by Robert Seoane


1961 was a formative year for Motown Records. Founder Berry Gordy spent much of his time in Detroit’s nightclubs and talent shows in search of young, up and coming musical artists to record. He saw his record label as a Hit Factory and called it such, where rookie artists would be transformed into pop superstars through classes covering everything from etiquette and poise to dancing and vocal training. They were all fitted in suits and gowns and made to look polished and cool. Once they underwent the transformation, they would record incredible songs written by Motown’s stable of brilliant songwriters, and backing up their releases with touring and TV appearances on programs like American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, the only television outlets for rock ‘n’ roll at the time, and performing in synchronized dance moves, perfect harmonies and serious threads.

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records

Gordy’s Hit Factory would prove to be just that. By 1966, Motown would have three to five singles in the Pop & R&B Top Ten for several weeks at a time and always had new singles climbing the charts getting ready to replace them. By the end of the decade, Motown was not only responsible for many of the most beautiful pop songs of all time, but also developed legendary musical stars that in time would become pop culture icons. Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson… names that will forever be remembered as some of the best musical talent ever produced during the 20th Century.



The record label was on sure footing as 1961 dawned, having just had their first Top Ten hit the previous year with The Miracles’ single “Shop Around”, reaching Number Two Pop. It proved to be so popular that it was re-released again in early ’61.

In June of ‘61, the Miracles released their first album, titled “Hi… We’re The Miracles”. It was also the first album ever released by Motown. It received good reviews and was a largely influential work to the formation of the nascent Sixties R&B/Pop Motown sound.

Four other singles were released in 1961 by the Miracles that would also be included in their second and third albums but none of them achieved very high chart success, with only a song called “What’s So Good About Goodbye” being the only one to crack the Top Forty that year, climbing to Number 35. Their best music was still to come.

Despite its lackluster chart success, “WSGAG” served as an inspirational muse to the Beatles, who wrote “Ask Me Why” for their 1963 debut album “Please Please Me”, patterning their composition to the Miracles song.

It was the Miracles’ lead singer Smokey Robinson who wrote “Shop Around” and would continue to write hits for his group throughout the Sixties like “Going to a Go-Go” “The Tracks Of My Tears” “Ooh Baby, Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”, “I Second That Emotion” and “Tears of a Clown”, ultimately recording 26 Top Forty hits with the Miracles through the rest of the decade. As the Motown artist roster grew, Smokey wrote compositions for many of them, such as “My Guy” for Mary Wells, “My Girl”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “Get Ready” for The Temptations, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye and many more. During most of the Sixties, Smokey Robinson was Motown’s main songwriter and would ultimately become the record label’s Vice-President. Berry Gordy’s legacy is inextricably intertwined with the talent of Smokey Robinson.



Mary Esther Wells

During one of Berry Gordy’s talent seeking forays through Detroit nightclubs, a 17-year-old girl named Mary Esther Wells was performing at the Twenty Grand Club when she spotted the young mogul. Mary was a fan of singer Jackie Wilson and she knew Berry Gordy had written songs for him, like one of Wilson’s biggest hits “Lonely Teardrops”. She also knew that Gordy was apt to drop into the Twenty Grand from time to time, so she had written a song for Wilson that she wanted to present to Gordy for whenever he came in. She must have blessed her luck when she saw him and built up the nerve to approach him and pitch her self-penned song, “Bye Bye Baby”. What she didn’t know was that Berry had severed his ties with Wilson’s manager in order to start his own label, so he no longer wrote for him. But Berry liked her singing, so he suggested that she record it herself for his subsidiary label, Tamla. Gordy was one of the first record moguls who came up with the idea of having more than one record label. DJs of the day would not play too many songs from the same label. To get around that, simply create a new label with another name.

Mary Wells was a smart, talented girl despite her struggle as a child. Born to an absentee father and a mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Mary contracted spinal meningitis when she was two years old and had to struggle with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. Once she recovered, she had to learn to walk again as her sight and hearing were gradually restored. By the time she was 12 years old, Mary joined her mother cleaning homes just to put food on the table.

“Misery is Detroit linoleum in January—with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span.” –Mary Wells

Having graduated from Detroit’s Northwestern High School at age 17, Mary at first wanted to be a scientist, but music was really her first love. She sang in church choirs as a child and as soon as she graduated from high school, found work singing in local Detroit nightclubs like the Twenty Grand Club.


Berry Gordy recorded and produced Mary Wells’ first self-penned song in late 1960, releasing it in time for the Christmas season. He had her perform it in the studio over twenty-six times before he settled on a take he liked. There were only four lines of the lyric she had written so far when she walked into the studio so she expanded on the words as they recorded. It was released in December 1960 and peaked at Number Eight in Billboard’s R&B chart and Number 45 Pop. Being Motown’s first recorded release from a female singer, Wells was to become known as the Queen of Motown.

Her interpretation of “Bye Bye Baby” is a more full-throated performance than her subsequent records. You can practically hear Jackie Wilson blowing the roof off if he had ever recorded it. It’s a classically Sixties-produced rockin’ blues number that oozes feeling and soul. Wells is giving it her all, betraying a slightly rough, scratchy voice, obviously acquired after so many takes, that adds truthful grittiness to the song.


Her second single, released in early 1961, did better than her debut, cracking the Top Forty Pop Billboard chart by climbing up to Number 33. Gordy apparently gave her voice a chance to rest this time because gone is the raspiness of “Bye Bye Baby”. It’s not as much of a soulful tune but still retains the authentic Motown sound being developed with each record release. Gordy wrote this one for her along with William “Mickey” Stevenson.

Mickey Stevenson had been with Gordy and Motown since 1959, only months after it was first founded. He headed the A&R Department during Motown’s biggest years until he left to work for MGM in 1967. Among his accomplishments while at Motown was forming an in-house studio band to provide back-up for recordings, dubbing the group of musicians the Funk Brothers. He co-wrote and produced classics such as “Dancing In The Street” for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” for Stevie Wonder, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” for Marvin Gaye and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” for Jimmy Ruffin.


Mary Wells’ third single was also co-written by Stevenson, this time with George Gordy, Berry’s brother. The song fell short of good, being just a slow, plaintive ballad with not a very memorable melody.

Released in mid-1961, it failed to enter the Top One Hundred, frustrating Berry Gordy’s ambitions to make her a star. Focusing on a Number One hit, Gordy asked Smokey to write something for her. They took the rest of 1961 to re-think, re-polish and re-introduce Mary to the public for 1962, with a trio of singles that would lift her into the Top Ten.

Hitsville USA is now the Motown Museum

Hitsville USA was the name of Motown headquarters, housing its administrative offices and recording studios. It was literally a converted house that Gordy bought in 1959, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Within seven years, Gordy will have purchased seven more houses in the neighborhood for his record company.

Gordy and his family lived in the second floor while the first floor was abuzz with young, eager musicians either working or just hanging out in the hopes that they’d have an opportunity to audition or, better yet… record a single. It was opened 22 hours a day, closing from 8 to 10AM for maintenance. Martha Reeves was Motown’s receptionist in 1961. Outside Hitsville USA, in its neatly manicured lawn, artists would lounge around tossing a football, harmonizing or just getting to know one another.

In the meantime, other Motown artists were kept busy recording singles for release throughout 1961 such as Jimmy Ruffin, The Contours and Barrett Strong, who all released songs to middling success that year. Lesser artists were also being groomed that never really took off, with names like the Satintones, Littla Iva & her Band, Henry Lumpkin, Debbie Dean, The Golden Harmoneers, The Twistin’ Kings and Popcorn & the Mohawks. All of them attempted to swim but ultimately sunk into oblivion. There were however, a handful of other artists already being groomed in 1961 that would take Motown up to the highest reaches of success.



Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. to Alberta Gay (née Cooper), a mother who was a domestic worker and, Rev. Marvin Gay, Sr., a father who was a total asshole masquerading as a church minister. Being one of six children, Gaye suffered severe beatings from his father from age seven and well into his teen years. As he grew up, his father took to throwing the teenager out of the house, all for the most trivial of reasons. Marvin admitted in later years that he would have killed himself if it wasn’t for his mother’s consolation. Music was also a soothing balm for the boy, singing in the choir of his father’s church since he was three and developing a lasting love for music, ultimately mastering the piano and the drums as a child.

