“Like the roots of the strongest tree…you give strength to your friends and family…”
An interesting compilation album released in early 1979, Pops We Love You…The Album is a tribute to Berry Gordy, Sr. (known affectionately as “Pops”), father of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. By all accounts, “Pops” Gordy was heavily involved in Motown and a mentor to its artists; many have gone on the record over the years singing the praises of his kindness and generosity. When he died at the age of 90, four of those artists were pulled to sing his praises on record; those four were Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder. The quartet — on record together for the first and only time — recorded the single “Pops, We Love You” in late 1978, and the song briefly charted in early 1979.
Though the single really wasn’t a hit, an album was put together around it, featuring two versions of the title song and various tracks by other artists. Along with the four established stars, “newer” Motown artists Tata Vega, Jermaine Jackson, and The Commodores were also included on the album. Diana Ross fans got a special treat in the addition of not only her first solo single, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” but another duet with Marvin Gaye, “I’ll Keep My Light In My Window.” That song would later be included on the 1981 compilation Diana’s Duets and the CD re-release of Diana & Marvin.
Because “Pops, We Love You” wasn’t a hit and really hasn’t had much of a life since its initially release, the album spent many years under the radar of anyone except die-hard Motown and soul fans. However, listeners got a second chance to discover the album and the songs therein when Hip-O Select reissued it in 2006, presenting the LP on CD for the first time and keeping the original tracklist intact. This was especially exciting for Ross fans, since “Pops…” had only ever showed up in her discography on this album and the aforementioned Diana’s Duets, which remains a hard-to-find CD. While the song may not be a standout Diana Ross recording, it will forever be a notable entry in her catalog because of the participation of Gaye, Robinson, and Wonder; it remains the only opportunity to hear the four giants of Motown together.
Pops, We Love You (Disco): The album opens with a roughly six-minute disco remix of “Pops, We Love You,” which had been written by Marilyn McLeod and Pamela Sawyer and produced by the pair (the two had also written Diana’s 1976 #1 smash “Love Hangover”). In its original form (featured later on this album), the song topped out at #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #26 on the R&B listing. Being that later in the year Diana Ross would soar to the top 20 with “The Boss,” it’s easy to see why this song would be a little “lost” in the Diana discography; it’s certainly not in the same category as that dance classic. Still, heard today, the popping bass and swirling strings of the “Pops…” disco mix aren’t bad; the track itself sounds like it could have been a substantial dance hit had it been topped with a different set of lyrics. The message of “Pops, We Love You” is what both makes and kills the song; though it was written as a tribute to Gordy, Sr. and certainly serves that purpose, the All Music Guide is right in its review that the song “is generally regarded as too sappy and excessive. Berry Gordy Sr. certainly deserved a better single…” Lyrics including “And from what we’ve heard…you’ve always been a man of your word…” just don’t sound sophisticated at all; many of the words here seem to be culled from generic greeting cards. That said, the voices delivering those lyrics are in top form, and for short-sighted critics who say Diana Ross couldn’t hold her own against some of the other talents at Motown, this song is proof that Miss Ross shines with the best. Miss Ross not only gets top billing, she also gets to start out the song, and sings the opening verse and chorus smoothly and confidently, sounding relaxed and on-target with her warm delivery. Marvin Gaye takes the next verse, and the two sing together on the following chorus, their voices sparking off each other in a more appealing way than they almost ever did on the 1973 duet album Diana & Marvin. Perhaps the reason for recording this song — honoring a man they loved — caused everyone involved to work together better than they would have otherwise; whatever the case, as Smokey and Stevie join in, all four voices are pitched pretty evenly, which keeps any of them from sounding like they’re trying to hog the spotlight. Diana is allowed to subtly join in from time to time (like on her sexy, “Sing it, Smokey”), which seems to position her as the “heart” of the song — but again, the effect is done so effectively that she doesn’t steal attention from anyone else (her “Ooooh, yeah” behind Stevie Wonder at 2:00 is a great example of this, too). As mentioned before, the disco production is well-done; there’s great guitar and bongo work that figure prominently, and the only questionable inclusion is the choir of children’s voices singing along on the refrain, which makes sense in the context of the lyrics but certainly keeps the song squarely in the “novelty” category. In terms of vocals, “Pops, We Love You” is a strong effort from all four Motown singers, and it certainly presents all four as accomplished, sincere artists.
I’ll Keep My Light In My Window: Read the song review here.
Pops, We Love You: This is the non-disco version which was originally released as a single (on heart-shaped red vinyl, no less!); the vocals here are the same ones featured on the disco version, but are surrounded by a less-driving and busy instrumental. The tone here is much more easy listening than anything else; it’s relatively close in sound and feel to Smokey’s “Cruisin'” — also released in 1979. It’s shorter and more compact than the disco version, but not nearly as memorable without the heavier, harsher beat. The sharpness of the bass and guitar in the disco version do a lot to offset the sugary feel of the lyrics and the smooth vocals of the four singers; here, with the more vanilla backing, it’s all just a little too much. Again, the four singers work well together and seem to be on the same page in terms of what they’re trying to convey, but between the two versions, the disco mix is the more enjoyable listen.
Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): Read the song review here.
Aside from the four songs involving Diana Ross, Pops We Love You…The Album does contain some notable tracks that deserve a listen; Gaye’s extended “God Is Love” is breathtaking, and Smokey’s “Mother’s Son” is a unique piece of 70s pop/soul. There are many fans of Tata Vega’s “Come In Heaven (Earth Is Calling),” a torchy ballad that showcases the singer’s deep, nicely textured vocals. Still, nobody gets more airtime on the LP than Motown’s Queen, Diana Ross (Marvin Gaye is also featured on four tracks), and the good news is that every track shows her off to good effect. There’s no denying the continued power of “Reach Out…,” and “I’ll Keep My Light…” is a memorable, enjoyable work that should have been released as a single — it’s far better than most of the recordings on the Diana & Marvin LP. The title song, again, is an interesting and admirable work that was probably doomed from the start in terms of commercial appeal, but does showcase Motown’s four biggest stars all in fine voice; that alone makes it worth listening to.
Best Of The Bunch: “Pops, We Love You” (Disco)