Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1969

A portrait of a tuxedo-clad Stevie Wonder at about age 20, against a stylized yellow and orange background

Motown has at least one achievement that no other label can match. The world has seen fairly substantial numbers of child pop music stars. Yet, it consistently remains extraordinarily rare for child recording artists, or even child musical prodigies in general, to find significant success as adults — let alone legendary status. But Motown managed to discover and originally sign the two most notable and prolific performers in pop music history who managed exactly that.1 It is these two young men, then aged 12 and 20, who dominated Motown’s best 1970 releases.

But Little MJ and Big Stevie weren’t Motown’s only hitmakers that year. Gladys Knight and the Pips had their first smash since I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles managed an even bigger comeback. Edwin Starr released his best-remembered song and one of Motown’s most effective, and certainly most explosive, forays into politics. Diana Ross broke out officially as a solo artist, having some of her biggest successes in years. And though the Temptations had hit a rut, they’d find their way back up to the top, if only briefly, very soon. A very sad year that saw the death of 24-year-old Tammi Terrell after a long battle with cancer, 1970 was eclectic and uneven. It nonetheless managed to produce a couple of my very favorite Motown singles.

1. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours

VIDEO: Stevie Wonder lip syncs Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on the set of Soul Train. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Your lyrics.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours is quite simply the very best single Stevie Wonder had released to date. And while this is a matter heavily up for debate, I’ve always viewed it as the moment when Stevie Wonder finally reached his long-awaited maturity and, in one incredible burst of energy, became Stevie. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t keep on growing as an artist — he would, and at an amazing rate. This song isn’t Superstition, Higher Ground, or Sir Duke — and between this single and 1972, Wonder would take his sweet time to try out a lot of new stuff, not all of which would work. Nevertheless, this is not the same Stevie we heard on songs like Uptight, I Was Made to Love Her, and My Cherie Amour.

Seizing the rare opportunity to work with a fellow blind musician, Lee Garrett, as well as his future-wife Syreeeta Wright and mother Lula Mae Hardaway, Stevie and Co. wrote themselves a masterpiece. Displaying a vocal confidence previously unheard, Wonder delivers a throaty, soulful lead, filled with gutsy experimentation, punctuating himself with emotional, high-pitched squeals. You can almost hear the light bulb going off over his head, that brilliant moment when he truly shed his Little Stevie past and realized I’ve got this. Significantly, this was Wonder’s first single production, which heavily contributes to the sense of newness. Opening with an electric sitar line played by Eddie Willis, and featuring a big bold bass line — perhaps the greatest ever played by recently deceased Funk Brother Bob Babbitt — and dirty horn section, this track delivers a funky groove that would become the trademark of Wonder’s best work. The fierce immediacy of the track was achieved by Berry Gordy’s order, upon hearing Stevie’s rough mix of his new single, to release it as is without changes. Introduced to a new generation though Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, strongly supported by Wonder, this is one of Stevie’s most accessible and best-loved tracks.

Continue reading Top 5 Motown Singles: 1970

  1. Interestingly, though Motown didn’t discover her, or even sign her first, Gladys Knight also falls into this lowly-populated category.
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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

The Jackson 5 early in their career, sporting colorful 60s clothes and perfectly coifed afros, sit and pose for the camera.

Sadly, we must pause at the beginning of another post to note the passing of an under-appreciated Motown great. Mr. Frank Wilson, songwriter and producer for Motown from 1965-1976, died yesterday. I wrote significantly about Wilson in my post about 1965; as head songwriter and producer for one of my very favorite Motown artists, Eddie Kendricks, he is extremely well-represented in my record collection, and I am particularly saddened by this news. Thanks for all the music, Frank; Rest In Peace.