Gaye’s relationship with his father never fully evolved, even during his success as a pop singer. It tragically culminated on April 1st in 1984 when Marvin intervened in an argument between his mother and father. As Marvin consoled his mother, his father shot him to death at point blank range, once in the shoulder and once in the heart. Marvin Gaye would only get to live 44 years.


After being discharged from the United Sates Air Force at age 17 for not following orders according to his sergeant, young Marvin set out to form a vocal quartet called the Marquees with his best friend Reese Palmer. Marvin didn’t like the military and later admitted to have faked mental illness to get out. Focusing on his love of music through his newly formed group, the Marquees enjoyed relative success working in local clubs throughout the D.C. area with Bo Diddley, ultimately recording their one and only single “Wyatt Earp” for Okeh Records, a fun doo-wop novelty song with all kinds of amusing vocalizations and a pretty tasty little guitar solo.

Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows heard “Wyatt Earp” and hired them based on that recording to replace his group, re-naming them the New Moonglows. They also received steady work as session singers, recording back-up on Chuck Berry classics such as “Back In The USA” and “Almost Grown”.

The group was short-lived however. They disbanded in 1960 and Marvin signed a solo contract with Fuqua. Together, they moved to Detroit where Fuqua was able to get him a job as a session musician at Tri-Phi Records. That December, Fuqua and Gaye were invited to a party at Motown’s Hitsville USA studios. Gaye was introduced to Gordy. As the evening wore on, Gaye loosened up and sat at the piano. Gordy was impressed at his prowess on the keys. Approaching Fuqua, he offered to buy Gaye’s contract from him. In the end, Fuqua astutely agreed to sell Gordy only part of his interest. By the dawn of 1961, Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname, primarily to distance himself from his father, and signed with Motown’s subsidiary, Tamla.

Like all great artists, most of them stubbornly know what they want. Gaye had a distinct vision of how he wanted to be perceived that Berry Gordy did not share. Gaye wanted to be an adult alternative to the youthful market that Motown was catering to. It caused friction between artist and producer, the first of many future battles with the headstrong Marvin. Gaye wanted his debut to sound like a “Frank Sinatra-styled pop album”, pointing to his own heroes, Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles as examples of pop artists with an adult oriented, mellow sound, but Gordy wanted him to record R&B. Ultimately, they compromised and produced “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” as the artist’s LP debut, with an assortment of Broadway and jazz tunes, plus three R&B songs tacked on to appease Gordy. It was released on June 8, 1961 and would be the second album to be ever released by Motown after The Miracles’ debut album just a few days before.


Marvin Gaye’s debut single was exactly the style the singer wanted to sing in and Berry Gordy was probably shaking his head in despair. It isn’t a very exciting debut for an artist who would go on to become a musical legend.

Rooted in gospel blues, “LYCBYG” gets under your skin after repeated play, until you realize how incredibly awesome this song really is. It’s a precursor to the Marvin Gaye that would record the smoldering seductions of “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing”.

The record was released on May 25, 1961, a few weeks before the release of the aforementioned album that contained it. It was a local hit in the Detroit area but it didn’t enter any of the U.S. Billboard charts. It would still be a year before Marvin Gaye would start recording the hit singles that would launch his career.



The origin of the five Temptations sprouted from two different vocal groups. All five members of the vocal quintet ultimately met in Detroit, but each of them were born in southern towns before moving to the Motor City at various times of their lives.


Otis Miles, Jr
. was born in Texarkana, Kansas to Otis Miles and Hazel Louise Williams. His mother left for Detroit, Michigan to get married, leaving her son behind to be raised by both his grandmothers. When Otis was ten, Hazel asked for her son to come live with her and his stepfather in Detroit, which he unhesitatingly agreed to do. As he grew up there, Otis developed an interest in music and singing, until during his high school days he decided to form a musical group with himself as the lead singer. He took his mother’s maiden name for his stage name, enlisted his high school mates Elbridge “Al” Bryant and baritone Melvin Franklin and called his group Otis Williams and the Siberians. Together, they developed their act and sang at high school dances, talent shows and street corners.


During one particular talent show they were competing in, after their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews changed their name to Otis Williams and the Distants, one of their competitors were a new musical trio that had recently arrived into Detroit from Birmingham, Alabama. They were Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Kell Osborne, also known as the Primes. With them were Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diane Ross, who also went by Diana, as it was mistakenly written that way on her birth certificate. That trio would go on to become one of the biggest girl groups of all time as the Supremes. They had been discovered by Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins after having met them through Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who both had met Ballard in 1958. Jenkins envisioned them as a sister group to the Primes so he called them the Primettes.

Otis Williams observed the Primes onstage that night and was blown away by Eddie’s tenor vocal and the precision dancing of Paul Williams and Kell Osborne as they sang back-up. Otis realized just by watching them that his own group could use more of the Primes’ professional polish.

The musical bug bit both Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks when they were fifteen and they formed a doo-wop quartet in 1955 called the Cavaliers with two other schoolmates, Kell Osborne and Willy Waller. Waller left the group in 1957, turning the Cavaliers into a trio. The three left Birmingham in 1958 for Cleveland, Ohio to make it in the music business. There, they met their future manager, Milton Jenkins, who convinced them to move to Detroit. Once they moved, Jenkins suggested they change their name to the Primes.

It was during one of those talent shows in Detroit when, freshly dropped by their manager Johnnie Mae Matthews, Otis Williams and the Distants got their golden opportunity. Both Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were in attendance the night they performed. After the show, Otis managed to meet Gordy, who told him he had enjoyed their performance and agreed to hear them audition at Motown. Otis and Melvin Franklin were ecstatic, but two other members, Mooch Harrell and Richard Street, wanted to leave the group, particularly because when Matthews dropped them, she also kept their name, so they no longer had permission to use it. The two saw it as the end of their union and left Williams, Franklin and Al Bryant in need of some new members just before the Motown audition.

A stroke of luck towards the forming of a future super group occurred when the Primes broke up at around the same time Otis and his group were splintering. Kell Osborne had decided to pack it in and return to Birmingham. Eddie and Paul now found themselves a member short. Williams and Franklin heard of their break up and contacted Kendricks, asking him if he would like to join their still-unnamed group. Eddie agreed, but under the condition that Paul Williams could also join them. The newly formed group now consisted of Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin, formerly of the Distants, with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, formerly of the Primes. Together, they renamed themselves the Elgins.


The Elgins’ audition was scheduled for March, 1961. The five had been rehearsing every day for that moment since they agreed to join forces, incorporating Paul Williams’ unique dance moves into their performance, complete with hand gestures to convey the lyrics. Their dancing style would become a precursor to the moves of many subsequent artists, and not just with Motown. In this classic style, the lead singer is up front and the two or three background vocalists are either to the lead’s right or left, doing a carefully choreographed set of moves as they sing background. Sometimes they all stood shoulder to shoulder, their hands crossed behind them, and suddenly go into a synchronized choreography. Their moves were thrilling, sexy, witty and precise.


After the audition, Gordy readily agreed to sign them to a record contract for one of his Motown labels, Miracle Records. There was one minor problem, however. Gordy had discovered that the name “Elgins” was already being used by another local group. They were told to come up with a new name, so the five sat down on the front porch steps of Hitsville USA to think up a new name for themselves. After a while, they got up and returned inside, going over to Gordy’s office to announce the name for their group, The Temptations.


The quintet’s debut single was written by Otis Williams and Motown songwriter Mickey Robinson. Otis agreed to give the song to Paul Williams to sing lead while tenor Eddie Kendricks handled the bridge. The back-up musicians were Motown’s session band, the Funk Brothers. The song showcased their vocal chops but not much more. It was released in the dead of summer, July 1961, and couldn’t manage to crack Billboard’s Hot 100.


Their second single release didn’t do much better. This one was co-written by Berry Gordy with Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Al Bryant. The song starts like the “Ten Commandments of Love”, where one of the band members, in this case Franklin, speaks the line that Otis Williams echoes singing it. It then shifts into a a rumba-tinged pop beat with Paul Williams carrying the rest of the tune.

