In 1959, an aspiring songwriter and record producer named Berry Gordy Jr. borrowed $800 to start his own record label in Detroit. Good investment. Within a year, Motown had its first million-selling record, with the Miracles’ “Shop Around.” By 1969, the label would place dozens of records in the Billboard Top 10 as it reshaped the sound of pop music for a generation, thanks to its somewhat contradictory mix of assembly-line consistency and individual artistic brilliance, integrationist upward mobility and black self-assertion, fierce competition and familial camaraderie. “I was so happy whenever I got a hit record on one of the artists,” said Smokey Robinson, the label’s greatest songwriting genius. “Because they were my brothers and sisters.”
After defining “the sound of young America” with the mid-Sixties pop elegance of Mary Wells, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations, and the girl-group glory of the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas, the label’s two most visionary artists, Gaye and Stevie Wonder, pushed against Gordy’s dictatorial rule to create adventurous, socially conscious landmark Seventies albums like What’s Going On and Innervisions, which expanded Motown’s scope while staying true to its core hitmaking values. Motown stars like Robinson, the Commodores, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson kept churning out great music through the funk, disco, and easy-listening eras, and hitmakers like Rick James, Lionel Richie, DeBarge, and Boyz II Me kept the label all over the radio in the slick Eighties and into the Nineties.
Getting down to a list of the 100 Greatest Motown Songs wasn’t easy. This year is the 60th anniversary of Motown’s first Number One hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” by the Marvelettes, and yet the joy and power of this music hasn’t diminished even a tiny bit. Even if you’ve heard them a million times or come across them in a dozen movie soundtracks, classics like “My Girl,” “Come See About Me,” or “The Tracks of My Tears” still sound almost impossibly fresh, just as the radical spirit of “What’s Going On” or “Living for the City” resonates perfectly in our present political moment. And amid all the hits, there are still lesser-known gems to be discovered.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Shop Around” (1960)
If you want to hear how Berry Gordy fine-tuned Detroit R&B for wider (and whiter) pop appeal without watering it down, compare the two versions the Miracles recorded of this 1960 Smokey Robinson classic. A few days after the first was released locally, Gordy second-guessed himself — “too slow, not enough life,” he grumbled — and he brought everyone back to record the peppier version that became Motown’s first million-seller. A Number One R&B hit, “Shop Around” was only kept out of the Number One slot on the pop charts by Lawrence Welk. —K.H.
Martha and the Vandellas, “Jimmy Mack” (1966)
Few hits in the Motown canon have as many backstories and multiple meanings as the Vandellas’ last Top 10 hit. A song of deep longing for a missing lover, the track itself is far from forlorn, thanks to songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Funk Brothers’ pumping rhythms. The title phrase was inspired by a BMI awards ceremony, where one of the winners, songwriter Ronnie Mack of “He’s So Fine,” was eulogized by his mother, who accepted the award after his death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I was so taken with the mother and her little speech — that stayed with me, so I came up with the song,” Lamont Dozier said. Originally cut in 1964, it was shelved until 1967, when it became a belated hit — just in time for the Vietnam War, when the song’s yearning for a loved one to return lent it yet another context. —D.B.
Dennis Edwards feat. Siedah Garrett, “Don’t Look Any Further” (1984)
Here lies yet another of the earth-shaking rhythm sections in Motown’s massive discography: an unchanging snare drum cruelly punching holes in a four-part bass riff stuffed with chubby notes. This was the only hit outside of the Temptations for Edwards — he gets a healthy assist from Garrett, who would go on to co-write Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — but even without his longtime groupmates, he can shoot out words and phrases with the gravel-shotgun force of Teddy Pendergrass. Much like the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long,” “Don’t Look Any Further” seems to exist on a rhythmic continuum leading from early funk to hip-hop. Older dancers know Edwards and Garrett’s single reaches back to “Abraxame,” an underappreciated track from the group Barrabas, which had some success in New York clubs in the early Seventies. Hip-hop heads know the bass line was so good that Eric B. and Rakim used it to underpin their masterpiece “Paid in Full.” —E.L.
