Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968
Sadly, we must pause at the beginning of another post to note the passing of an under-appreciated Motown great. Mr. Frank Wilson, songwriter and producer for Motown from 1965-1976, died yesterday. I wrote significantly about Wilson in my post about 1965; as head songwriter and producer for one of my very favorite Motown artists, Eddie Kendricks, he is extremely well-represented in my record collection, and I am particularly saddened by this news. Thanks for all the music, Frank; Rest In Peace.
After an unexpected hiatus, I’m back to finish up the last three installments of this series. Still lacking, as they forever after would, the cohesion of their 1963-1966 period, Motown continued to rely on an array of songwriters and producers, with mixed results. Johnny Bristol was actually the most successful songwriter/producer of the year, according to my list, something that back in 1969 probably surprised even him. Norman Whitfield was still working out some of the kinks in his new sound, at the same time as Berry Gordy threw himself head-first back into the writing game and operations started to shift further to California. Diana Ross was preparing to strike out on her own, while Marvin Gaye struggled with depression, and Stevie Wonder kept working on finding Stevie. David Ruffin and Edwin Starr both tried valiantly to become Motown’s latest male star, though neither would achieve the lasting success they hoped for. And everything the Temptations touched still turned to gold, though they had some stiff competition in some young newcomers called the Jackson 5.
All in all, it was arguably Motown’s overall weakest year since their big 1963 breakthrough. But luckily, that’s a comparative measure, and the results still turned into a great list.
1. I Want You Back
VIDEO: I Want You Back plays over an image of a Jackson 5 greatest hits album. I Want You Back lyrics.
With the label gradually moving more into soul music with the departure of HDH, I Want You Back is Motown’s best pop single since Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and their best piece of pure bubblegum since You Can’t Hurry Love. Even more than that, it holds the highly esteemed position of being Michael Jackson’s very first masterpiece. A family group of young teen and pre-teen boys, the Jackson 5 were first brought to the attention of Motown by Gladys Knight and the Pips, only for Berry Gordy to ignore their praises, not wanting to deal with the labor law hassles of underage performers. Motown singer/songwriter/producer Bobby Taylor eventually got him to hear the group, at which point Berry signed them instantly — and then promptly gave credit for their discovery to Diana Ross. After knocking their ages down a couple of years in press releases to make them seem even more cute, all they needed was a hit; they found one in Berry’s new songwriting group, the Corporation.
Intended to replace HDH as Motown’s hit-making machine, the Corporation was deliberately anonymous, with the intention of avoiding the “big heads” Berry perceived HDH as having grown. Comprised of Berry Gordy and the virtually unknown Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards, the collective fell far short of living up to its overall goal, but did produce one legendary song. At the time, it was all the J5 needed. Recorded in LA — where the bulk of the group’s work was to be completed, strongly signalling a shift away from Detroit and the Funk Brothers’ sound — the track features an impressive bass groove by Wilton Felder and crisp, clear instrumentation. A story mature beyond little Michael’s 11 years, he delivers it with a precocious conviction, surrounded by bubbly backing vocals made for radio. This song would be covered by a plethora of Motown’s acts, including very, very well by David Ruffin, but none would match the pop perfection of the original. And though the Jackson 5 would carry on with many other worthy singles, their debut was to be the finest track by the last superstars of Motown’s golden age.
2. Someday We’ll Be Together
VIDEO: Diana Ross and the Supremes wear shimmery gold and bronze pant/jacket outfits and lip sync Someday We’ll Be Together on television set. Someday We’ll Be Together lyrics.
Sales wise, things hadn’t gone so well for the Supremes since Florence Ballard was fired and HDH stopped churning out songs. They stayed in the public eye with generally boring television specials and collaborations with the Temptations, but the group — or, more accurately, Diana Ross and whoever her backing singers happened to be that day — struggled to work their way up the charts. They scored a comeback with the catchy if moralistic Love Child, which remains a fan favorite. Unfortunately, with songs like I’m Livin’ in Shame and the atrocious No Matter What Sign You Are, they slid right back into mediocrity. The last truly great song released under the Diana Ross and the Supremes moniker was also the last, period; it was one of the finest singles ever put out in their name.
