RAMBLIN ROUND: 'Oh yeah.' How Motown's Marvelettes inspired The Beatles


Ask music fans to name the definitive soul music label in the United States, and most of then would understandably cite Motown.

What's not to love about the label Berry Gordy Jr. originally founded in Detroit as Tamala Records in 1958? Gordy not only founded the label, he co-wrote one of its first major hits with Janie Bradford, an assistant at the still-young label.

Recorded by Barrett Strong, who was only 19 at the time, "Money "That's What I Want" rose to #2 on the rhythm and blues charts as well as #23 on the pop charts, nearly becoming a top 20 hit with its memorable opening lines: "The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees."

Soon, Tamala-Motown began producing so many hits the label acquired its nickname: Hitsville: USA.

While some forms of American music were nearly obliterated by The Beatles and the rest of the 1960s British Invasion artists following their 1964 arrival in the USA, Tamala-Motown not only continued to thrive, but had inspired many the British bands, including The Beatles.

They gave Motown the ultimate compliment by recording three Motown songs for inclusion on "The Beatles Second Album" — literally the name of their second U.S. LP, although it was called "With the Beatles" in England.

It no doubt left many of their growing army of young fans wondering what the heck was going on. After all, their first Capital Records album in the U.S., titled "Meet the Beatles," had contained only one track not written by members of the Fab Four — Meredith Wilson's song "Till There Was You" from his Broadway/movie musical "The Music Man."

John Lennon and Paul McCartney provided the rest of The Beatles American debut album's songs, which included "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There," with George Harrison making his songwriting debut on "Don't Bother Me."

So many American fans snatched up copies of "Meet the Beatles" they were no doubt primed and ready for more great original Lennon and McCartney songs when "The Beatles Second Album" hit the racks. However, only five of the album's songs were written by Lennon and McCartney, with the other six tracks consisting of cover songs — although most of them were really good songs to cover.

They included Harrison's version of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and McCartney's take on Little Richard's "Long Stall Sally." As far as Lennon and McCartney's original songs were concerned, the only one that to my ears rises  to the level of "I Saw Her Standing There" off The Beatles first American album is Lennon's throat-shredding take on "You Can't Do That" — still one of the band's best early tracks.

Back in Detroit, the thing that really caught Gordy's attention was that "The Beatles Second Album" included the British band's cover of three Tamala-Motown songs. Not only did that introduce Tamala-Motown songs to even more record-buyers, but the royalties from the three songs included on "The Beatles Second Album" would provide an influx of royalties, not only to the label, but to Motown writers as well — since nearly everything at Motown was done in-house.

This particular trio of Motown songs were so strong, they'd already been hits in their own right before The Beatles covered them— but the extra publicity, attention and yes, money, that resulted from The Beatles covers were certainly welcomed by Gordy.

They included "You've Really Got A Hold On Me," credited to songwriter William Robinson, who is much better known by his nickname of Smokey. Working with his vocal group, The Miracles, their original version of "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" shot to #8 on The Billboard Hot 100 and all the way to #1 on the Rhythm and Blues charts during the winter months of 1962-1963, before The Beatles covered it.

"You've Really Got A Hold On Me" not only showcased Robinson's musical abilities, but his way with lyrics as well, especially with the song's opening line" "I don't like you, but I love you."

The second Motown song on the album is Gordy's own, "Money, (That's What I Want.)" Lennon  brought a gravely-growl to The Beatles version, similar to how he sounded on The Beatles' cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout." Probably the only thing better for Gordy than The Beatles covering Motown was for them to cover a song he'd co-written himself.

Still, the third Tamala-Motown song covered on The Beatles Second Album proved to be the one that provided the Detroit label with its first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 — proving once again that Motown didn't need any help from The Beatles in conquering the charts.

Ironically, The Marvelettes' #1 hit "Please Mr. Postman" hadn't been entirely written by Motown's soon to be highly-esteemed stable of writers and producers, which were still in development.

When The Marvelettes were brought to Motown, they were asked to help provide some material on their own. Georgia Dobbins, a member of The Mavelettes at the time, had a friend, William Garrett, who was a songwriter. He offered her a blues song he'd written, called "Please Mr. Postman."

While Dobbins liked the title and the theme, a blues song was not what the teenaged Marvelettes were looking to record. That led to Dobbins rewriting the song, but it still wasn't quite there. A local mailman — yep, imagine that — named Freddie Gorman — also contributed to "Please Mr. Postman."

Still, the song didn't reach its final form until Motown producers Robert Bateman ad Brian Holland refined it further, resulting in the song that's since been heard countless millions of times.

Although The Beatles didn't release "Please Mr. Postman" as a single, they did include it on an extended play record called an EP, along with another cover and another two originals from that first American album, "Meet the Beatles."

When The Marvelettes had arrived at Motown to record their original version of "Please Mr. Postman," it marked the young girl group's first time to attempt to record in a professional studio. They received some much-appreciated help from another Motown singer, Florence Ballard, who would find greater fame as a member of The Supremes.

Ballard suggested the girls add some background vocals to the song. When they sang the lines "You've got to wait a minute, wait a minute," Ballard suggested they end the line by singing "Oh yeah." It's a suggestion they enthusiastically followed and would go on to influence another group in a major way.

A major part of the recording is the drumming — by a 22-year old guy named Marvin Gaye, who would find much greater fame as a vocalist than as a drummer.

If the Marvelettes were enthusiastic with the results, so were members of the record-buying public. They sent "Please Mr. Postman" all the way to #1 on The Billboard Hot 100 — which became Motown's first #1 hit on the esteemed national chart.

Over in Britain, The Beatles were listening. They learned "Please Mr. Postman" and included their version on their demo to Decca Records — which passed on signing the group. That prompted The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein to get the lads an audition with Parlophone Records, where they were signed by a young producer named George Martin, best-know at the time for recording comedy records. I wonder how that worked out?

One more thing. Although The Beatles quickly became huge in England and Europe once they started recording, their first attempts at breaking the American market on small independent labels went nowhere — until America's Capitol Records agreed to release their next single, the super smash hit "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

The song started with an American expression not then in vogue in England — which had prompted McCartney's father, James McCartney, to suggest the band drop it from their songs. McCartney and Lennon chose not to follow his advice and as a result, the first words that many Americans heard the Beatles sing were the first lines from "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something," The Beatles sang on their breakthrough hit, which they also performed live on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

"Oh yeah?" Wow, I wonder where Lennon and McCartney got that idea?

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you