The Velvelettes, “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'” (1964)
Formed at Western Michigan University, the Velvelettes never found the success of the Marvelettes, Vandellas, or Supremes (their one attempt at an album was never finished), but they had two wonderful singles in 1964: “Needle in a Haystack” and the lyrically sharp, musically sophisticated “He Was Really Saying Something.” The song was a modest hit for the group, and Eighties music fans would later come to know it through New Wave girl group Bananarama’s faithful 1983 version. —J.D.
The Originals, “Baby, I’m for Real” (1969)
The Originals only appeared as backup singers through most of the Sixties, until they finally had a hit with a “Baby, I’m for Real,” produced by Marvin Gaye and co-written with his first wife, Anna Gordy Gaye. Spartan yet sweet, it hearkened back to the doo-wop era at a time when soul music was just beginning to get lavishly psychedelic, a simple statement of love and determination that got the group’s career going after years of waiting in the wings. They followed it the next year with equally lovely “The Bells,” another hit co-authored and produced by Gaye. —J.D.
Rare Earth, “I Just Want to Celebrate” (1971)
In search of rock cred at the end of the Sixties, Motown started a subsidiary label, Rare Earth, named after one of its first signings, a Detroit band. Not much became of the imprint, which closed up shop by the mid-Seventies. But as heard on its most enduring single, the all-white Rare Earth turned out to be a decent fit for Berry Gordy’s posse. An ode to staying positive during difficult times — a very vogue-ish song subject matter during the Vietnam era — “I Just Want to Celebrate” fused a beefy funk groove, a wild rock-style wah-wah guitar solo, and a midsong breakdown. In the best Motown tradition, “I Just Want to Celebrate” transcended genres. —D.B.
The Marvelettes, “Too Many Fish in the Sea” (1964)
The Marvelettes were cool customers — not the kind of girls to plead or beg. (That “Playboy” knew he was never getting their digits.) They turned “Too Many Fish in the Sea” into a timeless feminist pep talk for anyone going through love troubles, with Gladys Horton as the voice of wisdom: “I don’t want nobody who don’t want me/There’s too many fish in the sea!” Benny Benjamin’s drums really second that emotion. The writers: two of Motown’s MVPs, Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield. —R.S.(Video) 100 Greatest Motown Songs - Motown Greatest Hits Collection - Best Motown Songs Of All Time
Rick James and Teena Marie, “Fire and Desire” (1981)
Rick James wrote this ballad about a torrid affair with an Ethiopian princess. He planned it as a duet with his protégé Teena Marie, until she came down with a bad fever and her doctor warned her not to sing. But when Rick hired a replacement, Teena rose from her sickbed, stormed into the studio, and said, “No way I’m gonna let some other bitch sing that song.” As Rick recalled in his memoir Glow, “Still sweating from her fever, Lady T marched into the booth and tore that shit up. I mean, she delivered a vocal performance that folks are gonna be listening to as long as human beings are capable of love.” —R.S.
Eddie Kendricks, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind (Part 1)” (1972)
A dance-floor filler to this day, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” builds for several minutes before reaching an ecstatic, wordless peak. (The instrumental has aged far better than the politics, which seem to take issue with women’s liberation: “Why march in picket lines?” Eddie Kendricks asks. “Burn bras and carry signs?”) The piano is the engine here, pushing everything forward with heavy clumps of notes, while the brass section keeps adding injections of diesel fuel. At one point, Kendricks holds his quavering falsetto for around 10 straight seconds before the track goes full instrumental and pushes toward the lead-footed, four-on-the-floor pulse that would later define disco. When Kendricks returns, all the instruments drop away except the hand percussion, creating the kind of endlessly loopable kinetic breakdown that’s catnip for DJs. —E.L.
Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man” (1972)
The early 1970s were the glory days of blaxploitation flicks and their soundtracks: Shaft had Isaac Hayes, Superfly had Curtis Mayfield, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off had James Brown. Marvin Gaye made his big score with Trouble Man, the 1972 thriller about a ghetto kingpin named Mister T. (The poster called him “One Cat Who Plays Like an Army!”) It was his only film soundtrack, but it was a smash — he went Top 10 with his bluesy theme song. Gaye sings about street life in his falsetto, declaring, “There’s only three things in life that’s sure — taxes, death, and trouble.” —R.S.
The Supremes, “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (1970)
“Up the Ladder to the Roof” was recorded two weeks after Diana Ross left the Supremes, with her replacement, Jean Terrell, stepping into the role of lead singer. The song looked backward and forward at the same time, conjuring the Drifters’ 1964 classic “Up on the Roof,” while adding a dash of funky psychedelic whimsy. The result was a sweet, transporting tune and a hit — their first as the Supremes (rather than Diana Ross and the Supremes) in three years.—J.D.
Martha and the Vandellas, “No More Tearstained Makeup” (1966)
Smokey Robinson was on such a hot streak in 1966 — he could dash off a song as perfect as “No More Tearstained Makeup,” and decide to stash it on Side Two of a Martha and the Vandellas album. This song was never a hit, not even a single. But it’s a buried treasure that can give any Motown connoisseur the shivers, from the Vandellas’ superb LP Watchout!This breezy groove has some of Smokey’s wittiest wordplay, stretching out the makeup metaphors and puns, while Martha Reeves sings about “the tears pancake and powder could never cover.” —R.S.
The Four Tops, “It’s the Same Old Song” (1965)
When it comes to Motown, sometimes it’s more fun to print the legend. According to the Tops’ Duke Fakir, Lamont Dozier was under the gun to write a follow-up to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” in 1965, so he just reversed the earlier hit’s chord changes — hence the winking in-joke of a song title. Within 24 hours, a new Four Tops classic was written and recorded, and it went to Number Two on the R&B chart, and Number Five on pop. It’s such a great yarn — too bad the Supremes recorded a version of “It’s the Same Old Song” a year earlier. Don’t you hate when facts ruin a good story? —K.H.
Mary Wells, “My Guy” (1964)
Wells once called her biggest hit, “My Guy,” “the epitome of the Motown sound,” and she was right. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson, the track is a fluttering, soft, ultra-feminine tale of fidelity, with Wells coyly rejecting the advances of other men. As Wells told biographer Peter Benjaminson, she thought it would be cute to pay tribute to Mae West during the outro, doing a bit of a sultry staccato. “I was really joking,” she later said. “My Guy” would end up being Wells’ biggest and last hit for Motown before signing to 20th Century Fox with movie-star dreams. With “My Guy,” she also became Motown’s first major star, topping the pop charts while the label was still in its early days. —B.S.
Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke” (1977)
“Sir Duke” is like a challenge: How could anyone listen to its Lindy-Hopping horns and funky bass, its surprise slide-whistle, and the warm growl in Stevie Wonder’s voice when he sings, “You can feel it all over,” and not smile? For Wonder, the tune was simply a feel-good tribute to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sir Duke himself, Duke Ellington. “[I] wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us,” he once said. Ultimately, though, it’s an invigorating tribute to the unifying spirit of music itself, the “equal opportunity for all to sing, dance, and clap their hands,” and, frankly, Wonder deserves his own “Sir Duke” tribute just for writing it. —K.G.
Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (1992)
Motown’s classic period may have long ended by the time the Nineties rolled around, but the label’s biggest hit was yet to come. As a song, “End of the Road” was a way for writers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Daryl Simmons to commiserate about their divorces (with an assist from L.A. Reid). As a recording, with its swaying harmonies and Michael McCary’s spoken Barry White–style interlude, “End of the Road” had one foot in the past and another stepping forward, and it spent 13 weeks at Number One to break the long-standing record that Elvis had set with “Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog.” —K.H.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Going to a Go-Go” (1965)
The title track from the Miracles’ monumentally great 1965 album (which ranks at 420 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list) is an invitation to go out and hit the club that easily doubles as a metaphor for Motown’s inviting, integrationist spirit — “You might see anyone in town,” Smokey Robinson tells us. The Funk Brothers drive home the message with a tough beat that helps put the song up there with “Dancing in the Street” among Motown’s great anthems of joy, aspiration, and community. —J.D.
