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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

Previously:
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

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell smile and embrace against a blue background

As popular musical tastes continued to evolve away from the girl group craze and smooth pop-soul sounds of the early sixties, Motown continued to evolve with it. While 1968 was an overall less consistent year than the few before it — this was one of the easiest lists in the series for me to make — the label’s best work was truly brilliant, and the year saw some Motown’s most emotional and transcendent releases.

Traditionally, 1971 — or mid-1972 — has been recognized as the end of Motown’s “classic” period, being when they packed up and left their namesake Detroit; but I’ve always felt that 1968 was the last true year of the Motown Sound and the end of its golden age. With HDH gone, Smokey Robinson currently lying fallow, the Supremes stuck in a rut, and the Temptations and Norman Whitfield both going psychedelic, by 1969 the Motown Sound was done evolving. It had become something else entirely.

That’s not to say that Motown wouldn’t still produce a lot of great music in the last three years that make up this series. Indeed, a lot of great music would come out on the label even after the move to LA. It just wouldn’t be the same. There was no more formula, no more assembly line, and Quality Control had lost much of its power to individual producers. In 1969, you could no longer pick a Motown song of the radio from the first couple bars. Different artists were developing sounds more distinct from each other — which would soon be a great boost to singer-songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but eventually a detriment to classic Motown artists like the remaining Temptations and Supremes. 1968, though, was a year that saw the release of some of my very favorite Motown hits. It was, in my view, the Motown Sound’s last great hurrah. And it just might be my favorite list in this series.

1. I Heard It Through the Grapevine

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard It Through The Grapevine plays over photograph of the artist. I Heard It Through The Grapevine lyrics.

After seeing his biggest success in Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield was still not satisfied. Sure, he had proven to Motown’s doubters that the song was a hit. But Whitfield knew Marvin Gaye’s 1967 recording of the song was a masterpiece, and he wanted it released as a single. To Berry Gordy’s credit,[1. Feel free to take a screen shot. “To Berry Gordy’s credit” is not something that you will see me write often.] he apparently refused to release the single again, this time based not on quality, but a reported desire to not put his artists in the position of competing with each other via the same song.[2. Whit apparently had no such concerns. While re-cutting songs on different artists was fairly common practice at Motown, Norman Whitfield was easily the most notorious for it, and he seemed to show little concern for whether his determination to realize his various visions negatively impacted his artists’ careers.] Never satisfied until he got precisely his way, Whit placed the track on Marvin’s new album In The Groove — soon retitled I Heard It Through the Grapevine — sure that radio DJs would pull the track off themselves. That’s exactly what they did, forcing a single release. Marvin’s version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine soon replaced Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version as the biggest-selling Motown single to date.[3. Ironically, apparently friends with Norman, it is Berry who Gladys blames for the situation — which, despite having said herself that she likes Marvin’s version better, she understandably remains unhappy about.]

I Heard It Through the Grapevine is, simply, one of the greatest tracks ever recorded anywhere. Immensely ambitious, and entirely successfully so, it is Norman Whitfield’s greatest masterpiece. It is also one of the landmark vocals in Marvin Gaye’s long and legendary career. Norman Whitfield’s instruction to sing the song slightly above his natural register initially caused some tension between the hotheaded singer and equally hotheaded producer, but as with David Ruffin (on whom the trick was originally tried on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg), ultimately resulted in Gaye developing a whole new approach to singing; he’d put this strained, angst-filled style to good use throughout the late 60s and 70s. Swampy piano work by Johnny Griffith, an outstanding drum track made up of all three of Motown’s main drummers, and chilling tambourine by Jack Ashford create one of the Funk Brothers’ absolute greatest and most collaborative performances. Haunting Andantes backing vocals complete the atmospheric and hugely unique recording. Whit was right to be persistent; this is one for the history books.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961

A black and white photo of the Marvelettes (minus Juana Cowart) posing for the camera

In 1959, two Detroiters used an $800 family loan to start a record label and changed music history. One of those people was a struggling songwriter for Jackie Wilson, whose name you’ll know well: Berry Gordy. And the other was his business and creative partner in an artist development firm, as well as his girlfriend: Raynoma Liles[1. Soon to be Raynoma Gordy, and later Raynoma Singleton]. Hers is a name you will rarely if ever see. Not even making the briefest mention on the Motown Wikipedia page, she has been written out of the story, as Berry first convinced her to put the company entirely in his name, then left her for another woman and pushed her out of Motown entirely. Her book, Berry, Me and Motown, while out of print, is most certainly worth a read; not only the story of Motown’s start, it is a study in emotional abuse and gaslighting, and a testament to the invisible work of women.

