Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring the musical legacy of Sunset Boulevard inspired by Ed Rucha’s photographs. Discover more from 12 Sunsets: Exploring Ed Ruscha’s Archive.
The logo for the first Black-owned record label in Los Angeles, John and Reb Spikes’s 1922 Sunshine Record Company, featured an orange sun setting over a California mission. Fifty years later, when Berry Gordy Jr. officially moved Motown west from its Detroit birthplace to Sunset Boulevard, he did the Spikes brothers one better. The logo for Motown’s new L.A.-hatched subsidiary label, MoWest, ditched the mission and let the sun set alone over the waves of the Pacific.
“Motown moved west to get into the action, to be closer to the scene, because we feel the West is certainly the entertainment capital of the future, if it’s not the entertainment capital now,” Gordy told Black Enterprise in 1974. “Because I personally like the movie industry and the charisma of California, I chose California. I like the weather.”
Motown set up its offices in the heart of Hollywood, across three high floors in a newly built tower at 6255 W. Sunset. The main Motown label continued, as did the company’s film and TV arm (which immediately connected with Paramount Pictures to launch its first big screen feature, Lady Sings the Blues), but opening MoWest was Gordy’s most overt attempt at going local.
The label’s first single, a clunky six-minute civil rights collage, was narrated by Tom Clay, a former KDAY radio DJ. Then Gordy signed up a roster of L.A.-connected acts: the Sisters Love, a funk and soul supergroup of top backup singers; Odyssey, a band cobbled together from MoWest studio players and helmed by L.A. native Royce Jones (their slow-cruise of a song “Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love” seemed aimed for Whittier Boulevard lowriders); and the Crusaders, the city’s top crew of jazz and R&B fusionists whose only album for MoWest was Hollywood. They put a black fist holding an Oscar statuette on its cover.
MoWest also released three sides from Suzee Ikeda, a member of the Motown staff who was a graduate of Garfield High School and grew up in Monterey Park, California. With a version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and a take on “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” (a Motown catalog staple originally recorded by Syreeta Wright and later by Diana Ross), Ikeda became the first Asian American to release music under the Motown umbrella. The label’s press release announced her as “a perky, 24-year-old Oriental beauty of Japanese ancestry” and printed her name in a Japanese-style “bamboo font.” Her recording career may have been short-lived but Ikeda continued to be a familiar Motown presence, producing and product-managing the 1970s and ‘80s L.A. careers of everyone from the Commodores and the Temptations to Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye.
“The Motown sound changed out here,” the prolific session drummer James Gadson told me (Gadson played on sessions across Motown’s imprints, including Marvin Gaye’s classic album I Want You). “I had to learn to play the Motown way. The music was written out, to a T, all the drum parts and everything, to be as close to the way the guys in Detroit played. But they had played together for so long and we never played exactly in the same way. It became a different thing.”
Take one of Motown’s most iconic acts, the Miracles. After Smokey Robinson left the group in 1972, they received a full L.A. makeover. Their first post-Detroit albums, Renaissance and Do It Baby, were anchored by L.A. session musicians (including Gadson) and featured production work by familiar L.A. faces like Gaye, Willie Hutch, Larry Mizell, and Leon Ware. By 1975, they had gone full L.A. noir. Their concept album, City of Angels, spun an elaborate story of a “country boy” searching for his girlfriend who headed west to be a starlet and ended up buried in a sun-drenched cemetery. The album includes songs about the Los Angeles Free Press, head shops, earthquakes, Chinatown street hustlers, smog, and polysexuality.
“Will you fall into the sea and forsake me?” the Miracles sang on the title track. “No, please don’t go away. Oh I love you, L.A.”