Broadcasting, Music, Music Countdowns, Radio, Retro Rock

Motown Magic Detroit Years: 20 Best Artists and Songs 1961-1971

Photo above by Julianne Woodson

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.

From my music collection: Diana Ross & the Supremes Greatest Hits vinyl record album.

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.

  1. ABC—Jackson 5 (1970)
  2. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough—Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)
  3. Ain’t That Peculiar—Marvin Gaye (1965)
  4. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg—The Temptations. (1966)
  5. Ask the Lonely—The Four Tops (1965)
  6. Baby I Need Your Loving—The Four Tops (1964)
  7. Baby Love—The Supremes (1964)
  8. Back in My Baby’s Arms—The Supremes (1965)
  9. Bernadette—The Four Tops (1967)
  10. 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.

From my music collection: The Best of the Four Tops CD

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.

From my music collection: Jackson 5 Greatest Hits vinyl record album.

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.”

From my music collection: 45 rpm singles “I Know (I’m Losing You)” from the Temptations & Rare Earth

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.

From my music collection: 45 rpm single of “I Just Want To Celebrate” by Rare Earth

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.

From my music collection: The Undisputed Truth CD with song “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”

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.

From my music collection: CD cover of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.

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!

From my record collection: 45 rpm singles of “My Girl” and “Psychedelic Shack” by the Temptations.

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?

Photo of a Motown album sleeve from my personal record collection.

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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14 thoughts on “Motown Magic Detroit Years: 20 Best Artists and Songs 1961-1971

  1. Wayne Alexander says:

    Great blog post! I agree with your rankings. Something I didn’t know was that Wilton Felder did the bass work on the Jackson 5 “I Want You Back”. I enjoyed his work with the Crusaders and Joe Sample.

    • Bernard Johnson says:

      WOW What a wonderful post. I agree with your comment on the Detroit Free Press Top 10 with only 3 Artists. Reading your Blog, I reminisced reading the entire article. I’ll pick my favorites but it’s real hard to have a #1 Favorite. Some of my most memorable are: “Tears of a Clown” Smoky Robinson and the Miricles – My grandmother bough me a small reel to reel tape recorder and that was the 1st song I recorded by putting the recorder up to a radio. (70’s). The Temps had so many songs. I do remember going to Buckroe Beach, riding a roller coaster and the song playing was “Cloud Nine” cause the Coaster went wayyyy up in the sky. Loved all the their songs after that. “Aint no woman like the one I got” Four Tops. The title speaks for itself. The Jackson 5 had so many. “Stop the Love you Save” would be my top one because that was a song many local groups would try to emulate both singing and stepping. Here are my 5 favorites.

      5. It’s a Shame – Spinners

      4. I Heard it Through the Grapevine- Gladys Knight and the Pips

      3. My Cheri Amour – Stevie Wonder

      2. I can’t get next to you – Temps

      1. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough- Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell

  2. Terrie Martin says:

    I like this, but what about the Temptations song..”Just my imagination”? I thought it would have been a high ranking song also.
    I love these songs and we will NEVER have anything like them again.
    Good job Dave…the soundtrack of my early years for sure!

  3. Scott DeLong says:

    Great article Dave! I love each and every one of these – especially numbers 12-1! (although I would have found it very difficult to rank those in order.)

    The bassline on “Bernadette,” that raw bari sax solo in “This Old Heart of Mine,” and the intros to both “I Want You Back” and “Stop in the Name of Love” are some of my favorite instrumental moments in Motown.

  4. David H says:

    Really enjoyed this!! Such great music from a great era!! I never owned any Motown music except for the first few albums by Rare Earth. They were a big favorite in 8th grade!!

  5. Holly Parr says:

    Excellent post Dave! Great info, and I like your list. Watch out now, once I open up my Motown Book, it’s hard to stop me! Haha. I’m gonna have to double and triple up on some of the artists. I could probably list 30-40 of my favorites, but I’ll try for 10:
    10- “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – Stevie Wonder
    9- “Just My Imagination” – Temptations
    8- “You’re All I Need to get By” – Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell
    7- “It’s A Shame” – Spinners
    6- “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell
    5- “Have You Seen Her?” – Chilites
    4- “Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
    3- “I Can’t Get Next to You” – Temptations”
    2- “Reach Out” – Four Tops
    1- “My Girl” – Temptations

  6. The criteria for my top Motowns are a combination of just my favorite songs, ones that had the most influence or staying power, and ones that were groundbreaking. I’m including some forgotten B-sides and post-Detroit-era gems
    1. My Girl
    2. I Want You Back
    3. Heard it Through the Grapevine
    4. My Cheri Amour
    5. Just My Imagination
    6. I Can’t Get Next to You
    7. Shotgun
    8. War
    9. Superstition
    10. Papa Was a Rolling Stone

  7. Mary Lou Matteson says:

    Wonderful information about the era that surrounded my youth. I love the music and I loved the clothes and choreography the made it such a celebration. We truly are lucky to have so much great music to remember and still listen to.

  8. Laurie Russell says:

    Wonderful blog full of great history on Motown. There were so many fabulous songs that came from the Motown label that it is hard for me to compile a list of my favorites
    One song you did not include that is one of my favorites is Otis Redding’s Sittin on the Dock of the Bay, but I am not sure if this was recorded on the Motown label. Just a song that brings back such fond memories for me and one I have always loved. Thanks for this informative blog that took me down memory lane!

  9. Dave Hardie says:

    Great job DW ! As usual you put a lot of research and work into capturing the Magical years of Motown Music. The genius of Berry Gordy and the talent that he discovered will never be matched again. I am sure that you could have picked at least 50 songs without any trouble. It was a wonderful reminder of how great music used to be. It was your best blog yet out of so many outstanding ones.

  10. Jerry English says:

    Good stuff but is it “loosing you or losing you”. If it was loosing her then you might have to “Tighten’ Up” 🙂

  11. Vicky Zimmerman says:

    Bob Dylan called Smokey America’s Poet. I think the Detroit Free Press is wayoff. So many great songs not there. Honestly I was never a Supreme fan. Liked their music but never bought a record by them. My Mom had all of Smokey’s, Temps, 4 Tops and some early Marvin 45’s. her love for Motown slid down to me. Smokey, Holland Dozier Holland, and Norman Whitfield rolled those hits out one right after another. best consistent genre of music ever. Thanks for some of the info. I think Smokey should have had some songs on that Free Press list

  12. My Top 10

    Elgins – Heaven must have sent you

    Temptations – My Baby

    Edwin Starr – My weakness is you

    Jr Walker – Gotta Hold on to this feeling

    Stevie Wonder – Angie girl

    Four Tops – Ask the Lonely

    Diana Ross and Supremes – Someday we’ll be together

    Spinners – Truly Yours

    David Ruffin – Walk away from love

    Marvin Gaye – What’s going on

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