Gladys Horton, a founding member of the pioneering Motown girl group the Marvelettes, who sang lead on their 1961 classic “Please Mr. Postman,” died January 26th in Sherman Oaks, California, from complications related to a stroke. She was 66.
Horton formed the Marvelettes (then known as the Casinyets) at Michigan’s Inskter High School with members of her glee club when she was just 15. A 1961 talent show caught the attention of one of their teachers, who arranged an audition at Motown with Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. The two-year-old label had no experience with girl groups, but they signed the group — largely based on the powerful vocals of Horton and her group-mate Wanda Young.
In the summer of 1961, Motown released their debut single, “Please Mr. Postman,” which featured Marvin Gaye on drums. (Watch Horton perform the song at a 2005 concert below.) It eventually shot to Number One, and the Marvelettes were put on the road. “We went through hell on those tours,” Marvelette Wanda Young recalled in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 1986 book Motown. “It was so bad — the traveling, the food, the accommodations — that Juanita [Coward] went right into a nervous breakdown. We had to put her under medical care and she left the group in 1963.” Despite the difficulties, the group’s success helped transform Motown into a major record label and paved the way for the Ronettes, the Supremes and all girl groups that followed.
Horton sang lead on many of the group’s other early 1960s hits, including “Beechwood 4-5789,” “Playboy” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” By the mid-1960s, Motown turned their attention towards The Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas, and the Marvelettes’ winning streak slowed down. In 1965, Wanda Young began singing lead on many songs (including “Don’t Mess With Bill”) and in 1967 Horton left the group — in part to care for her handicapped son.
When Horton returned to the stage in later years, she had to tour as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes” because she didn’t own the name rights, a very common situation for artists of that era. She continued to regularly perform until she suffered a stroke last year.