What follows is a list of my favourite Motown songs ranked from number 40 to number 1. It is not a list of what I regard as the 40 best Motown songs. These are my favourite Motown songs. The list reflects my personal opinion which may change from time to time. So you won’t see any songs in this list by The Jackson Five. Sure, “I Want You Back” is a great song and was hugely successful but I don’t regard it as R & B, nor typical of Motown. I know that many will disagree.
Number 40 Someday We’ll be Together – Diana Ross and the Supremes
Diana Ross and The Supremes was the most commercially successful recording act at Motown. Someday We’ll be Together was the last song released by them and it reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 popular singles chart. According to legend, Levi Stubbs of The 4 Tops wandered into the studio and ad-libbed some background vocals. Actually one of the composers of the song, Johnny Bristol was the one doing the adlibs. Although the other Supremes (Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong) did not sing on the record, this was a farewell swansong of a famous and successful group.
Number 39 You’ve Made Me So Very Happy – Brenda Holloway
Brenda Holloway had a style reminiscent of Mary Wells. You’ve Made Me So Very Happy was a lovely soulful song which peaked at number 39 in 1967. Two years later, a less soulful but more jazz/pop oriented version by Blood Sweat and Tears was a huge hit.
Number 38 Smiling Faces Sometimes – The Undisputed Truth
This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and was originally recorded by The Temptations on their “Psychedelic Shack” album. The Undisputed Truth’s version of the song got to Number 3 on Billboard. It was well produced and had biting lyrics of a distrustful sardonic nature “a frown is just a smile turned upside down”. There are several versions of this song but this was the hit version and scrubs up well.
Number 37 My Guy – Mary Wells
This song was written by Smokey Robinson and has a smooth sophisticated feel about it. The lyrics are pure Smokey Robinson …”I stick to my guy like a stamp to a letter, like birds of a feather we…stick together”. This song hit number 1 on Billboard and Mary Wells looked set for a long successful career at Motown. Surprisingly though she quit Motown shortly after the success of My Guy because of contractual issues. She then joined Twentieth Century Fox Records where she was not able to repeat her Motown success.
Number 36 Just My Imagination – The Temptations
This brilliant song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It was originally a track on The Temptation’s 1971 album “Shy’s the Limit”. Some say that is The Temptations’ best album but I say that can’t be because there was no David Ruffin. Still, Eddie Kendricks did a wonderful job in leading this song.
Number 35 I Was Made To Love Her – Stevie Wonder
This song which was partly written by Stevie Wonder personified pent up excitement right from the opening harmonica strains from Stevie. It was a big hit which contained some unusual lyrics:- “my father disproved it – my mother boo hooed it” The reference in the end to “you know Stevie ain’t gonna leave her” is a reference to himself.
Number 34 What Does It Take to Win Your Love? – Junior Walker and the All Stars
This song is half instrumental, half vocal. It is enormously enhanced by Junior Walker’s gorgeous and stunning saxophone playing.
Number 33 Love is Like an Itching in My Heart – Diana Ross and The Supremes
Some say that the Supremes did not sing “real soul music”. “Baby Love” and “The Happening” could not be described as soul or R & B. On the other hand, Love is Like an Itching in My Heart has a gritty biting R & B sound. Although written by Motown song writing team Holland Dozier and Holland, it was more akin to songs written by them for Martha and the Vandellas. It reached number 9 on Billboard which for The Supremes was regarded as a semi failure.
Number 32 Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
This song is a wonderful duet by the incomparable Marvin Gaye and the rising star Tammi Terrell. It was written by the song writing team of Ashford and Simpson and was a wonderful to and fro chant from lovers expressing their feelings. The chorus/refrain is catchy and iconic. Diana Ross later had a hit version which was heavy on production and melodrama and short on soul. I much prefer the original.
Number 31 It’s the Same Old Song – The 4 Tops
Some regard this as a re-run of the big hit by The 4 Tops “I Can’t Help Myself”. I prefer this song. It was written by Holland Dozier and Holland and is upbeat R & B. The melody which is joyful and fast paced is deceptive as the lyrics are bitter sweet and describe one man’s loneliness after losing his lover.
