You know the names: Diana Ross, Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight, Mary Wells, etc., etc., but how much do you know about the roster of Motown’s other female talent? There’s no question the more popular women of Motown have made a huge impact in the industry. However, there are recordings that have – sadly – languished in the vaults.
The world will never know how many female artists, who were a part of the famed label, would have found their stride if all the stars were more aligned. In the meantime, here’s a little backdrop on some of these lesser-known artists who deserve a bit of recognition.
A Stax singer and longtime Ray Charles collaborator, Mable John was the first solo female signed to Motown in 1959. Opening for artists like Billie Holiday, she was the older sister of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted R&B singer Little Willie John. She also worked at the Friendship Mutual Insurance Agency, a company run by Bertha Gordy, the mother of Berry Gordy, then an aspiring music producer. John recorded blues singles like “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” and “Take Me” alongside the Temptations. However, Motown would soon rule the charts with R&B and soul hits. John, a blues artist, left the label in 1965 and told The Detroit News, “Motown was just turning so pop, and I knew I wasn’t pop, but the writers were writing for success.” Mabel John died in 2022 at age 91.
Standing six feet tall and bursting with vocal power, Chris Clark was Motown’s blue-eyed soul, blonde bombshell. Signed to the label in 1966, Clark released five singles and two albums, with only one 45, “Love’s Gone Bad,” getting some notice on the charts. Clark went on to become a successful screenwriter and photographer. She later co-wrote the screenplay for the 1972 motion picture Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, which earned Clark an Academy Award nomination.
Hattie Littles signed a contract early in the company’s history and released one single in 1963. It wasn’t a hit, but her voice was so fierce the company kept trying. The Mississippi native remained with the label for four years and recorded ten singles but most remained unreleased before her death in 2000. Only one, “Your Love Is Wonderful” / “Here You Come”, both sides written and produced by Berry Gordy Jr. – was released. Littles died of a heart attack in 2000. She was 63.
She may have signed on as an artist (not releasing a single record) but Sylvia Moy’s true calling was that of a gifted songwriter. Her co-writing work helped save Stevie Wonder’s career starting with his first hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and followed by “I Was Made To Love Her,” and “My Cherie Amour.” The first woman at the label to write and produce for Motown acts, Moy also wrote hit songs for Gladys Knight & The Pips, Junior Walker & The All Stars, and more. She also wrote theme songs for several television shows and was involved in writing film music. Moy died of complications from pneumonia in 2017. She was 78.
There are several long-forgotten or unknown stories involving Motown’s “other” artists. For example, many recognize Valerie Simpson as the successful songwriting half (along with late husband Nick Ashford) of Ashford and Simpson. But during the early 70s, she also launched a solo career with two albums Exposed (1971) and Valerie Simpson (1972).
Barbara Randolph had a career in movies and records. She appeared in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, alongside Sidney Poitier in 1967 and released two records in 1967 and ’68 on Motown’s Soul imprint: “I Got A Feeling” and “Can I Get A Witness.” Randolph was Marvin Gaye’s duet partner when Tammi Terrell fell ill and was reportedly considered a replacement for Florence Ballard with The Supremes in 1967.
Although Kim Weston signed to Motown in the early 60s and cut three singles for Tamla imprint, her biggest hit was “It Takes Two,” a duet with Marvin Gaye as his second singing partner. You may not be familiar with the name Sondra “Blinky” Williams but you’ve likely heard her voice. Signed to Motown in 1968, her career never took off even when partnered with Edwin Starr (“War”). Nevertheless, this protegee of gospel great Andre Crouch would later provide the voice for the TV series Good Times theme.
Brenda Holloway, who cut a couple of singles at age 16, is another artist who signed onto Gordy’s Tamla label. She co-wrote “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” along with Berry Gordy and her sister Patrice. It became not only one of the best Motown records of 1967, but it was also one of their publishing arm’s biggest money-makers. The song was famously covered by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Lou Rawls, and many others. With so much attention being given to the talents of fellow female singers at the label and after not receiving “increased focus on her” as requested in a letter written to Gordy, Holloway pretty much retired from music’s front line at age 22.
One of its least-known artists, Sherry Taylor is another early Motown sign-on with only one single under her belt.
Photo: Barbara Randolph, 1962 (publicity photo/public domain)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…
Thank you for this great piece. I knew some, but not all, of these artists and have their works in my collection. It’ll be good to add music by those to whom I was introduced in your article!
How about Kiki Dee? She’s the only white female singer ever signed to Motown.
Chris Clark?…Did u read the article?😅
Thankyou for this ! I know of Mable John and Kim Weston, thanks for informing me of the other unsung women of Motown.
