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.
2. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)
VIDEO: I Can’t Help Myself plays over an image of the Four Tops’ name. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) lyrics.
As a Temptations fan, this song is the bane of my existence — for the last time, people, it’s a Four Tops song. The common misattribution is not only baffling, since the groups ultimately don’t really sound very similar, but also insulting. The Tempts had plenty of their own smash hits, thank you very much, and don’t need to claim those belonging to other groups; the Tops, by the same token, certainly deserve to be accurately credited for one of their most fantastic and enduring works. I Can’t Help Myself (more commonly referred to by its alternate title Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) is as fine a representation of the Motown Sound as exists, a tour de force in less than three minutes. It’s among the pinnacle of HDH songwriting, with more hooks than a single song ought to be legally allowed. The track opens with a compelling intro, a variation on the main riff, before a drum roll launches us straight into the legendary chorus. The energy doesn’t wane even slightly throughout the verses, while somehow managing to not zap any of the excitement from the chorus every time it rolls around. By the time you’re grooving along to the fantastic sax solo (by Mike Terry), the rules of pop music tell you it’s probably just about over. One more verse, a chorus, and we’re out of here — but then HDH knocks us on our asses with the ace up their sleeve. When you call my name/Girl it starts to flame … before throwing us full force into the most energetic chorus yet. The song wipes you out, but you immediately want to hear it again.
Lead singer Levi Stubbs delivers an astounding vocal; later relegated by HDH to largely shouting his songs, here he gets to show off his real chops. He gets the tone exactly right, sounding both starry-eyed in love and somewhat distressed by his complete loss of control over his own emotions. As they would on many tracks, helping to create the group’s distinctive sound, the Andantes add an extra layer to the remaining three Tops’ backing vocals, making for an utterly divine combination. Sure, the lyrics are sexist,2 but filled with half-rhymes, they’re also disarmingly and irresistibly charming. And that band — holy hell, that band. Funk Brothers leader Earl Van Dyke pounds out one of his greatest piano parts with his customary forceful style; Pistol Allen and Jack Ashford continue their great rapport on drums and tambourine; and let us please all take a moment to pause and bow before the great James Jamerson. Delivering probably his most astounding bass line to date, the man seems to have magically grown a couple of extra fingers;3 he is all over the fret board, throwing a dizzying array of notes at us while simultaneously managing to not overpower the song. Definitely one of the Tops’ best and most iconic songs, it’s also one of Motown’s finest.
3. Since I Lost My Baby
VIDEO: The Temptations’ Since I Lost My Baby plays over an image of the group’s Temptin’ Temptations album cover. Since I Lost My Baby lyrics.
Surrounded by bigger hits and more significant accomplishments that would alter the landscape of soul music, this stunning little gem gets lost in the shuffle. Stirring us with heavenly yet melancholy strings, David Ruffin enters tenderly at the higher end of his vocal register to set the scene of a warm idyllic day — only to note with pain that since his beloved has gone, for him “the sun is cold and the new day seems old.” Against the sweet yet slightly rough-edged lead, Melvin delivers an incredible bass vocal melody4 on the first verse, with Eddie Kendricks getting a short turn on the high end during the second. As always, the Tempts’ harmonies are exquisite and seem truly impossible in their beauty.
Smokey Robinson’s verse lyrics are perfect constructions, delivering precise rhymes, contextual consistency, and a strong grounding in reality with a nod to his and the Tempts’ working class roots5 (There’s plenty of work/And the bosses are paying not being a particularly meaningful reference point for the economically secure). The lyrics’ big reveal, however — in which it is ultimately suggested that the narrator has not “lost” his significant other in the sense of her leaving him, but actually misplaced her — might be an example of Smokey Robinson being just a little too clever for his own good. But the melody and rhyming scheme that surround this lyrical play is so divine, you just don’t care. You just want the Tempts to keep on singing Every day I’m more inclined to find her/Inclined to find her/Inclined to find my baby forever — that is, before David interjects an anguished cry of Been looking everywhere/Baby, I really, really care. And then, you want him to keep doing that forever. This is definitely one of the Tempts’ best Smokey-penned and produced tracks.
4. Stop! In the Name of Love
VIDEO: A black and white clip of the Supremes, dressed in slacks, blouses, and caps, lip syncing and performing the iconic dance to their song Stop! In the Name of Love at a racially integrated picnic. Stop! In The Name of Love lyrics.