After an unexpected hiatus, I’m back to finish up the last three installments of this series. Still lacking, as they forever after would, the cohesion of their 1963-1966 period, Motown continued to rely on an array of songwriters and producers, with mixed results. Johnny Bristol was actually the most successful songwriter/producer of the year, according to my list, something that back in 1969 probably surprised even him. Norman Whitfield was still working out some of the kinks in his new sound, at the same time as Berry Gordy threw himself head-first back into the writing game and operations started to shift further to California. Diana Ross was preparing to strike out on her own, while Marvin Gaye struggled with depression, and Stevie Wonder kept working on finding Stevie. David Ruffin and Edwin Starr both tried valiantly to become Motown’s latest male star, though neither would achieve the lasting success they hoped for. And everything the Temptations touched still turned to gold, though they had some stiff competition in some young newcomers called the Jackson 5.

All in all, it was arguably Motown’s overall weakest year since their big 1963 breakthrough. But luckily, that’s a comparative measure, and the results still turned into a great list.

1. I Want You Back

VIDEO: I Want You Back plays over an image of a Jackson 5 greatest hits album. I Want You Back lyrics.

With the label gradually moving more into soul music with the departure of HDH, I Want You Back is Motown’s best pop single since Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and their best piece of pure bubblegum since You Can’t Hurry Love. Even more than that, it holds the highly esteemed position of being Michael Jackson’s very first masterpiece. A family group of young teen and pre-teen boys, the Jackson 5 were first brought to the attention of Motown by Gladys Knight and the Pips, only for Berry Gordy to ignore their praises, not wanting to deal with the labor law hassles of underage performers. Motown singer/songwriter/producer Bobby Taylor eventually got him to hear the group, at which point Berry signed them instantly — and then promptly gave credit for their discovery to Diana Ross. After knocking their ages down a couple of years in press releases to make them seem even more cute, all they needed was a hit; they found one in Berry’s new songwriting group, the Corporation.

Intended to replace HDH as Motown’s hit-making machine, the Corporation was deliberately anonymous, with the intention of avoiding the “big heads” Berry perceived HDH as having grown. Comprised of Berry Gordy and the virtually unknown Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards, the collective fell far short of living up to its overall goal, but did produce one legendary song. At the time, it was all the J5 needed. Recorded in LA — where the bulk of the group’s work was to be completed, strongly signalling a shift away from Detroit and the Funk Brothers’ sound — the track features an impressive bass groove by Wilton Felder and crisp, clear instrumentation. A story mature beyond little Michael’s 11 years, he delivers it with a precocious conviction, surrounded by bubbly backing vocals made for radio. This song would be covered by a plethora of Motown’s acts, including very, very well by David Ruffin, but none would match the pop perfection of the original. And though the Jackson 5 would carry on with many other worthy singles, their debut was to be the finest track by the last superstars of Motown’s golden age.

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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1967

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell smile and embrace against a blue background

As popular musical tastes continued to evolve away from the girl group craze and smooth pop-soul sounds of the early sixties, Motown continued to evolve with it. While 1968 was an overall less consistent year than the few before it — this was one of the easiest lists in the series for me to make — the label’s best work was truly brilliant, and the year saw some Motown’s most emotional and transcendent releases.

Traditionally, 1971 — or mid-1972 — has been recognized as the end of Motown’s “classic” period, being when they packed up and left their namesake Detroit; but I’ve always felt that 1968 was the last true year of the Motown Sound and the end of its golden age. With HDH gone, Smokey Robinson currently lying fallow, the Supremes stuck in a rut, and the Temptations and Norman Whitfield both going psychedelic, by 1969 the Motown Sound was done evolving. It had become something else entirely.

That’s not to say that Motown wouldn’t still produce a lot of great music in the last three years that make up this series. Indeed, a lot of great music would come out on the label even after the move to LA. It just wouldn’t be the same. There was no more formula, no more assembly line, and Quality Control had lost much of its power to individual producers. In 1969, you could no longer pick a Motown song of the radio from the first couple bars. Different artists were developing sounds more distinct from each other — which would soon be a great boost to singer-songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but eventually a detriment to classic Motown artists like the remaining Temptations and Supremes. 1968, though, was a year that saw the release of some of my very favorite Motown hits. It was, in my view, the Motown Sound’s last great hurrah. And it just might be my favorite list in this series.

