Category Archives: Motown Records

Smokey is 70!

If William “Smokey” Robinson was known just for the songs he performed, he would be a memorable artist. But the fact that he has written over 400 songs, according to ASCAP, and probably hundreds more and is a producer as well, then you have a musical force.

The first song released by his group the Miracles was Got A Job, a response song to Get a Job by by the Silhouettes, written by Smokey, Berry Gordy and Roquel Davis.

Here are just a other few songs written or co-written by Smokey. The group listed usually is NOT the only artist who’s performed the tune:

You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me- the Beatles; also performed by the Miracles
My Girl-the Temptations
My Guy -Mary Wells; anyone who could write My Girl AND My Guy is the consummate songwriter
No More Tearstained Makeup – Martha & the Vandellas; a relatively obscure song with one of my favorite lines: No sponge has the power To absorb the shower Of what pancake and powder couldn’t cover
Who’s Loving You – Jackson 5ive. From the 1st J5 album, a cover of the Miracles tune. Isn’t Michael preturnaturally experienced in love in this tune?
Ain’t That Peculiar – Marvin Gaye
Tears of a Clown -the (English) Beat. But it was from the Miracles’ version that I first heard of Pagliachi, which led me to find out that the reference was to a Leoncavallo opera.
Don’t Mess with Bill – Marvellettes
The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game-Grace Jones, covering the Marvelettes’ tune
Get Ready -Rare Earth, a song I first heard from the Temptations
No More Water In The Well – the Temptations, with a relatively rare Paul Williams lead vocal, from arguably my favorite Temps LP, With A Lot O’ Soul, 1967.
Still Water (Peace) – Four Tops
Floy Joy – the Supremes

I suppose I should do a couple more Smokey songs. I pick the oft-covered Tracks of My Tears and I Second That Emotion.

So, happy 70th birthday to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters’ Hall of Fame inductee, as well as 2006 Kennedy Center honoree, Smokey Robinson!

1993 photo of Smokey from LIFE magazine, for non-commercial use


MOTOWN Question

Continuing the Berry Gordy, Jr./Motown groove:

There have been a number of artists that have appeared on Motown records, including its affiliated labels Tamla, Soul, Gordy, rare earth (yes, named for the band), Mowest and others. These artists include everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Soupy Sales to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr; I actually own one of the latter.

The question is simple: who are your favorite Motown artists? OK, not so simple. Lots of artists only really thrived when they actually left Motown, notably Gladys Knight & the Pips and Michael Jackson. But you don’t need to be as fussy about those boundaries as I inevitably will be.

1. Stevie Wonder – though he hasn’t put out a great album in almost three decades, the albums he put out in the 1960s and especially the 1970s were among the finest ever made. Paul Simon, winning the 1975 Grammy for Album of the year specifically thanked Stevie Wonder for not putting out an album that year. Stevie was busy putting together the double album Songs in the Key of Life. Moreover, stevie still dorsd some decent performances.

2. The Temptations – In the the mid-1960s, they were largely backup singers for David Ruffin (My Girl). The big switch in producers from a wide variety of people, including Smokey Robinson, to Norman Whitfield, corresponded to Dennis Edwards replacing Ruffin, with the group then talking the five-vocalist motif (Can’t Get Next To You). The group seemed to fade in the mid-1970s, but then were revitalized in the early 1980s with the brief reappearance of Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, when I first saw them live.

3. The Supremes – I was a fan from that very first non-hits album Meet the Supremes, when Florence Ba;lard and Mary Wilson occasionally got a lead, through the big hits period, when the only time Diana Ross relinquished the lead was on some of the more oddball albums (We Remember Sam Cooke; Sing Country, western and Pop; A Bit of Liverpool; Sing Rogers & Hart). Then they became Diana Ross and…, as Flo was replaced by Cindy Birdsall. Diana left for a solo career, and Jean Terrell, gfor a time kept the Supremes on top.

4. Marvin Gaye – one of the most versatile artists, he was popular as both a session drummer early on, then both a solo artist and paired with female singers such as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and most notably Tammi Terrell. Like Wonder, Gaye’s really came into his own when he fought with Berry Gordy to have more control over his career; the initial result was the What’s Going On album. Though some of Gaye’s material got a bit weird, dealing with his divorce in a most public and uncomfortable way, he got back to form with Sexual Healing*. *Yes, this was on Epic records, but it shows up on the Motown anthology.

5. The Jackson 5ive – I initially gave them the short shrift as a teeny-bopper. But the strength of the material, and the performers, carried the day.

6. The Four Tops – this group should rank higher, based just on the strength of the magnificent voice of Levi Stubbs. The problem, I think, is that after Holland-Dozier-Holland left the company, the group didn’t get the good material.

7. Martha & the Vandellas – Most of the female groups got lost in the shadow of the Supremes; too bad, as groups like the Marvelettes and this group did some fine songs.


Berry Gordy is turning 80

Back in 1998, when I went to Detroit, I visited 2648 West Grand Boulevard. No, “visited” is not the right word; I made a pilgrimage to Hitsville USA, the house that served as the recording studio for a great number of artists recording for Motown Records. It is a physically unimpressive building, even dowdy, but it was the launching pad for a great amount of music that I own, tunes by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations), Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5ive, and the Supremes, among many others. The visionary for all of this was Berry Gordy, Jr.

Gordy, whose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio you can read here, developed songwriters, artists, and underappreciated backup musicians to create music that was not marginalized as “race music” or “soul music”, but in fact became “The Sound of Young America.” This is astonishing: “In 1966, the company’s ‘hit ratio’ – the percentage of records released that made the national charts – was 75%.”

