The Stars of Motown
Created | Updated Aug 6, 2017
The singers and musicians that Berry Gordy Jnr brought together to perform under the umbrella 'The Motown Sound' created a unique genre. The 'family affair' left its mark upon generation after generation and the old recordings sound as fresh today as they did in the early 1960s when hit after hit was churned out of The Snakepit1, backed by The Funk Brothers.
Through his friend Jackie Wilson, Gordy met William 'Smokey' Robinson (born 1940), a young songwriter and composer from Detroit with similar ambitions to Gordy. As well as singing with his own group The Miracles, Robinson was an in-house producer, songwriter, auditioner and talent scout, basically he was Gordy's right-hand man. One of Robinson's biggest discoveries was Diana Ross (see below). Robinson wrote and produced songs for numerous Motown artists including Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, The Temptations and The Marvelettes, earning him the accolade 'America's greatest living poet' from Bob Dylan.
By the time Smokey Robinson and The Miracles had split in 1972, they had scored 27 US top 40 hits, including The Tracks of my Tears and Tears of a Clown which had been penned by Robinson. America's 'poet laureate of love' also wrote My Guy, a smash-hit for Mary Wells; My Girl, the first British number one for The Temptations; and the soulful Still Water for The Four Tops.
Robinson embarked upon a solo singing career and enjoyed several top ten successes in the 1970s and '80s, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was Vice-President of Motown until the company was sold in 1988, and left Motown as an artist in 1990. During his 40-year music career, Robinson wrote or contributed towards over 4,000 songs.
Smokey Robinson had two children with his first wife Claudette Rogers (a member of The Miracles). They are named Tamla and Berry.
Marvin Gaye (whose nickname was 'the Prince of Soul') was what can only be described as a tortured genius. Gaye (he added the 'e' as a tribute to his idol Sam Cooke) was notoriously difficult to work with, yet could be so laidback he was practically horizontal. Listening to his singing is almost like having liquid gold poured into your ears. Couples have fallen in love dancing to his love songs - his music is still a sure-fire aphrodisiac. Gaye was also a gifted songwriter. With his wife Anna Gordy, who composed the music, he wrote Baby I'm For Real, a song with a haunting soulful melody, about a man expressing his devoted love for his woman. It was recorded by The Originals and covered by Michael McDonald in 2004.
Gaye refused to take the stage tuition offered to all Motown artists, something he later regretted. However he did allow Maxine 'Miss' Powell to teach him to sing with his eyes open, so he didn't look like 'he was singing in his sleep'.
Gaye was generous with his time and his money, employing homeless people and leaving waitresses $50 tips. He adored his mother but his relationship with his father was volatile, culminating in physical violence. Like lots of his fellow artists, Gaye dabbled in the drug scene. After his singing partner, Tammi Terrell (1945 - 70) collapsed in his arms during a concert, Gaye took two years 'time out' to recover from his devastation at her death.
Gaye recorded the song Abraham, Martin and John as an album track. He poured his heart into the poignant song which reflected on the lives of the assassinated American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, and civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. The recording was issued as a single only in Great Britain, where it scored a top ten hit in May 1970 - it was deemed unsuitable for the American market due to its political overtures.
It is somewhat ironic that this unique, haunting tribute record about three men who had been shot dead was performed by an artist who would, on the eve of his 45th birthday, meet the same fate at the hands of his own father. Marvin Gaye's life story, narrated by Smokey Robinson, was broadcast in six parts on BBC Radio 2, from 24 January to 28 February, 2006.
Marvin Gaye will be remembered in history as a true genius for expressing his inner feelings in song. When he sings it's like painting a canvas.
- Motown songwriter Leon Ware.
What did The Supremes mean for young black women in particular? They gave us a tremendous amount of pride and hope. They were young girls from the Projects who became world superstars and they let young women know that they, too, could reach the top. It was especially important for black artists because you never heard us speak much, and here were these young women, barely out of their teens, making their mark.
- Claudette Rogers Robinson, wife of Smokey and member of The Miracles
The Primettes: Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin2 were introduced to Motown by Smokey Robinson. Between 1964 and 1967, The Supremes had ten number one singles, making them the most successful black group of the decade. Gordy later renamed the group Diana Ross and The Supremes and they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 17 times between 1964 and 1969.
I consider myself the original Supremes-aholic. We would wait to see them on The Ed Sullivan Show like a junkie waiting for a fix. It was amazing, because in addition to what they sang, we were always dying to see what they would wear.
