Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961
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
As popular musical tastes continued to evolve away from the girl group craze and smooth pop-soul sounds of the early sixties, Motown continued to evolve with it. While 1968 was an overall less consistent year than the few before it — this was one of the easiest lists in the series for me to make — the label’s best work was truly brilliant, and the year saw some Motown’s most emotional and transcendent releases.
Traditionally, 1971 — or mid-1972 — has been recognized as the end of Motown’s “classic” period, being when they packed up and left their namesake Detroit; but I’ve always felt that 1968 was the last true year of the Motown Sound and the end of its golden age. With HDH gone, Smokey Robinson currently lying fallow, the Supremes stuck in a rut, and the Temptations and Norman Whitfield both going psychedelic, by 1969 the Motown Sound was done evolving. It had become something else entirely.
That’s not to say that Motown wouldn’t still produce a lot of great music in the last three years that make up this series. Indeed, a lot of great music would come out on the label even after the move to LA. It just wouldn’t be the same. There was no more formula, no more assembly line, and Quality Control had lost much of its power to individual producers. In 1969, you could no longer pick a Motown song of the radio from the first couple bars. Different artists were developing sounds more distinct from each other — which would soon be a great boost to singer-songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but eventually a detriment to classic Motown artists like the remaining Temptations and Supremes. 1968, though, was a year that saw the release of some of my very favorite Motown hits. It was, in my view, the Motown Sound’s last great hurrah. And it just might be my favorite list in this series.
1. I Heard It Through the Grapevine
VIDEO: Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard It Through The Grapevine plays over photograph of the artist. I Heard It Through The Grapevine lyrics.
After seeing his biggest success in Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield was still not satisfied. Sure, he had proven to Motown’s doubters that the song was a hit. But Whitfield knew Marvin Gaye’s 1967 recording of the song was a masterpiece, and he wanted it released as a single. To Berry Gordy’s credit,1 he apparently refused to release the single again, this time based not on quality, but a reported desire to not put his artists in the position of competing with each other via the same song.2 Never satisfied until he got precisely his way, Whit placed the track on Marvin’s new album In The Groove — soon retitled I Heard It Through the Grapevine — sure that radio DJs would pull the track off themselves. That’s exactly what they did, forcing a single release. Marvin’s version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine soon replaced Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version as the biggest-selling Motown single to date.3
I Heard It Through the Grapevine is, simply, one of the greatest tracks ever recorded anywhere. Immensely ambitious, and entirely successfully so, it is Norman Whitfield’s greatest masterpiece. It is also one of the landmark vocals in Marvin Gaye’s long and legendary career. Norman Whitfield’s instruction to sing the song slightly above his natural register initially caused some tension between the hotheaded singer and equally hotheaded producer, but as with David Ruffin (on whom the trick was originally tried on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg), ultimately resulted in Gaye developing a whole new approach to singing; he’d put this strained, angst-filled style to good use throughout the late 60s and 70s. Swampy piano work by Johnny Griffith, an outstanding drum track made up of all three of Motown’s main drummers, and chilling tambourine by Jack Ashford create one of the Funk Brothers’ absolute greatest and most collaborative performances. Haunting Andantes backing vocals complete the atmospheric and hugely unique recording. Whit was right to be persistent; this is one for the history books.
2. Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing
VIDEO: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing plays over images of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing lyrics.
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were thrilled about the success of their composition Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but very displeased that they hadn’t been allowed to produce it. They made enough noise to be placated with the opportunity to produce a version of their newest song, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, alongside the Fuqua-Bristol team that had successfully completed Ain’t No Mountain High enough and the rest of Marvin and Tammi’s United album. They were to win cleanly in a unanimous Quality Control vote over Fuqua and Bristol’s embarrassingly lukewarm interpretation and become Motown’s latest set of star songwriters and producers. Their cut features lush instrumentation, an utterly astounding Jamerson bass line, inspired harmonies in which neither voice is lost, and lead vocal performances that positively drip with sincerity and devotion.
Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing was reportedly the first track Marvin and Tammi actually recorded together in the studio at the same time, rather than dubbing their parts separately. As great as their earlier songs had been, the proximity clearly paid off for them; this is the most exuberant, passionate set of vocals in their catalog. Indeed, this is not only Marvin and Tammi’s finest duet, but also Tammi’s absolute greatest and most confident vocal performance; even renowned egomaniac Marvin Gaye seems to take a slight step back to let her shine. This fact is all the more remarkable, considering that by the time it was recorded, Tammi was already sick. Though she wouldn’t collapse onstage and be subsequently diagnosed with brain cancer until a week after the track’s completion, she had been experiencing symptoms for some time already.4 While it is regularly looked over in favor of both Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need To Get By (see below), Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing stands out to me as the obvious pinnacle in Marvin and Tammi’s outstanding career. The emotional power of this track would never be matched elsewhere by them — and arguably, not by anyone else at Motown, either.
3. I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)
VIDEO: The Temptations I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You) plays over an image of title from the group’s The Temptations Wish It Would Rain album. I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You) lyrics.
