When it comes to songs about first love, true love and heartbreak, we go back, again and again, to a record label that took its heart and soul from Detroit: Motown.
The home of Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and the young Michael Jackson. The music itself is pop rooted in the traditions of gospel, accompanied by pounding drums, layers of strings and brassy call-and-response bits. But it's easier just to say "Motown." It's music that actually sounds like love, and you don't need to speak English or have grown up in the 1960s for that message to translate.
Here's the secret all Motown junkies know: The label began by Berry Gordy in a little house on Detroit's Grand Boulevard had more hit songs, and more talent, than those four walls could ever hold. And for every hit single crafted by Smokey Robinson or the crack songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, there were equally great songs that flopped, and equally talented singers who were unfairly denied marketing or access to tracks. There were lawsuits, feuds and falling outs. Even further in the background were session musicians like the Funk Brothers and background singers like the Andantes who gave their all on dozens of records before fading into obscurity.
Below, you can find a collection of little known singles, unreleased tracks and deep cuts from Hitsville USA's heyday, about 1963 through 1971. Some of these 22 songs come from Motown artists you know and love. Others come from groups that might be new to you. All of them deserve to be recognized as "lost classics" of the Motown sound.
If you're a Spotify user, click here to open the Lost Classics of Motown playlist, featuring even more forgotten songs from the glory days of Motown.
1. The Monitors, "Time Is Passin' By"
The original Monitors lineup only released one album in 1968, which collected three years' worth of songs that Richard Street, Warren Harris, and Sandra and John Fagin recorded for the label. This foursome had a certain magic together, as the swing of "Time Is Passin' By" suggests, but Street would go on to replace Paul Williams in the Temptations during the 1970s, and a new Monitors lineup would come together in the 1980s. The original group never found success at Motown, but fame shouldn't have passed them by.
2. Stevie Wonder, "I Don't Know Why"
"Scandal" fans may have paused during the epic make-out session between Olivia Pope and Fitz to ask, "Which Stevie Wonder song is serving as the perfect backdrop to this relationship train wreck?" The B-side to 1968's "Ma Cherie Amour," "I Don't Know Why" finds an 18-year-old Wonder playing the lovesick victim -- but the accompanying guitar riff is all wounded vengeance. "I Don't Know Why" has been covered by the Jackson 5, the Brand New Heavies and, most notably, the Rolling Stones, who were practicing it when they got the news that founding member Brian Jones had died. It will take one listen for you to wonder why it's not one of your favorite Stevie Wonder songs.
3. Chris Clark, "Love's Gone Bad"
A 6-foot blonde teenager, Clark didn't look like a typical Motown artist. But one spin of "Love's Gone Bad" shows why the label signed Clark, who's been called Motown's answer to Dusty Springfield. This rollicking Holland-Dozier-Holland single only charted at #41 on Billboard, but crazy has never sounded so compelling. After her Motown career faded away, Clark, a California girl, didn't stop living a fascinating life. She co-wrote "Lady Sings the Blues," the Billie Holiday biopic starring Diana Ross, and married the writer of the Shaft novels. She also photographed the Masai in Africa and owned a pet cougar. Read more about Clark in the Los Angeles Times.
4. Four Tops, "Remember When"
We have to wonder whether the Four Tops, only second to the Temptations in success, were singing about themselves on this track. The powerhouse songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland had recently quit the Motown label, and the Tops were working with an assortment of new producers. A dry spell for the singing group lay ahead on the Billboard charts. The moodiness of "Remember When" recalls another famous Motown hit, the Four Tops' "Bernadette." Read more on "Remember When" at Allmusic.
5. Mary Wells, "Oh Little Boy (What Did You Do To Me)"
Every Motown fan has heard Mary Wells sing about "My Guy," but most don't know this standout track, which features an incredible mini-aria from Motown session singer Liz Lands. "Oh Little Boy" was inexplicably tacked onto the end of Wells' 1964 "Greatest Hits" record. Despite the operatic coda, Wells gets the credit for selling this breathtaking number of a woman slowly going mad over a man she loves and hates at the same time. Motown doesn't get deeper, or more devastating, than this. Read more at Motown Junkies.
6. The Velvelettes, "(We've Got) Honey Love"
Motown artists were famous for covering each other's songs, along with any other songs that were current hits. So while Martha & the Vandellas made "(We've Got) Honey Love," our favorite version is an unreleased cover by a lesser-known girl group called the Velvelettes. This foursome had a few singles but were edged out of the limelight as the Supremes became superstars. Motown fans on Soulful Detroit say that this track is a rare opportunity to hear some lead singing from Sandra Tilley, who would later become a Vandella.
