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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

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: 1965

Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

The Four Tops, all wearing different suits, dance for the camera in front of a stage curtain

The hits keep on coming, and as they do, these lists get harder to narrow down to a mere five picks. Holland-Dozier-Holland was still Motown’s premiere songwriting team, but Smokey Robinson was nowhere near ready to give up his crown as King of Motown. After a year of singles for his own group that went nowhere, he was back with a vengeance, producing their greatest work while keeping up a steady stream of songs for other artists.

Left without their first female star Mary Wells, Motown wasted no time at all catapulting Diana Ross into super-stardom as lead singer of the Supremes. It’s not a coincidence that from here most other women rapidly fade off of these previously gender-balanced lists, but a result of Berry’s carefully laid plans. New female stars at Motown would be born, but they’d be depressingly few and far between, and old ones would become obsolete with remarkable swiftness.

On the male side of things, Marvin Gaye was weathering a relative slump (which still meant respectable chart positions), and Stevie Wonder was facing a career crossroads and breakthrough. Meanwhile, the Tempts and Tops, always rivals yet friends, were battling it out for the title of Motown’s most successful male group — and while the Tops would win this year, 1966 would show that it was still anybody’s’ game.

Motown was now a bona fide cultural phenomenon, an unstoppable force. Whatever Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson may have preferred to call it, the undeniable fact is that Motown was sweeping the airwaves with Black music. While the label’s music would almost always be more popular on the R&B charts, Motown was making Black singers, Black songs, and Black style a major part of mainstream pop culture, with far less outrage from white folks than in the past.[1. Moral panics about rap, however, show that this “conversation” is of course far from over.] Most boldly, Motown was openly positioning a Black woman as a new universal model of idealized femininity — and however problematic that ideal might have been, that is what we call a big fucking deal. There was no going back now; Motown was indeed the Sound of Young America, and it was here to stay.

1. The Tracks of My Tears

VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (minus Claudette), dressed in white suits, lip sync their song The Tracks of My Tears on the set of a television show. The Tracks of My Tears lyrics.

Since we last saw the Miracles, they’d undergone some major changes. For one, they had been rechristened Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, putting their star lead singer’s name out front once and for all. For another, we had seen the last of Claudette, though we hadn’t heard the last of her, not by a long shot. Having suffered a devastating number of miscarriages over the years during strenuous touring, she and her doctor decided it would be best for her to stay off the road. Inexplicably, her medical condition somehow resulted in her face and name going missing from every television appearance, all of the group’s promotional materials, and the album cover credits. All the while, her exquisite harmonies would remain as prominent as ever, helping Smokey sound utterly amazing, without most people ever knowing there was a woman in the group. Some would call it “consistency in branding”; I call it sexist erasure. Nevertheless, the Miracles — er, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles — would keep on trucking, and in 1965, put out their very best album, the absurdly brilliant Going to a Go-Go.

Leading that album was Smokey Robinson’s single greatest masterpiece. We’re talking about a man who both wrote and sang more perfect songs than most of us could ever dream; but none of his other works would ever reach the singular peak of the Tracks of My Tears. It just about stuns the words out of you. The elegant lyrics are pure poetry. The textured harmonies and exquisite lead — one of Smokey’s finest, most disciplined performances — make you want to cry. And the hook is effective and instantly memorable, drawing you in no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It then pays itself off with a swelling, decadent climax in the bridge. This song simply has it all. In my opinion, it is the very, very best Motown track.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

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 FunkĀ  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

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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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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