“Check Yourself” was released on November 7, 1961 and also suffered from poor sales. Gordy decided to dissolve the short-lived Miracle record label he had launched as a result. It seems that the public was confusing the name of the label with the group, the Miracles. Also, their slogan, “If it’s a hit, it’s a Miracle” didn’t help sales any.

By the end of 1961, Gordy will have founded another label imprint, Gordy Records, to release songs by the Temptations and other groups. Gordy’s knack for opening numerous subsidiary labels was a clever one indeed. It gave his groups an easier conduit into the public radio waves. By 1962, the Temptations would start to place records on the pop and R&B Top Forty charts, thanks largely to Gordy’s different labels. It was a positive step forward into their illustrious career.

The Temptations enjoyed moments of fame and success that not many people ever get to experience. But when you aim high, the fall also becomes much greater and the Temptations were not immune to this. The group splintered slowly over the years. Al Bryant quit in 1964, right before they got their first Top Ten hit, and was replaced with David Ruffin. Ruffin got too big for his britches, wanting lead billing over the rest of the Temptations, and was ultimately fired in 1968 for missing too many dates due to his growing drug addiction. He would later die of a cocaine overdose at age fifty in 1991. Paul Williams succumbed to alcoholism due to the depression he developed because of having sickle-cell anemia. His drinking ultimately led to his inability to perform. He was replaced by Richard Street in 1971 but still got paid his one-fifth share of the earnings. Two years later, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-four following an argument with his girlfriend, and was found with a shot to the head in his car parked in a back alley. Both Melvin Franklin and Eddie Kendricks died at the age of fifty-two; the former battled health problems most of his life until February 17, 1995, when he suffered a series of seizures that left him in a coma, only to die six days later. The latter had succumbed to cancer on October 5th, 1992.

As of the writing of this in 2016, 74-year-old Otis Williams remains the only surviving member of the original Temptations.

But at the pinnacle of their career, they left us with unforgettable music like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “(You Know) I’m Losing You”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Cloud Nine”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” with the Supremes, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Can’t Get Next To You”, “Ball Of Confusion”, “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”; songs that will live on for decades, if not centuries to come, and video recordings of their TV performances that will forever serve as a historic glimpse into the sound of Sixties R&B, defined in large part by Motown.


Florence Glenda Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ernestine Earle Ross, who went by the name Diane, the name her mother intended to give her at birth until a typo on her birth certificate changed that notion, all grew up together in the Brewster-Douglass public housing project in Detroit, owned by the city and built for “working poor” families, requiring at least one parent be employed in order to live there.

Each of the girls had good singing voices. Flo took vocal lessons while going to Northeastern High School. She met fellow schoolmate Mary, who had a lower vocal range than the other two, at the school’s talent show where they became good friends. Mary in turn knew Diane, who went to Cass Technical High School, a college preparatory charter school that specialized in design. Young Diane was all set on becoming a fashion designer after graduation, indifferent to her vocal talent, a voice that would stop Berry Gordy on his tracks when the trio came over to audition for Motown.

The career of the Supremes was closely intertwined with that of the Temptations during the beginning of their careers. They practically opened and closed the decade of the Sixties together with multiple hits as well. It all started in 1958 when fifteen-year-old Florence Ballard met Temptations’ members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams when they were still known as the Primes. The Primes’ manager Milton Jenkins had heard Flo and Paul Williams’ girlfriend, Betty McGlown, sing. It inspired him to form a sister band for the Primes. In 1959, Flo enlisted her friend Mary. Both Paul Williams and Mary knew Diane so she was also asked to join. Paul’s girlfriend Betty rounded out the group to a quartet and Jenkins dubbed them the Primettes.

The Primettes would perform Ray Charles and Drifters songs at talent shows and sock hops, all of them taking turns as lead singer, as well as joining the Primes for several numbers. Coincidentally enough, Diane had grown up next door to Smokey Robinson before moving to the projects, on Belmont Road in the North End section of Detroit near Highland Park. Diane approached Smokey for the Primettes and invited him to a talent show in Winslow, Ontario so he could hear them and then decide whether they should audition for Motown. Sure enough, after the performance Smokey arranged an audition with Gordy for the girls to sing a capella.

“All three girls had qualities so unique I’d often think: ‘If they could make us feel the way we do, what could they do to the world at large?’ –“To Be Loved”, Berry Gordy’s autobiography

Berry was impressed with their harmonies but most of all with Diane’s voice. On the day of their audition in early 1960, the girls were practicing while they waited for his arrival. Diane was singing lead on “There Goes My Baby” when Berry heard them. Her voice “stopped him on his tracks” as he put it. Gordy found Diane’s voice to have crossover potential. To make sure, he asked the girls to sing it again. After they finished, Gordy asked their age. Each of them were fifteen except for Betty who was two years older. Gordy didn’t like the idea of working with minors so he asked them to come back when they graduated high school.


Undaunted, they managed to record a single for a tiny, newly formed record label called Lupine Records in March 1960. Unfortunately, the single that contained “Tears of Sorrow” and “Pretty Baby” as its b-side went nowhere on the charts.

Released in August 1960, Diane takes the lead vocal duties on the A-side for the Primettes’ first and only record single. Flo takes over as lead vocalist for the b-side, “Pretty Baby”. The songs have nothing special about them, but Diane, Flo and Mary remained committed to succeed. Betty McGlown however, left the group after the single’s dismal debut, having broken up with Paul Williams and becoming engaged to someone else, looking forward to life as a housewife. She was soon replaced by Barbara Martin.

Determined to get Gordy to at least let them record background vocals or even hand claps for other artists’ recordings, the four girls would camp out every day after school on the lawn of Hitsville U.S.A. Eventually, they got in through the door and did background work for singles by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. The girls became endearing to Gordy, who appreciated not only their eagerness to record but also their lovely voices. On January 15, 1961, Gordy relented despite their young age and offered the girls a recording contract, but first he insisted that they change the name of their group. He gave Flo, the unofficial leader of the group, a list of names to choose from; names like the Darleens, the Sweet Ps and the Melodees. She chose the Supremes. Diane didn’t like the name at first because she thought it sounded too much like a moniker for a male singing group, but she ultimately agreed.


Recorded in December of 1960 and released on March 9th, 1961, the girls’ first single as the Supremes was written by Berry Gordy and Motown songwriters Freddie Gorman and Eddie Holland. Gorman was going to enjoy success as a songwriter with another single released later that year recorded by the Marvellettes called “Please Mr. Postman”. This song would also be the first of many singles written for the Supremes by Eddie Holland and his future songwriting team, his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier. Still going by the name Diane Ross, she once again takes over the lead vocals.

Much to their disappointment, this record also did not enter the Billboard chart. Just like their previous release as the Primettes, the song also has an old-fashioned doo-wop sound to it, rooted more in the Fifties than offering something different for the new decade.


Gordy was willing to experiment with the group in order to find the formula that would take them over the top, so he took a few months to write the next song for them. Co-written with Motown songwriter Barney Ales, “Buttered Popcorn”, had a thinly disguised allusion to sex running through the lyrics

“And I asked him, ‘What was happenin’ in the world today?’ He said, “more butter, more butter, more butter, more”. My baby likes (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn), oh yeah, oh he likes it salty (buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn) and greasy and sticky and gooey (Buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn, buttered popcorn)…” Buttered Popcorn – The Supremes

Berry Gordy would present all the recordings that were made each week by their various artists and run them through the Quality Control department. There, they would take a vote as to which songs they thought would be a success. “Buttered Popcorn” received a resounding thumbs-up from Quality Control, but Gordy wasn’t convinced, mainly because he felt that Florence Ballard, who sings the lead in this single for the first and only time in the trio’s history, had a voice that was too soulful for crossover appeal, unlike Diane’s voice, that couldn’t be pegged as coming from an African-American. Gordy wanted to release a song written by Smokey Robinson called “Who’s Loving You”, sung by Diane, as the A-side of the single instead.



“Who’s Loving You” had already been recorded by Robinson with his group the Miracles the previous year, and would also be recorded not only by the Supremes but also the Temptations and many more non-Motown artists over the years, from Terence Trent Darby to Michael Bublé to the Jackson Five who had the most success with it. Twelve-year-old singer Shaheen Jafargholi also performed the song at Michael Jackson’s public memorial service in July 2009. It’s a slow doo-wop ballad with a nice enough melody but didn’t necessarily have an unforgettable appeal. As Berry Gordy would ask in many Quality Control meetings when rating a new recording: “If you were on your last dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?” Personally, after listening to this song, I’ll go for a roast beef and swiss on whole wheat.

