No music collection is complete without entries from these Motown game-changers.
1. Stevie Wonder
Wonder signed with Berry Gordy when he was a mere 11 years old and was known as “Little Stevie Wonder.” In the 1960s, he crafted definitive Motown gems like “For Once In My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Uptight” and “If You Really Love Me.” His work for the label in the ’70s defined R&B, funk and soul music for the era, and remains the high watermark for these forms to this day. Wonder is to Motown what the Beatles were to Capitol.
2. Marvin Gaye
Gaye was a prized member of Gordy’s roster during the 1960s, and with duet partner Tammi Terrell, offered timeless soul-pop pieces like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” His relationship with Gordy became strained, but Gaye was able to persevere in the struggle for artistic control, and masterpieces like “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On” were the result. We have Gaye to thank for the social consciousness and political commentary that became so integral to the R&B of the ’70s, and ultimately, to the first wave of groundbreaking hip-hop artists.
3. Diana Ross and the Supremes
Motown’s first act. Gordy helped the all-female trio make it out of the Detroit housing projects and into the pop mainstream, paving the way for the success of what would somewhat disparagingly be known as “girl groups” throughout the 1960s. They were beautiful, glamorous and in possession of voices that harmonized in a heavenly fashion. The record shows that Gordy marginalized the rest of the group when he became intimately involved with Ross, and thereby, ultimately caused the Supremes to splinter. But songs like “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Baby Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Love Child” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” transcend the behind-the-scenes goings-on.
4. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
This group represents the most sophisticated songwriting of Motown’s 1960s era, and therefore, some of the finest songwriting and record-making in pop music history. Songs like “Tears of a Clown,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Shop Around” and “I Second That Emotion” represent Motown’s ability to bring high art to bear on mainstream pop.
5. Gladys Knight & the Pips
Unfairly overlooked by Gordy due, many have suggested, to his near-obsession with Ross, Gladys Knight & the Pips struck gold despite their boss’ lack of attention. They brought deep strains of Southern African-American gospel to bear on pop music, helping to craft what would become known as soul music in the process.
– Jeff Miers