An utterly perfect, lush yet subtle production by Johnny Bristol would have made Someday We’ll Be Together an astounding single no matter who sang it.[1. Surprisingly, the cut was originally intended for Jr. Walker and the All Stars.] That said, this is without a doubt my favorite vocal Diana Ross ever recorded.[2. Admittedly, as someone who is not a fan of Miss Ross, it’s not a particularly steep competition. But I do mean it sincerely as a compliment.] Out of step with most of her vocal work, here Diana is sultry and deliciously laid back, almost sleepy, but never lazy. Her throaty “ay-hey-hey” transition from the bridge into the song’s final verse is my favorite moment, and always sends a chill down my spine. At first, Bristol had trouble getting Diana to deliver this performance; with both artist and producer getting frustrated, he decided to try something new. Bristol ad-libbed vocal responses to Diana as encouragement — his vocals, too, were recorded and ultimately placed on the master track. Though Ross is clearly the star of the show here, Bristol’s romantic harmonies are one of my favorite features of this track.[3. Embarrassingly, when lip-syncing the song on television, Mary always had to mouth Johnny’s parts as though she was not clearly a woman miming to a clearly male voice.] When Diana recorded the song, it was intended to be her first release as a solo artist; when Berry heard it, he realized it was the perfect finale single for Diana Ross and the Supremes — the fact that Maxine and Julia Waters sang backup on the track instead of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong being of little concern, as they had infrequently appeared on the group’s singles as of late. One can and in fact should argue with these internal politics. But artistically speaking, I cannot fault this result. Every single vocal performance on this recording is sublime, and Someday We’ll Be Together is among Motown’s best.
3. I Can’t Get Next to You
VIDEO: I Can’t Get Next to You plays over frequently grainy and entirely anachronistic images of the Temptations. I Can’t Get Next to You lyrics.
Ironically — I’d say tellingly — the best songs from the Temptations psychedelic era … weren’t very psychedelic. What I Can’t Get Next to You is is a fantastic pop song. On I Can’t Get Next To You, all of the Tempts get at short chance at lead vocal, usually changing vocalists every line of each verse. Yet, despite the multitude of voices, they act together as a single narrator. This narrator tells the of having virtually anything he wants in life, listing a series of exaggerated accomplishments and super-human abilities, but laments that despite his impressive résumé, the object of his affections remain unimpressed and oblivious to his existence. It’s an uncomplicated and somewhat silly love song, but the fact of the matter is that singing simple boy-girl love stories was where the Temptations excelled — certainly more than in trying to make serious social commentaries.
Musically, I Can’t Get Next to You is an interesting and innovative production for Norman Whitfield. After the excesses and incredible layers of Cloud Nine and Runaway Child, Running Wild that seemed to take cues from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, I Can’t Get Next to You sounds stripped and earthy by comparison. The track opens oddly with raucous applause and a series of jarring shouts, before Dennis Edwards orders everybody to “hold it” and a piano quietly plays the opening bars before the full band finally kicks in. Whitfield managed to create a percussion-heavy track that sounds deceptively unadorned while actually containing a lot of understated layers below. This was a song that deserved the straight ride to #1 it got.
4. My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)
VIDEO: Wearing white pants and a royal blue velvet jacket, David Ruffin lip syncs and dances to his single My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me) on an empty television set. During the bridge, he completes a lightning-fast and mesmerizing split. My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me) lyrics.
David Ruffin’s reaction to being fired from the Temptations was, in a word, devastation. That’s not to say his actions didn’t deserve the response they got — if he worked for me, I’d have fired him, too. But for reasons I won’t get into — lacking the space for my full armchair psychoanalysis — being a Temptation meant a great deal to David, and he took the dismissal hard. But once he finished crying many tears, David got angry.[4. It didn’t help matters that the Tempts had fired him strategically yet cruelly before several extremely big projects that they never would have secured without David’s work.] Fired in large part for erratic behavior, David took the concept to new heights. First he called any publication that would listen and told them about how he’d been fired — only to, later on, stubbornly claim that he quit and feign ignorance as to how everyone got the idea that he’d been let go.[5. Motown and the Tempts were to maintain neutrally that David and the group had parted ways.] Then, though he was the one who had urged Dennis to take the job, he started attending Temptations concerts, jumping up onstage during My Girl, and taking the mic from Dennis Edwards, who was left helpless in his love and admiration for David. (After sending the crowd into a frenzy, he’d hand the microphone back and exit the building of his own accord, leaving the Tempts with the uphill battle of winning back the audience.) Producer Ivy Jo Hunter cut a whole album’s worth of instrumental tracks for David, only for him to fail to show up to record his vocals. He announced the extremely short-lived creation of a new group, called the Fellas, and a role in a movie that never happened. But to have the biggest ramifications of all, David also hired an outside management company to handle his affairs, which should have been his right, but he knew full well that was against his Motown contract. When the company slapped him with a cease and desist, he sued for release from Motown, claiming (likely very truthfully) that they were concealing his earnings from him.
