Motown favourites

I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for more than a fortnight, but more pressing matters of relevance obviously got in the way, so please belatedly indulge me if you share a passion for Motown.

UK viewers might have seen The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song on ITV a couple of weekends ago. Following similar programmes featuring the songs of Elvis (‘Always On My Mind’, apparently, is the UK’s favourite) and Abba (sorry, don’t know or care and wouldn’t have watched if you’d paid me to), it was your typical countdown featuring performance clips, promotional material and interviews from those closely involved and those in awe of Motown Records, founded by Berry Gordy in 1959; Mica Paris was one such respectful contributor sharing her thoughts and memories.

Being a bit of a geek at times, with a fondness for making lists, I grabbed my pen, reminded myself how to hold and then use it, and hurriedly scribbled down the songs I expected to feature in the first ten minutes or so. Being ITV, there were soon commercials so I needn’t have hurried.

I don’t know how exactly voting took place for the programme beyond ‘a representative panel of viewers from across the country,’ which, if you think about it, could mean almost anything. Possibly they were asked to rank twenty songs that had already been chosen for the sake of marketing convenience in order of preference. The obligatory album that accompanied the programme has forty songs on it, so maybe these people got to choose twenty from forty. Either way, the producers, or whoever, chose twenty fine songs to talk about.

I had no idea that Edwin Starr had lived, and is buried, in the Midlands. (Now’s as good a time as any, I feel, to let him remind us all that war is good for “absolutely nothing”. If only our leaders would listen.)

And just how prolific is Smokey Robinson, writing, performing and producing so many of Motown’s finest records? A harder exercise than this would be to list the songs in which he has had no involvement.

Anyway, the list.

I’d expected the predictable – and got it – but still, what a list of twenty era-defining songs you can cheerfully bop your head and pop your fingers to. It’s not as if the following could ever have been left out.

20. Jimmy Mack – Martha & The Vandellas
19. Uptight (Everything’s Alright) – Stevie Wonder
18. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
17. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
16. My Cherie Amour – Stevie Wonder
15. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops
14. My Guy – Mary Wells
13. The Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
12. Reach Out (I’ll Be There) – The Four Tops
11. I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
10. Stop! In the Name Of Love – The Supremes
09. War – Edwin Starr
08. Baby Love – The Supremes
07. I’ll Be There – The Jackson 5
06. The Tears Of a Clown – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
05. My Girl – The Temptations
04. Dancing In the Street – Martha & The Vandellas
03. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Diana Ross
02. What Becomes Of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
01. I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Timeless classics indeed. I’ll be amazed if twenty of this decade’s songs, or twenty from this and the last two decades, will still be enjoyed fifty years from now. It actually makes me glad that I’ll be dead by then.

So anyway, I got to thinking about what they’d left out, absolutely sure that there’s another list of twenty deserved of mention. And no, I didn’t cheat by looking at the tracklist.

Allowing all of Motown’s many subsidiary labels…

First, Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, the label’s first major hit, in 1959 – that has to be included. If we’re allowed another handful of songs from the artists that so dominate the above list and brought the most success to the label, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ needs to be there. As does ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me’ from Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Allowing Martha Reeves & The Vandellas another (they were one of David’s Desert Island Discs, let’s not forget; and you can download this BBC radio programme from 2003, if you haven’t already, as well as lose at least an hour to the archive by looking at who else has chosen which song), I choose ‘In My Lonely Room’. Marvin Gaye’s poignant ‘Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ makes me feel just as inflamed and ashamed yet definitely inspired as each of the previous hundred times I’ve probably played it.

‘What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?’

There’s not nearly enough from The Four Tops, so there has to be space made for ‘Bernadette’ and ‘It’s the Same Old Song’ – at least. To be fair, we should add two more from The Temptations: ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ and ‘Cloud Nine’, perhaps?

