The best Motown girl groups have become so synonymous with the term “girl group” that it’s easy to think Motown invented the concept. It didn’t, but those girl groups who got their start on Motown – among them Martha & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes and, of course, The Supremes – very much defined the girl-group sound with songs such as “Dancing In The Street,” “Please Mr Postman” and “Baby Love.”
Here we select ten of the best Motown girl groups of all time, pointing you in the direction of their biggest hits, plus deeper cuts for those who want more.
The Marvelettes were Motown’s first girl group and scored the label their first Billboard No.1 hit. The group originated in high school as a five-piece comprised of Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, and Georgia Dobbins, with hopes of winning a school singing contest. Their first hit, “Please Mr Postman,” was penned overnight by Dobbins after Motown’s owner, Berry Gordy, told them they needed original material if they wanted a singing contract. The group soon became a trio, comprised of Wanda Young, Gladys Horton, and Katherine Anderson, and “Please Mr. Postman,” which features Marvin Gaye on drums, would prove a huge success – and was famously covered by The Beatles on their second album, With The Beatles. Despite recording some great material, The Marvelettes would fail to make the same chart impact as some of the other best Motown girl groups on this list, as Motown turned its attention to other acts.
Must hear: “Please Mr. Postman”
Then listen to: “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” “I’ll Keep Holding On,” “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead,” “Too Many Fish In The Sea”
The group who came to define Motown’s unimpeachable sense of poise and glamour got off to a rocky start at the company: notorious for a time as the “no-hit Supremes,” they didn’t manage to score a hit until 1964, with “Where Did Our Love Go.” The trio would, however, release 12 glorious No.1 singles in their time – more than any other Motown act in the label’s history. The Supremes’ line-up changed many times across the group’s career from 1960-77, with the only constant member being Mary Wilson. Their best line-up was the trio of Mary, Florence Ballard (and, later, the beautifully named Cindy Birdsong), and – of course – Diana Ross. For a short time, they’d be known as Diana Ross & The Supremes, to capitalize on the success of Motown’s other big hitters, Martha & The Vandellas. Diana Ross would later leave the group and go on to have a very successful solo career.
Must hear: “Baby Love”
Then listen to: “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” “Love Child”
Martha & The Vandellas
Battling only The Supremes for the title of Queens Of Motown, Martha & The Vandellas recorded some of the most exciting songs the label would release. There’s the fast and furious “Heat Wave,” which demands that listeners get up and dance; the musically inventive “Nowhere To Run,” using metal car-tire chains as percussive background instruments; the irresistible hand claps of “Jimmy Mack”; and, of course, “Dancing In The Street.” The latter had been written by Marvin Gaye, who decided not to record it and offered it to fellow labelmate (and duetting partner) Kim Weston. After she turned it down, the song was passed to Martha & The Vandellas and it proved a smash hit – particularly for its opening horns and thundering drum beat, provided by Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter, who hits a metal tire iron throughout. “Dancing In The Street” continued to have a successful legacy, inspiring Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing In The Street,” and it was covered by Van Halen in 1982, and David Bowie and Mick Jagger in 1985.
Must hear: “Dancing In The Street”
Then listen to: “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere To Run,” “Jimmy Mack”
Who can possibly resist the hand-clapping and “she-doop”s of The Velvelettes’ “Needle In A Haystack”? While it stalled at No.45 in the US Hot 100 charts when released in 1964, the song has rightly become a firm favorite with Motown fans, earning The Velvelettes their place among the best Motown girl groups. Their follow-up single, “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” only managed to get to No.64 but would later be a hit for the British girl group Bananarama. While The Velvelettes don’t come to mind as quickly as some of the other girl groups on this list, the brace of songs they recorded in their short tenure at Motown are worth treasuring.
Must hear: “Needle In A Haystack”
Then listen to: “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” “A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush,” “Should I Tell Them,” “I’m The Exception To The Rule”
Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard The Andantes. They were Motown’s house backing singers and appeared on records by everyone, including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, so if there’s anyone who deserves to make the list of the best Motown girl groups, it’s them. When the group were finally given the opportunity to put their name on a single, in 1964, they recorded the stunning “(Like A) Nightmare”; however, the lead vocals were handled by Marvelettes singer Ann Bogan, instead of The Andantes. Incredibly, the song failed to chart but has since become one of the rarest and most expensive girl group records for collectors to find.
