By 1966, Motown was at the top of its game. Three out of every four Motown releases became a chart hit in the US that year. In Britain, too, its output was in demand, having crossed over into the mainstream from having been must-haves only among the country’s music-savvy Mods. In most of the rest of Europe, however, Motown never quite reached the same level of popularity. Nevertheless, its thumping beat and catchy tunes prompted a number of artists to rework many of its hits for domestic consumption.
Here, in part two of our Motown tribute, we present a selection of the label’s songs by its girl groups and female solo stars, rerecorded by European female singers of the 1960s – plus a few foreign-language recordings by the Motown stars themselves. (The Supremes prompted enough cover versions to warrant a tribute special all of their own.)
California's Brenda Holloway took a trip to Detroit to audition for Motown. Her trek paid off and Every little bit hurts became her first single on the Tamla label. It reached number 13 in the US charts. Further singles followed, though they could not match its success. Frustrated by being overlooked by Motown bosses in favour of some of the label’s bigger stars, Brenda quit the company in 1968.
Former backing vocalist Carolyn Crawford cut three solo singles for Motown, the best known of which is My smile is just a frown (turned upside down). She failed to get much promotion from Motown and left the label in 1965.
In the UK, Warrington lass Truly Smith issued a highly credible version of the song as her debut single in 1966, though also without any success.
Chris Clark joined Motown in 1963 as a receptionist but eventually signed to the company’s VIP subsidiary. When her Love’s gone bad climbed the US R&B charts in the summer of 1966, the company was faced with a problem – it had to admit she was white.
In the UK, Truly Smith covered her I want to go back there again in 1967. The song is widely considered her finest moment. In France, Belgian-born Liliane Saint-Pierre, under the wing of superstar Claude François, cut the song as Rentrer chez moi a year later.
After joining the Motown stable – and at the suggestion of Berry Gordy – male trio The Downbeats roped in Saundra Edwards as lead singer and changed their name to The Elgins. The group lucked out in the US and, in fact, became more popular in Britain than at home, scoring a number three hit in the UK in 1971 with a re-release of their 1966 single Heaven must have sent you.
Put yourself in my place – the group’s debut US release from 1965 – gave them a second UK top 30 hit in autumn of 1971. The song had also been covered by Londoner Jan Panter and issued as the B-side of her fuzz guitar fest Scratch my back in 1966.
Gladys Knight and the Pips
Gladys Knight and the Pips had had several recording contracts before joining the Motown stable. They had enjoyed some hits along the way but wanted to move into the premier league. Cue Motown. Gladys had been reluctant to join the label but was outvoted.
Just walk in my shoes became their first single for the label’s Soul subsidiary. Issued in 1966, the record bombed – as did a cover by Britain’s Billie Davis, issued on Piccadilly.
A second US single, Take me in your arms and love me, also lucked out at home, but it reached number 13 in the UK charts in the summer of 1967. British singers Lulu and Cilla Black also covered the song for their Love loves to love Lulu and Sher-oo! albums respectively.
Gladys and her brother and cousins finally struck gold in the US with I heard it through the grapevine in 1967, though they would go on to become even bigger stars in the 1970s, after leaving Motown.
Kiki Dee was the only British artist to land a recording contract with Motown in the 1960s. After her I’m Kiki Dee LP had been released in the US as Patterns, she was invited to Motown’s studios. She met producers and writers and promptly signed with the label. In late 1969 she returned for a couple of months’ recording. Many of those tracks turned up on her Great expectations LP in 1970.
The critically acclaimed The day will come (between Sunday and Monday) was issued as her first single on Motown’s Tamla arm. After it failed to sell, she switched to the Rare Earth division for subsequent releases. She found success later, after joining Elton John’s Rocket label in 1973.
Martha and the Vandellas
Famously, lead singer Martha Reeves had worked as a secretary at Motown before getting her break. When Mary Wells failed to show for a recording session, Martha and the girls were asked to stand in. When it happened a second time, the group recorded the song that became their first release.
Their second single, Come and get these memories, issued in the US in spring 1963, established the group. But they really hit the big time when their Heat wave went top five later that year. The song failed in the UK, though Lulu recorded it for an EP issued in 1964. (In 1968, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, as they had become, returned the compliment with a cover of the Scottish songstress’ To sir with love on their Ridin’ high album.) Cilla Black and Beverley Jones also cut versions of Heat wave, and in mainland Europe, The Liverbirds issued a take on the song and The Ruby Rats recorded a garage version for Switzerland’s Layola label.
Dancing in the street – a number two hit in the US – proved the song that broke Martha and the Vandellas in the UK, reaching number 28 in late 1964. (A reissue in 1969 gave the group their only top five UK hit.) Cilla Black and Petula Clark both covered the song on albums issued in 1965. Perhaps more interestingly, lesser-known British garage groups Mandy and the Girlfriends and The Fabs cuts versions for their LPs too. (The latter was released in Mexico and is now ultra-rare.)