The Temptations, “Cloud Nine” (1968)
When Holland, Dozier, and Holland left Motown for financial reasons, songwriter-producers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield stepped into the breach and took the label in a whole new direction. “Cloud Nine” was the first of the Temptations’ psychedelic singles, influenced by the revolutionary audience-bridging soul power of Sly and the Family Stone. Many listeners, including Motown head Berry Gordy, assumed the song was a drug reference, but as the Temptations’ Otis Williams later recalled, “I know there weren’t drug references because Norman and Barrett didn’t do drugs.”—J.D.(Video) Motown Greatest Hits Collection - Best Motown Songs Of All Time
Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Someday We’ll Be Together” (1969)
Ironically, Diana Ross’ farewell single with the Supremes was hardly agroup effort; neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong appeared on it,their places taken by session singers Maxine and Julia Waters. Thatstrangeness aside, the elegantly sumptuous record — co-written byJohnny Bristol, a songwriter and producer who can also be heardsinging in the background — is one of the most majestic and poignantrecords of the Motown era. The last Number One hit of the Sixties, it was afitting send-off for the group and the decade that birthed them. —D.B.
Stevie Wonder, “Boogie On Reggae Woman” (1974)
Reggae was just beginning to catch a fire in the U.S. in 1974, but as always, Stevie Wonder was ahead of everyone else: He took it to the Top Ten. “Boogie On Reggae Woman” is a synth-funk electro-skank where Stevie plays nearly everything himself, from the harmonica solo to that filthy Moog bass line. He also adds the flirty sentiment, “I’d like to see you in the raw under the stars above.” One of the song’s biggest fans: Jerry Garcia, who immediately started playing it on the road and loved to jam on “Boogie On Reggae Woman” for 17 or 18 minutes at a time. —R.S.
The Undisputed Truth, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (1971)
Norman Whitfield, the architect of psychedelic soul, and singer-songwriter Barrett Strong originally wrote this warning to backstabbers for the Temptations, who recorded it in 1971. But it was Motown trio the Undisputed Truth who took the original 12-minute jam, slowed it down, added horns, and cut it to down a three-minute slice of foreboding soul. Far from the tales of carefree romance popular in Sixties Motown, the song cautions against the smiling faces that “pretend to be your friend” and “don’t tell the truth.” The group wouldn’t reach that level of success again, but the song earned notable covers by everyone from Rare Earth to Joan Osborne.—J.N.
The Supremes, “My World Is Empty Without You” (1965)
“My World Is Empty Without You” is one of Motown’s most obsessive beats — Diana Ross gets haunted in her lonely house, staring at her four walls, but the sadness is all in the rhythm. It’s a showcase for drum master Benny Benjamin. “Man, he was one of the major forces in the Motown sound,” Stevie Wonder told Rolling Stone in 1973, just a few years after Benjamin’s fatal stroke. “Just listen to all that Motown shit, like ‘Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘My World Is Empty Without You, Babe’ and ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ and ‘Don’t Mess With Bill.’ ‘Girl’s All Right With Me,’ the drums would just pop!” —R.S.
Stevie Wonder, “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” (1974)
This fiercely funky political broadside, coincidentally released just after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, is like a weaponized version of “Superstition,” with Wonder pounding out the nastiest clavinet on record and a backup vocal from the Jackson 5 that’s celebratory in its defiance. Stevie was clearly in tune with the electorate: This topped both the R&B and pop charts. While concentrating on the perpetual struggle against the powerful, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” is also slyly futuristic, integrating synths and a new musical invention: the drum machine. —K.H.