Must hear: “(Like A) Nightmare”
Then listen to: “If You Were Mine”
The Lewis Sisters
Like many Motown recording artists, Helen and Kay Lewis originally joined the label as songwriters and backing vocalists before they were given their own chance to perform. As The Lewis Sisters they issued two singles, the echoey “You Need Me,” which tried to replicate Phil Spector’s vast, haunting and commercially successful girl group sound, and “He’s An Odd Ball,” which, with its jazzy instrumentation and sultry vocals, is the one to seek out first. Interestingly, the duo were billed as The Singing School Teachers on a couple of releases – most likely as a novelty selling point. Neither of The Lewis Sisters’ singles managed to gain much interest, however, and they would return to writing for other Motown acts.
Must hear: “He’s An Odd Ball”
Then listen to: “Moonlight On The Beach,” “By Some Chance,” “You Need Me”
The Lollipops had previously recorded for other Detroit labels as The Sequins. They changed their name to The Lollipops, but only released one single while signed to Motown: the soulful “Cheating Is Telling On You,” released in 1969. The single’s B-side, “Need Your Love,” sounds like it could have been written for The Supremes. While their time at Motown was short, these songs are worth a spin.
Must hear: “Cheating Is Telling On You”
Then listen to: “Need Your Love”
Gladys Knight & The Pips
Technically, Gladys was the only female member of this group, but, as leader of The Pips, we’d be amiss if we didn’t mention her here. With her phenomenal soulful voice, Gladys recorded a fantastic array of songs with The Pips on backing vocal duties. While they recorded their biggest hit – “Midnight Train To Georgia” – in the 70s for the Buddah label, their tenure at Motown was incredibly fruitful. On Motown’s subsidiary label, Soul, they released edgier, hard soul hits such as the heart-wrenching “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)” and the beautiful “Everybody Needs Love.” Soul fans who aren’t familiar with her version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” – released before Marvin’s more famous version – would do well to give it a listen, along with “It Should Have Been Me,” which would be a hit for Yvonne Fair in 1976.
Must hear: “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)”
Then listen to: “Everybody Needs Love,” “If I Were Your Woman,” “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Who Is She (And What Is She To You),” “It Should Have Been Me”
The Sisters Love
Founded by former members of Ray Charles’ backing group, The Raelettes, at the end of the 60s, The Sisters Love released a number of singles on A&M Records before signing to Motown’s MoWest label. They’ve largely remained a cult band, but their disco numbers qualify them for a place among the best Motown girl groups. With its jazzy horns and gorgeous harmonies, “You’ve Got To Make The Choice,” from 1972, perfectly demonstrates why they were chosen to tour the world with Jackson 5. They also recorded a fabulous version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” in 1973, which needs to be heard to be believed.
Must hear: “You’ve Got To Make The Choice”
Then listen to: “I’m Learning To Trust My Man,” “(I Could Never Make) A Better Man Than You,” “My Love Is Yours (Till The End Of Time)”
Discovered by Gwen Gordy Fuqua, Berry Gordy’s sister, High Inergy were added to the Motown roster in 1977. The label had hopes of them picking up where previous girl-group big hitters had left off; in fact, the band took their name from The Supremes’ 1976 LP High Energy. While they wouldn’t reach the heights of the best Motown girl groups, they were certainly prolific, releasing eight albums in six years. Their biggest hit, “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On),” is the one to hear, but their cover of Bettye Swann’s 1967 song “Make Me Yours,” with its exquisite vocal harmonies, really taps into that early girl group sound.
Must hear: “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)”
Then listen to: “Shoulda Gone Dancin’,” “Lovin’ Fever,” “Love Is All You Need”
Three Ounces Of Love
Three Ounces Of Love were a Detroit soul band who had minor local success in 1976 with their song “Disco Man.” In 1978, they signed to Motown and, working with Motown stalwarts Brian and Eddie Holland, along with Greg Wright, they recorded a self-titled album and released a couple of singles. “Give Me Some Feeling” is particularly gorgeous, with its delicate backing vocals and funky bassline.
Must hear: “Give Me Some Feeling”
Then listen to: “Don’t Worry ’Bout My Love,” “Star Love,” “I Found The Feeling”
Mary Jane Girls
Joanna “Jojo” McDuffie, Candice “Candi” Ghant, Kim “Maxi” Wuletich, and Ann “Cheri” Bailey – also known as Mary Jane Girls – started their career as Rick James’ backing vocalists before he turned them into a real girl group, in an attempt to rival Prince’s Vanity 6. James wrote and produced their self-titled 1983 debut LP, which included the sultry “All Night Long.” While their sound is a far cry from that of the best Motown girl groups of the 60s, their funky, electronic music rekindled interest in all-female bands and showed that Motown still knew how to put together a great girl group.
Must hear: “All Night Long”
Then listen to: “Candy Man,” “Boys,” “Wild And Crazy Love,” “Break It Up,” “In My House”
Looking for more? Discover the ten female Motown singers you really should know.