‘Motown’: The classic songs in Broadway’s new hit musical

The cast of Motown rehearses.

The cast of Motown rehearses.

Detroit has arrived in New York City.

Motown, a jukebox tale of Berry Gordy’s founding of the iconic Motown record label and the hit songs he churned out along the way, opens on Broadway on April 14.

In celebration of the music that is still decades later, let’s take a look the history of some of the hit songs featured in Motown.

Released by the Temptations in 1966, “Get Ready” was written and produced by Smokey Robinson. The lead vocals are by Eddie Kendricks, one of the Temptations. The song hit #1 on R&B Billboard charts and was the last song Smokey Robinson produced for the Temptations.

Dancing In The Street” was first released in 1964, sung by Martha and the Vandellas. The group became known for this hit. Marvin Gaye had a hand in writing the famous song with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter. While it can be said that just about every Motown song is brought to you directly from the heart of Detroit, this one is particularly Motor City-inspired. Stevenson found his inspiration for the song by watching Detroiters opening fire hydrants in the summer to cool off. Stevenson said it looked like they were dancing in the hydrants’ water, leading him to the pen the now-infamous lyrics.

Released in 1960, “Shop Around” was written by Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. Gordy produced the single, which was sung by the Miracles. The song was originally recorded as a very bluesy piece, and while that was a hit in Detroit, Gordy realized the song would need more of a pop sound to become a nationwide success. A new, more upbeat version of the song was recorded, and it skyrocketed to fame and has been covered many times since.

Please Mr. Postman” was performed by the Marvelettes as their first single, and became the first Motown song to hit #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1961. A cover by the Carpenters in 1975 lead the song to top the chart again.

My Guy” was released in 1964 as a single for Mary Wells. Smokey Robinson wrote and produced it. Wells, as the first female Motown star, found great success with the song. It has since been covered by countless musicians, including several other Motown stars.

Where Did Our Love Go,” also recorded in 1964, was the first Supremes song to hit #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart. This iconic song was written and produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. The Supremes were initially reluctant to record the song because, coincidentally, they didn’t think it had the potential to be successful!

I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was released in both 1967 and 1968 with vocals by Motown artists. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote the piece, which originally had vocals by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Berry Gordy wasn’t a fan of the recording and didn’t want to release it until he felt it was improved. When Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded the song in 1967, it was released as a single and received great success. The most famous version of the song, however, is the 1968 release with Marvin Gaye’s vocals.

What’s Going On,” released with Marvin Gaye’s vocals in 1971, was penned by Gaye himself alongside Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson. Renaldo Benson, a fellow Motown musician, witnessed horrific police brutality in Berkeley in 1969 that haunted him. He was so disturbed by the way the world seemed to be going that he told Cleveland about what he’d seen. Cleveland put the song together and eventually passed it onto Gaye, who revised it further. The song was first offered to Benson’s vocal group, the Four Tops, but they turned it down the option of recording it. “What’s Going On” has had an enduring impact not only as a Motown staple but as a peace movement song, or as Benson calls it, “a love song, about love and understanding.”


Motown at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.

For Once In My Life” was written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden in 1967. While many artists have lent their voices to the song, the most famous recording is by Stevie Wonder. Gordy initially wasn’t a fan of Wonder’s version of the song and had to be persuaded to allow its release.

It’s daunting to even presume that there is a most famous Motown song of all time, but if there is it could very likely be “I Want You Back.” Released in 1969, this song featured lively vocals by young and spunky Jackson 5. The Motown songwriting group the Corporation, brought together by Gordy solely for the purpose of coming up with great material for the Jackson 5, wrote the song. Michael Jackson sang the lead vocals, and the rest is history. “I Want You Back” paved the way for the success of “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” and countless other Jackson 5 hits.

My Girl” was released in 1964, recorded by the Temptations. This song was the Temptations’ first number-one single in the United States. Written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, David Ruffin sang the lead vocals. At first, the song was set to be recorded by The Miracles, but the Temptations were eventually chosen, with Ruffin experiencing his first shot at singing lead vocals on a recording.

You’re All I Need To Get By” was released in 1968, written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson. With vocals by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, this piece stands out for its gospel-influenced sound, which is rare for a Motown song. Terrell and Gaye became known for their vocal chemistry and regularly sang together until her untimely death in 1970.

Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was first released as a single featuring Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. Diana Ross released her own version of the song in 1970 as her first solo #1 hit apart from the Supremes. Ashford and Simpson wrote the song before they became part of the Motown crowd and were selective about who they allowed to record it in hopes that it could be their gateway into the Detroit music scene – and it became exactly that.

Motown is now in previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with the show’s book written by Berry Gordy himself. Charles Randolph-Wright directs, and Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams choreograph.

With the help of a little theatre magic, fans can see the likes of Diana Ross (played by Valisia Lekae), Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown), Berry Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon), and Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) come to life on the stage and experience what it took for them to reach such incredible fame and break racial barriers with their music.

If these toe-tapping tunes got you excited, dance your way over to Motown’s official website.

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About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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