The “Motown sound” bellowed out of the heart of Detroit with the soul-and-R&B-fused genre’s heyday in the 1960s. Motown Records produced timeless music and had hit-churning songwriters and singers available 24/7.
What started as a music movement featuring danceable hits and innocent love songs turned into a powerhouse genre unafraid to tackle issues of inequality, poverty, and war.
Here are the best Motown songs for a walk down memory lane through one of music’s most famous golden eras.
Table of Contents
- Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
- I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
- The Tracks of My Tears – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
- What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
- Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours – Stevie Wonder
- You Can’t Hurry Love – The Supremes
- This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) – The Isley Brothers
- Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
- What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
- Someday We’ll Be Together – Diana Ross and The Supremes
- Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
- Heat Wave – Martha and the Vandellas
- Please Mr. Postman – The Marvelettes
- Money (That’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong
- My Girl – The Temptations
- Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
- Dancing in the Street – Martha and the Vandellas
- Fingertips – Stevie Wonder
- Uptight (Everything’s Alright) – Stevie Wonder
- Baby Love – The Supremes
- I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
- I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops
- Got to Give It Up – Marvin Gaye
- Upside Down – Diana Ross
- Cruisin’ – Smokey Robinson
- ABC – The Jackson 5
- Nightshift – The Commodores
- Needle in a Haystack – The Velvelettes
- This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) – The Isley Brothers
- Two Lovers – Mary Wells
- Super Freak – Rick James
- War – Edwin Starr
- If I Were Your Woman – Gladys Knight and the Pips
- Easy – The Commodores
- He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ – The Velvelettes
- You Really Got a Hold on Me – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
Written by veteran Motown songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ follows a free-spirited, absentee father’s relationship with his children. The album version of The Temptations’ classic runs almost twelve minutes long. Even the shortened radio version is considered one of the longest songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Related: Hear this tune on our songs about family list.
I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong scored another number one hit with their song ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ when Marvin Gaye got a hold of it. The moody, funky tune follows the story of a guy who’s just found out his girl has been unfaithful to him due to rumors finally getting back to him “through the grapevine.” Several big-name artists would go on to cover the popular tune, including Creedence Clearwater Revival and Rob Thomas featuring Daryl Hall of Hall & Oats.
Related: Listen to more of the best cheating songs.
The Tracks of My Tears – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
An emotionally raw tune written by Miracles frontman Smokey Robinson himself, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ is about a man who can’t hide his pain due to the tears running down his face. This gut-punch of a song would go on to score several awards for the group before Smokey went solo. It would also eventually be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Related: Here is the best music to cry to if you’re feeling down.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin
Motown artist Jimmy Ruffin shares a famous last name with his brother, Temptations bandmate David Ruffin. While his brother was experiencing success with hits like ‘The Tracks of My Tears,’ brother Jimmy convinced three Motown writers, Jimmy Dean, Paul Riser, and William Witherspoon, to let him take a crack at recording their new song ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.’ The poignant ballad focuses on trying to find life after a hard breakup.
Related: Check out more songs with questions in the title.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours – Stevie Wonder
One of Motown’s classic “feel-good” love songs, Stevie Wonder’s soulful ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’ was released in 1970. The tune lightheartedly follows a guy trying to convince his girl to take him back after he’s been away for some time. Motown songwriting giant Paul Riser had a hand in arranging the hit while Wonder was recording it in the studio.
Related: This song made it to our list of iconic love songs.
You Can’t Hurry Love – The Supremes
The hit song ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ kicked off a slew of chart-toppers for the singing group The Supremes. It’s a fun, upbeat tune about understanding the age-old saying, “good things come to those who wait,” and was based on an old gospel hymn titled ‘You Can’t Hurry God.’ Popular artists who went on to cover the classic include Phil Collins and country trio The Chicks.
Related: Waiting for someone? Here are the best songs about patience.
