With Motown The Musical jazzing up Broadway with “the sound of young America,” let me look back and pick my 10 fave Motown singles of all time. Come on, let’s get it on!
(10) What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted,” sung by Jimmy Ruffin
Careful in its pace, soulful in its tone, this one is a heart wrenching trip of sorrow, and an all-time Motown classic, one that keeps mounting in its melodic tears and regret.
(9) “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
This slot is a tie between Marvin Gaye’s version and the one by Gladys Knight and the Pips the very same year. (1967). Both were deft dives into despair, sung from the soul. A song about gossip has never rang so true.
(8) “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five
From the opening guitar riffs, this one springs to exuberant life, and Michael Jackson’s angsty, high-pitched vocals keep it percolating throughout. It’s a classic about the urgency of wanting someone back when they’re suddenly popular with others, but it’s also incredibly danceable. “Shake it, shake it, baby” indeed.
(7) “My Guy” by Mary Wells, 1964
The sweet simplicity of this romantic tune is infectious, and Wells’ vocals are the perfect sweetener. (The Temptations “My Girl” isn’t so bad either.)
(6) “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes, 1964.
The song that finally broke the Supremes into stardom, this starts with a hypnotic hand- clap that builds to an impossibly catchy anthem of loss. Like so many of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s hits, it has a basically upbeat sound in contrast to the dark, despairing lyrics. And the Supremes didn’t want to do it at first!
(5) “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson, 1967
“Don’t let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression/Really, I’m sad…” Fabulous song, Pagliacci reference and all, and no one can sing with the surreal beauty of Smokey.
(4) “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, 1964
From the opening chords, it hooks you and wafts you and thrills you like few pop songs have the power to do. “This is an invitation across the nation,” and it really gets you moving along with all the other street dancers. Martha Reeves’ gritty vocals really define it for all time.
(3) “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder, 1968
Taking a Vegasy ballad and revitalizing it into an uptempo r&b swinger was a genius step for young Stevie. His version erupts with ebullience–and that harmonica!
(2) “Reflections” by the Diana Ross and the Supremes
A personal favorite of mine, this was a psychedelic trip for the girl group, who sing hauntingly against tambourine and synthesizer sounds. It was a risky sound they were stepping into, and the gamble paid off with a shimmery wall of pain.
(1) “You’re All I Need To Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968
One of the ultimate duets, this one is sung with such pure, loving harmonies that it’s just going to be hard to top. Thank you, Motown. Thank you, thank you, thank you.