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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: 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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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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