If you bought Motown ALBUMS, as opposed to singles in the 1960s, as I tended to do, you’ll note that not occasionally, the same songs would make it onto more than one artist’s LP. Famously, Gladys Knight & the Pips had a #2 single in 1967 (#1 on the R&B charts) with I Heard It Through the Grapevine; about a year later, Marvin Gaye had a massive #1 hit on both charts with the same song, albeit arranged quite differently, written by Barrett Strong and the late Norman Whitfield. It was the stable of songwriters, including Holland-Dozier-Holland, some of the singer-songwriters such as Robinson, Wonder and Gaye, and less well-known folks who may be the unsung heroes in the saga.

Another writer was Berry Gordy himself. Songs written or co-written by him include:
Do You Love Me by the Contours, covered by Temptations
Try It Baby by Marvin Gaye, covered by the Supremes and the Temptations
I’ll Be There by the Four Tops
You’ve Made Me So Very Happy by Brenda Holloway, covered by Blood, Sweat & Tears
Money by Barrett Strong, covered by the Beatles and many others
You’ve Got What It Takes by Marv Johnson
I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, Mama’s Pearl, Maybe Tomorrow – all Jackson 5ive; songwriters billed as The Corporation (Gordy/Mizell/Richards/Perren)
Even pre-Motown, Gordy had written hits for the late Jackie Wilson, including Reet Petite and Lonely Teardrops

I refer you to this episode of the podcast Coverville, featuring the music of Motown and Berry Gordy; yes, the thank you in the notes (and the fulfilled request of Remove This Doubt by Elvis Costello, the cover of a song from The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland album) is in reference to me.

Also check out this article celebrating not only 50 years of Motown records but also another milestone; Berry Gordy turns 80 on November 28, 2009. ROG

Picture from, “for personal non-commercial use only”

Anticipating Halloween QUESTIONS

In my twenties, I used to dress up for Halloween. While I might pull out my Frankenstein mask now and then – I REALLY can’t breathe in that thing – I’ve lost my All Hallows Eve mojo.

But this year, the child is going to need an escort for her trick-or-treating; her costume is a ballet dress that lights up – I might just surprise myself by dressing

All I want to know:

Are you dressing up for Halloween? As what?
Are you going to a party, or parties?
Are you going trick or treating? Do you have a child to provide you cover?
Top 10 Spooky Buildings
My friend Fred Hembeck’s comic icon, Soupy Sales, died this week. One of the many things Fred taught me about Soupy is that he was a Motown artist. Really. And some of the songs, as Fred noted, weren’t half bad.
A suitable tribute for Soupy.
Scott from Scooter Chronicles answers my questions.
I’ve seen this a couple places on the Internet already: the octogenarian war vet’s impassioned plea for gay rights.


Ron Miller

If you Google Ron Miller, the one I was looking for doesn’t show up until record #70-something. That’s a shame.

Ron Miller was a songwriter for Motown. He wrote a number of tunes, many for Stevie Wonder, including “For Once In My Life,” “Heaven Help Us All,” and “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday”. “For Once in My Life” won a Grammy this year when Wonder and Tony Bennett redid the tune. Stevie’s Christmas album from the 1960s is filled with Ron Miller tunes. He also penned that Diana Ross hit, “Touch Me In The Morning.”

As Fred Hembeck noted a ways back, Ron even wrote and produced songs for that legendary Motown artist, Soupy Sales.

Strange thing. I can’t any reference to his birthdate in 1933. He died back on July 23, 2007, when I was traveling a lot, and pretty much missed the news.

But I wanted to note that, unfortunately, he also wrote one of my all-time least favorite songs, I’ve Never Been To Me, a tune the thought of which makes my teeth rot. Go here to hear the 2004 Dance Remix by Charlene, who had the delayed hit, and by Miller himself.

(Pic from


Second Chapter QUESTION

As you’ve probably heard, Phil Rizzuto died this week. The Yankee shortstop had seven World Series rings, then became a colorful broadcaster for the team. But those of you outside the New York metro area probably didn’t know about his years as pitchman for The Money Store. In fact, if you didn’t follow sports, you may have known him ONLY as a spokesman.

Which got me to thinking: who can I (and I’m hoping YOU) name where the person had considerable success in one field, but a new generation would know that person only as a performer in another field?

I’m thinking of Rizzuto’s teammate, Joe DiMaggio, who was a great centerfielder. But all I really know about him in my direct awareness, besides him being the ex of Marilyn Monroe, was Joltin’ Joe as the Mr. Coffee spokesman. (Oh, yeah, and that Simon & Garfunkel reference.)

George Foreman went from angry young heavyweight boxer to jovial grillmeister.

Jim Bunning went from Hall of Fame pitcher to U.S. Senator.

My favorite example may be Orson Welles. The movie writer/director/producer/actor who scared America with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast was this behemoth of a man in those late 1970s TV ads for Paul Masson wines: “We will sell no wine before its time”.

What are your favorite examples?
Someone testing my knowledge of trivia – a regular happenstance – asked me this question: what was the only white artist to have a Number One record on Motown Records? I gave some guesses: Rare Earth, Bobby Darin, Chris Clark, Soupy Sales. The answer I was given: Captain & Tenille! This didn’t sound right at all. So I got out my trusty Billboard books and discovered that the duo had hits on A&M and on Casablanca Records. No Motown.

BUT, according to the Wikipedia post: “In 2004, the name [Casablanca Records] was revived for a joint venture between Universal Music Group and Tommy Mottola. In a Billboard article, Mottola said that he chose the name as an homage to the original label, but that there was no direct connection between the old and new labels. Casablanca is now a part of Universal Motown Records Group.” My guess is that my inquisitor, who was working off partial info – he couldn’t even name the hit song – was attributing “Do That to Me One More Time” that was on the original Casablanca Records to the new Universal Motown-related label. Or so I surmise.