Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
Like the year before it, 1962 was a good year for Smokey Robinson. Already firmly entrenched as King of Motown at this early hour, Smokey’s biggest successes as both a singer and a songwriter were still yet to come. But 1962 was good; it was very, very good. With the Miracles, he would rack up multiple hits and two songs on this list. As a songwriter, he would deliver a total number of three.
But 1962 would see a lot more for Motown than just the simultaneous growth of Smokey’s reputation and wallet. The year would produce a top 5 pop hit by way of the highly unlikely Contours. It would see Mary Wells rise from a promising R&B favorite to a pop chart sensation. Almost a full decade before the Prince of Motown would cement himself as soul music’s most revered legend, he ditched lackluster jazz for R&B and found his first hit. Brought on board as a mini-Ray Charles gimmick by Miracle Ronnie White, Little Stevie Wonder would release his first, uneven recordings. And desperately waiting in the wings, Motown’s two biggest groups, the Supremes and the Temptations, would keep on struggling (and keep on struggling some more) for a breakthrough hit.
Not Motown’s best year by a long shot, it was Motown’s best year yet. And that was plenty enough. All that momentum had finally reached a breaking point, and Motown was at long last truly full steam ahead. Below are some of of the label’s best early classics.
1. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me
VIDEO: The Miracles’ You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me plays over an image of the group (minus Pete Moore, who was currently serving in the military, but including Marv Tarplin). You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me lyrics.
One of the Miracles best-known songs, it was the single that almost wasn’t. Indeed, it was released as a B-side to the pleasant but inferior Happy Landing1; when DJs found themselves underwhelmed by the A-side, they flipped the disc over. This track seems to be a case of the song being better than the recording; every time I listen to it, I’m a little surprised by the mildly clunky nature of the arrangement and occasionally jarring harmony. Its legend seems to loom a bit larger than the track can actually live up to, and always sounds a little bit better in my head. But whatever the recording’s very real shortcomings — and again, it wasn’t supposed to be a single — once Joe Hunter’s piano and (the recently-departed) Marv Tarplin’s guitar kick in, it takes you on a journey through hook after astounding hook.
Musically and melodically, the song was based on Sam Cooke’s fantastic Bring It On Home To Me2, a fact which Smokey would often acknowledge by appending a verse or two of it to the end of You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me during live performances. Lyrically, it wryly acknowledges the ways in which love is not always welcome and can bring a complex mixture of feelings. “I don’t like you, but I love you” is perhaps the most honest and universal emotion to ever work it’s way into one of Smokey Robinson’ songs.
2. Hitch Hike
VIDEO: Marvin Gaye lip syncs his song Hitch Hike on a television set in this early 60s black and white clip. He does “the hitch hike” while white female go-go dancers perform around him, and teenagers dance in front of the stage. Hitch Hike lyrics.
Strangely enough, Marvin Gaye didn’t have aspirations to become a soul music superstar. Rather, his greatest ambition was to be popular a singer of standards, a crooner in the style of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. But Marvin had a contract, no hits, and bills to pay. And thus he co-penned the eponymous Stubborn Kind of Fellow — and had his first hit. This kind of raucous R&B wasn’t Marvin’s personal preference, but clearly he was good at writing and singing it. Hitch Hike, written by Marvin with Clarence Paul and Mickey Stevenson, was the follow-up single, and it was both bigger and (in my view) better.
Following the travels of a guy who just can’t take a hint — and whose woman, upon leaving him, apparently really, really left — Hitch Hike has a jerky, danceable rhythm that mimics an old chugging vehicle. Indeed, the track sparked a small dance craze, which you can see Marvin perform in video. Two of the song’s most memorable qualities are the flute performed by Thomas “Beans” “Fingertips” Bowles, and Marvin’s quirky, charmingly slurred enunciation (that’s the last place my baby shhhhtayed).
This track also marks the first appearance in this series of Martha and the Vandellas. The second of three times they would back Marvin, these ladies provided some of the greatest and most distinctive harmonies ever delivered on a Motown record — and while not putting in quite the performance they did on Stubborn Kind of Fellow, they’re still killing it. It was work like this that would get them records of their own string of hits, starting in 1963.
3. You Beat Me To The Punch
VIDEO: Mary Wells’ You Beat Me To The Punch plays over various images of Mary Wells throughout her Motown career. You Beat Me To The Punch lyrics.
One of Mary Wells’ three big hits that year, You Beat Me To The Punch is probably my favorite song in her catalog. Two Lovers is quite possibly more famous, but has left me disappointed ever since the sorely deflated feeling I encountered upon suddenly listening carefully enough to realize that Smokey was just being cute and clever, rather than radically reimagining the publicly acceptable bounds of female sexuality.3 In any case, while Two Lovers has a stronger chorus and better harmonies4, the verses are chronically unmemorable, and the “reveal”/melody change at the end is a huge dud.
By contrast, You Beat Me To The Punch has all-around great character. The lyrics are uncomplicated but whimsical, in the style of Smokey Robinson’s classic narrative storytelling, with a twist ending that is far more effective and satisfying than the one he’d utilize on Two Lovers. The “I found out/beyond a doubt/one day, boy/you were a playboy” lyric is a deceptively and thrillingly simple construction that should have made Smokey very proud. Wells’ performance here is incredibly confident and strong; she knows perfectly well that she’s got this. Her trademark “oh ho ho ho” makes an obligatory appearance that works, and her consistently winking delivery of the word “punch” is divine. As with the excellent The One Who Really Loves You before it, the song has a calypso feel that, while eventually overused, gives the song its definition and subtle dance-ability. Great lyrics and vocal delivery aside, this is a fantastic track, with highlights including an unusually light touch by Benny Benjamin on drums, guitar by Robert White and Eddie Willis, and pre-Jack Ashford vibes by Dave Hamilton. Certainly one of the original Queen of Motown’s finest.
