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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: 1966

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

A close shot of The Supremes posing for the camera in glamorous hair and makeup and sparkling green gowns

As far as years at Motown go, 1966 is hardly the most historical. Placed right at the halfway point in this series, the year certainly was filled to the brim with hits, ranking easily alongside ’64 and ’65 in terms of overall quality. Indeed, this was one of the the most difficult lists in the series for me to narrow down to only five picks. But in large part, things were business as usual. The biggest artist breakthroughs for the year were Kim Weston (It Takes Two with Marvin Gaye), the previously-famous Isley Brothers (This Old Heart of Mine), and Jimmy Ruffin — all of whom rapidly faded back into obscurity.

Still, there were changes on the horizon. The year saw Smokey Robinson unseated as the label’s most reliable one-man songwriter and producer, and the biggest success yet for Norman Whitfield — who would not only usurp Smokey’s access to the Temptations, but soon become the man behind the vast majority of Motown’s hits. Meanwhile, Holland-Dozier-Holland was still turning out hit after hit like a fine-tuned machine, but it was to be the final year of their incredible reign. In 1967, they would release significantly fewer singles — I would say also largely of significantly lesser quality — before departing Motown midway through over contract disputes and leaving multiple artists in a lurch.

If Motown was down to a formula by this point, you certainly couldn’t knock it. The first four songs on this list are all so fantastic, you could just about shuffle them at random and still find yourself with an order that would be hard to argue with. Here they are, the cream of the crop.

1. You Can’t Hurry Love

VIDEO: The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love plays over an image of the group. You Can’t Hurry Love lyrics.

One of the most pop-oriented records in Motown’s catalog, it was songs like this that gave Motown its reputation of having turned its back on Black music’s roots. But while soul music purists may turn their noses up at this track, it’s pure perfection. One of the Supremes’ most outstanding cuts, Diana Ross delivers an incredible, perfectly-phrased vocal that doesn’t miss a beat. Speaking of beats, this track has got plenty, with James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin demonstrating their ability to read each other’s minds, Robert White providing a rhythmic, jangly guitar, and Jack Ashford dominating the track on tambourine. Designed for radio and the dance floor, this is the sound of the Supremes at their peak. And at a time when virtually everything they did went straight to the top, this is a cut that absolutely deserved its #1 spot.

Just as 1966 was the last year of HDH’s reign, it was in my view also the last truly great year for the Supremes. They would suffer as much as anyone from HDH’s departure from the label. Further, 1967 would see the non-coincidentally simultaneous renaming of the group as Diana Ross and the Supremes — making explicit what had been heavily implied for years — and the abhorrent firing of Florence Ballard by Berry Gordy for “insubordination.” But Flo’s remarkably full and unique backing vocals (not to mention her boisterous personality) were not the only loss, as Motown largely failed to utilize Mary Wilson or Flo’s replacement Cindy Birdsong on future recordings, instead substituting them with the label’s house backing vocalists the Andantes. I have previously and will continue to praise the Andantes for their superb, skillful work. But having the same exact sound heard on records by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many other artists was a huge detriment to a group that was supposed to have been woman-centered. In losing Flo, the Supreme not only lost a big part of their distinctive sound; they also failed to find a new one. Diana Ross and the Supremes will turn up in this series again, but the Supremes portion of that title will mostly be in name only.

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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965

Previously:
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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