Berry Gordy was certainly correct about the appeal of Ross’ voice to the crossover public, namely the white folks. As for whether “Who’s Loving You” should have been the A-side of the single instead of “Buttered Popcorn” is a matter of taste. Personally, I side with the guys in Quality Control. Yes, Flo Ballard’s voice is distinctly African-American but it’s also a strong and soulfully melodic one, the melody is instantly catchy and the lyrics are wickedly fun. Soon, this resistance against anything non-white from the general (white) public would erode and disappear, but in 1961, music considered black, race or R&B still had a hard time finding wide national airplay. Popular culture was still years away from accepting a juggernaut voice like Aretha Franklin. Before rock ‘n’ roll there was Ella Fitzgerald who’s perfect voice could not be ignored, but that was pretty much about it when it came to black female pop singers, although the general public didn’t seem to mind male soul vocals as much with Louis Armstrong in the 20s and 30s, Nat “King” Cole in the 40s and 50s and the breakthrough appeal of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” in 1955. But instead of waiting for society to come around, Gordy was smart enough to get in sneakily, not necessarily fooling the public but taking the potential discrimination out of the song by not calling attention to the ethnicity of the voice and focusing on the melody instead. In the long run, it worked.

In the end, Gordy and the QC Department agreed to release the Supremes’ second single as a double A side. What ensued was a disaster of confusing proportions that in the end was all for naught.

Local radio stations in Detroit played both sides of the single regularly, but upon listening to “Buttered Popcorn” on a little tinny AM transistor or car radio (state-of-the-art audio technology for 1961), it sounded muddy. They quickly withdrew the single and re-recorded “BP” only to re-release it. Fortunately, the radio stations continued giving it airplay in Detroit, but it wasn’t taking off nationally. Part of the problem was that the re-released, better recorded version of “Buttered Popcorn” wasn’t being promoted. Someone had pointed out the double entendre of the lyrics and Gordy used this as a reason to promote the b-side instead. In the end, the single never cracked any of the Billboard charts, despite it being a regional hit in various parts of the country.

Two failed singles were a major frustration for Gordy, who believed correctly that these girls had the potential to deliver mega-hits. He made some key changes, starting with Diane’s name. Gordy felt Diana, the name that was incorrectly written on her birth certificate, was a better stage name. He also made the decision to make her the lead singer and relegate the other three to back-up on single releases. This undoubtedly irked the other three, so Gordy promised them that they would have songs to sing lead on their record albums. They would also be given the opportunity to sing lead on a few tunes whenever they were performing a show live.

It would be two long years before they started to even crack the Top Forty. By December of 1961, they were recording tracks for their debut album “Meet The Supremes”, that wouldn’t be released until the end of ’62. Barbara Martin quit after they recorded their next single in early ‘62, leaving the group down to a trio for the rest of their career. It wouldn’t be until 1964 when they finally reached the coveted Number One Pop position with the timeless “Where Did Our Love Go”, which sold two million copies upon its release. Soon, they would be churning out incredible hit after incredible hit, “Baby Love”, Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, “Someday We’ll Be Together”, all written by the songwriting partnership of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They had found their formula.

Today, they are considered the best girl group of all time. Girl groups poured out in the dozens over the decades after the Supremes, culminating with Destiny’s Child, the only other female vocal group worthy of their legacy. During the Sixties, the Supremes were the most popular group in the world after the Beatles and America’s favorite vocal group, with twelve Number One Pop singles, 33 singles in the Pop Top Forty, twelve Top Ten Pop and Five Number One albums. Once they hit Number One with “Where did Our Love Go”, they would go on to hit the top spot four more times in a row with each single release, a record for consecutive Number Ones by an American vocal group. This was an insurmountable feat in the wake of the British Invasion led by the Beatles, also occurring in ’64. The Supremes offered an alternative to British rock ‘n’ roll that fit a huge niche.

Berry Gordy always gave special attention to the Supremes throughout their career. Although they went through the Motown Process, receiving instructions in dance, etiquette and singing, they had already arrived into the Motown fold with their own outfits and dance moves, having been touring and singing as the Primettes already. Rumors abounded over the years suggesting a dalliance between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, a notion that would never be acknowledged until 1994 in Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved”, where he first admits publicly that Ross’ eldest daughter Rhonda is his.

The Supremes remained the same trio until 1967, when Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Flo, who started the trio, had become increasingly resentful at Gordy for having made Diana Ross the main star, and the last straw was when Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ballard resorted to drink and her alcoholism ultimately overcame her, becoming increasingly unreliable, missing live performances or performing drunkenly. Her final appearance live with the Supremes occurred when she unbuttoned her outfit and exposed her stomach to the crowd. She was released by Motown in 1968, married her boyfriend and recorded several unsuccessful albums. On February 20, 1976, she entered the hospital complaining of numbness in her extremities. She died the next morning of coronary thrombosis. Florence Ballard was thirty-two years old.

Intent on making Diana Ross not just a musical artist but a film star as well, she eventually left the Supremes in 1970 and basically sounded the group’s death knell. Ross continued a very successful solo career that extended into the Eighties with hit single after hit single. She also made popular films like “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), where she plays Billie Holliday, and “Mahogany” (1975), in which she sings the title song, taking the single to Number One and receiving an Academy Award nomination.

Mary Wilson continued with the Supremes with Birdsong and Ross’ replacement, Jean Terrell. They had managed to chart seven Top Forty singles and two Top Tens between 1970 and 1973 after Ross’ departure. Mary was now sharing lead vocals with Terrell on some of the songs sung by Diana. But the remaining two positions in the Supremes became a revolving door, with both Birdsong and Terrell leaving and Birdsong temporarily re-joining the group. Despite the group’s waning success, their tours still performed to large crowds, largely due to Mary Wilson being the only remaining original Supreme. Wilson left the group in 1977. After some deliberation about considering a replacement, the Supremes officially disbanded.

Mary Wilson and Diana Ross are still alive as of this writing in 2016, both of them 72 years old. Tragedy befell Wilson in 1994 when she was injured in a car accident where her 14-year-old son Rafael was killed.

Diana Ross continues touring. In 2016 she will be taking her In The Name Of Love tour through the United States and Canada. She received her first ever Grammy Award in 2012 for Lifetime Achievement.



Lula Mae Hardaway’s baby wanted to be born already, even though he was still six weeks away from his expected delivery. Upon birth, he was immediately placed in an oxygen-rich incubator, but to the infant’s tragic detriment, the environment caused the retinas of both his eyes to detach. It was a condition known as retinopathy of pre-maturity, and it meant permanent blindness.

Being born blind and poor pretty much limits one’s options in life, and being black in 20th century America, Saginaw, Michigan to be exact, didn’t help either. Fortunately for Stevland Hardaway Judkins however, besides being born blind, he was also born a musical genius.

Stevie was raised in a loving family and a devoted mother who was wise enough to allow his son to pursue his musical abilities to its limits, teaching him to refuse to allow his blindness to be an obstacle from anything. It’s been said that Stevie’s musical genius has had much to do with his blindness because it forced him to develop keener aural abilities than the average person in order to help him hear his way through the world. That may have something to do with the music of his mind. It seems to come from a mental landscape of his inner world, filled with sounds and rhythms nobody else hears until he distills them into great songs. His hits are many, too numerous to only mention a few because not mentioning others would be an injustice.

When Stevland was four years old, his mother left his father, Calvin Judkins, and moved her six children to Detroit. Lulu detected a good voice in four-year-old Stevie and had him sing at church. As he grew up, he developed an interest and talent in the harmonica, drums and piano. Regardless of whether his blindness caused him to become more finely attuned to sound or not, it was evident to Lulu that little Stevie was a born musician. As a child, he would play his harmonica and sing on street corners with a friend named John.