1. I Heard It Through the Grapevine

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard It Through The Grapevine plays over photograph of the artist. I Heard It Through The Grapevine lyrics.

After seeing his biggest success in Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield was still not satisfied. Sure, he had proven to Motown’s doubters that the song was a hit. But Whitfield knew Marvin Gaye’s 1967 recording of the song was a masterpiece, and he wanted it released as a single. To Berry Gordy’s credit,1 he apparently refused to release the single again, this time based not on quality, but a reported desire to not put his artists in the position of competing with each other via the same song.2 Never satisfied until he got precisely his way, Whit placed the track on Marvin’s new album In The Groove — soon retitled I Heard It Through the Grapevine — sure that radio DJs would pull the track off themselves. That’s exactly what they did, forcing a single release. Marvin’s version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine soon replaced Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version as the biggest-selling Motown single to date.3

I Heard It Through the Grapevine is, simply, one of the greatest tracks ever recorded anywhere. Immensely ambitious, and entirely successfully so, it is Norman Whitfield’s greatest masterpiece. It is also one of the landmark vocals in Marvin Gaye’s long and legendary career. Norman Whitfield’s instruction to sing the song slightly above his natural register initially caused some tension between the hotheaded singer and equally hotheaded producer, but as with David Ruffin (on whom the trick was originally tried on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg), ultimately resulted in Gaye developing a whole new approach to singing; he’d put this strained, angst-filled style to good use throughout the late 60s and 70s. Swampy piano work by Johnny Griffith, an outstanding drum track made up of all three of Motown’s main drummers, and chilling tambourine by Jack Ashford create one of the Funk Brothers’ absolute greatest and most collaborative performances. Haunting Andantes backing vocals complete the atmospheric and hugely unique recording. Whit was right to be persistent; this is one for the history books.

Continue reading Top 5 Motown Singles: 1968

  1. Feel free to take a screen shot. “To Berry Gordy’s credit” is not something that you will see me write often.
  2. Whit apparently had no such concerns. While re-cutting songs on different artists was fairly common practice at Motown, Norman Whitfield was easily the most notorious for it, and he seemed to show little concern for whether his determination to realize his various visions negatively impacted his artists’ careers.
  3. Ironically, apparently friends with Norman, it is Berry who Gladys blames for the situation — which, despite having said herself that she likes Marvin’s version better, she understandably remains unhappy about.
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The Pe’ Sla area of the Black Hills in South Dakota is sacred to the Lakota people, the indigenous inhabitants of that land. As a result of colonization, a non-Native family now privately owns this area and is planning on auctioning it off to the highest bidder. The Lakota people need this land to perform sacred ceremonies, but it is expected that the state of South Dakota will buy it to build a highway and develop industrially. To save their land from this irreparable “development,” the Lakota people are going through the only legal means at their disposal and attempting to buy back what is rightfully theirs — or at least as much as is possible. The full text from their Indiegogo page:

