Few record companies can lay claim to such a storied history as Motown. Armed with borrowed cash and determination, founder Berry Gordy Jr. quickly turned a dream into a reality — and why not? Detroit had a knack for nurturing a hotbed of young talent eager to prove their worth.
Though careers for some acts like the Velvelettes (“Needle in a Haystack”) or Rare Earth (“I Just Want to Celebrate”) were short-lived at the company, the majority on Motown’s roster churned out hit after hit, year after year. Thanks to a deep collection of phenomenal musicians and songwriters, most artists were destined to leave a lasting mark.
So how do you select which songs are in the best 50, 20, or even 10? You basically can’t. Everyone has an opinion on what should be the top ten from Motown. But for the sake of argument, let’s narrow it down to a handful of classics and the fun reasons why they’re the best chart-toppers from Hitsville. In no particular order, here are our picks:
Dancing In the Street – Martha and the Vandellas (1964)
Okay, first of all, how many of you immediately recalled how excited you got when Martha shouted out your city in this hip-wiggling track? A favorite from Motown’s golden era, “Dancing In the Street” dropped during a summer of civil unrest but prompted joy and celebration whenever you heard it.
Stop In the Name of Love – The Supremes (1965)
After being startled by a warning to “stop!” the blended vocals of Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross, soothed music lovers into thinking it over. We fell in love with this danceable tune which sat on top of pop charts for three weeks.
Shotgun – Jr. Walker and the All Stars (1965)
A groove overloaded with drum fills, tenor saxophone, organ blasts, and banging guitars, “Shotgun” showcases some serious instrumental talents, not to mention forcing you to get on the dance floor. No shotgun needed.
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – Four Tops (1965)
This song spent two weeks on both the Hot 100 and R&B charts, further solidifying the hit-making power of songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ bellowing vocals only made the song just that much better.
Ooo Baby Baby – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)
Despite a slightly confusing title (is it “Ooo” or “Oooh”?) and lyrics about cheating, the silky voice of Smokey Robinson makes it all a non-factor. Considered their signature song, Robinson himself called it their ‘national anthem,’ noting the ballad was requested wherever they went.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin (1966)
Originally written for the Spinners, David Ruffin’s big brother Jimmy convinced the writers to give him a try at it, and boy, are we glad they did. Backed by a strong melody, the older Ruffin made us feel the heartache of a breakup.
Just My Imagination – The Temptations (1971)
Yes, they have a ridiculous number of hits, but here’s what makes “Just My Imagination” special. This would be the last single for the original lineup of the always-suited, booted, dipped-but-not- whipped Temptations. Eddie Kendricks took the lead vocals but soon left for a solo career. It was also the last song for Paul Williams who sings the “Every night on my knees I pray” part.
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (1971)
Known earlier in his Motown career for memorable duets with the great Tammi Terrell, Gaye went into a deep depression following her death. That tragedy, along with world issues, catapulted Gaye into a more accomplished direction. The critically-acclaimed album and its titular single soared and became one of Motown’s fastest-selling hits. Ironically, the song was largely penned by Four Tops’ member Renaldo “Obie” Benson after witnessing violence at Berkeley’s People’s Park, but the group decided the song was too political for them.
Superstition – Stevie Wonder (1972)
Widely recognized for its opening drumbeat (performed by Wonder), Rolling Stone ranked this Billboard Hot 100 number one hit at #74 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Wonder also managed to make the clavinet riffs funky and sexy. Who knew that was possible? “Superstition” made headbangers out of all of us, including a group of little kids during a Stevie Wonder appearance on the children’s television program Sesame Street.
I Want You – Marvin Gaye (1976)
It’s Marvin Gaye again with this spell-bounding melody filled with his multitracked backing vocals. Between Gaye’s sultry pleading, the teasing bass, rhythm guitar, piano chords, and demanding horns, fans couldn’t help but break out in goosebumps.
OK, now that we’ve weighed in our favorites, what are your top ten picks for the best Motown songs?
Photo: The Supremes (public domain)