As far as years at Motown go, 1966 is hardly the most historical. Placed right at the halfway point in this series, the year certainly was filled to the brim with hits, ranking easily alongside ’64 and ’65 in terms of overall quality. Indeed, this was one of the the most difficult lists in the series for me to narrow down to only five picks. But in large part, things were business as usual. The biggest artist breakthroughs for the year were Kim Weston (It Takes Two with Marvin Gaye), the previously-famous Isley Brothers (This Old Heart of Mine), and Jimmy Ruffin — all of whom rapidly faded back into obscurity.
Still, there were changes on the horizon. The year saw Smokey Robinson unseated as the label’s most reliable one-man songwriter and producer, and the biggest success yet for Norman Whitfield — who would not only usurp Smokey’s access to the Temptations, but soon become the man behind the vast majority of Motown’s hits. Meanwhile, Holland-Dozier-Holland was still turning out hit after hit like a fine-tuned machine, but it was to be the final year of their incredible reign. In 1967, they would release significantly fewer singles — I would say also largely of significantly lesser quality — before departing Motown midway through over contract disputes and leaving multiple artists in a lurch.
If Motown was down to a formula by this point, you certainly couldn’t knock it. The first four songs on this list are all so fantastic, you could just about shuffle them at random and still find yourself with an order that would be hard to argue with. Here they are, the cream of the crop.
1. You Can’t Hurry Love
VIDEO: The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love plays over an image of the group. You Can’t Hurry Love lyrics.
One of the most pop-oriented records in Motown’s catalog, it was songs like this that gave Motown its reputation of having turned its back on Black music’s roots. But while soul music purists may turn their noses up at this track, it’s pure perfection. One of the Supremes’ most outstanding cuts, Diana Ross delivers an incredible, perfectly-phrased vocal that doesn’t miss a beat. Speaking of beats, this track has got plenty, with James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin demonstrating their ability to read each other’s minds, Robert White providing a rhythmic, jangly guitar, and Jack Ashford dominating the track on tambourine. Designed for radio and the dance floor, this is the sound of the Supremes at their peak. And at a time when virtually everything they did went straight to the top, this is a cut that absolutely deserved its #1 spot.
Just as 1966 was the last year of HDH’s reign, it was in my view also the last truly great year for the Supremes. They would suffer as much as anyone from HDH’s departure from the label. Further, 1967 would see the non-coincidentally simultaneous renaming of the group as Diana Ross and the Supremes — making explicit what had been heavily implied for years — and the abhorrent firing of Florence Ballard by Berry Gordy for “insubordination.” But Flo’s remarkably full and unique backing vocals (not to mention her boisterous personality) were not the only loss, as Motown largely failed to utilize Mary Wilson or Flo’s replacement Cindy Birdsong on future recordings, instead substituting them with the label’s house backing vocalists the Andantes. I have previously and will continue to praise the Andantes for their superb, skillful work. But having the same exact sound heard on records by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many other artists was a huge detriment to a group that was supposed to have been woman-centered. In losing Flo, the Supreme not only lost a big part of their distinctive sound; they also failed to find a new one. Diana Ross and the Supremes will turn up in this series again, but the Supremes portion of that title will mostly be in name only.
2. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
VIDEO: The Temptations, wearing tan suits and gold open-collared shirts with no ties, lip sync Ain’t Too Proud To Beg in front of a yellow and red television set. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg lyrics.
I know you wanna leave me — and with that, a thousand necks snap in the direction of the speakers. Going from one of Motown’s most pop-oriented singles to one of its most soulful, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg is an utterly epic track. Oh, we can spend all day discussing the horn arrangement, Uriel Jones’ dominating drum track, Earl Van Dyke’s piano, the backing harmonies, or the somewhat disturbing lyrics[1. Guys? Sleeping on her doorstep all night and day just to keep her from walking away is not what we term acceptable behavior.] and their fascinating expressions of masculinity, but there’s really only one thing you want to talk about when it comes to this song — and that’s David Ruffin. This track is the sound of one of soul music’s greats finding his voice. The raspy, pleading urgency was achieved on this song by Norman Whitfield instructing David to sing above his natural register without resorting to falsetto. This was actually a fairly common trick around Motown, but Whit and Ruff took it to a whole new level. Otis Williams recalls David “singing his butt off” a few lines at a time, sweat pouring down his face and trademark glasses fogged up, while Otis and Eddie Kendricks encouraged him from the control room. A result of hard work, this is a legendary performance, and would shape how David sang for the rest of his career.[2. Once solo, he would revert to his natural baritone, achieving a fuller more thundering quality, but retain the rough, desperate nature heard here.]
