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.
2. I Wish It Would Rain
VIDEO: I Wish It Would Rain plays over a black and white photo of the Temptations circa late 1967. I Wish It Would Rain lyrics.
The Temptations’ I Wish It Would Rain is many things: one of my favorite Tempts songs, one of David Ruffin’s finest lead vocals with the group, and one of Motown’s absolute saddest songs. A melancholy piano melody — written on a broken piano with only ten working keys — sets the stage, before David’s stripped and anguished lead enters. The lyrics alone are steadfast in their hopelessness — no sign that the narrator’s beloved will come back, no indication that he will get over her and stop crying, no light peaking out at the end of the tunnel. But the story behind the song is one of the most somber in Motown’s history.
One of a growing handful of non-Black songwriters at Motown, Roger Penzabene was a young and promising Jewish lyricist who had recently found himself teamed up with Norman Whitfield. Penning several songs for the the Temptations and Gladys Knight and the Pips, Penzabene was a man wildly in love with his wife, as documented on the fabulous Temptations love song You’re My Everything. Those lyrics soon took on a new meaning. Penzabene discovered that his wife had been having an affair and was planning on leaving him. Crushed, he poured his heart out into his two greatest compositions, I Wish It Would Rain and I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You). He watched both songs be recorded. And then, ten days after I Wish It Would Rain was released, on New Year’s Eve 1967, Penzabene failed to make his expected appearance at Motown’s annual party; instead, he stayed home and committed suicide.
David’s interpretation of this song is both eminently dignified and soul-crushing in its sadness, as he poured his own lifetime of hidden pain into his performance; it was the song that made me fall in love with his voice. One day after his own birthday and less than 20 days after Penzabene’s death, David had to go on national television and sing what essentially constituted the man’s suicide note. And, well, he nailed it, giving the performance of a lifetime. There’s no indication that Ruffin and Penzabene were more than friendly acquaintances, but placed in the unusual and intimate position of articulating the man’s most devastating emotions every time he went on stage, David never forgot him. In interviews throughout his life, and to audiences from the stage, he often told Penzabene’s story, seemingly intent on both making sure Penzabene was remembered and somehow exorcising the horrible tale from his own consciousness. I Wish It Would Rain is one of the Temptations’ greatest and most honest accomplishments.
3. I Heard It Through the Grapevine
VIDEO: Dressed in stylish street clothes, Gladys Knight and the Pips dance and lip sync their song I Heard It Through the Grapevine on Soul Train, while the Soul Train dancers dance around the stage. I Heard It Through the Grapevine lyrics.
Nope, not that I Heard It Through the Grapevine — Marvin Gaye’s version, though recorded first, wouldn’t be released until 1968. Inexplicably, Berry Gordy rejected Grapevine as Marvin’s new single in favor of the pleasant but clearly inferior Your Unchanging Love. So Norman Whitifield — never one to give up easily, not ever — took his masterpiece to one of Motown’s newest signings, Gladys Knight and the Pips. Gladys Knight and the Pips had been together since their school days (indeed, Gladys won a national singing competition at age 7). Having toured the country for years and become known for their tight performances, they faced a lot of trouble breaking through to mainstream radio success. Whit told the group to work on Grapevine and see what they could come up with — and what they came up with was a wild reinterpretation of the song, a funky dance record filled with complex harmonies. Berry still didn’t like it and refused to promote it2 — so Gladys and the Pips did it themselves through their radio DJ connections. It would become Motown’s biggest selling single to date — that is, until a little single also called I Heard It Through the Grapevine beat it out the next year.
This version of the track has largely been lost to history, known mainly to fans of the group or Motown, but rarely remembered by radio listeners. When I first heard this cut, before Gladys Knight and the Pips became one of my very favorite groups, I was confused — and I didn’t like it. Marvin’s version is an undisputed classic, frankly one of the finest recordings ever made in all of music history. But that’s no reason to give up on this track; it’s utterly fantastic. The commanding, funky backing track features a far more authoritative piano part by Earl Van Dyke than the (also excellent) one Johnny Griffith played on Marvin’s version, as well as dominating drums by both Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin.3 Over top, Gladys Knight and the Pips would lay down one of their many sets of astounding, fresh vocals. Knight — the best female vocalist Motown ever had, and one of the greatest ever, period — belts out her lead, sounding far less anguished by her lover’s unfaithfulness than really fucking pissed. And the Pips, who were perhaps the tightest set of backing vocalists and dancers soul music has ever produced, deliver an utterly relentless set of prominent harmonies. Definitely be on the lookout for this group to return in future installments of this series.
4. I Second That Emotion
VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ song I Second That Emotion plays over various images of the group and single. I Second That Emotion lyrics.
Smokey Robinson may have already passed his incredibly prolific peak, but that wasn’t to say he didn’t still have some great hits left in him. This single is among the best of his post-1965 output. In a common narrative with an interesting partial gender flip,4 Smokey Robinson sings of fear that his female love interest is only interested in a one night stand and in the morning will “go away and never call.” Counter to dominant gender scripts, she’s the one who thinks that “love will tie [her] down,” while he expresses an interest in a lasting emotional connection, knowing that he cannot have a physical encounter without developing a deeper attachment.