Stop! In The Name of Love is one of the Supremes’ and Motown’s most iconic numbers. Apparently inspired by an argument between Lamont Dozier and his girlfriend about his infidelity — in which he actually yelled out the title phrase — the lyrics are a grating affair, making you want to scream at your speakers “DTMFA, Diana! Just DTMFA!” (Seriously, the arrogance of turning a fight about his cheating into her begging at his feet for him to please, please stop being unfaithful is infuriating.) Politics aside, however, this song is a masterpiece of pop production. The song comes at you with a burst of energy, three voices strongly in unison, piano pounding, horns blasting. Though mixed lower than he was on I Can’t Help Myself, Jamerson comes through with yet another innovative bass line, with Johnny Griffith’s organ driving the song along. Though it wouldn’t be all that long before Motown would fire Florence and start using studio singers on recordings instead of Mary and Flo’s replacement Cindy, this is one of the many Supreme’s pre-1967 recordings that show how integral the other two Supremes were to creating the group’s distinctive sound. Diana was the icon, but Flo and Mary were absolutely vital, always adding depth and resonance.
At least as famous as the track itself is the dance that goes with it. Scheduled to perform the song for the first time on a UK Ready, Steady, Go! Motown special but stuck without a dance routine, a very panicked Suprmes turned to Temptations’ member and choreographer Paul Williams for help. No stranger to choreographing in a pinch for his own group, Williams’ devised the legendary move, and he and Melvin Franklin quickly taught the simple routine to the Supremes. It’s simultaneously his most-famous yet least-credited contribution to Motown, with the song and hand gesture having become synonymous, listeners performing it themselves reflexively as they sing along. One simply cannot imagine the two existing apart.
5. Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
VIDEO: A teenage Stevie Wonder, with a close brush cut, black tux, and trademark sunglasses, dances and lip syncs to his song Uptight (Everything’s Alright) in front of a white dancing teenage audience. Uptight (Everything’s Alright) lyrics.
It was really hard to choose a final single for this list — my hardest pick yet — but here we are with Stevie Wonder, who wasn’t so little, anymore. Stevie Wonder’s role in the Motown story is enormous, but despite entering it so early, the fact that his best work was accomplished in the 70s leaves him under-represented in this series. At this crucial juncture, where Stevie was no longer cute, going through a voice change, and failing to provide a good gimmick, Berry Gordy was going to drop him from the label. (Yes, you read that right: Berry Gordy was going to drop Stevie Wonder because his voice changed.) Then a skillful young staff writer named Sylvia Moy stepped in to stop Berry Gordy from making by far the biggest mistake of his professional life. If she could write a hit for Stevie with his new voice, she asked Berry, would he keep him on the label? Berry took her up on it, and with Henry (Hank) Cosby and Stevie himself — already an astonishingly good songwriter at only 15 — Moy penned this song, which (having never been a fan of Fingertips), I think is his first truly great track. And Stevie Wonder has never been signed to a different record label.
Usually the last person to cut Gordy a break, it’s true that dropping the kid who thought of Motown as family just because he grew up would have been morally vacuous; and historically, it would have been worse than Decca passing on the Beatles. But while today Stevie Wonder is known as a fantastic singer, you have to admit his voice is unusual. If we didn’t have decades worth of hits to back it up, it’d be hard to think of what exactly you could do with it. Uptight skillfully answers that question, at least for the next few years. Still getting used to his new voice, Stevie half-talks part of this song and half-shouts the rest. It doesn’t matter; he carries it with confidence and exuberance, sliding in a few soon-to-be vocal trademarks. The track opens with blasting horns and is driven by a relentless drum beat,6 to the point where it sometimes feels like the only instrument on the track; that’s not a bad thing.
Moy would continue to be one of Stevie’s primary songwriting partners until he started writing all on his utterly stunning lonesome. Though rarely getting any credit (because sexism), she was among Stevie’s most vital mentors in his formative years as a songwriter7 and one of Motown’s best non-star songwriters. And in this case, she might have done Motown the biggest favor anybody ever did.
Bonus Track: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
VIDEO: The label of Frank Wilson’s ultra-rare Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) shows as the song plays. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) lyrics.
