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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967

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

A black and white phot of Gladys Knight and the Pips demonstrating a dance move. Turned to the side, they each pump one arm down while raising the knee high up.

The Motown Sound was changing. In 1967, the label’s most reliable songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, would decide they weren’t making what they deserved and walk out, waving a lawsuit, to start their own label. Smokey Robinson, past his prime, no longer boasted his incredible hit-making power. And that left a series of up and comers, who had largely toiled in the lower echelons of Motown’s staff, to break on through with hits of their own. The most successful of those songwriters and producers — at least immediately — was to be Norman Whitfield, who then preferred a slightly earthier, more soulful sound to those put out by HDH and Robinson. But the HDH void was also to be filled by the glossy productions of newcomers Ashford and Simpson, who had long aspired to get their foot in Motown’s door. And Stevie Wonder’s ever-maturing and increasingly complex work was becoming a force to contend with.

The year also saw a couple of important artist breakthroughs. Gladys Knight and Tammi¬† Terrell were to be the last two women to become stars during Motown’s golden years, the first women to break through after Diana Ross’ meteoric rise, and two of the very best female vocalists ever signed to the label. While Ross would still receive a vast majority of Motown’s resources,[1. This was to be a key reason why Knight eventually left for Buddah (sic) in 1973.] Knight and Terrell restored the gender-balance of Motown’s roster and served up some of the label’s hottest tracks.

In turns funky, melancholy, and exuberant, all representing an evolving Motown Sound, my top 5 tracks from the year are below.

1. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell lip sync their song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough on the grounds of the 1967 World’s Fair. Marvin wears a maroon mock turtleneck and gray blazer; Tammi wears a matching blue plaid coat and skirt with cap. The two unabashedly flirt throughout their performance. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough lyrics.

Let’s get straight to it: this is one of the greatest pop records ever made. Opening with a vibes part so shimmering and dazzling that it verges on disorienting, the greatest duet team in history enters to claim their rightful title. Though technically about a couple that has already parted, you’d be hard pressed to find a more exuberant or romantic song in Motown’s catalog — as always, Marvin and Tammi sound like young people very much in love. Featuring rock solid drumming by Uriel Jones and smooth, grounding bass line that James Jamerson apparently considered his own best work, this track does not contain a solitary misstep; it’s hard to imagine anything else on pop radio ever being this perfect.

Gaye and Terrell’s first duet — something so extraordinary reportedly inspired quite simply by the fact that both artists were considered for the song — they did not record this track together, but it sounds as though they did. Marvin’s frantic vocal combined with Tammi’s smooth, confident delivery was to set up the overwhelming future dynamic on their recordings. It was one that consistently worked. This song was also songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s first song for Motown. And while Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol would do an unarguably brilliant job recording the newcomers’ track, Ashford and Simpson soon get to start cutting the material as producers themselves. Their work with Marvin and Tammi would soon take them all to new heights.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

In matching green suits with no lapels, the Temptations pose on the sidewalk, with David Ruffin crooning dramatically into a microphone.

For the first time, you don’t have to be a Motown junkie to love this list — if you don’t know every single one of these five songs, there is something seriously, seriously wrong with your radio dial. A watershed year, it would see the breakthrough of both the Temptations and the Supremes, who would rule Motown’s roster for years to come, as well as those other beloved chart-toppers the Four Tops.

It was an eclectic year, seeing top tracks by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, and even Hunter-Stevenson (that’s Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson). For the first time, no one artist is listed multiple times — and yet, they easily could be. The fact that the Supremes and Tempts don’t have multiple songs scoring is because there just weren’t enough slots.

And yet, Motown faced formidable challenges this year. The arrival of the Beatles, their unprecedented dominance of the charts, and the British invasion that came in their wake left a lot of American music producers quaking in their (Beatle) boots. Audience tastes were changing, and the music being put out by most labels was changing with it. With Motown only established for a couple of years, there was a real chance that they might not survive. Far from mop tops, Motown’s Black artists and sounds were rather different from the inadequate, white-friendly imitations British acts liked to do of them. But even as Motown responded to the Beatles’ dominance,[1. Mary Wells’ tour with the group, the Berry Gordy-Beatles photo-op, the Supremes’ (abysmal) A Taste of Liverpool album …] the Motown Sound ultimately persevered and strengthened. It was one of few forms of popular music that would come out of the year in tact.

