Readers' Poll: The 10 Greatest Motown Songs - Rolling Stone
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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Greatest Motown Songs

Your picks include ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,’ ‘Dancing in the Streets’ and ‘Tracks of My Tears’

The Temptations

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When Berry Gordy founded Motown Records in 1959, few people could have predicted how it would soon transform the entire music industry. Gordy had a remarkable ear for talent and within months, he joined forces with many of the greatest songwriters, musicians and singers in the country.

Before the first year was over, Motown scored their first major hit with Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)." Over the next several decades, the tiny label dominated the airwaves and album charts, launching the careers of everyone from Diana Ross to Michael Jackson to Boyz II Men. We asked our readers to select their single favorite Motown song. Click through to see the results. 

By ANDY GREENE

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10. Marvin Gaye – ‘Let’s Get It On’

The incredible success of Marvin Gaye's politically-charged 1971 LP, What's Going On, proved to the world that he had more to offer than his love songs of the 1960s – but when it came time to craft a follow-up, he had little desire to repeat the formula. Instead, he opted to record an album of funk songs that were extremely sexually charged.

The title track was the most successful single of Gaye's career, sitting on top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. The opening wah-wah guitar notes (played by Don Peake) ooze sex, and the song never lets up from there. "I can't see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies," Gaye wrote in the album's liner notes. "I think we make far too much of it. After all, one's genitals are just one important part of the magnificent human body." 

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9. Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Dancing in the Street’

It was hard to go anywhere in the summer of 1964 without hearing Martha and the Vandellas' hit "Dancing in the Street." Most people initially saw it as a simple dance song, but when the civil rights movement adopted it as an anthem, some radio stations actually removed it from their playlists. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were clearly fans, and their lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" ("Summer's here and the time is right/ For fighting in the street") echo the song.

"Dancing in the Street" has since been covered countless times by everyone from Van Halen to Mick Jagger and David Bowie. 

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8. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’

It's difficult to hear Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's 1967 duet "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" without feeling a little sad. The song just bursts with optimism and joy, but both singers died tragically young: Gaye was killed by his own father when he was 44, while Terrell died of a brain tumor at just 24.

In happier times, the duo recorded a remarkable series of duets for Motown. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was written by the real-life husband-and-wife songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson. It was a huge crossover hit, and Gaye and Terrell worked together until her health problems made it impossible. 

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7. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – ‘Tears of a Clown’

Smokey Robinson had a unique role at Motown: he was one of their go-to songwriters and also lead vocalist of the Miracles. His 1967 mega-hit "Tears of a Clown" began as an instrumental by Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby. Smokey felt the music sounded like the circus, inspiring his lyrics about a heartbroken guy who feels like a sad clown. The song first appeared in 1967 on a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles album, but didn't actually become a hit until it came out three years later as a single. 

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6. The Temptations – ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’

Eddie Kendricks handled most of the Temptations' lead vocals in the early days, but after Smokey Robinson wrote "My Girl" specifically for David Ruffin, things changed. The huge success of that song essentially meant that he was their new lead singer, and when Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland wrote "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," they gave it to Ruffin.

Berry Gordy wasn't initially a big fan of the song, but it ultimately came out as a single and was a huge success. The track was a little out of Ruffin's range, but he pushed himself and a result is an absolute classic. The Rolling Stones covered the song in 1974. 

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5. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – ‘Tracks of My Tears’

"Tracks of My Tears" is one of Smokey Robinson's most famous songs, but the song would have never happened without Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin. He wrote the melody and Robinson later fleshed out the song with Miracles bass singer Warren Moore. The song was a big hit in the summer of 1965, reaching Number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. It's since been covered by Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt and countless others.

Robinson split from the Miracles in 1972, but he continued to perform with Tarplin until health problems sidelined the guitarist in 2008. He passed away in 2011. 

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4. The Temptations – ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’

The Temptations who went into the studio in the summer of 1972 to record "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" were a very different group than the one that released "My Girl" just seven years earlier. David Ruffin had long departed and was replaced by Dennis Edwards. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were also out of the group, and the new lineup faced a very different musical atmosphere.

Psychedelic soul was all over the radio, but Motown was keeping up with the times and producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote a stupefyingly funky song about an absentee father. Contrary to widespread belief, Dennis Edwards' father didn't die on the third of September; he died on the third of October. Still, it was close enough to enrage the singer, though he ultimately agreed to sing the song. It shot to Number One on the Hot 100 and was their final monster hit. 

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3. Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is one of the most famous songs in the vast Motown catalog, but it almost didn't make it onto shelves. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote it for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966, but Gordy didn't like the result. Gladys Knight and the Pips recut the song later that year, and Gordy agreed to release the results.

Marvin Gaye recorded his own version in 1968, but it initially wasn't a single. Radio stations began playing the album track, and soon enough, Motown put out Gaye's on 45. It flew to the top of the charts and stayed there for weeks.

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2. Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On’

Recording for Motown was sometimes a frustrating experience for artists. They largely weren't allowed to write or produce their own material, and Berry Gordy had ultimate say over what came out. Marvin Gaye put up with the system through most of the 1960s, but by the very end of the decade, he'd had enough. "I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say," he told Rolling Stone. "I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home."

He began writing songs about the social upheaval in the country, and Gordy ultimately let him write and produce a concept album about America's struggles circa 1970. The album kicks off with the title track, a brilliant musical statement that's as relevant today as when it first hit the airwaves 43 years ago. 

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1. The Temptations – ‘My Girl’

The Temptations were a popular act before they released "My Girl," but that song forever changed the vocal group. The Smokey Robinson-penned song was their first to cross over into the Top 10 on the Hot 100, ultimately reaching Number One. It established the volatile David Ruffin as their new lead singer, and it showed the label that they were worthy of getting the very best material. It kicked off an incredible run of hits over the next decade, though "My Girl" remains their signature tune to this day. 

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