I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You) is a devastating song, and not only because it was the second of Roger Penzabene’s pre-suicide masterpiece lyrical compositions. Too soulful to have made a lasting impact on pop audiences, the song nevertheless remains a favorite with fans, and for very good reason. David Ruffin’s monumental lead vocal has a strained, choked quality to it. Though technically begging his partner to stay, I’ve always felt this song was truly about mourning, and you can hear David cycling and stumbling unevenly through its various aspects in three short minutes: denial, bargaining, anger, and plain grief. Sweetly sad backing vocals and mournful strings swirl around David’s lead, as a jagged beat propels the song forward. But Ruffin is this song’s essence; spontaneously inserting far more pleading cries of baby than Norman Whitfield or Barrett Strong could have possible instructed, he sounds like a man possessed, conveying a pain and loss so great that his voice seems like is a tangible and fragile thing we are literally hearing shatter before us.
One of his finest vocals ever, this was to be David Ruffin’s last lead on a Temptations single before being fired in the summer of 1968. The popular version of the story is that David, at the beginning of a lifelong cocaine addiction,5 was growing arrogant and erratic, and even missing shows. While all of this is true, less frequently mentioned is the fact that he was growing loud about the group’s financial situation and relative treatment compared to Diana Ross and the Supremes — both liabilities at Motown, where getting ahead most often meant keeping your mouth shut, and particularly displeasing to Otis and Melvin, who liked to stay on Mr. Gordy’s good side. David would go on to have solo career that was often brilliant but rarely commercially successful, carrying on the most contentious relationship any Motown artist ever had with the label. This track is rightly chosen with regularity as an example of his finest work.
4. You’re All I Need To Get By
VIDEO: You’re All I Need To Get By plays over changing images of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. You’re All I Need to Get By lyrics.
Great love song or greatest love song? While not my pick for Gaye and Terrell’s finest duet, it just might win the separate competition of finest love song — ever. Forty-five years later, You’re All I Need To Get By remains an inspirational testament to transcendental powers of love. Opening with an airy backing vocal by Valerie Simpson, the song begins with a hushed, subdued quality before picking up steam at the 30 second mark. This is a perfect and firmly equal collaboration, and both Marvin and Tammi sound fervent in their devotion and genuinely moved by each other. A deep friendship and mutual respect for the other’s abilities fueled this duo’s incredible body of work. Together, they formed a wildly notable portion of the Motown legend. They are the standard against which all duets should be measured.
This song was recorded after the first of eight brain operations Tammi would ultimately have in attempt to eradicate her cancer. While she was alive, rumors would swirl not only that she was actually dead, but also that the well-documented abuse she had suffered a the hands of David Ruffin, and James Brown before him, were the real cause of her illness. These wildly unfounded rumors continue to this day, providing people with an excuse to pretend that they care about intimate partner violence — but only when it’s deadly, and only if they get to gossip about its gory details. More similarly than most proponents of this theory would like to admit, others make sport — as they would with many Black women before and after her — of labeling Terrell the aggressor and denying that she was a victim at all, insisting that she both provoked and deserved the horrific gendered violence she endured throughout her short life. As Tammi’s cancer progressed, Motown would release one more album’s worth of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell material, but confusion abounds as to whether or not she actually sang on the songs or was filled in for by Valerie Simpson.6
By the time she died at the age of 24 in 1970, Tammi had already ceased to be an actual person to most people and instead become a symbol. Fodder for debates about whose voice was actually on Easy, and a political football in contrasting yet equally dehumanizing portrayals as tragic, defenseless victim or loud-mouthed harpy who got what she deserved, rarely is she allowed to be a human being, or even an outstanding vocalist, instead of a prop in somebody’s agenda. Little remembered is the woman who suffered greatly, worked ambitiously, lived vivaciously, flirted shamelessly, strutted confidently, danced goofily, loved fiercely, and sang with all of her heart. Tammi Terrell’s story is heartbreaking, but she was not a walking tragedy. She was a real woman; and she was fucking amazing.
5. Cloud Nine
VIDEO: The Temptations’ Cloud Nine plays over changing, frequently anachronistic images related to the group. Cloud Nine lyrics.
It took a long time debating with myself and overcoming a lot of my own stubbornness before I finally conceded and decided to place Cloud Nine on this list. As a Temptations fan — a Classic 5/David Ruffin fan, specifically — I have an uneasy relationship with the group’s psychedelic era, and Cloud Nine, the song that started it all, in particular. In any case, when the Temptations decided to fire David Ruffin, they picked one Dennis Edwards as his replacement. Ironically, Edwards was not only a huge Ruffin fan, but also his friend. After Ruffin’s death, Dennis revealed that it was David who in fact came to his house late at night after being fired, before Dennis ever got the call to join the group, and insisted over his objections that he should take the job. Simplifying a long story, he did. And the Temptations were left to find a new sound.
David and Dennis’ voices are incredibly different. Honestly, I remain amazed that Temptations fans did not rebel against David’s replacement — and I have always been convinced that the Tempts have Norman Whitfield’s progression to thank. Overnight, they did not only have a new lead singer; they became a different group. This was, in fact, the only way they could have possibly survived. Gone were the anguished, pleading one-man leads and silky, cohesive harmonies; in were multiple leads on a single track and complex, multilayer, and driving backing vocals. No more classic soul sound, the Tempts were now psychedelic. It was a style that suited Dennis’ powerful voice better than any he had tried before or would try later.