This song is also among the most important in the group’s catalog, not only for the career-defining vocal, but for how it severely altered the group’s future. Written and produced by Norman Whitfield, he had been on a quest for a few years now to unseat Smokey Robinson as the Tempts’ main producer. He was open about his ambition, but no one believed he could actually do it — Eddie Holland, who agreed to write the song’s lyrics, nevertheless admits to laughing at Norman and telling him he would never beat Smokey. He seemed right; at the first Quality Control meeting, this song was turned down in favor of the radio-friendly yet far less innovative Get Ready. An example of just how little control Motown’s artists had over their own output in the 60s, the Tempts were both shocked and disappointed, apparently preferring Ain’t Too Proud greatly themselves.[3. Though one does have to wonder exactly which camp Eddie Kendricks was in.] But no one ever got far underestimating Norman Whitfield. Utterly fuming at his loss, Berry Gordy promised him a single release if Get Ready failed to make Top 20 — when it did, a hit was born, Smokey was out, and Norman was in. A rougher soul sound would become the group’s trademark, with David Ruffin dominating even more leads than before and helping to revolutionize what exactly constituted the Motown Sound.
3. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
VIDEO: A black and white clip of Jimmy Ruffin lip syncing What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, frequently overlaid with his own image. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted lyrics.
Jimmy Ruffin was a man always destined to stand uncomfortably in his younger brother’s shadow. He was born first and signed to Motown first, but otherwise just couldn’t catch a break. (Indeed, Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, a #3 pop hit with David Ruffin on lead, was recorded by Jimmy first. Whoops.) Lacking the same powerful, commanding range as his brother, Jimmy ultimately reduced himself to regularly boasting that, in fact, the Temptations had wanted him before they wanted David. (Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks played along with this claim for years, before Otis finally lost his temper and insisted with great emphasis that the Temptations never considered Jimmy as a member. Ouch.) But in 1966, he had a stroke of luck. The surest way to get a song at Motown was to hang around Hitsville and hear it before anyone else got a chance — and that’s exactly what Jimmy did here. Intended for the Spinners, Jimmy persuaded the writers to cut it on him instead.
As classic a Motown song as there is, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted strangely wasn’t written by any of Motown’s superstar songwriters, but staff songwriters who usually served to provide album filler tracks. William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser,[4. Who played trombone with the Funk Brothers and did arrangements on a great deal of Motown’s songs] and James Dean concocted themselves a masterpiece here. This song is an utter delight for anyone currently in a self-pitying mood, and What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is Motown’s most quintessential breakup song. Containing defeatist lyrics like “happiness is just an illusion,” “I’m searching though I don’t succeed,” “everyday heartaches grow a little stronger/I can’t stand this pain much longer,” and “all that’s left is an unhappy ending,” the song perfectly reflects the post-breakup state of mind, in which it seems you will be alone forever and things will never get better. As for the decision to give the song to Jimmy, he earns it, giving an inspired performance rarely matched elsewhere in his catalog.[5. His fantastic duet album with David, I Am My Brother’s Keeper, being the major exception.] What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is a favorite for a reason.
4. Reach Out (I’ll Be There)
VIDEO: The Four Tops, all wearing different suits, lip sync their song Reach Out (I’ll Be There) on a dimly lit television stage. Reach Out (I’ll Be There) lyrics.
One of HDH’s most accomplished tracks, the trio’s efforts here display an abundance of ambition while skillfully evading the pitfalls of self-indulgent excess. A polished single indeed, it is also incredibly dramatic, and several key choices saved it from over-produced pop music hell. One of them was to utilize the inimitable James Jamerson. There was something about the Four Tops that seemed to inspire many of Jamerson’s most inventive and outstanding bass lines, and on this track he again brings his A game with a trademark bounce and groove that sets this song apart and gives it its soul.
With a haunting flute melody (apparently provided by 13-year-old player Danya Hartwick) and an insistent, percussive galloping (apparently achieved with hands on a wooden chair), HDH has set up a series of contrasts on this track that build acute tension. That tension can only be released by the vocal of Levi Stubbs. As he would on the Tops’ equally outstanding Standing in the Shadows of Love from this same year and 1967’s Bernadette, Stubbs commandingly shouts the song’s verses instead of singing them. With the remaining three Tops and the Andantes providing an atmospheric set of echoing refrains, sweetly contrasting against Levi’s rough lead, his barking is not exactly the reassuring tone that the lyrics suggest. But the powerful, raw delivery and ad libs — Just look over your shoulder![6. Later borrowed by big Levi Stubbs fan Michael Jackson for the Jackson 5 song also called I’ll Be There] — and refusal to give into the words’ saccharine qualities make this song the classic that it is.
