‘The Sound of Young America’: that’s what they called it. It might have been a neat marketing slogan from the higher-ups of Detroit’s Motown Records, but by the mid-Sixties, not only was that description completely true but it also took that sound global, becoming a worldwide phenomenon and a cultural institution—a position it has retained to this day.
Indeed, for music very much rooted in the time of its making, it has a timeless, classic quality that sounds as wonderful and fresh now as it must have done blasting out of cheap transistor radios on the streets of the 1960s. Motown holds a very dear place in my heart. Stoke-on-Trent, the city in England that I grew up in, has a long history with soul music and growing up in a working-class environment in an industrial city, the immediacy and romance of all those old Motown records make complete sense. Work hard, play hard, dance hard, love hard. I’m sure the citizens of Detroit would have understood.
Here are my absolute favourite Motown singles of all time. Yes, many classics are missing, but I don’t apologise for that. I had to limit my list to twenty choices, or I would have overtaken the whole website with Motown songs (not the worst idea I’ve ever had!). These are the songs that, on a gut level, make me the happiest, so these are the ones I’ve gone with.
Calling out around the world…
Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)
Originally released by Gladys Knight in a funkier version and recorded originally by The Miracles, it took Marvin’s hushed, sensual, secretive, pained and confessional take on the song to do it the justice it really deserved. Perhaps Motown’s most emotional song and most subtle musical arrangement.
Martha and the Vandellas – “I’m Ready for Love” (1966)
Built on the kind of propulsive bassline that Motown perfected, this is a song with itchy feet that refuse to stay still, mirroring the physical excitement Martha feels at finding herself in love. The chorus exhilarates itself with surprising chord changes that paradoxically sound natural as the elements, as that bassline carries it to the sky. It’s perfect pop for dancing to, in other words.
The Isley Brothers – “Behind a Painted Smile” (1968)
Motown succeeded with certain songs at producing a kind of melodrama that would give itself over to a kind of prolonged, mesmerising hysteria. ‘Smile’ is a case in point, with its moody minor chords, fantastic fuzz guitar and Ronald Isley’s wounded yelps building in pitch until they climax in THAT falsetto finish—perhaps the most dramatic moment in Motown history.
The Supremes – “I Hear a Symphony” (1965)
Motown gets metaphysical as Diana & co find their affections for their lover manifest themselves as music, triggered by the lover’s appearance and kiss. Designed to break the normal template for Supremes songs, the song rejects the verse-chorus structure, instead taking its chord sequence and raising it through higher and higher key changes as the instrumentation gets busier and the vocals grow more intense. Love never sounded more euphoric.
Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke” (1977)
Taken from Stevie’s best album, the astonishing Songs In the Key of Life, ‘Sir Duke’ was a tribute to Wonder’s musical heroes, born out of the realisation that time is quick to forget those that leave us. Over an infectiously catchy pop-jazz backdrop, Stevie serenades, beseeches and insists that we remember the greats of the golden age, all with a passion unrivalled by any other singer (just listen to how he lets rip on the line “here are some of music’s pioneers”!)
The Four Tops – “Bernadette” (1967)
I’ll just say it: this is my favourite Motown song of all time. It’s a masterpiece, from its gothic feel (in the romantic, not musical, sense), to its moody yet tough melody, James Jamerson’s liquid, effortlessly funky bassline and Levi Stubbs’ extraordinarily emotional vocal, which flits from violent accusation to hysterical pleading like a man on the edge. Jealousy and insecurity have never sounded so attractive.
The Marvelettes – “I’ll Keep Holding On” (1965)
Later to be transformed into a storming piece of mod-pop by The Action, ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’ is the definition of cool seduction. The song just positively slinks along while Wanda Young purrs about the patience she has to make the object of her desire hers. Gladys and Katherine on backing vocals chip in with encouragement like wingmen with their own sultry requirements to meet. Holding on? By the sounds of this, The Marvelettes already had us.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “I Second That Emotion” (1967)
Smokey was the poet of Motown and this song is a shining example. Taking an erroneous phrase from friend and songwriter Al Cleveland, Robinson used it as a launching pad for this tale of a lover who won’t commit. If she changes her mind, Smokey will ‘second that emotion’. Meanwhile, the laid-back soul backing and ear-candy chorus are a kind of poetry in themselves.
The Temptations – “Get Ready” (1966)
Feel-good; up-tempo; full of life and joy of living; “Get Ready” is the perfect pop soundtrack for good times. Sung by falsetto singer Eddie Kendricks, the song is driven in its verses by a slick, tough riff creating a killer groove (riffs being unusual in Motown songs generally), while the choruses have a punch-the-air quality that feels like a celebration. Music brings people together and “Get Ready” is the sound of the bringing.
Gladys Knight & The Pips – “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me” (1967)
The music of Gladys Knight was always a little grittier than the typical Motown fare of the time. Here, Gladys’ sensual eroticisms (“now’s the time that I’ll be sweet”) marry to an irresistible southern-soul groove, laced with chiming harpsichord and an infectious melody. The album version featured censored lyrics: Gladys was obviously too hot to handle!