One of 11-year-old Stevie’s other friends during that time in 1961 was a boy who lived in the neighborhood around his age named Gerald White. White would invite Stevie to his home where the wonder boy would play his harmonica to entertain Gerald and his siblings. Gerald’s uncle Ronnie White, who happened to be co-founder of the group the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, was around one evening when little Stevie was over. When Ronnie heard the kid blowing on his harp, he was blown away. Ronnie and Smokey used to sing together as 11-year-olds, so Ronnie related to children with musical abilities. Without giving it another thought, Ronnie set up a meeting with Berry Gordy for Stevie and his mother at Motown.

Also present at the audition with Gordy was Clarence Paul, a man who would not only become Stevie’s producer during his teenage years, but also the man who gave him his stage name. As Gordy beheld the boy’s voice and versatility on percussion, he appreciated the talent, but was not yet bowled over. But when Stevie whipped out his harmonica and started to wail on it, Gordy thought twice. He produced a recording contract to Motown subsidiary Tamla Records for him that very day. In the contract, they stipulated that they would hold all the earnings of future recordings in a trust until he became 21 years old. In the meantime, he and his mother Lulu’s living expenses would be paid in full until then. Stevie would also receive a weekly stipend of $2.50, which comes to just under twenty bucks in 2016.

Everyone that day agreed that little Stevie was a wonder. Clarence Paul picked up on that and suggested he should be billed from then on as Little Stevie Wonder.



“They never really respected us. Berry Gordy lost the Marvelette name in a gambling game once, that’s how much they cared about us. We were just nothing to them.” -Gladys Horton

As 1961, drew to a close, Motown had still not come out with a Number One Pop song, and it wasn’t because Gordy wasn’t hard at work trying to find the right sound for each of his labels’ acquisitions. He could never have realized back then that with just the signing of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder, fame and fortune were around the corner, and so was the eternal legacy of timeless music Motown would deliver to the world. But in 1961, it was all still a big struggle. Motown was busy at work producing albums for the Supremes and little Stevie as well as trying to find the right songs for the Temptations and Gaye, among all their other lesser known artists. One of them was another girl group they had developed who surprised everyone at Motown as 1961 drew to a close by delivering the label’s second Number One single.

The first girl group to ever hit Number One in Billboard’s Pop chart were the Shirelles, who scored with Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in January of 1961, so it’s rather fitting that Motown would deliver the second girl group to hit Number One in December, bookending the year with two classic songs, the latter of which was re-recorded by the Beatles, thereby legitimatizing the Motown sound as rock ‘n’ roll.

Like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the Marvellettes began as high school girls getting together to form a vocal group. The Shirelles met in Passaic High School in New Jersey, most of the Supremes formed at Northeastern High School in Detroit, and the Marvelletes all went to Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb just west of Detroit. Unlike the previous two girl group peers who never had more than four members initially, the Marvelletes began as a quintet.

Fifteen-year-old Gladys Horton was a member of Inkster High’s glee club in the fall of 1960 when she came up with the inspiration to form a girl group within the club. She approached four other members she had become friendly with, sixteen-year-olds Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and recently graduated, seventeen-year-old Georgia Dobbins.

The first item on their agenda was to choose a name for themselves. After long deliberation and thought on the notion, they realized that first they needed to learn how to sing before worrying about a name, so they decided to call themselves the Casinyets because as they realized at the time, they can’t sing yet.

Fate intervened at the dawn of 1961 when Inkster High threw a talent show and the first three prizes were an audition at Motown Records. After having rehearsed their singing abilities for the last few month, the Casinyets mustered enough confidence to rename themselves the Marvels and signed up. They sang songs by the Chantels and the Shirelles and ultimately won, although there’s speculation as to where they placed. Gladys Horton insists they won first prize. Regardless, getting an audition at Motown was a big deal indeed.

“Anyway we won first prize, but until we got to Motown, it still hadn’t reached my mind how important it was. We met Berry Gordy and the Miracles, and it was then I realized the potential of this meeting. We began to picture ourselves like the Supremes, who were the company’s girl group.” -Gladys Horton

For some reason, the Marvellettes received short shrift from the record label since the get-go. On April 1961, they met with songwriters Brian Holland and Robert Bateman to sing some of their repertoire to them, including the Chantels’ “He’s Gone” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On A Sunday”. Holland and Bateman liked them enough to schedule a second audition with Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. They were lauded for their vocal abilities, but Gordy told them they needed to come up with original material, which was a bit surprising since Motown had a stable of songwriters dedicated to doing just that for their other artists. Nevertheless, Georgia Dobbins in particular, dedicated herself to coming back with a hit song. She approached a songwriting friend by the name of William Garnett for help.

Garnett played her an unfinished blues song he was writing called “Please Mr. Postman”, about a forlorn lover waiting for the mail to come to see if his loved one had sent him a letter yet. Garnett gave Dobbins the song under the condition that his name appear on the credits should it be recorded. Dobbins, having never written a song before, took it and reworked it from blues to teenage doo-wop, then changed the lyrics from a male narrator to a female. Dobbins then presented fellow Marvellette Gladys Horton with a rock ‘n’ roll classic.


Fate intervened once again when Dobbins dropped from the group due to family pressure. Her mother was ill and her father berated her for not being at her side, pursuing a silly career singing instead and urging her to quit. She caved in and left the group. Looking back to their fellow classmates, the girls contacted recent Inkster graduate Wanda Young, who became a permanent member of the band by the time they had to present their song to Motown.

Upon listening to the composition, Gordy accepted them into the Motown family but first changed their names from the Marvels to the Marvellettes. He then took the song and gave it to Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Fred Gorman, who moonlighted as a mailman coincidentally enough, to re-work it yet again.

“I’ve been standin’ here waitin’ Mister Postman so patiently for just a card, or just a letter, sayin’ he’s returnin’ home to me… (Mister Postman) Mister Postman, look and see… (Oh yeah) if there’s a letter in your bag for me… (Please, Please Mister Postman) why’s it takin’ such a long time… (Oh yeah) for me to hear from that boy of mine –Please Mr. Postman – The Marvellettes

By the time they appeared in this TV segment in 1965, the Marvellettes had gone from a quintet to a girl group trio.

Gladys Horton sings lead on this song with the Motown band the Funk Brothers backing the trio and with Marvin Gaye on drums. It was recorded in July of 1961 and released on August 21st. By that December, they became Motown’s first artists to reach the coveted Number One Spot on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts.

Gordy was pleasantly surprised, not expecting the first single from this new group to make it all the way to the top. The Supremes especially took the Marvellettes’ success to heart because they were the girl group who were expected to come out with the hits. A rivalry soon emerged between them, but the Supremes needn’t had worried. Holland-Dozier-Holland had written “Baby Love” for the Marvellettes, but incredibly enough Gladys Horton turned it down, so the songwriting team gave their composition to the Supremes instead in 1964. It shot up the charts just like “Where Did Our Love Go” and became the girls’ second Number One single in a row, while the Marvellettes’ output throughout the rest of the Sixties was to pale in comparison.

“The first number one came too easy for us. We weren’t pretty city girls from the projects like Motown’s other girl group, the Supremes. We had no experience of life at all. We were naive little country girls, and we didn’t know how to handle the situation. We had no idea how to behave, we didn’t know what to wear. we didn’t even know how to put make up. We learnt as we went along, of course, but it was very hard at first.”   -Gladys Horton

The Beatles, still three years away from global success as the most influential rock band of all time, knew a good song when they heard one and dug into the Motown treasure chest of hits more than once to record for their second album. Besides “Please Mr. Postman”, the group also recorded Barrett Strong’s “Money” and Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” all for their second British release, “With The Beatles” in late 1963. Listening to them shows you how much muscle these R&B songs truly have and should prove once and for all that R&B is synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, like siblings, simply because they were both born from the blues.

The Marvellettes’ subsequent releases through the rest of the Sixties were hit or miss, mostly misses. Riding on the crest of their sudden success with their first and only Number One, they rush recorded the “Please Mr. Postman” album and released it on November 20th, 1961, but it didn’t even enter Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. The cover was a drawing of a mailbox with cobwebs and a tiny mailman walking towards it. The Marvellettes were nowhere to be seen on the cover art simply because it wasn’t customary to showcase black rock ‘n’ roll artists until 1963. Next, Gordy decided to pair them up with the latest dance craze of the time, the Twist, so the follow-up single to “Please Mr. Postman” was “Twistin’ Postman”.


