11. 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
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
12. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “I Second That Emotion” (1967)
Written by William Robinson, Jr. and Al Cleveland
Produced by Smokey Robinson
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
13. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “The Tears of a Clown” (1970)
(Originally released in 1967 on album Make It Happen)
Written by Hank Cosby, William Robinson, Jr., and Stevie Wonder
Produced by Hank Cosby and Smokey Robinson
Reached #1 on the pop charts
“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
14. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965)
Written by Warren Moore, William Robinson, Jr., and Marvin Tarplin
Produced by Smokey Robinson
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 Robinsion 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
15. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (1962)
Written and produced by Smokey Robinson
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