WOW! I never knew that! I LOVE KIKI DEE, especially her duet with Elton John “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”! Many days I find myself singing it, loving the Orchestration in it!
Fascinating article Sharon. Many names that I was not aware of! Great stuff.
How about Kiki Dee? She’s the only white female singer to ever be signed to Motown.
No she wasn’t, Chris Clark and Teena Marie was the others. Kiki and Chris was before Teena of course
Great article!! I love hearing about the so-called underdogs.
It seems like Mr Gordy was like if you’re not on my team, I’ll stall or stop your careers,I wonder did he put his name on songs that he had just a couple of words on the true songwriters work,he seemed like he was a tyranny, that ripped everyone off.
You mean like Jay Z did when he was the President of Def jam.
Good article. You left off Carolyn Crawford “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)”, “Forget About Me”. At the age of 14 Carolyn Crawford won a talent contest in Detroit in 1963 and the first prize was recording contract with Motown. Her first recording was “Forget About Me” which she wrote at the age of 14. Her second release was “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down”) written by Smokey Robinson. She later left Motown and later joined Hamilton Bohannon and his band. Carolyn Crawford is the voice of Bohannon’s hit “Let’s Start The Dance”
WOW! I never knew that she had a Bohannon connection. Thank you Beverly!
In the song “Smiling Faces” credited to The Temptations and the Undisputed Truth the lyrics reference “A Smile is just a frown turned upside down” My Friend!
Thank you Beverly, for acknowledging Carolyn Crawford’s contribution to Motown. I discovered FORGET ABOUT ME in a box of my mom’s old 45’s when I was about 10 (I’m 56 now). I played the grooves off both sides and grew to love the other sides that Carolyn released during her tenure at Motown. She’s a really nice lady. I sent her a message on Facebook a couple of years ago and she responded and was gracious and kind.
Carolyn Crawford was also in Hodges Smith James and Crawford.
I’m just surprised you didn’t mention Shaun “Stoney” Murphy.. she and Meatloaf were signed and did a record for Motown.. although Meatloaf everyone pretty much would eventually know.. people have heard Shaun Murphy’s vocals on recordings from Clapton to Bob Seger . Including 15 years as the front woman for Little Feat after George left.. she’s still not well known but to locals in Detroit.. whenever she comes to town.. those that know her from being with Seger and Clapton… Always come out to see her perform.. some of the best pipes you’ll ever hear!
Kim Weston was one of the best at Motown and can still sing at 83
Yeah – it’s obvious you didn’t know about Barbara Randolph either who had a nice cameo in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and also the daughter of _____ Randolph who played on Amos and Andy. Motown signed her on. These are some things you know if you’re a lifelong Historian on Motown and are not exploiting for a story. Also Barbara McNair, Carolyn Crawford … etc.
If Chris Clark *Love’s Gone Bad was not a hit it has got to be one of the most spectacular tracks in Motown label history. It has all the ingredients. I bought the 45 when it was new
Liz Lands was probably the most talented singer at Motown; her “Keep Me” features The Temptations on background and she sings (uncredited) on a Mary Wells tune whose title escapes me at this time. She had the vocal range of an opera singer.
Great article .they should of considered signing Barbara mercer
I have read Many.
stories about motown, It’s one thing to be ripped off by white people. But to be ripped off by your own, So many young black people do not trust each other. This is a perfect example. Why should you?
Gordy is a jerk he always was You should hear the stories, and I worked with one of his right hand men boy let me tell you!
But he gave us Motown. Besides read any biog about anyone in showbiz and most are actually awful people. Thank gd for their talent, otherwise as just people you would not want to give them the time of day!
Chris Clark allegedly was Gordy’s answer to Dusty Springfield
What about Teena Marie?
Patrice Holloway Brenda’s sis also recorded unsuccessfully for Motown, but later became one of the popular cartoon series Josie & the Pussycats.
The mighty mighty Dusty Springfield did small stint at Motown.She came with great expectations,she had love Motown with a passion, her favorite singer was Martha Reeves.She had dreamed about being a Motown artist but was met with narrow mindedness.
Wow did not know that. I wonder if there’s anything in the vaults by Dusty?! Thank gd then for Memphis and Philadephia that gave us great Dusty soul!
Remember some of them. One name you mentioned was Brenda Holloway. Knew the song “before you break my heart” Aka Reconsider. From my northern soul days.
Mrs. Sharon Oliver,
Looking at your picture you look so familiar. Are you from the Boogie Down Bronx, or anywhere near?
By the way, I will read your work but I was sort of excited, attempting to contact you, seemed more appropriate for the moment.
Let me know if you are a native from the NYC milieu.