Inspired by Sly and the Family Stone’s Dance to the Music, which featured multiple vocalists, Norman Whitfield devised Cloud Nine with his songwriting partner Barrett Strong. The track features a prominent wah-wah guitar by Dennis Coffey, bass by the recently deceased Bob Babbitt, and pounding drums by Uriel Jones. But the cut’s most notable feature was the use of alternating lead singers (mainly Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams) and the astounding, mesmerizing backing vocals that include many overlapping melody lines. Dennis Edwards has repeatedly attributed the writing of the Temptations’ backing vocals largely to first tenor Eddie Kendricks, and my hat is definitely off to him. Musical qualities aside, Cloud Nine was also the most daring song to come out of Motown to date, with its lyrics of hardship and escapism through drug use7 — even though all involved repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from the drug references, claiming they didn’t exist or that the song was a “cautionary tale.” Honestly, I’ve always felt the record is a bit marred by the fact that Paul and Eddie did their vocals better live on the Temptations Show television special. But this track has a monumentally important place in Motown’s history, and would dramatically impact all that was to come from the label for years.
Bonus Track: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
VIDEO: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me plays over an image of Diana Ross and the Supremes. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me lyrics.
I’m breaking every single one of my own rules regarding bonus track choice to include this song. What we’ve got here is not a track by unknown artists, but in fact by two of Motown’s most popular acts, nor an unknown song, being a #2 hit and their most popular collaboration; it’s also a song by artists already included in bonus tracks throughout this series and a track by an artist already included on this list (twice!).8 But I just don’t care. I had to have it on here.
I may not be a fan of Diana Ross, but I am a fan of chemistry. And Eddie and Diana had it. Rumored (though never definitively confirmed) to be onetime lovers who harbored a bit of a soft spot and crush for each other, whatever they had going on certainly turned up on record. They didn’t lay down their parts at the same time and place, but even still their flirty lines back and forth positively sizzle with desire. The two absolutely should have recorded a duet album in the early 70s — they would have been a better match than Diana and Marvin (and at that time, Eddie was just as popular).
Eddie Kendricks sounds like an angel on this song — a sexy, sexy angel. While I honestly don’t know if/how the Supremes utilized this song, a version sung entirely by Eddie became a staple of Temptations’ concerts, and it was always met with enormous shrieks and cries. There’s just something about a man who looked and sang like Eddie Kendricks saying he’s “gonna do all the things for you a girl wants a man to do” that sends panties flying. Okay, Otis’ speaking part is completely unnecessary and should have been done by Eddie, who had a lovely speaking voice (as heard elsewhere on this track). But still, this is a fantastic recording — quite arguably Motown’s greatest duet not done by Marvin and Tammi.
The two most notable singles left off of this list are Diana Ross and the Supremes’ post-HDH comeback single Love Child and Stevie Wonder’s incredible uptempo version of For Once In My Life. Meanwhile, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas released the charming Sweet Darlin’, Gladys Knight and the Pips searched for another hit with The End of Our Road, and the Four Tops put out Walk Away Renee. The Temptations’ exquisite Eddie Kendricks-led Please Return Your Love to Me is criminally overlooked, and in the face of other huge hits, Marvin and Tammi’s fantastic Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey also usually gets forgotten. You can view a full list of Motown’s 1968 singles here. Give it a browse, and join the fun by leaving your own list of top tracks in the comments.
- Feel free to take a screen shot. “To Berry Gordy’s credit” is not something that you will see me write often. ↩
- Whit apparently had no such concerns. While re-cutting songs on different artists was fairly common practice at Motown, Norman Whitfield was easily the most notorious for it, and he seemed to show little concern for whether his determination to realize his various visions negatively impacted his artists’ careers. ↩
- Ironically, apparently friends with Norman, it is Berry who Gladys blames for the situation — which, despite having said herself that she likes Marvin’s version better, she understandably remains unhappy about. ↩
- Tammi had experienced severe headaches all her life, indicating that she likely had tumors from a young age. She had, however, attributed their recent increase to a combination of stress and her abusive fiancee David Ruffin’s tendency to hit her in the head. ↩
- He would die of an overdose 23 years later at the age of 50, in June 1991. ↩
- For the record, I am quite positive that at least some of the songs are Tammi. In any case, the situation was atrocious and inexcusable on Motown’s part. Either they dragged a dying woman from her hospital bed and made her sing songs line by line through extreme pain in ransom for her hospital bills, or they exploited a dying woman’s name with a fill-in vocalist to make a quick buck while she was still alive. Likely, a bit of both. Almost as inexcusably, they are seemingly content to let Terrell’s legacy be marred and overshadowed by refusing to just fess up about what really happened. ↩
- It has always struck me as ironic that, while he would have been terrible for this song, the first Tempts track after David Ruffin’s firing actually reflects his biography almost perfectly. ↩
- Granted, I already broke that last rule last week with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles … ↩