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.
2. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
VIDEO: Dressed in a snappy tux, Marvin Gaye lip syncs How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) while white teenagers dance in the audience. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) lyrics.
How Sweet It Is is the absolute cream of the crop of Marvin Gaye’s pre-Tammi Terrell output, and it is one of Motown’s and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s most perfect recordings. (I was utterly shocked to learn that anyone could possibly not worship at this track’s feet.) Putting that crooner’s ambition to good use, Marvin’s smooth and mellow delivery is the very definition of perfection. His reading is not excited or ecstatic, which some apparently find a flaw, but that’s just the way it should be. This is not a song about falling in love, or about how his lover knocks him off his feet every time she walks in a room. With fine, fine lyrics by Eddie Holland, this is a song about mature love, a love that has aged and aged well. It’s a song about the simple beauty of being fully comfortable with yourself in the presence of another person, and Marvin’s relaxed lead conveys that exquisitely. The reason he needs to STOP! and thank her, baby, is precisely because he’s so used to her and usually forgets to do so. This isn’t yet another pop song about how she’s “still the one” and after all this time manages to make his heart skip a beat. It’s much more honest and lovely than that, because in the end, that’s not what the narrator needs; as most of us eventually realize, we don’t need butterflies so much as we need “someone to understand [our] ups and downs.” A grateful reflection on how his partner’s life has made his life a better one to live, the quietly joyful mood this record strikes is exactly right.
I needed to break out my thesaurus on this one, because I found myself using and reusing the word “perfect.” Perfect. Perfect. PERFECT! That is the most accurate word I can find to describe this recording. Johnny Griffith’s gently tinkling, jazzy piano and the interplay between Pistol Allen’s drums and Jack Ashford’s tambourine make up the pieces of one of the Funk Brothers’ most beautifully understated tracks. The Andantes’ backing is divine. My most instinctive and reliable measure of a truly great song, How Sweet It Is always ends too soon. I listen to it once, and I need to listen to it again. And again. I find myself singing it to my cats. One of the largest jewels in Holland-Dozier-Holland’s lavishly bedazzled crown, and the best that Marvin ever got in his early career.
3. Where Did Our Love Go
VIDEO: The Supremes frolic rather dangerously through traffic on a busy city street while lip syncing Where Did Our Love Go. The focus of the camera is almost entirely on Diana. At the end of the video, an unamused policeman wisely escorts the group onto the sidewalk. Where Did Our Love Go lyrics.
After three years without a hit, the Supremes finally broke through and had not one, not two, but three #1 pop chart hits in 1964. Come See About Me is a great song, one of my favorite Supremes tracks; Baby Love is one of the most famous recordings the group has to their name; but their breakthrough hit, Where Did Our Love Go is both one of the best and most important songs they ever released. Originally turned down by the Marvelettes (to be begrudingly accepted by the Supremes, who felt they had no choice), it’s hard to blame them, and even harder to believe that they would have had the same monster hit with it. Indeed, while I either feel very strongly or know for a fact that other artists could have done a great number of the Supremes’ songs better, nobody could have made Where Did Our Love Go the way that they did.
Diana’s weak in the knees cooing would soon grow tiresome, but the wide-eyed, faux-innocent seduction of her vocal here strikes precisely the right note and does the bulk of the work in turning this ultimately thin and repetitive number into a masterpiece. The injured little girl act is deliberate, and there was no more inspired way to deliver a line like “oooh, please don’t leave me all by myself.” At points, you can actually hear her bottom lip forming a pout. A purposely sparse track, a classic Pistol Allen shuffle mixes with the distinctive stomping of floor boards, and the soprano of Florence Ballard (with Mary Wilson underneath) echoes atmospherically in the empty space. This is a perfect little song, and as far as Supremes tracks go, a couple may be as good, but none would ever be better.
4. Dancing In The Street
VIDEO: Martha and the Vandellas lip sync Dancing In The Street before an outside audience in different stylish pant suits. The video occasionally switches to a clip of the group performing in in shimmering dresses. Dancing In The Street lyrics.
From the moment those famous horns kick in, it’s a dance party. Written by the underrated songwriting team of Hunter-Stevenson with, oddly enough, one Marvin Gaye, this song is generally recognized among Motown’s greatest classics (though I’m actually with Nix that the designation is a little strange). One of the most iconic intros in Motown history — right up there with My Girl, in fact — the horns simply blast out of your speakers, followed by the steady clanging of Ivy Jo Hunter banging snow tire chains against a piece of wood, which gives the song its most unique and distinctive quality.3 The shameless appeal to hometown pride in the litany of city names rattled off is transparent, but always has you singing along. As for the singing, Reeves has much better vocals in her catalog, but this one is strident and powerful, and was captured in two takes — the slightly angry tone in her voice coming from the fact that they failed to actually record her first.
Somewhere along the way, a bizarrely large group of people have gotten it in their heads that Dancing In The Street is not about dancing at all. The impression is that “dancing in the street” is a thinly-veiled metaphor for revolutionary protest, even riots. But this is either baseless conjecture or wishful thinking — the first clue that Motown would never put out such a song is how, despite the fact that this interpretation is not necessarily a bad thing, they’ve always denied it vehemently. The fact of the matter is that Martha isn’t calling for or standing in solidarity with racial protest, and (while the political views of artists themselves obviously varied) Motown’s stance was always firmly integrationist and assimilationist. That’s not to downplay the political significance of Motown — it was impossible for Motown’s artists to have the enormous popularity they did, perform regularly on the Ed Sullivan show, and appear at the Copacabana in the 1960s without it being political. But that doesn’t change the nature of the politics; Motown was always about money and broad success over racial “authenticity” or uplift, with all of Motown’s major acts performing Broadway numbers, and Smokey Robinson proudly proclaiming from then to this day that Motown never set out to make “Black music,” but music that was popular. Even when Motown did slip into “political” and “social commentary” songs in the late 60s, prior to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s subsequent coming of age, they lacked any meaningful stance, let along radical ones.4 A political call to action it is not; a fine dance record it is.