7. Tammi Terrell, "I Can't Believe You Love Me"
Perhaps no Motown story is more tragic than that of Tammi Terrell, a sweet young songbird who became famous after replacing Kim Weston as Marvin Gaye's duet partner. But Terrell wouldn't be able to enjoy much of her success. Collapsing into Gaye's arms during a performance in 1967, she was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. After eight unsuccessful operations, Terrell finally succumbed to cancer in 1970 at age 24. "I Can't Believe You Love Me" was the singer's first R&B Top 40 single. It was also the first song she recorded after Gordy changed her professional name from Tammy Montgomery.
8. The Jackson 5, "2-4-6-8"
You can't talk Motown without including a song from this pint-size band of brothers. Everybody knows their song "ABC," but this counterpart from the same album remains relatively unknown. "2-4-6-8" features one of Michael's most adorable spoken word parts ever recorded: "I may be a little fella / but my heart is as big as Texas!" Another incredible outtake from the "ABC" recording session never made it onto a Motown album. Listen to Michael cover Ray Charles' "A Fool For You" with singing chops a vocalist twice his age would envy.
9. Sherri Taylor & Singin' Sammy Ward, "Oh Lover"
Singin' Sammy Ward was the Motown Soul label's resident bluesman. Newcomer Sherri Taylor was a brash vocalist equipped with a piercing wail. Their unlikely duet, "Oh Lover," is a randy little number co-written by Brian Holland and Smokey Robinson. Motown Junkies says it's the first duet released by Motown. By the time Ward died, sometime in the mid-'90s, he was all but forgotten by the music industry. Find out more about Singin' Sammy Ward at Motown Junkies and listen to his masterful ballad "Then You Changed," which was never released by Motown's Soul label... but really should have been.
10. The Supremes, "Surfer Boy"
We'll forgive you if you haven't seen the 1965 surfing flick "Beach Ball." It's best remembered for cameos by the Righteous Brothers, the Four Seasons and even the Supremes, who sang "Come To The Beach Ball With Me," along with this addictive little jangle. The Supremes look a bit bemused up onstage, like they're wondering, "How on Earth did we get cast in this movie and why are we singing about surfers?" Song's still a winner, though, as is the name of their backup band on set (The Sinners!).
11. The Miracles, "Whole Lot Of Shakin' In My Heart (Since I Met You)"
The Funk Brothers set this dance track on fire with their dynamic horn arrangements. When Smokey Robinson grabs onto the word "I" around 2:16 and refuses to let go, it's really one of the Miracles frontman's finest vocal moments. How this song barely made it into the R&B Top 20 charts, we can't really understand. More at Funky 16 Corners.
12. Marvin Gaye, "This Love Starved Heart Of Mine (It's Killing Me)
Marvin Gaye's catalog of hits for Motown was so strong that in 1994, the label released 25 recordings from his career that had never seen the light of day. As Jason Ankeny wrote at Allmusic, they are "performances of such sublime beauty and haunting poignancy that their failure to reach the masses until now is nothing short of remarkable." Among the most incredible tracks are "This Love Starved Heart Of Mine (It's Killing Me)," a breathless, string-laden march that Gaye escalates to a passionate climax. Is this Marvin Gaye's greatest track? Is this one of the greatest Motown songs EVER? Here's one argument in favor.
13. Martha & the Vandellas, "A Love Like Yours (Don't Come Knockin' Every Day)"
The B-side to "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave," this sweet standard was penned by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team and first sung by Martha & the Vandellas. Covers by the likes of Dusty Springfield, the Animals and Ike & Tina Turner emblazoned this track on the American consciousness in the 1970s. Fans may note that this recording has a lighter touch than the classics Martha & the Vandellas are remembered for -- "Dancing In The Street," "Nowhere To Run" and "Jimmy Mack."
14. Frank Wilson, "Do I Love You"
Talk to a serious Motown 45s collector, and they'll bring up Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You," the only single Wilson released before moving into songwriting and producing at Motown Records. According to the BBC, there are only two known copies left on Earth -- Berry Gordy reportedly destroyed the rest. The record was discovered after being played in Britain's Northern Soul nightclubs in the 1970s. One copy fetched an astounding £25,742 at auction in 2009.
15. Kim Weston, "Take Me In Your Arms"
Her husband was Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, but that still couldn't guarantee Kim Weston fame and backing from the Motown brass. One blog calls her "another artist Berry Gordy just left on the shelf." No matter who was ultimately responsible for not showcasing her talents, this is clear: Kim Weston matched the commanding force and personality of her one-time duet partner, Marvin Gaye. Her sensational vocals are best showcased on "Take Me In Your Arms," an upbeat Holland-Dozier-Holland romp that allows Kim to vacillate from intimate pleadings to a full-throated snarl. Check out 2:18 to hear her unleash, "I said I wouldn't beg him / I said I wouldn't plead." Motown Junkies writes, "If you told me this was your favourite Motown record of all time, well, I couldn't really argue the pick."
