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BWW Exclusive: THE 101 GREATEST MOTOWN SONGS OF ALL TIME - with Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 & More

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BWW Exclusive: THE 101 GREATEST MOTOWN SONGS OF ALL TIME - with Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 & More

"The Beatles were huge. And the first thing they said when you interviewed them, 'Oh yeah, we grew up on Motown.'..They were the first white act to admit they grew up listening to black music." --Smokey Robinson

Motown, founded by Berry Gordy Jr. over sixty years ago and labeled The Sound of Young America, was a black-run organization from Detroit with universal appeal. White audiences could admire the songs, but it's black music that needn't be whitewashed. Listening to the Motown classics, you never forget that the people singing, the unseen musicians, most of the engineers, were people of color. Over its long haul, Motown only housed a small minority of white or racially mixed acts (Rare Earth, the Mynah Birds), but it's its black artists who rose to the highest ranks, creating a Sixties sound every bit as important and artistically strong as the Beatles and the British Invasion.

Since its inception in the late 1950's, Motown has entered every realm of pop culture. It's in the movies (from The Big Chill to Dirty Dancing), TV, and even Broadway (Dreamgirls was modeled after the Supremes, not to mention the obvious Motown: The Musical). You can't get away from it; then again, why would you want to?

Before creating this list, I listened to every Motown single between 1959 and 1972, plus most of the singles that followed into the 1980's and 1990's. I constructed the Motown 101 on an iTunes playlist first, and yes, I have heard the whole thing from #101 to #1 (almost six hours of music); right now it's my favorite of all playlists, especially hearing it in order. There's no greater joy than driving down the highway, Motown classics like "Nowhere to Run" pumped at full volume, and just vrooming to that infectious beat.

Not surprisingly, Stevie Wonder leads the pack with a whopping 15 entries on the list, and Marvin Gaye follows him with 12 (some of those including his famous duets). Diana Ross, as a Supreme and as a soloist combined, has ten songs on the list, tied with Smokey Robinson (as a Miracle as well as a soloist). The Temptations have seven songs on the 101, followed by the Jackson 5 with six and the Four Tops with five. Some of the artists on this list are obscure (the San Remo Golden Strings? Barbara McNair? Odyssey?), but created something special enough to make the grade. I am sure that some of you may wonder where Aretha Franklin is on the list, but remember, she did not record for Motown (though Berry Gordy said after her death that he considered her "part of the Motown family"). And Michael Jackson, a Motown superstar as a child, would record his most famous Eighties solo works for another label (so don't expect "Billie Jean" or "Thriller" to be on the list).

The #1 song that I chose was written a half a century ago and performed by an artist who died over three decades ago. I listened to it in the car this morning and I started tearing up. I couldn't help it. The song's power, written for a different era, bled into our current circumstances. It spoke so clearly about what we, as a nation, are going through right now. That's the greatness of true art--its message overwhelms us from beyond the grave. (You'll have to scroll all the way down the list to see what song and artist landed at the very top.)

For the record, on the other end of the scale, the #102 song was "Let It Whip" by the Dazz Band.

My recommendation while you scroll through the list? Take it as a blueprint and create your own Motown playlist. Look up some of the songs you may never have heard of (not every Motown song has Smokey Robinson attached to it as either a writer or a performer, although at times it may seem that way). I want you to enjoy music that still sings out, that has not lost any of its edge or importance, that still matters sixty years after its founding.

So let's count 'em down, from #101 to #1. And if you have any comments or even suggestions for future 101 lists, then please email me at vermeer38@aol.com. Enjoy!

THE 101 GREATEST MOTOWN SONGS

101. "Festival Time" by the San Remo Golden Strings [1967]

We start here, with the famed "Motown Sound" in one of the record company's more interesting instrumentals. Motown was known for having the finest session musicians in the Motor City, including the Funk Brothers and key members from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and you can find them all in this bouncy tune. (The ubiquitous Funk Brothers lay claim to playing on more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and the Beach Boys...combined!) And my hero, James Jamerson, has a bass that goes beast-wild in it. Impossible not to have fun listening to it at top volume, driving with your foot on the accelerator, with only one thought on your mind: It's party time! Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A (though it hit #39 on the UK charts).

100. "All Night Long (All Night)" by Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie owned the easy listening pop world with his album, Can't Slow Down, and this Caribbean-lite mega-hit, filled with infectious fun. It's both funny and kind of sad that the phrases "Tom bo li de say de moi ya" and "Jambo jumbo" are official gibberish and not African at all. (And in breaking news this week: Lionel Richie is creating a movie jukebox musical based on his hits entitled--you got it--"All Night Long.") Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

99. "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes [1961]

Motown's first #1 hit, this would become an early 1960's Girl Group staple in the era of the Shirelles, the Ronettes and the Crystals. Later covered by acts as diverse as the Beatles and the Carpenters (the latter who also hit #1 with their more elevator muzak approach to it). As important as the song is, it's low on the list because there are so many stronger songs in the Motown catalogue (scroll down and you'll see 98 of them). But it's just too iconic not to include. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

98. "Love Hangover" by Diana Ross [1976]

Diana Ross joins the disco sweepstakes with this rousing chart topper (it would also nest at #1 on the Soul and Dance charts). It starts off slow, torchy and breathy, and ends as a rollicking disco inferno. Although reminiscent of Donna Summer's orgasmic dance anthem, "Love to Love You Baby," this would in turn be the blueprint for some of Ms. Summer's more mainstream hits, like "Last Dance" and "On the Radio," songs that would utilize the same ballad-to-dance-fever approach. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

97. "Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love" by Odyssey [1972]

Some of Motown's underrated and seldom-played classics by forgotten groups must be included on the list, with this one heading the way. It sounds like early Jefferson Airplane ("Wooden Ships") mixed with the Guess Who. If someone asks you for a quintessential late 1960's and early 1970's song, then play them this. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A.