5. My Guy
VIDEO: A black and white clip of Mary Wells, dressed in an open trench coat, lip syncing My Guy as she strolls along the edge of a lake. My Guy lyrics.
A signature Smokey Robinson tune with cute lyrics, swinging beat, and exquisite melody, I dare you not to sing along; you find yourself doing it without even realizing. A #1 pop hit, this was Mary Wells’ signature song, and a hell of one it was. Punctuated by hand claps, the interplay between Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson is fantastic, as is the distinctive and prominent yet understated brass section. Wells herself is in perfect form, putting forth a coy and incredibly mature delivery with mesmerizing phrasing and enunciation. Behind her, the Andantes create one of the tracks most vital qualities, a series cascade of echoing refrains. The bluesy little breakdown at the end is also divine, if sadly too short.
It was after her greatest hit that Mary Wells decided she could do a lot better than what Motown was paying her, and proving in court that they had illegally signed her to contract as a minor, she left for 20th Century Fox and would never have another big hit. Wells has been greatly maligned over the years for her decision to leave Motown, and it is true that ultimately she needed Motown much more than Motown needed her. It is however also true that hindsight is 20-20, and most criticisms of her choice serve as apologism for Motown’s bad business practices. They did sign her to a contract she was too young to sign. They weren’t paying her what she deserved. (She later had to sue them for unpaid royalties.) And in any case, there’s little doubt they would have lost interest in her after Diana’s big break just as quickly as they lost interest in Martha Reeves.
But Wells’ decision had far-reaching implications for all of Motown’s artists who stayed behind. A proud and vindictive Gordy viewed Wells’ defection as betrayal, was furious at the loss of one of his most successful artists, and vowed to never let it happen again. He’d ultimately fail, but that certainly didn’t keep him from trying. Surely not coincidentally, all Motown artists felt the company’s grip tighten on them; but in a wildly sexist manner, this was especially true for the women on the label. (The Supremes were certainly pampered, but Motown also watched them like hawks.) The “family” atmosphere at Motown began to disintegrate, and freedom grew less and less. Nonetheless, My Guy remains one of Motown’s most memorable tracks.
Bonus Track: Every Little Bit Hurts
VIDEO: Dressed in tight black leather, Brenda Holloway lip syncs Every Little Bit Hurts surrounded by bored-looking white teenagers and a bizarre interpretive dance routine. Every Little Bit Hurts lyrics.
Brenda Holloway was one of the greatest female vocalists Motown ever had, and they threw her away. Bested only by Gladys Knight in terms of power, range, and natural talent, she had the misfortune to be one of many women at Motown in the Time of Diana Ross. (I should be clear that while I have many criticisms of Diana, this is not one of them — it was absolutely Motown’s fault that there was only ever enough room at the label for one woman at a time, while an abundance of room for men.) It also didn’t help that she was one of Motown’s few West Coast artists, while all resources were going into the hit-making machine in Detroit. She was getting leftover songs, disinterest in the songs she herself wrote (though they were quite good), bare-bones promotion, and, as per her letter of resignation, hardly any professional wardrobe, hair, makeup, or even advice on the matter. Fed up, and seeing for herself what happened to solo female artists at Motown — they got paired with Marvin Gaye or ignored — she walked out in a huff in 1968. Like so many of the company’s former artists, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be women, she later had to sue the company to get money owed to her.
Her most successful release was her very first Motown single, this elegant torch song recorded in LA. It was a powerful vehicle for her dramatic and compelling voice, which at only 17 sounded far more worldly. Usually going for a more sensual, slightly breathless yet weeping effect on her vocals, she belts out this number with force and conviction. She was a powerhouse — and as they generally didn’t with such female singers, Motown didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with her. Holloway may be one of Motown’s forgotten artists, but her work is worth seeking out. Her only released U.S. album, though suffering from a severe lack of up-tempo songs, is excellent. Her large bulk of unreleased material is filled with lots of substandard songwriting, but also contains plenty of gems, including her very own exemplary songwriting effort, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.
If any year had a bevy of top tracks to choose from, 1964 was it. You can view a complete list of 1964 Motown singles here. In addition to the Supremes’ two other #1s, there’s the Temptations’ exuberant breakthrough The Way You Do The Things You Do and the Four Tops’ first (and memorable) single Baby I Need Your Loving. The Marvelettes would make a grand appearance with Too Many Fish in the Sea, and Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston would duet on a lovely little number called What Good Am I Without You. Leave your own list of top tracks from this year in the comments. And stay tuned for 1965, in which the Miracles would make a comeback, the Four Tops would rise to new heights, and the Supremes and Temptations would stay firmly on top.
- Mary Wells’ tour with the group, the Berry Gordy-Beatles photo-op, the Supremes’ (abysmal) A Taste of Liverpool album … ↩
- 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. ↩
- Wikipedia claims it was a crowbar that Hunter used. Wikipedia is wrong. ↩
- The one major exception is Edwin Starr’s War, but it’s notable that this song was originally performed by the Temptations, only for Gordy and the group themselves to balk at a single release. ↩