This album, from 1962, shows a different picture of Motown Records than is remembered today, with The Miracles, Mary Wells & The Marvelettes getting top billing at the Apollo over Marv (!) Gaye, The Contours, Stevie Wonder & The Supremes
By Phill Marder
(13th in a series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
Motown Records became known as “The Sound of Young America.” Its sister label, Tamla, was “The Sound that Makes the World Go ‘Round.”
There was little dispute in the 60s, and I would suspect no more today, that Motown/Tamla was one of the dominant, if not the most dominant, forces in Rock & Roll. Certainly, the Detroit powerhouse is well represented in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as it should be. Maybe not as much as another label which shall remain nameless (couldn’t resist…sorry). But well represented, nonetheless.
However, three cornerstones of perhaps the most famous label in Rock & Roll have yet to be included, though their credentials dwarf many of those already inducted.
The first is Mary Wells, who was on my list in Goldmine (please see the introduction to this blog if you haven’t already) closing in on 11 years ago now. My assumption is that one day Mary Wells will be an inductee. Unfortunately, she won’t be around to enjoy the accolades, having passed away from throat cancer in 1992.
Wells practically carried Motown on her back when the label was struggling to get a foothold in the industry. She became known as “The Queen of Motown” but her bitter split with the label killed her career at its peak. Just 17, she brought a song she had written for Jackie Wilson to Tamla Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy’s main source of income at the time came from several hits he had co-written for Wilson, including “To Be Loved,” “Reet Petite” and the mega smash “Lonely Teardrops.”
The teenager sang “Bye Bye Baby” for Gordy, who signed her and had her do the song herself. It became a hit and Wells was on her way. Her follow-up, “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance,” was a tad more successful, but after Wells’ third effort tanked Gordy made a decision that soon made Wells a superstar. He told Smokey Robinson to write her some hits.
Wells had a Bonnie Tyler-roughness to her voice on her first two efforts, but Robinson smoothed her out on their first collaboration and the result was “The One Who Really Loves You,” which climbed to No. 8. The classic “You Beat Me To The Punch” followed, hitting No. 9 and Wells, Motown and Gordy were well on their way. Another collaboration – “Two Lovers” eclipsed the previous two smashes, climbing to No. 7 and the magnificent “Laughing Boy” made it to No. 15.
After “Your Old Stand By” stalled at No. 40, the relatively new team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland Jr. took a shot and the result was the No. 22 “You Lost The Sweetest Boy.” Ironically, the flip, “What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One,” written and produced by Robinson, trailed, though it settled at a very successful No. 29.
Perhaps challenged by the new upstarts, Robinson responded with one of his greatest works, “My Guy,” which soared to No. 1 and became an all-time classic.
Former Motown sales chief Barney Ales was quoted as saying, “In 1964 Mary Wells was our big, big artist. I don’t think there’s an audience with an age of 30 through 50 that doesn’t know the words to ‘My Guy.'”
Wells was the big, big artist on the label that boasted the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many other household names. Of course, 1964 was also the year of The British Invasion. The Beatles reportedly named Wells their favorite singer and she traveled to Britain to open for the group, becoming the first Motown star to appear in the United Kingdom. Her impact was immediate. “My Guy” became Motown’s first UK smash, reaching No. 5, preceding the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” by several months and opening the door for a flood of Motown smashes that followed and never relented.
“My Guy” also was the Motown label’s first No. 1 record in the United States, again beating “Where Did Our Love Go” by a couple months. Previous Motown chart-toppers by the Marvelettes and Stevie Wonder had been on the Tamla label. It also came in the midst of the Beatles’ initial onslaught on the states, when the British invaders posted four No. 1 records between February and June.
She added two more top 20 hits in 1964, both being duets with Gaye pulled from their “Together” album, but 1964 also marked the end of her career as a hit maker. Reportedly unhappy with her circumstances at Motown, she left the label for 20th Century, virtually disappearing overnight. The backlash created by her departing Motown may have torpedoed her career, but more than anything was the absence of classic material the Motown songwriters, especially Robinson, could provide. The greatest singer in the world won’t find a hit without the proper material.
Still, there’s no questioning the impact Mary Wells had on Rock & Roll and the eventual success of the Motown label and its subsidiaries. She might not be here physically, but her music lives on and her memory should be cherished and preserved by The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The second omission is one of the most confounding by an organization that seems to specialize in goofy decisions. How did Smokey Robinson get inducted without the Miracles?
Robinson certainly deserves solo induction due to his songwriting, producing, solo career and his contributions in many official capacities in Motown’s front office. But if the Supremes got in with Diana Ross and the Vandellas made it in with Martha Reeves and the three other Tops made it in with Levi Stubbs, how could the Miracles, who were much more important, not get in with Smokey?
The 1987 gaffe created quite a ruckus then, but, evidently, not enough to get the injustice righted. Read Robinson’s biography on the official Hall of Fame site and the Miracles are present from start to finish. But check the list of inductees and they’re still absent, both under Miracles and individual names.
