Motown music is one of the most predominant memories of my childhood. My mum’s teenage years were soundtracked by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Isley Brothers, and from her I have inherited a complete and utter love for Motown music. There is rarely a car ride that we don’t have the Motown CD blasting. We even have it playing during our Christmas dinner. Motown music, with its signature horns, percussion and driving bass lines, is the epitome of joy for me. Named after Detroit’s ‘Motor City’, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records was more than a record label. The Motown Sound became ‘The Sound of Young America’ and had a huge influence on style, culture and pop music industry. The obstacles the artists of Motown faced were unthinkable. Racism, prejudice and segregation was a societal norm yet the African-American company Motown had more than 180 number one records worldwide and became the most commercial success record company in history. I’ve found narrowing all my favourite songs down to a list of merely ten quite distressing. It’s been a nearly impossible task for me and I’ve spent hours pouring over my top tracks, changing them, finalising them, changing them again and having many a dance along the way. I think I’ve managed to whittle my favourites down to ten. The songs I have chosen are songs that were produced by Motown Records specifically, I haven’t chosen soul records that have a similar sound (otherwise I’d be here all day). I’ve definitely missed out some brilliant Motown hits – but the songs selected are ones that mean the world to me, and the ones that I couldn’t live without.
10. I Was Made To Love Her – Stevie Wonder
I absolutely love a song with a story, and I Was Made To Love Her by the god that is Stevie Wonder does not disappoint. The song tells the story of Stevie’s childhood sweetheart Susie, and their growing love throughout the years. This track is filled with the most gorgeous lyrics like ‘I was made to love, worship and adore her’ and ‘Even if the mountain tumbles, if this whole world crumbles by her side I’ll still be standing there’. I mean, you can’t get more romantic than that! My mum also loves to sing at the top of her lungs “SUSIE WAS IN PIGTAILS!”, which has become my favourite line for that reason. Featuring the grooviest bass line, Stevie’s trademark bluesy harmonica and some powerful vocals, I Was Made To Love Her epitomises the soul sound for me.
9. It’s The Same Old Song – The Four Tops
‘You’re sweet as a honeybee, but like a honeybee’s sting you’ve gone and left my heart in pain’ – wow, what an opening line. This song convinces me that Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs has one of the best soul voices of all time. His voice is deeply emotive, and every song that he sings is steeped with passion. The Four Tops are just unbeatable in my opinion, and I love many of their songs. Baby I Need Your Loving and Walk Away Renee come to mind, but Same Old Song is right at the top. The song’s narrative is full of lovesick heartbreak, and yet when paired with a classic Motown groove, incredible horn solo and wonderful backing vocals (and dance moves) from the other three of The Four Tops, it’s impossible not to bop along. This is one of Mum and I’s absolute favourites and we’ve spent many a car ride blasting this song with the windows down, ‘raising our hands to the music’ (not when driving).
8. Too Busy Thinking About My Baby – Marvin Gaye
I’ve always dreamed about being serenaded by Marvin Gaye. This song in particular is one of Gaye’s most romantic, in which he lists all things he ‘ain’t got time’ to do because he’s too busy thinking about his love. Gaye’s velvety vocals are complemented beautifully by a string arrangement so gorgeous you feel like you are going to melt when you hear it. One thing I love about the men of Motown is the vulnerability that they express in their music. Gaye isn’t afraid to lay his heart on the line and declare his adoration or heartbreak, and you can hear that in every song he sings. This song has given me exceedingly high romantic expectations and although my boyfriend has not yet serenaded me, I’d be happy for him to lip sync to this song and be done with it.
7. Heatwave – Martha and the Vandellas
A perfect song for a summer’s day! Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had it all: style, glamour and number one hits a plenty. They are one of my favourite Motown girl groups and Heatwave is my favourite track of theirs. This song is so joyful and instantly gets me in a good mood. The playful call and response backing vocals of ‘like a heatwave’ from Rosaland Ashford and Betty Kelley compliment Martha Reeves’ powerful vocals perfectly. With a groovy horn section added to the mix, we are left with an instant floor filler and soul classic. Martha Reeves is still performing at the age of 79 no less, and it is one of my dreams to have a boogie to this song live.
6. What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye
Written in response to the police brutality, racial discrimination and devastating effects of the Vietnam War that he saw around him, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? is undoubtedly one of his greatest masterpieces. It’s tragic to think that this song’s meaning is still prevalent in 2021, as Gaye sings, ‘Don’t punish me with brutality’ and ‘Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying’. Gaye’s mellow vocals give the song a calming, soothing feel that contrasts to the painful subject matter. I find this track very therapeutic, and have spent many an evening before bed listening to it to unwind. This song is one of the late Marvin Gaye’s best, and, I would even go as far to say, one of the greatest songs ever written.
