Come and Get these (Motown) Memories

As Scott notes, “You Beat Me to the Punch,” performed by Mary Wells, was written by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Ronny White. There’s a back story here fans should know.

“There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called the Diablos,” Smokey recalled. “His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time.” Strong was with Fortune Records and his “Mind Over Matter” should have been a national hit. You can hear Strong’s influence on the Miracles’ 1960 hit “Shop Around,” and “Who’s Lovin You,” on the flip side. As it happens, Nolan was a cousin of Barrett Strong, whose 1959 hit “Money” helped Berry Gordy establish the Motown label.

Gordy signed the Four Tops, who scored hits such as “Baby I Need Your Lovin” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Not as well-known is “Ask the Lonely,” which might have been their best, with Levi Stubbs in great form. No studio tricks, just pure talent, and Detroit was a good place for it. In the 1950s the city was booming and the schools offered great music programs. That comes through in the polished arrangements on the Motown hits. Singers honed their skills in churches such as New Bethel Baptist, pastored by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Check out Aretha on “Amazing Grace,” back in 1972.

Berry Gordy also signed Martha Reeves, Annette Beard and Rosalind Ashford, performing as Martha and the Vandellas. The name is a contraction of Detroit’s Van Dyke street and Della Reese, Martha’s favorite singer. Check out Della on “Don’t You Know,” from 1959. Martha’s first hit was the 1963 “Come and Get These Memories,” and like the Vandellas I “can’t forget the motor city.”

In the early 1950s our family lived on Clements Street, and we remained in the area long after. So I knew about “Fingertips,” the first hit for “Little Stevie Wonder.” I knew that “Heavy Music” was a local hit for Bob Seger and the Last Heard. I was a big fan of Mary Wells’ hit, “The One Who Really Loves You,” written by the great Smokey Robinson.

In 2016 the Library of Congress awarded Smokey the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Check out JoJo’s performance of “Who’s Lovin You” at the event. Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy sure liked it.

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