10 Greatest Hits Motown Initially Rejected
“The Sound of Young America”
That’s what Motown Records named itself, and it had good reason to claim that title. Berry Gordy’s fledgling record company burst on the scene in January of 1959, and dominated the world of popular music for the next two decades. During the 1960s alone Motown put an astonishing 110 hit songs on the Billboard record charts, including 30 that reached the #1 spot. In fact, the company had the highest ratio of hits to singles released of any record producer in history.
That unprecedented success didn’t happen by accident. When Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start his own record company, his vision was to create a literal “hit factory.” He had worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, and believed he could adapt their process to produce hit records with the same efficiency with which the automaker produced cars.
Gordy recognized that a key ingredient in Ford’s car-making success was their quality control operation. So, in a move that was unique in the record industry at the time, Gordy installed a Quality Control (QC) function as a key element of Motown's music creation process.
The Weekly Quality Control Meeting
While other record companies might put out a dozen songs in the hope that one might become a hit, Berry Gordy determined that at Motown a song would be released as a single only if the company was convinced it would be a hit. To that end, he instituted a stringent quality control process that every song had to pass before it could be released. At 9:00 o'clock every Friday morning all the songwriters and producers would attend the QC meeting and pass judgment on the new songs that were candidates to be released and promoted. Here is how Gordy describes the process:
“When songs came out of there we knew they would be hits because we had these Friday meetings where we would argue over them. We'd have these long, hard-fought, debated sessions. But when we released the record out of that meeting, we knew it was a great record because everybody voted on it.” -- Berry Gordy
In the QC meeting a writer or producer had to defend the hit potential of the song they were presenting in the face of sometimes harsh evaluations from colleagues whose own songs were in direct competition with it. The result, as songwriter Leon Ware remembers, was that “you didn’t even bring your song in unless you were really sure about it, ‘cause the people you were up against would walk in with some really brilliant work. What you did there had to be excellent.”
When songs came out of there we knew they would be hits.— Berry Gordy on Motown's weekly QC meeting
And yet, the quality control process wasn’t infallible. Some songs the group approved never made it onto the record charts at all. But there were also a number of others that initially got a thumbs down (and so were only put out as album fillers or B-sides on singles), but which later became huge hits.
Here are the stories of the 10 greatest hit songs Motown almost rejected. Read, listen, and enjoy!
Songs Motown Almost Rejected
Table of Contents (click to go directly to the song)
- The Tears Of A Clown – Smokey Robinson
- I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
- Jimmy Mack – Martha and the Vandellas
- What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) - Jr. Walker
- Reach Out I'll Be There – The Four Tops
- Ain’t Too Proud To Beg – The Temptations
- Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Diana Ross
- For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder
- My Cherie Amour – Stevie Wonder
- What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
1. The Tears Of A Clown - Smokey Robinson
In the fall of 1966 Stevie Wonder had a problem. He and Hank Cosby had just written a new song that sounded great, but they hadn’t been able to come up with lyrics for it. So Stevie took the recorded instrumental track to the Motown Christmas party and asked Smokey Robinson to see what he could do with it.
The track, with its sprightly piccolo on top and a bouncing bassoon on the bottom, reminded Smokey of a circus. He had always been fascinated by the story of Pagliacci, the clown who laughed on the outside while crying on the inside, and he decided to center his lyric around that motif.
“The music was awesome,” Smokey later recalled, but he didn’t think the finished song would be a hit. Neither did Stevie Wonder. So neither of them really went to bat for it, and it wasn’t released as a single. Instead, it was used as the last track on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1967 album, Make It Happen, and then forgotten.
It wasn’t until four years later that “Tears of a Clown” again saw the light of day, and it happened in, of all places, England. In 1970 Motown’s British subsidiary was desperate for new material. They asked Karen Spreadbury, a 21-year-old secretary at EMI Records, which managed Motown’s music in England, to select a track from Make It Happen to be promoted as a single in that country. When she heard the last track on the album, it sounded so fresh and different that she was sure it could become a #1 hit in England. And that's exactly what happened.
That surprising success opened some eyes (and ears!) back home, and Motown finally decided to release the song in the U.S. Not only did it reach #1 on the U.S. charts, but it also became the greatest hit Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ever had.
2. I Heard It Through the Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a member of a very select club - songs that were shot down not just once, but multiple times in the Motown Quality Control meeting, but still went on to become hits.
The first time for "Grapevine" was when it was recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966. Berry Gordy thought it was “horrible” and personally vetoed it.
Undaunted, the song’s writers, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, tried again in 1967 with a version by Marvin Gaye. That, too, went down in flames at the QC meeting. “They thought it was too bluesy,” Strong recalls.
Whitfield and Strong really believed in their song, so they tried a third time. They reworked it to give it a more R&B (rhythm and blues) flavor and recorded it with a group that had just signed with Motown, Gladys Knight and the Pips. This version not only was approved, but went on to become a major hit.
But Whitfield and Strong still weren’t satisfied. Convinced that the Marvin Gaye version also had hit potential, they continued to push for it. After ceaselessly badgering Berry Gordy about it, they finally persuaded him to include the song in Gaye’s 1968 album, In The Groove.