96. "Two Can Have a Party" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell [1967]

Another underrated and unknown marvel, not heard as a duo until years after its release. But it's so bouncy and alive, Motown at its feel-good best, by Motown's top duo ever (and perhaps the top duo in all of pop and soul, leaving Simon & Garfunkel, the Righteous Brothers, and Hall & Oates in the dust). Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A.

95. "My World Is Empty Without You" by Barbara McNair [1967]

Will someone please make a film based on Barbara McNair's life? With its ups (TV and movie actress; Broadway starlet; performing for the troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope; a brief stint at Motown) and scary downs (heroin arrest and acquittal plus the murder of her Mafioso husband, to name just two), it's the stuff of seedy biopics. But she could sing, as proven with this, the flip side to "Here I Am." Here she is, with her cover dwarfing The Supremes' hit version of "My World Is Empty Without You"--slow, yearning, haunting, painful and passionate, a long fuse that refuses to explode. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A.

94. "Isn't She Lovely" by Stevie Wonder [1977]

How many other songs can you name that start with the first cries of a baby at childbirth? Wonder's wonder is an ode to his baby daughter, Aisha Morris, who can be heard in the bath at the end of the song. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A (As popular as any of Wonder's songs, it was never released as a single because Wonder refused to shorten it from its original six minute, thirty-three second length; but Motown's Tamla label eventually gave in and cut it down to just over three minutes, where it landed at #23 on the Adult Contemporary Charts.)

93. "Malinda" by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers [1968]

You can't get around Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers without confronting these two facts: 1) Bobby would discover Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, and 2) Tommy Chong, later of Cheech and Chong, was an original member of the group. Although the Chong-penned "Does Your Mama Known About Me" hit highest on the charts, the enthralling, obsessive-turned-worshipful "Malinda" is the best of this future trivia question of a group. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #48.

92. "Jimmy Mack" by Martha & the Vandellas [1967]

Impossible not to sing along with, led by Benny Benjamin's galvanized shotgun drumming. I've often wondered if it's a salute to a soldier stationed in Vietnam, but in '67, Berry Gordy, Motown's founder, would have nothing controversial, so that's just my imagination running away with me. So, it's just another catchy spurned girl song, where the lead singer wants her "Jimmy Mack" back. Simply irresistible. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #10.

91. "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)" by Kim Weston [1965]

Forget the Doobie Brothers; Kim Weston's pulsating take on this Holland-Dozier-Holland classic is the one for me. Feverish, heart-pumping, if you're not tapping your toes to it, you might want to rush to the emergency room. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #50.

90. "More Love" by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles [1967]

Smokey's vocals were never so smooth and silky, true love emitting from the speakers. You would never know that Robinson would scribe this after heartbreak, the stillborn birth of twins. He wrote it for his wife, Claudette. "After she had a miscarriage, she would always tell me she was sorry she had let me down," he said, according to George Nelson's book, Where Did Our Love Go. "I would explain that she had not let me down because she was there, she was alive; I wanted the babies, but I didn't know them. I wrote 'More Love' to let her know how I felt about her." They would eventually have two children, aptly named "Berry" and "Tamla." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #23.

89. "Rhythm of the Night" by DeBarge [1985]

88. "The Love You Save" by the Jackson 5 [1970]

Family groups would prove so important to the Motown brand. DeBarge, a family act, would have a huge Top-10 with their party anthem, "Rhythm of the Night," one of the Eighties great Bacchanalia pleas. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3. As for the Jackson 5 brothers, "The Love You Save" was their third #1 hit, with some of Holland-Dozier-Holland's most clever lyrics, like these that bring to mind history's great inventors and explorers: "Isaac said he kissed you beneath the apple tree/When Benji held your hand he felt electricity/When Alexander called you he said he rang your chime/Christopher discovered you're way ahead of your time!" The title seems to be a play on words of Flannery O'Connor's great short story, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

87. "Got to Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye [1977]

No one grooves like Marvin Gaye, not even Robin Thicke, who used the beat of "Got to Give It Up" for his own "Blurred Lines." But there's no contest between the original and its imitator. I'm listening to the 1977 single right now, and it's hard to keep my fingers on the keyboard; I just want to bop to the mesmerizing beat of one of Motown's true greats. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

86. "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" by Stevie Wonder [1972]

Stevie grows up. One of Wonder's most exquisite compositions, an epic (seven minute, fifty-eight second) look at his relationship with wife, Syreeta. There's even a reference to Wonder's zodiac sign (Taurus: "boss the bull around"). Sweeping, swirling, too big to be a mere pop song. It's like a soulful "Wuthering Heights." If you have never heard this, then stop reading right now and look it up. It's that powerful. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #33.

85. "Superfreak" by Rick James [1981]

James brought his own brand of funky sexuality and kinkiness to Motown. If it weren't for this song, we'd never have heard of MC Hammer. But Hammer can't touch the original. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #16.

84. "Keep on Truckin'" by Eddie Kendricks [1973]

The former Temptation hit the top with this funk masterpiece, thanks to James Jamerson's fiery bass. There's even a wink to Kendricks' old band: "In old Temptations' rain, I'm duckin'/For your love through sleet or snow, I'm truckin'..." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

83. "Easy" by the Commodores [1977]

Lionel Richie at his laid-back best. This is so free and breezy, the way Sunday mornings should be. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

82. "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder [1969]

A ballad so popular that Wonder would release it both in Spanish ("Mi Querido Amor") and Italian ("My Cherie Amor"), both excellent. But the tune wouldn't have worked as well under its original title, "Oh My Martha," would it? Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

81. "Heaven Must Have Sent You" by the Elgins [1966]

80. "You Made Me So Very Happy" by Brenda Holloway [1967]

79. "Devil with the Blue Dress" by Shorty Long [1964]

78. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight and the Pips [1967]

Motown songs made famous by other people. "Heaven Must Have Sent You" is a glory, pure glory. The late great Bonnie Pointer, who died just this week, heard the power of the Elgins' original and decided to record it to a disco beat in the 1970's. Grand as her hit version is, the Elgins get the nod here. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #50. You know the Blood, Sweat and Tears version of "You made Me So Very Happy," but once you hear Brenda Holloway's soul-stirring rendition, you'll forget Blood, Sweat and Tears ever existed. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #39. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels turned "Devil in a Blue Dress" into a rollicking rock hit, but the original bluesy Shorty Long version is one of Motown's highest points. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: N/A. And Gladys Knight's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is one of the finest songs of the 1960's, but the Marvin Gaye version, recorded earlier but released much later, would wind up as one of Motown's top-10 of all time (scroll way down to find where it landed in the 101). But Gladys and her Pips still righteously rock the house with it. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

77. "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" by Marvin Gaye [1964]

An early Marvin Gaye single, now a Motown standard, that you find yourself singing along with no matter where you are. The saddest thing is that James Taylor's tepid, sleepy-slow version of it made it higher on the Billboard charts in 1975 than the Gaye original. No justice in the world. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #6.

76. "Just to See Her" by Smokey Robinson [1987]

75. "Shop Around" by the Miracles [1960]

Smokey Robinson, after and before. "Just to See Her" is one of the most romantic songs in his oeuvre (which is saying something, because very few singers can match his effect on young lovers). Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #8. "Shop Around" is early Smokey, the first Motown song to crack the Top 5 on the charts. But it's that voice, that indelible Smokey voice, silky, meringue-like and feather-light, that makes it work all of these years later. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

74. "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" by the Supremes [1967]

73. "Someday We'll Be Together" by Diana Ross & the Supremes [1969]

The Supremes were Motown's all-time biggest group, and here are two of their iconic recordings. "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" features the wispy speaking voice of Diana Ross, later used to such a great effect in her version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1. "Someday We'll Be Together" was the Supremes' last #1 and the last #1 song of the 1960's. It's the perfect culminating tune of that remarkable decade as well as Diana Ross' fond farewell from the group that made her famous before she would venture into show biz as a solo act. But there's something bigger to the song, overwhelming in its message. It's as close to religious as a pop song could get, up there with the likes of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Let It Be," both of which would be released months later. "Someday We'll Be Together" works best in this aspect, sort of pop gospel, knowing that nothing will ever part us; that we will see a lost loved one in the hereafter; that not even death can conquer us; and that someday, some sweet day, we'll be together. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

72. "Ooo Baby Baby" by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles [1965]

Smokey again, unhurried, longing and remorseful in one of the best apology songs ever. The harmonies are tight and the Funk Brothers have rarely been better. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #16.

71. "You Beat Me to the Punch" by Mary Wells [1962]

Motown's pop and soul queen, at least in their early years, Mary Wells sings the hell out of this. Gene Chandler even created an answer song to it, "You Threw a Lucky Punch," that's nowhere near the joy of this. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #9.

70. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder [1984]

Like Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girls," this Wonder mega-hit goes through the entire calendar: from "no New Year's Day" to "no chocolate covered hearts" on February 14th, from "no warm July" to "no Libra sun," ending with no Thanksgiving or Christmas. In other words, Wonder's so in love that it doesn't take a special day to say those three magic words to his special someone. Awww. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

69. "Cruisin'" by Smokey Robinson [1979]

68. "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross [1980]

Motown takes a stand with the LGBTQ community with at least one of these two. Although "Cruisin'" is not meant to be a snapshot of the gay community at all, the slow jam takes its title from gay culture, as seen in the gay centered (yet homophobic) thriller Cruisin' as well as the Village People's overtly gay LP, Cruisin', both of which came out (for lack of a better term) around the same time. Hmmm. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4. Smokey's classic may not be officially intended as gay pop, but Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" is most certainly a LGBTQ anthem, perhaps the greatest of all time, up there with "Y.M.C.A.," "It's Raining Men" and "True Colors." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #5.

67. "ABC" by the Jackson 5 [1970]

11-year-old Michael Jackson and his four brothers school the world on how to rightfully perform light funk with this, their second #1 record. Interestingly, not only is it one of the shortest titles for a #1 song, "ABC" is always the first alphabetically of all songs that topped the pop charts. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

66. "Machine Gun" by the Commodores [1974]

65. "Fingertips, Parts 1 & 2" by "Little" Stevie Wonder [1963]

Another instrumental classic, one of only three in the 101. The Beastie Boys would sample this in their 1989 song, "Hey Ladies," and the song would be used prominently in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights. Electrifying. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #22. "Fingertips" would be "Little" Stevie Wonder's first chart topper, a live instrumental track that's so much fun that it should be illegal. The record was so long (over six minutes) that it was released in two parts, with "Part 2" hitting the top of the charts. I prefer both Parts 1 and 2 together, for the full party-hardy good time of the song. The musicians, especially James Jamerson on bass, are on fire, with the drumming second to none. And who happens to be the percussionist on this classic? Marvin Gaye! Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

64. "Standing in the Shadows of Love" by the Four Tops [1966]

This is pretty intense stuff, a pure pessimistic look at love, where the singer is standing in the shadows, waiting for heartache to come. Levi Stubbs, the lead singer, proves he's a fierce force to be reckoned with, as we'll see in the Four Tops numbers that rank higher on this list. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #6.

63. "Nightshift" by the Commodores [1985]

62. "Abraham, Martin and John" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles [1969]

61. "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" by Stevie Wonder [1971]

Motown tackles loss and grief of famous individuals like no other, and these are three of their very best tribute songs. In the Commodores "Nightshift," they sadly and soulfully salute singers Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, both of whom passed the year before. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3. "But the good, they die young..." Dion made "Abraham, Martin and John" an enduring eulogy to the assassinated leaders Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and (not in the title) Robert Kennedy. Dion had the hit, but Smokey sings it better, and it's devastating to listen to, especially the ending where Smokey sings "Hallelujah!" Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #33. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Stevie Wonder sang his gorgeous ballad, "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," at his memorial. Who can forget the ending of that performance, when Stevie broke down during the line, "Why didn't you stay?" Makes me tear up just thinking about it. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #78.

60. "I'll Make Love to You" by Boyz 2 Men [1994]

59. "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong [1959]

Motown, the old and the new. "I'll Make Love to You," written by Babyface, is not only the most recent hit on this list, but it's also the biggest: spending a whopping 14 weeks at #1, which makes it Motown's top song of all time. It was also a global sensation, a Grammy behemoth, that sold so much it earned Platinum certification. And it proudly sits at #19 of the Billboard All Time Top 100 Songs. Not bad at all. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1. If "I'll Make Love to You" is the most recent song on the 101, then "Money" is the oldest, Motown's first big hit. The Beatles performed a brilliant version of it with some of John Lennon's best vocals, and the Flying Lizards nicked the charts with what is surely the most bizarre. But it all starts here, with Barrett Strong's moment of glory and the very first glimpse of Motown brilliance. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #23.

58. "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" by the Four Tops [1965]

In the summer of 1965, you could hear the ultimate songs by the Stones ("Satisfaction"), the Beatles ("Help"), and Bob Dylan ("Like a Rolling Stone"). This Four Tops song, also released that summer, may be the ultimate Motown song of the 1960's, the one to point to if you want to hear, in a single tune, what the sound of young America was like. Led once again by Jamerson's thrilling bass work, it features the bellowing greatness of Levi Stubbs in the lead. No wonder it's featured in so many TV commercials, including Applebee's just last year. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

57. "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" by Stevie Wonder [1965]

It's a plotline straight out of a John Hughes film. A poor lad dates a wealthy girl "in a big old house full of butlers and maids," who has no problem with the disparity in their social circumstances. "Everything is all right," she says. Wonder's voice started changing around this time, and this is the first song featuring his more mature vocals. But it's once again James Jamerson's blistering bass and Benny Benjamin's bombastic drumming leading the way in this roaring toe-tappin', good-feelin' bop. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3.

56. "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 [1970]

Here it is, the biggest single during the Golden Age of Motown (1959-1972). Yes, Mariah Carey's remake was a sensational hit years later, but nothing can match the performance of young Michael Jackson who turned twelve the day after the song's release. It can be argued that he was never better than here, as the pre-teen lead singer of the Jackson 5, a child prodigy like no other. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

55. "You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes [1966]

Pop and gospel go hand in hand with this one. Inspired by the Original Gospel Harmonettes' "(You Can't Hurry God) He's Right on Time," which contained the following lyrics: "You can't hurry God/You just have to wait/Trust and give him time/No matter how long it takes." And here's the Motown version: "You can't hurry love/No, you just have to wait/She said love don't come easy/It's a game of give and take..." But the Supremes were at the height of their artistry here and put in one bouncy hell of a performance. Terrific stuff, much better than Phil Collins' 1982 reworking. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

54. "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" by the Marvelettes [1966]

Penned by Smokey Robinson, this sultry, attitudinal girl group great is the definition of cool. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #13.

53. "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations [1968]

Psychedelic soul unofficially began with Sly and the Family Stone and was perfected here, with this chart-topping wall-shaker. It can be viewed as a drug song, especially with the lines "riding high on Cloud Nine," though its creators--Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong--deny that was the intention. But a whole style of music, with hallucinatory lyrics merged with a funky beat, a style that would continue at Motown with hits like "Ball of Confusion" and "Psychedelic Shack," started here. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #6.

52. "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye [1973]

Handsome Marvin Gaye was a reflection of the 1970's: He started off the decade as a purveyor of protest tunes and anti-war albums, and then, as the decade moved on, sang songs about promiscuity, free love, libidinous liberation, and sexual healing. Gaye's music became, in a word of the time, funked-up. His "Let's Get It On" became mega-popular, with over four million copies sold, and would be the biggest-selling tune in Motown history at the time. It also turned Gaye into a major sex symbol. "The song is as upfront as a #1 song would get, with music that skirts the line between fresh funk and porn movie music. Hearing it immediately brings to mind images of open shirts, tight polyester pants, platform shoes, and numerous gold chains. It's like a lava lamp set to music. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

51. "Smiling Faces Sometimes" by the Undisputed Truth [1971]

I once went to a Tarot card reader in Los Angeles. As she flipped the cards over for my personal reading in her candle-lit living room, she said in a creepy voice of doom-like the Into the Woods Witch in real life--"Beware of people who smile at your face." Those words chilled me. Who out there is friendly to my face but wants to stab me in the back? I thought. I wanted to sing the Undisputed Truth lyrics aloud then and there--"Smiling faces, smiling faces, sometimes/They don't tell the truth"--but I knew better than to rattle a West Hollywood Tarot card reader by bursting into Motown lyrics. So I soon left, wondering who out there in my life is a wicked face-smiling backstabber. And now, over thirty years later, every time I hear the song, I still think of that psychic and her frightening words of warning: "Beware of people who smile at your face." And yes, the very same song would later make its way into Grand Theft Auto V. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3.

50. "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" by Gladys Knight and the Pips [1972]

The aptly titled last song Gladys and her Pips would sing for Motown before they would leave on that midnight train to Buddah Records. Gladys always felt like a second-string player at Motown, getting offered mere kitchen scraps after the likes of bigger stars like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. But her last song proved to be one of her biggest on the label, a slow jam that would become an Adult Contemporary staple and ultimately win the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

49. "I Was Made to Love Her" by Stevie Wonder [1967]

Stevie Wonder at his funky best, led by his bitchin' harmonica intro and the zeitgeist sound of an electric sitar. A song so good that even the Beach Boys covered it for their Wild Honey album. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

48. "Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes [1965]

You can see the image right now. The three Supremes in their matching dresses holding their open palms out--stop!--at the start of their most famous song. With its boisterous Benny Benjamin beat, it is the quintessential Supremes hit and maybe the most noticeable Motown song. Even my students, barely teenagers, have heard of it. Other songs may eclipse it in quality, but nothing can stop it of its instant icon status. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

47. "Don't Mess with Bill" by the Marvelettes [1965]

Smokey denies it, but since he's the writer of this song--the Marvelettes' last for Motown--it makes you wonder. Smokey's full name is William "Smokey" Robinson, i.e. Bill. So, when he writes "Don't Mess with Bill," he's talking about himself, right? Actually wrong. Smokey says it's just a name to fit the lyrics. But it's fun thinking that there's some darker, deeper meeting to the song, at least something autobiographical. Still, it's stellar material, with James Jamerson's opening bass line starting it off with a slow, creeping crawl. Coolness musically personified. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #7.

46. "The Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles [1970]

The only pop song that taught a whole generation about Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera clown, Pagliacci: "Just like Pagliacci did/I'll try to keep my sadness hid." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

45. "Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes [1964]

In the Elia Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd, Lonesome Rhodes, an obnoxious but beloved TV personality played by Andy Griffith (his best role), is overheard by the home audience spouting horrible things on a secret live mic. As he gets on an elevator afterwards, going down, his popularity also goes down until he hits the ground floor, rock bottom. And his career is over. The opposite would happen to the Supremes. While on tour with Dick Clark's American Bandstand Caravan of Stars, they started the gig at the bottom of the bill. No one had ever heard of them. And then a song called "Where Did Our Love Go" hit the radios and quickly ascended the charts. It started at #77 and climbed to #1. And as it ascended, so did the Supremes' fortunes. It's like they were on a different elevator than the one Lonesome Rhodes rode; theirs was going up, up, up. And as the tour finished, the three girls from Detroit found themselves at the top of the bill-a place they would symbolically stay for the rest of the 1960's as Motown's most famous act. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

44. "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" by the Temptations [1971]

43. "Get Ready" by the Temptations [1966]

These two songs--one dreamy, the other a party anthem--are the last songs the Temptations ever performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in January of 1971. As Otis Williams would later write, "Watch the clip of us doing the songs on Ed Sullivan we're not together. Eddie [Kendricks] is off by himself. There was no more group." Both songs would be notably covered, with the Rolling Stones performing "Just My Imagination" on their Some Girls album, and Motown's own Rare Earth making a career out of their version of "Get Ready." But nothing compares to the Temptations originals. Highest position of "Just My Imagination" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1; highest position of "Get Ready" on the Billboard Hot-100: #29.

42. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" by Stevie Wonder [1970]

Thank Stevie's songwriter mom, Lula Mae Hardaway, for the title of this gem. As her son was playing around with the melody, she exclaimed, "Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours!" And that was that. The hit also harkens back to the 2008 Presidential campaign, always played after one of Barack Obama's speeches. It's become so associated with the 44th President of the United States that I wonder: Can we listen to it without thinking of him? Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3.

41. "Bernadette" by the Four Tops [1967]

There's a moment near the end of the song that gets me every time. It happens at the two minute, thirty-eight second mark. The song seems to end, a moment of silence, but then we hear Levi Stubbs' most impassioned vocals, blurting out "BERNADETTE!" at the top of his lungs, and the song continues. I love all fake endings of pop songs ("Strawberry Fields Forever," "I'd Like to Get to Know You," "I Can Help," and the Contours' "Do You Love Me?"), but "Bernadette" stands as one of my favorites. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

40. "Don't Leave Me This Way" by Thelma Houston [1976]

Motown had some damn fine disco hits, but this cover of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes original is the best of the lot. Although meant for Diana Ross, even the former Supreme couldn't hold a candle to what Ms. Houston does here vocally. It takes the "Love Hangover" ingredient and ups the ante. Pleading, yearning, life and death stuff, it's like someone's holding a gun to the singer's head and asks her to beg for her life. Only "I Will Survive" (not a Motown song) can compete with it in the Best of Disco sweepstakes. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

39. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Diana Ross [1970]

Rarely has Motown founder, Berry Gordy, been wrong, but he certainly was here. He hated this song--an epic, lush, gospelized version of a former Top--10 hit by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, with Ms. Ross talking the lyrics rather than singing them. And it lasts over six minutes long. It's certainly not assembly line; it sounds like no other song, which may be one of the problems an astute businessman like Berry Gordy might have with it. But radio stations discovered it, and there was turning back. It would climb the charts to #1. Nowadays, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" stands as Diana Ross' signature song and her finest solo work. By the way, to find the original version on this list, you'll have to scroll down quite a ways. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

38. "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles [1965]

Smokey Robinson at his most emotional, despairing. The idea of a face tracked with the remnants of tears is one of the most powerful images we have of hurt. Far more powerful than the more obvious (but still great) "Tears of a Clown." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #16.

37. "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" by Jimmy Ruffin [1966]

One of the great Motown ballads, sung by the older brother of the Temptations' David Ruffin, that captures melancholia without being sappy. With its heavy bass and drums, it almost opens like a funeral dirge. And those lyrics, more suitable for a memorial service than a break-up: "What becomes of the broken-hearted/Who had love that's now departed?/I know I've got to find/Some kind of peace of mind/Maybe..." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #7.

36. "Shotgun" by Junior Walker & the All-Stars [ 1965]

Mix Junior Walker's tenor sax with James Jamerson's bass and Benny Bejamin's drumming, and you have blast--a literal blast--from the first explosive chord to the end of this dance classic. Of all the groups on this list, Junior Walker and the All Stars is the most underrated. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

35. "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by the Temptations [1966]

Everyone loves this Temptations ball-buster, but I almost can't listen to it due to its placement in a beloved movie. I'm talking about The Big Chill and that horrid scene where the boomers booty-dance around the kitchen, Saran-wrapping to it. Kevin Kline kisses the album (The Temptations anthology), and then we're stuck in a sequence so horrendous that Salo is a delight in comparison. And the worst offense, AFI actually put the song at #94 on its movie song list, not on its worthy merit, but on its inclusion of it in that despicable Kasdanized boomer-fest. But that's the testament to what a great song this is...If "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" can survive the most forced friends-dancing-to-the-oldies scene in movie history, then it can survive anything. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #13.

34. "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" by the Isley Brothers [1966]

The Isley's were only a part of Motown for a short period of time, and this was their masterpiece while there. One of the great feel-good songs in pop and soul history, impossible to just sit still while it plays. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #12.

33. "As" by Stevie Wonder [1977]

Whether it's a song of devotional love to God, or a spiritual love song to a special girl, this carries the weight of being one of Wonder's most sterling, emotional compositions (and the Motown song with the shortest title). In 2016, Dallas police chief David Brown quoted "As" during an interfaith memorial service for five officers who had been recently killed on duty. But why is the song called "As"? Because that's the first word in the very first line of the song: "As around the Sun the Earth knows she's revolving/And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May/Just as hate knows love's the cure/You can rest your mind assure/That I'll be loving you always..." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #36.

32. "Never Can Say Goodbye" by the Jackson 5 [1971]

Floating. That's what I feel whenever I listen to this, where young Michael has never sounded better. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

31. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" by Marvin Gaye [1971]

30. "Ball of Confusion" by the Temptations [1970]

29. "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder [1973]

28. "Love Child" by Diana Ross & the Supremes [1968]

27. "War" by Edwin Starr [1970]

26. "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by the Temptations [1972]

Motown had no problem tackling the problems facing the world of the 1960's and early 1970's. These six classic songs, by different artists at their peak, deal with such heavy issues as the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me"), racism ("Ball of Confusion"), urban plight ("Living for the City"), poverty ("Love Child"), Vietnam ("War") and fatherlessness in black families ("Papa Was a Rolling Stone"). These songs, all hits, are as deep, as scathing, as any rock song on the planet. I'll pick "Mercy Mercy Me" over Spirit's environmentally sound "Nature's Way" any day; the pounding battle-beat of "War" is more listenable than something like, say, "Volunteers" or even the great "Fortunate Son." And "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" stands out as perhaps the greatest song written about fathers (much better than Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle"). Even though these are protest songs and societal problem tunes, they still carry the patented Motown punch of sound; in other words, you can have your consciousness raised and dance to the music at the same time. Highest position of "Mercy Mercy Me" on the Billboard Hot-100: #4; highest position of "Ball of Confusion" on the Billboard Hot-100: #3; highest position of "Living for the City" on the Billboard Hot-100: #8; highest position of "Love Child" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1; highest position of "War" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1; and the highest position of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

25. "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder [1976]

One of the great songs about childhood; it does in a four minute pop song what entire movies like Stand By Me and The 400 Blows take two hours to accomplish. In the song, young Stevie hangs out with hoodlum friends; fakes cries so he won't get spanked; gets caught by his brother playing doctor with a girl; trades church money for candy; smokes cigarettes; vandalizes the school building; gets in trouble with teachers and the principal; and even when he gets scolded, he enjoys every minute of it. And now he's an adult, looking back and wanting to relive his j.d. youth: "I wish those days could come back once more/Why did those days ever have to go?/'Cause I love them so..." Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

24. "It Takes Two" by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston [1966]

23. "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell [1968]

22. "You're All I Need to Get By" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell [1968]

Marvin Gaye's duets are some of Motown's finest moments. "It Takes Two" with Kim Weston focuses on the things in life that work best when shared with someone special: "One can wish upon a star/Two can make that wish come true, yeah/One can stand alone in the dark/Two can make the lights shine through/It takes two, baby.../ It takes two, baby/Me and you..." Highest position of "It Takes Two" on the Billboard Hot-100: #14. But of all of Marvin's duet partners, Tammi Terrell stands at the very top. Her story is so tragic--from an abusive relationship with James Brown to her early death--that it would make a great biopic (there's been talk of a couple of movies based on Terrell's life in development, but none that I know have been completed yet). She and Marvin worked so well together that five of their duets landed in this list. They were the perfect couple in performance, their voices beautifully matching--the prince and the broken diva. You can hear Marvin encouraging Tammi throughout "You're All I Need to Get By." They keep singing that they are each other's "destiny," and you believe it; you believe that they were the true love of each other's lives. You would never know that Terrell had just had brain surgery for the removal of a tumor not long before the recording session and struggled to get through the song. But Marvin was her rock. She wasn't getting better, not even after eight surgeries. Later, watching a concert in a wheelchair, Tammi watched Gaye sing "You're All I Need to Get By"; he brought the microphone to her so she could sing along with him. It was their last duet and would be her last public performance. Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye's finest duet partner, would die at the age of 24 in March of 1970; "You're All I Need to Get By" was performed at her funeral. Highest position of "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" on the Billboard Hot-100: #8; highest position of "You're All I Need to Get By" on the Billboard Hot-100: #7.

21. "(I'm a) Road Runner" by Junior Walker and the All Stars [1966]

This is too much fun, with the blaring of Junior Walker's tenor sax and the incredible bass-playing of Motown's secret weapon, James Jamerson. It's best to listen to this while driving or strutting down the street; it moves, it grooves, and it forces you to move along with it. I dare you to try to keep your feet still while it plays. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #20.

20. "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes [1966]

This is the highest-ranking Supremes song on the list. It opens like a distress signal, a radio sound not unlike a Morse code. Something's wrong. And then Diana Ross' fevered vocals come in, her voice sounding panicked, in the midst of a life-or-death emergency: "Set me free, why doncha babe?! Get out my life, why doncha babe?!" She lays it all on the line; it's her finest two minutes, forty-eight seconds. Yes, the song has been covered successfully by the likes of Vanilla Fudge and Kim Wilde. But it's the Supremes who knock it out of the park. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

19. "Baby I Need Your Loving" by the Four Tops [1964]

The Four Tops made themselves known with this love ballad monster, their first single and a million seller at that. When you think of the classic Motown sound, this is the song that should come to mind. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #11.

18. "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" by Stevie Wonder [1973]

17. "Overjoyed" by Stevie Wonder [1985]

Stevie Wonder's ethereal love songs are a special breed. "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" is an easy listening dreamscape, with memorable opening vocals by Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves. This may be Wonder's most famous song; so good it puts you in a trance, a spiritual awakening, love is God and all good things. Frank Sinatra loved it, but you haven't lived until you've heard Jim Nabors' over-articulated version. Highest position of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1. "Overjoyed" has been performed on so many TV shows, like America's Got Talent and American Idol; if a singer nails it, they win. It's simply Wonder's finest single performance, with the help of his Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer. If you remember the episode of Saturday Night Live that Wonder hosted in 1983, it featured the very first live performance of the song. And when it was finally released a couple of years later on the album In Square Circle, fans like me were, yes, overjoyed. Highest position of "Overjoyed" on the Billboard Hot-100: #24.

16. "I Second That Emotion" by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles [1967]

The greatest malapropism in pop history. When Smokey Robinson went shopping with Al Cleveland at a Detroit department store, Robinson bought his wife, Claudette, a string of pearls. He claimed that they were beautiful, which led Cleveland to say, "I second that emotion." And Smokey immediately knew he had to use it, and that's where this miraculous love song was born. Some accidents lead to great discoveries, or at least great song titles, especially when you have a genius like Smokey Robinson in the mix who knows a mistake may also be an act of God. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

15. "Your Precious Love" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell [1967]

For years I always got the title to this wrong. I thought this was entitled "Heaven Must Have Sent You from Above," but of course it's not; it's called "Your Precious Love," a rather generic title for one of Motown's loveliest masterpieces. (It probably would have been a #1 hit if it had my title.) With its bluesy opening, care of the Funk Brothers, this is ecstasy in action, and when earth angel Tammi Terrell sings the chorus with Gaye in his usual fine form, it's joyous, like swimming in clouds. Impossible to play too often; I just listened to it twice in a row and am about to make it a third time. Heavenly! Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #5.

14. "(Love Is Like A) Heatwave" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas [1963]

This is a fierce beast, bursting with passion, burning with desire, ready to blast off. The singer (Martha) sizzles with first-time passion like no other, a beginner's supernova in the book of love. And the music drives, mainly thanks to Andrew "Mike" Terry's ferocious baritone sax work. Martha is a soul on fire, blistering through a first-time romance: "Sometimes I stare in space/Tears all over my face/I can't explain it/Don't understand it/I never felt like this before." You don't have to explain it; you just have to feel it. And that's what this song is. An inferno of passion, a fever-sweat of a masterwork that shakes the listener like a rocket zooming towards the sun. No meaning necessary; just sheer acceleration until the universe explodes. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

13. "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5 [1969]

December 14, 1969. You're watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV, and you have to endure some pretty yawn-worthy acts: Lainie Kazan crooning some throwaway song; John Davidson wrestling with an unmemorable rendition of the Beatles' "Something"; and a Puerto Rican instrumental band called El Conquistador Strolling Violins. But another group is the one who will be remembered for this episode. A group of brothers better known as the Jackson 5, the youngest one, Michael, decked out in a purple hat and vest. They first perform a killer cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Stand," and then Michael struts his stuff as a mini-Smokey with his version of "Who's Loving You." But it's the third song that seals the deal: "I Want You Back," with one of the best beats in all of pop and soul. And young Michael becomes a star then and there. After the number, Ed Sullivan joins the brothers onstage, and foretells the future, crowning a new King of Pop when he says, "The little fella in front is incredible." That "little fella" was only eleven years old. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

12. "You Really Got a Hold on Me" by the Miracles [1962]

I was a week old when this single was released in November of 1962, Smokey's finest moment and Motown's flag in the sand of greatness. Motown heralded a lot of songs before this ("Money," "Shop Around") but this was something else. A work of art. And who could forget those opening lines: "I don't like you, but I love you/Seems that I'm always thinkin' of you/Oh, oh, oh, you treat me badly, I love you madly/You've really got a hold on me..." That kind of sums up Motown, doesn't it? The corporation would really have a hold on the sound of young America; they would provide one of the key soundtracks to the 1960's. And it started here. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #8.

11. "My Guy" by Mary Wells [1964]

10. "My Girl" by the Temptations [1965]

It's no accident that Bob Dylan called out Smokey Robinson as one of America's greatest poets. Smokey didn't sing on either of these two hits, but they stand as perhaps his best known written creations, his masterpieces. In "My Guy," Mary Wells puts on her finest Mae West imitation as a woman devoted to her lover, who's "stuck like glue" to him and will never leave his side: "No muscle-bound man could ever take my hand from my guy/No handsome face could ever take the place of my guy/ He may not be a movie star, but when it comes to bein' happy, we are..." Who couldn't resist that? Highest position of "My Guy" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1. "My Girl" was Smokey's answer to "My Guy," and it gave the Temptations their signature song. Listening to it is like sunshine on a cloudy day. Highest position of "My Girl" on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

9. "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" by Junior Walker & the All Stars [1969]

Listening to the radio in Atlanta in the 1980's, I would jump back and forth between the current Eighties synth hits and classic Sixties pop. For instance, I would listen to "What Have I Done to Deserve This" by the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, and then turn the dial to hear vintage Dusty with "Son of a Preacher Man." On that Sixties station, they kept playing a Motown song that I never knew the title of. But it was a mesmerizing piece of work, with an out-of-this-world tenor saxophone intro. It was certainly one of the greatest songs played on that oldies station, but I just never knew the title. And years later, when flipping through the pages of a book of the Billboard charts (I am such a nerd), I would see a generic title by Junior Walker and the All Stars--"What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)"--and wonder what song was that. It was even voted Top US Soul Record of 1969; I just didn't know what tune was being so strongly heralded. And then when I heard it with the title staring me in the face, I realized it's that song, the one I loved so much from that Sixties station decades ago. You may be like I was, and not know this song based solely on the title, but do me a favor - look it up on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube right now and take a listen. You will soon know exactly what I'm talking about. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #4.