Number 30 Don’t Mess With Bill – The Marvelettes
This song was written by Smokey Robinson. It has a brooding almost menacing base and organ musical background. Lead singer’s Wanda Young’s husky sexy voice was ideally suited to this song.
Number 29 Since I Lost My Baby – The Temptations
This 1965 song written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore was a moderate hit and is underrated by some. It’s a sad song describing the emptiness of losing a lover. Again, the lyrics are pure Smokey Robinson…”the sun is shining, there’s plenty of light, a new day is dawning, sunny and bright, but after I’ve been crying all night, the sun is cold and the new day seems old.” Bob Dylan once described Smokey Robinson as America’s greatest living poet. Quite appropriate. David Ruffin’s lead vocal is masterful.
Number 28 Living for the City – Stevie Wonder
This was originally a track on Stevie’s “Innervisions” album of 1973. It was released as a single and made the top 10 on Billboard. It personifies R & B social commentary at its best and tells the story of a young hopeful African American who comes to New York City full of dreams but gets taken advantage of and finishes up in jail, with his dreams shattered.
Number 27 I Heard It through the Grapevine – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Ask most people who sang this song and they will answer Marvin Gaye. But before Marvin’s version stormed the charts, Gladys Knight and The Pips’s version was released and made it to number 1 on Billboard. The arrangement is different to Marvin Gaye’s version of the song being more upbeat and sung in an aggressive frenetic style.
Number 26 Uptight – Stevie Wonder
This 1965 top ten hit by Stevie Wonder was his first hit single to be co-written by him. It’s exciting, highly danceable and has hit written all over it. The expression “Uptight” was in vogue during that period. When Stevie went into his album phase later on his songs had more depth but few were as fresh or exciting as ‘Uptight’.
Number 25 Where Did Our Love Go? – The Supremes
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had been hanging around Motown for a long time trying to have a hit single. That finally arrived with Where Did Our Love Go? This song is R & B…. just. But it’s a great pop single as was reflected by getting to the top of Billboard and staying there for some weeks. It established The Supremes (as they were then called) as a major recording act. It was written by Holland Dozier and Holland who would go on to write many more hits for The Supremes.
Number 24 Baby I need Your Loving – The 4 Tops
This was written for The 4 Tops by Holland Dozier and Holland and was their first single to make it into the Top 20 on Billboard. It’s been recorded by other artists including Johnny Rivers but nothing comes close to this original version.
Number 23 Please Mr Postman – The Marvelettes
Please Mr Postman was Motown’s first Number 1 single. It doesn’t sound like a typical Motown song and presents more like something from Cameo/Parkway, perhaps sung by a group headed by Dee Dee Sharp. Nothing against The Marvelettes however. This is a great track and was enormously popular. A later version was recorded by The Beatles on their “With the Beatles” album which wasn’t too bad for four white guys from Liverpool, and then by The Carpenters who must have taken Valium before recording their version.
Number 22 Nowhere to Run – Martha and the Vandellas
This was a top 10 hit in 1965 and was written by Holland Dozier and Holland who again proved that they could write gritty R & B. It is one of the best songs by Martha & The Vandellas and was later featured in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam”.
Number 21 I Wish It Would Rain – The Temptations
This was written by Barrett Strong and Roger Penzabene. It deals with a heartbroken man who is expressing his sorrow. David Ruffin’s handling of this song as lead singer is magnificent and the anguish in his voice is palpable. The song was a big hit and yet not long after its release David Ruffin was banished from the group because of in fighting. Although The Temptations recorded great songs after David Ruffin left, their songs with him on lead were always my favourites.
Number 20 You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me – The Miracles
This was a top 10 hit in 1962. How about “I don’t like you, but I love you” as an opening line? Such conflicted lyrics in hit songs weren’t common in 1962. The Beatles made a not too bad version of this song.
