Motown’s real unsung heroes (Pt. 1): The Marvelettes

Last year, TV-One aired its season of Unsung. One of the stories they touched on was the life of Supremes founder Florence Ballard and how she had gotten the spotlight taken from her by Berry Gordy after being upset that she was being pushed aside to further the career of Supremes lead singer Diana Ross. Now while it’s clear maybe Florence should’ve gotten leads. I question how was she really “unsung”. In my opinion, people knew of Florence Ballard when she was in the Supremes. True she was forgotten about after she left, but she still was able to grab headlines up until her death. She was brought up again numerous times in several biographies.

One of the people interviewed said Ballard was “the most tragic story to come out of Motown”… well yes her death was indeed sad and tragic considering she was on a comeback trail but in my humble opinion, the real tragedy (of many in that richly varied Detroit label) was the way the Marvelettes’ career, lives and legacy has been handled. Being pioneers of a new sound of music can have its perks but it can also in time if people wanted to, make you forgotten about.

This is a group whose name was sold in a betting game in Las Vegas at a time when Motown was on its move to Los Angeles forgetting about the older members that literally pushed the label off the ground. One was the Miracles (who despite later success with “Love Machine” was disenfranchised from Motown), another was Mary Wells, whose career suffered a great deal after she left Motown following the release of “My Guy” in 1964, and the Marvelettes.

For a group who gave Motown its first number-one hit single and was a group that the Supremes struggled against, you think there would be more about their story but no one knows about the individual members like people do the Supremes. Motown never allowed them to give themselves an identity, only treated like a cog in a machine. They never gave any respect to the Marvelettes mainly because unlike the other Motown artists (with the exception of Washington, D.C.’s Marvin Gaye) based in Detroit, they were from Inkster. Also personal problems further endangered what could’ve been a promising rise to superstardom. And to top it off, “fake” Marvelettes are piling up taking credit for something they had nothing to do with. In order to understand their story, we have to go back to Inkster High School with a dream of singing that took place between four friends who wanted to be the next Chantels.

Gladys Horton, Georgia Dobbins, Juanita Cowart, Katherine Anderson and Georgeanna Tillman first began singing together in 1960. Their original name was the Casinyets partially due to some of them feeling they weren’t up to their vocal abilities (“can’t sing yet”). Mainly they sang in either the school choir or while waiting for their next class. Georgia Dobbins was the strongest among the five girls. The five girls changed their name to the Marvels in 1961 and began performing in talent shows.

For one particular talent show, the winner would get an audition with the top label in Detroit – Motown Records. The Marvels reportedly came in fourth but the group was allowed to audition anyway. After singing the Chantels’ “He’s Gone” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” in front of Motown CEO Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, the duo was impressed by the group but wanted them to come up with an original song. Luckily, Georgia Dobbins knew of a songwriter named William Garrett. Together, the two wrote the song that would become their first hit single (“Please Mr. Postman”). Dobbins then decided to leave the group to take care of her ailing mother, giving the lead position to Gladys Horton. Wanda Young, another Inkster student, was asked to replace Dobbins. Returning to Motown, the quintet sang the song and soon got signed to Motown’s Tamla division. Gordy then took the task of shaping the group up: he altered their name from the Marvels to the Marvelettes and hired songwriters Brian Holland and Robert Bateman (Brianbert) to polish the song.

Despite fears she wouldn’t sing the song properly, Horton was able to nail the song with the other Marvelettes giving a perfect background call and response vocal. Motown issued “Please Mr. Postman” in late August 1961. After entering the charts in September of 1961, the song took a slow charge to number-one, which they eventually got to in December 1961. The song sold a million copies and soon the Marvelettes capitalized on their success with two more singles – “Twistin’ Postman” and their top 10 hit “Playboy”, making them instant stars on Motown’s roster. It was no surprise that they were among one of the headliners of the label’s first Motortown Revues in 1962.

By this point, Wanda had also began singing lead for the Marvelettes’ songs, giving the group a reputation with two lead singers instead of one. Despite claims otherwise that each of the Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson) sang lead during the first Motown releases, only Ross was the dominant lead though Florence Ballard did sing on one track, “Buttered Popcorn”, which bombed. Also Motown struggled to give the Supremes a hit to stand out while the Marvelettes seemed to be on the upswing.

After “Playboy” reached number seven on the pop charts, they followed it up with another huge dance hit, “Beechwood 4-5789”, which became more significant for the fact that its co-writer was then-Motown session drummer Marvin Gaye, who would begin to experience solo success on his own in the same year of the release of “Beechwood”. However, the first sign in the cracks of the Marvelettes’ rising success was evident. That year, Juanita Cowart incorrectly stated that Detroit was a suburb of Inkster. When she was reprimanded later for the incident, Cowart responding by shying away – she had depression. Soon she opted to leave the group. The other members didn’t replace her carrying on as a quartet.

While the Marvelettes had substantial chart success in 1963, Motown messed up the promotion of singles such as “Locking Up My Heart”, which peaked at number 44 on the pop charts. Despite this, the group was a big draw onstage. As evident in their performance on the Motortown Revue at the Apollo Theater, the group were proven showstoppers. Their rivals – the Supremes – were placed on the bottom of the bill as they still didn’t have charted hits. But that same year, the group faced more competition from another rising girl group – Martha and the Vandellas, which was led by the gospel-throated Martha Reeves, began scoring hits that year with the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland) including “Come Get These Memories” and “(Love is Like A) Heat Wave”.

By 1964, the Marvelettes were still a top draw but struggled against other competitors such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys. That spring, the group was giving a song that HDH wrote called “Where Did Our Love Go”, for Gladys Horton to sing lead on. The group, thinking the song to be childish, turned it down. HDH passed the song on to other female groups including the Velvelettes and the Vandellas and even Brenda Holloway but all of them turned it down. They passed the song on to the “no-hit” Supremes, who didn’t like the song either but felt they had no choice. Within months, their version became a number-one smash hit, much to the Marvelettes’ (and other groups’) dismay and shock. The Marvelettes did eventually return to the top 40 with the Norman Whitfield-produced “Too Many Fish in the Sea”, which peaked at number 25. Despite this renewing success, Georgeanna Tillman’s bout with lupus was serious to a point where doctors advised her to not perform again. Tillman responded by leaving the Marvelettes in early 1965 leaving original members Gladys Horton and Katherine Anderson and emerging singer Wanda Young as a trio.

Following the exit of Georgeanna Tillman, the group’s musical direction changed slightly with a more soulful edge after Motown’s producers discovered Wanda Young had a more complex voice than Gladys Horton. Young sang on the group’s next hit, “I’ll Keep Holding On” and its similar follow-up, “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead”. By 1966, Smokey Robinson was dealing with the exit of Mary Wells and looking for another singer to fill the void left by Wells’ 1964 departure though he went on to have success with records by the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Finally Motown gave him the Marvelettes and figuring Wanda Young had a seductive quality urged her to sing softer. The result was their biggest hit in years and one of their signature hits – “Don’t Mess With Bill”. The record became a smash upon its release rising to number seven on the pop charts. The Marvelettes’ image also got polished up a bit from their original years.

Between 1966 and 1968, the group would have hits under Robinson’s productions. Other significant hits during this period included “You’re the One” (allegedly written for Wanda to then-boyfriend and future husband Bobby Rogers), the top 15 ballad “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”, a cover of Ruby & the Romantics’ “When You’re Young and in Love”, “Here I Am Baby” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician”, all sung by Young.

This was enough to keep the group at least near the top of Motown’s roster. However, like their other “comebacks”, they would begin to have a stiff decline. In 1968, Gladys Horton left the group to get married and start a family. Anne Bogan took her spot. And by the end of that year, tensions were growing between Young and the other Marvelettes. By 1969, Motown had began shifting away from its older acts and refused to promote the Marvelettes’ albums and singles. Motown was on its way to Los Angeles and was focused on building the careers of the Jackson 5 and a solo Diana Ross. Due to internal conflict, the rest of the Marvelettes split that year partially due to Katherine Anderson wanting a retirement from show business, Anne Bogan wanting a solo career and Wanda Young wanting the same thing, and also due to what became a contentious issue when Gordy lost the group’s moniker in a gambling game. Despite Wanda Young (now Rogers)’s own personal problems, Smokey Robinson still wanted to produce her. In 1970, he produced a solo album for Young with the Andantes (which had been on much of the Marvelettes’ recordings since 1966) singing background. Figuring there would be more buzz if it was a Marvelettes release, Motown promoted it as such though the group itself had already broke up. The resulting album, The Return of the Marvelettes, bombed. Afterwards, Wanda Young was let go from the label and thus ended an era that had sparked what became the Sound of Young America.

Wanda Young’s personal problems with drug addiction and alcohol led to her downfall. Her marriage to Bobby Rogers ended in the early 1970s and Wanda dropped out of sight completely. Gladys Horton settled at Los Angeles taking care of her handicapped son while occasionally singing as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes” and also battling against the fake groups performing as the Marvelettes. Katherine Anderson settled for social work in Detroit. Georgeanna Tillman died from her battle with lupus dying in 1980 at the age of just 35. Juanita Cowart’s whereabouts haven’t been known. Georgia Dobbins also settled for social work after splitting from the Marvelettes.

In later years, Dobbins and Katherine Anderson would appear together when the group finally got their gold-certified records for two singles including “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill”. Wanda Young eventually reemerged in the late 1980s as did Gladys Horton when Ian Levine signed them to the Motorcity imprint. Katherine Anderson didn’t want. Due to Wanda Young’s state, only Gladys Horton was used to promote the Marvelettes’ record with two other singers. Wanda Young did make a performance in Detroit singing “Don’t Mess with Bill” despite murmurs that she had a problem with alcoholism. While the group has yet to be inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (a travesty within itself), it should be noted that they should be recognized as pioneers of a sound that helped to bring races together. Nearly 50 years later, the music of the Marvelettes still assures their place in music history and the fact that they still haven’t been fully recognized for it is a shame.

And that’s why to me, the Marvelettes are unsung…and a great group.

6 responses to “Motown’s real unsung heroes (Pt. 1): The Marvelettes

  1. I greatly throughout many years felt and agreed from popular conflict that the Marvelettes were pushed aside and denied to be greater than they really were because of Motown’s carving the appeal to pop audience at the time unfairly nonrecgonition to the Marvelettes’ appeal mainly to black audiences mainstream. I am very and have been affected by this intrusive demise upon the Marvelettes’ credit to the music then and now. Gladys and Wanda sung those wonderful songs that send an aura euphoric chill inside of me since I am an ardent and faithful veteran fan of the past trio Marvelettes and I will be. It is the time now the Marvelettes get the recgonition on a large scale and should never be forgotten in music history in honor of the late great Gladys Horton and secondly but not least potentially obscured Wanda Young and the informative backing motivating voice of Katherine Anderson.

  2. This is very well written and I enjoyed reflecting on the songs by the Marvellettes. It is so sad that such talent does not get the credit and recognition it deserves yet “stuff” that passes for music, talent and art seem to receive many accolades and recognition. I salute the Marvellettes. I am saddened by the tragedy and the fact that the fame and fortune they so richly deserved passed over them. Thank you for this article

  3. They really belong in the Hall of Fame.They have the influence and the success.I don’t get it.There are only four girl groups in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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