The 50 best and essential songs from the Detroit era


As the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA TODAY Network explore the stories, places and people who helped make music what it is today in our expansive series, Hallowed Sound.

Motown Records’ creative ingenuity and commercial prowess made it a hit machine, one that’s still chugging along today — indeed, a list of Motown classics could fill a book. For now, here are 50 essential singles from Motown’s Detroit era, defined as 1959-1972, as selected by the Detroit Free Press and its readers to commemorate the label’s 50th anniversary.

Playlist: Click here to listen to these songs and more on Spotify

‘ABC’ 
11. The Jackson 5     • Spotify followers:  6,683,199     • Facebook likes:  1,166,063     • Most popular album:   Third Album In 1970, the singing group from Gary, Indiana, led by entertainment wunderkind Michael Jackson, became the first group to debut with four consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Fusing funky pop with a smooth, highly produced Motown sound, they had four chart-topping singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and six albums reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200.

11. The Jackson 5 • Spotify followers: 6,683,199 • Facebook likes: 1,166,063 …
11. The Jackson 5 • Spotify followers: 6,683,199 • Facebook likes: 1,166,063 • Most popular album: Third Album In 1970, the singing group from Gary, Indiana, led by entertainment wunderkind Michael Jackson, became the first group to debut with four consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Fusing funky pop with a smooth, highly produced Motown sound, they had four chart-topping singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and six albums reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200. “Triumph” was one of their three platinum albums.
Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

A piece of sweet soul bubblegum from Michael Jackson and his brothers gave them a second No. 1 hit.

‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ 

Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s composition proved versatile enough to soar in three very different sets of hands: first as an ebullient duet by Gaye and Terrell, then as a simmering epic, complete with spoken-word passages, from Ross three years later.

‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ 
This is an undated photo of soul singer Marvin Gaye in New York City.

This is an undated photo of soul singer Marvin Gaye in New York City.
AP

Gaye snagged his second million-seller with this Miracles-penned bit of infectious melancholy, topped by Marv Tarplin’s guitar and Smokey Robinson’s clever lyric.

‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’
The Temptations singing group. From left are; Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Glenn Leonard. Back row from left, Richard Street and Dennis Edwards.

The Temptations singing group. From left are; Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Glenn Leonard. Back row from left, Richard Street and Dennis Edwards.
Lennox McLendon, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Yeah, so what man wouldn’t beg if he could do it with David Ruffin’s raspy tenor? 

‘Ask the Lonely’

Almost operatic in scope, packed with strings and grand flourishes, this sophomore Four Tops hit is an anthem for the heartsick.

‘Baby I Need Your Loving’

Recorded at 2 a.m. after a gig at Detroit’s 20 Grand club, “Baby” made for one heck of a sleeper breakthrough.

‘Baby Love’
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes.

Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes.
Tony Spina, Detroit Free Press

Been missin’ ya, miss kissin’ ya … Ahhh, yes … Diana Ross coos her way into the world’s arms.

‘Back in My Arms Again’

The Supremes scored five consecutive No. 1 hits in ’64-’65. This warm tribute to reunited love was the fifth.

‘Bernadette’
The Four Tops performing in Detroit on Feb. 13, 1973.

The Four Tops performing in Detroit on Feb. 13, 1973.
Bob Scott/Detroit Free Press

The veteran R&B quartet scored again thanks to an iconic bass line from James Jamerson and reliably ear-grabbing lead vocal from Levi Stubbs.

‘Come See About Me’ 

In the heat of Motown’s pressure cooker, Lamont Dozier hurriedly but masterfully penned this mid-tempo classic under pressure to follow up the Supremes’ first hit (“Where Did Our Love Go”).

‘Dancing in the Street’

Hear that tambourine mixed high on the second and fourth beats? The horns, guitars and piano congested in the middle? The limber bass bouncing around below like a pinball? That’s the Motown sound.

‘Do You Love Me’

Frat-party R&B, Motown style. The single peaked at No. 3 upon its initial release, and nearly cracked the Top 10 again when it was reissued as part of 1988’s “More Dirty Dancing” soundtrack.

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