So often overlooked, let’s not omit The Spinners. I only wish it were possible to include their brilliantly titled ‘I Got Your Water Boiling, Baby (I’m Gonna Cook Your Goose)’ – just for the title, really, it’s not the greatest song ever recorded – but technically it was released on a label that had yet to be snapped up by Motown. Let’s have ‘We’re Gonna Be More Than Friends’ and ‘It’s a Shame’ instead.

Add also, please, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and perhaps also ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’ – by The Supremes. ‘ABC’ from The Jackson 5, too. The Contours should be there with ‘Do You Love Me’. I’d have to insist on ‘Needle In a Haystack’, by The Velvelettes, and ‘Please, Mr Postman’, by The Marvelettes. Great names.

The Isley Brothers’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)’ was one that I’d scribbled down in confident expectation. What a tune and what a shame it missed out to one or two lesser, in my opinion, tunes.

Excusing the poor grammar, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ is a must, along with ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ by The Elgins.

I’d also throw in Kim Weston’s ‘A Thrill a Moment’ and, as it possibly eclipses the Mary Wells original, Brenda Holloway’s ‘Operator’.

Although (always, always) favouring greatly the Sixties over the Seventies, and certainly anything that came later, I think there’s room for the Commodores and ‘Machine Gun’. Maybe even for Rick James and ‘Super Freak’. Definitely for ‘Upside Down’, by Diana Ross, and ‘Sir Duke’, by Stevie Wonder.

Anyone and anything else?

If you’re curious and allowed in your part of the world to view the video, you can watch The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song over at ITV.com during the next five days.

If you can’t, you can console yourself with a visit to the chatroom. It’ll be open tomorrow from 2pm (UK). Bring your dancing shoes.

34 comments

  1. KenF

    As an emerging teenager in the mid-late 60’s, Motown music was a particularly influential genre that I gravitated towards, as a lot of the lyrics in most of the songs at the time seemed to relate to the angst of my formative years (before I ‘matured’ and discovered the rock of the late 60’s & early 70’s).

    I still have three or four Motown Chartbusters albums stashed away, gathering dust. The silver cover of Volume 3 seemed quite avant garde back in the day.

    Such a topic presents another challenge to come up with an A to Z, of previously unmentioned songs, so here goes….

    Abraham, Martin & John – Marvin Gaye
    Ball Of Confusion – The Temptations
    Come See About Me – The Supremes
    Do What You Gotta Do – The Four Tops
    Endless Love – Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
    Forget Me Not – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
    Get Ready – The Temptations
    Heaven Help Us All – Stevie Wonder
    I’m Still Waiting – Diana Ross
    Keep On Truckin’ – Eddie Kendricks
    Love Child – Diana Ross & The Supremes
    Mickey’s Monkey – The Miracles (you already nicked all the classic M’s Fed)
    No Matter What Sign You Are – Diana Ross & The Supremes
    One Day In Your Life – Michael Jackson
    Part Time Lover – Stevie Wonder
    Quicksand – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
    Reflections – Diana Ross & The Supremes
    Still Water – The Four Tops
    Too Busy Thinking About My Baby – Marvin Gaye
    Up The Ladder To The Roof – The Supremes
    Velvelettes – These Things Will Keep Me Loving You Dear
    Walk In The Night – Jr. Walker & The All Stars
    Xceptional music emanated from Motown in the 60’s & 70’s
    You’re All I Need To Get By – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

    (Led) Zeppelin III succeeded Motown Chartbusters Volume 5, which preceded Atom Heart Mother at the top of the UK album charts in late 1970.

    Motown was such a prolific label, which consistently churned out hit after hit for decades. So many great songs. I feel blessed to have grown up with this music.

    P.S. 1st August = Yorkshire Day. I’m truly blessed and proud.

    • Michèle

      If cheating is allowed,

      J – ‘Jamie’ – Eddie Holland

      Or, as I read in the comments, Jackie Wilson? (Not sure he was a Motown singer though and I don’t know any of his songs.)

  2. Pavlov

    Wow! And Wow! again…

    Great topic and I must sheepishly confess that my immediate reaction was “where the heck is Percy Sledge in all of this?” until it dawned on me that he was with Atlantic.

