The Motown Hit Factory
There's a reason its original headquarters became known as Hitsville U.S.A. In just 10 years, 1961 to 1971, Motown Records produced a phenomenal 110 Top-10 singles by artists ranging from the Supremes to Smokey Robinson (who wrote both "My Guy" and "My Girl" as well as performing with the Miracles). Here, to celebrate Smokey's birthday, are 20 songs that make up the ultimate Motown playlist.
1. "What's Going On" (1971)
A defining song for both Motown and for Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" almost never got released. Motown founder Berry Gordy hated the tune and repeatedly rejected it. Scheduled for release behind his back, the single topped the soul chart and vaulted up to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song rebranded Motown, turning it from a very successful pop factory into a label with a social conscience.
2. "My Guy" (1964)
Looking for a track to pad out an upcoming Mary Wells album, Berry Gordy turned to Smokey Robinson and asked him to produce something quickly. What Robinson came up with was the eternal "My Guy," one of pop music's great tributes to the regular dude. Robinson later said of his creative process: "I pictured Mary, a woman who was a star already, with a boyfriend who was a miner or a factory worker. Naturally, she had lots of guys trying to lure her away, but she was devoted."
3. "Where Did Our Love Go" (1964)
The Motown songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote "Where Did Our Love Go" with the Marvelettes in mind, but the group turned it down. So, the song went to the Supremes, Berry Gordy favorites who had yet to score a hit. Although the Supremes didn't much like it either, the single was a smash, knocking Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody" off the top of the chart and sending the vocal group led by Diana Ross to the head of Motown's roster of artists.
4. "My Girl" (1964)
As one of the key groups that defined the Motown sound, the Temptations scored their first No. 1 hit with "My Girl," a song written for them by Smokey Robinson (in honor of his wife, Claudette) and fellow Miracles member Ronald White. With Temptations backup singer David Ruffin taking the vocal lead for the first time, the group put forth a tune that has since spread sunshine over a half-century of cloudy days.
5. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (1962)
This indelible Smokey Robinson song—a Top 10 hit for the Miracles—was originally released as a B-side. But when DJs around the country started flipping the 45 over from the intended hit, "Happy Landing," and heard Smokey singing, "I don't like you / But I love you," they recognized an instant classic. Robinson's live performance of the song in the 1966 film "The T.A.M.I. Show" is a must-see.
6. "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (1968)
This one had a complicated history, with both Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Miracles putting out their own versions of the song before Marvin Gaye. But it's Gaye's recording of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" that shot to the top of the charts and stayed there for seven straight weeks, giving the singer his biggest hit and Motown its best-selling single up to that time.
7. "I Want You Back" (1969)
This one was originally written for Gladys Knight and the Pips, but Berry Gordon instead gave it to the Jackson 5, a fresh young group brought to Motown by Diana Ross. With tween Michael joyously taking the lead, "I Want You Back" topped the Billboard Hot 100 and, ironically, knocked Diana Ross & the Supremes' final single from the No. 1 position on the R&B chart. The song later became one of the most sampled in all of hip-hop, with artists such as Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. incorporating it into their own hits.
8. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" (1970)
Stevie Wonder's first solo production—with a title suggested to him by his mother—this song was a departure for the artist formerly known as Little Stevie. "I had the desire to move out of the one little thing that the musicians were in, and that Motown was in," Wonder said. "And I wanted to do it, hey, because I liked the groove." So did Barack Obama, who used the song during his 2008 presidential campaign.
9. "Tracks of My Tears" (1965)
Working off a riff by Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin, Smokey Robinson came up with the lyric, "Take a good look at my face / If you look closer, it's easy to trace." As he later recalled, he then mulled it over for a couple of days before coming up with the images of "somebody crying enough so that their tears left tracks in their face." Although the single only reached No. 16 on the pop chart, "Tracks of My Tears" went on to become a signature song.
