In 1959, two Detroiters used an $800 family loan to start a record label and changed music history. One of those people was a struggling songwriter for Jackie Wilson, whose name you’ll know well: Berry Gordy. And the other was his business and creative partner in an artist development firm, as well as his girlfriend: Raynoma Liles1. Hers is a name you will rarely if ever see. Not even making the briefest mention on the Motown Wikipedia page, she has been written out of the story, as Berry first convinced her to put the company entirely in his name, then left her for another woman and pushed her out of Motown entirely. Her book, Berry, Me and Motown, while out of print, is most certainly worth a read; not only the story of Motown’s start, it is a study in emotional abuse and gaslighting, and a testament to the invisible work of women.
When Berry and Ray started Motown, Black record labels weren’t anything new; designed to make music that white record labels wouldn’t produce, would water down, or wouldn’t market — and in any case would steal all the profits from — such labels had however usually been small, rarely achieving more than regional success or a few hits, and generally folding after a couple of years. There originally wasn’t much reason to believe that Motown would be any different. But Berry was fed up with his paltry songwriting royalties from the white record labels, and he and Ray, with the nudging of Smokey Robinson (who has colluded in Ray’s erasure for decades), decided it was time to get into the real money of producing and publishing. When local Detroit singer Marv Johnson wrote Come to Me, they snapped him up, and Motown’s first label Tamla was born. It became something much bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.
Soon, Motown set up shop in a converted house Ray found on West Grand Boulevard. Named for the city whose unique sound they were capturing on record, Motown gained local buzz and started rapidly absorbing the city’s many young Black budding singers, songwriters, and musicians. Some would fade into obscurity without a hit; others would work for Motown for years and make the company what it was without ever seeing their names in lights; but some would become superstars.
For this series, let’s first lay down some ground rules. It will run from Motown’s first year in 1959 to Motown’s last year in Detroit, 1971, with each year after ’61 getting its own post. As the title suggests, the picks are limited to singles; B-sides are eligible, though they will only rarely appear. These are my picks and therefore come with my own preferences and biases; as with any such list, there will inevitably be dissent, which is welcome. I have, however, at least made an effort in the interest of objectivity, and this is generally not a list of my favorite tracks. Selections are based on a combination of quality, legacy, and overall representative nature, and while there is an attempt to balance them, one will sometimes be strongly weighted over the other. In addition to the top 5 picks, an ongoing part of this series will be the bonus track — a great but generally overlooked single from the period in question that isn’t among the absolute best, but still deserves to be heard. Some will be by artists who never made it big, while others will be mostly forgotten tracks by acts everybody knows. These bonus selections will be very strongly weighted towards of my own preferences.
In Motown’s first three years, the releases were far less plentiful than they would become, and far less consistent in quality. Though that elusive Motown Sound would be present almost from the very beginning, it would be a lot more raw and rough around the edges than the label’s best-known, highly polished output. Still figuring out quite what they were doing, some of these tracks are better-produced than others. But they all contain an undeniable charm and incredible lasting power. Occasionally questionable acoustics aside, they still sound great today.
1. Money (That’s What I Want)
VIDEO: Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) plays over an image of a compilation album cover. Money (That’s What I Want) lyrics.
A subject of frequent covers, this 1959 ode to capitalism remains unbelievably popular and relateable to this day. Written by Berry Gordy with early Motowner (and one of their few female songwriters) Janie Bradford, this song essentially served as his life’s motto — a much more charming fact in the broke days when he wrote it than once he’d amassed his fortune. It is truly Gordy’s songwriting masterpiece. The infectious piano riff2, in combination with Benny Benjamin’s ferocious drumming and Brian Holland’s insistent tambourine, all work to make the song instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, the “that’s what I want” refrain, written and sung by Ray, uncredited for so many things, serves as an unforgettable hook. Indeed, Money was quite arguably the song the put Motown on the map, not only providing needed capital but also cementing the label in people’s minds as maybe not just a fly by night operation, after all.
