Barrett Strong – “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959)
Written by Janine Bradford and Berry Gordy. Produced by Berry Gordy.
Released August 1959. Reached #23 on the pop charts.
Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” was Motown’s first hit record and appropriately the one to earn enough dough to keep the label afloat during its early years. The song was released in August 1959 and became a regional success. By June 1960, the single reached number two on Billboard magazine’s national R&B and number 23 on the Pop charts. Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Jamie Bradford wrote “Money”, although there has been some controversy about this because some of the lyrics seem very similar to John Lee Hooker’s tune, “I Need Some Money”. However, the tunes of the two songs are very different. Strong’s “Money” does have a much bluesier feel than the Motown releases that followed. He shouts the words more than he sings them, beginning with the cynical first line, “The best things in life are free / But you can give them to the birds and bees.” While Motown music later became synonymous with songs about young love, this record made it clear that the narrator had more mature concerns.
Ironically, this was one of the few Motown songs covered by that other ’60s band known for love songs, the Beatles. The Rolling Stones also did a rendition of this tune, as have other acts as different as Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Cheap Trick, Jerry Lee Lewis, Smashing Pumpkins, Hanson, and the Pretenders. The song’s appeal lies in its naked appeal to greed. There’s nothing subtle here. The lead singer repeats “Give me money / That’s what I want” several times with nasty inflections throughout the song.
Gordy and company first released this song during a time when money and music made news, during the Payola era when Congress investigated radio disc jockeys for taking bribes to play certain 45s. Songs of teen idols and youthful innocence filled the airwaves as a result. Strong’s “Money” served as a bracing tonic to those major label confections about “Puppy Love” (such as Paul Anka’s 1960 big hit by that name). Instead of treating teens like sweet kids, “Money” spoke to them subversively as jaded adults. That’s what made the song seem so rebellious. The teens that dug “Money” expressed their independence by rejecting the sentimental and romantic in favor of something more authentic and gritty. And nothing is more real than “Money”, and that’s what the kids wanted. – Steve Horowitz
The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman” (1961)
Written by Robert Bateman, Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, and Brian Holland. Produced by Brian Holland and Robert Bateman.
Released 21 August 1961. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
Hitting the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 11th, 1961, the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” was the song that truly launched the Tamla/Motown sound. After all, it was the label’s first number one pop single, a recording that revolutionized American music and introduced the world to what would soon be recognized as a bona fide dynasty. From its opening shout of “Wait!” the song is nothing if not attention-grabbing, and it all starts with the track’s bare-bones rhythm section (courtesy of the Funk Brothers). There’s the ebullient stride piano, the thudding, thumping upright bass line, and — last but certainly not least — Marvin Gaye’s primitive, yet achingly restrained drums. And that’s before any consideration of the Marvelettes’ gorgeous background harmonies — the track’s most obvious doo-wop connection — which serves to provide the perfect foil to lead singer Gladys Horton’s raspy contralto.
And this is what really sells the track, Horton’s underlying toughness coming through despite the perfunctory politeness of the lyrics. While the singer’s main gift is a rough, gutsy tone, her impeccable articulation and phrasing are equally responsible for transforming every other word of the song into a hook. Years later, Karen Carpenter would approximate this treatment, yielding one of the finer parts of a passable yet typically edgeless cover version by the Carpenters (which still went to number one).
Over all, though, “Please Mr. Postman” is most significant as a rubric for subsequent girl groups — chiefly the more coquettish Supremes, who made good on their names as Motown juggernauts throughout the remainder of the 1960s. While the Marvelettes never did match the single’s success, their contribution to the earliest part of Motown’s storied golden era is nonetheless impossible to exaggerate. Any way you frame it, it’s a perennial classic to which modern pop still owes a substantial debt. – Spencer Tricker
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (1962)
Written and produced by Smokey Robinson.
Released 9 November 1962. Reached #8 on the pop charts.
With “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, Smokey Robinson proved what anyone who’s ever been in a complicated relationship already suspected — that love and hate aren’t mutually exclusive. Few people could truthfully say they haven’t felt the combination of longing and frustration that the Miracles captured perfectly in this 1962 single. In just the deceptively simple opening line, Robinson captured a million relationships’ worth of complex cat and mouse games. Although the Miracles reached near the top of the pop chart with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, the most solid proof of the song’s universal quality came a year later when the Beatles included a cover on their second, Motown-inspired album. Anyone who claimed that Motown was music only for black people must have found it hard to argue the point once John Lennon and Co. proved them wrong.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” — and the Miracles themselves — were one of Motown’s notable early success stories. Robinson, who eventually became a vice president of the company, has said that Berry Gordy was inspired to start Motown after beholding the lackluster financial results of an attempt to produce a Miracles single for another label. Robinson penned an untold number of memorable songs for the Miracles and for other Motown artists. But with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” he created a single that is essentially bullet-proof. The song fits almost any genre or voice. Laura Nyro included an engaging version on Gonna Take a Miracle, her 1971 collaboration with Labelle. For their collaboration as She & Him, actress Zooey Deschanel and indie rocker M. Ward sang a dreamy duet of the song on last year’s Volume One. Even Eddie Money’s 1977 “lite rock” take isn’t completely objectionable. Sorry Eddie — you were OK, but the song is simply exceptional. – Rachel Kipp
Martha & the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street” (1964)
Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter. Produced by William “Mickey” Stevenson.
Released 31 July 1964. Reached #2 on the pop charts.
It’s hard not to hear the premiere single from Motown’s Martha & the Vandellas and not think of bigger things. After all, the opening of the 1964 smash begins with the line “Calling out around the world”. Talk about your international invites. One of Hitsville USA’s first global anthems, the shout-out to party arms was originally disguised as a ballad, composer William “Mickey” Stevenson trying to interest Marvin Gaye in the track by showing him an early, downbeat draft. The former Motown session drummer turned recording artist liked what he saw/heard, but thought it could be more “danceable”. With the help of some input from new songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter, and some arrangement guidance from Vandellas’ mentors Holland-Dozier-Holland (talk about a talent-packed production team!), the eventual version was ready to record. With Martha Reeves on lead, it took only two takes to nail.
It’s all there from the moment you hear the deafening drum intro and opening brass band trill. The track chugs along like an express party train to your feet, toes tapping as fingers pop in perpetual motion. Echo enhanced the outsized scope of the song, but it’s the undeniable jingle of the ever-present Motown tambourine (a true label trademark) that suggests a kind of full blown world fiesta. As Reeves intones the initial lines, her lower-register voice spouting out the sentiments, the rest of Motown’s sturdy house band (the infamous Funk Brothers) keep the groove locked in. At first, the song presents a standard early ’60s idea: “Summer’s here and the time is right / For dancing in the street.” Reeves is convincing, offering the new “beat” that will get you sweatin’ in the hot rays of a July sun.
