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The Music Diaries | Motown Records Built On Talent, Hits

Published:Thursday | October 20, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Gladys Knight
In this Jan. 30, 1981 file picture, Michael Jackson, right, and Diana Ross hold their American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Jackson won for favorite soul album and Ross won for favorite female soul vocalist.
Princess Anne of Great Britain,( left) talks to the American singing group, the Supremes, after their Royal variety performance at the London Palladium the at night on Nov. 18, 1968 in England. (From left) the Supremes are: Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson.

Although 'Smokey' Robinson was easily one of the main cornerstones of Motown Recording Company, the success of the institution and the immortalisation of the label, 'Motown', owes a lot to the exceptional array of talents that passed through its doors. Many musicologists tend to agree that Diana Ross and The Supremes, made the greatest impact there, but there were countless other groups and individuals whose roles were very important and on par with the female trio.

The Supremes were in fact the first act to signal an intention to join the fledgling recording company when they auditioned in 1960, but owing to school obligations, the teenagers weren't signed until January 1961. The deferral opened the way for Mary Wells (soon to be known as The Queen of Motown), to be signed ahead of The Supremes in late 1960. Wells went on to become the first real star for the label with a string of hits, some by herself and others in duet with labelmates 'Smokey' Robinson and Marvin Gaye.

The Supremes actually began in 1959 as the Primettes with members, Florence Ballard, Betty Travis and Mary Wilson, and acted as a backing group for an all-male vocal group called The Primes, who later became The Temptations. The Supremes soon expanded into a quartet with the inclusion of Diana Ross, but after a temporary hiatus and another line up change, they eventually settled as a trio of Ross, Ballard and Wilson. Their first set of recordings in 1961 and 1962 didn't do well, but after being place under the guidance of the songwriting and production team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, the female trio landed their first top-40 hit in late 1963 with, When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes. Following up with, Where Did Our Love Go, in early 1964, the group began a string of five consecutive number one hits that created one of the most phenomenal record industry statistics for a group at the time. The other four songs were: Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop In The Name Of Love and Back In My Arms Again. Earlier, Motown saw The Marvelettes lead the way in the quest for a number one Motown hit with, Please Mr. Postman, in 1961.

The other headliners that have helped to immortalise the Motown sound were the groups -The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the top-flight vocalists Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. The Temptations story began in 1961, when the Detroit group consisting of Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, Elbridge Bryant, Otis Williams and Paul Williams, cut two single for Miracle Records, a Motown subsidiary that was absorbed into Motown Records and on which the Temptations debuted in 1962. Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin in 1964, the year the group had its first hit, The Way You Do The Things You Do, sang by Eddie Kendricks. The following year, David Ruffin assumed the role of lead vocalist and immediately pushed Motown Records into the spotlight with their first million-selling single, My Girl. Ruffin's throaty vocals made him very effective on this bittersweet ballad as he sang:

"I've got sunshine on a cloudy day

When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May

I guess you'd say

What can make me feel this way?

My girl, my girl, my girl

I've got so much honey, the bees envy me

I've got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees".

With Ruffin on lead vocals, The Temptations continued their musical onslaught with more bittersweet ballads - Since I Lost My Baby, I Wish It Would Rain and the soul screamers, Ain't Too Proud To Beg, Beauty Is Only Skin Deep and I'm Losing You. Along with Get Ready, which was led by Eddy Kendricks and the last three recordings, the Temptations copped four consecutive number one R&B recordings in 1966. They continued to crank out the hits between 1967 and 1968 with such gems as, You're My Everything and I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You). But when Ruffin went solo in 1968, the Temptations' sound was never the same again.

In the meantime, The Four Tops, who began at Motown the same year as the Temptations, were carving out a name for themselves, while consolidating the Motown sound and label with a string of hits as well. Unlike their other label mates, they entered the fray as seasoned campaigners, having been on the road for a decade before, parading their skills in a doo-wop style under the name, The Four Aims. Between 1964 and 1965 the group shot into the top 10 several times with hits like, Baby I Need Your Loving, It's The Same Old Song, Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Ask The Lonely and I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch). The last cut stayed in the number one position for so many weeks, that it became one of Motown's most popular recordings ever.

The exploits of the groups so far, had by 1967, transformed Motown into the most successful recording studio on the planet. Then came two other groups to help cement that position -The Jackson 5 and Gladys Knight and the Pips. The Jackson 5 joined Motown in 1969 and had hits that included, Never Can Say Goodbye, I Want You Back, ABC and The Love You Save. The last three reached number one on both the U.S., pop and R&B charts. I Heard It Through The Grapevines and Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me, were big chart busters for Gladys Knight and The Pips at Motown in the mid-1960s. Marvin Gaye combined his talents of musicianship and vocalist, to create, Let's Get It On, What's Going On and Mercy Mercy Me, while the blind genius -Stevie Wonder helped to popularise the label with, I Was Made To Love Her (1967), For Once In My Life (1968), My Cherie Amor (1969), Signed Sealed And Delivered (1970), Never Had A Dream Come True (1970) You Are The Sunshine Of My Life (1972) and I Just Called To Say I Love You (1984).