Motown favourites

I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for more than a fortnight, but more pressing matters of relevance obviously got in the way, so please belatedly indulge me if you share a passion for Motown.

UK viewers might have seen The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song on ITV a couple of weekends ago. Following similar programmes featuring the songs of Elvis (‘Always On My Mind’, apparently, is the UK’s favourite) and Abba (sorry, don’t know or care and wouldn’t have watched if you’d paid me to), it was your typical countdown featuring performance clips, promotional material and interviews from those closely involved and those in awe of Motown Records, founded by Berry Gordy in 1959; Mica Paris was one such respectful contributor sharing her thoughts and memories.

Being a bit of a geek at times, with a fondness for making lists, I grabbed my pen, reminded myself how to hold and then use it, and hurriedly scribbled down the songs I expected to feature in the first ten minutes or so. Being ITV, there were soon commercials so I needn’t have hurried.

I don’t know how exactly voting took place for the programme beyond ‘a representative panel of viewers from across the country,’ which, if you think about it, could mean almost anything. Possibly they were asked to rank twenty songs that had already been chosen for the sake of marketing convenience in order of preference. The obligatory album that accompanied the programme has forty songs on it, so maybe these people got to choose twenty from forty. Either way, the producers, or whoever, chose twenty fine songs to talk about.

I had no idea that Edwin Starr had lived, and is buried, in the Midlands. (Now’s as good a time as any, I feel, to let him remind us all that war is good for “absolutely nothing”. If only our leaders would listen.)

And just how prolific is Smokey Robinson, writing, performing and producing so many of Motown’s finest records? A harder exercise than this would be to list the songs in which he has had no involvement.

Anyway, the list.

I’d expected the predictable – and got it – but still, what a list of twenty era-defining songs you can cheerfully bop your head and pop your fingers to. It’s not as if the following could ever have been left out.

20. Jimmy Mack – Martha & The Vandellas
19. Uptight (Everything’s Alright) – Stevie Wonder
18. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
17. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
16. My Cherie Amour – Stevie Wonder
15. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops
14. My Guy – Mary Wells
13. The Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
12. Reach Out (I’ll Be There) – The Four Tops
11. I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
10. Stop! In the Name Of Love – The Supremes
09. War – Edwin Starr
08. Baby Love – The Supremes
07. I’ll Be There – The Jackson 5
06. The Tears Of a Clown – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
05. My Girl – The Temptations
04. Dancing In the Street – Martha & The Vandellas
03. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Diana Ross
02. What Becomes Of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
01. I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Timeless classics indeed. I’ll be amazed if twenty of this decade’s songs, or twenty from this and the last two decades, will still be enjoyed fifty years from now. It actually makes me glad that I’ll be dead by then.

So anyway, I got to thinking about what they’d left out, absolutely sure that there’s another list of twenty deserved of mention. And no, I didn’t cheat by looking at the tracklist.

Allowing all of Motown’s many subsidiary labels…

First, Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, the label’s first major hit, in 1959 – that has to be included. If we’re allowed another handful of songs from the artists that so dominate the above list and brought the most success to the label, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ needs to be there. As does ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me’ from Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Allowing Martha Reeves & The Vandellas another (they were one of David’s Desert Island Discs, let’s not forget; and you can download this BBC radio programme from 2003, if you haven’t already, as well as lose at least an hour to the archive by looking at who else has chosen which song), I choose ‘In My Lonely Room’. Marvin Gaye’s poignant ‘Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ makes me feel just as inflamed and ashamed yet definitely inspired as each of the previous hundred times I’ve probably played it.

‘What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?’

There’s not nearly enough from The Four Tops, so there has to be space made for ‘Bernadette’ and ‘It’s the Same Old Song’ – at least. To be fair, we should add two more from The Temptations: ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ and ‘Cloud Nine’, perhaps?

So often overlooked, let’s not omit The Spinners. I only wish it were possible to include their brilliantly titled ‘I Got Your Water Boiling, Baby (I’m Gonna Cook Your Goose)’ – just for the title, really, it’s not the greatest song ever recorded – but technically it was released on a label that had yet to be snapped up by Motown. Let’s have ‘We’re Gonna Be More Than Friends’ and ‘It’s a Shame’ instead.

Add also, please, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and perhaps also ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’ – by The Supremes. ‘ABC’ from The Jackson 5, too. The Contours should be there with ‘Do You Love Me’. I’d have to insist on ‘Needle In a Haystack’, by The Velvelettes, and ‘Please, Mr Postman’, by The Marvelettes. Great names.

The Isley Brothers’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)’ was one that I’d scribbled down in confident expectation. What a tune and what a shame it missed out to one or two lesser, in my opinion, tunes.

Excusing the poor grammar, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ is a must, along with ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ by The Elgins.

I’d also throw in Kim Weston’s ‘A Thrill a Moment’ and, as it possibly eclipses the Mary Wells original, Brenda Holloway’s ‘Operator’.

Although (always, always) favouring greatly the Sixties over the Seventies, and certainly anything that came later, I think there’s room for the Commodores and ‘Machine Gun’. Maybe even for Rick James and ‘Super Freak’. Definitely for ‘Upside Down’, by Diana Ross, and ‘Sir Duke’, by Stevie Wonder.

Anyone and anything else?

If you’re curious and allowed in your part of the world to view the video, you can watch The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song over at ITV.com during the next five days.

If you can’t, you can console yourself with a visit to the chatroom. It’ll be open tomorrow from 2pm (UK). Bring your dancing shoes.