- Luther Vandross, Supremes-aholic
Cindy Birdsong had taken over from the depressed Florence Ballard (1943 - 76) in July 1967, and the group had two more number one hits before Ross went solo in 1969. Jean Terrell took over from Diana Ross, and with Mary Wilson, they carried on performing as The Supremes, scoring hits with Up The Ladder To The Roof, Stoned Love, Nathan Jones and Floy Joy. Lynda Laurence took Cindy Birdsong's place and sang on Automatically Sunshine and Bad Weather. Jean Terrell then left, and was replaced by Scherrie Payne. Cindy Birdsong returned in October 1973, but things did not work out and she left again. The final line-up of The Supremes was Susaye Greene, Scherrie Payne and Mary Wilson but they could not capitalise on past success.
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The 2000 Supremes Reunion Tour, with Diana Ross the only original member, was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.
The Jackson Five
Behind the scenes at the end of the 1960s, Gordy and his staff were preparing, training and grooming a group of young brothers who were managed by their ambitious father Joseph. The family from Gary, Indiana, were destined to dominate the charts in the Seventies. The Jackson Five, comprising four musicians/backing singers and the youngest, Michael3, as lead singer, were launched to superstardom on the back of a publicity stunt. Gordy persuaded Diana Ross to introduce the brothers at a Hollywood party and on television as her own discovery. The public were captivated by the talented group's lively singing, intricately choreographed energetic dance routines, their bold colourful outfits and the human-dynamo that was Michael Jackson; Jackson-mania took off.
Breathtaking dance routines, eye-catching outfits, stunning arrangements and perfect harmonies all helped make the Temptations, fronted by David Ruffin, the most successful Motown soul group. Their name in Latin is Inlecebrae, just in case you're ever asked.
Bruce Willis and The Temptations
In 1987, Bruce Willis wrote and starred in the television special The Return Of Bruno, a biography of a fictional rock star, Bruno Radolini (Willis), in which many real-life musicians testified to his influence on their careers. For the soundtrack, Willis revamped several classic soul songs, scoring a surprise hit with Under The Boardwalk, on which he was supported by The Temptations.
The Temptations guest-starred in an episode of Moonlighting, which also starred Bruce Willis. During the opening sequence, Dave Addison (Willis) was tries to get Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) to lighten up. He clicks his fingers and The Temptations appear, much to Maddie's astonishment. They start to sing and Maddie starts to dance. Unfortunately for Dave, the song is Psychedelic Shack and Maddie jerks around like a robot - not the result he was hoping for.
The Four Tops
The original members of The Four Tops: Levi Stubbs, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson4 (1936 - 2005) and Lawrence Peyton (1938 - 97), first sang together as the Four Aims in 1954. Though the line-up has changed over the years, (Theo Peoples, formerly of The Temptations, is now the lead singer, since Levi Stubbs retired due to ill health; and Roquel Payton, son of Lawrence, performs in his father's place). The Four Tops kicked off the Superbowl XL in January 2006, which makes them the longest-lasting group ever.
I am looking forward to seeing The Four Tops. I have a nostalgic feel that at some point this week, we will all see under one roof, or from start to finish, the greatness of the Motown era, really for the last time when you start thinking about the age of some of the performers.
- ABC Sports/ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico, emcee 'A Detroit Salute' - the black-tie opening ceremony for Super Bowl XL, 2006.
The Hollywood-born singer had a one-hit wonder with I've Never Been To Me upon its re-release in 1982, after radio stations drummed up interest in the track. Motown had released Charlene from her 1973 contract in 1980, but quickly sought her out in the UK, where she had moved to, to re-sign her to the label. Unfortunately Charlene was unable to repeat the success of I've Never Been To Me so her contract was terminated.
List Of Artists
The Supremes (Diana Ross later went solo.)
Marvin Gaye (1939 - 84)
'Little' Stevie Wonder5
The Jackson Five (Michael Jackson later went solo.)
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (formerly called 'The Matadors')
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Jr Walker and the All Stars
The Four Tops
The Isley Brothers
The Commodores (Lionel Richie later went solo.)
Jimmy Ruffin. The brother of Temptations singer David, his song Farewell Is A Lonely Sound (When Told To Someone You Love) became the unofficial anthem for soldiers going off to war, and their families.
Gladys Knight and The Pips
Edwin Starr (1942 - 2003)
Mary Wells (1943 - 92)
Syreeta (1946 - 2004)
R Dean Taylor