Motown at 50: The Marvelettes were a trailblazing girl group

 By  Peter Lindblad
(James J. Kriegman)
(James J. Kriegman)
The year was 1961, and five teenage girls from Inkster, Mich. who called themselves The Marvels — the group that would become The Marvelettes — had finished performing at a local high-school talent show.  All that remained was tabulating the results, a mere formality.

They thought they were a shoe-in to win, or at least finish in the top three, which would guarantee them an audition at Motown Records. But it wasn’t to be.

“After they began to vote, everybody was saying, ‘Oh. We didn’t win,’” laughs Katherine Anderson, who was 16 at the time, as were her fellow Marvels Georgeanna Tillman and Juanita Cowart. “And so that really was a shock to our system, because we were definitely good.”

Anderson wasn’t the only one who thought they were robbed. A teacher felt The Marvels had what it took to make it as a singing group. “She offered to take us down to Motown, because they were supposed to interview the top three people,” says Anderson. “Well, we were fourth. And so we weren’t likely to go, but the teacher said she’d talk to the scout that was out there, which was John O’Den. She would make arrangements for us to go there.”

True to her word, she brought the girls to Motown, and they won over Motown founder Berry Gordy, and other label big-wigs Brian Holland, Richard Bateman and Smokey Robinson. But there was a problem: Because they were underage, they needed permission from their parents to go with Motown. “The other girls’ parents had already signed, but my mother was very skeptical about signing [with Motown] and my dad told her, ‘This may be her lifetime opportunity, and I don’t want to be responsible for standing in her way …”

Actually, not all of the girls’ parents ended up signing on. Georgia Dobbins, an original member, could not get her dad to sign on. But Dobbins, who was eventually replaced by Wanda Young, the future Wanda Rogers, would play a huge role in establishing The Marvelettes as one of Motown’s most promising acts. One of Gordy’s stipulations after the group auditioned was that they come back with an original song. Georgia did so, with pianist William Garrett in tow.

“Georgia was musically talented,” remembers Anderson. “She played in the school band and she sang in the chorus, so she was very, very talented. And the original song that she got was from [Garrett], who was a blues man, and everything he did was always with a blues connotation. So she then wrote the lyrics and changed them not to be so bluesy, and then took them to Motown. And they were quite thrilled with that.”

That song, featuring Gladys Horton on lead vocals, was “Please Mr. Postman,” which wound up being Motown’s first #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart. It took 14 weeks to get to the top, and the song also went to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Though it took a while to get a head of steam, the song made The Marvelettes stars, and it helped pave the way for other Motown girl groups like The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas.

After releasing “Please Mr. Postman,” and really for the rest of their career, The Marvelettes would tour constantly. Their lively dance moves and showmanship made them a crowd favorite on the Motortown Revue. One song Anderson particularly enjoyed doing was “Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead,” the Ivy Hunter/Clarence Paul/Mickey Stevenson composition.

“What we did was, we had some cards that were maybe the size of the big poster boards,” says Anderson. “They were painted black, but ‘danger’ on one side in an iridescent-like orange color, and on the opposite side, ‘heartbreak’ was in that same iridiscent color. And we used a black light that was in front of us, and we would have to flip the cards, you know, ‘danger’ and ‘heartbreak’ … were in all black lights and the only things that you could really see.”

With the song “Locking Up My Heart,” The Marvelettes merged timely fashion sense with fun stagecraft. “We had some white dresses, and back then, you know, minis [were] coming back,” says Anderson. “We had white mini dresses that we bought from a shop downtown called Paraphernalia, but on this white dress they had a heart in red. But you could turn the heart on. There again it was a black-light situation. We turned the heart on, and the heart began to pulsate, because it was battery operated … and the audience would automatically see this pulsating heart.”

Over their career, which lasted into the early ’70s, The Marvelettes would have 19 Top 40 American R&B singles and 10 Top 40 American pop singles — three of which reached the Top 10. And they might have had more had Motown promoted them more.

In the end, they overcame losing Dobbins and then Cowart in 1962, whose depression caused her to leave the group. In 1967, Horton got married and departed, and two years before that, Tillman contracted lupus. She would be forced to quit.

Contemplating the group’s legacy, Anderson says, “I think we leave behind a repertoire of special music, and music helps to bring everybody closer and stuff, because we had a lot of very important music and some of the music was with the times, and some of [it was] not with the times, but it was important enough that people really cared for the music. And I think that the Marvelettes have always had a reputation for being innovative.”

Click here to check out the latest price guides from Goldmine

Leave a Reply