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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: 1969

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

The Jackson 5 early in their career, sporting colorful 60s clothes and perfectly coifed afros, sit and pose for the camera.

Sadly, we must pause at the beginning of another post to note the passing of an under-appreciated Motown great. Mr. Frank Wilson, songwriter and producer for Motown from 1965-1976, died yesterday. I wrote significantly about Wilson in my post about 1965; as head songwriter and producer for one of my very favorite Motown artists, Eddie Kendricks, he is extremely well-represented in my record collection, and I am particularly saddened by this news. Thanks for all the music, Frank; Rest In Peace.

After an unexpected hiatus, I’m back to finish up the last three installments of this series. Still lacking, as they forever after would, the cohesion of their 1963-1966 period, Motown continued to rely on an array of songwriters and producers, with mixed results. Johnny Bristol was actually the most successful songwriter/producer of the year, according to my list, something that back in 1969 probably surprised even him. Norman Whitfield was still working out some of the kinks in his new sound, at the same time as Berry Gordy threw himself head-first back into the writing game and operations started to shift further to California. Diana Ross was preparing to strike out on her own, while Marvin Gaye struggled with depression, and Stevie Wonder kept working on finding Stevie. David Ruffin and Edwin Starr both tried valiantly to become Motown’s latest male star, though neither would achieve the lasting success they hoped for. And everything the Temptations touched still turned to gold, though they had some stiff competition in some young newcomers called the Jackson 5.

All in all, it was arguably Motown’s overall weakest year since their big 1963 breakthrough. But luckily, that’s a comparative measure, and the results still turned into a great list.

1. I Want You Back

VIDEO: I Want You Back plays over an image of a Jackson 5 greatest hits album. I Want You Back lyrics.

With the label gradually moving more into soul music with the departure of HDH, I Want You Back is Motown’s best pop single since Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and their best piece of pure bubblegum since You Can’t Hurry Love. Even more than that, it holds the highly esteemed position of being Michael Jackson’s very first masterpiece. A family group of young teen and pre-teen boys, the Jackson 5 were first brought to the attention of Motown by Gladys Knight and the Pips, only for Berry Gordy to ignore their praises, not wanting to deal with the labor law hassles of underage performers. Motown singer/songwriter/producer Bobby Taylor eventually got him to hear the group, at which point Berry signed them instantly — and then promptly gave credit for their discovery to Diana Ross. After knocking their ages down a couple of years in press releases to make them seem even more cute, all they needed was a hit; they found one in Berry’s new songwriting group, the Corporation.

Intended to replace HDH as Motown’s hit-making machine, the Corporation was deliberately anonymous, with the intention of avoiding the “big heads” Berry perceived HDH as having grown. Comprised of Berry Gordy and the virtually unknown Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards, the collective fell far short of living up to its overall goal, but did produce one legendary song. At the time, it was all the J5 needed. Recorded in LA — where the bulk of the group’s work was to be completed, strongly signalling a shift away from Detroit and the Funk Brothers’ sound — the track features an impressive bass groove by Wilton Felder and crisp, clear instrumentation. A story mature beyond little Michael’s 11 years, he delivers it with a precocious conviction, surrounded by bubbly backing vocals made for radio. This song would be covered by a plethora of Motown’s acts, including very, very well by David Ruffin, but none would match the pop perfection of the original. And though the Jackson 5 would carry on with many other worthy singles, their debut was to be the finest track by the last superstars of Motown’s golden age.

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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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