By the chorus, she has us convinced that there’s no other choice but to join in and shake a tail feather — and Berry Gordy and the gang will be there to provide the soundtrack: “All we need is music, sweet music / There’ll be music everywhere / There’ll be swingin’, swayin’ and records playin’ / And dancin’ in the street.”
Later, as the litany of locations is peeled off, it’s interesting to note the lack of cities outside the US. Reeves name checks Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and of course, the Motor City of Detroit. She even gets LA in. It’s only later, as the song fades out, that the singer starts broadening her horizons, though a vague reference to “across the ocean blue” hardly seems like the continental call out the lyrics suggest. All the while, the current crop of Vandellas (the names and number changed frequently) provides a melodious counterpoint.
Oddly enough, riots in ’64 (Harlem) and ’65 (the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts) found activists adopting the song as a symbol of group solidarity and philosophical empowerment. The call became one of action, and the suggestion that “every guy” should “grab a girl” was seen as an attempt at cultural unity. It’s only natural for a tune that started out small, but grew into something far more significant — and sensational. Bill Gibron
The Velvelettes – “Needle in a Haystack” (1964)
Written by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Norman Whitfield. Produced by Norman Whitfield.
Released September 1964. Reached #45 on pop charts.
The Velvelettes’ 1964 single “Needle in a Haystack” was, according to the group, a song they were less than enthused to record. Co-written and produced by Motown’s own Norman Whitfield, the song would ironically go on to become one of their biggest hits. Caldin “Carolyn” Gill, Bertha Barbee, Norma Barbee, and Mildred “Millie” Gill were discovered at Western Michigan University and soon after signed to Motown. Often overshadowed by some of Motown’s more popular girl groups, such as the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes, like many other Motown artists, are not as recognizable today. “Needle in a Haystack” contains all the elements that make a Motown song so immediately accessible and familiar: the perfect blend of lead and backing vocals, punctuated by piano and handclaps, and that hard-driving, undeniable beat. Clocking in at just two minutes and 32 seconds, “Needle in a Haystack” delivers more energy and style than most songs released today and there is not a wasted moment in the entire thing.
Gill’s lead vocal is filled with power and her playful, lively delivery is especially satisfying during the tail end of the song. For all the precise placement of backing vocals and instrumentation, Gill’s vocal is strong and decidedly in the forefront as the song begins, but as it progresses, the song becomes more loose and Gill’s vocal represents the shift well. There’s a reason why “Needle in a Haystack” was chosen as the first song on Rhino’s wonderful box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found. It’s a song that not only speaks to what makes girl groups as important musically as any other pop style, but it also represents what Motown has contributed to our musical landscape. Not least of which is the Velvelettes singing, “Findin’ a good man, girls / Is like findin’ a needle in a haystack” — a statement that eschews much of the romanticism and longing associated with girl group pop songs.
There are lyrics that speak to an early feminist sensibility (“Girls, those fellas are sly, slick, and shy / So don’t you ever let `em get you starry-eyed”), along with moments that undermine these very words (“You’d better play hard to get / Or you’re gonna regret / The day you were born, girl / When he leaves you alone, girl”). However, despite these mixed messages, the Velvelettes were able to deliver in a way that never felt less than powerful. There is a real strength in their interpretation of the lyrics and it serves to elevate the song. It’s the matter-of-fact lyrics, along with the Velvelettes’ strong, straight-ahead delivery of the material, and the unmistakable Motown sound that makes the song as immediate and enjoyable as it is. “Needle in a Haystack” stands as one of the great Motown songs of the 1960s era and it remains an excellent example of the Velvelettes’ unique place in that history. – Jessica Suarez
The Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” (1965)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 23 April 1965. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
In 1965, the production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland crafted one of the finest, most influential singles in the history of popular music. From the sounds in Studio A of a piano stride, to the end of a baritone falsetto, all the way into the girl group laden harmonies, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” became the culmination of the techniques of the most prolific songwriting team’s hit-making factory. While most of his soulful counterparts were tenors, Levi Stubbs was a rarity with his low-register raspy voice that could knock a woman’s socks clean off. Perhaps this is what made him stand out among his peers, but also the entire group (consisting of Stubbs, Abdul Fakir, Renaldo Benson, Lawrence Payton, and the Adantes) was able to interpret Holland-Dozier-Holland’s songwriting beyond the surface and turn great songs at their infancy into classics over time. Only to be replaced on the charts by another huge hit at the time, the Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the Four Tops’ hit single held the number one position for a consecutive two weeks in the summer of ’65.
1965 was a year of significant cultural upheaval — Malcolm X was assassinated, the Vietnam War was escalating, Dylan went electric and threw the folk world into an uproar, the Beatles took over the world by playing the first stadium show in New York — but it was songs like “I Can’t Help Myself” that provided relief from the hardships of life, and helped lead into an era that was all about the struggle for peace and letting loose. Although the Four Tops were not always the most album-oriented of the Motown bunch, their singles will forever be a testament to the faith Berry Gordy had in seven inches of wax. Moving 45 revolutions per minute, the Four Tops have moved their way history — proving that a song about a woman’s love can be just as influential as any song grounded in politics and social commentary. – John Bohannon
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965)
Written by Warren Moore, William Robinson, Jr., and Marvin Tarplin. Produced by Smokey Robinson.
Released 23 June 1965. Reached #16 on the pop charts.
One of Motown’s most perfect expressions of the sadness and regret beneath the surface of human behavior, “The Tracks of My Tears” establishes an indelible atmosphere in its opening seconds. A guitar gently plays part of the song’s melody, the drums kick in, and the Miracles sing a soft bed of sweet nothings. That creates a tone of both comfort and melancholy, a somber ease. The Miracles — assisted in the song by Motown’s legendary session band the Funk Brothers and, almost invisibly, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — thus efficiently but elegantly set the score for the angelic and worldly voice of Smokey Robinson, making immortal a story of heartbreak, of watching ideal love slip away and struggling to maintain a smile. The song hits those emotions so precisely, within such a memorable tune, that it has remained one of Motown’s most beloved songs. That it has been performed by people as different from each other as Dolly Parton, Bryan Ferry, Soul Asylum, and Boyz II Men is a testament to the song’s universal qualities.
