In 1960s America, Motown proved the fiercest competition for the so-called British invasion. Branding itself ‘the sound of young America’ may have seemed an arrogance initially, but by the middle of the decade, it had, arguably, become a statement of fact.
When The Beatles covered not one, but three Motown hits on their second LP, Europe – particularly Britain – began a love affair with the Detroit-based label that endures today.
Here we present part one of a tribute to Motown, featuring a selection of cover versions by European female singers of the 1960s of songs originally recorded by the label’s male soloists and groups. (In part two we honour Motown’s female soloists and groups, though The Supremes have a tribute special all of their own.)
Barrett Strong’s Money (that’s what I want) gave the Anna label its biggest hit, reaching number 23 in the US charts in the spring of 1960. The short-lived label had been set up by Motown boss Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen, and the song had been written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford.
In Europe, Hamburg-based British girl group The Liverbirds cut a version of the song for their 1965 Star-Club show 4 LP, while fellow British group Mandy and the Girlfriends, from Hull, also recorded a take on it for an LP they also recorded in Germany.
After a couple of flops, The Contours hit big in 1962 with the highly danceable Do you love me, issued on the Gordy label. The song reached number three on the US charts. Their success didn’t cross the Atlantic until a reissue of Just a little misunderstanding gave the group a UK hit in 1970.
However, in France, Paris-based American singer Nancy Holloway covered Do you love me, as Est-ce que tu m’aimes, in the first of a few raids on the Motown songbook. Her accented delivery gave the French record-buying public a sense that they were getting the real thing, and they lapped it up.
Four Tops were Motown’s most popular male group in Europe. They’d had various recording deals before arriving at the label in 1963. Initially, they signed to the Workshop Jazz subsidiary but switched to the main label for the release of Baby I need your loving in 1964. It gave them a number 11 hit in the US charts, and in Britain, Sandie Shaw covered the song for her Sandie LP in 1965.
But it was 1965’s US chart topper I can’t help myself that really established the group. It also broke them in Europe, reaching number 23 in the UK. The disarmingly aptly titled follow up, It’s the same old song, proved almost as successful. Sweden’s Siw Malmkvist cut the latter as Samma gamla sång, while French star Sylvie Vartan clearly couldn’t decide which song she preferred – so she cut both for her 2’35” de bonheur LP, as Garde-moi dans ta poche and Moi je danse respectively.
1966’s Reach out I’ll be there eclipsed the Four Tops’ previous successes. It spent three weeks at the top of the UK charts. It also provided the group’s breakthrough Europe-wide, becoming a hit in France, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere – and prompted a plethora of cover versions.
Britain’s Petula Clark cut the song for her Colour my world LP, while in Italy, Rita Pavone scored a top-ten hit with her version, Gira gira. In Spain, it became Extiende tus brazos for Los Stop. The song also proved popular in eastern Europe, with Czechoslovakia’s Yvonne Přenosilová cutting Uz to nejde dal and rival Yugoslav versions by Croatia’s Gabi Novak (Ja sam tu) and Serbia’s Nada Knežević (Biću tamo).
What made Four Tops tracks so distinctive was that Motown had lead singer Levi Stubbs record at the top of his vocal range, which lent the songs a pleading tone. Italy’s Caterina Caselli tried a similar yearning vocal on L’ombra di nessuno, her take on the Detroit foursome’s soundalike follow up, Standing in the shadows of love.
In 1967, Motown was keen to propel the group towards a more adult audience, and had them record The Left Banke’s Walk away Renée and Tim Hardin’s If I were a carpenter. Both sold well. In France, Sylvie Vartan cut the former as Quand un amour renaît, and in Germany, the then unknown Katja Ebstein recorded the latter as Ohne Geld und Namen for her debut LP.
Junior Walker and the All Stars
Shotgun gave Junior Walker and the All Stars their biggest hit in the US, reaching number four in the spring of 1965. The song didn’t register in Europe, though Britain’s Cilla Black recorded a cover version, but even that remained unreleased for over 30 years.
The group scored successes in the UK later in the decade with How sweet it is (to be loved by you), Road runner and What does it take (to win your love), plus several more in the early 1970s.
Detroit native Marv Johnson is assured a place in the history books for having performed Come to me, the first song to be released by what would become Motown.
In 1960, You got what it takes gave the singer his second top ten US hit. It also reached number seven in the UK. But the song courted controversy. Blues musician Bobby Parker insists he wrote it and that Motown chief Berry Gordy simply took songwriting credits. A UK cover of the song wasn’t without controversy either. It was recorded by Mandy Rice-Davies in 1964 and issued on the Ember label. Mandy had achieved fame – or indeed, infamy – for her role alongside Christine Keeler in the Profumo affair, which had discredited Harold Macmillan’s conservative government a year earlier.
When Marvin Gaye joined Motown’s Tamla division, he didn’t want to sing pop or soul but instead to be a jazz singer. This set him on a collision course with Motown boss Berry Gordy and he ended up as a session drummer for the label for a while, until his restlessness forced Gordy to write a song for him.
