Spin Control: Four Hit-Makers in Motown: The Musical, Rolling Into Town Tuesday

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Spanning decades of spinning records, Motown: The Musical hits town on Tuesday, March 31. The touring Broadway show pours out the story of music legend Barry Gordy, who went from featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul. The brainchild of Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum (Rent, Avenue Q) and Gordy himself, Motown introduces us to the artists of the Motor City Revue — Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and so many more – and explores the origins of more than forty hit songs ranging from "My Girl" to "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough." 

The hits are woven into the captivating tale of how Gordy started a musical revolution that reached America’s ears at the height of racial tensions, starting a groove that made people dance to the beat of that change – and wound up changing history. But without these four initial hit-makers, history might’ve sounded just a little bit different.

4) Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
After a couple of false starts and name changes in 1959 ,Gordy finally settled on the moniker of Motown Records, a mash up of Detroit’s Motor Town nickname, and signed The Matadors as the label's first act. Not feeling their own name, the musicians changed the group to The Miracles and Smokey Robinson, Claudette Robinson, Ronald White, Pete Moore, Marv Tarplin and Bobby Rogers released the ballad "Bad Girl" as the Miracles's first Motown imprint. Songwriters themselves, the group's members continued to build stronger and bigger songs and later that year released "Shop Around," which reached number one on the R&B charts, number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and was the first Motown record to sell a million copies. Future smash hits for Motown included "You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me," "Tracks of My Tears," "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Tears of a Clown."

In 1964, Smokey Robinson became vice-president of Motown, while wife Claudette stepped out of the group to focus on starting a family, and the other Miracles began holding other positions at Motown. In 1972, Smokey left the group to focus on Motown and his family, and segue into an eventual solo career. In 1987, The Miracles's legacy was a point of controversy when the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inducted Smokey Robinson without them. Smokey tried hard to correct the oversight at the time, but it was a wrong that was not righted until 2012.

Of the super-soul group, Martha Reeves (of Martha & The Vandellas) said, “In Liverpool they have a statue of the Beatles. Someplace in Detroit there should be a statue of (Smokey Robinson and) the Miracles."

3) Mary Wells
“The First Lady of Motown,” Mary Wells was the label’s first successful female solo artist, a heavy role that caused a giant crack at the height of her fresh career. Wells suffered for many years in her youth from spinal meningitis, which left the young church chanteuse singing through the pain of partial blindness, hearing loss and temporary paralysis — but she eventually turned her pain into a successful nightclub act, honing her deep, darker voice into a memorable one. Wells signed to Motown in 1960 at the age of seventeen, after an on-the-spot audition for Gordy at a party with a song she was trying to get to Jackie Wilson to record. Gordy ushered her into the studio to record the song, "Bye Bye Baby," and got it on the charts, where it quickly rose to success.

In 1962, Gordy paired Wells up with Miracles’ leader Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced songs for her that shot her right to the top — including "You Beat Me to the Punch," "The One Who Really Loves You" and, in 1964, her biggest hit, "My Guy," which not only took America by storm but also landed Wells at the top of the charts in the U.K. The Beatles invited her to open for them on tour, and she became the first Motown artist to perform across the pond. At her peak, Wells argued to be let out of her contract after unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate the one she signed at seventeen (she was also furious that money from "My Guy" was being used to promote The Supremes). The court awarded her a settlement on grounds that she was a minor at the signing — but as part of the terms, she could receive no royalties from her Motown hits and couldn’t use the likeness she'd adopted at the label to promote herself.

Though quickly snapped up by other labels, Wells never achieved the level of influence or popularity she'd enjoyed during her brief stint at Motown. Wells passed away after a bout with cancer in 1992; she has never been inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

2) Diana Ross & The Supremes
In 1961, Motown signed The Supremes, an all-girl singing group from the projects of Detroit featuring Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Barbara Martin and Diana Ross. it would soon become the most commercially successful group on the label — but not without a few rough patches. For the first two years, the Supremes released eight singles written and produced by either Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson that all failed to chart, which relegated the quartet to filling background vocals and hand claps on many Motown songs just to get by, and reduced the group to a trio after Martin left under duress.

But at their darkest moment a bright light came in the form of a new set of songwriters/producers known as Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie & Brian Holland), who defined the early Motown sound starting with the Supremes. Martin’s departure also inspired Gordy to reassess the girls' roles and he decided to put Ross front–and-center, much to the teeth gritting of Wilson and Ballard. Beginning with "Where Did Our Love Go" in 1964, the revised girl group began to have hit records one right after the other — including "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." The girls became the polished poster girls of the Detroit sound, and soon appeared on magazine covers and the TV screen.

Then in 1967, Gordy put Diana Ross’s name in front of the Supremes moniker, which led Ballard to leave the group; she was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Adding to that strife, hit-makers Holland-Dozier-Holland pulled up stakes at Motown over royalty disputes and left the Supremes with only two more notable chart toppers: "Reflections" and "Love Child," on which Birdsong and Wilson barely appeared on.

In 1981 the Tony Award-winning musical Dreamgirls opened on Broadway, which offered a loose telling of the Supremes's history with all of the juiciness intact. Mary Wilson reportedly loved the production, while Diana Ross refused to ever see it.

1) Little Stevie Wonder
In 1961, Barry Gordy signed blind child prodigy Stevland Hardaway Morris to the Motown label, after he was discovered at the age of eleven by Ronnie White of The Miracles. The boy had started to go blind shortly after birth, and by the age of ten was a master at piano, harmonica and drums. Before signing the Motown contract, his manager switched Steveland's name to Little Stevie Wonder — and a star was born. Given his age, the label set him up with a five-year contract that renewed on its own and held Wonder’s royalties in a trust until his 21st birthday. The prodigy had a string of small hits in his early years, but it wasn’t until he began helping out with Motown’s songwriting department that everything fell into place.

In 1967, Wonder penned "Tears of a Clown" for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Soon after, he recorded his own hits "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "I Was Made to Love Her," "For Once in My Life" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours," and became one of the most successful artists to ever grace the Motor Town label — where he continues to record to this day. Over the years, Wonder has earned 25 Grammys and had over thirty Top 10 Hits on the U.S charts. His legacy is one that truly highlights the genius and efforts of Motown Records and Barry Gordy, whose ear for talent created a soundtrack for the past fifty years.

Motown: The Musical opens Tuesday, March 31 at the Buell in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, where it will run through April 19. Tickets start at $25; get them at denvercenter.org.

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