The Top 10 Biggest Motown Hits of All Time
Contrary to popular opinion, the assembly-line approach of capitalism doesn’t always lead to an inferior musical product – it just means there’s a lot of production, a lot of trial and error in finding the right combination of elements that’ll tickle the fancy of the American public. The Motown label, and its head Berry Gordy, proved that in spades: Gordy used to have his “workers” clock in and out like blue-collar laborers. Work they did, and both by accident and design, they produced some of the biggest (and best!) Billboard chart hist of all time.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye
There are lots of stories in rock’s first era about forgotten tracks that were picked up and became huge hits, but none were as huge as this song, and it wasn’t even the first recorded version. Written by Barrett Strong of “Money (That’s What I Want)” fame about trouble with his own girlfriend, it was first offered to Smokey Robinson, but label head Berry Gordy didn’t hear a single, and also passed on Marvin Gaye’s later version. (Motown’s stars always re-recorded each other’s songs in search of a hit.) Gladys Knight and the Pips then recorded it in an uptempo funk style similar to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and it became the label’s biggest hit ever. After that, it was even harder to get Marvin’s version released, but the producer (and co-writer) Norman Whitfield got it dumped off as an album track, and when DJs across the country started playing it, Berry finally relented. The rest is history.
“I’ll Be There,” The Jackson 5
After the Jackson 5 had just made history with three #1 singles in a row, Berry Gordy took a real chance in finding a ballad for the group, perhaps sensing that the very similar uptempo styles of “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save” would tire the audience’s ears at some point. Or maybe he knew that it would open the group up to a broader, non-bubblegum audience, and make Michael a star by proving he had the emotional depth, even at the age of twelve, to prove his fidelity. Whatever the motivation, the gamble worked: although “Grapevine” sold more copies worldwide, this song actually outsold it in the US, becoming the label’s biggest domestic hit.
“Baby Love,” The Supremes
Hard to believe, but the Supremes’ first three hits — “Where Did Our Love Go,” this one, and “Come See About Me,” were all written in one day by the celebrated Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. The group hated “Where Did Our Love Go,” but when it went straight to #1, everyone involved was instructed to go right back into the studio and do the same exact thing with “Baby Love,” right down to the foot-stomping intro. The only difference was the opening “oooooh” by Diana Ross, which was added after Gordy figured the song needed something to grab the radio listeners (or maybe to tell the two songs’ intros apart). The Supremes became the first Motown act to hit the top twice… but the next three singles made it there, too!
“Fingertips Pt. 2,” Stevie Wonder
The live recording was still more or less in its infancy in 1963, when this song was released, and you can hear it in the muddled sound of the mix. But the performance was simply too powerful to resist. Stevie Wonder was something of a novelty artist at the time — a 12-year-old blind harmonica player who could sing the blues! — but his take on the jazz instrumental, recorded in June 1962 during a Motown package tour stop in Chicago, proved that he could work a crowd as well as his idol Ray Charles. What you’re hearing is actually the second half of a performance; Part 1 was the A-side, and had a great groove. But DJs flipped the record, as they often did, and then just flipped. Stevie was a star.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Diana Ross
Another case of a cover outselling the original. This time it was staff producers/writers Ashford and Simpson who insisted that they rework their own earlier Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit for Miss Ross, who needed a big, showy number for her solo debut. And is it ever! The couple stretched a sweet little soul ballad out for over six minutes, added sweeping orchestral backup, and wrote a new spoken-word intro that Ross could deliver like the diva she is. Gordy, predictably at this point, wasn’t impressed with the epic, but when DJs decided to edit the song down to three minutes anyway, he agreed to do the same and make a single out of it. Ross had established her new identity.
“War,” Edwin Starr
Whitfield and Strong were behind this one, too, adamant about writing a Vietnam protest song, especially in light of Whitfield’s plan to turn the label’s biggest act, the Temptations, into socially conscious funk vocalists. Gordy hated it. Well, actually, he didn’t hate the song so much as he feared it would forever darken the rep of one of his prize acts. So he refused to allow it to be released as a single, despite a letter campaign from desperate antiwar Temps fans. Instead, he turned to a newly-signed Edwin Starr, who’d only had one previous hit with “Twenty-Five Miles,” and let the duo cut it with him. It became the most popular protest song in US history.
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” The Four Tops
If it sounds like a Supremes song, it should: it was originally written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and cut by that girl group a year earlier with the exact same musicians. The real difference this time was the lead Top, Levi Stubbs, whose incredible, scarifying baritone, pleading and begging, put this one over the top. In fact, his delivery of the opening line — “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch!” was so arresting it had to be put in the title’s parentheses. As for Berry Gordy’s knack for picking hit records? He loved this one. But Levi hated it.
“My Guy,” Mary Wells
Smokey Robinson penned this one for the “Queen of Motown” in order to give her the #1 pop hit the label felt she deserved.
“The Love You Save,” Jackson 5
You’d think that “ABC” or especially “I Want You Back” would have sat atop the charts for longer, but this, their third single, was released at the absolute apex of the Jackson 5’s early popularity, and so it logged in the most weeks at #1 (that is, until the change-up of “I’ll Be There” came along). Or it might just be a lot of history buffs were geeking out over the third verse: “Isaac said he kissed you beneath the apple tree / When Benjy held your hand he felt electricity / When Alexander called you, he said you rang his chimes / Christopher discovered you’re way ahead of your time.” Why a 12-year-old would be singing that to a girl his age is probably best not thought about.
“I Can’t Get Next to You,” The Temptations
Motown really hit on all cylinders here, proving that the Temps’ “Psychedelic Soul” period wasn’t all about political and social strife. With all the different elements — a fake party, a bluesy piano intro, funk breakdowns, and no less than five wouldn’t have gone to #1 for two weeks. But Motown had lots of songs doing that; what lands “I Can’t Get Next To You” on this list is how it also stayed atop the soul charts for the whole month of October ’69. That and the fact that it’s been sampled to death ever since then.