Jimmy Ruffin – “It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved by You)” (1970)
While not as popular as the ubiquitous “What Becomes of The Broken Hearted?” (it didn’t even chart in the US), “It’s Wonderful” is equally as magical a song. It produces an exciting tension by contrasting its bright, celebratory chorus with minor chord passages that are almost sinister in how they appear at random and chase the sunshine away. Jimmy tops it all with his smooth, impassioned tones, and it is indeed wonderful.
Mary Wells – “You Beat Me to the Punch” (1962)
Co-written by Smokey Robinson over a mock-calypso rhythm and given a hushed, intimate arrangement, “…Punch” was an evolution of the old doo-wop sound towards the new cool Motown soul – the ‘Sound of Young America’, as it called itself. With a lovely major/minor shift in the chorus giving proceedings a bittersweet feel and Wells’ gently vulnerable vocal, the sound of The Supremes starts here.
The Jackson 5 – “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1971)
Here are the black-blue rainclouds and the thunderclaps of a stormy relationship painted in sound. That’s what I always hear whenever I listen to this tempestuous track. The ominous descending chords in the chorus suggest that the inability to never say goodbye might actually be Michael’s problem and that he should actually get out before it’s too late. Meanwhile, a sultry flute calls out like a siren, leading the singer to his doom.
Diana Ross & The Supremes — “Forever Came Today” (1968)
By this point, Diana Ross was being pushed as the lead of the group (Mary Wilson confirmed this was the first of a series of Supremes singles she didn’t sing on). But you wouldn’t know there were any issues listening to this wonderful slice of melodrama. Diana sings a song of someone who has dreamt of finding love forever and has now finally found it, her voice full of empathy and warmth and confidence at finally being fulfilled. Meanwhile, the arrangement fits the description of Motown as ‘three-minute symphonies’ by loading the bridges with tense horns and bringing the strings into the mix for the chorus, making the whole thing larger than life itself.
Stevie Wonder – “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967)
The first real sign of Stevie’s maturing into a songwriter of great depth and skill, “I Was Made to Love Her” is almost an incantation, bringing forth the love Stevie’s singing about, making it real by the strength of his ecstatic singing. The song gains intensity through repetition of its simple chord sequence, with Stevie’s harmonica, a killer electric sitar hook, and the lyrics giving way by song’s end to frenzied ab-libbing all giving strength to the singer’s conviction in his passion for his lover. Sometimes the idea of love is as intoxicating as being in love itself, as this joyous song attests to.
The Temptations – “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” (1970)
Musically the brainchild of producer Norman Whitfield, who was influenced by the recent developments in black psychedelia courtesy of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, The Temptations rode one of the simplest, funkiest and most effective basslines of all time to essay an almost stream-of-conscious collision of images of a world in complete cultural, social and political disarray, a Waste Land for the psychedelic generation. In equal parts powerful and funky, if you take out the reference to a new Beatles album, then the track is sadly just as relevant today as it was on release.
The Miracles – “Shop Around” (1960)
The first million-selling hit for Motown and also the first Motown single released in the UK, “Shop Around” was originally released as a blues song, before Berry Gordy demanded a re-record to make it ‘poppier’ and more likely to be a hit. Gordy, thankfully, was right, and this groovy, cheerful number, with its strutting rhythm and bright saxophone break, plus Smokey’s transcendent falsetto, opened the doors to the success that was to come.
Marvin Gaye – “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”
There were so many songs I was tempted to put here: “All I Need to Get By”, “Can I Get a Witness”, “Got to Give it Up”, “Abraham, Martin and John”, “What’s Going On”. All perfect songs and I deliberated a long time. But what I really like about “Too Busy…” is the way its bassline pulses beneath the song, subtle but insistently funky, the warm voices of the backing singers on the irresistible chorus, and the versatility of Gaye’s voice which veers from bursts of falsetto to aggressive snaps (“I AIN’T got time”). The way Gaye’s voice dances around the melody is a marvel.
The Four Tops – “7 Rooms of Gloom” (1967)
For a label usually associated with bright, colourful soul, they could produce songs full to the brim with dread and tension. “7 Rooms of Gloom” is a case in point; it could even be considered Motown’s baroque haunted house story. Across the 7 rooms, James Jamerson’s incredibly funky yet melodic bass refuses to stay still, flitting like phantoms or even victims trying to flee, while Levi Stubbs growls and shouts like a man possessed and a staccato harpsichord piece is wielded in stabs. Forget the “Monster Mash”—Get the Gloom!
The Marvelettes – “When You’re Young and In Love” (1967)
Opening with a dramatic piano and string flourish, “…Young and In Love” is a big, summery ballad with warm, empathetic vocals, a solid beat, string parts that just scream ‘romance’ and a lyric that celebrates the joy of…well…being young and in love! If you wanted a definition of ‘The Sound of Young America’, a manifesto for Motown, this song is it.
What do you think? Are there any classic singles from ‘The Sound of Young America’ that I’ve ignored or missed? What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments!