Tag Archives: smokey robinson and the miracles

Top 5 Motown Singles: 1970

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: 1965

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: 1963

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

Though he did not join Motown until 1967, and therefore his work will not be featured in this post, it nevertheless seems only right to starting by noting the passing earlier this week of Funk Brother bassist Bob Babbitt. Brought on board to handle the work Jamerson couldn’t, he was an excellent bassist in his own right, and several of his most famous bass lines will be making an appearance in this series later on. With only three Funk Brothers still living, this is a very sad moment indeed. My condolences to Babbitt’s family and fellow musicians. Thanks for the music, Bob; Rest In Peace.

In Motown history, 1963 is notable for many reasons, all interconnected. In 1963, Motown’s premiere songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland formed. Brian Holland was a young songwriter and producer whose biggest success had been Please Mr. Postman, and who had been in the Motown circle back when Berry and Ray were running Rayber. His older brother Eddie, also one of their earliest acquisitions, was a Jackie Wilson-esque singer with incredible stage fright but an equally incredible knack for writing lyrics. Lamont Dozier was also a singer — one who, unlike Eddie, would eventually return to performing — who found greater success behind the scenes. Brian and Lamont would be responsible for the music, arrangement, and productions, while Eddie was the primary lyricist, finishing the songs while the other two laid down backing tracks, and then recording vocal demos and teaching the singers their parts. They were an incredibly productive and efficient team, working their method out to a science, and this along with their incredible skill contributed to their prominence.

Not coincidentally, 1963 has been noted as the year that saw the start of the Motown assembly line. This is a difficult thing to pin down, with several of its features, or at least rudimentary versions, having already been in place in prior years. The “assembly line” is dubbed such because of its basis in inspiration from real assembly lines at Detroit’s auto factories, and represents the label’s regimented, efficient, and incredibly quick way of recording and releasing singles. The assembly line’s most famous feature is its Quality Control meetings, which eventually took place every Friday morning. Producers would play their latest recordings, and they would get voted up or down for release by other producers, sometimes from teenagers pulled off the street, and by Berry himself; these meetings could be rough and get incredibly heated, and standards were often set very high. Whether or not the assembly line really started in ’63 or had existed in some form prior, Motown released a lot more singles and albums that year than they had any year before. The studio started running longer hours; songwriters started getting more competitive; and producers started lining up outside Hitsville’s one studio, round the clock, waiting for their hour or two with the band to lay down what they hoped would be their latest hit (and its B-side).

Just as hard to precisely put your finger on but also notably given credit to this year, and inextricably intertwined with the emergence of both HDH and the assembly line, is the birth of the Motown Sound. I’ve said before that the Motown Sound, while instantly recognizable and inimitable, is something incredibly difficult to define. I’m surely not qualified for the task. While, as with the assembly line, many qualities of the Motown Sound could be found on countless previous recordings, 1963 was undoubtedly the year that the Motown Sound coalesced, the year you could start picking a Motown record off the radio before the singer came in.

It was a good year for Motown. It was a a good year for Martha and the Vandellas, a good year for Marvin Gaye, and an absolutely great year for Holland-Dozier-Holland. It was probably the last year before Motown completely lost its innocence, when artists would talk about Motown as “family” and do so with an entirely straight face. Though the music was still great — in fact, it got better — that would very soon no longer be true. One cannot help but relish in the youth and joy present on all of these tracks.

1. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave

VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas dance and lip sync to their song Heat Wave in front of a crowd of dancing teenagers. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave lyrics.

One of the most brilliant records Motown ever released, this song is on fire from start to finish. The backing track is all horns and drums, and the vocals are nothing less than a tour de force. Filled to the brim with verve, female lust hits the dance floor. Martha is at her very best, sounding truly overwhelmed with desire; the Vandellas are slaying it, making a much greater sound than two women should have been able; and with Richard “Pistol” Allen leading the way, the Funk  Brothers are giving the performance of a lifetime. A blast of life and frenzy, it always feels over just as soon as it starts; and then you’ve got to play it again. If this isn’t the Motown Sound, I don’t know what the hell is. But in the end, who cares what you call it? It’s one of the best damn sounds that’s ever going to come out of your speakers.

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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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Top 5 Motown Songs

Motown Family: Several Motown acts, including The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, during their 1965 UK Motown Revue tour.

Motown is, without a doubt, the greatest record label in American history. It was never even close to the largest. Certainly, it was not the most profitable. If there even could be an award for most ethical record company, Motown sadly would not be its recipient. And in terms of total number of great songs ever released, the significantly longer histories and rosters of big labels would likely put several of them out on top. But for overall quality, Motown remains the undisputed champion.

Other record labels, making far more money, would have nonetheless killed for Motown’s hit-per-single rate. They similarly would have signed a contract with the devil for the efficiency of their assembly line approach. And any assembly line boss would surely marvel at the diverse and high quality output that Motown maintained for several years running while putting on a public face that never broke a sweat.

Readers here will know me much better as a Beatles fanatic, but over the past few years I’ve developed into a bonafide Motown junkie. What started as an impulse $6 purchase of the Big Chill soundtrack became a large box set compilation, and quickly morphed into a significant and growing collection of original Motown records and rarities sets.

A quick google search of the best Motown songs will show that most wouldn’t dare try to narrow down Motown’s enormous output into a mere 5 tracks. But we’ve set a precedent around here, and I’m willing to take up the challenge — at least, with a few caveats. The choices here are limited to singles, which isn’t too much of a restriction, since cream at Motown far more than often than not rose to the top. These are not my favorite Motown songs, either — indeed, only two of the five (#1 and #5) are my favorite song by the artist in question — but the best and most representative, in terms of both quality and status. With great apologies to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s brilliant early 70s output, I’m also restricting my choices to Motown’s glory days, ending with their move away from Detroit in 1971. Similarly (though differently), I further restrict my selections to those songs which all represent that elusive and difficult to define, yet instantly recognizable, Motown Sound. The goal here is not to create a list of the five greatest songs ever released on one of the many Motown record labels, but to list the top five Motown Records™.

Though it was entirely unintentional when debating and creating this list in my head over several weeks, I couldn’t be more pleased or find it more fitting that, including the bonus track, each of Motown’s greatest years from 1963 to 1968 are represented here. Each of Motown’s greatest and most prolific songwriters/producers, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, also sees their way onto this list at least once. And most, though not all, of Motown’s most legendary acts are also represented.

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.

Rightly labeled the King of Motown, Smokey Robinson was many things. One of the greatest vocalists to ever grace the label’s record grooves, their first superstar songwriter and producer, and easily their most elegant lyricist. In this track, the Miracles’ greatest and most celebrated, Smokey gives us his most vivid and haunting image: a person whose face has been scarred from crying too many tears. Everything about this track is exquisite perfection. From Marv Tarplin’s melancholy opening guitar riff; to the Miracles’ dazzling harmonies, with my favorite Miracle Claudette Rogers Robinson (not shown in the video) shining at the top; to Smokey’s delicate, quietly pained lead vocal; to the tasteful, subtle orchestration. As the music and Miracles’ vocals collectively swell for “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you,” you can rest assured that Motown never did it any better, and neither did anyone else.

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