While the Temptations set the bar for vocal variety and choreography, the Miracles did their part in backing Smokey on stage, certainly with more flair than the Supremes, Vandellas or Tops. If you weren’t around during their heyday, grab a copy of the T.A.M.I. show and check out “Mickey’s Monkey.”
The members who weren’t Smokey – Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore and Claudette Robinson – also played an important part in other facets of the Miracles’ success. While Robinson is credited as being one of the greatest of Rock’s songsmiths, he did have help. White, a childhood friend who recorded some duets with Smokey before the Miracles were formed, was listed as co-writer of such gems as “Don’t Look Back,” “You Beat Me To The Punch,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” and the all-time classic “My Girl.” He also is credited with discovering Stevie Wonder, then his 11-year-old neighbor.
Rogers was born in the same hospital as Robinson on the same day, but they didn’t meet until they were teenagers. Rogers and Claudette Robinson were cousins. Rogers also is an accomplished songwriter. Among his Motown writing credits are “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “My Baby,” “What Love Has Joined Together,” “First I Look At The Purse,” “One More Heartache,” That’s What Love Is Made Of” and “Going To A Go-Go.”
Rogers also is the most important prominent co-lead vocal on the classic “You Really Got A Hold Me.”
Warren “Pete” Moore was also a childhood friend of Robinson’s and a founding member of the Miracles. Besides singing lead on the hit “Doggone Right,” Moore was the group’s vocal arranger and also a prolific writer. His credits include “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “Ain’t That Peculiar, “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “Going To A Go-Go,” and “Love Machine,” a No. 1 hit for the Miracles in 1975, long after Robinson left the group.
Claudette Robinson took the place of her drafted brother, Emerson, when the Miracles were born and married Smokey, the pairing lasting 27 years. She didn’t make many stage appearances, but sang with the Miracles in the studio until Smokey left the group. The first female contracted by the Motown empire, she was dubbed “The First Lady Of Motown” by Berry Gordy Jr.
From 1959 until 1966, the Miracles were known as just that…The Miracles. They were one of the most popular groups in the world. After the Robinsons departed, the Miracles continued having success, including scoring the above-mentioned No. 1 single.
I defy you to name the Vandellas. But they’re in the Hall of Fame as Martha & the Vandellas. Likewise, the Four Tops. Some could probably name Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard or Cindy Birdsong as Supremes, but, in reality, their role was just to provide backup for Diana Ross. Except for Claudette, though, the Miracles all played a vital role in the group’s success from its outset. So why are they left out while the others are in?
Frankly, Smokey Robinson proved a disappointment. There’s no question he deserves induction, but he should have refused unless his group was included.
The third missing Motown link is the marvelous Marvelettes, overshadowed by the Supremes but still worthy of Hall of Fame recognition.
Who had the first No. 1 record on the Motown/Tamla label? It makes a great party trivia question, and few are likely to get the correct answer. After all, when you have The Miracles, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and others to choose from, the group that did it – the Marvelettes – is often forgotten. As they have been by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The above-mentioned gem was “Please Mr. Postman,” the group’s first single later covered by the Beatles. Starting at the top, there was no place for the Marvelettes to go but down, which they did. But not without a fight.
The group had a rare feature with two lead singers, Gladys Horton and Wanda Young, who later married the Miracles’ Bobby Rogers. This abundance of talent helped the Marvelettes make marvelous music, but may have hurt the group as the public had no star to focus on ala Diana Ross or Martha Reeves. Georgeanna Tillman, Katharine Anderson and Juanita Cowart rounded out the original lineup.
The year following “Please Mr. Postman,” 1962 for those who enjoy some facts in their reading materials, the Marvelettes hit the Top 10 again with “Playboy” and followed with “Beechwood 4-5789,” my personal favorite that inexplicably, to me at least, stopped at No. 17. “Someday, Someway,” a terrific song, was buried on the flipside.
Another disappointment was “Strange I Know,” one of the group’s finest efforts which closed the year peaking at No. 49, a flop by Motown standards even in those early years. Cowart left in 1962 and 1963 was a barren year, though “As Long As I Know He’s Mine” was a strong effort popular in some circles. In 1964, the group made what, in retrospect, appears to be a history changing decision. They turned down “Where Did Our Love Go,” which then became the Supremes’ first No. 1. The group continued to flounder until “Too Many Fish In The Sea” (couldn’t resist…sorry) got them back on track – if only temporarily – as 1964 wound down.
The biggest news for the group in 1965 was Gordon’s departure. But the next two years saw the Marvelettes release three singles that became classics – “Don’t Mess With Bill,” which returned the group to the Top 10, and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” and “My Baby Must Be A Magician,” both of which earned top 20 status.
The Marvelettes gave us eight years of terrific records, including Motown’s first chart-topper. Their credentials for Hall of Fame status may not match those of many of their stablemates, but they match or exceed many of those already inducted by the Hall of Fame.