This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) – The Isley Brothers
Songwriting trio Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland churned out many Motown hits during the genre’s heyday. One of those hits ended up being The Isley Brothers’ song ‘This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You).’ The romantic tune was originally written with the in-demand group The Supremes in mind, but they turned it down. The song ended up being the only hit The Isley Brothers recorded while on a Motown record label (they would go on to form their own label and continue to release music).
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson used their song ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ as a way to break into the Motown scene. Once Tamla Records heard the catchy tune, a bidding war between artists broke out. Dusty Springfield was the first to ask to record it, but the songwriting duo declined. They gave the okay to Marvin Gaye, and the single broke into the top twenty on the charts. Just four years later, the song would climb its way back up the charts after The Supremes released their own version.
Related: Hike over to our playlist of songs about climbing mountains.
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Iconic Motown singer Marvin Gaye had a hand in writing the stirring single ‘What’s Going On’ while on a golfing trip with friends and fellow Motown songwriters. The tune marked the start of Motown hits taking on a more serious nature. Gaye was inspired to write the song after listening to the war stories of his brother, who had served in Vietnam. The What’s Going On album as a whole takes on several socio-political issues, including poverty, the environment, and war.
Related: This song features on our list of top 70s songs.
Someday We’ll Be Together – Diana Ross and The Supremes
Johnny Bristol and Jackey Beavers, two Motown hit songwriters who went by the duo name “Johnny and Jackey,” wrote ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ and gave it to The Supremes to record. The song was recorded on the heels of band leader Diana Ross exiting the group. While the song was technically released as a The Supremes single, it is widely regarded as their last hit single and Ross’s first solo hit single because she was the only one to sing on the recording.
Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
One of Motown’s signature songs and the best performing song for the Four Tops, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There,’ was produced by the go-to team called “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” The trio was responsible for producing some of Motown’s most popular hits. Songwriter/producer Lamont Dozier focused on “a journey of emotions” while penning the tune. To get his point across in the studio, he put vocalist Levi Tubbs at the outer limits of his range for the recording.
Heat Wave – Martha and the Vandellas
An early hit in the Motown years for the “Holland-Dozier-Holland” songwriting trio, singing group Martha and the Vandellas first made waves with ‘Heat Wave’ in 1963 when it went to number one on the Billboard Hot R&B charts. The rocking romantic song finds a woman singing about all the ways her man’s love drives her wild.
Related: Crank up the A/C and enjoy these heatwave songs.
Please Mr. Postman – The Marvelettes
Several Motown legends had a hand in making the ‘Please Mr. Postman’ hit, a song about waiting for a letter from one’s lover. Originally written as a blues standard by William Garrett, Marvelettes member Georgia Dobbins re-wrote it with a more contemporary vibe. The “Holland-Dozier-Holland” trio worked it into “hit-making” material in the studio while a young, 22-year-old Marvin Gaye provided the drum beat.
Money (That’s What I Want) – Barrett Strong
Etched in Motown history is the story of Tamla Records, one of the “Motown” sound’s most successful labels. Performer Barrett Strong released ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ in 1959 and used the single’s rapid success to fund his next project, the creation of Tamla Records. The label started doing so well in the ’60s that he jokingly referred to Tamla as “Motown Records,” and the name stuck. While running the label, he collaborated with other songwriters and had a hand in many other hits like ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine.’
Related: Count your cash and listen to these making money songs.
My Girl – The Temptations
Two members of Motown vocal group The Miracles, Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, wrote ‘My Girl’ while performing at the Apollo Theatre for a tour where they shared billing with The Temptations. The song was written from a universal male perspective on being in love. One year before writing ‘My Girl,’ Smokey Robinson wrote ‘My Guy’ for singer Mary Wells. The popular tune is known as the female version of Temptations’ hit, ‘My Girl.’
Related: See more great songs with the word girl in the title.