This rare Frank Wilson track was never actually officially released. It nevertheless became a darling of the British Northern Soul movement and has been repeatedly called one of the best Motown tracks ever. I’d not go so far, but there is something a little magical about this single originally slated for Motown’s budding Soul label. Wilson was one of Motown’s staff writers and producers, and wrote this number himself, before having the release pulled at the last minute. Generally accepted wisdom says that Wilson decided he didn’t really want to be a recording artist, and wished to focus on his writing and producing; others suggest that Berry was underwhelmed by Wilson’s vocal abilities and didn’t want his songwriters and producers becoming singers.8 On this exuberant, shimmering track filled with urgent soulful shouts and a big gospel choir-inspired chorus, the West Coast musicians (featuring Carol Kaye on bass) do a fine job of filling in for the Funk Brothers. It’s impossible to say whether US tastes would have responded to this song and made it a hit, had it been released; though bearing several markers that show it was intended for mass audience, it does retain a slightly esoteric quality. But would-have-beens don’t matter; what does is that the song is fantastic.
Originally a part of the sparse West Coast crew, Wilson found himself working on Brenda Holloway tunes before requesting and receiving a transfer to Detroit. There, a still-rising Norman Whitfield took Wilson under his wing, even letting him release a single on the Temptations (All I Need), despite managing to effectively block Holland-Dozier-Holland. Wilson would work with a variety of artists over the next few years, but mostly getting second-rate assignments like the Temptations and Supremes’ “show biz” releases. Then Wilson happened to be waiting in the hall before a meeting with Motown execs, and my second-favorite singer Mr. Eddie Kendricks left the conference room immediately after securing his release from the Temptations’ and solo signing to Tamla. The two having worked together before, and Wilson being no fool, he snapped up Eddie has his artist right then and there. Their partnership would last 5 years and produce not only smash hits like Keep on Truckin’, but far greater works like If You Let Me, Darling Come Back Home, and Can I. In 1976, having clearly lost interest in songwriting a year or so prior, Wilson left Motown and became a born again Christian, today running a ministry with his wife. Do I Love You was Frank Wilson’s only Motown single as an artist, but his contributions to Motown were considerable, as are the achievements of this track.
1965 was positively overflowing with contenders for this list. It was physically painful for me to leave off Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Ooo Baby Baby, which is one of their finest songs; they also hit that year with the thumping Going to a Go-Go, and the majestic My Girl Has Gone. Almost as painful to exclude was Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run; and while It’s the Same Old Song may be highly derivative of a certain song that did make it on this list, it’s also my personal favorite song by the Four Tops. The Temptations scored with their My Girl follow-up It’s Growing, while better tracks from the Supremes’ enormous output include Back In My Arms Again, My World Is Empty Without You, and everybody’s favorite but mine, I Hear a Symphony.9 Kim Weston had her biggest solo hit with Take Me In Your Arms, while Marvin Gaye grooved along with the Smokey Robinson-penned I’ll Be Doggone and Ain’t That Peculiar. Jr. Walker and the All Stars broke through with Shotgun, the Marvelettes came back with Don’t Mess With Bill — in other words, you could make a great mix tape, and I’m exhausted just listing them all! View a complete list of 1965 singles here and leave your own list of top tracks in the comments.
- Moral panics about rap, however, show that this “conversation” is of course far from over. ↩
- Seriously guys, “I’m tied to your apron strings”? Seriously? ↩
- Though, according to his son, also a bass player who says he can’t do what his dad did with all of his fingers, Jamerson apparently only strummed using one. ↩
- While Norman Whitfield would later use Melvin’s extraordinarily deep bass voice as a contrast to Eddie Kendricks’ extraordinarily high falsetto, I’ve always felt that a far more natural and effective contrast was always achieved when Melvin was used against David. ↩
- In contrast to the other Tempts’ working class backgrounds, Ruffin’s own could actually be more-accurately described as “dirt poor,” but I digress. ↩
- Debate reigns on whether it was done by Benny Benjamin or Pistol Allen; the most reliable source claims it was Benjamin, but my ears say the claims of it being Pistol’s work are probably correct. ↩
- She was even immortalized in their 1966 song Sylvia. ↩
- Gordy’s best friend Smokey Robinson was an exception to that rule. Smokey Robinson got a lot of rule exemptions. ↩
- Try listening to Stevie Wonder’s unreleased cover for me sometime, will you? That would have made the list. ↩