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Women’s contributions to the making of Motown: Girl Groups

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 in Motown.

The Marvelettes, a girl group consisting of Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Wanda Young (who replaced Georgia Dobbins before recording), recorded Motown’s first number one pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman.” The upbeat song topped both the pop and R&B charts, making the Marvelettes one of the first all-girl groups in the industry to achieve such a feat. Thus, from its beginning, women would play a pivotal role in shaping Motown’s collective yet multifaceted identity. No less than 60% of the top 100 singles released by girl groups during the sixties emanated from Hitsville, U.S.A., as Motown came to be known. The same could not be said about its male artists, though they comprised roughly 60% of the label’s talent during this period.

One of Motown’s key ingredients for success was the collaborative effort Gordy managed to convey to his organization’s artists, musicians, writers, producers, and singers. In this regard, girl group The Andantes was the secret ingredient to Motown’s rise to prominence during the sixties.

Comprised of Detroit natives Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps, the versatile and multitalented session group provided background vocals for nearly 80% of the hit records produced by Motown during the sixties. Five songs including them as background vocals topped the Billboard’s popular music chart: Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Love Child.” No doubt many of the acts during the first half of the sixties benefited from the highly acclaimed production team consisting of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, and a talented group of musicians nicknamed The Funk Brothers. Yet a cursory listen to tunes created by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team reveals how heavily they relied upon the Andantes. In fact, they were featured on virtually all of the Four Tops’ hit singles.

In addition to singing background vocals, Barrow sometimes stood in for Florence Ballard of The Supremes during concerts; between 1968–69, she substituted for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on the Supremes’ recordings. From 1965–67, the Andantes replaced the Marvelettes in the studio; the group’s final album The Return of the Marvelettes could have been titled Wanda Young and the Andantes, as Young was the only remaining original member of The Marvelettes. The Andantes dissolved as a group once Gordy relocated the company to Los Angeles in 1972, but they could be heard by a new generation as late as 2002 on rap musician Jay Z’s album, Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, as he sampled The Marvelettes’ cover of Smokey Robinson’s “All of Me” on the single “Poppin Tags.”

The Marvelettes
The Marvelettes, 6 April 1963 (Billboard). Photo by James Kriegsmann. Motown/Tamla Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” remains a classic in popular culture. Early on The Beatles, The Carpenters, and others covered it; more recently, popular rap artist Lil Wayne sampled The Carpenters’ version on a track titled “Mr. Postman.” They are considered one of the top girl groups of all time and, to a large extent, rivaled Motown’s most successful group, The Supremes. Aside from being Motown’s first successful girl group, they actually wrote some of their earlier hits. For example, their second top 10 single, “Playboy,” was co-written by member Gladys Horton. However, The Marvelettes were reluctant to veer too far away from the R&B genre. When the Holland-Dozier-Holland team wrote “Where Did Our Love Go,” it was originally intended for them but was eventually passed on to The Supremes.

The Supremes
(Diana Ross & The Supremes) was not only Motown’s most successful girl group, but also one of the most popular groups of the twentieth century, rivaling the Beatles at their height. Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson were teenagers when they signed with Motown in 1961. Ironically, their rise to stardom was not as meteoric as previous Motown girl groups but eventually far exceeded the others in terms of commercial success and international acclaim. It would take three years for the group to make a dent in the industry.

The first eight singles released by The Supremes were only moderately successful, just enough to keep the teenagers motivated; after all, they were signed with Detroit’s biggest record company and they could occasionally hear their songs playing on local radio stations. However only one of these singles, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” reached higher than 75 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 30. When the Holland-Dozier-Holland team presented the teens with a tune that had been turned down by The Marvelettes, they lacked such leverage and had no choice but to accept the challenge of turning what also appeared to them a childish song into a hit. With “Where Did Our Love Go,” the refrain was simply, “Baby Baby, Where did our love go?” and relied heavily on Diana Ross’s stylistic interpretations of the song’s lyrics to make it meaningful.

Released in 1964, the song’s success was also owed to the group’s superb stage presence. That summer, Motown’s Brenda Holloway had achieved success with “Every Little Bit Hurts” and radio and television personality Dick Clark was lining up acts for his Caravan of Stars. Clark seemed in awe of Holloway’s voice and approached Motown intent on including her as a headliner, but Gordy insisted that The Supremes be attached to the deal. Clark reluctantly agreed, and during the tour The Supremes were billed simply as “and others.” Nevertheless, as they won over concert audiences around the country, the song steadily climbed the charts, eventually peaking at Billboard’s top spot. With the success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes began touring abroad and within a few months had achieved their second number one hit with “Baby Love,” which topped charts in both the United States and Britain. Europe would quickly follow suit, making The Supremes’ an international phenomenon that would score unprecedented five consecutive number one hits. Altogether, 12 of their singles during the sixties topped the Billboard 100.