Pe’ Sla is an area in the Black Hills of South Dakota (just west of Rapid City) that is considered by the Lakota people to be the Center and heart of everything that is. It is part of our creation story. It is a sacred place. We perform certain ceremonies at Pe’ Sla which sustain the Lakota way of life and keep the universe in harmony. This area is currently owned by the Reynolds family. They plan to auction off almost 2,000 acres on August 25, 2012 to the highest bidder. It is likely that the state of South Dakota will put a road directly through Pe’ Sla and open up this sacred place for development. The seven bands of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Oyate (people) aka Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) have a collective effort to buy as much of Pe’Sla as we can at this auction (although we also believe that the land cannot be owned and that our sacred places were illegally taken by the United States). Yet we are trying to work within the current U.S. laws to regain custody of our sacred sites and prevent future road and industrial development. Our sacred ways must be protected and passed on to our future generations so that our children may live. This area of the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) is also home to many plants and animals who should also be protected. In fact, many consider that the area should possibly be a historical site, which would also assist in protecting it from future development as well. As Lakota people, our ancestors prayed here, at Pe’ Sla, at certain times of year, when the stars aligned. We cannot go elsewhere to pray. We were meant to pray here. This is what they do not understand. Please help the Lakota people. “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” Chief Sitting Bull, 1877 We have a group of young professional Native people that are dedicated to the promotion of education, health, leadership, and sovereignty among our indigenous Nations. Our goal is to assist in any way possible the purchase of Pe’ Sla by a collective effort of the seven bands of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) – the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people. All proceeds from this campaign will go towards that effort. This area would be open to tribal nations for ceremonial purposes. The plants, animals, water, and air in the area would be respected and honored. Please see http://www.lastrealindians.com/category/chase-i… for more information. We thank you for your hope in the future.

We are hoping to buy as much of the land that is being put up for auction as possible. The total amount of land is 1,942.66 acres which is in 5 tracts (300 – 440 acres each).  It is difficult to say how much this land would be sold for as developers may increase the true western “value”.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has designated $50,000 for the purpose of purchasing Pe’ Sla land.  By contributing to the effort of all the Sioux Tribes, we aim to purchase at least some of the tracts, if not all.  Many of the Sioux Tribes continue to exist in poverty and do not have a thriving casino-based economy as the media may have portrayed.  Yet we continue to fight for what is sacred, because it matters!

A more general background as to why land and the spiritual ceremonies performed on it are so important to Native peoples can be found in Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (bold emphasis mine; italics are the author’s):

Native spiritualities are land based — they are tied to the landbase from which they originate. When Native peoples fight for cultural/spiritual preservation, they are ultimately fighting for the landbase which grounds their spirituality and culture. For this reason, Native religions are generally not proselytizing. They are typically seen by Native peoples as relevant only to the particular landbase from which they originate; they are not necessarily applicable to peoples coming from different landbases. In addition, as many scholars have noted, Native religions are practice centered rather than belief centered. That is, Christianity is defined by belief in a certain set of doctrinal principles about Jesus, the Bible, etc. Evangelical Christianity holds that one is “saved” when one professes belief in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. But what is of primary important in Native religions is not being able to articulate belief in a certain set of doctrines, but being able to take part in the spiritual practice of one’s community. In fact, it may be more important that a ceremony be done correctly than it is for everyone in that ceremony to know exactly why everything must be done in a certain way. As Vine Deloria (Dakota) notes, from a Native context, religion is “a way of life” rather than “a matter of proper exposition of doctrines.” Even if Christians do not have access to church, they continue to be Christians as long as they believe in Jesus. Native spiritualities, by contrast, may die if the people do not practice the ceremonies, even if the people continue to believe in their power.

Native communities argue that Native peoples cannot be alienated from their land without committing cultural genocide. This argument underpins many sacred sites cases, although usually to no avail, before the courts. Most of the court rulings on sacred sites do not recognize this difference between belief-centered and practice-centered traditions or the significance of land-based spiritualities. For instance, in Fools Crow v. Gullet (1983), the Supreme Court ruled against the Lakota who were trying to halt the development of additional tourist facilities in the Black Hills. The Court ruled that this tourism was not an infringement on Indian religious freedom because, although it would hinder the ability of the Lakota to practice their beliefs, it did not force them to relinquish their beliefs. For the Lakota, however, stopping the practice of traditional beliefs destroys the belief systems themselves. Consequently, for the Lakota and Native nations in general, cultural genocide is the result when Native landbases are not protected.

There are only 3 days left to raise funds. Donations as low as $1 are being accepted. Please give as generously as you can and spread this information as widely as possible.