To call 1964 “Motown’s best year yet” would be to severely trivialize the matter; 1964 was one of Motown’s best years ever.

1. My Girl

VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Temptations, dressed in matching suits, performing to their track My Girl in front of a seated audience. My Girl lyrics.

Anchoring the other end of the year with another legendary release after the immaculate The Way You Do The Things You Do finally got the Tempts some much-deserved national attention in January, My Girl wasn’t actually a hit until 1965, released just as 1964 closed. But single release date is what I’m going by, and so 1964 is where this song rates. Written by Smokey Robinson as a “response track” to his own My Guy composition for Mary Wells (see below), this ode to Smokey’s wife (and Miracles member) Claudette is one of Motown’s greatest love songs. It was given to the Tempts after Smokey caught one of David’s leads during a live performance and was blown away.[2. Accounts vary on whether Smokey specifically wrote the song for him after this performance, or originally intended it for the Miracles and decided during that performance to give the song to David.] It would become the most enduring single they ever released, their signature song.

Taking over from Eddie Kendricks for the first time, one of the most intriguing things about David Ruffin’s vocal on this track is how he seems to get looser as he goes. My Girl was the first Motown song I ever fell in love with, thanks to the early 90s movie by the same name, and even as a seven-year-old, I recognized that there was something special about how he sang that last verse and outro. He goes from a careful and deliberate “I’ve got sunshine …” as the song begins to a raspy and fervent “I don’t need no money” by the time it ends. Directly linked to the success of this song, Ruffin would lead almost every single by the group for the rest of the three and a half years he remained a member, soon taking raspy to a whole new level. No mention of this song is complete without a bow to James Jamerson and Robert White on bass and guitar respectively. My Girl is exactly what any great song should be.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962

Though he did not join Motown until 1967, and therefore his work will not be featured in this post, it nevertheless seems only right to starting by noting the passing earlier this week of Funk Brother bassist Bob Babbitt. Brought on board to handle the work Jamerson couldn’t, he was an excellent bassist in his own right, and several of his most famous bass lines will be making an appearance in this series later on. With only three Funk Brothers still living, this is a very sad moment indeed. My condolences to Babbitt’s family and fellow musicians. Thanks for the music, Bob; Rest In Peace.

In Motown history, 1963 is notable for many reasons, all interconnected. In 1963, Motown’s premiere songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland formed. Brian Holland was a young songwriter and producer whose biggest success had been Please Mr. Postman, and who had been in the Motown circle back when Berry and Ray were running Rayber. His older brother Eddie, also one of their earliest acquisitions, was a Jackie Wilson-esque singer with incredible stage fright but an equally incredible knack for writing lyrics. Lamont Dozier was also a singer — one who, unlike Eddie, would eventually return to performing — who found greater success behind the scenes. Brian and Lamont would be responsible for the music, arrangement, and productions, while Eddie was the primary lyricist, finishing the songs while the other two laid down backing tracks, and then recording vocal demos and teaching the singers their parts. They were an incredibly productive and efficient team, working their method out to a science, and this along with their incredible skill contributed to their prominence.

Not coincidentally, 1963 has been noted as the year that saw the start of the Motown assembly line. This is a difficult thing to pin down, with several of its features, or at least rudimentary versions, having already been in place in prior years. The “assembly line” is dubbed such because of its basis in inspiration from real assembly lines at Detroit’s auto factories, and represents the label’s regimented, efficient, and incredibly quick way of recording and releasing singles. The assembly line’s most famous feature is its Quality Control meetings, which eventually took place every Friday morning. Producers would play their latest recordings, and they would get voted up or down for release by other producers, sometimes from teenagers pulled off the street, and by Berry himself; these meetings could be rough and get incredibly heated, and standards were often set very high. Whether or not the assembly line really started in ’63 or had existed in some form prior, Motown released a lot more singles and albums that year than they had any year before. The studio started running longer hours; songwriters started getting more competitive; and producers started lining up outside Hitsville’s one studio, round the clock, waiting for their hour or two with the band to lay down what they hoped would be their latest hit (and its B-side).