Nowhere to run gave the group another hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, Annie Markan cut a version, Mon obsession me poursuit, which is now highly prized among Gallic girl pop fans.
Meanwhile in Sweden, girl group The Nursery Rhymes clearly fancied themselves as Scandinavia’s answer to Martha and the Vandellas. Out of six sides the group cut for release on 45s, no less than three were versions of the Detroit stars’ hits: Heat wave, Dancing in the street and Nowhere to run.
In 1969, Britain’s Dilys Watling and trio The Satin Bells recorded versions of Sweet darlin’, a song that hadn’t managed to make much impression on record buyers in either the US or the UK.
With their chart career somewhat on the wane, Motown decided to launch the group in Spain. Proficiency in English wasn’t as common in mainland Europe then as it is now, and many big artists of the day re-recorded their songs in other languages to increase their chances of chart success. Martha and the girls’ 1966 US single I’m ready for love was rerecorded as Yo necesito de tu amor for release in Spain in 1970, with a Spanish version of Jimmy Mack on the B-side.
Interestingly, British singer Beryl Marsden performed as a member of the group in the 1980s.
The Marvelettes were the first act to give Motown a number one hit in the US. Their Please Mr Postman became a million seller in late 1961. Although the group enjoyed a string of hits, when they turned down Where did our love go (which went on to give The Supremes their first chart topper), they sealed their own fate in the eyes of Motown boss Berry Gordy.
In the UK, teen star Helen Shapiro cut a version of Please Mr Postman for her 1964 Helen hits out LP. However, her take on You’re my remedy, recorded at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios, remained unreleased for over 30 years. Fellow Brit girl Julie Grant had to sit by as her terrific version of As long as I know he’s mine was – inexplicably – consigned to a B-side. Meanwhile, in France, Tiny Yong covered Little girl blue, the B-side of that Marvelettes single, as Il reviendra.
The Marvelettes’ first transatlantic hit came in the form of When you’re young and in love, a reworking of a Ruby and the Romantics single written by Van McCoy. It reached number 13 in the UK charts in the summer of 1967. Danish doll Gitte, who was enjoying enormous popularity in Scandinavia and in Germany, also recorded a version during a session with Ivor Raymonde at the Abbey Road Studios in 1964.
Mary Wells was the queen of Motown – or queen bee, as some would have it. She was the first singer to give the label a top 40 pop hit, with 1961’s I don’t want to take a chance. And after she was teamed with Smokey Robinson as her songwriter, she really found her stride.
Her material proved ripe for a host of covers by European artists. First off was German-born, Paris-based Audrey’s take on You lost the sweetest boy, Ce merveilleux garçon, in 1963. (Interestingly, The Velvelettes also cut a French version of the song two years later.) More covers followed the following year, with Britain’s Karol Keyes issuing You beat me to the punch as a single, Louise Cordet recording Two lovers for a B-side and Lulu cutting What’s easy for two is so hard for one as an EP track. In France, Arielle also cut a version of You beat me to the punch, retitled Tu m’as devancée.
Early Mary Wells records were licensed for release in the UK on the Oriole label. When Londoner Jan Panter joined the company in 1965, bosses remembered a two-year-old track by Mary Wells they felt would be a perfect vehicle for their new signing. Inexplicably, Jan’s speeded-up version of the lyrically clever album track My two arms - you = tears song failed to sell.
The hits continued for Mary Wells throughout 1963, and in 1964 the singer spent two weeks at the top of the US charts with My guy. The song also made number five in the UK. It prompted several cover versions in Euope, including ones by Helen Shapiro, Claudine Longet, Nancy Holloway (Bye bye) and Spanish ye-yé star Karina (Mi chico).
However, at her peak, Mary Wells quit Motown. Stints at various other labels couldn’t recapture her former glory. Berry Gordy is believed to have had no small hand in keeping her off radio airwaves.
After leaving school, Syreeta Wright began working as a secretary at Motown. She bugged Eddie Holland on a daily basis for a song and eventually he delivered a tune by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, I can’t give back the love I feel for you. The 45, issued under the name Rita Wright in 1968, bombed, and it wasn’t until she was later reinvented as Syreeta that she enjoyed any success.
The Velvelettes were one of Motown’s most under-rated groups. Despite cutting a handful of excellent singles, top 40 success proved elusive, at least in the US. In Britain, a re-release of These things will keep me loving you reached number 34 in 1971.
Six years earlier, Tawny Reed had cut a terrific take on the group’s debut single, Needle in a haystack. Her version was also considered strong enough for release in the US, where it was licensed by Red Bird. Tawny was the only Brit girl to have a release on the legendary New York label.
Kiki Dee also recorded a version of the group’s He was really sayin’ something for a radio session in 1967, a couple of years before she joined Motown herself.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Velvelettes were roped into recording a clutch of tracks – including some recycled from other Motown acts – in French. However, it’s clear that they weren’t comfortable with the language, as the results are barely intelligible.
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