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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1966

A black and white phot of Gladys Knight and the Pips demonstrating a dance move. Turned to the side, they each pump one arm down while raising the knee high up.

The Motown Sound was changing. In 1967, the label’s most reliable songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, would decide they weren’t making what they deserved and walk out, waving a lawsuit, to start their own label. Smokey Robinson, past his prime, no longer boasted his incredible hit-making power. And that left a series of up and comers, who had largely toiled in the lower echelons of Motown’s staff, to break on through with hits of their own. The most successful of those songwriters and producers — at least immediately — was to be Norman Whitfield, who then preferred a slightly earthier, more soulful sound to those put out by HDH and Robinson. But the HDH void was also to be filled by the glossy productions of newcomers Ashford and Simpson, who had long aspired to get their foot in Motown’s door. And Stevie Wonder’s ever-maturing and increasingly complex work was becoming a force to contend with.

The year also saw a couple of important artist breakthroughs. Gladys Knight and Tammi  Terrell were to be the last two women to become stars during Motown’s golden years, the first women to break through after Diana Ross’ meteoric rise, and two of the very best female vocalists ever signed to the label. While Ross would still receive a vast majority of Motown’s resources,1 Knight and Terrell restored the gender-balance of Motown’s roster and served up some of the label’s hottest tracks.

In turns funky, melancholy, and exuberant, all representing an evolving Motown Sound, my top 5 tracks from the year are below.

1. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

VIDEO: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell lip sync their song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough on the grounds of the 1967 World’s Fair. Marvin wears a maroon mock turtleneck and gray blazer; Tammi wears a matching blue plaid coat and skirt with cap. The two unabashedly flirt throughout their performance. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough lyrics.

Let’s get straight to it: this is one of the greatest pop records ever made. Opening with a vibes part so shimmering and dazzling that it verges on disorienting, the greatest duet team in history enters to claim their rightful title. Though technically about a couple that has already parted, you’d be hard pressed to find a more exuberant or romantic song in Motown’s catalog — as always, Marvin and Tammi sound like young people very much in love. Featuring rock solid drumming by Uriel Jones and smooth, grounding bass line that James Jamerson apparently considered his own best work, this track does not contain a solitary misstep; it’s hard to imagine anything else on pop radio ever being this perfect.

Gaye and Terrell’s first duet — something so extraordinary reportedly inspired quite simply by the fact that both artists were considered for the song — they did not record this track together, but it sounds as though they did. Marvin’s frantic vocal combined with Tammi’s smooth, confident delivery was to set up the overwhelming future dynamic on their recordings. It was one that consistently worked. This song was also songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s first song for Motown. And while Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol would do an unarguably brilliant job recording the newcomers’ track, Ashford and Simpson soon get to start cutting the material as producers themselves. Their work with Marvin and Tammi would soon take them all to new heights.

Continue reading Top Motown Singles: 1967

  1. This was to be a key reason why Knight eventually left for Buddah (sic) in 1973.
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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1965

A close shot of The Supremes posing for the camera in glamorous hair and makeup and sparkling green gowns

As far as years at Motown go, 1966 is hardly the most historical. Placed right at the halfway point in this series, the year certainly was filled to the brim with hits, ranking easily alongside ’64 and ’65 in terms of overall quality. Indeed, this was one of the the most difficult lists in the series for me to narrow down to only five picks. But in large part, things were business as usual. The biggest artist breakthroughs for the year were Kim Weston (It Takes Two with Marvin Gaye), the previously-famous Isley Brothers (This Old Heart of Mine), and Jimmy Ruffin — all of whom rapidly faded back into obscurity.

