While Motown Records gets the credit of being the first African American label (in terms of the owner and the majority of the talent) to crossover into the mainstream, that’s not exactly true. Ernie K-Doe had already hit the top of the Hot 100 with “Mother-in-Law,” written and produced by Allen Toussaint and released on Joe Banashak’s Minit Records. Nevertheless, neither Minit nor any other R&B label that came before could compete with the cultural juggernaut that Motown would become.
The label had its first hit in 1959 with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” released just a few months after the label’s founding in January. “Money” may have may have been a little blusier than the “Motown sound” that would define the 1960s, but compare it with contemporary “race music” – including John Lee Hooker’s nearly identical “I Need Some Money” – and it’s clear that Berry Gordy and co. were already on their way toward perfecting the balance between R&B swing and mainstream (white) rock/pop. As a result, Motown would appeal to wider strata of the American listening public than all but a few black acts had before. [The Beatles, who similarly rode the integration of popular music to legendary status, covered both “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Please Mr. Postman” on With the Beatles in 1963.]
No one could have been surprised that Motown would eventually have a Hot 100 hit – Gordy’s pop sensibilities and strict quality control had made sure of that. Likewise, the public’s burgeoning infatuation with girl groups granted the label an easy “in” for the pop charts. But Gordy’s version of the girl group sound was markedly different from what was beginning to make radio inroads. The Shirelles and other black girl groups were essentially putting a gospel/soul spin on traditional pop songs, written by white songwriters (usually based in the Brill Building) and recorded by white producers (most importantly, Phil Spector). “Please Mr. Postman,” on the other hand, started life as a blues song, rearranged and rewritten several times along the way until it mutated into the form that became a hit. Instead of an orchestral Wall of Sound, the girls were backed by the loose-limbed and quick-witted Funk Brothers (including Marvin Gaye on guitar). Most importantly, though, “Please Mr. Postman” was fun. While doo wop had its share of novelties (cf. “Blue Moon”), the girls in taffeta had so far stayed serious. Far from Spector’s “little symphonies for the kiddies” or the fragmented soap operas that would define Shadow Morton’s work a few years later, producers Brian Holland (of Holland-Dozier-Holland) and Robert Bateman let The Marvelettes sound natural and relaxed. The arrangement complements lead singer Gladys Horton, who doesn’t quite have the distinctive pipes of a Shirley Owens but has plenty of spunk to make up for it. Like all Motown songs of this era, however, beneath the breezy melodies and loose harmonies is a record just as tight and professionally executed as anything released by a major label.
Sadly, The Marvelettes wouldn’t have another #1, despite releasing a number of quality singles. Yet their success paved the way for Motown to become one of the top innovators in the girl group genre – which, in turn, launched the label into stratospheric heights and made soul one of the dominant genres in the pop charts. 8
Hit #1 on December 11, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
62 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.39% through the Hot 100