The song features a lively, danceable horn arrangement and an excellent, playful yet emotive lead vocal from the master Smokey. One of my favorite Funk Brothers, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, really gets to shine here with a prominent, driving percussive part; meanwhile, Eddie Willis gets a relatively rare lead on guitar, providing key riffs throughout the track. The backing from the Miracles, as always, is divine in texture; Claudette Rogers Robinson sounds absolutely lovely here, and her voice blends with Smokey’s perfectly. All told, this song will always have you grooving and singing along. It was hardly the most innovative single to come out of Motown in 1967, but it was one of the best.
5. I Was Made to Love Her
VIDEO: Stevie Wonder’s I Was Made to Love Her plays over an image of his album by the same name. I Was Made to Love Her lyrics.
From the time of his first entry in this series back in 1965, the now 17-year-old Stevie Wonder had matured considerably in the preceding two years. Compared to the also excellent Uptight, I Was Made to Love Her is a far more textured, complex, and fully-realized construction. Written by Stevie with his mother Lula Mae Hardaway and his frequent songwriting partners Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby, this was quite simply both Stevie’s best song to date and an all around worthy accomplishment in a career soon to be filled with unimaginable achievements. His voice having now filled out, Stevie belts this number out in a style much closer to the one that would grace his 70s hits; he also provides a lovely harmonica solo during the song’s introduction.
1967 was an incredibly good year for Eddie Willis, getting a chance to step out of Robert White’s shadow not only on I Second That Emotion, but also here, in perhaps his most distinctive part on any Motown recording. But the real star of this track — yes, even above our young Stevland — is the man whose bass line Willis is mimicking on guitar. Rolling out what is arguably the singular greatest bass line of is utterly genius career, James Jamerson is essentially on lead, and he entirely steals the show. Fat, full, round, and bouncy notes flow in lightning fast melody from Jamerson’s cucumber cool fingers. The greatest bass player to ever live, he leaves you in slack-jawed awe. And whenever Jamerson’s playing, that’s exactly how it should be.
Bonus Track: The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage
VIDEO: The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage plays over images of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage lyrics.
Framed by the characteristic, melancholy guitar of Marv Tarplin is Smokey Robinson’s greatest accomplishment as a lyricist. An achingly beautiful song, The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage features a heartbroken yet elegant Smokey Robinson at the high end of his range, Claudette providing a fragile echo of his lines. And it is pure poetry. Here, Smokey provides the most incredible, complex, and vivid images of his storied and prolific career as a songwriter, occasionally taking your breath away. It’s true that if you take the time to actually sit and break it down, the song’s story is ultimately little more than the old, misogynistic, evil seductress tale; this is an amazingly disappointing realization. But when he puts it into words like that, it’s still a little hard to care.
When he hits you with the lovely construction of “you held me captive in your false embrace” in the first verse, Smokey is just gearing up. Before you know what’s happening, he starts throwing out lyrics like Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage; All that’s left are lipstick traces from the kisses you only pretended to feel; and Just like the desert shows a thirsty man/A green oasis where there’s only sand/You lured me into something I should have dodged/The love I saw in you was just a mirage. Doing only about as well on the charts as could be reasonably expected, this is, without a doubt, one of Smokey Robinson’s masterpieces. Luckily for audiences, he still performs it in his live shows to this day.
While I’m deep in hiding for fear of retaliation over excluding Diana Ross and the Supremes’ Reflections from my list, feel free to vindicate it in the comments or otherwise leave your own top picks. The two other most notable exclusions include the fantastic Martha and the Vandellas’ single Jimmy Mack — recorded back in 1964 — and the Four Tops’ outstanding Bernadette, featuring a Jamerson bass line on par with his work on I Was Made to Love Her. The Temptations released their brilliant love song You’re My Everything and my personal very, very favorite of their songs, (Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need. The Supremes — before their name change — also released The Happening (which I consider to be nauseating), and the far less popular but far better Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone. Meanwhile, Marvin and Tammi hit again with the astounding Your Precious Love, Brenda Holloway released her greatest songwriting accomplishment You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, and Gladys Knight and the Pips scored with a slinky, definitive cover of the Temptations’ Everybody Needs Love. And I cannot neglect to give honorable mention to Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. It was not a Motown track — it would have made the list if it had been — but starring the most Motown singer to never actually Motown, several key Funk Brothers, and even a couple of Andantes, it might as well have been. A full list of Motown’s (actual) 1967 singles can be found here; give it a browse and share your favorites below.
- This was to be a key reason why Knight eventually left for Buddah (sic) in 1973. ↩
- The only thing in Berry Gordy’s world more important than profit was his own ego. ↩
- Struggling with addiction, 1967 seems to have likely been the last year that Benjamin would work on Motown sessions. He would die in 1969. (Probably. Some claim it was 1968.) ↩
- I say partial specifically because other parts of this narrative are nothing new. There’s hardly anything radical about a man demanding a woman provide him with “a lifetime of devotion.” ↩