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Women’s contributions to the making of Motown: Solo artists

On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Previously, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015; Larvester Gaither examined the role of Duets and Girl Groups in Motown.

Starting in the early 1960s, female artists embarked upon solo careers with the Motown label. The first female to be signed to the label was Mable John, a blues vocalist born in Bastrop, Louisiana. Slow melodic songs like “No Love” and “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” stood firmly in the blues genre, yet only appealed to a limited, mature audience and did not translate into commercial success. Additionally, the success of The Miracles and The Marvelettes helped steer Gordy in another direction if, in fact, he wasn’t already searching for a newer sound. John would sing background for other groups on the label and her tenure with Motown ended in 1962. Nevertheless, John was a musical pioneer who influenced numerous artists, including contemporary blues musician Robert Cray who covers “Your Good Thing is About to End” on his 2014 In My Soul album.

Mary Wells was Motown’s first successful female soloist. Born in Detroit, she signed with the label in 1960. Her first release, “Bye Bye Baby,” peaked at number 8 on the R&B charts in 1961 and later reached 45 on the pop chart. Although John preceded her in signing with Motown, Wells was viewed as the “Queen” since she was the first to achieve stardom. In fact, the success of “You Beat Me To the Punch” made Wells the first Motown artist regardless of gender to be nominated for an R&B Grammy. Nonetheless, while Wells enjoyed a string of successful releases during her tenure with Motown, her relationship with the company lasted only until 1964. Unsatisfied with Gordy’s marketing strategy, which channeled resources built from her success towards developing The Supremes, she left Motown for 20th Century Fox Records in 1965.

Mary Wells
Mary Wells, 1964. 20th Century-Fox Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While at Motown, however, she made a huge impact, exemplifying the expectations of a successful female artist for other up-and-coming artists. Additionally, the success of “My Guy,” a song penned by Smokey Robinson, established her as Motown’s first international superstar and laid the template for the sound with which Motown would find success. Prior to leaving Motown, she also recorded a duet album with label mate Marvin Gaye, who was a rising star at the time. Consisting of slow ballads and standards, Together created a winning formula that Motown would emulate with other female artists throughout the remainder of the sixties.

With the departure of Wells, Motown looked to Brenda Holloway as her ideal successor. Holloway inherited many of the songs written for Wells and achieved only moderate success with them despite the fact that she was probably one of Motown’s most talented artists. Like Wells, she opened for The Beatles and Dick Clark considered her America’s most talented vocalist. Born in Atascadero, California, she began singing professionally at the age of 14 and seemed already primed for stardom when she met Gordy at the age of 17. Her contract with Motown in 1964 allowed for her to record from Los Angeles where she resided. Her first recording, “Every Little Bit Hurts,” reached number 13 on the Billboard, establishing her as a rising force to be reckoned with. Still, her tenure with Motown was short-lived as she became disillusioned with what increasingly appeared to be a tumultuous atmosphere at Motown, which had yet to fully recover from the departure of Wells. A few months prior to her departure in 1968, The Artistry of Brenda Holloway was released and achieved moderate success in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.

Several other female artists contributed to Motown’s rise, including Carolyn Crawford, Gladys Knight (she achieved success as a lead female singer with three male singers providing background vocals), Patrice Holloway (Brenda’s younger sibling who co-wrote “You Made Me So Very Happy,” a tune Blood, Sweat and Tears took to #3), Reba Jeanette Smith (commonly known as Debbie Dean and Motown’s first white female soloist), Barbara Randolph, and others.

As the 1960s came to a close, female artists continued to play a major role at Motown, in music more generally, and in culture globally. Early Motown female solo acts continue to exert an influence today, for example on pop sensation Alicia Keys, who covered “Every Little Bit Hurts” on her Unplugged album in 2011.

Headline image credit: Vintage microphone. © twygg via iStock.

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