“Grapevine” quickly became the most requested song from the album, forcing Gordy to release it as a single. It sold more than 4 million copies, and became Motown’s biggest seller of the entire decade of the 1960s.
In 2004, the Marvin Gaye version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was ranked at #81 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
3. Jimmy Mack - Martha and the Vandellas
In 1964 Motown’s legendary songwriting team, Holland–Dozier–Holland, produced and recorded "Jimmy Mack" with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. But the recording sat on the shelf, unreleased, for the next two years. There are several different stories about how that happened.
One version of the tale is that "Jimmy Mack" was shelved because it sounded too much like a song by the Supremes. Another version says that the QC team felt that a record about a young lady getting ready to drop her boyfriend because he had been away a long time wasn’t appropriate during the Vietnam War.
One of the song’s writers, Lamont Dozier, believed “Jimmy Mack” was set aside because of Billie Jean Brown. She was the head of Motown’s Quality Control department, and all songs had to go through her to be considered at the weekly QC meeting. If she didn’t like a song, she could simply omit it from the QC meeting agenda and it would never even get a hearing. And, according to Dozier, Billie Jean Brown didn’t like “Jimmy Mack.”
Whatever the reason, “Jimmy Mack” remained forgotten until Berry Gordy happened across it in late 1966 while listening to unreleased material. Sensing that the song was hit material, he immediately ordered that it be released as a single, which happened on February 3, 1967. It went to #1 on the R&B charts and spent three straight weeks at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Read how Martha Reeves became a Motown star:
Martha Reeves: From Motown Secretary to Vandellas Star
4. What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) - Junior Walker & the All Stars
When a song was brought to the Motown QC meeting, the artists responsible for it could be expected to fight tooth and nail to get it approved. But when it came to “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, that script got flipped. According to Robert Dennis, who was Motown’s Technical Quality Control Supervisor, it was Jr. Walker himself who tried to hold the song back.
After “What Does It Take” was played for the QC group, Berry Gordy was very enthusiastic. He thought it would be a huge hit. But that’s when Johnny Bristol, one of the song’s writers, spoke up to say that Jr. Walker didn’t want the song released as a single. An incredulous Berry Gordy questioned Bristol about why an artist would want his own song to be rejected, and finally dug out the reason. Because some of the notes in the tune were too high for Walker's voice range, it was actually Bristol who sang the vocal on the recording. Walker was afraid that if the song became popular and audiences demanded to hear it during live performances, he wouldn’t be able to sing it.
The QC group selected another song by Jr. Walker & the All Stars for release, and “What Does It Take” stayed on the shelf for several months. But when it eventually was put out in April of 1969, it became a smash hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart, and delivering a Grammy nomination to Jr. Walker for best R&B instrumental performance. When doing the number on stage, Walker avoided his vocal limitations by simply not singing the high notes.
5. Reach Out I'll Be There - Four Tops
The problem with “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was that it was very different from anything Motown or the Four Tops had put out before. So different, in fact, that Smokey Robinson, and even two of the Four Tops themselves, were dubious about its potential for success. So, the QC team voted it down.
But fortunately for Motown, the boss, Berry Gordy, had the final say and could override the decision of the group. He didn’t do that very often, but in this case he believed in the song and ordered it released in August of 1966.
Gordy’s conviction turned out to be well justified. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was #1 on both the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts for two weeks, and became the Four Tops’ biggest hit.
6. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg - The Temptations
The Temptations’ “Ain't Too Proud To Beg” was another of those songs that, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” had to endure multiple rejections at the QC meeting before finally gaining approval. It was initially passed over twice because Berry Gordy thought it had potential, but needed more work. So the producer, Norman Whitfield, went back into the studio and moved the vocal line higher, just beyond the range in which lead singer David Ruffin was comfortable. That introduced a level of strain and tension into Ruffin’s performance that was just right for the theme of the song.
Knowing his record was even better than before, Whitfield took it to the QC meeting a third time. And it was rejected again. This time it was because the competition was “Get Ready,” a great song Smokey Robinson had just produced with the Temptations. Given Smokey’s track record of creating hits, it’s not surprising that his single was the one chosen for release that week, and “Ain't Too Proud To Beg” was put on the shelf.
But Whitfield didn’t give up. He finally persuaded Berry Gordy that if “Get Ready” failed to crack the Top 20 on the Billboard Pop chart, then “Ain't Too Proud To Beg” would be the next Temptations single released. And that's exactly what happened.
Although “Get Ready” got to #1 on the R&B charts, it only reached #29 on the pop Top 20 chart. So, Whitfield's song got its chance. Released on May 3, 1966, “Ain't Too Proud To Beg” also reached #1 on the R&B charts, but surpassed Smokey’s record by getting to #13 on the pop Top 20.
7. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Diana Ross
When Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” they knew they had a hit. And they were right. The first recording of the song, by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967, rose to #3 on the R&B chart and #19 on the pop chart. Then in 1968 the Supremes and the Temptations collaborated on a version for their album, Diana Ross & the Supremes Join The Temptations. But the biggest hit of all was the 1970 solo version by Diana Ross.
