The top Motown songs changed the music business for a generation of music artists. And it gave to fans tracks and performances that broke down racial barriers, and tied everyone together in the same strings of music. The label created opportunities for artists who may have never found them elsewhere. And in doing so, it was not just the music industry and the fans that benefited, even the film industry reaped the rewards from Motown’s contributions.
Here is a list of fun facts some of the greatest songs not only to come out of Detroit, but to have been published and performed in the music industry.
25 Top Motown Songs of All-Time
With so many gems to choose from, coming up with a list of just 25 tracks was a difficult task. But, we’ll put these tunes up against any.
1. The Love You Save
Recorded by the Jackson 5 in 1970, this song was a number-one hit. Side vocals were done by Jermaine, and Michael as usual, took the lead.
Fun Facts: The opening “STOP!” alludes to The Supremes, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, a 1965 number one song. In these lines, “Isaac said he kissed you Beneath the apple tree When Benjie held your hand he felt E-lec-tri-ci-tee! When Alexander called you He said he rang your chimes. Christopher discovered You’re way ahead of your times!” the song references Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell and Christopher Columbus. Not bad for a short history lesson in a couple lines of lyrics!
The Love You Save Video
2. Do You Love Me?
Performed by The Contours and written by Berry Gordy, Jr., “Do You Love Me?” was released in 1962. It became the only Top 40 single from The Contours on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.
The song names “The Mashed Potato” and “The Twist” among several other fad dances from the decade.
Fun Fact: Gordy wrote the song for The Temptations, but when he couldn’t them and The Contours were pleased to get the opportunity to perform it.
3. Please Mr. Postman
Performed by The Marvelettes and written by Georgia Dobbins, Freddie Gorman, William Garrett, Robert Bateman, and Brian Holland, “Please Mr. Postman” became the first Motown song to hit the No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop-singles chart.
In the song, the singer is looking forward to a letter from her love who is at war in a distant land.
Fun Fact: A music video of Please Mr Postman was filmed in Disneyland and released in 2002 in Gold: Greatest Hits DVD.
Please Mr. Postman Video
Performed by The Four Tops and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, “Bernadette” was released in 1967. It hit the No.4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Fun Fact: The song especially gained the interest of listeners to buy the record because of its unique false ending when the instruments simply drop out while the singers hold a chord before the song again resumes and fades out.
5. Get Ready
Performed by The Temptations and written by Smokey Robinson, “Get Ready” was released in 1966. It gave 2 hit records to Motown. It was the last song written by Robinson.
Fun Fact: The original version was created with “The Duck” dance craze in mind.
6. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
Performed by Jimmy Ruffin and written by William Weatherspoon, James Dean and Paul Riser, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is a hit single released first in 1966. The ballad recalls the pain borne by the brokenhearted.
Fun Fact: When the song was reissued 8 years later, it reached No.4 in the UK and beat its original chart position.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted Video
7. Tracks of My Tears
Performed by The Miracles and written by Smokey Robinson, Marv Tarplin, Pete Moore, ‘Tracks of My Tears’ was released in 1965. The song won several awards. The 1967 version by Johnny rivers became No.10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Often considered a Shakespearian Sonnet, it is also a beautiful piece of poetry.
Fun Fact: Robinson came up with the song’s idea one day when he was looking in the mirror. He thought what would happen when someone cries so much that their tears make tracks on their face.
Tracks of My Tears Video – Smokey Robinson
Performed by Edwin Starr and written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, “War” is a 1969 song. The song is a protest against the Vietnam War and became the No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. ‘War’ is among the biggest protest songs ever, and Starr’s most successful record.
Fun Fact: This was Motown’s first song that touched upon a political subject. “War” also won a Grammy Award for R&B Male Vocal.
War Video – Edwin Starr
9. The Tears of a Clown
Performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and co-written by Hank Cosby, Stevie Wonder and Robinson, “The Tears of a Clown” was first released in 1967. The song was first released as part of Make It Happen album, but as a single in 1970 when it became the No.1 in UK Singles Chart. It also became the No.1 on both the R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100.
Fun Fact: When Stevie Wonder took the music to Robinson, he remarked that it sounded like a circus.
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10. Baby Love
Performed by The Supremes and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, “Baby Love” is a 1964 song. The song received a Grammy Award nomination and is among the most popular songs of the late 20th century.
Fun Fact: The Supremes began with ‘Baby Love’ to have multiple American No.1 singles.
Baby Love Video – The Supremes
Performed by The Jackson 5 and written by Berry Gordy, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell, ABC was first released in 1970. The song not only toppled The Beatles’ “Let it Be” on the Billboard Hot 100, it also became the No.1 single on the soul chart.
Fun Fact: The song “ABC” is one of the shortest titles to be a #1 hit. Many consider it to be one of the first, true disco songs.
12. Dancing In The Street
Performed by Martha and the Vandellas and written by Garvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson, “Dancing In The Street” first gained popularity in 1964. The song was No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It became the signature Motown song over the years.
Dancing In The Street signified that the listener should have a great time wherever they are.
Fun Fact: Stevenson came up with the concept after he watched people of Detroit cool off in the streets with water from the fire hydrants. He found them to be ‘dancing’ in the water.