5. You Keep Me Hangin’ On – The Supremes
I am obsessed with The Supremes and ‘there ain’t nothing I can do about it’. I love every song by The Supremes but You Keep Me Hangin’ On has it all: style, attitude, vulnerability and fire. This track sums up perfectly what being led on feels like. ‘Let me get over you the way you’ve gotten over me’ and ‘You don’t want me for yourself, so let me find somebody else’ – I mean we can all relate. From the opening funky guitar riff we are catapulted into a captivatingly dramatic world. Diana Ross’ soft voice is so pretty and aches with heartache, helped along by the powerful backing vocals of Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. You Keep Me Hangin’ On is full of sadness and sass and is an anthem to sing at the top of your lungs when your heart has been broken.
4. Tears of a Clown – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
An instant floorfiller from the first note, Tears of a Clown by the King of Motown, Smokey Robinson is one of the most well-known and loved Motown tracks. The catchy, circus-esque calliope motif (written by Stevie Wonder no less), inspired Smokey to write a song about Pagliacci, an Italian clown, who cries from loneliness in his dressing room after each day of making people laugh is done. Smokey’s distinctive high vocal register gives the song its full sound and when Smokey sings, ‘I’m sad, sadder than sad’ you almost feel like he’s crying out in misery. The song itself however, is far from miserable. The funky horns, bass line groove and call and response backing vocals create a perfect, instant dancefloor filler. I challenge anyone to listen to this track without even tapping their foot. Impossible.
3. I’ll Pick A Rose For My Rose – Marv Johnson
I’m starting off the top three with an underrated Motown gem that I only stumbled across when Spotify shuffled it to me. I can’t thank Spotify enough for that. Pick A Rose For My Rose is the prettiest song and one that I insist is a song for me because my middle name is also Rose (loose connection I know). It’s also a song that I pester my friend Rose with by singing it to her every time I see her, so much so that it’s now become our song. The song didn’t make the charts in the US but gained the popularity it deserved in the UK, thanks to the Northern Soul scene. The track’s simple piano melody is paired with delicious lyrics that ooze romance (‘I’ll pick a rose for my Rose, cos somehow I know she knows, this love deep in my heart is still alive’). Go and listen to it if you haven’t already, and get ready to fall in love. You’ll see why it’s in the top three of my list. On Marv Johnson’s gravestone it reads ‘Motown Pioneer’ and judging by the gorgeous piece of music left in his legacy, it’s clear to see why.
2. I Can’t Help Myself ( Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops
This song is one of my favourite songs ever made. Within a second of this song starting, my mood is transformed. I Can’t Help Myself is a beautiful declaration of love, which can be applied to anyone you choose, whether that be for a partner, a friend or a family member. The sweet refrain of ‘Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch’ is irresistibly catchy and fills me up with joy every single time it plays. Whether on the radio, on a telly advert or played by a wedding DJ, this song is guaranteed to have everyone singing their hearts out. I Can’t Help Myself seems to be a song that everybody grew up knowing. It’s a wonderful example of the Motown Sound: with the signature percussion and horns creating a golden groove that seems to fill you up. Do yourself a favour and watch footage of The Four Tops singing this live. It’s so delightful to see their joy and the million dollar smiles lighting up their faces, they are electric performers. I read that the group initially didn’t like the song as they found it ‘childish’ and ‘sappy’. Despite the Four Tops’ reservations, this song is a Motown classic and sits proudly in my list of the best songs ever made.
- This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) – The Isley Brothers
My favourite Motown song is without a doubt The Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine. It reminds me of my mum, who absolutely loves it too. Without my mum, I wouldn’t have discovered my favorite genre of music, so whenever this comes on I think of her. From the song’s opening piano build to the lyrics (‘This old heart of mine, been broke a thousand times’), we deeply feel that classic Motown vulnerability, adoration and heartache. Ronald Isley’s lead vocals are beautiful, especially when backed by O’Kelly and Rudolph Isley’s gorgeous refrain, ‘I love you, yes I do-oo’. The sentiment may be corny by today’s standards, but I think it is stunningly romantic, a jubilant celebration of love. I can’t express how much I adore this piece of music, and you can guarantee that within a millisecond of this song starting, I’m straight onto the dance floor without a second thought. The record sleeve of This Old Heart of Mine was infamously whitewashed, as The Isley Brothers were replaced by two white teenagers frolicking on a beach. Behind this music filled with euphoria and jubilation was a world of racial segregation, violence and prejudice. The Motown artists brought some much-needed joy into a world that was unjust and deeply racist. The adversity they faced is impossible to comprehend, yet against all odds Motown became the most successful independent record company in history and the most successful African-American-owned business in America. I am forever indebted to Motown music for uplifting me, motivating me, heartening me and inspiring me always. It is the best music ever made and I will carry it with me for the rest of my life, grooving as I go.