In January of 1959, Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records and started one of the great American music stories of all time. That first month he put a handmade sign in the front window of his company that simply said "Hitsville, U.S.A" and how prophetic it was. In April of 1960 he made the genius decision to change the name of the company to Motown, a portmanteau of motor and town, which has become synonymous with Detroit ever since.
Motown has been the label home for hundreds of singers, songwriters, and groups ever since. Over the years they have recorded, and sold, music in all genres including rock, jazz, hip-hop, country, and gospel, but it was their sound of Detroit soul that captivated a nation and made it one of the first black owned, cross-over, sellers of music in America.
For me, Motown will always be those early groups and singers that put them on the map. While many of my friends were enthralled with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others from the British invasion, and I enjoyed those bands too, it was the sounds coming out of Motown that made me stop what I was doing and listen to the latest hit.
I loved the melody, the beat, and the different harmonies that the Motown songs put out. Even today many of those same songs, that got my attention then, still give me goose bumps when I hear them now.
I can remember watching American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan, Shindig, and other TV shows in living black and white hoping to hear the latest hot song and wondering who would be on the show that week. Of course, it was a life changing experience when I first saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but it was also eye opening the first time I saw the Four Tops too.
I know many of you were fans of Motown back in the day yourself and probably have not listened to any of those songs in years. Guilty myself. It was last week when I was watching a special on Motown that made me remember how much I really loved the music from that era and that label.
So, to help you remember a different time and place, I have put together my list of favorite Motown artists, and the songs that are my favorite from them. This list could have been 80 artists long but I limited it to the founding groups, along with a favorite from shortly after that in the early 1970's. I hope you will enjoy this trip down memory lane.
9. The Jackson 5 - Honestly, if Michael Jackson wasn't a part of this group, they likely don't make my list, but how do you deny one of the greatest pop singers of all time his place, along with his brothers, in Motown history. The fact that they come in at number nine shows the depth of this list. For me, "ABC" will always be the song I think of for these brothers.
8. The Commodores - This group was pouring out hit songs, and then Lionel Ritchie became a superstar, and owned the music industry for about three years. They easily transitioned from their soul roots, to disco, and back to soul, like transferring busses in Chicago. I could have picked about three songs but this was always one of my favorites, "Night Shift". (https://youtu.be/FrkEDe6Ljqs)
7. Stevie Wonder - When you talk about prolific songwriters you must include Stevie Wonder. He has had ten number one hit songs in his career. TEN! You get a plaque on the Hollywood Walk of Fame if you had a successful Snapple commercial and this guy has ten number one hits. And he's only seventh on this list. Clearly, I had a few to choose from, but there is something about "I Just Called to say I love You" that always made me tap my toes.
6. Marvin Gaye - If God had a voice it would be Marvin Gaye. We'll never know what might have been for his career, because of his unfortunate murder at his fathers hands, but it is safe to say he would have had many, many, more number one hit songs. If you don't get stirred at hearing Marvin Gaye sing then you have no soul. There is no doubt "What's Going On" is my choice for him. (https://youtu.be/fPkM8F0sjSw)
5. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - Smokey Robinson was so important to the success of Motown that Gordy made him his number two in charge. He not only had multiple hits with the Miracles, but he had many on his own also. What made him indispensable for Gordy was his ability to work with the other artists as producer, writer, and director where he shaped the Motown sound into what we all know and love. For me "Tears of a Clown" will always be the Miracles song. (https://youtu.be/ZaMX0Cs5Bc4)
4. The Four Tops - The first time I ever heard of Motown it was because of The Four Tops. Besides being one of the greatest groups to ever come out of there, they are the only original group to never have changed personnel. Lawrence Payton, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir remained together their entire careers. If hearing this song doesn't make you want to get up and dance then check your pulse. "I Can't Help Myself" (https://youtu.be/88QIYTnOELc)
3. Martha and the Vandellas - This was the first superstar group to come out of Motown for Gordy and they just kept making hit records for years. If you like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other rock and roll groups you can thank Martha and the Vandellas because they were the inspiration for all of them. In fact, most rock groups have covered their songs at one time. Go look at their song list and you can see songs that became hits for another supergroup later in history. These last three artists were impossible to narrow down to one song, but for the Vandellas it will always be for me, "Nowhere To Run". (https://youtu.be/SbBcL0ztBww)
1B. The Temptations - How do you pick between your mother and father, or brother or sister for favorite. It's impossible so I decided to make them 1A and 1B, and it could go either way. I was already a huge fan before I saw them in the round at the Golf Mill Theater in 1973. After that night it was over for me, they would always be in my top five artists of all time. When you think of Motown 99.9% of the world thinks of The Temptations. They hold the distinction of earning the very first Grammy for Motown ever. They were a hit making machine and everything they put out went to the top of the charts. How do you pick your favorite song? It's impossible, but "Ball of Confusion" remains as relevant today as it did when they first released it. (https://youtu.be/D5P7x4vh_ts)
1A. The Supremes - Before girl power was all the rage in the music industry, there were the most powerful girls on earth creating number one hit after number one hit. The Supremes hold the title of most number one hits for Motown, of all time, with12 Billboard #1's. They are unrivaled as a musical force. For any boy, who was in his early teens back in the 1960's, and says he didn't have a crush on one, or all, of them, he is lying. Watching these old clips still makes my heart flutter. And any girl that didn't dream of being Diana Ross, well, there isn't any girl that didn't dream that. Along with the Temptations, The Supremes reigned over Motown. They were the face and voice of Motown and they still are the first groups you think of when someone says Motown. I don't believe I ever didn't like any song they ever recorded. (How's that for a disastrous English sentence.) Picking a song for you to hear came down to which one could I listen to over and over again, and so the winner was "Love Child". (https://youtu.be/hIwdyIpmg-I)
I hope you enjoyed this romp down memory lane with me, and make sure to take the time to listen to other tracks by each artist when you go to their link I've supplied. It will make you remember that summer day, laying on the grass in the backyard, listening to AM on your transistor radio.