Still, there were changes on the horizon. The year saw Smokey Robinson unseated as the label’s most reliable one-man songwriter and producer, and the biggest success yet for Norman Whitfield — who would not only usurp Smokey’s access to the Temptations, but soon become the man behind the vast majority of Motown’s hits. Meanwhile, Holland-Dozier-Holland was still turning out hit after hit like a fine-tuned machine, but it was to be the final year of their incredible reign. In 1967, they would release significantly fewer singles — I would say also largely of significantly lesser quality — before departing Motown midway through over contract disputes and leaving multiple artists in a lurch.

If Motown was down to a formula by this point, you certainly couldn’t knock it. The first four songs on this list are all so fantastic, you could just about shuffle them at random and still find yourself with an order that would be hard to argue with. Here they are, the cream of the crop.

1. You Can’t Hurry Love

VIDEO: The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love plays over an image of the group. You Can’t Hurry Love lyrics.

One of the most pop-oriented records in Motown’s catalog, it was songs like this that gave Motown its reputation of having turned its back on Black music’s roots. But while soul music purists may turn their noses up at this track, it’s pure perfection. One of the Supremes’ most outstanding cuts, Diana Ross delivers an incredible, perfectly-phrased vocal that doesn’t miss a beat. Speaking of beats, this track has got plenty, with James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin demonstrating their ability to read each other’s minds, Robert White providing a rhythmic, jangly guitar, and Jack Ashford dominating the track on tambourine. Designed for radio and the dance floor, this is the sound of the Supremes at their peak. And at a time when virtually everything they did went straight to the top, this is a cut that absolutely deserved its #1 spot.

Just as 1966 was the last year of HDH’s reign, it was in my view also the last truly great year for the Supremes. They would suffer as much as anyone from HDH’s departure from the label. Further, 1967 would see the non-coincidentally simultaneous renaming of the group as Diana Ross and the Supremes — making explicit what had been heavily implied for years — and the abhorrent firing of Florence Ballard by Berry Gordy for “insubordination.” But Flo’s remarkably full and unique backing vocals (not to mention her boisterous personality) were not the only loss, as Motown largely failed to utilize Mary Wilson or Flo’s replacement Cindy Birdsong on future recordings, instead substituting them with the label’s house backing vocalists the Andantes. I have previously and will continue to praise the Andantes for their superb, skillful work. But having the same exact sound heard on records by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many other artists was a huge detriment to a group that was supposed to have been woman-centered. In losing Flo, the Supreme not only lost a big part of their distinctive sound; they also failed to find a new one. Diana Ross and the Supremes will turn up in this series again, but the Supremes portion of that title will mostly be in name only.

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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

The Four Tops, all wearing different suits, dance for the camera in front of a stage curtain

The hits keep on coming, and as they do, these lists get harder to narrow down to a mere five picks. Holland-Dozier-Holland was still Motown’s premiere songwriting team, but Smokey Robinson was nowhere near ready to give up his crown as King of Motown. After a year of singles for his own group that went nowhere, he was back with a vengeance, producing their greatest work while keeping up a steady stream of songs for other artists.

Left without their first female star Mary Wells, Motown wasted no time at all catapulting Diana Ross into super-stardom as lead singer of the Supremes. It’s not a coincidence that from here most other women rapidly fade off of these previously gender-balanced lists, but a result of Berry’s carefully laid plans. New female stars at Motown would be born, but they’d be depressingly few and far between, and old ones would become obsolete with remarkable swiftness.

On the male side of things, Marvin Gaye was weathering a relative slump (which still meant respectable chart positions), and Stevie Wonder was facing a career crossroads and breakthrough. Meanwhile, the Tempts and Tops, always rivals yet friends, were battling it out for the title of Motown’s most successful male group — and while the Tops would win this year, 1966 would show that it was still anybody’s’ game.