    While not the first Motown hit that comes to mind, it certainly ‘grabs’ me every time I hear it, mostly moving me to tears (still after all these years) … Michael Jackson singing Ben!

    I’ll have to come back with more thoughts …

  3. Damian Cunningham

    I would have to put Gladys Knight at the top of my Motown list and very closely followed by Smokey Robinson.

    Midnight Train to Georgia
    Giving Up
    The Way We Were
    Everybody Needs Love
    A Closer Walk With Thee
    How Great Thou Art
    etc. etc.

    I’m sure it was Gladys who discovered the Jackson 5.

    Off topic, young lad next door has been playing Wish You Were Here all week. Has his window open so WYWH blasting out. He’s only 14, bless him. Reminds me of me when I first discovered Floyd all those years ago, but only seems like last summer.

    Kind regards
    Damian

    • FEd

      Only they left Motown in 1973, don’t forget, so some of those aren’t Motown songs at all. (I only know this because I had to check, also believing they were all on Motown or the Soul imprint.)

  4. Pete -Coventry

    Remembering singles I bought during the 1960’s included records like ‘Reflections’ – Diana Ross, ‘Reach Out’ – The Four Tops and many others.

    Almost every record collection I saw contained a Motown Chartbusters LP.

    I remember clearly, when my eldest daughter was born in 1986, I was just coming away from the hospital when ‘My Girl’ came on the car radio. I had to pull over, tears were streaming from my eyes.

  5. paul sexton

    #1. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours by Stevie Wonder

    Check out Michael McDonald’s Mowtown albums recorded a few years ago…he’s da man!

  6. Tim-c

    Being (probably) just a teeny bit younger than some of you, Motown passed me by a little bit in my formative years – I went straight onto the harder stuff and it’s only later on that I have learned a fuller appreciation for the talent and dare I say Soul of the Motown artists (and indeed not quite Motown artists for I am largely unaware of the niceties of record labels and production groups).

    It’s a testament to the fact that they are very much part of our musical furniture that having never really sought any of them out, I am pretty familiar with all of that top 20 list and quite a few of the alternatives. My critique tends to be that the Motown sound is strong on melody but due to production values of the day then all sound a little thin, even tinny, to me. Maybe I should buy a better stereo but I sometimes hanker for someone to remake these with a bit more beef (once Endless River and the next solo album are out of the way perhaps … 🙂 ). Of course many good songs we heard subsequently turned out to be Motown covers and although better produced they did tend to lack that soul and socio-political context that much of the better stuff had.

    It would be nice to think that Motown played its part in demonstrating just how wrong headed and dumb ‘White America’ was in that turbulent civil rights fighting, Vietnam-addled, convention-breaking decade.

    • FEd

      It would be nice to think that Motown played its part in demonstrating just how wrong headed and dumb ‘White America’ was in that turbulent civil rights fighting, Vietnam-addled, convention-breaking decade.

      Indeed it would.

  7. Drew M.

    Rod Stewart – The Motown Song.

    Not sure if Rod Stewart is exactly Motown, so the tune may be different.

    I know ‘It’s A Shame’, by The Spinners is a Motown classic. And Dusty Guitar by Ned Miller, is not.

  8. Drew M.

    You might know this fella… Syd Barrett, and his late 60s group. They came up with this:

    “In The Beechwoods” [ Backing Track ]
    Take Four

    Described as “Some thing that we did after (See) “Emily” (Play)” by Nick Mason, on the Beachwood tapes this Motown-ish stomper still hold a lot of the variable chords and melted rhythms that pinpointed the Floyd’s direction. It’s rather glorious if not cyclical but would have sounded fantastic played out live.

  9. frank

    Motown, all wonderful songs.

    To the late Louis Armstrong: Happy Birthday. He wasn’t Motown but could he Jazz it up or what!

  10. Thomas O'Connell

    How about Under the Boardwalk by the Drifters….

    Take Care,
    Thomas

  11. Suzy Smith

    That time era brings back many fond, care-free memories of a childhood filled with hope of a better tomorrow with the Motown music playing the soundtrack.

