These days, it’s taken for granted that American music will be produced in English and marketed throughout the world in the same language. However, that wasn’t always the case, as a new Motown compilation illustrates. “Motown Around the World: The Classic Singles” features popular Motown artists like Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and the Supremes singing their greatest hits- in French, Italian and German.
In an article on the Boston Globe, Otis Williams of the Temptations described the challenge of recording music in a language you don’t speak:
“It was an interesting challenge for us because we didn’t do so much talking in German and French back then! We recorded those songs phonetically, and we were worried that we weren’t going to get them just right, but nobody expected us to get the language down perfect.”
However, back then recording in other languages was worth it for both artists and labels because doing so made it easier to sell records overseas. People were more likely to buy music if they could understand the lyrics.
Some artists also had loftier motives for translating their biggest hits. For example, Connie Francis, who recorded in 13 languages and sold 150 million foreign-language albums, saw herself as a goodwill ambassador for America. She told the Globe:
“I did have a talent for languages, but I wanted to use it for some beneficial things. When I was 14, my dad said to me, ‘Look, if you ever do make it — and it’s a long shot — but if you ever do make it on record, you have to go to each country and sing in the language of the people. Our country has a lot of enemies, Connie, and you can make friends for America through music.’ And I always kept that in mind.’’