Number 19 Does Your Mama Know About Me? – Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers
This was a moderate hit in 1968. Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, as the name suggests, was a Canadian group. The song is very soulful and socially provocative. This was the era of movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and Does Your Mama Know About Me? posed the same racial questions that American society wrestled with. There’s a nice version of this song by Diana Ross and The Supremes on their “Love Child” album.
Number 18 Money – Barrett Strong
This song was released by Barrett Strong in 1959 and got to number 23 on Billboard. Berry Gordy Jnr, the founder of Motown, was one of the song writers. Barrett Strong played the piano and Brian Holland (of Holland Dozier and Holland fame) played tambourine. This song has been recorded by many artists including The Beatles.
Number 17 You are The Sunshine of My Life – Stevie Wonder
This gorgeous song was originally a track on Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Talking Book”. It was released as a single and got to number 1 on Billboard. It showed Stevie’s great breadth of song writing ability, has been recorded by many artists and become a standard.
Number 16 Come See About Me – The Supremes
This Holland, Dozier and Holland composition for The Supremes was their third number 1 hit in a row. It’s about as soulful as The Supremes got and was a very pleasant change after the totally pop “Baby Love”.
Number 15 Your Precious Love – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Marvin and Tammi were Motown’s most successful duo. This song is less upbeat than some of their other hits but is full of soul and yearning.
Number 14 This Old Heart of Mine – The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers previously had hits with “Shout” and the original (and the best) version of “Twist and Shout”. Their stay at Motown was brief but in that time they recorded This Old Heart of Mine which was written by Holland, Dozier and Holland. It was a hit in 1966 and apparently was originally intended for The Supremes. I am not sure why The Isley Brothers left Motown after the success of this song. This Old Heart of Mine has been recorded by several other artists and most notably by Rod Stewart.
Number 13 Heat Wave – Martha and The Vandellas
The song got to number 4 on Billboard and is one of the most exciting, rollicking songs Motown ever released. It was recorded by other artists and there is a nice version in Whoopi Goldberg’s movie “Sister Act”.
Number 12 Shop Around – The Miracles
This song almost became Motown’s second number 1 hit after “Please Mr Postman”. It got to number 2. It’s a good R & B upbeat number with Smokey’s lyrics extorting the boy to “not be sold on the very first one” because “pretty girls come a dime a dozen,” it’s better to “Shop Around”.
Number 11 Fingertips (Parts 1 and 2) – Little Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was 12 years old when this recording was made. It’s one of the most exciting songs ever recorded. Paul McCartney once said in an interview that when he was growing up the most exciting songs he heard were “What’d I Say?” by Ray Charles and “Fingertips” by Little Stevie Wonder. It was a live recording. It was unusual for live recordings to be successful but this got to number 1. It lacked form and structure and at the end, it appeared that it was finished and Stevie left the stage, changed his mind and returned to sing a short encore. The other musicians were caught out and base player can be heard on the recording yelling out “What key? What Key?”
Number 10 Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye made an album called “Let’s Get it On” from which this track was lifted and released as a single. In the liner notes to the album there is a quote from Marvin Gaye saying “I believe in sex between consenting anybodies” and that’s what this song’s about, sex baby, sex! The opening wah-wah notes that start the song introduce the mood and feel of this great R & B song.
Number 9 Do You Love Me? – The Contours
This song was a top 10 hit in 1962 and was written and produced by Berry Gordy Jnr. The lyrics are hardly Ira Gershwin or Smokey Robinson – “do you love me, now that I can dance?” but in 1962, who cared?! This song is frenetic, aggressive and challenging and the urge to dance is irresistible. A later version by Brian Poole and The Tremloes was awful but The Contours’s version was too in your face for the sensibility of the UK audience or the BBC. Dennis Edwards later left The Contours to join The Temptations, replacing David Ruffin.
Number 8 Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations
This recording is a superb production. Different members of the Temps are given leads at various phases in the song. The musical backing is at time staccato and at times melodic, dramatic and soulful. This is Motown’s “wall of sound” and is a far cry from “The Way You Do the Things You Do”. Norman Whitfield who produced this song was at the height of his powers.