Motown was now a bona fide cultural phenomenon, an unstoppable force. Whatever Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson may have preferred to call it, the undeniable fact is that Motown was sweeping the airwaves with Black music. While the label’s music would almost always be more popular on the R&B charts, Motown was making Black singers, Black songs, and Black style a major part of mainstream pop culture, with far less outrage from white folks than in the past.1 Most boldly, Motown was openly positioning a Black woman as a new universal model of idealized femininity — and however problematic that ideal might have been, that is what we call a big fucking deal. There was no going back now; Motown was indeed the Sound of Young America, and it was here to stay.

1. The Tracks of My Tears

VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (minus Claudette), dressed in white suits, lip sync their song The Tracks of My Tears on the set of a television show. The Tracks of My Tears lyrics.

Since we last saw the Miracles, they’d undergone some major changes. For one, they had been rechristened Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, putting their star lead singer’s name out front once and for all. For another, we had seen the last of Claudette, though we hadn’t heard the last of her, not by a long shot. Having suffered a devastating number of miscarriages over the years during strenuous touring, she and her doctor decided it would be best for her to stay off the road. Inexplicably, her medical condition somehow resulted in her face and name going missing from every television appearance, all of the group’s promotional materials, and the album cover credits. All the while, her exquisite harmonies would remain as prominent as ever, helping Smokey sound utterly amazing, without most people ever knowing there was a woman in the group. Some would call it “consistency in branding”; I call it sexist erasure. Nevertheless, the Miracles — er, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles — would keep on trucking, and in 1965, put out their very best album, the absurdly brilliant Going to a Go-Go.

Leading that album was Smokey Robinson’s single greatest masterpiece. We’re talking about a man who both wrote and sang more perfect songs than most of us could ever dream; but none of his other works would ever reach the singular peak of the Tracks of My Tears. It just about stuns the words out of you. The elegant lyrics are pure poetry. The textured harmonies and exquisite lead — one of Smokey’s finest, most disciplined performances — make you want to cry. And the hook is effective and instantly memorable, drawing you in no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It then pays itself off with a swelling, decadent climax in the bridge. This song simply has it all. In my opinion, it is the very, very best Motown track.

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  1. Moral panics about rap, however, show that this “conversation” is of course far from over.
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Previously:
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962
Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

In matching green suits with no lapels, the Temptations pose on the sidewalk, with David Ruffin crooning dramatically into a microphone.

For the first time, you don’t have to be a Motown junkie to love this list — if you don’t know every single one of these five songs, there is something seriously, seriously wrong with your radio dial. A watershed year, it would see the breakthrough of both the Temptations and the Supremes, who would rule Motown’s roster for years to come, as well as those other beloved chart-toppers the Four Tops.

It was an eclectic year, seeing top tracks by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, and even Hunter-Stevenson (that’s Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson). For the first time, no one artist is listed multiple times — and yet, they easily could be. The fact that the Supremes and Tempts don’t have multiple songs scoring is because there just weren’t enough slots.

And yet, Motown faced formidable challenges this year. The arrival of the Beatles, their unprecedented dominance of the charts, and the British invasion that came in their wake left a lot of American music producers quaking in their (Beatle) boots. Audience tastes were changing, and the music being put out by most labels was changing with it. With Motown only established for a couple of years, there was a real chance that they might not survive. Far from mop tops, Motown’s Black artists and sounds were rather different from the inadequate, white-friendly imitations British acts liked to do of them. But even as Motown responded to the Beatles’ dominance,1 the Motown Sound ultimately persevered and strengthened. It was one of few forms of popular music that would come out of the year in tact.

To call 1964 “Motown’s best year yet” would be to severely trivialize the matter; 1964 was one of Motown’s best years ever.

1. My Girl

VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Temptations, dressed in matching suits, performing to their track My Girl in front of a seated audience. My Girl lyrics.

Anchoring the other end of the year with another legendary release after the immaculate The Way You Do The Things You Do finally got the Tempts some much-deserved national attention in January, My Girl wasn’t actually a hit until 1965, released just as 1964 closed. But single release date is what I’m going by, and so 1964 is where this song rates. Written by Smokey Robinson as a “response track” to his own My Guy composition for Mary Wells (see below), this ode to Smokey’s wife (and Miracles member) Claudette is one of Motown’s greatest love songs. It was given to the Tempts after Smokey caught one of David’s leads during a live performance and was blown away.2 It would become the most enduring single they ever released, their signature song.

