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
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1969
Motown has at least one achievement that no other label can match. The world has seen fairly substantial numbers of child pop music stars. Yet, it consistently remains extraordinarily rare for child recording artists, or even child musical prodigies in general, to find significant success as adults — let alone legendary status. But Motown managed to discover and originally sign the two most notable and prolific performers in pop music history who managed exactly that.[1. Interestingly, though Motown didn’t discover her, or even sign her first, Gladys Knight also falls into this lowly-populated category.] It is these two young men, then aged 12 and 20, who dominated Motown’s best 1970 releases.
But Little MJ and Big Stevie weren’t Motown’s only hitmakers that year. Gladys Knight and the Pips had their first smash since I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles managed an even bigger comeback. Edwin Starr released his best-remembered song and one of Motown’s most effective, and certainly most explosive, forays into politics. Diana Ross broke out officially as a solo artist, having some of her biggest successes in years. And though the Temptations had hit a rut, they’d find their way back up to the top, if only briefly, very soon. A very sad year that saw the death of 24-year-old Tammi Terrell after a long battle with cancer, 1970 was eclectic and uneven. It nonetheless managed to produce a couple of my very favorite Motown singles.
1. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
VIDEO: Stevie Wonder lip syncs Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on the set of Soul Train. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Your lyrics.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours is quite simply the very best single Stevie Wonder had released to date. And while this is a matter heavily up for debate, I’ve always viewed it as the moment when Stevie Wonder finally reached his long-awaited maturity and, in one incredible burst of energy, became Stevie. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t keep on growing as an artist — he would, and at an amazing rate. This song isn’t Superstition, Higher Ground, or Sir Duke — and between this single and 1972, Wonder would take his sweet time to try out a lot of new stuff, not all of which would work. Nevertheless, this is not the same Stevie we heard on songs like Uptight, I Was Made to Love Her, and My Cherie Amour.
Seizing the rare opportunity to work with a fellow blind musician, Lee Garrett, as well as his future-wife Syreeeta Wright and mother Lula Mae Hardaway, Stevie and Co. wrote themselves a masterpiece. Displaying a vocal confidence previously unheard, Wonder delivers a throaty, soulful lead, filled with gutsy experimentation, punctuating himself with emotional, high-pitched squeals. You can almost hear the light bulb going off over his head, that brilliant moment when he truly shed his Little Stevie past and realized I’ve got this. Significantly, this was Wonder’s first single production, which heavily contributes to the sense of newness. Opening with an electric sitar line played by Eddie Willis, and featuring a big bold bass line — perhaps the greatest ever played by recently deceased Funk Brother Bob Babbitt — and dirty horn section, this track delivers a funky groove that would become the trademark of Wonder’s best work. The fierce immediacy of the track was achieved by Berry Gordy’s order, upon hearing Stevie’s rough mix of his new single, to release it as is without changes. Introduced to a new generation though Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, strongly supported by Wonder, this is one of Stevie’s most accessible and best-loved tracks.
2. If I Were Your Woman
VIDEO: If I Were Your Woman plays over changing images of Gladys Knight and the Pips. If I Were Your Woman lyrics.
The astonishingly prolific “She sucks, dump her and go out with me” genre of songs is far from my favorite; and yet, there is no denying that as far as such songs go, If I Were Your Woman is the absolute cream of the crop. With a slinky arrangement, the song’s first verse starts as a convincing, sultry attempt at seducing a man who we have no reason to believe is already attached. But quickly, we learn that the object of the narrator’s affections has a partner; and as she reveals this, her facade crumbles, and she moves at an alarming pace into desperation and even anger. No longer offering throaty, sexy promises of eternal devotion, Gladys trashes her unrequited love’s actual woman. But far from sounding like an intimidating “other woman” archetype, she seems incredibly threatened herself, like she’s grasping at straws, going out of her mind with jealousy but unable to actually act on it. With the verse structure constantly changing, further evidencing the narrator’s volatile emotional state, the chorus and the Pips provide the song’s anchor and keep us oriented throughout the track’s other shifts.
Interestingly, despite the outstanding and emotional vocal Gladys delivers here — it’s one of my favorites — she claims that she couldn’t relate to the lyrics, and in fact hated the song and begged Berry Gordy to not release it. Concerned that the single would threaten her “good girl” image, in her autobiography she describes the song’s character as “a bold thing” and says that she couldn’t see herself “as the sort of woman who would be chasing another woman’s man.” But she seems to have at least partially misinterpreted the song. If I Were Your Women is not about a confident, home-wrecker of a woman cornering this attached man with her come-ons — in my favorite verse of the song, she in fact reveals that it’s all an inner-monologue:
Life is so crazy, and love is unkind
Because she came first, darling, will she hang on your mind?