“Sitting by the window, feeling sad and blue, all because I haven’t heard from you , and then my mama said ‘Look! Look! Here comes the postman twistin’ down the avenue! He’s got a letter in his hand and I know it has to be for you.’ He’s got the mail sack twisted ’round his back ‘cause he’s a twistin’ postman…” Twistin’ Postman – The Marvellettes

The concept was a lame attempt to cash in on a dance craze, but the beat is what mattered in early rock ‘n’ roll, so one can forgive this really bad idea for a song as long as you can dance to it. That’s why we had disco.

Released on December 6, 1961, “Twistin’ Postman’s” danceable beat managed to propel it into the Top 40, landing at Number 34 Pop and Number 13 R&B; not a very exciting follow-up to a Number One song. As in PMP, Gladys Horton sang lead.

Aside from constant touring, which was where the real money was being made, the Marvellettes released two albums in 1962 but without chart success. They did manage two Top Twenty hits that year however; “Playboy” reaching Number Seven Pop and Four R&B, and “Beechwood 4-5789” rose up to Number 17 Pop and Seven R&B. The latter was written by Marvin Gaye, who also worked on the album as percussionist and producer along with Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Mickey Stevenson. Its title was derived from the fact that back in those days of rotary phones, every number had a telephone exchange name that corresponded with the first two letters of that name. In this case, Beechwood’s was BE, so the number dialed would be 234-5789.

The Marvellettes would not enter the Top Ten again for another five long years until they made a minor comeback in 1966 with Smokey Robinson’s “Don’t Mess With Bill”, reaching Number Seven Pop and Number Three R&B. Their line-up had changed to a trio by 1965. Juanita Clark could no longer handle the constant touring. Georgeanna Tillman developed leukemia and lupus.

“There was pressure on the group. Juanita had a nervous breakdown and had to leave. She had made a silly remark on Dick Clark’s show and everyone in the company was constantly teasing her about it. She really took it to heart and became very depressed. She was only 16. Georgeanna had to leave due to ill health. She was always very tired; there was something wrong with her and the doctor advised her to get off the road.” -Gladys Horton

Their sound had changed drastically in that time. Gone was the doo-wop of their early hits, replaced with a smoother soul resembling the output Motown was delivering at the time with the Supremes, Temptations and the Four Tops. It had a nice groove sung by Wanda Young, who had a more laid-back voice than Gladys Horton.

Although they still managed to score a couple more Top Twenty hits in 1967, the Marvellettes pretty much ended when lead singer and leader of the group Gladys Horton left to get married, replaced by Anne Bogan. They released a single in 1978 that didn’t crack the Top Forty and after a handful of other unnoticed releases up until 1971, faded away into pop obscurity. Georganna was the first to go at age 35 in 1980 when she finally succumbed to her illness, and Gladys died at age 65 in 2011 after a series of strokes and declining health. As of this writing in 2016, the other three original members, Katherine Anderson, Wanda Rogers and Juanita Cowart remain alive, as does Horton’s replacement Ann Bogan and the original writer of their biggest hit, Georgia Dobbins.



One of the earliest known photographs of a 19th Century German immigrant folk music band, The Millers (1898)

Folk music is the music of the common man. Every country has its own style of “folk” music, also known as roots or world music. American folk music was born with the blending of the music of all the cultures that first migrated to the New World with the music of the New World’s indigenous people. The German word “volk” means “people as a whole”, and the term “folk music” was derived from the word “folklore”, which was coined and defined in 1846 by an English antiquarian named William Thoms as “the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes.”

Pinpointing what a folk song is can be elusive, but American folk music’s predominant features are that it’s sung with usually the accompaniment of a guitar or similar stringed instrument, and the lyrics usually reflect the singer’s culture and relate historic as well as personal events. Instrumental folk music on the other hand, is usually played for dancing. Many of the folk songs still known today were written during the 18th and 19th centuries and were transmitted by word of mouth simply because many of the folks who sang them were illiterate, so they had to memorize the songs, unknowingly placing them into the public domain as a result. By the 1940s, the folk musicians of the day got smart and started to copyright their own work.

Thanks to Bob Dylan, modern American folk music has been inextricably weaved with rock ‘n’ roll since 1965. The pair complement each other well despite the long-time protests from folk music purists. Folk music gave rock ‘n’ roll the ability to write lyrics outside the realm of fun and teenage crushes, and rock ‘n’ roll gave folk music a beat.


The origin of American folk music can be clearly traced back to 1928, when the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival took place in Asheville, North Carolina. To this day, that Festival still is held every year, and has also spread out over the ensuing years to 28 different locations throughout the country in various different incarnations, culminating in the American Folk Festival, also still occurring annually in Bangor, Maine.



Recording folk music for posterity on vinyl records began in the 1930s with Woody Guthrie. Guthrie sang of patriotism like “This Land Is Your Land”, America’s unofficial anthem. He also sang of the pains endured by the Great Depression, mostly compiled in the two three-disc albums on 78rpm called “Dust Bowl Ballads” (1940).

In 1940, Woody moved to New York City. Coincidentally, twenty-one years later in 1961, a young man who called himself Bob Dylan also moved to New York City, with the intent to meet Woody Guthrie before he launched his own career as a folk musician.



Guthrie pioneered the first wave of the folk revival in 20th Century America. Others such as Burl Ives and Pete Seeger followed in the 40s. Guthrie met Seeger in March of 1940 at a gathering for the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers in New York. That chance meeting would prove to be an important milestone in the development of modern American folk music. Seeger’s impact on the folk revival was to be profound, and he continued to play throughout the rest of his life. One of his final appearances was on the streets of Manhattan on October 21, 2011 when he marched in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street to Columbus Circle. There, he sang with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, as well as with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and other musicians. He died at 94 years on January 27, 2014.

Soon after they met, Seeger and Guthrie would form a folk group called the Almanac Singers. Seeger’s writing at around that time included much political commentary, flirting with communist notions similar to those of his circle of friends; friends that included actor Will Geer and Steinbeck.

The Almanac Singers; from left, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Campbell and Pete Seeger

The Almanac Singers sang for the common man, against the United States’ involvement in World War Two and for the average American worker’s right to unionize. As the war continued, the Almanac Singer’s point of view changed, becoming more understanding of the cause behind the war and veering away from the belief of Communism after Seeger became disenchanted with Josef Stalin.

The group only lasted three years. Guthrie went out on his own in 1943, leaving Seeger to create a new folk group called the Weavers, comprised of Seeger, female singer Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and fellow ex-Almanac Singer Lee Hays. They launched the second folk music revival in the United States during the 1950s, expanding the definition of folk music by playing popular, non-political songs that ranged widely, encompassing gospel, blues, world music and children’s songs along with the traditional folk ballads of old. They sold millions of records throughout the Fifties and created a folk boom that paved the way for the new generation of folk musicians in the next decade.

The group spawned by the success of the Weavers were the Kingston Trio, who debuted in 1958 and soon became the most popular musical group in America. The Trio had nineteen albums chart in Billboard’s Top Albums list from 1958 to 1963; fourteen of them made it into the Top Ten and five were Number One. Their popularity waned when the British Invasion brought a new breed of rock musicians in 1964.



The new face of folk music appeared at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival in the form of a pretty, eighteen-year-old girl, born in New York and of Mexican descent, who didn’t always wear shoes when performing, named Joan Baez. Dubbed the Barefoot Madonna, Baez sang old folk songs that introduced folk music to the Sixties generation. Her first two albums, released in 1960 and 1961, were comprised of traditional folk songs with nothing but Joan’s voice and guitar.

“It took four nights. We were in some big, smelly ballroom at a hotel on Broadway, way up by the river. We couldn’t record on Wednesday nights because they played bingo there. I would be down there on this dirty old rug with two microphones, one for the voice and one for the guitar. I just did my set; it was probably all I knew. Just put ’em down. I did “Mary Hamilton” once, that was it. That’s the way we made ’em in the old days. As long as a dog didn’t run through the room or something, you had it.” -Joan Baez talking to Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone, issue no. 393

Baez’ repertoire consisted of traditional folk songs and “negro spirituals” as they also called gospel music then. She and Pete Seeger separately helped popularize a traditional hymn turned folk song that would become the anthem for the early Sixties Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome”.