10. "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" (1970)
A No. 1 hit for the Temptations and the last single to feature founding members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, "Just My Imagination" is one of the loveliest in Motown's entire catalog. As Otis Williams, another member of the group, once said, it's "Eddie's finest moment."
11. "Tears of a Clown" (1967)
Smokey Robinson had his biggest Motown hit with this song about a Pagliacci figure with a smile on his face and no one to love. "Tears of a Clown," a track on the 1967 Miracles album "Make It Happen," wasn't released as a single until 1970. That's when it proved that there is indeed a benevolent spirit with good taste operating in the universe by knocking the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You" off the top of the charts.
12. "Dancing in the Street" (1964)
A huge hit for Martha & the Vandellas, "Dancing in the Street" was recorded in only two takes (on the first one, the engineer forgot to roll the tape). Though some saw the song as a call to arms in a time of racial tension, lead singer Martha Reeves dismissed this, saying, "My Lord, it was a party song."
13. "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" (1966)
Jimmy Ruffin (a brother of the Temptations' David Ruffin) was working at the Detroit Ford factory when he recorded this song by the Motown writing team Weatherspoon-Riser-Dean. The lyrics hit close to home: "At the time my career wasn't going too well and I was getting kicked around quite a bit financially," the singer said. "I really was like a person lost, looking for some kind of hope, needing someone or something to believe in."
14. "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" (1965)
Another chart-topper by the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, this was the Four Tops' first No. 1 hit. Lamont Dozier only had the phrase "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch"—his grandfather's favorite greeting to the ladies in his life—when he started in on the lyrics. Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs turned the song into a summer of '65 essential, emanating from transistor radios on beach blankets everywhere.
15. "Stop! In the Name of Love" (1965)
Motown was famous for its choreography, and though not as elaborate as, say, the Miracles' stage moves, the Supremes' synchronized traffic policeman hand movements on "Stop! In the Name of Love" are an iconic visual of the '60s. With one hand on the hip and the other outstretched in a "stop" gesture, Diana, Mary and Florence are enough to make any would-be heartbreaker think things over. And, of course, it's a great song, too.
16. "Bernadette" (1967)
A smash hit by the Four Tops, "Bernadette" is Berry Gordy's favorite of Motown's many hits. Said Gordy: "I loved them all, but for me, 'Bernadette' would epitomize the Holland-Dozier-Holland genius for capturing a listener's ear and not letting it go. It also helped fuel my belief that Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops could interpret and deliver the meaning of a song better than anybody. He made Bernadette live. I wanted to meet her myself."
17. "Please Mr. Postman" (1961)
The Marvelettes were still teenagers when they auditioned for Berry Gordy. Told to come back when they had a song, the high school classmates produced a title—"Please Mr. Postman"—and an idea that songwriters Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Freddie Gorman ran with. The result was Motown's very first No. 1 hit. The Beatles soon incorporated the song into their stage act and recorded it for their second album.
18. "I'll Be There" (1970)
After reaching No. 1 three times in a row with high-energy bubble gum pop, the Jackson 5 were allowed to turn introspective, giving 12-year-old Michael the opportunity to soar with an achingly mature performanceon a soulful ballad. Listeners responded, making "I'll Be There" the group's fourth straight chart topper and its biggest-ever hit.
19. "War" (1970)
Drum roll …
"War / Ugh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing"
The opening lyric was written at a time of political and social turmoil and remains timeless. "War" was originally a track on the Temptations' album "Psychedelic Shack." But when there was popular demand for a single, Berry Gordy turned to Motown journeyman Edwin Starr, fearing that a Temptations single might alienate the group's fan base. Ad-libbing every "ugh" and "good god," Starr made the song his own.
20. "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" (1966)
The Isley Brothers already had enjoyed a significant career with hits like "Shout" and "Twist and Shout" before they signed with Motown in 1965. Legend has it that songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland were assigned to the group but gave them no material until—to get the persistent Isleys off their backs—they offered up "This Old Heart of Mine," originally written for the Four Tops. The Isley Brothers moved on from Motown two years later, but with this tune they left their mark.
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