What are the best songs of all time from the Detroit years of Motown Records? If I asked 100 random people that question, I would come up with one hundred different responses. Obviously, there are no definitive answers with that type of inquiry.
My latest music blog message came after I read an article from USA Today online on 2/9/21, called “Motown hits: The 50 best and essential songs. This piece was a reprint of a story from the Detroit Free Press by Brian McCollum.
While McCollum listed a total of 50 songs in the article, I am only going to post the Top 10 singles from Motown’s Detroit era (1959-1972), as selected by the Detroit Free Press and its readers to commemorate the label’s 50th anniversary.
- ABC—Jackson 5 (1970)
- Ain’t No Mountain High Enough—Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)
- Ain’t That Peculiar—Marvin Gaye (1965)
- Ain’t Too Proud to Beg—The Temptations. (1966)
- Ask the Lonely—The Four Tops (1965)
- Baby I Need Your Loving—The Four Tops (1964)
- Baby Love—The Supremes (1964)
- Back in My Baby’s Arms—The Supremes (1965)
- Bernadette—The Four Tops (1967)
- Come See About Me—The Supremes (1964)
From my music collection: 45 rpm single of “The Tears of a Crown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
The problem that I see with the above listing: Eight out of the ten songs are by just three artists. There are 3 songs by both the Supremes and the Four Tops, while Marvin Gaye has two selections. That is a lopsided list of Motown artists and songs.
There are no Stevie Wonder, Miracles, or Gladys Knight tunes listed? Same with Martha and the Vandellas? In my humble opinion, the Detroit Free Press could have come up with a different set of metrics to better enhance their Top 10 listing of core Motown songs.
My dissatisfaction with the Detroit Free Press listing caused me to ponder: What do I consider to be the best Motown songs from the early days? You probably have guessed already that I have come up with my own listing of greatest Motown singles.
I will be counting down my top 20 top Motown artists and songs. Before I share my selections, I want to give a brief history of Motown Records from the Detroit years (1959-1972).
Barry Gordy Jr. founded the company during 1959 which was known then as Tamla Records. The name Motown was incorporated the next year in 1960, and was a tribute to Detroit, which was known as “Motor City” due to it being the auto manufacturing capital of America.
Motown helped to define “Soul Music” during the early 60s, with Black artists crossing over to audiences on Top 40 radio. From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
Songs of note during the first years of Motown: The Miracles “Shop Around” was the first crossover hit for Tamla Records during 1960 and reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, Motown had its first number 1 record on the Billboard chart with “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes.
In addition to the Tamla name, there were a number of other sub record labels that were distributed under the Motown banner. Gordy, Soul, Rare Earth and V.I.P. were other prominent sub recording labels associated with Motown music during the Detroit years.
The showcasing of vocal talent for Motown songs was enhanced by a group of session musicians based out of Detroit: The Funk Brothers. These instrumentalists are credited with playing on a majority of Motown hit songs between 1959 and 1972. The excellent musicianship of the Funk Brothers helped to create “Motown Magic.”
For this music blog message, I will countdown what I consider to be the best 20 Motown songs by 20 different artists. Here are the rules and criteria that I set forth for this musical exercise:
- I have selected 20 different songs by 20 artists.
- Of the 20 artists, only Marvin Gaye has two songs. (first a duet with female singer and the second a solo song).
- Only Motown artists are listed. That means superb soul artists like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke are not included on my countdown.
- I deem each of my selections to be culturally, historically, aesthetically significant, meaningful or relevant.
- All 20 songs are among my favorites from the time period of 1961-1971.
My reference for chart performances of the 20 songs on the countdown comes from “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits” by Joel Whitburn. Way before the advent of the Internet, Whitburn’s book has been my main reference guide and I consider it to be the “bible” for Top 40 music information. I still proudly still own a hard copy of this excellent book here in 2021.
And as Casey Kasem used to say on his American Top 40 weekly broadcasts, on with the countdown:
20. Please Mr. Postman—The Marvelettes 1961
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #1 R&B.
