Pop Music Muse 6/10/2022: Favorites from Motown

Some of my favorite Motown songs may not be yours, but that doesn’t matter because nearly everything Motown Records released was a favorite—one reason they made so much money. Let’s start with Barrett Strong’s thunderous plea:

  • Money, Barrett Strong (1960)

Before 1960, when Motown officially started, owner Berry Gordy was writing successful songs for other artists. One fellow he wrote for a lot was hot-shot Jackie Wilson, whose electric stage presence matched his exuberance in the studio. His best, I think:

Another pre-Motown release that is near and dear to my heart is by Marv Johnson, who had a number of Gordy-penned hits that showed up on a label other than his own. That just reinforced Gordy’s desire to start his own company.

The sound that Gordy achieved in all of Johnson’s records was heavily gospel-oriented with a crude backing track and vocal ensemble. With tambourine in one hand and baton in the other, Berry Gordy Jr., who once worked on a car assembly line in Detroit, was on his way to controlling his own destiny. The year? 1962. Motown by then had a couple of major hits that propelled the company forward: Smokey Robinson’s Shop Around and The Marvelette’s Please Mr. Postman. In the wings were artists like Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and a 12-year-old rascal named Little Stevie Wonder, who hung around a studio called the Snake Pit learning everything he could from the session musicians known as the Funk Brothers. One of Stevie’s first recordings was with the Temptations from 1962:

Stevie didn’t have to wait long to hit it big nationally with his number one live recording of Fingertips. About this time, Marvin Gaye entered the Motown picture, and while he pined for crooner-type ballads, he was assigned a bluesier portfolio starting with Stubborn Kind of Fellow, which he was, and Hitchhike, both songs backed by Martha and the Vandellas, their first outing on wax. I like Hitchhike because it is so gritty and unpolished, like a lot of Motown material in those days.

By 1963 Motown was really beginning to grow, with acts like Mary Wells, the Miracles, the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye all hitting the charts and sustaining the company’s vision. Motown’s premiere girl group at the time was The Marvelettes, who presented Motown with its first number one hit: Please Mr. Postman. The group, which charted frequently in the early sixties, was fronted by lead singers Gladys Horton and Wanda Young, who allowed the group some versatility as can be recognized in this strange hit: 

The Supremes had yet to reach the status of the other Motown girl groups. They waited five years before their first big smash. They joined Berry Gordy in 1960, and did have a few records that made noise. It wasn’t until Holland-Dozier-Holland got on board to write and produce them that they took off, but not before trying all kinds of musical adventures, including one record that sounds like it was produced by Phil Spector. It was recorded just as the Beatles were wading ashore:

The Supremes’ next record, Where Did Our Love Go, caught fire and began a string of unparalleled number one hits. With the arrival of the Supremes, attention began to wane for the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, Before Well’s departure in 1964, she recorded what I always thought was Motown’s best gospel hit. It was on the flip side of the smooth Smokey Robinson tune What’s Easy for Two and written and produced by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. Listen for the tambourine and call and response chorus.

Speaking of Eddie Holland, he was a singer before he entered the world as a master producer. Berry Gordy fashioned him in the Marv Johnson vein when he recorded the hit Jamie in 1962. But I prefer his uptown rendition of another gospel-flavored favorite of mine that just jumps off the wax the second you put the needle down. It’s one of the most forceful records Motown has ever come up with. The guitars, horns and chorus are phenomenal.    

Also in 1964, Martha and the Vandellas produced their best song, perfect for the summertime as well as a statement for the racially explosive times. Motown had a knack for percussion on many of its songs, and you can feel it when you listen to the record that best exemplifies the Motown Sound. Berry Gordy always aimed his music to Whites and Blacks, in production-line fashion to boot, and it was something he achieved in a very short time.

Motown introduced another girl group in 1964 called the Velvelettes, whose tunes were a bit more soulful than other Motown girl group records. The group was formed at Western State University in the early sixties, and included sisters Mille and Carol Gil, cousins Bertha and Norma Barbee, and Betty Kelly. While the Beatles and Supremes were dominating the charts, the Velvelettes managed to emerge in the fall with a couple of nifty soul songs, He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin and this one:

One artist from the Motown roster who had a great voice and smooth delivery was Brenda Holloway from Atascadero. She joined Gordy in 1964, and had big hits with Every Little Bit Hurts and the original version of You Made Me So Very Happy, later made famous by Blood Sweat & Tears. I thought she was best when paired with Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced a terrific song that appeared in the spring of 1965:

When you hear the name Edwin Starr, you most likely connect him with a couple of tunes like War and 25 Miles. But before that, Starr was signed to Motown’s competitor Ric Tic Records, owned by Eddie Wingate out of Detroit, where Starr had several giant soul hits beginning in the summer of 1965. Accompanying Starr on his discs were the Motown session men the Funk Brothers, without Gordy knowing it. Gordy fined his band members and Wingate paid them back, leaving Gordy no choice but to buy Ric Tic to avoid any more hassle.

One of the biggest hits for Motown in the early sixties was the great dance number Do You Love Me by the Contours, who were a very popular group. They weren’t one-hit wonders either. They held their own for five solid years, especially engaged in dance records like The Jerk. I like two other songs by them, First I Look at the Purse, and their most sophisticated number, one of my favorite recordings by the Funk Brothers. You can tell this is mid-sixties.     

If you are wondering what female group backed up the Contours, or the Four Tops, or the Temptations, or the Supremes, or Marvin Gaye, or anyone and everyone in Gordy’s stable, it was a group known as the Andantes, composed of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barlow and Louvain Demps. It is estimated they appeared on some 20,000 recordings. When I first heard the Four Tops, I always wondered who the girls were in the background. Gordy kept it a secret. The Andantes did cut one record by themselves:

You’ll hear the Andantes on the following song by the Four Tops. It’s one of the best records featuring lead singer Levi Stubbs. I picked this song because it really showcases Stubbs’ incredible vocal skills (but then what song of theirs doesn’t?). The Tops are my favorite Motown group, and like the Supremes, paired well with the production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. No other vocal group ever sounded like them:

In the fall of 1966, Motown released a a Holland-Dozier-Holland production effort with a tremendous amount of drive. The female singer of this song is Chris Clark, who was among the first White artists to join the Motown label. She followed the following tune with Gordy’s I Want To Go Back There Again. Clark didn’t disappear. She co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross.

There were some Motown acts that really didn’t fit well with Gordy’s production-line vision. One was the Isley Brothers, a rhythm and blues trio who had gospel hits like Shout and Twist and Shout. In the mid-sixties they were signed to Motown, and had a huge hit with This Old Heart of Mine.That’s about it. The Isleys weren’t made for the Motown formula, and they soon departed and went onto greater musical achievements. But I did like their Motown cover version of this Kim Weston Holland-Dozier-Holland song:  

Other Motown acts that din’t fit within Motown’s scheme were the Spinners and—even more than them—Gladys Knight and the Pips, who were successful long before they came to Detroit, and proved even more popular after they left. I almost drove off the road when I heard Gladys Knight’s version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, a much rockier version I thought than Marvin Gaye’s—probably because I’m a drummer:

As much as I loved the early Supremes hits, I really liked Jr. Walker’s version of Come See About Me three years later. While the Supremes coo, Jr. Walker and the All Stars rock with his infamous saxophone backed by the Funk Brothers. Aside from his sax, Walker also has a great voice on hits like What Does It Take To Win Your Love and Let Me Blow It For You Now.

PS: Listen to the Andantes with the Marvelettes in a Phil Spector-type production: