Motown's top 20 songs, ranked

22 November 2021, 14:47

By Mayer Nissim

Motown was maybe the finest record label in the world, so what were its biggest and best songs?

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Berry Gordy turns 82 this weekend (November 28), and there's no better way to celebrate than to look back at the greatest tracks from the best singles label in music history.

From its earliest days as Tamla Records at the end of the 1950s on, Gordy's label was a conveyor belt of endless hits.

Berry Gordy and Motown Records
Berry Gordy and Motown Records. Picture: Alamy

Read more: A Marvin Gaye musical biopic with the full backing of Motown is in the works

With over 50 Billboard Hot 100 number one singles, picking just 20 Motown classics is an almost impossible task.

To make it a bit more manageable, we've laid out some ground rules:

One song per named artist (separate band hits and solo songs ARE allowed though), and we're also including all those Motown subsidiaries, like Tamla, Gordy and the rest.

  1. Commodores – Three Times A Lady

    Before he was a solo superstar, Lionel Richie was the lead singer in Commodores, and he also wrote some of their finest material.

    That included their first chart-topper, this easy listening classic from 1978.

  2. Michael Jackson – Rockin' Robin

    The Jackson 5 were one of the biggest acts on Motown in the early 1970s, but Michael Jackson always looked destined to be their breakout star.

    After releasing his solo debut 'Got to Be There', he scored a number two hit with the effervescent and irrepressible 'Rockin' Robin', equalling the placement of Bobby Day's original from 1958.

  3. Boyz II Men – End of the Road

    Wait. Boyz II Men. On Motown?

    Yep! While the label is best known for its run of hits in the '60s and '70s, it continued on, and one of its last significant acts was the sugar-voiced vocal harmony group.

    Their standout hit and radio favourite to this day was 'End of the Road' from the Boomerang soundtrack, which was one of the biggest songs of the 1990s.

  4. Lionel Richie – All Night Long (All Night)

    An almost dead heat between this and 'Hello' in this list, we opted for this to show off another side of Lionel Richie after he left Commodores.

    A number one hit in the US and number three in the UK, it was an absolute classic, despite Lionel making up his own language halfway through ("Tom bo li de say de moi ya").

  5. Diana Ross – Touch Me In The Morning

    The Supremes were maybe the finest Motown band, and a big part of that was the commanding lead performances from Diana Ross.

    It was inevitable that she'd succeed as a solo artist when she left the group, but no-one was probably prepared for just how massive she'd become.

    She stuck with Motown for her first decade away from the group, and had hit after hit, including this number one with an incredible vocal that stayed in the charts for 21 weeks.

  6. Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There

    Written and produced by Motown's masterful in-house team of Holland–Dozier–Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland), the Four Tops 'Reach Out' didn't just top the US charts, but also went to number one in the UK (only the second Motown #1 after The Supremes' 'Baby Love').

    Amazingly, the band weren't sure about the recording when it was done, but Berry Gordy knew best and insisted that it be released.

  7. Edwin Starr – War

    Originally recorded and released by The Temptations, it's Edwin Starr's much more powerful (and angry) version that has stood the test of time.

    One of the greatest anti-war songs, Starr's version was a James Brown-inspired, brass-laden psychedelic soul classic that took his career to the next level and remained his signature song.

    Starr's version went on to inspire yet more covers, including striking recordings by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Bruce Springsteen.

  8. The Jackson 5 – I Want You Back

    Michael Jackson's early solo career was on Motown, but his greatest hits with the company came with his family band The Jackson 5.

    The whole vibe of the Five was perfectly captured by the proto-disco soul of 'I Want You Back', their first national single, their first Motown single and their first number one hit.

    It was released on October 6, 1969, but heralded the start of the '70s and went to the top by the end of January the following year.

  9. Rick James – Super Freak

    "She's a very kinky girl / The kind you don't take home to mother...". A super freaky song about a Super Freak

    Co-written by James with Alonzo Miller, apparently, James wasn't super keen on super freak, just wanting something "white folks could dance to". Guilty as charged.

    It was a number 16 hit and eventually went Gold in the US and Silver in the UK. Oh, and MC Hammer obviously sampled it for his own massive 1990 hit 'U Can't Touch This'.

  10. Stevie Wonder – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)

    Stevie Wonder's recording career stretches all the way from 1962 to the present day, but one of his biggest and brightest was 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)', the first hit he had a hand in writing.

    A big smash record in 1966, it helped reignite the former Little Stevie Wonder's career, earned him a couple of Grammy nominations and took him to the next level.

  11. Jimmy Ruffin – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted

    One of the greatest break-up songs in pop history.

    Tear-jerking lyrics, swooping strings and Jimmy Ruffin's soaring voice perfectly capture the anguish of love lost.

    A top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic on its release in 1966, it's been covered several times in the years since, including by Paul Young, Dave Stewart & Colin Blunstone, and er, Robson & Jerome.

  12. The Marvelettes – Please Mr. Postman

    Motown had been racking up the hits for a couple of years, but you could argue that the legacy of the label was cemented in 1961 with the release of 'Please Mister Postman', the first Motown number one.

    A perfectly-produced classic melding all those incredible voices, it also features the drumming of a certain Marvin Gaye, who was working as a session player after the initial failure of his solo career.

    The Carpenters took the song to number one once more in 1975, and before then The Beatles recorded a high-energy take for their own With The Beatles album.

  13. Barrett Strong – Money (That’s What I Want)

    Written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, 'Money (That's What I Want)' has the distinction of being the very first hit for Gordy, being released on his fledgling Tamla label.

    An instant classic with a stronger R&B vibe than the label would eventually be well known for, it was another Motown hit covered by The Beatles for With The Beatles, and covered again in a very different form in 1979 by The Flying Lizards.

  14. Mary Wells – My Guy

    So many Motown hits excel because of the incredible female vocals that absolutely make them what they are, and right up there is Mary Wells' 'My Guy', complete with those top-register choruses and Mae West-style outro.

    Written by Smokey Robinson, it features Mary brushing off the attentions of a hot fella because, hey, he's not her guy.

  15. The Miracles – You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me

    Motown was Berry Gordy's baby, but one of the key midwives was Smokey Robinson.

    Smokey encouraged Berry to borrow the money to found the label, and was one of its key songwriters, totems and cheerleaders.

    Most importantly, he was the lead songwriter and frontman of soul supergroup The Miracles, who had some of Motown's very biggest and best songs, including this Sam Cooke-inspired top 10 single.

  16. The Contours – Do You Love Me?

    Another of the earlier R&B-powered Motown hits, 'Do You Love Me' was written and produced by Berry Gordy himself, and went all the way to number three in the charts on its release.

    It namechecked dance crazes The Twist and The Mashed Potato and showcased singer Billy Gordon's up-in-the-red screaming vocals.

    It was a hit all over again in 1988, going to number 11 off the back of it featuring in Dirty Dancing. It was also covered by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and the Dave Clark Five.

  17. Marvin Gaye – I Heard it Through the Grapevine

    As well as having his own hits for Motown, Barrett Strong also had a strong songwriting relationship with Norman Whitfield, providing incredible tracks for other artists on the label.

    'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' was recorded by countless major Motown artists, and Marvin Gaye's was actually the second recorded and third released.

    The Miracles recorded theirs in 1966, but it didn't come out till 1968. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded and released theirs in September 1967, having a pretty big hit with it.

    Marvin recorded his in early 1967, but didn't get his take out until October 1968, but t's his slinky, funked up recording that's stood the test of time.

    It was later recorded by other Motown acts Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, The Temptations and Bettye LaVette, while The Slits completely reworked it as a bonus track on their 1979 post-punk debut Cut.

  18. The Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

    Another Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong effort and first recorded by The Undisputed Truth, it was The Temptations that made 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone' a hit.

    They took it all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 – earning a Grammy, too.

    The album version is an incredible 12-minute masterpiece, and even the single edit is just shy of seven minutes shuffling soul epic.

  19. Martha and the Vandellas – Dancing in the Street

    Apparently, a British reporter once jabbed a microphone in Martha Reeves's face and basically asked her if 'Dancing in the Street' was an incitement to riot.

    "My Lord, it was a party song," she's said to have remarked afterwards. And what a party song.

    Written by William 'Mickey' Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves put it down in two takes with the images of block parties in her mind.

    One of the most instantly recognisable Motown songs, it's been covered countless times over the years by everyone from The Mamas & the Papas and the Kinks to Van Halen, Grateful Dead, Little Richard and The Struts.

    And David Bowie and Mick Jagger teamed up for a rush-recorded cover for Live Aid in 1985, taking it all the way to number one.

  20. The Supremes – Stop! In The Name of Love

    Maybe the ultimate Motown band, The Supremes were the perfect encapsulation of "the Motown sound" and had an incredible 12 number one singles.

    If we didn't have our strict rules, we easily could have packed this list with 20 songs by The Supremes (our sister station Smooth has its own top 10), and the hardest thing was choosing which of their pop masterpieces to top this list.

    In the end it was a toss-up between 'Baby Love' and this. We've opted for 'Stop! In The Name of Love' for sheer power and drama.

    Like most of their hits, it came from the Holland–Dozier–Holland writing team but it's The Supremes' performance, capped by the 21-year-old Diana Ross, which makes it.

    A young lover urges her man to not go and cheat on her again – not just for her sake, but for the sake of love. Amazing.

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