Taking over from Eddie Kendricks for the first time, one of the most intriguing things about David Ruffin’s vocal on this track is how he seems to get looser as he goes. My Girl was the first Motown song I ever fell in love with, thanks to the early 90s movie by the same name, and even as a seven-year-old, I recognized that there was something special about how he sang that last verse and outro. He goes from a careful and deliberate “I’ve got sunshine …” as the song begins to a raspy and fervent “I don’t need no money” by the time it ends. Directly linked to the success of this song, Ruffin would lead almost every single by the group for the rest of the three and a half years he remained a member, soon taking raspy to a whole new level. No mention of this song is complete without a bow to James Jamerson and Robert White on bass and guitar respectively. My Girl is exactly what any great song should be.

Continue reading Top 5 Motown Singles: 1964

  1. Mary Wells’ tour with the group, the Berry Gordy-Beatles photo-op, the Supremes’ (abysmal) A Taste of Liverpool album …
  2. Accounts vary on whether Smokey specifically wrote the song for him after this performance, or originally intended it for the Miracles and decided during that performance to give the song to David.
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A 17-year-old sexual assault victim named Savannah Dietrich — who has given permission for her identity to be made public — has been held in contempt of court and faces a potential jail sentence and fine for tweeting the names of her assailants. Dietrich did not make a false allegation, or even an unfounded one; in fact, her assailants pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism last month. But they are juveniles — like Dietrich, who they victimized — and therefore their “confidentiality” is considered of the utmost importance, and a court order had been issued for her to not speak about the case.

Frustrated by what she felt was a lenient plea bargain for two teens who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her and circulating pictures of the incident, a Louisville 17-year-old lashed out on Twitter.

“There you go, lock me up,” Savannah Dietrich tweeted, as she named the boys who she said sexually assaulted her. “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.”

Now, Dietrich is facing a potential jail sentence, as the attorneys for the boys have asked a Jefferson District Court judge to hold her in contempt because they say that in naming her attackers, she violated the confidentiality of a juvenile hearing and the court’s order not to speak of it.

A contempt charge carries a potential sentence of up to 180 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys,” said Dietrich, who waived confidentiality in her case to speak to The Courier-Journal. Her parents also gave their written permission for her to speak with the newspaper.

“I’m at the point, that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it,” she said. “If they really feel it’s necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me … as opposed to throwing these boys in jail for what they did to me, then I don’t understand justice.”

Dietrich’s very interview could also be considered contempt of court on the same grounds that her tweet of the boys’ names likely will be:

The boys’ attorneys, however, have asked the court to continue the order barring Dietrich from speaking to the media about the assault case or allowing the newspaper or anyone else to witness the contempt hearing.

Emily Farrar-Crockett, deputy division chief of the public defender’s juvenile division and one of Dietrich’s attorneys, said her client was advised that her interview with the newspaper could “potentially” be a violation of the judge’s order.

“But she feels it’s important to speak out and chose to do so,” Farrar-Crockett said.

This is how defense attorneys and criminal courts work — to revictimize sexual assault survivors in order to protect rapists.

Dietrich’s assailants not only sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious at a party, they also took photos of the attack and spread them around to their and Dietrich’s peers. While enacting sexual violence against her, documenting it, and joyfully sharing it, they most certainly were not concerned with her “confidentiality.” But now theirs has been deemed of the utmost importance — at the expense of the right of their victim to publicly name what they did to her.

Continue reading “Sexual Assault Victim Faces Contempt of Court Charges for Naming Attackers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave

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

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

Continue reading Top 5 Motown Singles: 1963

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