Barrett Strong is not a name that most people remember today, though it should be. His brash performance on this song is absolutely flawless, but singing was not his true gift, and he later hung up his microphone to become one of Motown’s most successful songwriters. Teamed with Norman Whitfield, Strong co-wrote such classics as I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me), Papa Was a Rolling Stone, I Wish It Would Rain, and Cloud Nine. More than five of his compositions will appear in this series overall. Meanwhile, this 1959 classic remains his only hit as a vocalist. But what a hit it was.
2. Please Mr. Postman
VIDEO: Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes plays over various images related to the group. Please Mister Postman lyrics.
The Marvelettes — still having five members, rather than the four pictured above — were high school students when they cut Please Mr. Postman, remarkably their very first recording. Fifteen-year-old Gladys Horton’s youth is clear, but she has a skill beyond her years, and her untrained lead conveys a charismatic charm and hopefulness that would have surely been lost on a more experienced vocalist. Please Mr. Postman was co-written by original Marvelette Georgina Dobbins, whose father had made her quit the group by the time they recorded it, and who presumably never forgave him for it. It contains most of the elements that would make Motown’s greatest songs so recognizable, from the driving bass and drums to characteristically prominent backing vocals and unforgettable lead.
Please Mr. Postman was Motown’s first #1 hit, giving it a legendary status in their catalog. It was also one of their first hits by female artists3. It is further notable for being the first big hit produced by Brian Holland, who would make up part of Motown’s most successful songwriting and production team. The Marvelettes would spend quite a few more years at Motown, but unfortunately, they weren’t to be particularly successful ones. They were soon eclipsed by Martha and the Vandellas, who were in turn soon eclipsed by the Supremes, on a label that didn’t seem to know how to handle more than one female group at a time. The Marvelettes would go on to produce a handful of great tracks, including Too Many Fish in the Sea, but none would ever live up to the group’s very first song; sadly, they will not be appearing in this series again.
3. Way Over There
VIDEO: Way Over There plays over a heavily pixelated image of the Miracles’ male members. Way Over There lyrics.
Almost every list other than mine would, upon choosing the greatest Motown songs from their earliest years, include the Miracles’ first nationwide hit — and Motown’s first million-seller — Shop Around. The thing is, I’ve never been particularly fond of the song’s melody, the mildly sexist lyrics, or Smokey’s relatively mediocre vocal. It’s pretty good, certainly — and the most commercial of the Miracles’ early releases. But in my book, Way Over There, with lyrics presaging the much more popular Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by seven years, is a much better song.
Those familiar with Smokey’s smooth later work will notice that his vocal style had some maturing to do, but I love the rough edges around his performance on this song. He really belts out this tune with a soulful abandon verging on recklessness, and it works. Meanwhile, Claudette Rogers Robinson poitively soars on this track — nobody ever made Smokey sound better than Claudette, and this is up among her best work. In case any die-hards are in the audience, this version is the second recording of the song known as the “strings” version of the song; I find it to be fuller and sound a lot more finished. I can rarely make it all the way through the original “no strings” cut, finding the backing harmonies mastered the second time around to be incredibly grating; but you can make the comparison for yourself here.
4. (You Can) Depend On Me
VIDEO: (You Can) Depend On Me plays over images of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. (You Can) Depend On My lyrics.
Yes, more Miracles — Smokey was known as the King of Motown for a reason. I was really surprised to learn that opinion is widely split on this B-side; Miracles fans like myself adore it, while others find it to lack hook or direction. A common criticism is that it’s nothing more than a shameless vocal showcase for Smokey Robinson. While I admit that the backing vocals are a little plodding, I find it to be a truly lovely song; I also find a vocal showcase for Smokey Robinson to be the very definition of a worthwhile endeavor. It’s astounding that he recorded this performance so young in his life, and if it’s not an accurate suggestion of what was to come for his songwriting, it is a peak into what he would accomplish as a singer.
