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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1970

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
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1969

A portrait of a tuxedo-clad Stevie Wonder at about age 20, against a stylized yellow and orange background

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.

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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: 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 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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