4. I’ll Try Something New
VIDEO: I’ll Try Something New by the Miracles plays over images related to the single. I’ll Try Something New lyrics.
Over swirling harp and strings, Smokey Robinson enters in a delicate, dreamlike voice bordering on whisper. It is far from his finest vocal, but may be his gentlest. It also may have been Smokey’s most complicated composition and recording to date. And though not as great a song, this recording is certainly superior to You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me. The song and the band handle multiple tempo changes with aplomb, with rapid, prominent drums that magically manage to not disrupt the pristine melody or orchestration. Sentiment-wise, the lyrics are old hat: a list of impossible, metaphorical things he is willing to do for his beloved (give her all the stars in the sky, etc., etc.). But showing what a truly elegant lyricist he was, Smokey manages to pull off the trite with grace and, indeed, make it sound “new.” From the poetry of “I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly and compose you a tune” to the sweet, smile-bringing promise to “pretend I’m jealous of all the fellas,” he stays class from start to finish.
Beatles fans may be interested to know that in the late 80s, George Harrison, who idolized Robinson all his life, named this as one of his favorite songs. (He then proceeded to be incredibly star-struck and humbled by the interviewer telling him that she had personally discussed George’s tribute song to Smokey, Pure Smokey, with the man himself.)
5. (You’re My) Dream Come True
VIDEO: The Temptation’s (You’re My) Dream Come True plays over an image of the group’s first album Meet The Temptations. (You’re My) Dream Come True lyrics.
Motown’s biggest hit of the year was the Contours’ Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance). Originally, it was going to be the #5 track on this list out of sheer obligation … until I started writing about it, and found that it was a long list of criticisms. So in substitution, here is a better Berry Gordy-penned song, by the group on whom Do You Love Me was originally to be cut: The Temptations. My favorite Motown group, this will be their first of many placements in this series. They may have missed their big break by not being around on the day that Berry was hot and bothered to record Do You Love Me, but ultimately I think they dodged a bullet by not getting saddled with the gimmicky, mind-numbingly repetitive song. This ballad was the very first release on Motown’s new Gordy label, where the group would stay until it shut down a couple decades later. Only a regional hit in several markets, but a favorite of doo-wop fans, Dream Come True is a beautiful song. Not one that was going to send them running up the charts any time soon, but one that does show the potential they held, and why Motown bothered keeping them around for two and a half years without a hit.
The falsetto of Eddie Kendricks, my second favorite singer and a criminally/chronically overlooked vocalist, is in its infancy here. For a man who would entirely change the game, gain countless imitators, and ultimately become the very, very best there ever was, his style here remains derivative. But while his voice would get far more distinctive and skilled over the next decade, its incredible power and crystal clear quality is evident from the beginning. Bass singer Melvin Franklin also puts in a notable performance. The Tempts would soon switch to pop-soul, but wouldn’t hit the big time until David Ruffin joined their ranks to lay down the Kendricks-led The Way You Do The Things You Do in early 1964 — at which point his vocal style would have already changed considerably. But Dream Come True undeniably shows both his and the group’s incredible promise.
Bonus Track: Let Me Go The Right Way
VIDEO: The Supremes’ track Let Me Go The Right Way plays over changing photographs of the group. Let Me Go The Right Way lyrics.
I’m not a Supremes fan. There: I said it. As both the quintessential girl group and the quintessential Motown group, as well as the recipient of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s best compositions, they will be making several appearances in this series. Just not as many as they would on a lot of other folks’ lists. My main interest in the group comes from H-D-H’s songs (a large number of which I think should have gone to other artists) and the ever-fabulous Florence Ballard. But Diana Ross … she just leaves me cold. Very, very cold.
That is, usually. The first time I heard this song, I didn’t really believe that it was Diana. Though the voice here sounds nothing like Flo’s (and Flo’s distinctive harmonies are hugely audible), many people are under the mistaken impression that it must be hers, because it certainly doesn’t sound like any Diana they know. Before developing her carefully-measured, baby-voiced, Diana Ross Thing, she apparently could sound like this. And I fucking love it. Gordy’s tellingly regressive lyrics aside, this song has an infectious danceable beat, a great melody, catchy backing vocals, and a fantastic lead by Miss Ross before she was Miss Ross. Diana belts this song out from her chest, and though no vocal heavyweight, this voice has incredible character, and definite appeal. This is one of my favorite Supremes’ tracks, and it deserves both a listen and a sing-a-long.
A full (sadly not chronological) list of Motown’s releases in 1962 can be found here — and there’s plenty to choose from. Maybe you prefer Stubborn Kind of Fellow or Two Lovers. Or perhaps you appreciate the charm of Little Stevie’s early recordings, or feel I’m playing favorites with my beloved Tempts, and that the Marvelettes, with Beechwood 4-5789 and Strange I Know, deserve another look in. Feel free to vindicate the reputation of Do You Love Me, or leave your own list of selections, in the comments below.
The next year at Motown would see the entry one of the biggest game-changers in the label’s history: the illustrious H-D-H. Stay tuned.
- I greatly prefer the Tempts’ exuberant unreleased 1964 recording of that song ↩
- On which the harmonies attempted here by Bobby Rogers were much more successfully accomplished by none other than Lou Rawls ↩
- How beautiful and exhilarating a line like “I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed” both could and should have been! Personally, I don’t discount it as a factor in the song’s success. ↩
- Provided by the Love-Tones, in this case aided by Eddie Kendricks ↩