8. "Nowhere to Run" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas [1965]

This list is getting serious now as we inch closer to #1. It's interesting that three Martha and the Vandellas songs chart higher than the top-ranked Supremes song on the list. The Supremes may boast more songs, but Martha and Co.'s scorchers score much higher (two are in the Top-10). And this is one of the very best, a volcanic piece of music, with our heroes--drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson--being the engine that drives it. You really get a feeling of being trapped, nowhere to run or hide at all; it's sensationally frantic and claustrophobic all at once. Featured in various films over the years, its best use was in Andy Warhol's Vinyl, an odd version of A Clockwork Orange with an early appearance of Edie Sedgwick. In it, leather-jacketed Gerald Malanga gets up and dances to "Nowhere to Run," trapped in the frame where he, as the song suggests, has nowhere to run. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #8.

7. "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder [1972]

Thank Jeff Beck for this one. It was written for him and with him (he devised that cool opening), but in the end, Stevie would release the song first and get all the accolades. Jeff's version is fine, but it doesn't hold a candle to Stevie's (what song does?). With its memorable clavinet riff, this is the funkiest song on the list, with lyrics so fresh that they could have been written this morning. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

6. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye [1968]

Although critic Dave Marsh placed this as the #1 single of all time in his book The Heart of Rock and Soul (a terrific read), it only lands at #6 here. I say "only" because some consider this as the Citizen Kane of Motown, the company's very best work. That I find five songs worthier of that honor (which include two other Gaye creations that I think are better) is not to diminish "Grapevine's" greatness. It's just a matter of taste and timing; ten or twenty years ago, sure, I could have sided with Marsh and chosen this as the best Motown work (or the best song of all time in Marsh's universe). But not today. Still, it represents all that is great with the Motown sound, its apex--all of pop, rock and soul intermingled in a gumbo of sound, so many mixed influences that come together at just the right moment on that path to immorality. And Gaye's raspy voice never sounded better. Wow, the more I listen to it, the more I may side with Marsh if I'm not careful; it's that good. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

5. "Do You Love Me" by the Contours [1962]

Proof of Berry Gordy's greatness, the man behind this raucous top-5 hit. Billy Gordon of the Contours provides the most ferocious, blustery vocals on any Motown track (including some of the Temptations' more intense songs). It also contains a classic opening monologue ("You broke my heart/'Cause I couldn't dance..."), some of Benny Benjamin's most thrilling drum work, and my favorite musical twist-the false ending. Yes, it found a second life much later thanks to Dirty Dancing (where you may have first heard it), but it stands on its own. Still, "Do You Love Me" is hard to categorize. Is it soul, pop, dance, or straight-out rock n roll? Like Motown, it's all of those things. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #3.

4. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell [1967]

The moment of euphoria occurs one minute and thirty-eight seconds into this, the greatest duet by Motown's greatest duo. And that moment, in an instance of sheer rapture, lightning in a bottle type stuff, belongs to Tammi Terrell. She sings with such jubilation: "My love is alive/Way down in my heart/Although we are miles apart...". And then Marvin joins in: "If you ever need a helping hand/I'll be there on the double/Just as fast as I can!" This would prove true in real life. Marvin would remain Tammi's closest friend, and when she passed away in 1970, he was the only Motown man permitted at the funeral. Some say he never got over her loss; in some ways, when you think about it, neither have we. These songs, especially "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"--with Marvin's laid-back approach matched with Tammi's vocal ferocity--are unmatched. Imagine what glories have been denied us, not just from her passing, but his as well (he died in 1984, shot by his father, at the age of 44). Two giants of immeasurable talents who tragically left us way too early. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #19.

3. "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas [1964]

"Can't forget the Motor City!" Is this a party song or a civil rights anthem? Songwriter William "Mickey" Stevenson first thought of the song, the idea of dancing, when he saw people on the Detroit streets opening up fire hydrants and cooling themselves off, dancing in the streets. It would later be played by black activist H. Rap Brown while organizing demonstrations. So, let's call it a draw and say it's both partying and political. But it's even more than that. It's a song of joy, of humanity, a song of celebration, of hope, all colors and creeds and nationalities coming together as one, dancing in the streets where we're all equal. We need this song in 2020; we need to heed its universal call now more than ever! Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.

2. "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" by the Four Tops [1966]

"Just look over your shoulder!" A pop symphony, emotionally epic in scale, with Levi Stubbs' impassioned shout-singing paving the way. Oft-imitated, never equaled. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #1.

And now for the greatest Motown song of all time...

1. "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye [1971]

Marvin Gaye would co-scribe the greatest protest song of all time, tied with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (both would hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100). It's also my pick for the single greatest Motown song. The seeds of it were planted in May of 1969, when the Four Tops' Renaldo "Obie" Benson, on a tour bus, witnessed the horrors of police brutality during the People's Park debacle at Berkeley University. Police were shooting pellets at protestors. Tear gas thrown. Screaming, mayhem, blood. A young man named James Rector killed. The world, as Benson saw it, had gone mad. He kept asking, "What's happening here?" And that question would morph into the title "What's Going On" (notice that the title has become a statement, no longer a question). Gaye, whose political transformation had occurred years earlier due to the Watts Riots, would record it one month after the Kent State shootings. It summed up the violent, unpredictable, turbulent 1960's and early 1970's, and yet, it speaks to us today. As I write this, protesting continues daily in the streets; police brutality along with race stands once again at the forefront of the debate; and a new call to arms has come from a new generation who's had enough and wants to change the world. Just listen to Marvin's words: "Mother, mother/There's too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying/You know we've got to find a way/To bring some lovin' here today..." "What's Going On" is not a snapshot of the past; it's a living, breathing entity, a song so pertinent to today's world, today's pain. And yet, it also points to our hopes for a better tomorrow. Highest position on the Billboard Hot-100: #2.


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From This Author Peter Nason