But the effectiveness of “The Tracks of My Tears”, the original recording, is also about mood and performance, about guitarist Marv Tarplin playing such a simple and evocative melody, about a few hits of a drum framing and emphasizing the feelings within the song, about the Miracles and Robinson singing off each other. There’s a significant portion of the song where Robinson lets the Miracles finish his sentences, where they sing back and forth, building upon each other like jazz musicians would, in an improv jam. By the end of the song they’re singing excitedly together, and singing about loneliness. That would-be contrast is Motown’s legacy: the collective focus on individual pain. Under the rubric of Motown, so many people, remembered and forgotten, worked together to create music that reflected the inner emotions of individuals, and continues to resonate with listeners on that level. – Dave Heaton
The Four Tops – “It’s the Same Old Song” (1965)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 9 July 1965. Reached #5 on the pop charts.
The legend behind the creation of the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song” reads like a shining testament to the notion of Motown as the ultimate music factory, cranking out classic pop songs with all of the quality and precision of Detroit’s other famous industry. When the Tops scored their first #1 record with “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” in June of 1965, the group’s former label, Columbia Records, rushed to capitalize on their newfound success by reissuing the early, unsuccessful Columbia single “Ain’t That Love”. Reportedly angered over the attempted cash-in, Berry Gordy ordered the group, along with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, into the studio to produce a brand new Four Tops single to be ready for commercial release within 24 hours. By the end of the working day, “It’s the Same Old Song” had been written and recorded, with 1,500 copies of the record shipped out to DJs across the country the following afternoon.
With the title possibly even a wink and a nudge in reference to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s knack for unerringly duplicating their own formulas — note the song’s unmistakable melodic resemblance to not only “I Can’t Help Myself” but also the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” — “It’s the Same Old Song” once again proved the unshakable success of the Motown assembly line, peaking at #5 on the charts. At the heart of this model of efficiency, though, remains a breathtakingly brilliant song, one that, if not the definitive staple of the Four Tops catalogue that “I Can’t Help Myself” has become, is arguably the greater artistic achievement.
An overall more melodically complex and expansive composition, “It’s the Same Old Song” pushes much further into the realm of pop than the comparatively basic doo-wop-style vocal arrangements of “I Can’t Help Myself”. Front and center is an especially urgent, yearning lead performance by the invaluable Levi Stubbs, deftly maintaining the song’s fragile balance of wistfulness and heartbreak. “The melody keeps haunting me / Reminding me how in love we used to be,” he sings, a simple declaration of one of music’s most profound functions: the ability to encapsulate our memories more vibrantly, poetically, and succinctly than the actual truth of our histories ever possibly could. – Jer Fairall
Stevie Wonder – “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (1965)
Written by Hank Cosby, Sylvia Moy, and Stevie Wonder. Produced by Clarence Paul.
Released 22 November 1965. Reached #3 on pop charts.
Fans of Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life, take heed: without 1965’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, Stevie Wonder’s most groundbreaking works may have never come to pass. On “Uptight”, Wonder joyfully tells the tale of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who bests rich-kid Goliaths and gets the girl because, although he doesn’t have money, his “heart is true”. But the song was just as pivotal a victory for Wonder. The popularity of “Uptight” was a declaration of then-15-year-old Wonder’s maturation — and his viability as an artist.
Signed to Motown as a preteen, the artist initially introduced to the world as “Little” Stevie Wonder had a major hit by his early teens with “Fingertips (Pt. 2)”. For the next few years, however, the label didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Wonder had a few singles hit modest positions on the Top 40, but appeared to be in danger of being washed up before he grew up. “Uptight”, which hit number three on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, was the perfect song to declare that Wonder was here to stay. Motown songs are almost unparalleled in their opening hooks. “Uptight” has one of the label’s best, full of snappy drums, an ear-catching guitar line, and a horn section that all but declares victory for the song’s scrappy hero. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard “Uptight” over and over or are listening for the first time — as soon as the those drums kick in, there’s nothing else to do but turn up the volume, roll down the car windows, and sing along at the top of your lungs. “Uptight” is the perfect pick-me-up, even if you’re not a poor guy trying to get the girl (trust me).
Back when “Uptight” was brand new, the single may have been the first time many listeners heard Wonder’s grown-up gravely tenor. He sounds ecstatic here, so much so that any cover attempts (including a duet by the Supremes and Temptations) seem positively bland. “Uptight” was the first Wonder single co-written by the artist. A half dozen years after its release, Wonder wrangled a deal with Motown that gave him complete creative control over his work and thus spent almost the entire next decade churning out classics. There’s just one unfortunate problem here. If music lovers can thank “Uptight” for subsequent note-perfect singles like “Higher Ground” and “Superstition”, by consequence the single must also be partially blamed for Wonder’s missteps, including the dreadful “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. But that’s a small price to pay for “Uptight” — two minutes and 55 seconds of pure, genuine bliss. – Rachel Kipp
The Temptations – “Get Ready” (1966)
Written and produced by Smokey Robinson.
Released 7 February 1966. Reached #29 on the pop charts.
The Temptations are a Motown Records institution, having spent 40 years with the label and charting 14 Billboard R&B number one singles over the course of their career. Like many other artists on the label, the Temptations often shifted sound and lineup in order to stay relevant, but their most beloved output remains that of the “classic five” period in the 1960s. This lineup of Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams recorded “Get Ready”, which was written and produced by Smokey Robinson. It was their last major Robinson collaboration, as the song failed to meet Berry Gordy’s top ten expectations on the United States pop chart.
The single edit of the 1969 Rare Earth cover of “Get Ready” did eventually reach number four on the Billboard Hot 100, but that group’s solo-packed 21-minute album version deadens the dramatic impact of the original. Although additional versions of the song pop up every now and then (most recently and dubiously by Fergie), my favorite contemporary use of the song is in the original theatrical trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. One of pastiche master Tarantino’s greatest tricks is to breathe new life into both score and source music through sometimes straightforward, sometimes ironic combinations of visual and aural elements. The use of “Get Ready” in the trailer for a darkly comic caper film highlighted the song’s emphasis on preparing for and executing an act (in this case, a criminal one). It was that 1997 trailer that focused my attention on the song’s structural vitality and revived my appreciation for the Temptations.
Of the song’s many pleasures, the two key contributors here are Funk Brothers drummer Benny Benjamin and lead vocalist Eddie Kendricks. On the verse, Benjamin plays the snare drum on the second and fourth quarter notes as Kendricks uses his smooth falsetto to sing the praises of a potential lover. The backing vocals alternate with his lines to echo the sentiment of the compliments his pays her (“You’re alright” / “You’re outta sight). This guarded groundwork stands in contrast to the swelling choruses, during which Kendricks focuses on how fit and ready he is. Here he shifts into a more confident delivery and Benjamin attacks the snare on all four quarter notes as the backing vocals and strings soar up and down. This perfectly executed unification of sweetness and swagger makes each chorus a joyous climax.
