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Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966

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: 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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