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)
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