By Coleman Bandy
Remember the Beatles? That was rhetorical. Of course you do. The greatest band that ever existed (sorry, just a fact) is a cultural touchstone, front and center on the proverbial Mount Rushmore of rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s influence knows no bounds: they ushered in the psychedelic revolution of the late 1960s, fused eastern music into the societal lexicon, and even wrote the first heavy metal song (Helter Skelter – don’t @ me). But when the fledgling band was still cutting its teeth on the bar touring circuit throughout Britain and Germany in the early ’60s, before even incorporating original songs into their sets, the Beatles were known mostly for playing covers: specifically, the soulful pop standards of Motown Records.
Take “Please Mr. Postman,” a catchy 1961 release originally performed by the Marvelettes on the Tamla Motown label. It’s a catchy, lovelorn track about a woman reproaching her mailman for not delivering letters from a distant boyfriend. (What’s the modern equivalent? Accusing AT&T because he’s not texting back?) John Lennon loved the song, and the Beatles began implementing a lyrically gender-reversed version into their live acts in 1962. The band put a studio recording of “Mr. Postman” on their second album, With the Beatles.
And then there’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” the 1962 Smokey Robinson classic about a scorned lover who can’t seem to quit on a soured relationship. The Beatles version, sung by Lennon and George Harrison, is also on With the Beatles. The band performed numerous other Motown covers during those early tours. Songs like these undoubtedly influenced the group’s incredible songwriting legacy throughout its decade-long career. Listen to “Tell Me Why” from A Hard Day’s Night and just try to argue that it doesn’t sound like a Supremes song.
The point is this: Motown’s influence is pervasive, the label having inspired not only the Beatles but many others like the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. Though it’s important to note Motown’s subsequent influence, this distracts from the actual unsung heroes that made it all possible: in this case, young black artists who were mostly women. Unfortunately, most of them are but a blip on the cultural radar in 2019.
Motown has its basis in rock ‘n’ roll, which first arose in the 1950s as a fusion of disparate styles like R&B, gospel, and the blues. In other words, rock is rooted in African American music, which didn’t become widely popular until being coopted by white men like Elvis Presley and (shudder) Pat Boone, perhaps the whitest man in human history. Motown Records started up its new brand of rock, soul, and pop-influenced albums just in time. By the early 1960s, younger audiences were among the first to willingly embrace black musicians, who finally began to consistently top the national charts on their own. At last, Motown didn’t need bands like the Beatles to boost their status.
As youngsters of all races began to embrace the Motown explosion, it soon began to have an unintended but profound effect in bridging cultural barriers. Smokey Robinson, one of the label’s first hit makers and its eventual vice president, later discussed its impact: “I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” It’s a powerful testament to great music’s ability to bring people together.
A brief history: Motown Records was founded in 1959 in Detroit (the namesake is a portmanteau of motor and town), and is notable for being one of the first major record companies created by a black man, Berry Gordy Jr. Many early Motown hits were helmed by African American artists hired by Gordy: girl groups like the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas quickly became popular, first in Detroit, later across the entire country. Hits like the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” were not only performed by black women, but written by black composers like the legendary songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for some of the catchiest pop songs ever conceived.
By the mid 60s, the “Motown Sound” became a movement of its own that transcended cities and record labels. The once-revered and now-maligned Phil Spector is partially responsible for bringing the music to New York City and widening its influence, writing and producing songs for artists like Darlene Love and the Ronettes. Spector’s prickly legacy (you know, murdering people) also involves cheating many of his artists and session players out of well-deserved royalties.
In fact, many of the best artists during the Motown movement are still criminally underappreciated and underpaid, and most of them are black women. There are many reasons for this: blame the unfair record contracts, the racist, sexist intersectionality inherent in American culture. For the few household names like Diana Ross, there are legions of lesser-known singers like Delores Kenniebrew, a woman who’s performed with the Crystals since the group’s inception. Mary Wells should be revered as an all-time great American singer, but I’d wager a year’s salary that at least 95% of people under 35 have no clue who she is.
So if your only introduction to Motown has come from all those countless covers, I’ve put together a playlist featuring a few of my personal favorite Motown-style hits. (Note: not every song was released by Motown Records, but all of them portray what later became known as the “Motown Sound.”)
Jimmy Mack by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Heat Wave by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
My Guy by Mary Wells
Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis
Come See About Me by The Supremes
He’s So Fine by The Chiffons
Do I Love You by The Ronettes
The One Who Really Loves You by Mary Wells