In my role as Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of The Immortal Jukebox Think Tank and Market Research Corporation I oversee a series of rigorous research projects into Pop Culture. The results are later published in weighty academic journals.
On the other hand I usually find that I can get a better handle on public taste and knowledge by conducting informal polls at the Immortal Jukebox’s local hostelry, ‘The Midnight Bell’. My latest poll question thrown out as, ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes blasted out of The Bell’s Jukebox was, ‘Which Motown act was the first to have a Number 1 Pop record?’
Immediately I was confidently assured that it was, of course, The Supremes only to have that notion brushed aside by others who said it must have been Smokey Robinson & The Miracles if it wasn’t (LIttle) Stevie Wonder. A hesitant voice from the back said what about Mary Wells with, ‘My Guy?
All intelligent speculations but the act that brought Tamla Motown to the coveted Number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1961 was none of the above. It was in fact a group now largely relegated to the footnotes of Motown histories – Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Inkster’s Immortals, The Marvelettes!
And the song that launched Motown into mainstream America? The song that would be a staple of The Beatles live act at The Cavern and which they would record for their second LP? The song that would ascend to the top of the charts again in 1975 courtesy of The Carpenters and feature in a brilliant fight scene in the Scorsese film, ‘Mean Streets’? Well, as you will have guessed by now, it was, ‘Please Mr Postman’ – a song which just explodes with youthful hormonal energy!
Now that really was the sound of Young America just as the New Frontier was coming into being. The Marvelettes led by Gladys Horton’s gloriously husky come-hither lead vocal wrap us up in the quivering excitement of the ecstasies, angsts and agonies of young love. Wanda Young, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and Katherine Anderson gather agog around Gladys. Driven along by the peerless James Jamerson on bass and Benny Benjamin on the drums the girls, girls next door, thrillingly evoke the heart in mouth feeling of waiting for the long awaited love letter to arrive; desperate to know what secrets the letter will reveal.
A letter that surely must confirm that the dream of love is indeed a reality and banish those nightmares that the promises of love so sweetly given were a hollow sham.
Until you open that letter you are in Limbo – once read you can share its joys or sorrows with your girlfriends. So Please, Please! Mr Postman! Deliver the letter! The Sooner the better!
Postman as a song was a virtual collage reflecting the input of original Marvelette Georgia Dobbins and local songwriter William Garrett before it was, ‘polished’ at Motown in house writers Brian Holland, Robert Batsman and Freddie Gorman. For once so many cooks didn’t spoil the broth. Instead the Motown machine preserved the innocent allure of the song while adding the pop propulsion that would allow Motown to plant their first flag on the very summit of the pop charts.
The Marvelettes would never have the sexy sheen of The Supremes, the vocal grace of Gladys Knight & The Pips or the drive of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas but I am always won over by the open hearted longing that animates so much of their work.
So much pop music centres on the desire for monochrome everyday life to suddenly burst into new dimensions of thrilling colour. And, for me the relative lack of glamour and poise of The Marvelettes, their very ordinariness, makes their records all the more touching.
Listen to them here with their wonderfully charming hit from 1962, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’
Beechwood was written by the triumvirate of Marvin Gaye, ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and George Gordy and its Marvin playing the drums who kicks off the record in such fine style. Once again, Gladys Horton’s lead vocal takes us for a ride on the dizzying carousel of youthful love and infatuation.
This is a pure pop record with lovely spanish guitar trills flashing alongside the vocal lines. Guys sometimes believe its they who make the running in relationships but wiser heads have always known that it’s the girls who are in charge. The hunter, knowingly or not, usually does get captured by the game.
Motown had some of the qualities of a manufacturing company like Detroit’s own Ford Motors with an assembly line and strict quality control. It also had something of the quality of a royal court with Berry Gordy as the unchallenged monarch whose favour was the supreme currency which could be gifted or withdrawn according to commercial calculation and personal whim.
The Marvelettes, despite their early triumph with Postman were soon supplanted in Berry’s affections by The Supremes who offered more vocal versatility, more glamour and the mysterious star power of Diana Ross. So the Marvelettes became, ‘We will find something for them later’ side projects for Motown’s A team of songwriters and producers.
However, given the brilliance of those A teams The Marvelettes still got access to some very fine material including Holland/Dozier/Holland’s, ‘Locking Up My Heart’, the Norman Whitfield produced, ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ and Smokey Robinson’s, ‘My Baby Must Be A Magician’.
It was the songwriting and production genius of Smokey Robinson that in 1966 provided The Marvelettes with their second million selling 45, ‘Don’t Mess with Bill’. The lead vocal here comes from Wanda Young and she takes full advantage with a mature performance that matches the beautifully wrought production featuring judicious use of handclaps, vibes and organ with the immaculate Funk Brothers rhythm section binding everything together.
This is a record that suggests the smoke wreathed nightclub rather that the high school hop of their earlier releases.
By the end of the 1960s The Marvelettes had broken up – falling prey successive bouts of disillusion and illness. Yet, the products of the lovely yearning of their youth and the hard won craft of their later work will always have a special place in my heart. I hope the Jukebox showcase will win them a place in your affections too.
Gladys Horton who died in January 2011 was the moving force behind the formation of The Marvelettes at Inkster High School in the late 1950s. Few singers have ever incarnated the whirling passions of youth with as much faithfulness as Gladys.
Wanda Young – listen out for her lead vocals on, ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’ and, ‘When You’re Young And In Love’. Wanda was married for some time to the late Bobby Rogers of The Miracles. I believe she still lives in the suburbs of Detroit.
Katherine Anderson was the only ever present in The Marvelettes as they moved through the arc of their career in the 1960s. Following the breakup of the group she has become very involved in social work in Detroit.
Georgeanna Tillman sadly died at only 35 in 1980. She had been afflicted with Sickle Cell Anemia and Lupus. Her illness was so severe that she had to leave the group in early 1965 though she remained working at Motown until the company moved from Detroit in the early 1970s.