Turn back the clock 50 years, and the king of rock music was Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown conglomerate. Between 1961 and 1971, Motown had an incredible 110 Top 10 hits.
The Supremes, unquestionably, were the biggest female act among Motown’s groups. From 1963 to 1969, the girls had 25 Top 40 hits and a dozen No. 1 successes. During a 12-month span starting in the summer of 1964, the Supremes had five consecutive No. 1 hits: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.”
During the 1960s, two other Motown female groups — Martha & the Vandellas and The Marveletes — were successful, but their success paled when compared to the Supremes. Martha & the Vandellas had 12 Top 40 hits, none of which reached No. 1. The Marveletes had 10 Top 40 hits, including “Please, Mr. Postman,” which reached the top of the charts in the fall of 1961. That was Motown’s first No. 1 hit.
While the Supremes clearly were Motown’s premier female group, three groups — the Miracles, the Four Tops and Temptations — could make a solid case for being Motown’s top male group. The list includes only groups that first charted before 1966.
Originally called the Five Chimes and then the Matadors, the Miracles were the first group to break out for Motown. After five songs that generated minimal commercial interest, the Miracles earned Motown’s first gold record when “Shop Around” reached No. 2 on the charts in 1960. As a result of the success of “Shop Around,” the Miracles became the first Motown group to perform on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, appearing in December 1960.
The group reached the Top 10 again with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” in 1962 and again in 1963 with “Mickey’s Monkey.” The Miracles’ exciting live performances were extremely well received, and their success paved the way for all future Motown stars. The Miracles became a national sensation and were Motown’s top-selling act, making them headliners at the nationwide Motown Revue shows, which started in 1962 and showcased Motown artists.
Called by Bob Dylan “America’s greatest living poet,” Smokey Robinson wrote many of the Miracles’ hits as well as some for other Motown artists, including the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes and the Contours.
The group changed its name to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1967 in recognition of his unique voice and talent. Robinson left the group in 1972 to concentrate more on his management responsibilities with Motown and to perform as a solo artist.
The Miracles had 26 Top 40 hits, 16 of which reached the Top 20. The group’s only No. 1 single was “The Tears of a Clown” in 1970.
The Four Tops were founded in Detroit as the Four Aims and later changed their name because they felt the name could be confused with the Ames Brothers, a highly successful popular group at that time. They selected the name Four Tops because they were always aiming for the top.
The group established a record that may never be approached.
Lead singer Levi Stubbs, Jackie Wilson’s cousin and brother of the Falcons’ Joe Stubbs, and his Tops cohorts Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton, remained together from 1953 until 1997 without a change in personnel. The first change occurred when Payton died of cancer in June 1997. Theo Peoples, formerly of the Temptations, eventually replaced Payton and later became the group’s lead singer.
The Four Tops’ first Motown hit was “Baby I Need Your Loving,” which climbed to No. 10 in 1964. The following year, they had their first No. 1 hit with “I Can’t Help Myself.” The song succeeded the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again” at No. 1. This marked the first time that one Motown song followed another at the top of the charts.
The Tops had their second and final No. 1 hit in 1966 with “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”
The Four Tops had 24 Top 40 hits, 18 of which reached the Top 20.
Known for their choreography, stunning outfits, infectious harmonies and internal struggles, the Temptations initially combined with Smokey Robinson, who wrote many of the group’s early hits.
Robinson penned the Temptations first Top 40 hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which rose to No. 10 in the spring of 1964.
The first of the Temptations’ four No. 1 hits was also written by Robinson, but it was meant for the Miracles, not the Temps.
The Miracles and Temptations were performing at the Apollo Theater in New York when Robinson recorded the rhythm track for “My Girl.” The Temptations heard it and begged Robinson to let them record it. He finally acquiesced. The Temps practiced the song during their week stay in New York and recorded it when they returned to Detroit. “My Girl” reached No. 1 in March 1965. This also was the first song for which David Ruffin sang lead for the Temptations.
Robinson wrote and produced four more hits for the Temptations: “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby” and “My Baby” in 1965 and “Get Ready” in 1966.
Norman Whitfield replaced Robinson as the chief writer for the Temptations, and he produced the group’s three other No. 1 hits: “I Can’t Get Next to You” in 1969, “Just My Imagination” in 1971 and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” in 1972.
But things were not rosy for the group despite their hit records. Ruffin caused major friction within the group and was replaced by Dennis Edwards in June 1968.
The Temptations had 38 Top 40 hits, 24 of which reached the Top 20.
Barry Levine writes about music and the movies for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.