Brenda Holloway, “Every Little Bit Hurts” (1964)
A singer from Los Angeles with a gospel and classical background, Brenda Holloway sang with an old-soul weariness that stood apart from Motown’s youthful energy, especially on the achingly mournful “Every Little Bit Hurts.” Holloway wasn’t interested in recording the song, and you can hear a little bit of that beleaguered tension in her brooding delivery. It was the start of several brokenhearted hits for her, and the song’s gaping vulnerability touched a nerve inspiring versions by Aretha Franklin and the Clash, among others. —J.D.
The Jackson 5, “The Love You Save” (1970)
From an earthy groove that recalls Sly and the Family Stone to lyricsthat warn a flirtatious partner to “take it slow/or someday you’ll be all alone,” the Jackson 5’s third straight Number One was a step in a more adult direction than “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” Leading the way, naturally,was Michael: His pipsqueak voice packed so much intensity and fervorthat he really did sound like a wounded grown-up and not the11-year-old he was at the time. —D.B.
The Supremes, “Bad Weather” (1973)
After Diana Ross went solo, most people assumed the Supremes would just vanish. Yet the ladies got back to work with new singer Jean Terrell and kept cranking out hits. “Bad Weather” is weirdly forgotten these days, but it’s a glorious taste of early 1970s sad-girl rainy-day funk. Stevie Wonder wrote it for them, going for the Memphis sound of Al Green and Willie Mitchell — right down to the sweet-and-sour horns and jazz chords. You could make a case that the Seventies Supremes rate right up there with the Sixties edition — and “Bad Weather” is Exhibit A. —R.S.
Teena Marie, “Square Biz” (1980)
Hip-hop exploded into the popular consciousness when the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” cracked the Top 40 early in 1980. Teena Marie was among those who took note, incorporating a cheerfully all-over-the-place rap interlude in her 1981 hit “Square Biz”: “I’m less than five foot one, a hundred pounds of fun/I like sophisticated funk/I live on Dom Perignon, caviar, filet mignon/And you can best believe that’s bunk.” The goofy bluster adds to the festive air of “Square Biz,” a hard-funk workout with seismic, popping bass work and intricate horn charts. Even a strange, droning digression, delivered in a tone that suggests Marie is imitating a robot overlord, can’t prevent this one from achieving lift-off. —E.L.
Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour” (1969)
It’s hard to decide which is more joyous, the opening horns or Wonder’s la la la’s,but they blend together to produce the kind of sunshine-soul pop that could only exist in 1969. The track, originally titled “Oh, My Marsha” after Wonder’s girlfriend, is expertly featured in Almost Famous, when Penny Lane overdoses on quaaludes and has her stomach pumped inside the Plaza. The upbeat tempo contrasts to the cringeworthy moment as her heels slide up and down the marble tile to the euphoric horns — very rock & roll. —A.M.
Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Love Child” (1968)
Diana Ross was on the precipice of solo stardom when she recorded “Love Child,” which was ostensibly a solo single anyway, since it was one of the first Supremes recordings without any other actual Supremes on it. On the tune, one of her first forays into more mature, soul-music territory, she narrates the tale of an illegitimate child, racked with guilt, scorned by her mother (and society), and embarrassed by her own existence. Of course, it didn’t sound nearly as Dickensian as that since production group the Clan dressed it in funky guitar, schmaltzy strings, and chimes, and Ross’ indefatigable grace made it sound charming. It made her sound “different from the rest” in the best way possible. —K.G.(Video) Motown greatest hits full album ♪ღ♫ 100 greatest motown songs ♪ღ♫ Motown songs 60s 70s hits
The Commodores, “Easy” (1977)
Has there ever been a gentler breakup song than “Easy”? Lionel Richie “knows it sounds funny,” but hey, he’s leaving, so he might as well play a pleasantly languorous piano groove and soothe his lover back to sleep on the holy day. He just wants to be high (so high) and free, and really, who could deny such a sweet farewell? “[The feeling of] ‘Easy like Sunday morning’ applies to anybody who lives in a small Southern town,” he once told Spin. “I kind of got that from my own experiences — that was Lionel Richie from Tuskegee, Alabama, where there is no such thing as four-in-the-morning partying.” —K.G.