You’re a part of me, and you don’t even know it
I’m what you need, but I’m too afraid to show it
The song is a fantasy, and an interrupted one at that. The man is actually oblivious to how she feels about him. And instead of making sure he knows, Gladys’ character can do nothing more than sing passionately about him to herself. Far from a bold, sexually aggressive woman, the character in this song is only playing one in her head, before realizing that’s who she’ll never be. She won’t get the guy; she’ll keep loving him from afar — no matter how bad she thinks his partner is, or how much she wants him.
3. I’ll Be There
VIDEO: The Jackson 5’s I’ll Be There plays over an image of the group. I’ll Be There lyrics.
The last of the Jackson 5’s 4 (all successive) #1 hits, I’ll Be There showcases a maturing sound for the group, and signals a move away from the brilliant bubblegum that had previously marked their career. Not composed by the apparently defunct Corporation, but by a new team headed by Berry Gordy and otherwise comprising Bob West, Willie Hutch, and Hal Davis, I’ll Be There is a tender ballad that easily marks one of the group’s greatest moments. It was to replace Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine as Motown’s biggest selling single yet. Notably displaying Motown’s increased interest in its own legacy, Michael cunningly includes a reference to Motown’s other #1 I’ll Be There hit — the Four Tops’ Reach Out — with the inclusion of the phrase “Just look over your shoulder(s),” drawing a clear line between the label’s present and heyday past.
The single includes a double-lead, with a prominent feature spot for Jermaine Jackson, the group’s teenage heartthrob who was soon to move on to a solo career. And yet, Michael is rightly always remembered as the star of this track. Interestingly, at the start of the Jackson 5’s most emotionally mature production to date, Michael also sounds younger and more innocent than on his previous singles. And yet, that only makes the performance all the more brilliant and emotionally arresting. Just as he likely was in real life, Michael sounds like a child lost, terrified of being swallowed whole by a big, bad world he’s not ready for, and desperately looking for something constant to anchor himself to. It’s a devastating yet incredibly poignant image, and a much more effective one than if Michael had summoned his usual precocious ability to give the illusion of being an adult in a child’s body. Thoroughly humanizing a man who was far more frequently dehumanized by the media and society, it’s no surprise that this is a song Michael frequently performed live throughout his adult career and one that his fans seized on to eulogize him.
4. The Tears of a Clown
VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ The Tears of a Clown plays over changing images of the group. The Tears of a Clown lyrics.
The Tears of a Clown has one of the most unusual track histories in Motown’s catalog. A collaboration between two of the label’s most legendary songwriters, a young 16-year-old Stevie Wonder approached Smokey Robinson at the 1966 Motown Christmas party with a tape. Explaining that he had a song with no lyrics, Wonder encouraged Robinson to give it a listen and see what he could make of it. In the track’s swirling, tooting riffs, Smokey rightly heard carnival music and pulled out his best-worn story, encased in a new metaphor. The tale of the man who seems happy on the outside but is secretly deeply miserable is the most common in his catalog[2. Indeed, he pulled a line straight almost verbatim one of those songs to reuse here; “Just Like Pagliacci did, I (try to) keep my sadness hid” was previously used in My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down).]; it was used to greatest effect in The Tracks of My Tears, but to biggest commercial success here.
That was, in several years’ time. The Tears of a Clown was programed as the last track on the Miracles’ 1967 album Make it Happen …. and that was it. Overlooking the obvious single, Motown instead released More Love and The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage — better songs, I would argue, but certainly inferior for the purpose of marketing to radio and selling 45s. The group moved on to their non-album hit I Second That Emotion and then to a long, sad lull, in which they stopped being hitmakers and became Motown’s legacy artists. But that year, in the UK, the “legacy artist” thing was actually working out for them. A reissue of The Tracks of My Tears had dramatically reignited interest in the group among British fans, and eager to strike while the iron was hot, UK Tamla-Motown employees started combing the Miracles’ material for a follow-up. The Tears of a Clown was discovered, long forgotten and waiting. With a unique, instantly-recognizable tune, driving James Jamerson bass, and rich backing harmonies, the single exploded. Motown then released the single in the States, and saw the same result. It was the biggest success the Miracles would ever have, and remains endlessly sampled to this day. Not Smokey Robinson’s or the Miracles’ greatest artistic achievement, it was a more than worthy single, and a huge moneymaker for Motown.
VIDEO: The Jackson 5 lip sync their single ABC on American Bandstand. As usual, Michael is out front, and Jermaine and Tito mime bass and guitar respectively. All members wear different colorful shirts with vests over top. ABC lyrics.
In line with Motown’s tried and true formula of following an artist’s hit single with another song that sounded very much like it, ABC is highly derivative of I Want You Back. As is almost always the case, the copy wasn’t quite as good as the original. All the same, it seems to actually be the group’s most remembered single, its nursery rhyme lyrics having become associated in listeners’ minds with the performers’ tender ages. Of course, one has to imagine that the song actually stuck in their craw. It was bad enough that Berry Gordy had put out press releases stating most of the members were younger than they really were — a gross humiliation for kids in their teens and pre-teens — but now he was having them sing “A-B-C, 1-2-3” like they were in kindergarten. If it weren’t for all the wealth and screaming girls, the older Jacksons would have undoubtedly taken an awful lot of shit from their peers.