In 1961, she met a young man who would become her lover, a young man she would help introduce to the world when she allowed him to join her onstage at her performances. He would also be the man who would take folk music into the future by giving it a lyrical edge strongly reminiscent of Guthrie and Seeger’s style with a healthy dose of the Beat poets of the day, criticizing racism and government, and ultimately supercharging it by adding a rock beat at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, much to the shock and anger of the booing folk music fan purists.



Robert Alan Zimmerman was a rock ‘n’ roller at heart. The only reason he started his career playing folk music was because all he felt rock ‘n’ roll had to offer was a beat.

“The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough… There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” –Bob Dylan

When I Got Troubes – 18-year-old Robert Zimmerman, 1959

Bobby, as he was called by family and friends, grew up in Minnesota, born in Duluth and ending up in Hibbing at age six due to the fact that his father had contracted polio, compelling his mother to move them to her hometown. He lived there until he was eighteen, when he then went to Minneapolis to study in the University of Minnesota.

Teenage rock ‘n’ roller Bobby Zimmerman and friends

Bobby spent his pre-teen years listening to what was playing on the radio, namely blues and country & western. By the time he started to go to Hibbing High School, rock ‘n’ roll had become the music to listen to. He formed several rock ‘n’ roll bands like the Golden Chords, where he belted out Little Richard and Elvis Presley songs. He was such a rock ‘n’ roller that he wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was “to join Little Richard.” During their high school talent show, the principal felt compelled to turn off their microphones because they were playing so loud.

Elston Gunn

By 1959, he changed his name to Elston Gunn and set off to find work in the music business. He managed to get a gig playing back up in country singer Conway Twitty’s tour, and was at Sam’s Recordland in Fargo, North Dakota at about that time where he began a conversation with Bill Velline. Bill’s brother Bobby, who went by the stage name Bobby Vee, had a rock ‘n’ roll band and they were looking for a piano player.

“We couldn’t find a rock ‘n’ roll piano player anywhere. Then one day my brother Bill came home and said he was talking with a guy at Sam’s Recordland who claimed he played piano and had just come off of a tour with Conway Twitty. Bill made arrangements to audition him at the KFGO studio and said he was a funny little wiry kind of guy and he rocked pretty good. Wow!!! This must be the guy! He told Bill his name was “Elston Gunnn” (with 3 n’s). Kind of weird but let’s try him out. By now, we were making enough money to buy him a matching shirt and with that…he was in The Shadows. His first dance with us was in Gwinner, ND. All I remember is an old crusty piano that hadn’t been tuned…ever! In the middle of “Lotta Lovin'” I heard the piano from hell go silent. The next thing I heard was the Gene Vincent handclaps, bap bap…bap…BAP BAP…BAP and heavy breathing next to my ear and I looked over to find Elston Gunnn dancing next to me as he broke into a background vocal part. Obviously, he had also come to the conclusion that the piano wasn’t working out. The next night was more of the same. He was good spirited about the fact that none of us had the money to secure a piano for him and there were no hard feelings on the part of anyone as he made his exit for the University of Minnesota. Bill was right. He sure had the spirit and he rocked out in the key of C. We felt bad that it didn’t work out. Hey, he would have been great on the Floyd Cramer tunes. That’s basically the Bob Zimmerman story as it relates to The Shadows. Bob aka Elston aka Bob Dylan. It’s been easy to chuckle and to minimize the story in view of Elston’s amazing success. It was even suggested at one point that he had been fired. Not true. The truth is simple…it just didn’t work out.” –Bobby Vee

Dylan and Vee had a unique connection in that they were both touched by Buddy Holly and his tragic death. Bobby Zimmerman had attended the Winter Dance Party tour just a few days before the deaths of Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on February 3rd, 1959. Bobby Vee’s band acted as Holly’s replacement in the tour after the tragic plane crash that so shockingly took their lives.

“I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died. I saw him in Duluth [Minnesota], at the armory. He played there with Link Wray. I don’t remember the Big Bopper. Maybe he’d gone off by the time I came in. But I saw Richie Valens. And Buddy Holly, yeah. He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand. And he died – it must have been a week after this. It was unbelievable.” ~Bob Dylan (to Kurt Loder, March 1984)

Bobby Vee and Bob Dylan, 2013



Rambler Gambler, recorded in 1960 just before he moved to New York

Nineteen-year-old Bobby arrived in New York City’s Greenwich Village on January 26, 1961 in the back seat of a four-door ’57 Impala. He had decided to go to the center of the folk and beat movement to live and perform in and changed his name to Robert Allen by dropping his last name and altering the spelling of his middle name. He liked the name because he thought it sounded like a Scottish king. Besides planning to find jobs performing in musical venues around the West Village, he also came to New York to meet all the folk singers he’d been listening to, particularly Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington’s Disease and lived in the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

He visited Guthrie several times, befriending his ill hero, bringing him cigarettes and singing and playing Guthrie’s own music to him on guitar. Guthrie appreciated the company of the talented young man. Their meetings evidently touched Dylan deeply enough to pledge to himself that he would indeed carry on in Guthrie’s footsteps. On February 14, 1961, Dylan wrote one of his first songs, called “Song to Woody”, as a tribute to his mentor.

“The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them… [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.” –Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1

Dylan (right) emulated Guthrie (left) in style and song

Another reason for his going to New York was his interest in Beat writing, which influenced his lyric writing style greatly. He would never get to meet Jack Kerouac, but his ghost would occasionally pop up in Dylan’s work, such as the title of one of his classic songs from 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Desolation Row”, an amalgam of Kerouac’s book title “Desolation Angels” with John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”. He wouldn’t meet Alan Ginsberg yet until 1963, but when Bobby arrived, beatniks, distinguished by their goatees, horn-rimmed glasses, berets and black turtleneck sweaters, and folkies would populate the Village in those days along with the gawking tourists. Beatnik women would wear straight long hair and black leotard. They were also the first major influence of the introduction to the use of marijuana to the general public.

Bobby’s musical taste and knowledge expanded while working and living in the Village, meeting individuals who would have a lasting effect on his way of thinking as well as his music. He landed his first job the same day he arrived in New York, playing at the Café Wha? On McDougall St. between Bleecker and West 3rd Avenue. An acquaintance advised him to ask for a singer named Freddy Neill who scheduled all the daytime acts for the Wha? The club opened every day at lunchtime to college students, lunch hour secretaries and tourists. Café Wha?’s nighttime performances started after 8PM and were reserved for the professional up-and-coming comic acts like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers along with musical groups such as the Journeymen. During the daytime however, all the amateurs and budding artists had their turn onstage.

Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton and Fred Neil performing at the Café Wha?

Freddy Neil booked the oddest acts in the daytime; ventriloquists, beatnik poets, female impersonators, magicians and hypnotists, who would perform between Freddy’s musical sets. One of those acts was a singer with a high falsetto voice named Tiny Tim who played 1920s ragtime songs with only his ukulele as an accompaniment. Tiny Tim became a flash-in-the-pan celebrity in the late Sixties as a bit of an anomaly with a silly 1927 song called “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” which he took to Number 17 Pop in 1968.

Tiny Tim and Dylan became friends during those days as they’d partake together of the free burgers and fries that all the acts got to eat back in the kitchen.

Bob Dylan and Tiny Tim (1967)

Freddy Neill’s claim to fame also occurred in the late Sixties when his song “Everybody’s Talkin’” was recorded by Harry Nilsson and wound up in the soundtrack to 1969’s Best Picture Oscar Winner “Midnight Cowboy” with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Ironically, Bob Dylan was contracted to record a song for that very same film, but the delivery of the composition was delayed more than once, until the producers of the movie chose Neil’s song instead due to impending deadlines. The Dylan song that the producers passed up on turned out to be “Lay Lady Lay”, one of Dylan’s most beautifully haunting songs.

Bob auditioned for Freddy on the harmonica and landed his first job in the city right then and there as a member of Neill’s backing band. From noon to eight, in between the oddball acts, Freddy Neil and his Café Wha? band with “Robert Allan” on harmonica and guitar would play for the patrons. Bobby was thrilled to have landed a job and within a few weeks, started to pick up solo gigs in other Village clubs and coffeehouses like The Bitter End, Kettle Of Fish and Café Bizarre. At times, he would take up busking on the street with a pretty girl he knew from the Wha? who passed the hat to passersby as he played. They’d split the proceeds 50/50 and often made more money on the streets than in the clubs. But Dylan wasn’t content to just necessarily sing for more money. He had his sights and his heart set on playing in the Gaslight, where one of the folk singer heroes he came to meet, Dave Van Ronk, played.