Sadly, the legacy of a song like “Get Ready” has been squandered by many of today’s would-be R&B stars. As a depressing point of comparison, listen to Omarion’s “O”, which reads like a shadow version of “Get Ready”. Robinson wrote, and the Temptations sang about “bringing you a love that’s true” and the result still brings joy to the ears. Conversely, Omarion commands his woman to “come on over and let’s get this thing crackin’ / You’ll be surprised when you see what Os I’m packin / ‘Cause I’m young but I’m ready”. Something tells me his dream girl is still waiting for the chorus to kick in. – Thomas Britt
Jimmy Ruffin – “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)
Written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean. Produced by William Weatherspoon and William “Mickey” Stevenson.
Released 3 June 1966. Reached #7 on the pop charts.
I confess, my actual knowledge of Motown is sparse aside from knowing that the Detroit label produced some of the very best music of the ’60s and ’70s. So I can’t talk much about Jimmy Ruffin’s career, his background (aside from being the older brother of the Temptations’ David Ruffin), or his other songs. But you don’t need any of that to be swept under the spell of the debonairly devastated “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, a song that ought to seize you by the throat as soon as the backing vocalists start ooh oohing, if you have any kind of heart.
Ruffin opens the song with “As I walk these lands of broken dreams”, and sure enough this is the rare end-of-relationship song where there’s no ‘you’ to address. Ruffin asks “who had love that has departed?” in the chorus, but the answer seems to be, “Everyone”. The landscape he walks through is repeatedly depicted as broken and dark, with “no place for beginning”. Not once is there any mention of hope of reconciliation or even hope of life — “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” does the whole romantic-loss-as-end-of-the-world trope better than almost anyone outside of the Ronettes’ “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” or ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All”.
And Ruffin deserves his place in that pantheon, because only a lead vocal performance this aching and this carefully judged can really sell the kind of feeling the song tries for. A great chorus and beautiful backing vocals (especially when they remain wordless) aids him, but it’s ultimately up to him to keep the song from seeming either flippant or bathetic and he walks that line nimbly. He invests some real grit and despair into the song — when he sings “I know I’ve got to find / Some kind of peace of mind” he brings a desperation and heat to it that renders it more than the same old cliché.
Ruffin’s performance and the sturdy backing serve the song so well that you start thinking of the loss it describes less in terms of romantic relationships and more in terms of a deeper loss of love. As a result, you have something that’s not so much another she-done-me-wrong song as it is the flipside to Elvis Costello’s version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” with the fury replaced by both a deep melancholy and (almost covertly) a searching optimism — however grim things get, Ruffin never answers the question of the song’s title and it’s enough to let the song and the listener hope that there is some peace of mind out there for him and us, after all. – Ian Mathers
The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 25 July 1966. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
“Where Did Our Love Go” is widely regarded as a tipping point for the Supremes. Written and produced by the inimitable Holland-Dozier-Holland team, the 1964 song topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks. Diana Ross sings about “this yearning, burning, yearning feeling” with a degree of longing that shifts her delivery outside of an airy comfort zone and into expressive sync with the lyrics. In addition to being a star-making turn for Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson, the impact of the song was to introduce a rough template for future hits. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”, the group’s ninth number one hit, is another notable example of what Lamont Dozier calls the “bluesy pop” strand of their discography. Although the Supremes moved in many directions over the course of the group’s career, the most resonant songs are those that acknowledge the full weight — the crush — of young love.
Signature song “You Can’t Hurry Love”, a 1966 number one hit, moves more nimbly than many of the Supremes songs in this tradition. Whereas the spoken word sections, prominent harpsichord, and comparative angularity of “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” explicitly announce soulful profundity, “You Can’t Hurry Love” nests its depth in what could be mistaken for inconsequential, sugary pop. The instrumentation (including James Jamerson’s energetic bass guitar and Earl Van Dyke’s percussive piano) and the ubiquity of the song in popular culture make it possible to treat the song as a danceable confection. But the tension between that comforting sound and anxious lyrics is what gives the song its exceptional honesty, reflecting a kaleidoscopic emotional terrain.
The thematic vacillation between impulse and restraint, common in the musical traditions from which the song draws inspiration, is manifested in the song’s two characters. Although Ross alone sings the lead, her perspective shifts throughout the song between a lovesick daughter and sagacious mother. Unlike Dolly Parton’s “When Love Is New”, a kindred song that actually casts two singers (Parton and Emmy Rossum) in these roles, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the story of a daughter remembering the wisdom passed down to her rather than literally being reminded within the song.
The effect is to focus the attention on the daughter’s emerging womanhood as it bears her mother’s influence. She is temporarily without “a love to call [her] own”, but she will wait and endure the “game of give and take”. To consider the song in this context is to be exposed to a struggle that surreptitiously answers the tragic, romantic quandaries often raised in the Supremes discography: “You Can’t Hurry Love” reluctantly sides with the heartache of loneliness instead of the heartbreak of love lost and love gone wrong. But it ain’t easy. – Thomas Britt
The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1966)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 12 October 1966. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
Motown has always had a flair for the dramatic. Many of the label’s biggest acts of the 1960s, including the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Supremes, are remembered today for love songs with layers of vocals, thumping drums, heavy but fluid bass lines, and monolithic hooks. Although some Motown hits might have screamed a lover’s name louder, few were as rockingly dramatic as the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. The song is Motown at its most Metal.
The lyrics of this Supremes hit detail the miseries of a woman in love with a man who only wants her for her body. But she’s not going to wallow in unhappiness any longer — she’s telling her sometimes-lover to get out of her life. As female performers, Diana Ross and the Supremes provided the opportunity for Motown to voice women’s concerns, and in this song, their voices are not used frivolously. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was not the first song about a woman telling off a no-good man, but its relative sexual frankness and thumping insistence make it stand out as a strong female statement in a male-dominated cultural form.
Musically, “Hangin’ On” is typical of a melodramatic 1960s Motown single but for one feature that makes it especially unique. The song begins with two guitars rhythmically tapping out the same note over and over. The note continues through every chorus of the song, adding a sense of urgency to the big beats beneath it and the plaintive vocals above. This one-note riff became the centerpiece of arguably the first great metal song when Vanilla Fudge released their cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and included the song on their debut album in 1967. The song sounded new all over again, perfectly at home in the psychedelic metal genre that Vanilla Fudge was helping to create.
“Hangin’ On” has resurfaced many times since, notably in 1986 as a pounding synth-pop dance hit, complete with orchestra-hit keyboards, by Kim Wilde. No matter the year, when an artist covers “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, the song’s drama sounds contemporary, immediate and urgent. – David Camak Pratt
Martha & the Vandellas – “Jimmy Mack” (1967)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 3 February 1967. Reached #10 on the pop charts.
Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” has that street corner doo-wop feel. Perhaps it’s the handclaps that start off the song and continue nonstop that gives the 45-rpm record that aura. Or maybe it’s the fact that there’s not a single note that’s hard to sing. Neither Martha Reeves nor any of the Vandellas ever has to stretch for a note. Or it could be the propulsive, insistent beat that just keeps things moving. Whatever the case, the song just begs to be sung along with.
Although the tune was recorded in 1964, Motown did not release “Jimmy Mack” until 1967, allegedly because of the Vietnam War. The lyrics, about a girl being wooed by another man while her loved one is away, were deemed inappropriate while soldiers were fighting abroad. However, the song was released during a time when more GIs were drafted and sent to ‘Nam because the war was less popular with the general public. The single received generous airplay on Armed Forces Radio as those stationed overseas could relate to the lyrics. “Jimmy Mack / When are you coming back?” was a question shared by both the soldiers and civilians.
“Jimmy Mack” was Martha and the Vandella’s last top ten pop hit and reached number one on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart. The song was written by Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team, who wrote 25 number-one hits for the record company including five consecutive number one singles for the Supremes. While the legendary Funk Brothers provide instrumentation, the vocals are so prominent that the song could almost be sung a cappella without losing much of value. There’s a short sax solo and the drums are important for helping keep the beat, but basically the voices carry the tune.
This makes sense in terms of the song’s lyrical concerns. It’s about a boy trying to wear down a girl’s resistance to his advances through his sweet talk. You can tell his ploy is working by the strength of the plea she sings to her boyfriend. She’s “trying hard to be true” but Jimmy Mack “better hurry back” because she “can’t hold out very much longer”. The urgency of her voice makes it clear. If Jimmy Mack doesn’t arrive soon, he will be replaced by another in her affections. The vocals convey the power of language. The song “Jimmy Mack” shows the persuasiveness of words simply by the way Martha and the Vandellas sung it. – Steve Horowitz
The Four Tops – “Bernadette” (1967)
Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
Released 16 February 1967. Reached #4 on the pop charts.
“Bernadette” isn’t Motown’s greatest single because it’s a nice song. In fact, it’s a downright ugly piece of chaos, with a narrator I can’t imagine and don’t willingly sympathize with, a choked-down fury, and a sort of explosion that I’m not convinced anyone involved with the song — not the Four Tops, not the Funk Brothers, and maybe not even songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland — had a handle on.
But, oh, that bassline. Let’s pin the song down right there before everything goes crazy and the angry brother comes by and, let’s face it, someone gets punched. That bass part is James Jamerson, one of pop’s classic musicians, at his finest. He alternates between bounding, chaotic runs and relatively simple reinforcement of the chord progressions. It creates a steady and melodic propulsion to make this song churn while Levi Stubbs delivers his off-kilter, half-sung vocals. It makes “Bernadette” a pop song instead of a letter from behind a restraining order.
Because that’s what we’re really seeing, right? Levi Stubbs’ singer is just about losing it. He starts out like a true lover. It’s lovely, and maybe that pounding music’s just misleading. But the little paranoia starts to creep in. It’s flattering, really. She’s so amazing that there must be other guys eyeing her up. It’s that possessiveness that bespeaks a kind heart, acknowledging the slow looks that follow a beloved.
It keeps going. Or rather Stubbs’ derangement grows. We get that Bernadette’s being nudged into object status here, but it goes as far as “I want you because I need you to live”. A little scary, but all the belonging, pedestal-placing, and worshipping, and the controlling nature that calls others controlling: it’s typical. But Stubbs can’t leave it at that. He’s starting to crack up a little over it. Like he’s literally going to die if some bastard steals his woman away from him. His vocals grow shoutier and shoutier, more arhythmic. And the band pushes and pushes toward the ultimate cataclysm. There’s violence somewhere here.
Even worse than the looming fight is the inversion of pop: “For the only joy in life is to be loved.” It takes either some guts or some complete absence of inhibition to say that. Rock is at least at the animal sense to want to have sex; pop told us that being in love was the greatest high, part of the transcendent experience of two people coming together amid the cherry blossoms and finding an epic sweetness.
“Bernadette” tells us: “Love me or I die!”
It’s a pop song driven by pure fear. Not “Do you like me check yes no maybe” worry, and certainly not the precursor of a glamorized heartbreak, but heart-racing, adrenalin-laden fear. It’s a strange source for a pop hit.
And, yet, it’s hard not to believe in some other genuine emotion in there. Maybe it’s knowledge of the pop genre, or of the band that sang “Reach Out I’ll Be There”: this must be love. Maybe it’s the Funk Brothers in the groove or the sweet back-up harmonies. It could be Jamerson’s bassline again, with its frantic leaps even as it plunges down and down. There’s fear driven by and nearly concealing a love of some sort. It reaches a critical mess.
So what do we do with the song and its singer? “Bernadette” provides more than a character study of a controlling lover. There’s a core to this song that could be more disturbed than deviant, in its capturing of an element of the erotic experience, of jealousy and fear and desire and pride and even a sensible (if frightened and frightening) love. There’s a brute here that we say we don’t know.
And then the music stops. The vocals stop. There are two seconds of silence, of expectancy, of confusion, of choice. Of loss. Beyond thought and sound, before the only possible response, Stubbs coming back just short of a shout with “Bernadette”, the middle syllable suffocated, naming the woman, the object, the feeling. Stubbs expressing that mad, dark urge, desperate to win sympathy from both us and Bernadette, the cry irrelevant in the fade, and the conflicted swarm lingering. – Justin Cober-Lake
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967)
Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol.
Released 20 April 1967. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
At its most basic level, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a terribly catchy jingle with the classic Motown pop sound — the kind of song that, as Steve Harvey once eloquently put it, makes “your ass just lit up”. When it was released, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became an instant hit. It was part of the continued success of Gaye and gave Terrell her first critical breakthrough. But “simple” songs are usually the ones with the most behind-the-scenes shockers and this song was no exception.
The story of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is almost apocryphal now. If you’ve seen footage of the duo performing the song together, their chemistry is undeniable. As Gaye and Terrell trade lines, the gut reaction is one of pure joy seeing two great singers really into the song and each other. But how many people know that Terrell was so overawed by the thought of singing with Gaye that her vocals were recorded earlier and then Gaye’s were overdubbed? It’s almost impossible to catch this, except in the third verse, when you can hear a couple of seconds of the overdub of Gaye’s vocals over Terrell’s.
From 1967 to 1969, Gaye recorded nearly a dozen duets with Terrell, who overcame her initial shyness about recording with him, and settled well into the role. A romantic relationship between the two was always denied although the song was written by an actual romantically-involved couple, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Lyrically, the song evokes powerful images of resilience and dependence, but its magic is in its broad appeal. Did Ashford and Simpson write the song for each other as a gesture of their love or could it mean more? What about partners separated by distance? Recently broken-up lovers still caught up in their feelings towards each other? Best friends? Teammates? Or perhaps, as fitting the time, those separated by segregation?
That Terrell would collapse on stage into Gaye’s arms at a 1967 concert and die in 1970 at the age of 24 only added to the myth surrounding this song and make it a true coda to a promising career. Gaye was never the same either — he took a brief hiatus from music, tried his hand at professional sports, and when he did return to the charts, the message had change from the whimsical to the political. Such was the power of one song. – Shyam K. Sriram
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion” (1967)
Written by William Robinson, Jr. and Al Cleveland. Produced by Smokey Robinson.
Released 19 October 1967. Reached #4 on the pop charts.
Motown’s greatest lyricist, Smokey Robinson outdid himself in the wordplay department with the title of this 1967 hit. The phrase, however, came from the song’s co-writer, Al Cleveland, when he and Robinson were out shopping at a Detroit department store. As Robinson was buying some pearls for his wife, he said to the saleslady, “I sure hope my wife likes them”, to which Cleveland replied, “I second that emotion.” Cleveland, of course, meant to say “I second that motion”, but much like Ringo Starr and his various “Tomorrow Never Knows”-isms, the flubbed line unintentionally became the impetus of a brilliant pop song. Cleveland and Robinson left the store and went back to the studio, where “I Second That Emotion” was born.
The idea that a misspoken line or pun can become the crux of a timeless pop song is part of what makes pop music so playful, so malleable, so in-the-moment: it is young enough to make these mistakes, yet quick-witted enough to turn those mistakes into its own language. Here that language is delivered within the familiar confines of Robinson’s fluffed-up falsetto, and buoyed by the bluesy guitar twines of Eddie Willis and others. “I Second That Emotion” is true pop about true love, about tossing aside the reservations and skepticisms, about going with your gut and your heart — a feeling that has been seconded, thirded, fourthed the world over. – Zeth Lundy
Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)
Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Produced by Norman Whitfield.
Released 30 October 1968. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
So here’s the funny thing about Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, the song that would, until the release of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”, reign supreme as Motown’s all-time biggest hit: Berry Gordy didn’t like it. When Gaye’s Norman Whitfield-produced track reached Motown’s quality control department, in all its psych-paranoia glory, it was deemed unsuitable for release and subsequently shelved for over a year. Its replacement, Gaye’s “Your Unchanging Love”, was released as a single in July 1967, while “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was handed over to Gladys Knight & the Pips, who took it to number one later that fall. When Gaye’s version was finally liberated from the vaults to be included as an album track on In the Groove, it blew up, trumping the album’s designated single, “You”, on the radio. Motown officially released the song as a single in October 1968; it outsold Knight’s version, quickly became Motown’s crowning commercial achievement, and went right to number one and stayed there for seven weeks.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had a rough time getting off the ground in the first place. Whitfield’s first two passes, with Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and the Isley Brothers, were shot down. Gaye’s must have made an especially strong impression, albeit bad, because it went against the lighter grain of the Motown aesthetic — songs often sounded sunny even when they were sad. Indeed, Knight’s version (which Whitfield also produced) fits this if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it template, its gospel-pop format offering giddy opposition to the lyric. This track, however, is downright spooky, with Gaye’s vocal (deliberately arranged in a higher register) teetering between lovesickness and madness.
It’s got one of the greatest openings of any Motown single (of any single, for that matter), a calculated fog-burn that lifts cautiously. It’s like the band is on a stakeout. There’s hi-hat and organ, and then Jack Ashford’s tambourine, and then those snaking guitars that spurt from the ground and climb like vine growth. Listen to how restrained the Funk Brothers are on the entire track — they hold back, even when Gaye threatens to lose it, lurking somewhere in the singer’s shadow. Their pulse quickens during the instrumental break, but promptly returns to clenched-fist control when Gaye gets back behind the mic. The band here is a reflection of the lyric’s paranoia, pain, and humiliation, a quietly seething thing.
This track predicted the “psychedelic soul” music that Whitfield would pursue with the Temptations in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which, coincidentally, is some of my favorite Motown music, dark and jammy and most certainly post-factory model in design. But it’s more notably the bridge between Gaye the honeyed, uplifting voice of “Pride and Joy” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, and the conceptual social critic that Gaye would become with later projects like What’s Going On. And if one bridge could be the storage area for everything that’s great — erm, metaphorically speaking, ‘course — then this would be it. I’d like to stand there forever. – Zeth Lundy
The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next to You” (1969)
Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Produced by Norman Whitfield.
Released 30 July 1969. Reached #1 on pop charts.
In the pantheon of songs that use super-human feats of strength/endurance as a measuring stick for capacity to love (see “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), this one’s the daddy of ’em all, a gospel-funk space-blues jam in which the Temptations boast about being able to do the following: turn the grey sky blue, make it rain whenever, build a castle from a single grain of sand, make a ship sail on dry land, turn back the hands of time, fly like a bird – even live forever, y’all! It is also, however, the saddest of this particular subset, because the Tempts’ incredible abilities cannot make up for the fact that they don’t get the girl: “The thing I want to do the most / I’m unable to do.” This song is the heartbreak of the gods.
“I Can’t Get Next to You” was one of the first singles released by the newly David Ruffin-less Temptations. Ruffin, who had been with the group since 1964, was fired in the middle of 1968 after his erratic behavior had begun to cause tension among the group’s members. His replacement was Dennis Edwards, formerly of the Contours, who brought a raw, gritty voice to the Temptations’ otherwise smooth constitution. The Temptations’ new sound was compounded further by their new association with writer-producer Norman Whitfield and his foray into “psychedelic soul”, which ushered in newfound freedom of composition and performance to the rigid Motown aesthetic. (If you do not own this, do yourself a favor and pick it up immediately.) Many of the unedited psychedelic soul-era tracks would extend well into the six-, nine-, even 12-minute runtime, but “I Can’t Get Next to You” modestly clocks in just under three minutes — an example of pop-minded brevity in an age of expanding consciousness. – Zeth Lundy
The Jackson Five – “I Want You Back” (1969)
Written and produced by the Corporation (Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell).
Released 7 October 1969. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
“I Want You Back” was the first big pop hit for the Jackson Five. It hit number one. So did their next three singles, all within the span of less than a year. This song was the start of a rolling, building superstardom, for the group and for Michael Jackson. In this song you can already hear him as a superstar, dynamic, but carrying no sense of all the twists and turns to come in his career and life. It all started here, as they say. Michael Jackson’s singing on the song is amazing for someone so young, but also for anyone. In the intersection of its youth and strength, his voice embodies the spirit of the song, which is a big, joyous, ecstatic feeling. The song is about regret, in a way, and does have a certain bittersweet quality, but whether from the youth of its characters or the protagonist’s giddy eagerness, it’s an excited determination that carries the day.
