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.

5. Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)

Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Produced by Norman Whitfield
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 1960s and early 1970s, 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

4. Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On” (1971)

Written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye
Produced by Marvin Gaye
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 consciousness. 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 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

3. 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, and 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 in 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

2. 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

1. 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 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”. It’s a little scary, but all the belonging, pedestal-placing, worshipping, and controlling nature that calls others controlling is 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.

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.

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 comes back just short of a shout with “Bernadette,” the middle syllable suffocated, naming the woman, the object, the feeling. Stubbs expresses 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

This article was originally published on 25 January 2009.