Unsung Women of Motown
8 names you need to know with voices you need to hear.
The women of Motown are a huge part of the label’s history. After all, what would the Motown sound be without Diana Ross, Tammi Terrell or Mary Wells? The names that remain on our lips and in our playlists are there because they were hit-makers. We know the popular names and songs because Motown’s method of putting out music was efficient, sometimes ruthlessly so. If there were bigger songs doing better business, the smaller ones might wither on the vine.
Some things languished in the vaults; some were released but never found their listeners; some, for whatever reason, didn’t have the backing they needed to find their place; and some wouldn’t be released for decades after their recording. What that means in simple terms is that there is a wealth of Motown artists who should have been bigger. To get you started down a soulful rabbit hole, here’s eight songs by women who you might not be listening to enough.
Mable John, “Take Me”
John was the first solo woman signed to the label in 1959. Looking at it with modern eyes, her classic blues sound seems off for the label, but in those early days Motown looked throughout the black music spectrum for hits. Motown stopped releasing straight blues by 1962, and John was dropped from the label. She found later fame as part of the Raelettes and as an artist on Stax, but she will always be an indelible part of Motown history.
Sherry Taylor, “Oh Lover”
Taylor was another early Motown recording artist and one of its least-known. She recorded only one single for the label, and it was part of a duo with Sammy Ward. It’s a rare piece of soul-meets-rock history and worth an add to your playlists.
The Burnadettes, “Lord I’ll Never Turn Back”
Motown put its stamp on a variety of genres through the years: jazz, rock, country, spoken word and in 1962, the label launched the gospel imprint Divinity Records. The Burnadettes released one single on the label before it folded the next year.
Hattie Littles, “Love, Trouble, Heartache, and Misery”
Littles was one of Motown’s “What do we do with her?” stories. She was signed to a contract early in the label’s history and released one single in 1963. It wasn’t a hit but with a voice like hers, you keep trying. She stayed with the label for another four years, recording another ten singles — most of which remained unreleased before her death in 2000. But her powerful voice is simply undeniable.
You may not recognize Sondra “Blinky” Williams’ name, but you’re certainly familiar with her voice. She signed with Motown in 1968, but poor sales of her first single made the label switch gears. Rather than continuing as a solo artist, the label paired her with Edwin Starr (of “War” fame) and they released an album in 1969. Like her solo work, it never really took off, and her three planned solo albums were never released. But Blinky made a huge impact on pop culture as the voice behind the
Good Times theme song.
Dorothy, Oma, and Zelpha, “Gonna Put it on Your Mind”
Motown partnered with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to serve as distributor for his Chisa label. The label featured artists like Letta Mbulu, The Crusaders, Monk Montgomery and this trio featuring Dorothy Berry, Oma Heard (who had recorded for Motown before, including a series of duets with Marvin Gaye) and Zelpha Crawford. This one is just too good to stay hidden.
Yvonne Fair, “Let Your Hair Down”
Just pure funk. And with good reason. One of Fair’s early entries into the scene was as a member of James Brown’s band. She found her way to Motown in the early ’70s, and after a few disappointing singles, she teamed with producer Norman Whitfield to create one of Motown’s funkiest albums (and her only one for the label), 1975’s “The Bitch is Black.”
Sisters Love, “Give Me Your Love”
Founded by members of the Raelettes, the backing singers for Ray Charles, the Sisters Love were signed to the label’s MoWest imprint. They released several singles between 1972-73, but never really found their audience at the time. A planned album by the group never saw release.