Dancing in the Street Video – Martha and the Vandellas
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13. You Can’t Hurry Love
“You Can’t Hurry Love” was performed by the Supremes and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, and released in 1966. The song was No.1 on the Billboard pop singles and No.5 in the UK. 16 years later, the Phil Collins version became No.1 in the UK in 1983. The song is called as an ode to late bloomers.
Fun Fact: The song also has an Italian version, “L’amore verra” played by The Supremes.
14. You Really Got A Hold On Me
“You Really Got A Hold On Me” was first performed by The Miracles and written by Smokey Robinson. It was the No.1 single in 1962 and sold a million records. The song won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.
Fun Fact: “You Really Got A Hold On Me” has also made its way in almost a dozen movies. Kevin Bacon and his 6 degrees better watch out.
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15. What’s Going on?
Performed by Marvin Gaye and written by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland, and Renaldo Benson, ‘What’s Going On’ was first released in 1971. Benson composed the song when he witnessed an incidence of police brutality.
Fun Fact: In 2004, ‘What’s Going On’ was marked as the 4th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone.
What’s Going On? Video – Marvin Gaye
16. Papa Was A Rolling Stone
“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” was performed by The Temptations and written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. This psychedelic soul song was released in 1972. The song became the No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and went on to win 3 Grammy Awards. It is considered as the last real classic to be recorded by the group.
Fun Fact: Even after being truncated for single release, the song is among the longest Hot 100 chart-toppers.
17. Let’s Get It On
“Let’s Get It On”, performed by Marvin Gaye and written by Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend, was released first in 1973. The Funk Brothers contributed funk instrumentation to the song. This is the most successful single from Gaye for the label.
Fun Fact: Gaye became a sex icon during the early part of his career, and this song may have played a big role.
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18. This Old Heart Of Mine
Performed by The Isley Brothers and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, “This Old Heart Of Mine” was first released in 1966. The song was No.6 on the R&B Singles and No.12 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the only hit the group had during the short time they spent with the label.
Fun Fact: “This Old Heart Of Mine” is often featured in Moonlighting, a popular show from the 80s. The song is also part of the show’s soundtrack.
This Old Heart of Mine Video – The Isley Brothers
19. Jimmy Mack
Written and produced by Holland, Dozier and Holland, and performed by Martha and the Vandellas, Jimmy Mack peaked at number 10 on the charts. It’s sung from a woman’s perspective who is hoping for the return of her guy, “Jimmy Mack.”
Fun Fact: After being written in 1964, the song was put in a vault for two years because Motown’s team didn’t think it was the right time because of the Vietnam War. The song took on new meaning, especially for those involved in the war or with loved ones in service, when it was released two years later.
Jimmy Mack Video – Martha and the Vandellas
‘Superstition’ was written and performed by Stevie Wonder and released in 1972. As the song’s name suggests, it lists some of the most popular superstitions. It highlights the negative impact of such beliefs. ‘Superstition’ became the No.1 hit in the US and on the Soul singles. It is No.74 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is also considered as one of Stevie’s most popular songs.
Fun Fact: This is Stevie Wonder’s second No.1 hit in the US. The first one was when he performed as Little Stevie Wonder.
21. I Want You Back
Performed by The Jackson 5 and written by The Corporation, “I Want You Back” was released in 1969. The song became the No.1 hit in 1970 – No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Soul singles charts. The song was the first big hit for the group.
Fun Fact: Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song 121st on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
22. My Girl
Performed by The Temptations and written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, ‘My Girl’ was first released in 1964. The song was a No.1 hit the next year, the first American No.1 for the group. It went on to become the signature song for The Temptations, and on of the top Motown songs.
Fun Fact: Smokey Robinson, the King of Motown, found the inspiration for the song in his wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson.
My Girl Video – The Temptations
23. Super Freak
“Super Freak” is one of the raunchiest songs from Motown, performed by Rick James and written by James and Alonzo Miller. The song was released in 1981 and received a nomination for the Grammy. The song describes a very kinky girl, addressing her as a ‘freak’. It is No. 477 on the Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Fun Fact: “Super Freak” has a famous bass line. James filed a suit against MC Hammer for including the bass line in his ‘U Can’t Touch This’. James was given songwriting credit and when Hammer’s song won the Grammy Award in 1991, it became James’ only Grammy.
24. Money (That’s What I Want)
Performed by Barrett Strong and written by Gordy and Janie Bradford, “Money (That’s What I Want)” was first recorded in 1959. The song has been recorded by several other artists including the Flying Lizards and the Beatles. It is the first hit for Motown. The song has the singer claiming that money is the most important thing he needs. The song became No.2 on the Hot R&B Sides chart and is ranked 288 in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Fun Fact: The song became a hit at the peak of the Payola scandal. The scandal led to investigations on disc jockeys for playing records for bribes.
Money (That’s What I Want) Video – Barrett Strong
25. Reach Out (I’ll Be There)
Performed by the Four Tops and written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was released in 1966. It is the Four Tops’ signature song and was the No.1 on the R&B’s chart and the Billboard Hot 100. It was also Motown’s second UK No.1 hit. The song is 206 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Fun Fact: The song was recorded in two takes. They had forgotten that it had been recorded and were surprised at the time of its release.
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