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ELDER MUSIC: Motown Top 20 - Part 2

[Part 1 – songs numbered 20 through 11 – is here.]

PeterTibbles75x75This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.

category_bug_eldermusic Today we come to the pointy end of the Motown hit parade as defined by Mojo magazine. As I said last week, I may not agree with the placement of some songs but I’d probably include all the artists.

So here we have what the magazine thought were the best songs ever to come out of that great record company. Counting down from 10 to 1.



As good as this song is, there are others of theirs I’d have included ahead of this one. However, this is Mojo’s choice.

This is a Holland-Dozier-Holland song as are a lot of tunes from this label - those that weren’t written by Smokey Robinson, that is. I know, I already said that in Part 1 but coming up with something new to say about their songs or those of The Supremes is a bit difficult.

I’ll just play Stop! In The Name Of Love.

♫ Supremes - Stop! In The Name Of Love


Jimmy Ruffin

Jimmy Ruffin was the older brother of David, the great lead singer for The Temptations. Jimmy was originally going to sing lead for the Temps until Berry Gordy heard his brother and the rest is history. I guess Jimmy was destined for a solo career.

The song today is easily his most successful, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.

♫ Jimmy Ruffin - What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted


Marvin Gaye

Marvin’s wasn’t the first version of this song. It was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and had already been a bit of a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. Others also attempted the track – The Temptations, the Isley Brothers and even Smokey and the Miracles. Eventually Marvin’s version caught on and it became a hit.

His is the definitive version, with him wavering between pride and paranoia. A masterpiece. Here is I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

♫ Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through the Grapevine


Smokey & the Miracles

Now to the song that I would probably have put in first place. The Assistant Musicologist disagrees as she’s not such a big fan of Smokey. “He sings like a girl” (but not like a frog – musical joke to amuse myself).

Smokey Robinson was the second most important person at Motown. He was an executive for the company, a record producer, wrote many songs for others (as well as his own group) and was one of their best singers. Here he is with the Miracles with the great song, The Tracks of My Tears.

♫ Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - The Tracks Of My Tears


Barrett Strong

Another song The Beatles covered in their early days. Barrett was mostly a songwriter, usually in collaboration with Norman Whitfield. However, he recorded a few songs himself. This one was particularly successful for him as dozens of prominent artists besides The Beatles recorded it. A nice little earner I’d say.

Here is Money (That's What I Want) and how appropriate is that.

♫ Barrett Strong - Money (That's What I Want)


Stevie Wonder

I think I would have included Living for the City or any track from Stevie’s “Innervisions” album. However, this is Mojo’s gig so they have the final say.

This song was recorded round about the same time and is taken from his “Talking Book” album which immediately preceded “Innervisions”. The song, Superstition, was a big hit. That’s Jeff Beck playing guitar as he did on the rest of the album.

♫ Stevie Wonder - Superstition


The Temptations

By 1972, various artists were breaking the Motown mold, especially the Temps (but so were Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder). Also, there had been some changes in the group. David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks had both left, as had Paul Williams who, unfortunately, was found to be suffering from sickle-cell anaemia.

These were replaced by Richard Street, Damon Harris and some others who came and went. It didn’t affect the sound of the group though and in this year, that created their magnum opus, Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

This was initially written as a normal length song but with Norman Whitfield producing, they came up with a 12-minute version. This was popular in clubs and discos and a single version of only seven minutes was released and became a huge hit. This is it.

♫ The Temptations - Papa Was a Rolling Stone


The Four Tops

Here we have another Holland-Dozier-Holland composition. It’s different from the type of songs the Tops had previously performed; there’s almost a blues element present in the way Levi Stubbs sings/shouts the words. I also like the rolling gait of the backing.

This is the Tops’ signature tune. Reach Out (I'll Be There).

♫ The Four Tops - Reach Out (I'll Be There)


Marvin Gaye

After seeing anti-war protesters attacked by police in San Francisco, Marvin, along with Obie Benson of the Four Tops, wrote the song What’s Going On. Berry Gordy didn’t release it initially as he thought there might be a backlash against the company with this one and privately said that it was the worst record he’d ever heard.

Eventually it did see the light of day with no fanfare at all. In spite of that, it sold millions. An album was requested, probably demanded, but Marvin wasn’t returning to the standard Motown sound and recorded it outside the company with no input from anyone at Motown.

Berry hated this one too, however, it’s generally considered one of the finest albums ever recorded. It also produced several million-selling singles. I imagine Berry wasn’t unhappy about that. What’s going on, indeed.

♫ Marvin Gaye - What's Going On


Martha and the Vandellas

This is one with which the A.M. heartily agrees. She’s not a huge fan of the Motown sound, preferring more blues oriented music, but she surprised me by saying that she’s going to come up with her own Motown Top 10, the ones that should have been there (apart from this track, of course).

That will be coming your way soon. We thought we wouldn’t have three weeks in a row devoted to this single topic.

So, Martha and the Vandellas. Great song. I’d have put it a couple of notches lower, but that’s just me. The song has been covered successfully by a bunch of others, notably the Mamas and the Papas and Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

None of them are anywhere as good as this one. Dancing in the Street.

♫ Martha & the Vandellas - Dancing in the Street

Now, if you disagree with these, don’t blame me, blame Mojo. How’s that for a cop-out?


The relative merits of individual songs can be debated, but I think we all agree that Motown earned a big chapter in the history of popular music. Thanks for the revisit.

Great music. I too would have had a slightly different lineup and sequence, but I thoroughly enjoyed the music...and the memories.

Totally agree with #1 & #2. Not only were they great records but they expressed the spirit of their day very well.

I completely agree with you that Tracks of My Tears should be number 1. In addition to the great melody & beat, the lyrics are wonderful -- I love the way he rhymes "altho she may be cute" & "she's just a substitute". also "masquerading" with "fading".

I would have included at least one of the songs jointly recorded by the Supremes and the Temptations, but really there are so many good Motown songs I suspect you could produce another half dozen lists like this, with no overlaps, and we would find it difficult to argue with any of them.

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