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
Written by Motown legends Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland, ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ was released as The Temptations’ second single off their 1966 Gettin’ Ready album. After the massive success of the single, Normal Whitfield became the group’s go-to producer. The tune focuses on a man begging his girl not to leave him, confessing he’ll do anything to win her love again.
Dancing in the Street – Martha and the Vandellas
Songwriter Mickey Stevenson co-wrote this Motown classic with soul icon Marvin Gaye. While riding through Detroit one summer day, the two noticed groups of kids having fun playing in the water, let out by open fire hydrants. This served as the initial inspiration for ‘Dancing in the Street.’ When Martha and the Vandellas released it as a single in 1964, the song would become a signature tune for the civil rights movement.
Related: Find this song on our list of songs that make you dance.
Fingertips – Stevie Wonder
When Stevie Wonder was 13 years old, he released the hit debut single ‘Fingertips’ on Tamla Records. Appropriately known in 1963 as “Little Stevie Wonder,” his debut single ultimately became his first hit song. Originally written as a jazz standard meant to highlight Wonder’s instrumental abilities, it eventually turned into a Motown classic as he performed it live over and over again.
Uptight (Everything’s Alright) – Stevie Wonder
Singer and piano impresario Stevie Wonder enjoyed a slew of hits in the ’60s, and ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ was one of them. The tune marked the first release young Stevie Wonder helped write. Tamla Records producers marveled at the then-teenager’s precocious musical abilities. At the tender age of 9, Wonder taught himself to play piano, harmonica, and drums.
Related: This song is on our playlist of groovy 60’s music.
Baby Love – The Supremes
When Motown hit-maker Lamont Dozier wrote ‘Baby Love,’ he had his first love in mind, who he never quite recovered from. The wistful, romantic tune with a hint of yearning in the vocal production would become one of the Supremes’ 14 top ten hits on the charts. The production crew added live hand claps and stomps during the recording process to give the song a unique percussive sound. This technique became integral to The Surpremes’ early recordings and would become a popular technique in Motown records.
Related: Enjoy more songs with the word baby in the lyrics.
I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
The first single for brothers The Jackson 5 released on Motown Records went straight to number one in 1969. At the time, frontman Michael Jackson was only 11 years old. ‘I Want You Back’ tells the classic story of a guy trying to win over a girl who’s left him due to his mistreatment of her.
Related: Listen to more music from Guardians of the Galaxy.
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops
Even though songwriting team Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland spent a lot of their time writing chart-topping hits for The Supremes, they ended up giving their tune ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ to the popular vocal group The Four Tops. Dozier, a very lyrically-driven songwriter, drew inspiration for the song’s chorus from the nicknames his grandfather used to use with women.
Related: Sweet! Here are some more songs with the word sugar.
Got to Give It Up – Marvin Gaye
One of soul music titan Marvin Gaye’s most popular recordings is of a song he didn’t want to release. Though he wrote the lyrics for ‘Got to Give It Up,’ he felt it was an inauthentic jump to disco from his tried-and-true Motown sound. By the time he wrote the single, the R&B/soul fusion known as the “Motown” era was coming to a close, and disco was the name of the game. Despite his reluctance, fans embraced the song that is now considered one of the best disco tracks of all time.
Related: Dance to more music from Boogie Nights.
Upside Down – Diana Ross
R&B/soul duo Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) wrote ‘Upside Down’ in the late ’70s, and Diana Ross released the disco track on Motown Records in 1980. The international hit was featured on the last album Ross would record with Motown Records. Following the release of her 1980 album, Diana, she moved on to RCA Records due to creative differences.
Cruisin’ – Smokey Robinson
In 1979, Smokey Robinson’s solo effort ‘Cruisin’ topped both pop and soul charts. Though Robinson released the single as a solo artist, a member of his former group, The Miracles, Marv Tarplin, helped him write the song. During the recording process for ‘Cruisin’,’ Robinson was battling a cold while laying down vocal tracks. Clearly, a stuffy nose can’t stop the infectious nature of the “Motown sound!”
ABC – The Jackson 5
This innocent song focused on young love was a perfect fit for 11-year-old Michael Jackson to sing in 1970 with his group’s release of ‘ABC.’ The Jackson 5 would enjoy a string of hits in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘I’ll Be There.’
Nightshift – The Commodores
Soul singer Lionel Ritchie headed up R&B/pop band The Commodores, and their popular tune ‘Nightshift’ was a tribute to two fallen Motown stars, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. Written with the same concept as the song ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ by the Righteous Brothers, the vocal group sings about Gaye and Wilson pulling the “nightshift” in heaven, singing their favorite tunes.
Needle in a Haystack – The Velvelettes
Though Motown Records group The Velvelettes didn’t stay together long, they left their mark with their hit song ‘Needle in a Haystack’ produced by Norman Whitfield. The all-girl group was signed to Motown in the early ’60s and did extra vocal work for other Motown artists while releasing their own tracks. By the mid-’70s, many of the members chose to raise their families full time and took a break from the music industry.
Related: Look no further! Here are the best songs about searching for someone.
This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) – The Isley Brothers
During their brief stint with Motown Records in 1966, The Isley Brothers released the hit song ‘This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),’ written by songwriting trio “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” Their time with Motown Records didn’t last long, and the vocal group formed their own label, T Neck, in 1969. In 1975, pop singer Rod Stewart recorded a popular cover version of this Isley Brothers classic hit.
Two Lovers – Mary Wells
Smokey Robinson and Mary Wells paired up for this cheeky co-write featuring a woman unabashedly declaring she has more than one beau. ‘Two Lovers’ ended up being Wells’ most successful single. The two also paired up to write other songs, including ‘The One Who Really Loves You’ and ‘You Beat Me to the Punch.’
Super Freak – Rick James
The Temptations sang backup on Rick James’ funky ’70s hit ‘Super Freak,’ released on Motown Records. James even has a familial connection to the Motown vocal group; bandmate Melvin Franklin is James’ uncle. The tune features James singing about sexually adventurous women, which he was well-known for pursuing in his wild younger days.
Related: This song is on our playlist of the best disco songs.
War – Edwin Starr
A Motown classic that packed a big punch, Edwin Starr’s groovy hit ‘War’ is an in-your-face protest song released during the unsettled years of the Vietnam War conflict. Along with Marvin Gaye and The Temptations, this became one of Motown Record’s early protest songs featuring a socio-political slant.
Related: Head over to our anti war songs playlist.
If I Were Your Woman – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Female songwriters Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones found themselves in the middle of the women’s movement in the 1970s as they worked on writing hits for Motown singers. The two wrote ‘If I Were Your Woman’ over lunch, discussing the difficulties that independent, successful women face while trying to be in romantic relationships. Producer Norman Whitfield knew the song had hit potential when he heard it and chose Gladys Knight and The Pips to record it.
Easy – The Commodores
Though the Lionel-Ritchie-penned tune ‘Easy’ is often mistaken as a light-hearted love song, he actually wrote it about feeling lighter after an intense breakup. This hit proved to have cross-over power for the Commodores, and they went from being a fringe R&B/funk group to a mainstream contemporary pop act.
Related: Spend the day relaxing with our Sunday songs list.
He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ – The Velvelettes
The flirtatious hit, ‘He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,’ was one of The Velvelettes’ favorite tracks to record. It appeared on their self-titled 1967 album and again on a greatest hits compilation album. The song features a girl falling for a guy who comes up and talks to her on the street while she’s walking home.
You Really Got a Hold on Me – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Band leader Smokey Robinson wrote the breezy hit ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ while thinking about a guy trying to win his girl back after not paying her much attention. He used inspiration as he penned the tune from soul singer Sam Cooke’s single ‘Bring It On Home.’ Robinson got to be buddies with Cooke because Cooke would sometimes perform with his band at Robinson’s church in the early days.