Motown Unreleased

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Songs

Detroit’s Motown Records will forever be important as a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence.

20. The Temptations – “Get Ready” (1966)

Written and produced by Smokey Robinson
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. In 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 he 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

19. The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1966)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland
Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier
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

18. The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland
Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier
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 a 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

17. Barrett Strong – “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959)

Written by Janine Bradford and Berry Gordy
Produced by Berry Gordy
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

16. 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
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 1960s and 1970s. 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”.

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) aid 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