanted to expand his empire, especially into TV and movies, and as a beachhead, he founded MoWest Records in Hollywood in 1971. Its first release was Tom Clay's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," a collage of found-sound snippets set to a syrupy arrangement of the Burt Bacharach tune.

A 1972 single by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, featuring MoWest's sun-kissed label art.
/ Courtesy of Light in the Attic Records
Courtesy of Light in the Attic Records
A 1972 single by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, featuring MoWest's sun-kissed label art.

That song became a surprising Top 10 hit and also helped set the tone for what would be a short and often strange history for the label. Other Motown subsidiaries were genre-specific, such as the R&B-focused V.I.P. or rock-oriented Rare Earth Records. MoWest, however, was wide open: It collected a motley crew of new and veteran artists that included Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. A decade after becoming huge pop stars in the early 1960s, the group's members sounded less like teen idols than a funkier Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Though the label art on the records prominently featured a sun setting into the Pacific, MoWest's sound was less geographical than experimental. This was Motown's chance to get away from the weighty baggage of its Hitsville legacy. One of its great discoveries was the local Los Angeles ensemble Odyssey, whose sublime "Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love" also gives the new anthology its title. At the height of MoWest's activity, its roster included everyone from the then-up-and-coming Commodores to Stevie Wonder's partner in music and marriage, Syreeta Wright, to Motown's first Asian-American artist, Suzee Ikeda.

In spite of all that diversity, MoWest couldn't mint another hit to save its life. By the summer of 1972, Berry Gordy moved the entire Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles, making MoWest more or less redundant. It shut down the following year and most of its catalog went quickly out of print. This new anthology can't fill that vacuum on its own; it features less than half the total number of artists who recorded for the label. But what it does do is provide a long-needed window back into this era, when Motown gazed westward toward a beckoning California dream.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang
Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.