Smokey Robinson, “Quiet Storm” (1975)
In Motown narratives, Smokey Robinson is often praised for his achingly beautiful work with the Miracles and his writing and production for Mary Wells and the Temptations, among others. But stories of the label in the Seventies tend to focus on Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, to the exclusion of others. That’s unfortunate, because Robinson’s body of work in this decade is frequently spellbinding, perhaps nowhere more than Quiet Storm, an album that lent its name to an entire subgenre of misty, meticulous R&B. The title track unfurls for close to eight minutes, with keening synthesizer, whooshing wind effects, and a flute solo skimming over a demure rhythm section. In this serene context, Robinson’s desires seem extraordinarily vivid: “You short-circuit all my nerves, promising electric things/You touch me and suddenly there’s rainbow rings.” —E.L.
The Four Tops, “Bernadette” (1967)
Poor Bernadette, she never had a chance of living up to Levi Stubbs’ unrealistic expectations of her. In the space of three minutes, he declares, “I live only to hold you” and “I need you to live” before he escalates his infatuation to “You’re the soul of me, more than a dream, you’re a plan to me” by the tune’s end. For as scary as Stubbs sounds at some points (like when the music turns overcast the second he says her name and proclaims “You belong to me”) but there’s also something endearing about it all, and like every great Four Tops single, it’s impossible not to get swept away by the chorus. Who wouldn’t want to be so loved? K.G.
Marvin Gaye, “Can I Get a Witness” (1963)
With a boogie-woogie piano and church-steeped lyrics that blurred the sacred and the secular, “I Got a Witness” is arguably Gaye’s first classic hit, arriving in September 1963. In true Motown fashion, the recording was a family affair, with the Supremes helping out on background vocals. The Supremes would eventually record their own version, though it wasn’t released until 1987. “Can I Get a Witness” had a strong impact on British soul fans too; the Rolling Stones put a version on their debut album and even wrote their own answer of sorts, an instrumental vamp called “Now, I’ve Got a Witness,” and Dusty Springfield begged and shouted her way through her fantastic version in 1964. —J.D.
The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” (1970)
Recalled the Temptations’ Otis Williams of this combustible protest epic: “When I heard the groove to that I thought, ‘Man, that’s got to be funkier than unwashed armpits,’ ‘cause it had the funk on it, it had the stink.” The Temptations cast a wide net on “Ball of Confusion,” inveighing against everything from segregated housing to kids growing up too fast to unemployment to tax increases to tax deductions to piles of bills that make you want to move to the hills. Writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong came up with a track that was just as incisive and explosive as the lyrics. —J.D.
Marvin Gaye, “I Want You” (1976)
Gaye’s early Seventies albums tend to get more attention than his work later in the decade, but 1976’s I Want You is wildly ambitious and recklessly groovy, maybe nowhere more than its title song. Gaye threads multitracked backing vocals throughout almost the entire tune, sometimes echoing the lead lyric, sometimes breaking the spell with shattering ad-libs — then knitting everything back together by bathing the whole track in the prettiest of “ooohs” and “aaahs.” When he starts to fade out not long after four minutes, you may not feel ready to leave. For those listeners, there’s a John Morales extended mix of “I Want You” that stretches more than twice as long, teasing out the relationships between the individual instruments (especially a lone, pesky horn) and letting you live in that vamp for nearly 10 minutes. —E.L.
Mary Jane Girls, “All Night Long” (1983)
The strutting foundation of “All Night Long” is unimpeachable, a squirt of bass notes scattered around a dry, echoey snare drum. The DNA appears to have been borrowed from Keni Burke’s “Risin’ to the Top,” released the year before — though the snare in “All Night Long” is more punishing — and then leaked into the 1990s through the similarly entrancing “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” by Maxwell, plus direct samples by Groove Theory and Mary J. Blige, among others. You could sing the telephone book on top of this rhythm section and it would still be a hit. The Mary Jane Girls find a topic far more exciting than the Yellow Pages, stringing together lusty lines about a rooftop booty call. —E.L.