Listen to Michael Jackson shouting as the song fades, “I want you back“, as one last exclamation point, embodying the song’s assertiveness. It isn’t just the singing that makes the song. There’s the melodic bassline, the guitar, the piano, the strings, the layered backing vocals, the drums, and the superb melody. As with the Jackson Five’s next two number-one hits, “ABC” and “The Love You Save”, the song is the genius of the Corporation, the songwriting team of Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell, Berry Gordy, and Deke Richards. The four wrote, produced, and arranged the song, which has a remarkable number of moving parts that gel together naturally, beautifully. The opening piano trill, with the band then kicking in at once, offers one of those “hell yes!” moments of positive recognition. You hear it and are immediately swept up. It’s one of Motown’s, and pop music’s, most reliable dance-floor fillers, the proverbial song to make even the dead shake their weary bones. – Dave Heaton
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown” (1970)
Written by Hank Cosby, William Robinson, Jr., and Stevie Wonder. Produced by Hank Cosby and Smokey Robinson.
4 September 1970. Reached #1 on the pop charts. (Originally released in 1967 on album Make It Happen)
“The Tears of a Clown” is essentially a sequel to “The Tracks of My Tears”, one that takes the slow-burning tragedy of its predecessor and replays it for laughs. The premise is the same: a man is outwardly convivial, inwardly shattered. Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby delivered the unique carnival-esque instrumental track, with its giddy calliope riff, tightrope-trembling bassoon, and toppling acrobatic drums, to Smokey Robinson in 1968. Where most songwriters would hear merriment in the sonic circus, Robinson instead heard melancholy, the arm-twisting coerced happiness of social spectacles.
Always an innovative lyricist, Robinson tops his usual off-rhymes (“public”/”subject”) and seamlessly intricate phrases (“camouflage my sadness”) with a bold Pagliacci reference, no doubt lost on many listeners. Never one to waste a good line, Robinson lifted “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid” from his own 1964 exploration of this motif, “My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)”, a rarity pawned off on Carolyn Crawford. Once his lyrics were perfect, Robinson and his fellow Miracles cut some vocals, and promptly buried the track on 1968’s Make It Happen album, eclipsed by singles “More Love” and “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”.
Were it not for Robinson’s subsequent decision to retire from the Miracles, “Tears” might have languished in Motown album-cut obscurity. In light of Robinson’s dormancy, Motown, forever eager to milk its cash cow, was left scrambling for a fresh single, and “Tears” proved a wise and daring choice. Pagliacci, calliope, and all, it soared to number one in September 1970, and even coaxed Robinson backed into the band for a couple years.
“The Tears of a Clown” is a pinnacle of Robinson’s (and Motown’s) achievements. After 40 years, the record sounds like nothing before or since: even on a grocery store or fast-food sound system, it is immediately recognizable and reliably compelling. “Tears” is a blistering commentary on the public sphere’s emotional sanitization, how a man is forced to laugh when he’d rather be crying, simply because it’s socially acceptable. But without his beloved, the girl for whom he so flagrantly pines, life is one big joke he doesn’t find all that funny. Any signifier of joy — that calliope, that bassoon, even the background singers — seems to be taunting and mocking him, trivializing and undermining his sorrows.
His ersatz mirth is a prison, and Robinson’s deceptively composed vocal is just part of that confining performance. For ultimately, the subtext of “Tears” is the similarity between clown and pop singer, how certain emotions must be summoned on demand, regardless of current cognitive state. But the song’s genius is that makes a performer’s predicament universal, acknowledging how human identity is ultimately a performance, and how the act of faking it is all too real. – Charles A. Hohman
Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On” (1971)
Written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye. Produced by Marvin Gaye.
Released 21 January 1971. Reached #2 on the pop charts.
Recorded in 1970, but not released until the following year after Marvin Gaye threatened to quit recording for Motown, “What’s Going On” essentially marked a major shift at the label. Following the death of duet partner Tammi Terrell and in the midst of personal crises, Gaye began producing himself at Motown, an unusual step that, in this case, led to a classic new sound (through both skill and luck). The voice behind hits like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” was suddenly turning dark and brooding, getting deep into a bleak atmosphere and letting out his social conscious. You can see why Berry Gordy was hesitant to release it. Gaye not only had stepped outside Motown’s factory system, but he had stepped outside traditional pop to fight the system (here taking on the Vietnam War most explicitly).
Gaye’s single helped open the way for other Motown artists to move in that direction, but let’s not exaggerate its importance in that area, especially given the success of previous releases like “War” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”. What makes the song matter now is more how it sounds. That opening sax lick suggests something mature and maybe venturing into easy jazz, but the Funk Brothers put down a groove at once ethereal and dirty, driven by the mass of percussion. By the time the sax returns to prominence, it’s to cry along with Gaye, bolstering his “Mother, mother, mother”.
The band couldn’t be much tighter, and yet the song sounds as if they’re about to come unhinged. The false fade-out is a bit of a poke at radio-friendly structures, but it’s a formal tie to the song’s emotion, demonstrating a plea that won’t go away. Gaye has seldom, if ever, expressed himself better, showing restraint through most of his singing but revealing the hurt and anger as needed. After a lucky discovery, there’s a bit of genius in the vocal production here, with Gaye’s voice all over the place, and the vocals doubled. The singing matches the band, being both a ghostly flight and a physical urge.
The song’s impact at the time was significant, spending plenty of time on the charts, helping Gaye and others feel out a new approach to R&B, and providing words for a troubled era. The impact hasn’t lessened. The artistry remains impressive, from the band’s playing to Gaye’s singing to the production of the whole piece to the arranging of so many disparate parts. It’s a track half-crazy and half-refined, a latent madman in the opera. But if the song wasn’t the first of its kind thematically, it remains the most powerful, attacking a violent system in each of its recurrences, and offering us a sublime consolation and catharsis in a difficult time. – Justin Cober-Lake
Stevie Wonder – “Superstition” (1972)
Written and produced by Stevie Wonder.
Released 24 October 1972. Reached #1 on pop charts.
The ’70s were a crucial time for Motown’s blind musical genius, “Little” Stevie Wonder. All throughout the ’60s, the pop prodigy had buoyed Berry Gordy’s coffers with a collection of finger-snapping confections that any singer-songwriter would be envious of. Turning 21 in 1971, Wonder wanted more control over his career, his output, and his material. Finding it impossible to deny such an important member of the Hitsville heavies (and with label-mate Marvin Gaye leading the way), Gordy granted his request. Wonder soon became a virtual one-man band, bringing synthesizers into his hot mix and expanding the message of his music. While love ballads and good times were not necessarily gone, they were replaced by a simmering social consciousness that would result in six of the most stunning albums in any musicians career: Where I’m Coming From (1971), Music of My Mind, Talking Book (both 1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), and the multi-mega hit Songs in the Key of Life (1976).