16. David Ruffin, "I've Got A Need For You"
Music critics are still wondering why Motown shelved "David," the third album from former Temptation David Ruffin. More than 40 years later, it's shocking to realize how well this LP, only released in 2004, would have fared had it been liberated back in 1971. A less distinctive voice than Ruffin's may have been overshadowed by the lush, dramatic arrangements. The entire album is worth listening to (especially Ruffin's grown-up redo of "I Want You Back"), but the signature track here is "I've Got A Need For You." With the choir howling in the background, Ruffin leads the vocals with so much joy, it's like the song itself is a triumph for him to sing. Read more at Allmusic.
17. Isley Brothers, "Why When Love Is Gone"
That guitar line slays us! This live jolt of electricity was an early single from the Isley Brothers, released on their 1967 album "Soul On The Rocks." "Why When Love Is Gone" is the B-side to the group's version of Kim Weston's "Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)." The Isley Brothers had briefly welcomed Jimi Hendrix to play guitar in their band, but when neither single charted, Hendrix left them and the brothers signed with Motown Records' Tamla imprint. Their only Tamla hit was "This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)," and the Isleys only stayed with the Motown family until 1968 before leaving to form their own label. They left Motown with one more great song: "Why When Love Is Gone," produced by Ivy Joe Hunter, the man who made "Dancing In The Street."
18. The Marvelettes, "Too Many Fish In The Sea"
Short ones, tall ones, fine ones, kind ones... The Marvelettes deliver this marvelously snappy advice to girls hung up on the wrong guys. This song's history also suggests there were too many potential hit songs swimming around Motown Records. At the time, the Marvelettes picked this song over another track called "Where Did Our Love Go," which was eventually assigned to another girl group that hadn't had a single hit record yet -- the Supremes.
19. Brenda Holloway, "Just Look What You've Done"
The story of Motown's first West Coast signing sounds like a '60s teen movie plot. The shapely Brenda Holloway grabbed the mic at a Los Angeles DJ convention to sing a cover of Mary Wells' "My Guy." In the audience was none other than Berry Gordy, who was so blown away by Holloway's looks and voice that he signed her, just 18 years old, to Tamla, according to Allmusic. Although Holloway scored some hits, like "Every Little Bit Hurts," she became equally as interested in songwriting -- and disillusioned by Motown. Gordy did let her record one song she co-wrote, "You've Made Me So Very Happy," which later became a hit for Blood, Sweat and Tears. On songs like "Just Look What You've Done," Holloway, who quit the label by age 22, sounds every inch the troublemaker Motown feared she was.
20. Stu Gardner, "Expressin' My Love"
Maybe you've never heard of Stu Gardner, but you know "Kiss Me," the song he recorded that became the theme to "The Cosby Show." Before this underground soul star was producing for Bill Cosby, he was a recording artist for both Stax and Chisa Records, an imprint that signed a distribution deal with Motown in 1969 -- meaning that while Gardner was never technically on the Motown label, he was part of its extended family."Expressin' My Love" is the struttin' song of a wildcat man whose emotions remain blissfully untamed. It remains one of the era's most irrepressible lost singles.
21. The Pirates, "I'll Love You 'Til I Die"
The Temptations were named by Motown after two local Detroit groups, the Primes and the Distants, merged together to form a sort of new supergroup. And the Temptations really could do everything -- sing marvelously, dance in time and dress sharp. The Motown museum compares their influence on R&B to the Beatles' impact on rock 'n' roll. Even many fans don't know this group was briefly renamed "The Pirates" in 1963 -- just a year before "The Way You Do The Things You Do" established the fivesome on the Billboard Charts. They'd remain there for years to come, their brief fling as the Pirates all but forgotten.
22. The Contours, "First I Look At The Purse"
If you thought the singing group behind "Do You Love Me" didn't have any other moves, think again. One of Motown's jolliest acts, the Contours achieved pop perfection with this ditty about sizing up women for the right reason: money, honey! Written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, "First I Look At The Purse" is a joke song -- and one that was simply too risque for an act like the Temptations to tackle. The song could certainly be criticized from our modern standpoint, but the lyrics are too ridiculous to take seriously. "If she waddles like a duck and talks with a lisp," who really cares, "if her dollar bills are crisp?" Read more about this song at Motown Junkies.
CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this post stated that Stu Gardner was on the Motown label; he recorded for Chisa Records, of which Motown eventually became a distributor. The article also misidentified the Four Tops' "Bernadette" as a Temptations song, and suggested incorrectly that the Four Tops appeared in the 1965 film "Beach Ball." Rather, the Four Seasons appear in the film.
This list is only a sampling of the wonderful soul recordings created by Motown Records and other labels that have been all but forgotten by time. Do you have a favorite lost classic? Leave it in the comments.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more