Diana Ross, “Love Hangover” (1976)
Ross uses a single tempo shift to great, dance-floor-destroying effect in “Love Hangover,” vaulting from breathy, besotted, slinking funk to darting disco, with cymbals shushing like angry passengers on an Amtrak quiet car. Producer Hal David helped the recording sessions along by providing the participants with liquor, according to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits — first plying band members with shots of Rémy Martin, and later providing Ross with “a little taste of vodka.” “Love Hangover” became a Number One hit in 1976, presaging Ross’ success with disco on 1980’s Diana. As Ross put it, “if there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.” —E.L.
The Commodores, “Brick House” (1977)
The Commodores were many things; subtle was not one of them. Three years after proclaiming that “Young Girls Are My Weakness,” the group was praising a mighty mighty who was “built like an Amazon.” “A brick house means she’s stacked,” Commodores frontman Lionel Richie once said. “She’s built like a brick shithouse means that she’s strong.” Like Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” the song — outhouse references and all — has been so culturally ubiquitous for so long, it’s transcended mere funk to seep into the world’s cross-generational musical DNA. More than 40 years after its release, it still knows it’s built and knows how to please. —J.N.
Stevie Wonder, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (1965)
In 1965, Stevie Wonder’s voice was changing, chart success was not forthcoming, and you might suspect that the wunderkind was washed up at 15. But he returned from a European tour with a hard-driving track influenced by the Rolling Stones for writing partners Sylvia Moy and Henry Crosby to polish off. Moy didn’t have a Braille version, so she sang the lyrics line by line to Wonder as he recorded the vocal. With a Number Three pop hit that was his first single to top the R&B charts, Wonder was just getting started. —K.H.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967)
Ashford and Simpson knew they had a hit — “Nick called it the ‘golden egg,’” Simpson later recalled. And though they played it for a very interested Dusty Springfield, they held on to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as their ticket to gigs at Motown. When they arrived at the studio, they came prepared with charts and a production blueprint, though there was still room for improvisation: That distinctive “tick-a-tick-a-tick” is drummer Uriel Jones hitting his snare’s metal rim. —K.H.(Video) The 100 Greatest Motown Songs (1960-1994) (Part 2)
Thelma Houston, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1976)
Originally released by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in 1975, Thelma Houston covered “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for her fourth album, Any Way You Like It, a year later. In the years leading up to that album, Houston had been struggling to break through on the charts, and this disco take was even originally meant for label darling Diana Ross instead. Luckily, Houston’s impassioned take was well-received, becoming a disco-club staple and later winning her a Grammy Award. The song became more significant in the decades following, however, as it became a heartbroken anthem for the HIV/AIDS epidemic. —B.S.
The Spinners, “It’s a Shame” (1970)
In 1970, the Spinners — one of Motown’s smoothest vocal groups — had been off the charts for four years, when Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright co-wrote what would become their biggest hit. Dueling funk riffs slide over proto-boom bap drums as frontman G.C. Cameron goes from a smooth crooner “waitin’ all alone by the telephone” to bemused falsetto to enraged jilted lover in three minutes. By the time Cameron belts “Why don’t you free me, from this prison/Where I serve my time as your fool,” you just want to give the dude a hug and introduce him to the Marvelettes’ “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” —J.N.
Marvin Gaye, “Ain’t That Peculiar” (1965)
Since Smokey Robinson wrote Marvin Gaye’s first Number 1 R&B hit, “I’ll Be Doggone,” standard Motown operating procedure dictated that Robinson produce the follow-up, too. And so he did, with aid from his fellow Miracles, particularly Marv Tarplin, who provided the guitar riff at the song’s center. Sweetened by female backing group the Adantes, and showcasing Gaye’s gift for riding a great groove through the verse and bringing it home on the chorus, this went to Number One on the R&B Singles chart and into the Top 10 of the Pop Singles chart in 1965. —K.H.