First crossover number 1 song for Motown. On Billboard Hot 100: December 1961.
Marvin Gaye played drums on tune. The Beatles and the Carpenters both had notable cover versions of the song.
19. My Guy—Mary Wells. 1964
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #1 R&B, 7th Biggest Songs of 1964
Written and produced by Smokey Robinson. First Motown female solo singer to reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Biggest hit song during the career for Mary Wells.
18. It’s a Shame—The Spinners. 1970
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #14 Hot 100, #3 R&B, 76th Biggest Hit of 1970
Biggest charting song for Spinners on Motown label. Co-written by Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright and Lee Garrett. Group went on to have 14 Top 40 hits. Billboard Hot 100 between 1972 and 1980.
17. My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)—David Ruffin 1969
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #9 Hot 100, #2 R&B, 97th Biggest Song of 1969
David Ruffin was a former member of the Temptations. First hit as a solo artist. The song with its melody and intro is based upon the classical music piece “Frühlingslied” by Felix Mendelssohn.
16. War—Edwin Starr. 1970
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #3 R&B, 5th Biggest Song of 1970
One of the best anti-war protest songs from the 20th Century. Edwin Starr earned a Grammy nomination for “War” in 1971. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame during 1999.
15. I Just Want to Celebrate—Rare Earth. 1971
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #7 Hot 100, #30 R&B, 66th Biggest Song of 1971
Blue eyed soul. Rare Earth was the first all-white rock band signed to Motown. Barry Gordy created a subsidiary label called Rare Earth Records for the band. Had three Top 10 hits on Billboard Hot 100 during 1970 and 1971.
14. What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)—Jr. Walker and the All Stars. 1969
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #4 Hot 100, #1 R&B, #20 Biggest Songs of 1969
Excellent tenor saxophone solos and vocals by Junior Walker. Other instrumentation by the All-Stars with members of The Funk Brothers and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Last Top 10 hit for this Motown band.
From my music collection: 45 rpm single of “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars.
13. Smiling Faces Sometimes—The Undisputed Truth. 1971
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #2 R&B, #3 Hot 100: 14th biggest hit of 1971
Psychedelic soul trio consisting of Joe Harris, Billie Calvin and Brenda Evans. The lyrics of the song are about “back stabbing” friends and the consequences of those actions. The Funk Brothers session band provides outstanding musicianship and the singers maintains excellent harmonies on this melodic tune.
12. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted—Jimmy Ruffin. 1966
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #6 B&B, #7 Hot 100
Jimmy Ruffin was the older brother of the Temptations lead-singer David Ruffin. One of Motown’s most enduring songs from the 60s. Was Jimmy Ruffin’s biggest record during his career.
11. This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)—The Isley Brothers. 1966
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #6 R&B, #12 Hot 100, 98th biggest song of 1966
The Isley Brothers only major hit while on the Motown label. Group went on to have 9 Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1980. Rod Stewart and Ronald Isley peaked at number 10 on Billboard Hot 100 in 1990, with a cover of this classic Motown song.
10. Dancing in the Street—Martha and the Vandellas. 1964
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #2 Hot 100, 17th biggest song of 1964.
Rolling Stone magazine ranks this Motown tune as the “Best Summer Song of all Time.” The song also is considered by some as a civil rights anthem. Martha Reeves invites listeners where ever they may live, to celebrate, have a good time and to “Dance in the Street.”
9. I Heard It Through the Grapevine—Gladys Knight and the Pips 1967
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 R&B, #2 Hot 100
As a response to Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect”, Gladys Knight used the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to record a funk version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Knight’s number 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 happened a year before Marvin Gaye’s 1968 number one smash cover of “Grapevine.” The song is a true Motown soul classic!
8. Bernadette—The Four Tops. 1967
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #3 R&B, #4 Hot 100, 82nd biggest song of 1967
One of Motown’s greatest bass lines is found on this song. Levi Stubbs provides outstanding vocals on the Four Tops last top 10 hit of the 60s. A false ending and Stubbs shouting “Bernadette” creates a memorable lasting impression on this wonderful tune.