At first Diana didn’t want to record the song, because it was so closely associated with Marvin and Tammi. But Ashford and Simpson created an entirely new and very different arrangement just for Diana. This version ran for over 6 minutes, and included long stretches that were spoken rather than sung. And when Berry Gordy heard it, he hated it. He didn’t think people would want to listen to all that talking, and refused to release the song as a single. The most he would do was to include it as a track on Diana’s first solo album.
Gordy was right about that version being too long, and having too much talking (listen to the long version here). But people still loved Diana’s rendition, and DJs started doing their own edits so they could play shorter versions of the album track on the radio. That led Motown to do its own official edit, and the version of the song we know today was released as a single and became a #1 hit on both the R&B and pop charts in 1970.
8. For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder
Written in 1965 by Motown songwriters Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, "For Once in My Life" became a hit as a slow ballad. That’s the way several Motown artists, including Barbara McNair, The Four Tops, and The Temptations recorded it. And that’s the way Tony Bennett took it to #91 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and #8 on the Easy Listening survey in 1967.
But when Stevie Wonder took his turn with the song, also in 1967, he transformed it into something unique. His version was much faster, with an exuberant vocal accented by a funky beat, and featuring one of Stevie’s trademark harmonica solos. It was entirely different from all the versions that had gone before – and Berry Gordy hated it! Feeling that the upbeat treatment of a song so obviously written as a ballad just didn’t work, Gordy vetoed the recording’s release, and it languished in Motown’s vault for a year.
But in 1968 QC department head Billie Jean Brown convinced Gordy that Stevie’s version also had potential, and got him to order its release as a single. She was immediately proved right, as the song climbed to #2 on both the Billboard R&B Singles and Pop Singles charts. Ironically, the record that held onto the top of those charts, preventing "For Once in My Life" from reaching #1, was another song Berry Gordy had originally refused to release, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
9. My Cherie Amour - Stevie Wonder
In 1967 Stevie Wonder had a girlfriend at the Michigan School for the Blind by the name of Marsha. When they broke up, it might have been a tragedy for Marsha, but it was a blessing for Motown and the world of music. That’s because when Marsha dropped out of his life, the song Stevie Wonder had originally called “Oh, My Marsha” became “My Cherie Amour.”
But when Stevie recorded it in November of 1967, “My Cherie Amour” sounded so different from traditional Motown offerings that the Quality Control meeting turned it down flat. In an audio interview, co-writer Sylvia Moy, who suggested the new title, remembered what happened:
“There were those that felt, well this isn’t Motown. There was voting done on what would go out on the artists, and it wasn’t felt that that was really a Motown sound. But finally - they had a little rule that if you had an artist in the top 10… and something of yours was not voted up, to go out for the next release, then you could at least choose something of yours to go on the B side… So finally “My Cherie Amour” went out on the B side. And the A side of his wasn’t selling, it wasn’t doing it, and some disk jockey turned it over. And then they started turning it over all over the world.”
They indeed started listening all over the world. “My Cherie Amour” was a huge hit, reaching #4 on both the Billboard R&B and pop charts in July of 1969.
10. What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye started out at Motown as a drummer (you can hear him on “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, for example). His road to becoming one of Motown’s top vocal performers was long and difficult, marked by several releases that failed to find an audience, before he finally had a hit with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” in 1962. But once he cracked the code, as it were, there was no stopping him. He had a total of 56 hit records that made it onto the pop singles charts.
Because of how hard it had been for Marvin to finally find his recipe for success, it’s not surprising that when he decided to go in an entirely different musical direction, Motown chief Berry Gordy was adamantly against it. By 1970 Gaye was well aware of the political and social turmoil happening in the world at that time, including the Vietnam War and recent race-related rioting in the streets of several American cities, including Detroit. He felt that he had to address those issues in his music.
Turning away from the typical “baby, baby, I love you” format that had yielded so many hits for Motown, Gaye recorded a song called “What’s Going On” that was far more politically edgy than anything the company had ever put out.
Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?— Berry Gordy when he heard "What's Going On"
When Berry Gordy heard “What’s Going On” his first response was, “Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?” He also thought the song sounded too jazzy. It was, he said, “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Convinced that the record was both musically and politically inappropriate for the Motown brand, Gordy flatly refused to allow it to be released.
So Marvin Gaye went on strike. He told Gordy that he wouldn’t record any new material until “What’s Going On” was put out as a single. Finally, Gordy gave in and had the record released in January of 1971, and it quickly became apparent just how wrong he had been. Gaye’s record became Motown’s fastest selling single. It sold more than 200,000 copies in its first week, reaching #1 on the Hot Soul Singles chart and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Berry Gordy wasn’t afraid to admit that he’d been wrong. When he saw the success of “What’s Going On” as a single, he urged Marvin to quickly put together an entire album in the same vein. That album, released on May 21, 1971 and also called What’s Going On, quickly rose to the top of the charts and became Motown’s best-selling album to that date.
On balance, do you think Motown's QC process was a positive or a negative?
© 2019 Ronald E Franklin