In the 1960s, there must’ve been something in the air in Detroit, as artists flocked from around the world to be part of the Motown sound. Starting with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, the city became the center for a new style of R&B that took over radios around the world. Here, we look at 35 of the best songs from Motown Records’ long run from the 1960s to the turn of the 21st century.
1. My Girl – The Temptations
Written by Smokey Robinson, The Temptations’ first number-one hit, “My Girl,” remains one of Motown’s most enduring hits. The tune is an infectious expression of love and joy, written by Smokey about his wife. The song shot to number one on the Billboard charts shortly after its 1964 release. When that intro guitar lick comes in, it’s hard not to start smiling.
2. Stop! In the Name of Love – The Supremes
With its powerful opening chorus, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” took The Supremes to the top of the Billboard charts when it was released in 1965. Led by future superstar Diana Ross, this hit song remains one of the most recognized and beloved tracks of the Motown era.
3. I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
The Jackson 5 made their Motown debut with their mega-hit “I Want You Back” in 1969. The song, exuding pure, unfiltered joy, immediately shot up to the top of the charts. Featuring a funky groove and the Jackson family backing up a young Michael Jackson, this tune is simply infectious. Unbeknownst to everyone, this would represent just the start of one of the world’s greatest pop icon’s careers.
4. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours – Stevie Wonder
In 1970, Stevie Wonder put out his classic hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” The song catapulted to the top of the charts. It is about a boyfriend who messed up and is returning to make amends. The funky groove, featuring an electric sitar, coupled with Stevie’s joyful vocalizations made for one of the greatest songs ever written.
5. What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye
While Marvin Gaye’s early work helped to shape the Motown sound, earning him the nickname, “The Prince of Motown,” “What’s Going On?” represented a shift to a more personal sound for the songwriter. It was written after Four Tops singer Obie Benson witnessed police violence against peaceful anti-war protestors. It would become one of Marvin’s most iconic tracks and the most commercially successful Motown track at that point.
6. I Second That Emotion – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
This hit song for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles came about when Smokey was buying pearls for his wife and, after he said “I sure hope she likes them,” his friend and fellow songwriter misspoke and said, “I second that emotion.” They immediately got to work writing the tune, and it would go on to become one of the group’s greatest hits, with an infectious brass section and vocal melody.
7. Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
Considered the Four Tops defining track, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” shot to the top of the charts when it was released in 1966. The song’s driving pulse, the intensity of the vocal backup, and the near shouting of the lead singer channel the loving emotion are done perfectly. No wonder, this remains one of the greatest Motown hits of all time.
8. Please Mr. Postman – The Marvelettes
Remembered as one of the first great Motown hits, The Marvelettes hit “Please Mr. Postman” shot to the top of the Billboard charts when it was released in the summer of 1961. The song would be famously covered by many acts, including The Beatles and The Carpenters, making it one of Motown’s most influential and beloved hits.
9. Dancing in the Street – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
The hit Motown song of the summer of 1964, “Dancing In The Street” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas is one of the most iconic Motown songs ever released. This tune, written by Marvin Gaye and other Motown legends, is all about having a good time wherever you find yourself. It took on different overtones as it became a civil rights anthem later in the decade.
10. I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
While Martha & The Vandellas’ debut version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was Motown’s biggest hit, Marvin Gaye’s version surpassed their success with his 1968 release. His classic version of the popular song is remembered as one of the greatest Motown soul and funk hits and continues to receive frequent radio airtime today.
11. My Guy – Mary Wells
Mary Wells’ 1964 mega-hit “My Guy” took her to the top of the Billboard charts, making her Motown’s first big female solo star. Famously, The Beatles declared her their favorite female singer and invited her to tour with them in the UK, making her the very first Motown star to perform in the UK.
12. Upside Down – Diana Ross
As the era of R&B gave way to disco, Motown Records was leading the charge. Diana Ross’ 1980 mega-hit “Upside Down” not only shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 but also reached the top of the Disco and Soul charts. It shot to the tops of the charts across the entire world, making it one of Motown’s biggest hits of all time.
13. Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder
Off his iconic 1976 album Song In The Key Of Life, “Sir Duke” is Stevie Wonder’s ode to all of the music greats that came before him, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald. With its infectious horn section, it shot to the top of the Billboard charts and remains one of Stevie’s and Motown’s greatest hits of all time.
14. Money (That’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong
The first big Motown hit ever recorded, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” pairs infectious percussion with passionate singing, laying the groundwork for the label’s future success. The song climbed up the Billboard charts in 1959. The tune would get even more attention when The Beatles (1963) and The Rolling Stones (1964) would record their own versions of the hit tune.
15. Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) – The Temptations
The Temptations’ third number-one hit remains one of their most enduring. The 1971 song “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” ran its way to the top of the charts. It called back to the group’s sound when they first formed in the 1960s.
16. What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 hit was dedicated to every person out there suffering from a broken heart. As the older brother of The Temptations’ lead singer, he convinced the Motown execs to let him sing this tune that had been intended for The Spinners. The song remains one of the most enduring Motown hits ever recorded.
17. Easy – Commodores
Before Lionel Richie was judging American Idol, he was the lead man for Motown’s Commodores. The song displayed his talent for writing and singing love ballads. It climbed to the top of the charts and is one of the greatest soul ballads ever written.
18. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Tammi Terrell & Marvin Gaye
Few Motown songs have had as enduring of a life as Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye’s duet, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” While the song would not reach the top of the charts until Diana Ross recorded it several years later, it remains a radio staple that DJs have to play at every party.
19. Heaven Must Have Sent You – The Elgins
True to the Motown sound of the mid-1960s, The Elgins hit the charts with their hit “Heaven Must Have Sent You.” The song was the Motown group’s biggest hit, making a particularly big splash in the UK. Bonnie Pointer would make the tune a disco hit with her 1979 cover.
20. War – Edwin Starr
The anti-Vietnam War protest song was initially written for The Temptations. It was eventually given to Edwin Starr to avoid alienating The Temptations’ fan base. It shot up to number one on the charts and is one of the most popular protest songs ever written.
21. I Just Want to Celebrate – Rare Earth
Rare Earth was the first all-white group to have commercial success on one of the Motown labels. Their 1971 hit “I Just Want To Celebrate” shot up the Billboard charts. It remains an enduring example of the soul and funk of the early 1970s.
22. Someday We’ll Be Together – Diana Ross & The Supremes
The final track of The Supremes’ career with Diana Ross, “Someday We’ll Be Together” was their twelfth number-one hit. The iconic track was a perfect way for Motown’s star trio to end their illustrious career together. Of course, Diana was not even close to being done and would go on to have a successful career as a solo artist.
23. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
First recorded by The Undisputed Truth in 1972, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” became a number-one hit for The Temptations later that same year. Bringing together soul, funk, and psychedelia coming to define the 1970s Motown sound, their version of the tune remains an enduring classic.
24. The Tracks of My Tears – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
One of the greatest R&B songs ever written, “The Tracks Of My Tears” remains one of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ greatest hits. It is considered one of the most iconic Motown tracks and, in hindsight, is considered one of the best songs from the era.
25. Brick House – Commodores
No song displays Motown’s shift to funk better than the Commodores’ hit single, “Brick House.” Setting a beauty standard just about everyone could get behind, this remains an iconic track and one of Motown’s funkiest hits.
26. I Was Made to Love Her – Stevie Wonder
One of Stevie Wonder’s biggest hits, “I Was Made To Love Her” showed off everything great about the Motown sound. From his harmonica to the funky orchestration to his impassioned vocals, it remains one of his and Motown’s best performances.
27. Super Freak – Rick James
One of the most iconic tracks of the early 1980s, Rick James ushered in the era of Motown funk with his classic hit, “Super Freak.” Featuring a funky groove, his hit celebrated all the women that you wouldn’t “bring home to mother.” It remains a party and radio favorite that gets everyone dancing and singing along.
28. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
Few songs have captured the spirit of love and devotion quite like The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” Sung with deep passion over a groovy rhythm with those signature harmonies, this is a case study of what made the Motown sound so successful. The Rolling Stones would famously cover the song years later.
29. Does Your Mama Know About Me – Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers
While Bobby Taylor may be best known for his role mentoring The Jackson 5, he had his biggest hit, along with his backing band, The Vancouvers, with “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Co-written by Tommy Chong (yes, that Tommy Chong), the ballad put Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers on the charts.
30. Smiling Faces Sometimes – The Undisputed Truth
While The Undisputed Truth was an important member of the Motown label, they had their biggest hit with 1971’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” The Temptations had released a version earlier that year, but their version did not achieve the success that The Undisputed Truth’s did.
31. Every Little Bit Hurts – Brenda Holloway
Brenda Holloway’s 1964 ballad “Every Little Bit Hurts” was her biggest hit and one of early Motown’s most powerful tracks. Her powerhouse vocals would inspire countless acts following her, including Alicia Keys, who paid tribute by recording her own version of the tune.
32. Keep On Truckin’ – Eddie Kendricks
Featuring a driving clarinet groove (clavinet!), Eddie Kendricks put out “Keep On Truckin'” two years after having left Motown supergroup, The Temptations. With his soaring falsetto leading the band, the 1973 hit made it to the top of the charts. The tune foreshadows the funky direction Motown would take heading into the 1980s and, it needs to be said again, but that clavinet is so good on this song!
33. ABC – The Jackson 5
If there was any song capable of knocking The Beatles’ “Let It Be” off the top of the charts, it was The Jackson 5’s instant classic, “ABC.” Featuring constant call-and-response between Michael Jackson and his brothers over a funky groove, the track became one of Motown’s most classic and enduring hits. Live performances showcased a young Michael who seemed to be able to channel energy simply unimaginable for a child as young as him.
34. There’s A Ghost In My House – R. Dean Taylor
Released in 1967, R. Dean Taylor’s tune “There’s A Ghost In My House” did not receive much attention or success upon its first release. But with that groovy lead guitar, the tune began to gain favor in the UK. The song was re-released in the UK, and it shot up to number three on the charts. As one of Motown’s few white recording artists, R. Dean Taylor is considered one of the best artists to come from the label that you’ve never heard of.
35. End Of The Road – Boyz II Men
While most of us associate the Motown name with hits from the 1960s and 1970s, the label continued to put out excellent music into the 1990s. Fewer artists carried the label’s legacy into the last decade of the 20th century like Boyz II Men. The prototype for all of the boy bands to come, they released their hit “End Of The Road” in 1992, and it stayed on top of the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 13 consecutive weeks. It called back to the sound of Motown groups of the 1960s while featuring the new orchestral sound of 1990s R&B.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.