When Berry and Ray started Motown, Black record labels weren’t anything new; designed to make music that white record labels wouldn’t produce, would water down, or wouldn’t market — and in any case would steal all the profits from — such labels had however usually been small, rarely achieving more than regional success or a few hits, and generally folding after a couple of years. There originally wasn’t much reason to believe that Motown would be any different. But Berry was fed up with his paltry songwriting royalties from the white record labels, and he and Ray, with the nudging of Smokey Robinson (who has colluded in Ray’s erasure for decades), decided it was time to get into the real money of producing and publishing. When local Detroit singer Marv Johnson wrote Come to Me, they snapped him up, and Motown’s first label Tamla was born. It became something much bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.

Soon, Motown set up shop in a converted house Ray found on West Grand Boulevard. Named for the city whose unique sound they were capturing on record, Motown gained local buzz and started rapidly absorbing the city’s many young Black budding singers, songwriters, and musicians. Some would fade into obscurity without a hit; others would work for Motown for years and make the company what it was without ever seeing their names in lights; but some would become superstars.

For this series, let’s first lay down some ground rules. It will run from Motown’s first year in 1959 to Motown’s last year in Detroit, 1971, with each year after ’61 getting its own post. As the title suggests, the picks are limited to singles; B-sides are eligible, though they will only rarely appear. These are my picks and therefore come with my own preferences and biases; as with any such list, there will inevitably be dissent, which is welcome. I have, however, at least made an effort in the interest of objectivity, and this is generally not a list of my favorite tracks. Selections are based on a combination of quality, legacy, and overall representative nature, and while there is an attempt to balance them, one will sometimes be strongly weighted over the other. In addition to the top 5 picks, an ongoing part of this series will be the bonus track — a great but generally overlooked single from the period in question that isn’t among the absolute best, but still deserves to be heard. Some will be by artists who never made it big, while others will be mostly forgotten tracks by acts everybody knows. These bonus selections will be very strongly weighted towards of my own preferences.

In Motown’s first three years, the releases were far less plentiful than they would become, and far less consistent in quality. Though that elusive Motown Sound would be present almost from the very beginning, it would be a lot more raw and rough around the edges than the label’s best-known, highly polished output. Still figuring out quite what they were doing, some of these tracks are better-produced than others. But they all contain an undeniable charm and incredible lasting power. Occasionally questionable acoustics aside, they still sound great today.

1. Money (That’s What I Want)

VIDEO: Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) plays over an image of a compilation album cover. Money (That’s What I Want) lyrics.

A subject of frequent covers, this 1959 ode to capitalism remains unbelievably popular and relateable to this day. Written by Berry Gordy with early Motowner (and one of their few female songwriters) Janie Bradford, this song essentially served as his life’s motto — a much more charming fact in the broke days when he wrote it than once he’d amassed his fortune. It is truly Gordy’s songwriting masterpiece. The infectious piano riff[2. Played by Barrett Strong himself, rather than a Funk Brother], in combination with Benny Benjamin’s ferocious drumming and Brian Holland’s insistent tambourine, all work to make the song instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, the “that’s what I want” refrain, written and sung by Ray, uncredited for so many things, serves as an unforgettable hook. Indeed, Money was quite arguably the song the put Motown on the map, not only providing needed capital but also cementing the label in people’s minds as maybe not just a fly by night operation, after all.

Barrett Strong is not a name that most people remember today, though it should be. His brash performance on this song is absolutely flawless, but singing was not his true gift, and he later hung up his microphone to become one of Motown’s most successful songwriters. Teamed with Norman Whitfield, Strong co-wrote such classics as I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me), Papa Was a Rolling Stone, I Wish It Would Rain, and Cloud Nine. More than five of his compositions will appear in this series overall. Meanwhile, this 1959 classic remains his only hit as a vocalist. But what a hit it was.

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