Of course, he lost that lawsuit. Always one to hold a grudge, Motown was to punish him for it in an impressive variety of ways for many years. They’d pair him with B-list producers and songwriters; they’d pass up his superior versions of songs to release them on other artists; they’d make such bad single picks that it often seemed entirely deliberate; they’d drop the ball on promoting quality songs; and they’d fail to release his greatest works. But immediately, in January 1969, Ruff and Motown seemed to have somehow patched things up. With a track supposedly originally intended for the Tempts,[6. While this assertion is regularly repeated, I remain skeptical; Norman Whitifield’s hold on the group was iron-tight. If HDH couldn’t get a single release on them, how was Johnny Bristol going to do it?] the irony levels were high, and the lyrics are easily read as directed straight at David’s former group-mates. Reverting to his natural baritone, David kept his heartbroken pleading act well in tact. This is a fine vocal, as well as a fine single, and it regularly scores a spot on Motown compilations. Unfortunately, while it seemed to bode well for David’s solo career, it didn’t. Despite the fact that he was to only improve as a vocalist, he would only see the top 10 once more in his career — six very long years down the line.
5. My Cherie Amour
VIDEO: My Cherie Amour plays over an image of the Stevie Wonder album of the same name. My Cherie Amour lyrics.
Like You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me by the Miracles so many years before, My Cherie Amour was actually the B-side ballad to an uptempo A-side almost entirely forgotten to history. Just as similarly, the choice of singles left DJs scratching their heads at the time and duly flipping the disc over, and fans today puzzled as to how the obvious hit could have passed over for such an unworthy competitor. I Don’t Know Why, the A-side to this disc, is a quality but not particularly remarkable song that might have spent a couple of weeks in the lower top 40, if paired with anything else, on the strength of Stevie Wonder’s name. But My Cherie Amour was the song that captured romantics’ hearts, and it remains one of Wonder’s most popular and best-remembered tracks to this day.
Rounding out a list made up entirely of songs about unrequited love (how’d that happen?), Stevie spends My Cherie Amour daydreaming about the woman he adores but has “never noticed” him back. Even more surprising than the fact that My Cherie Amour was originally the single’s B-side is the fact that it was recorded all the way back in 1966, after which it sat in the can for three long years. The song is far more mature than the other work Stevie was releasing at that time and features a melody that instantly sticks to your mind, along with a “la la la la” refrain that made the song an instant radio hit in the wake of Hey Jude. Lush strings and gentle percussion round out an excellent backing track, as Stevie sings over top with his sweetest of many vocal styles. My Cherie Amour was the second-last single Wonder would write with his long-time partners Sylvia Moy an Hank Cosby, before finding a new collaborator in wife Syreeta Wright. It was the threesome’s biggest hit, and it stays legendary today — not bad for the song everyone overlooked.
Bonus Track: Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)
VIDEO: Dressed in black, Gladys Knight and the Pips lip sync Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime) on a dim television set. Gladys stands on a platform and the Pips, though poorly lit, display their always-on-point dance steps behind her. The audio on the video is slightly distorted. Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime) lyrics.
As Norman Whitfield’s tastes changed, so did his artists’ sounds — whether they liked it or not. Accordingly, Gladys Knight and the Pips moved away from their funky I Heard It Through the Grapevine sounds that reflected Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic recordings and hopped right on the psychedelic — and Friendship — train. It didn’t quite work. Whit took more production liberties on Gladys and the Pips than he would on his established golden boys the Tempts, and seemed to use them for sound experiments, having them record reinterpreted and inferior takes of other artists’ hits.
But early in the year, Ashford and Simpson got their hands on the group and produced this lovely and notable number. Of the three singles Gladys Knight and the Pips released in 1969, this one performed the poorest by a significant margin. But artistically, I argue it was their best 1969 recording. Importantly, it also foreshadowed a turning point in the group’s career that wouldn’t come for good until a year later. Turning away from the percussion-heavy dance tracks the group usually released, Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime) was not their first big, emotive ballad recording, but was the first original such track they’d released as a single. Though this one wouldn’t do very impressively, it was the style that would ultimately suit them best and turn them into international superstars. With both Motown and post-Motown singles like If I Were Your Woman, Neither One of Us, You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, and their legendary Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight and the Pips would rock these soulful mid-tempo ballads for years to come, and excel at them consistently. This one certainly wouldn’t be the best, but it was the first — and best or not, it was also very good.
The Temptations saw enormous output in 1969, most notably including the majestic harmonies of Runaway Child, Running Wild, and the insincere mass-marketed peace vibes of Psychedelic Shack. Edwin Starr broke through with Twenty-Five Miles, and Marvin and Tammi hit again with Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By.[7. Before you ask — yes, I do believe very, very strongly that it is Tammi Terrell’s voice on this particular track. I’d ask those who disagree exactly what vocal they are listening to.] Jr. Walker and the All Stars put out the impressive What Does It Take (To Win Your Love), as Gladys Knight and the Pips tried to regain success with The Nitty Gritty and Friendship Train. David Ruffin’s last single of the year was the incredible secular gospel track I’m So Glad I Fell For You. And Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were eager yet fell flat with Doggone Right and Abraham, Martin and John. A full list of Motown’s 1969 singles can be found here; feel free to leave your own in the comments.