Opening with the same “a-bom-bom-bom-bom” harmonies that worked so well during I Want You Back’s bridge, as well as copying the earlier song’s excellent groove, ABC is a sugar overload. Michael remains the lead on this song, but showing Motown’s savvy understanding of boy band politics, each of the other Jacksons gets short lead sections intended to satisfy Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, and teen girl favorite Jermaine’s individual fans. In the breakdown that constitutes one of the track’s greatest moments — Sit down, girl! I think I love you! No, get up, girl! Show me what you can do! — Michael shows off his advanced and impeccable study of soul music’s great shouters. Incredibly catchy, but actually nauseating upon one too many repeat listenings, ABC isn’t up to the same level as I Want You Back, but did make for a stellar follow-up single and served to cement the group as superstars.
Bonus Track: I Remember When (Dedicated to Beverly)
VIDEO: I Remember When plays over an image of Ivy Jo Hunter. Lyrics unavailable.
President of the Ivy Jo Hunter Fan Club,[3. Okay, I admit, I was self-appointed.] reporting for duty. This absolutely has to be the most obscure of my bonus track picks, which is a shame, because Hunter deserves to be a lot better-known than he is. Besides co-writing and co-producing Dancing In the Street, he’s most famous among Motown fans for being known as King of the Can.[4. Insultingly, his name is commonly confused, even among those who knew him(!), with that of musician Ivory Joe Hunter, who never even recorded for Motown.] Though Hunter was incredibly prolific, and his work was frequently outstanding, he failed to obtain for himself the commercial success that the likes of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and HDH did; as a result, his tracks as both a writer/producer and performer were shelved at an alarming rate. The situation seemed to only escalate after his main songwriting partner Mickey Stevenson left Motown in 1967. Raynoma Gordy also claims that Hunter bravely defied Berry by angrily speaking out about the way that his white executives were treating the label’s longtime Black artists, songwriters, and producers, and found himself blackballed by Berry and those same white executives in response.
Hunter was thwarted by racism, internal politics, and bad quality control decisions, but sadly, even Ms. Fan Club President here knows that Hunter was never destined for pop stardom. Lacking the right image by a large margin, and possessing a voice that was full, compelling, and at times breathtaking, but also extremely unusual, even tagging his releases with the abridged, teen-friendly name “Ivy Jo” couldn’t help his chances.[5. It seems that prior to this point, Hunter, who was born George Ivy Hunter, was simply known as Ivy Hunter. He is now generally referred to as Ivy Jo Hunter in apparent effort to maintain the connection between his songwriting/production work and his work as an artist.] I Remember When is far from Hunter’s best recording; his only recently-released demos of Truly Yours, Only a Lonely Man Would Know, and Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever are all astounding and wildly superior recordings. Still, I Remember When is a track that possesses a quiet dignity and majesty that I didn’t know quite what to make of when I first heard it, but grows on me more with every listen. It was intended for his first album, to be released on VIP records, called Ivy Jo is in This Bag. When Motown shelved it, Hunter finally left the label that had never done him right. The sad passing of Frank Wilson two weeks ago, which has left me heartbroken, is a terrible yet important reminder that Motown’s greats will not be around forever. Hunter is 72 years old, and Motown frankly owes it to him to finally release his work while he is alive to enjoy the long-due acclaim that fresh ears would surely send its way.[6. Reel Music has been promising a release of this and material by Blinky, the other artist I most want to see come out of the vault, since 2010. So far, both have yet to surface.] And I don’t just want the shelved album — I want the whole Ivy Jo Hunter anthology.
My absolute favorite Motown release of 1970 was the David and Jimmy Ruffin collaboration I Am My Brother’s Keeper, from which their cover of Stand By Me was released as a single that year; I adamantly encourage any soul fan who doesn’t own the album to secure a copy immediately. The Temptations released a strange precursor to Billy Joel’s 1989 We Didn’t Start the Fire; Ball of Confusion is a litany of social and political buzzwords without any stance, though one wildly offensive lyric does manage to work its way in nonetheless.[7. It seems to me that Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield need to do some research on the devastatingly lasting impacts of colonization on Native peoples across the United States, particularly on reservations, and then shut up.] And Marvin Gaye and (quite likely not) Tammi Terrell released their mercifully final single, the equally toothless but far more nauseating The Onion Song. More successfully political was Edwin Starr’s War, a powerful statement that remains a classic refrain of anti-war politics. Diana Ross had her first solo releases with Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) and an astonishingly popular cover of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.[8. Unsurprising confession: I hate it, though it does always get stuck in my head.] In her absence, the post-Ross Supremes had their biggest hit with Up The Ladder to the Roof. And the Jackson 5 managed a third #1 that year with the incredibly catchy melody but disturbing pint-sized slut-shaming of The Love You Save. View a complete list of Motown’s 1970 singles here, and share your own top five in the comments.