5. I’m Ready For Love
VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas’ I’m Ready For Love plays over an image of the single. I’m Ready For Love lyrics.
Somebody’s going to have my head for this relatively obscure pick, I can feel it now — but as many fantastic recordings as Motown produced in 1966, I simply cannot resist the charm of this vivacious cut by Martha and the Vandellas. Featuring a thumping, prominent Jamerson bass line and driving drum beat,[7. I couldn’t find a drummer credit anywhere. It is my favorite Funk Pistol Allen?] this is an exuberant song about throwing off the chains of inhibition. Previously comfortable being single and afraid of rejection and heartbreak, Martha sings ecstatically of doing some soul searching and finding herself newly “ready for love.” The lyrics by Eddie Holland are irresistibly fine constructions, and since I always love a skillful word invention, his repeated use of the phrase “moonful night” is remarkably charming.
Martha Reeves was one of the first artists at Motown to stand up to Berry Gordy’s business practices and obsession with Diana Ross to the detriment of other artists; unfortunately, Berry didn’t react well to challenges to his authority, and she would face largely the same stonewalled fate that would soon befall both Florence Ballard and David Ruffin. After their Watchout! album, which I think is their finest, the Vandellas would face other problems, such as numerous personnel changes that would weaken their sound. After getting stuck with HDH’s leftover for years, they were then hurt harder by the songwriting team’s departure in 1967 and struggled thereafter for chart positions. The Vandellas would have their last really big hit in 1967 with Jimmy Mack, a fabulous track recorded all the way back in 1964. Though my favorite female group, they will sadly not be appearing in this series again.
Bonus Track: Come On and See Me
VIDEO: Tammi Terrell’s Come On and See Me plays over images of various CD collections of Terrell’s work. Come On and See Me lyrics.
Tammi Terrell is my favorite female vocalist. Hardly a powerhouse like Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin, Terrell was more in the league of Martha Reeves — a strong set of lungs and an outstanding abundance of personality. She didn’t have a particularly large range, but she did have a way of owning a song, of making everything she sang uniquely hers, and singing it like nobody else could. In my book, her ability to phrase a song is simply unmatched, always getting the tone precisely right — whether it’s flirtation, heartbreak, indignation, sass, devotion, exuberance, or desperation. Unfortunately, Motown severely overlooked her as a solo artist, and her solo work is always passed over in favor of her series of astounding duets with Marvin Gaye.[8. Note that Marvin got an abundance of solo releases during his time working with Tammi.] And her incredible talent is too often overshadowed by the tragedy of her short life, made up of repeated intimate partner violence (most notably by James Brown and Motown’s own David Ruffin) and a long battle against brain cancer that killed her in 1970, shortly after her 24th birthday.
Recorded at age 20, this was Tammi’s second Motown single. And while certainly not her best solo effort — most of those were not released in her lifetime — it is probably her best-remembered. Written and produced by Motown stalwarts Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, the song is one big, well, come on. Though suffering from backing vocals by the Spinners that were mixed too high, Tammi manages to ride a fine line between innocence and seduction. Vocal highlights include her winking delivery of “I’ve got some joy love for some boy love” and throaty, bluesy shouts during the song’s outro. Tammi rerecorded this song a year or so later as a duet with Marvin Gaye (it appears on their second album, You’re All I Need), and having improved significantly as a vocalist during that time, I think she might actually outdo her original cut. If anything, this only serves to showcase the tragedy in the fact that Tammi had limited opportunity to record as a solo artist post-1966, with Motown directing most of her waning energy into the hit-making machine of her pairing with Gaye. Her several dozen solo cuts that do exist, though, are well-worth many repeated listenings.
Honorable mentions absolutely must go to both the Temptations’ masterful classic (I Know) I’m Losing You and the Four Tops’ exquisite Standing in the Shadows of Love — both of which feature the outstanding work of one of my favorite Funk Brothers, Eddie “Bongo” Brown. One of several peak years for Motown, 1966 was yet another to feature a smorgasbord of fine recordings. Further Temptations releases include the danceable Get Ready and the laughably insulting Beauty Is Only Skin Deep. The Supremes released You Keep Me Hanging On (which I feel very strongly should have gone to either Martha and the Vandellas or Tammi Terrell) and the incredibly charming yet lesser-known Love Is Like an Itching In My Heart. The Vandellas put out the fabulous yet little-heard What Am I Going to Do Without Your Love, while Jr. Walker and the All Stars had Road Runner, and the Isley Brothers scored their biggest Motown single, This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You). Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston provided serious competition with It Takes Two and the equally great B-Side It’s Got to Be a Miracle (This Thing Called Love). You can view a complete list of Motown’s 1966 single releases here; give it a read and leave your own top picks in the comments.
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1969