 Martha and the Vandellas, 1965. Gordy Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Martha and the Vandellas, 1965. Gordy Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Martha and the Vandellas consisted of Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard, and Gloria Williams, along with lead singer Martha Reeve. The group recorded all their singles for Motown’s Gordy imprint. Very talented singers, the group’s repertoire spanned rock, pop, blues, and R&B. Once signed in 1962, it didn’t take long for the Vandellas to find success with Motown, as they were the first group to benefit from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team. “Come and Get the Memories” peaked at 25 and 6 respectively on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop and R&B charts. “Heat Wave,” a song about a woman’s heated desire for her lover, climbed to number 4 on the pop chart and earned The Vandellas the distinction of becoming the first Motown group to be nominated for a Grammy.

Their most popular song, however, was “Dancing in the Streets,” a song written by William “Mickey” Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Marvin Gaye. The song’s principal writer, Stevenson, was inspired to write the song after witnessing people dancing in the streets of Detroit, oftentimes opening fire hydrants to cool off. But while the song’s lyrics and up-tempo rhythms were meant to convey a feeling of optimism—a song people could dance to—others believed the song was a call to riot. As cities burned that summer, “Dancing in the Streets” became a metaphor for riotous protest born of despair and indignation. The song would aptly capture the mood of youthful rebellion at the height of the Civil Rights movement, climbing to the second spot on the Billboard Pop chart and number 4 on UK’s pop chart, all the while becoming a fiery anthem for youth throughout the United States.

The Velvelettes were formed in 1961 and its original members consisted of Bertha Barbee McNeal, Mildred Gill Arbor, Carolyn Gill, Norma Barbee, and Betty Kelly. Annette Rogers and Sandra Tilley joined the group in 1966, but the latter left a year later to replace Rosalind Ashford of the Vandellas. Signed in 1962, the group recorded “There He Goes” and “That’s the Reason Why” in 1963. However, their breakthrough came in 1964 with the release of “Needle in A Haystack,” a single that reached 45 on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year. But by 1964, Motown was expending its focus on The Supremes. Nevertheless, the group continued to perform concerts during this period and recorded in the studio for Motown up until their final release “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You,” an R&B song that reached the top 50. The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas also recorded some of The Velvelettes’ material during this period. The Velvelettes finally dissolved as group in 1967 but played a pivotal part in the overall scheme of Motown’s success between 1962-67.

Though the girl group phenomenon of the 1960s faded, female musicians continued to be successful and influential at Motown and in music generally.

Headline image credit: Vintage radio. © scanrail via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. eddie blazier

    One album mistakenly lists the Marvalettes as the artist; the correct spelling featured on all other albums, press releases and publicity is
    Georgia Dobbins was an original member of the group and co-wrote “Please Mr. Postman” but dropped out before the group recorded the song. Wanda Young was added in her place.
    The Andantes are not the background singers on Diana Ross & the Supremes No1 hit, “Someday We’ll Be Together”
    The Marvelettes had disbanded before the recording of “The Return Of the Marvelettes” album.
    If Diana Ross & the Supremes recorded “Please Mr. Postman” , then you should contact the Motown vault managers with your evidence, as they’ve never found any such evidence. Diana Ross performed a snippet of the song in her live in the 1970’s show during a salute to The Motown Sound.
    Gladys Horton is one of 4 writers of “Playboy”
    “Where Did Our Love Go” was rejected by the Marvelettes and then shopped around to others (not just given to the Supremes because they were looking for a hit, as implied).
    The authors of the song have publicly stated that they had worked out intricate harmonies for “Where Did Our Love Go” but Mary & Florence were experiencing difficulties learning them. They then decided to simplify the background vocals to what is n the record.
    The Marvelettes were from Inkster, not the Supremes , who were from Detroit.
    MARTHA & the Vandellas consisted of Rosalind, Annette & Gloria ??????? Martha Reeves was part of this foursome when they were the Del-Phis, the Vels, Martha & the Vandellas, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. She was not added after Gloria William’s departure.
    Annette Rogers became a member of the Velvelettes with Sandra Tilley.
    Again, which Velvelettes song(s) did Martha & the Vandellas record during this period?

  2. eddie blazier

    Correct spelling of group name is Marvelettes

  3. John Wos

    Florence Ballard was no longer with the Supremes in 1968-1969 as outlined in this poorly written and horribly misspelled article!!!

  4. […] Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015; Larvester Gaither examined the role of Duets and Girl Groups in […]

  5. Jack

    The Good Girls. They should be included as well. Their single Your Sweetness is My Weakness is pure pop hip-hop. Please mention them.

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