The result tanked, as did a couple of follow ups. Even his fourth single, the great Stubborn kind of fellow – featuring backing vocals from Martha and the Vandellas – stalled just short of the US top 40. However, Gaye went on to crack the charts with Hitch hike in early 1963 and to enjoy greater success over the following couple of years with songs such as Pride and joy, Can I get a witness (with The Supremes on back up), You’re a wonderful one and How sweet it is (to be loved by you).
In the UK, teen star Lulu cut terrific versions of both Stubborn kind of fellow and Can I get a witness. Dusty Springfield recorded a version of the latter too for her first solo LP, A girl called Dusty. In France, Nancy Holloway issued You’re a wonderful one as Le plus bel amour on an LP in 1964.
In the second half of the decade, Gaye became as well known for his duets as for his solo work. With Kim Weston, It takes two gave him his first UK top 40 hit, reaching number 16 in early 1967. His later collaborations with Tammi Terrell also proved successful in the UK.
Motown was notorious for recycling its own material. Sometimes this was to provide filler tracks for albums and sometimes several artists competed to produce the best version of a song which would then be released as a single. Britain’s Kiki Dee joined the label in 1969 and her 1970 LP Great expectations included several takes on other artists’ songs, including Gaye and Terrell’s Ain’t nothing like the real thing. The pair’s You’re all I need to get by also proved ripe for reworking, with versions recorded by Italian unknown Tihm (Dimenticando il mondo) and Czech duo Marie Rottrová and Petr Nemec (Tobogán).
Gaye’s I heard it through the grapevine gave Motown its biggest seller to date when it topped the US charts in December 1968 and the UK charts three months later. The singer would go onto score further US number ones with Let’s get it on (1973) and Got to give it up, pt 1 (1977) before his untimely death in 1984.
The Miracles’ lead singer, Smokey Robinson, needs little introduction. When Berry Gordy expressed his frustration at the poor returns he was getting from licensing his songs to other labels, Robinson suggested he start up his own label. The rest, as we know, is history.
In 1961, Robinson became vice-president of Motown. By this time, The Miracles had scored the label’s first million seller with 1960’s Shop around. Hamburg-based foursome The Liverbirds issued their take on the song as a single in Germany in 1964 and British teen sensation Helen Shapiro also recorded it for her Helen hits out! LP the same year.
Robinson went on to pen numerous hits for other Motown artists as well as for his own group, including I second that emotion, which Kiki Dee also covered for her Great expectations LP.
The Miracles’ success in the US wasn't mirrored in Europe until the end of the decade, when a
re-release of Tracks of my tears gave them a top-ten hit in the UK. Tears of a clown, originally recorded in 1967, topped the British charts in 1970 and also proved a hit in Germany.
The young Stevie Wonder used to hang around the Motown studios, where his mother worked as a cleaner. He was soon signed to the label and I call it pretty music but the old people call it the blues (part 1) became his debut single, in 1962. The follow up, Little water boy, proved another non-hit in the US. But its flip, La la la la la, prompted two European cover versions. The first was by French singer Jocelyne and issued as an EP track in 1964, and the second was issued as Sha la la la la by Italian girl group Le Snobs a year later. Neither proved any more successful than Wonder’s original.
The singer went on to much greater success, scoring a US number one with Fingertips (pt 2) in 1963 and top ten hits with Uptight (everything’s alright) in 1965 and I was made to love her in 1967, amongst others.
In 1967, Norwegian singer Wenche Myhre cut a great version of his album track Love a go go.
In 1968, Wonder issued a cover of Brit girl Cilla Black’s Alfie as a single, but it bombed. However, he bounced back with its follow up, For once in my life, a song that had originally been recorded by Jean DuShon. His version reached number two in the US charts and has become an evergreen. In Germany, Heidi Brühl cut the song as Ein Wort, nur ein Wort. (Again, Kiki Dee covered it for her Great expectations LP.)
In the US, The Temptations were the Motown stable’s most successful male group, scoring a number one with My girl in 1964 and top ten hits aplenty.
The ways you do the things you do gave them their first US hit early 1964. It failed to chart in Europe, though it prompted two cover versions in the UK, one by Adrienne Poster as the flip of her He doesn’t love me and a second, an A-side by Elkie Brooks.
Dusty Springfield helped break Motown in Britain. She encouraged bosses at Rediffusion to air a special edition of their flagship music programme, Ready, steady, go!, which she hosted, in April 1965. The singer went on to cut a version of The Temptations’ Ain’t no sun since you’ve been gone for her Dusty... definitely LP in 1968.
The Temptations scored relatively small hits in the UK from 1965 onwards until I’m gonna make you love me, a duet with Diana Ross and the Supremes, made number three in early 1969 (see our Supremes tribute special for more information). Its success prompted the re-release of The Temptations’ own Get ready, which gave them a top-ten hit in the UK. However, the group had to wait until the early 1970s to chart in France, Germany and Italy.
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