Lionel Richie, “All Night Long (All Night)” (1983)
This lighter-than-air party anthem hit Number One in 1983, helping make Richie one of the most famous pop stars on the planet. Richie recorded the song with frequent collaborator James Anthony Carmichael and a variety of session musicians (some of whom had played on Thriller), working up a plush, Caribbean-inspired groove that fits like an impeccably tailored velvet suit. The song’s vibe is consciously international, fitting in Caribbean, Spanish, and Swahili phrases. For the breakdown in the middle, Richie asked a friend who worked at the United Nations to recommend some African sayings. “The guy said, ‘Lionel, there’s 101 African dialects,'” Richie explained to the New York Post. Told it would take a while to come up with what Richie needed, the singer made up the interjections himself. —C.H.
The Supremes, “Come See About Me” (1964)
With its bright melody, inviting title hook, and effervescently insistent beat, the Supremes’ third Number One hit is a master class in hiding a heartbreaking message in a shiny package; Diana Ross sings about having it so bad for a boy that she leaves her friends behind so she can clear time for him to come back into her life — which he obviously isn’t going to do. They performed it for the first of their 19 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. “He didn’t know our names,” Mary Wilson recalled of that auspicious debut. “He’d just say, ‘And here they are, the … the … the girls!’” —J.D.
The Temptations, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” (1971)
After the Temptations shifted course toward funkier, harder-hitting fare like “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination” was a sweet nod to the group’s classic sound. Between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s tremulous, swooping strings and the Tempts’ honey-dripping harmonies, singer Eddie Kendricks daydreams about dating a neighbor girl who is way out of his league. It feels so real “but it’s just my imagination running away from me.” The tune is one of Kendricks’ finest vocals — the Tempts’ Otis Williams remembers him staying up all night to nail it — but by the time it hit Number One, Kendricks, who had become frustrated with the Temptations, had already quit the group. —K.G.
The Marvelettes, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” (1967)
All’s fair in love and war: A reconnaissance mission turns into a romantic ambush in the Marvelettes’ hit “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.” “Secretly I been tailing you, like a fox that preys on a rabbit,” Wanda Young sings. “Had to get you and so I knew/I had to learn your ways and habits.” Smokey Robinson penned the track, and the language is consistently sinister — even when the rabbit turns on the fox, love is likened to “a sudden slap.” But Young’s vocals are pristinely untroubled, and the music is all easy swing and bright strings: In this version, rabbit and fox live happily ever after. —E.L.
Jr. Walker and the All Stars, “Shotgun” (1965)
When Junior Walker saw some folks at the El Grotto Club in Battle Creek, Michigan, playfully shooting at each other with index finger and thumb as they danced, he got an idea. It took shape in the studio in the form of hiccuping drum fills, organ blasts, and Walker’s stylishly hyperactive saxophone, which darts like a man trying to take cover from gunfire without scuffing his shoes. (That initial “bang” is the sound of guitarist Eddie Willis accidentally kicking his amp.) The All Stars dig into the groove as though determined to show how far you can get on just one chord. Pretty far, it turns out: This 1965 song hit Number One on the R&B chart and was in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. —K.H.
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959)
This is where it all starts. Written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford in 1959, Motown’s first hit offers a roadmap of the label’s future: The lyric encapsulates Motown’s drive for commercial as well artistic success, while the piano bass line is R&B blossoming into pop in real time. This was Strong’s only hit as an artist, but not the end of his musical career: After trying his luck as a singer with other labels, he returned to Motown to make his name as half of a brilliant in-house songwriting partnership with Norman Whitfield. —K.H.
Michael Jackson, “Got to Be There” (1972)
“Got to be there in the morning/And welcome her into my world,” the 13-year-old Michael Jackson sang on his first solo single, with his brothers singing behind him and a lush vocal arrangement by Willie Hutch. Michael’s voice was still sweet and youthful, but the sentiment and lavish sound nodded toward the R&B ballads for the audience. It was the beginning of a new era for Michael, appearing on an album where he also covered Carole King and Bill Withers. —J.D.