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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: 1964

Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

In matching green suits with no lapels, the Temptations pose on the sidewalk, with David Ruffin crooning dramatically into a microphone.

For the first time, you don’t have to be a Motown junkie to love this list — if you don’t know every single one of these five songs, there is something seriously, seriously wrong with your radio dial. A watershed year, it would see the breakthrough of both the Temptations and the Supremes, who would rule Motown’s roster for years to come, as well as those other beloved chart-toppers the Four Tops.

It was an eclectic year, seeing top tracks by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, and even Hunter-Stevenson (that’s Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson). For the first time, no one artist is listed multiple times — and yet, they easily could be. The fact that the Supremes and Tempts don’t have multiple songs scoring is because there just weren’t enough slots.

And yet, Motown faced formidable challenges this year. The arrival of the Beatles, their unprecedented dominance of the charts, and the British invasion that came in their wake left a lot of American music producers quaking in their (Beatle) boots. Audience tastes were changing, and the music being put out by most labels was changing with it. With Motown only established for a couple of years, there was a real chance that they might not survive. Far from mop tops, Motown’s Black artists and sounds were rather different from the inadequate, white-friendly imitations British acts liked to do of them. But even as Motown responded to the Beatles’ dominance,[1. Mary Wells’ tour with the group, the Berry Gordy-Beatles photo-op, the Supremes’ (abysmal) A Taste of Liverpool album …] the Motown Sound ultimately persevered and strengthened. It was one of few forms of popular music that would come out of the year in tact.

To call 1964 “Motown’s best year yet” would be to severely trivialize the matter; 1964 was one of Motown’s best years ever.

1. My Girl

VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Temptations, dressed in matching suits, performing to their track My Girl in front of a seated audience. My Girl lyrics.

Anchoring the other end of the year with another legendary release after the immaculate The Way You Do The Things You Do finally got the Tempts some much-deserved national attention in January, My Girl wasn’t actually a hit until 1965, released just as 1964 closed. But single release date is what I’m going by, and so 1964 is where this song rates. Written by Smokey Robinson as a “response track” to his own My Guy composition for Mary Wells (see below), this ode to Smokey’s wife (and Miracles member) Claudette is one of Motown’s greatest love songs. It was given to the Tempts after Smokey caught one of David’s leads during a live performance and was blown away.[2. Accounts vary on whether Smokey specifically wrote the song for him after this performance, or originally intended it for the Miracles and decided during that performance to give the song to David.] It would become the most enduring single they ever released, their signature song.

Taking over from Eddie Kendricks for the first time, one of the most intriguing things about David Ruffin’s vocal on this track is how he seems to get looser as he goes. My Girl was the first Motown song I ever fell in love with, thanks to the early 90s movie by the same name, and even as a seven-year-old, I recognized that there was something special about how he sang that last verse and outro. He goes from a careful and deliberate “I’ve got sunshine …” as the song begins to a raspy and fervent “I don’t need no money” by the time it ends. Directly linked to the success of this song, Ruffin would lead almost every single by the group for the rest of the three and a half years he remained a member, soon taking raspy to a whole new level. No mention of this song is complete without a bow to James Jamerson and Robert White on bass and guitar respectively. My Girl is exactly what any great song should be.

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