Just as hard to precisely put your finger on but also notably given credit to this year, and inextricably intertwined with the emergence of both HDH and the assembly line, is the birth of the Motown Sound. I’ve said before that the Motown Sound, while instantly recognizable and inimitable, is something incredibly difficult to define. I’m surely not qualified for the task. While, as with the assembly line, many qualities of the Motown Sound could be found on countless previous recordings, 1963 was undoubtedly the year that the Motown Sound coalesced, the year you could start picking a Motown record off the radio before the singer came in.

It was a good year for Motown. It was a a good year for Martha and the Vandellas, a good year for Marvin Gaye, and an absolutely great year for Holland-Dozier-Holland. It was probably the last year before Motown completely lost its innocence, when artists would talk about Motown as “family” and do so with an entirely straight face. Though the music was still great — in fact, it got better — that would very soon no longer be true. One cannot help but relish in the youth and joy present on all of these tracks.

1. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave

VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas dance and lip sync to their song Heat Wave in front of a crowd of dancing teenagers. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave lyrics.

One of the most brilliant records Motown ever released, this song is on fire from start to finish. The backing track is all horns and drums, and the vocals are nothing less than a tour de force. Filled to the brim with verve, female lust hits the dance floor. Martha is at her very best, sounding truly overwhelmed with desire; the Vandellas are slaying it, making a much greater sound than two women should have been able; and with Richard “Pistol” Allen leading the way, the Funk¬† Brothers are giving the performance of a lifetime. A blast of life and frenzy, it always feels over just as soon as it starts; and then you’ve got to play it again. If this isn’t the Motown Sound, I don’t know what the hell is. But in the end, who cares what you call it? It’s one of the best damn sounds that’s ever going to come out of your speakers.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961

An early black and white photo of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson at center

Like the year before it, 1962 was a good year for Smokey Robinson. Already firmly entrenched as King of Motown at this early hour, Smokey’s biggest successes as both a singer and a songwriter were still yet to come. But 1962 was good; it was very, very good. With the Miracles, he would rack up multiple hits and two songs on this list. As a songwriter, he would deliver a total number of three.

But 1962 would see a lot more for Motown than just the simultaneous growth of Smokey’s reputation and wallet. The year would produce a top 5 pop hit by way of the highly unlikely Contours. It would see Mary Wells rise from a promising R&B favorite to a pop chart sensation. Almost a full decade before the Prince of Motown would cement himself as soul music’s most revered legend, he ditched lackluster jazz for R&B and found his first hit. Brought on board as a mini-Ray Charles gimmick by Miracle Ronnie White, Little Stevie Wonder would release his first, uneven recordings. And desperately waiting in the wings, Motown’s two biggest groups, the Supremes and the Temptations, would keep on struggling (and keep on struggling some more) for a breakthrough hit.

Not Motown’s best year by a long shot, it was Motown’s best year yet. And that was plenty enough. All that momentum had finally reached a breaking point, and Motown was at long last truly full steam ahead. Below are some of of the label’s best early classics.

1. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me

VIDEO: The Miracles’ You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me plays over an image of the group (minus Pete Moore, who was currently serving in the military, but including Marv Tarplin). You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me lyrics.

One of the Miracles best-known songs, it was the single that almost wasn’t. Indeed, it was released as a B-side to the pleasant but inferior Happy Landing[1. I greatly prefer the Tempts’ exuberant unreleased 1964 recording of that song]; when DJs found themselves underwhelmed by the A-side, they flipped the disc over. This track seems to be a case of the song being better than the recording; every time I listen to it, I’m a little surprised by the mildly clunky nature of the arrangement and occasionally jarring harmony. Its legend seems to loom a bit larger than the track can actually live up to, and always sounds a little bit better in my head. But whatever the recording’s very real shortcomings — and again, it wasn’t supposed to be a single — once Joe Hunter’s piano and (the recently-departed) Marv Tarplin’s guitar kick in, it takes you on a journey through hook after astounding hook.

Musically and melodically, the song was based on Sam Cooke’s fantastic Bring It On Home To Me[2. On which the harmonies attempted here by Bobby Rogers were much more successfully accomplished by none other than Lou Rawls], a fact which Smokey would often acknowledge by appending a verse or two of it to the end of You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me during live performances. Lyrically, it wryly acknowledges the ways in which love is not always welcome and can bring a complex mixture of feelings. “I don’t like you, but I love you” is perhaps the most honest and universal emotion to ever work it’s way into one of Smokey Robinson’ songs.

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