Dave Van Ronk

As he started getting more solo gigs in other clubs at night, he stopped playing back-up at the Wha? in the afternoons. Instead, Bobby spent his days frequenting the Folklore Center, the citadel of American folk music lore, located on the second floor of a small building on McDougall near the Café Wha? It was run by a Brooklyn native named Izzy Young who introduced him to country and blues songs to play in his repertoire. One afternoon, none other than Van Ronk walked into the store. Bobby saw his opportunity and walked over to him as Van Ronk examined a guitar. He asked him outright if he knew of someone who could help him get a job in the Gaslight. Van Ronk looked him up and down and told him there were no janitor jobs available. Taken aback, he offered to prove to him that he was a folk singer. Van Ronk agreed, so Bobby grabbed a guitar and began to play “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, a 1923 blues standard. Dave was impressed with what he heard, asked him how long he’d been living in the Village, and invited him to come to the Gaslight and play a couple of songs during his set.

The Gaslight Café featuring the music of Dave Van Ronk

“What really set me apart in these days was my repertoire. It was more formidable than the rest of the coffee-house players, my template being hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming. I’d either drive people away or they’d come in closer to see what it was all about. There was no in-between.” –Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol. 1

One day, Bobby was reading an article in a Downbeat magazine about a West Coast saxophone player named David Allyn. The spelling looked exotic to him, so he changed his new stage name from Robert Allan to Robert Allyn. Sometime later, he came across some poems by Dylan Thomas, and toyed with the idea of changing his last name entirely, but he didn’t think that Robert Dylan sounded as mellifluous as Robert Allyn. He didn’t want to call himself Bobby because there were already too many of them in rock ‘n’ roll, from Bobby Darin to Bobby Vee, so he settled on Bob… and thus Bob Dylan was born.

Dylan in those days was essentially a homeless wanderer, staying in the homes of the friends he’d made, like Van Ronk, for days and weeks at a time. During his stays, he’d absorb as much of their knowledge and musical tastes as he could, listening to their record collections and perusing the books from their libraries, reading everything from Faulkner to Kerouac, learning from it all and honing both his lyrical and musical abilities. Although he listened to all styles of music, his playing preference was folk.

“I liked modern jazz a lot, liked to listen to it in the clubs… but I didn’t follow it and I wasn’t caught up in it. There weren’t any ordinary words with specific meanings, and I needed to hear things plain and simple in the King’s English, and folk songs are what spoke to me most directly.” –Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol. 1

He longed to make a long-form record album filled with his own compositions, a radical departure from the folk singers of the day, looking to emulate Guthrie and Seeger as a songwriter in their vein. He was uninterested in writing hit songs.

“Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers weren’t for radiophiles.”–Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol. 1

Dylan had fast befriended many of his folk heroes. The friendships he’d formed gave him the opportunity to play in one of the most important folk venues of the time, a club called Gerdes Folk City on 11 West 4th Street in a building that no longer exists. At a party one evening, Bob met Logan English, who was playing in Gerdes with singer Carolyn Hester.

“My husband Logan English and I met Bob Dylan at Bob and Sid Gleason’s house. One night we were all sitting around and Woody [Guthrie] said something like, “Play something” to this kid sitting on the couch. The kid was Bob Dylan, and he sang and it was just beautiful. So Logan said, ‘I’m working at Gerde’s. I’m the MC. We’ll get you to play there.’ So that Monday night, Bob came in and did his first set.” –Barbara Shutner, English’s widow

On April 11, 1961, Bob Dylan opened in Gerdes Folk City for John Lee Hooker. It was at Gerdes where Dylan’s career truly took off.

Bob Dylan ironing Joan Baez’ hair

Joan Baez was in attendance at Gerdes one night when Dylan was performing. By this time, Baez’ popularity was on the rise, having already released her debut album. When she first heard Dylan sing, she didn’t think much of him, considering him a “scruffy little mess”. There was one original composition of his that she did like however, “Song To Woody”. She approached him with her sister Mimi and remarked that she’d like to record that song one day. At the time, Dylan had a girlfriend named Suze Rotolo who lived in the Village and was featured on the famous cover of his second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” walking arm in arm with him. Aside from the fact that he was eyeing Joan’s sister, Mimi, nothing happened that night. Joan and Bob would bump into each other sporadically over the next two years before their romance finally bloomed.

Bruce Langhorne, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee at Columbia Studio A, New York, 29 September 1961

Destiny ultimately stepped in when folk singer Carolyn Hester, who helped launch Gerdes Folk City just the year before and sang there regularly, was getting ready to record her third album on Columbia Records. Hester asked Dylan if he would play harmonica on it. Dylan jumped at the opportunity. At a rehearsal session for the album on September 14, 1961 in Hester’s home, Dylan met the record producer who had signed Hester to Columbia, John Hammond. Dylan played Hammond two of his own self-penned compositions. After listening to him, Hammond invited Dylan to record a formal audition at the label, which he readily accepted.

On September 26, 1961, he began a two week run at Gerdes, billed second under the Greenbriar Boys. New York Times Music critic Robert Shelton wrote a positive review of that performance three days later, writing that Dylan’s “music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration.” It solidified his growing reputation as a folk musician on the rise.

On the same day that the New York Times review came out on September 29th, Dylan went to play harmonica on Hester’s album. By the end of the session, Hammond took Dylan to his office and handed him a standard five-year contract for previously unrecorded artists with Columbia Records.

Bob Dylan recording with John Hammond

Dylan sat in Hammond’s office in disbelief, unsure of whether he was dreaming or not. Hammond was a legendary talent scout, having been responsible for either launching or furthering the careers of Benny Goodman, Harry James, Billie Holliday, Count Basie and Pete Seeger among others, and here was this young folk singer being signed to one of the foremost record labels in the country. Hammond told Dylan he saw him not as a flash-in-the-pan pop star but as someone in a long line of tradition. He knew Dylan’s songs weren’t commercial but that didn’t matter to him. “I understand sincerity”, Hammond said to Dylan that day. Without even fully reading the contract, Bob Dylan signed immediately. Hammond then pointed to a calendar hanging in his office and pointed at a date, telling Bob to come up with a few songs to record by that day.

Hammond next took Dylan to meet Lou Levy, owner of Leeds Music Publishing Co. At Levy’s office, Dylan gave Leeds the right to publish his songs. Levy advanced Dylan a hundred dollars against future royalties.

On November 20, 1961, Bob Dylan showed up to his first recording session for his debut album as a solo artist. For two afternoons, on the 20th and the 22nd, Dylan recorded a collection of standard folks songs along with two of his own compositions, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody”. It didn’t take long to record them, even though it proved a difficult process for Hammond.

“Bobby popped every p, hissed every s, and habitually wandered off mike. Even more frustrating, he refused to learn from his mistakes. It occurred to me at the time that I’d never worked with anyone so undisciplined before.” – John Hammond

A total of seventeen tracks were recorded. Five were recorded in a single take because Dylan would not do a second take if he could sing it well all the way through. The entire album consisted of Bob Dylan’s voice, his guitar and his harmonica. It was a very inexpensive album to make. Hammond joked that it cost Columbia Records $402.

On December 22nd, 1961, Bob returned to Minneapolis for the holidays. One night in a hotel room he played his repertoire to his friends. Blues musician and music critic Tony Glover, who went on to teach harmonica to Mick Jagger, was present and recorded the evening. Two songs from that evening were released in 2005 as part of his Bootleg Series of unreleased tracks. One of those songs was called “I Was Young When I Left Home”. In it, you can plainly hear the burgeoning talent and heartfelt emotion of a simple young man with an, immortal “common man” voice accompanying himself flawlessly on guitar.

Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released on March 19, 1962 and promptly flopped, selling no more than 2500 copies in the USA and not even breaking the Billboard album chart, Dylan’s only album to do so. For a while, the signing of Bob Dylan to Columbia Records was referred to as “Hammond’s Folly”. It would take his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963) to change all that.


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