Number 7 What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? – Jimmy Ruffin
This hit single was recorded by Jimmy Ruffin, brother of David Ruffin. Great voices obviously ran in the family. It has been recorded by many artists and was featured in the movie “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”.
Number 6 I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and is one of the most successful records ever released by Motown. Gladys Knight and The Pips had already had a big hit with their version of this song (number 27 on this list) and Marvin Gaye recorded it as a track on his 1968 album “In the Groove”. After being played by disc jockeys it was released as a single in October 1968 and went to number 1 on Billboard where it remained for 7 weeks. It’s a great song which was immeasurably enhanced by Marvin’s spellbinding voice.
Number 5 The Tracks of my Tears – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
This song was written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore and Marv Tarplin. It was released in 1965 and was a moderate hit. What’s so special about it? It’s pure wonderful stirring soul music and the lyrics are poetic and heartfelt and in symmetry with the melody. Johnny Rivers had a hit version in 1967 which did not compare favourably with the original. The original was featured in the Academy Award winning movie “Platoon”.
Number 4 The One Who Really Loves You – Mary Wells
This 1962 song was a top 10 hit for Mary Wells. It’s the title song of an album which became Motown’s first top 10 album. But the song was written by Smokey Robinson and arguably at that stage his lyric writing had not quite matured and progressed as would be evident in his later compositions. References to “silly lily” were not very poignant but this song made up in soulful melody what it might have lacked in lyrical content. It was also enhanced by Mary Wells’s wonderful singing and particularly the fade out, which was heartfelt and thrillingly soulful. This song is the essence of soul music.
Number 3 Reach Out, I’ll be There – The 4 Tops
This 1966 song was a number 1 hit for The 4 tops. It was written by Holland Dozier and Holland. It was brilliantly produced and held together by the soaring lead vocals of Levi Stubbs. Phil Spector once described this as Motown doing Dylan but I think that is a difficult comparison to make. This song epitomises strong melodic R & B and is one of Motown’s best ever songs.
Number 2 What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye
This song produced and partly written by Marvin Gaye includes jazz sounds, gospel and of course R & B. It was Motown’s first real foray into social or political issues (“War” being an earlier example). “We don’t need to escalate – war is not the answer” underlines the message that the artist wished to convey and he did so with his incomparable voice and with the wonderful soulful melody of this outstanding song.
Motown had so many great songs that it’s difficult to restrict a list to 40. Here are some honourable mentions:
- Dancing in the Streets – Martha and The Vandellas
- The Tears of a Clown – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
- I’ll Be There – The Jackson Five
- Then – The 4 Tops
- No More Tear Stained Make Up – Martha and The Vandellas
- Songs in the Key of Life (The whole double album) – Stevie Wonder
- Destination Anywhere – The Marvelettes
- You keep Me Hanging On – Diana Ross and The Supremes
- Baby Baby Don’t Cry – Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
- Ain’t that Peculiar – Marvin Gaye
- Ooh Baby Baby – Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
- What Love Has Joined Together – Mary Wells/The Temptations
- Put Yourself In My Place – The Elgins
- Here I am Baby – The Marvelettes
- Who You Gonna Run To? – The Temptations
- Hey Love – Stevie Wonder
- Slow Down Heart – The Temptations
- It’s a Shame – The Spinners.
- He’s the one I Love – Mary Wells
- Ain’t too proud to Beg – The Temptations
Number 1 My Girl – The Temptations
What’s so great about My Girl? It’s a simple song and the lyrics aren’t particularly inspiring. Why is it so iconic? Why number 1 in this list? It’s written by Smokey Robinson. The lead singer is David Ruffin. The background vocals are harmonious and wonderful. And this song is everything that 1965 was about. That was a more peaceful, simpler time than now although the agonies of the Vietnam War were about to be thrust upon America and the world. I once sang this song on the stage of the Apollo Theatre. Better versions have been sung in that venue and elsewhere. In my opinion, no other song better epitomises the heart and soul of Motown and that is why it is my favourite Motown song.