Like Way Over There, (You Can) Depend On Me was recorded and released twice. Unlike Way Over There, I prefer the first, 1959 version of the song, which appears above; while the harmonies and technical skill of the recording are improved on the second take, Smokey lacks the divine phrasing that makes the first cut so great. There is, however, a lot of contention among fans over which is the better track. You can hear the second, 1960 recording of the song here.
5. Bye Bye Baby
VIDEO: Mary Wells’ Bye Bye Baby plays over a compilation cover image. Bye Bye Baby lyrics.
Mary Wells was Motown’s first superstar. Smokey Robinson was successful; others had number one hits and million-selling songs. But Mary Wells was a phenomenon and a household name, something that is sadly all but forgotten today. Long before Diana Ross would take on the title, she was the original Queen of Motown, and whatever she touched turned to gold.
Wells wouldn’t truly hit the big time until 1962, under the careful watch of songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson, but this 1960 song, which she wrote, not only got her signed to Motown but also served as her first hit. Bye Bye Baby is not a particularly memorable song, but it is a truly astounding, knock-your-socks-off performance. I must confess, I’ve always preferred Mary Wells before Smokey got his hands on her — he actually has something of a track record of coaxing female performers into performing more controlled, acceptably “feminine” vocals, and thereby stripping the character from them. The voice of Mary Wells that is so well-known on My Guy and other hits is lovely, unique, and instantly recognizable. But it is the bluesy, hoarse-voiced soul of Bye Bye Baby (accomplished by Berry Gordy making her record several dozen takes) that makes me want to run out and buy her records and play them over and over again.
Bonus Track: Jamie
VIDEO: Eddie Holland’s Jamie plays over an image of the promotional single label. Jamie lyrics.
Eddie Holland would become arguably Motown’s most successful songwriter. But it’s almost (almost!) a shame, because before that, he was in my estimation quite a fantastic singer. Clearly influenced by Jackie Wilson4, Eddie Holland had a full voice, perfect phrasing, and striking good looks, which in combination just very well might have taken him all the way. I must confess that I myself am quite a fangirl, even if some of the material he recorded left a bit to be desired. (A set of his complete recordings was recently released.) The 1961 single Jamie was his most successful song, peaking at #6 on the R&B charts and #30 on pop. A catchy and danceable number with a heavenly string arrangement by Ray, impeccable lead, and fantastic harmonies by Motown’s in-house backing vocalists the Andantes, it certainly deserves recognition among Motown’s early output.
After a couple years of only moderately successful recordings, a severe case of stage fright and an eye on his younger songwriting brother’s much larger paychecks caused singer Eddie to argue that Brian and Lamont Dozier could turn out songs much faster — and thus have an advantage over the steep competition for singles and studio time — if he helped them with their lyrics. The pitch worked, and Holland-Dozier-Holland became Motown’s unbeatable songwriting team until they left the label over contract disputes. (Eddie Holland would also act as the lyricist on most of Norman Whitfield’s early work — likely giving him Motown’s overall greatest number of hits.) Funnily enough, this song wasn’t written by singer-turned-songwriter Eddie Holland, but by singer-turned-songwriter Barrett Strong. The fact of the matter is that Motown had all the talent from the beginning; it just took a few years for all of it to fall into its rightful place.
While Shop Around is easily the most memorable of songs that didn’t make this list, my favorite that didn’t make the cut is actually one of my very favorite Miracles tracks, called What’s So Good About Goodbye. A full list of Motown’s 1959-1961 releases can be found here (sadly, it’s not chronological). This early period was one that saw the first releases, if mostly forgettable, by such future household names as the Supremes, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. Peruse the list yourself, and share your own top tracks from Motown’s earliest years in the comments. From now on, each post in this series will cover a single year — stay tuned, because there are some monster hits coming.
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
- Soon to be Raynoma Gordy, and later Raynoma Singleton ↩
- Played by Barrett Strong himself, rather than a Funk Brother ↩
- And this doesn’t escape my notice when some Motown fans take to insisting the song isn’t up to snuff with earlier songs by men ↩
- Indeed, Eddie’s first job for Berry was recording demos of the songs he had written Jackie ↩