    It was rich with emotion.

    I always enjoy KenF’s lists. Always informative. Of course, most of the songs have been mentioned.
    But “Dancing in the Street” can never be mentioned enough no matter who performs it. The lyrics has such positive energy to it that it just makes you want to dance. And that is good.

  12. Suzy Smith

    This blog made me curious about my old 45rpm collection I started with babysitting money I earned beginning at age ten. So I went to my storage unit to see what I could see of what I still have with the Motown label.

    I found “Can’t Hurry Love” by Diana Ross. I still enjoy that song immensely even though it has been a long time sense I have heard it.

    The other records I have collected have been mentioned. Lots of great music.

    “Dancing in the Street” is still one of the most up lifting songs. I think, if I remember correctly, a Mr. Cochran does it too and does it well.

  13. Marcus Buick

    One of my favorite bands, The Isley Brothers were on Motown. Good production values too!

    My favorite version of ‘Dancing In The Street’ is a live take by the Grateful Dead.

    • Marcus Buick

      Regarding Motown production values, I just noticed this old Guardian article in the archives. It’s kind of a shitty read though.

    • FEd

      The Return of Bruno, ‘…an eclectic gathering of R&B music sung by Willis, with backing musicians including Booker T. Jones, Ruth Pointer and The Temptations.’

      Honestly, I did not know that Bruce Willis released two albums in the 1980s. Wow.

      And he released a version of ‘Under the Boardwalk’, which got to No. 2 in the UK.

      Own up, who knew that?

  14. Damian Cunningham

    Off to Henley Friday. Rewind the 80s. Staying in a yurt with a squirt.

  15. ash

    I love Motown. 🙂 Anything anybody said, yes, I love it.

    I think I got my love of saxophone playing from Jr Walker and The All Stars, anything by them but this is one of my favourites – Roadrunner. 🙂

    What girl didn’t love Jimmy Ruffin, Forever My Love?

    The Funk Brothers should be mentioned in any conversation about Tamla Motown because, and I quote,
    “The role of the Funk Brothers is described in Paul Justman’s 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, based on Allan Slutsky’s book of the same name. The opening titles claim that the Funk Brothers have “played on more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.” (Wiki.)

    I didn’t know about The Funk Brothers till that film. Of course their music is very, very familiar. 🙂

    Diana Ross and the Supremes were absolutely incredible, I loved everything they did. Ooooooooooooh, Baby Love.

    The Four Tops, Can’t Help Myself.

    I saw that programme you were on about Fed.

    ash

  16. Thomas O'Connell

    I just remembered another great song and I wondered if you have heard this song Fed, Angel Baby by Rosie and The Originals?

    Take care,
    Thomas

    • FEd

      It doesn’t ring any bells, but let me see if I can find it…

      They don’t make them like that any more, do they?

  17. Michèle

    Re Marvin Gaye’s poignant ‘Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)

    “What about this overcrowded Land
    How much more abuse from man can she stand ?”

    1971, I think?

    I heard on the radio that today 19 August 2014 is ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ (the day when human demand for the year on the planet exceeds what it can regenerate).

    According to Wikipedia,

    Year – Overshoot Date:

    1987 – December 19
    1990 – December 7
    1995 – November 21
    2000 – November 1
    2005 – October 20
    2007 – October 26
    2008 – September 23
    2009 – September 25
    2010 – August 21
    2011 – September 27
    2012 – August 22
    2013 – August 20
    2014 – August 19

    Will we one day learn from our mistakes?

    • FEd

      How depressing.

      To answer what was probably a rhetorical question: no, I don’t think we’ll ever learn. Too many of us still want to keep on over-consuming and over-indulging, content to watch idiots drill, dig, dump, frack and pave over everything green and beautiful.

  18. Damian Cunningham

    Enjoyed Henley, great atmosphere, great music i.e. Mike and the Mechanics and was gobsmacked when they played a wee bit of Genesis.

    Wonder if David would do next year.

    Damian