7. The Tracks of My Tears—Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 1965
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #2 R&B, #16 Hot 100. 78th biggest songs of 1965
Co-written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, and Marv Tarplin, “The Tracks of My Tears” is among the most decorated songs in Motown history. The song has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is considered one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century.
6. Stop! In the Name of Love—The Supremes 1965
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #2 R&B. 20th biggest songs of 1965
The Supremes are the most successful Motown artist of all time. The trio of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballad were golden with their vocal harmonies on this hit. “Stop! In the Name of Love” was the 4th of 5 consecutive number 1 songs for America’s top girl group during 1964 and 1965.
5. I Want You Back—The Jackson 5. 1969/1970
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #1 R&B, 28th biggest songs of 1970.
Debut single from the Gary, Indiana Jackson family. It was the first of four consecutive singles to reach number 1 on Billboard Hot 100 during 1970. “I Want You Back” is known for the killer bass line played by Wilton Felder. Many music critics proclaim the tune has one of the greatest chord progressions in pop music history.
4. Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours—Stevie Wonder. 1970
Peak Position Billboard Charts: #1R&B, #3 Hot 100 31st biggest songs of 1970
Opening up this pleasing toe-tapping tune is the distinctive sitar riff performed by Eddie Willis. Stevie Wonder produced his own song, and it was his first composition to feature 3 female backup singers. It was the beginning of Wonder’s influence as a musical pioneering maestro during the 70s decade.
3. What’s Going On—Marvin Gaye. 1971
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 R&B, #2 Hot 100, 21st biggest song of 1971
1971 was a troublesome time in America. Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious song “What’s Going On” accurately captured the pulse of turmoil that prevailed in our country. The message was relevant 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the issues of this song still hold true in 2021.
“What’s Going On” is among the best and most loved tunes in Motown musical history. Rolling Stone ranks it at number 4 on their, “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” listing. Numerous other music publications place the tune among the best songs from the 20th Century. The “What’s Going On” single remains a crown jewel with Marvin Gaye’s solo discography projects.
2. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough—Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell 1967
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #3 R&B, #19 Hot 100, 87th biggest song of 1967
Coming in at number 2 on my countdown, is what I consider to be the best Motown duet of all time: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. With instrumentation by the Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Terrell/Gaye duo have a perfect pop song.
The song was written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Although Diana Ross’ cover version of Ashford/Simpson’s song was a number 1 crossover hit during 1970, I prefer the rich vocal harmonies of Terrell and Gaye’s original.
Whenever I need a Motown music fix, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is excellent medicine for my listening pleasure.
1. My Girl—The Temptations 1965
Peak Position on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, #1 R&B, 10th biggest song of 1965
Written and produced by the Miracles members Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, “My Girl” by the Temptations is my number 1 selection as “Best Motown Song” from the Detroit years.
David Ruffin was picked by Smokey Robinson to sing lead vocals on the tune, which became the first number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for the Temptations. “My Girl” is now considered a signature song for the vocal group.
The Temptations song “My Girl” is one of Motown’s most successful and well-known singles. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and placed in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress during 2017.
Without a doubt, the feel-good pop classic by the Temptations is my favorite Motown song of all time. “My Girl” is “Motown Magic” for me!
Now that I have humbly submitted my thoughts on the best songs of Motown, I am curious to find out your opinion. What do you feel are the greatest singles with the Detroit era of Motown Records? I look forward reading your comments on this topic.
I would also challenge you to come up with your own favorite top Motown songs music list. After compiling your own listing, maybe you can create your own playlist of favorite songs with this Motown category? On Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Amazon or any other music platform outlet?
I cherish and fondly remember the music of Motown during my youth. It was and still is magic to me. I leave you with lyrics to another legendary Motown magical song: “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. Rock on!
“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
Music knows that it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won’t quit”
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