And sitting at the center of said third LP is the astonishing funk workout “Superstition”. Wonder was, at the time, branching out into more mainstream rock arenas, having toured with the Rolling Stones in ’72. He had hoped to go even further by penning material for other similarly styled artists. In fact, “Superstition” was originally offered to Jeff Beck (of Yardbirds fame) to record. Naturally, Gordy and the gang balked, and with good reason. Wonder had concocted an undeniably infectious groove reinforced by a memorable clavinet riff and propelled by a chorus of lazy, loveable brass blasts. Playing every instrument himself (save for the horns), Wonder worked out the complicated arrangement incrementally, building layers of sound to surround his ideas with an undeniable attention-getting grandeur.
Lyrically, Wonder went for what he does best — symbolism via simplicity. While the main verse offers up the classic stanza, “Thirteen month old baby / Broke the lookin’ glass/ Seven years of bad luck/ The good things in your past”, there is more to the song than the standard black cat fallacies. Indeed, when he gets to the chorus, Wonder makes his point loud and clear: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.”
At the time, many considered this a statement against intolerance and prejudice. After all, the Civil Rights movement was still bubbling away all across the US. Others saw it as an admonishment right back toward his fellow African-Americans, asking them to seek answers to social ills beyond the standard ‘white man = evil’ paradigm. Baked within the slinking, soulful strut of the song itself, the words worked for either dancing or marching. While “Superstition” would go on to be his first number one single in several years, it also marked the beginning of Wonder’s astonishing maturation into a pop legend. He was no longer “little”. From this moment onward, everything he touched would be big. Really big. – Bill Gibron
Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” (1973)
Written and produced by Stevie Wonder.
Released November 1973. Reached #8 on pop charts.
Stevie Wonder is a popular culture archetype come to life. Beginning his career as a child prodigy, he grew into a songwriter and performer of depth and substance. His music is groundbreaking and widely popular, socially and politically significant while retaining an air of optimism, making Wonder something of a Motown Beatle. He has been blind his entire career, a major hindrance for any artist that nonetheless lends him the air of an insular musical genius (an impression he propagates with album titles like Music of My Mind (1972) and Innervisions (1973)).
Wonder wrote some of the greatest love songs of the 20th century, and the cultural importance of those pieces is undeniable. But with Wonder’s coming of age, he also emerged as a writer of great protest songs. His commentary had a wide scope; for instance, he gave fallen President Nixon a one-two punch with “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”, he challenged drug use with “Too High”, and he addressed the struggles of African-Americans in “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”.
Most of Wonder’s protest pieces could be listed as great Motown songs. However, as a piece that works exceedingly well both as social protest and as pop music, few compare with “Living for the City”. The lyrics of this song concern an African-American family living with the specter of Jim Crow in Mississippi. Mom and Dad both have jobs, but they barely make enough money to keep the family going. The children remain optimistic despite the obvious difficulty of their circumstances. The beautiful daughter is stuck wearing the same old clothes over and over, but she never lets those clothes get dirty. Her brother continues to search for work even though, where he lives, “they don’t use colored people”. The song’s bridge is a mini-drama that Wonder acts out using several difference voices, wherein the young man of the family takes a bus to New York City only to find that life on the East Coast is even harder than it was in the Deep South.
Wonder’s keyboards are rich and ominous, his bass and drums solid and funky. All combine to form a danceable groove that packs a rock punch. At seven and a half minutes, the song is epic — indeed, the lyrics take us from Mississippi to New York to prison and back — but the music is dance-ready and catchy, worming its way into the head despite the song’s length and the gloomy lyrical content. As usual for Wonder, “Living for the City” is essentially a one-man show; he performs most of the instruments and vocals. Indeed, Wonder strongly suggests here that the image of him as an insular genius is probably more than just an image. With its combination of pop sensibility, socially-charged lyrics, and studio mastery, “Living for the City” suggests that, in the 1970s, Stevie Wonder was more than a Motown Beatle. He was the Motown Beatles. – David Camak Pratt
Thelma Houston – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1976)
Written by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert. Produced by Hal Davis.
Released 2 December 1976. Reached #1 on the pop charts.
When Thelma Houston took on a modern classic by Harold and the Blue Notes, she created one of the most enduring anthems of the disco era. A riveting fusion of Houston’s gospel-inflected voice and Gamble & Huff’s haunting melody, it topped the pop, R&B, and disco charts in early 1977. A year later, Houston became the first female artist at Motown to win a Grammy when she prevailed in the Best R&B Performance, Female category for “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Three decades later, Houston’s timeless recording was among the first songs selected for induction into the Dance Music Hall of Fame.
Why are we still dancing to this song today? It’s all in the build-up and release of Hal Davis’ galloping production. Houston’s voice is announced by a flourish of harp, entering from a musical space embodied by a keyboard that seems to glow. The strings signify the song’s Philly soul origins. When the drumbeat kicks in, Houston’s voice opens up but it’s tinged with ache and a somewhat erotic yearning. “I’ll surely miss / Your tender kiss / Don’t leave me this way”, she intones quietly before the background vocalists take the song into another stratosphere. “Ahhhhh, BABY!”, they shout. It’s arguably the defining moment of the song. In the chorus, Houston doesn’t beg her lover to stay, she commands him. After all, he started a fire in her soul and it’s burning out of control. All hell breaks loose once the tambourines turn up in the second half of the song and Houston’s hair-raising ad-libs elevate the song to an even more intense plane of emotional release.
Over the years, the full impact of the song’s power has dulled somewhat because of its ubiquity on budget compilations, cheesy retrospectives of the 1970s, misguided remixes, and the unfair notion that Houston was a one-hit wonder. Strip away those associations and try to listen with virgin ears. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is an exquisite masterpiece, a stunning example of dance music as cathartic utility. – Christian John Wikane
Talk about an embarrassment of riches: the list of Motown Record’s commercially released singles over the course of the last 60-plus years (number ones, top tens, and non-charting efforts alike) is, quite simply, extraordinary. Surely it’s impossible to proclaim a mere 25 of them as “the greatest” for whatever reason(s), be they historical, cultural, musical, or otherwise. So, then, our list of 25 Motown singles is not meant to be interpreted as critical gospel, but more humbly as a list of our particular favorites, ranked by release.
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This article was originally published on 25 January 2009.