TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Released as a single (Tamla 54060) on Monday, April 9, 1962.
SONGWRITERS: Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, Gladys Horton, William Stevenson.
PRODUCERS: Brian Holland, Robert Bateman.
BACKSTORY: The Marvelettes were Motown Records’ first breakthrough female group, a legacy that will always be theirs. Moreover, the five girls – Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and Wanda Young – were the first Motown act to score a Number One single on the Billboard pop charts, with “Please Mr. Postman,” in December 1961. What further adds to their accomplishments during the company’s early years was the fact that one of the Marvelettes helped to write each of the group’s first Top 10 hits.
As noted in The Complete Motown Singles Volume 1: 1959-1961, original member Georgia Dobbins came up with a sketch of a song from pianist William Garrett, which subsequently developed into “Please Mr. Postman.” (Dobbins left the Marvelettes before that was recorded, replaced by Wanda Young.) “Playboy” was written by group leader Gladys Horton. “I was just trying to copy off of Georgia Dobbins with ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ ” she admitted to biographer Marc Taylor in The Original Marvelettes,”but it didn’t come out as good.” Alongside Horton’s name as songwriter were those of Brian Holland and Robert Bateman, who produced the record, and William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s A&R chief at the time.
“That first number one came too early for us,” Horton told Gary Graff in the annotation for the 2009 Motown set, The Marvelettes Forever. “We were, like, naïve little girls from the country, and we didn’t really understand what was going on or how to handle things. We just kind of learned as we went along.” Nonetheless, they were fast learners, especially when “Playboy” reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1962, and No. 4 on the R&B charts. The song had been recorded on November 22, 1961 – or at least, the version issued as a single. An earlier, less-polished take was made available for the first time on the 2018 Baby I’ve Got It! More Motown Girls compilation (for more on that album, read here).
While “Playboy” was playing the field in pop and R&B circles, Motown issued the Marvelettes’ third – yes, third – album in July 1962, named after the single and featuring a front-cover photo of all five group members for the first time. Playboy also featured their next hit, “Beechwood 4-5789,” as well as a couple of tunes from the boss, Berry Gordy Jr. To complete their ’62 whirlwind of activity, the Marvelettes joined the first Motortown Revue tour that fall, playing shows up and down the East Coast in the company of the Miracles, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, Marv Johnson, the Contours, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. Only one group in the line-up had enjoyed three Top 10 pop hits at that point in Motown’s history. By now, you know who they were.
REMAKES: Although “Please Mr. Postman” was a song which attracted other artists – most famously, the Beatles – “Playboy” was hardly covered at all. There was one version, however, by Canadian singer Charity Brown in 1975. Her self-titled album that year included the song and such other Motown copyrights as “Jimmy Mack,” “Dancing In The Street,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While).” The project was made all the more newsworthy by the fact that record producer Harry Hinde recruited several members of Motown’s Funk Brothers, including bassist Bob Babbitt, to play behind Brown.
FOOTNOTE: A month or so after the Marvelettes ruled the charts with “Please Mr. Postman,” Philadelphia’s Dee Dee Sharp went into the studio to record a new song for the city’s Cameo Parkway label, “Mashed Potato Time,” written by Kal Mann. Or perhaps not so new, since the melody bore a striking resemblance to the Marvelettes’ hit, and the last verse even made a lyrical reference to it. “In those days,” recalled Mann’s former songwriting partner, Dave Appell, a few years ago, “you would call up Berry Gordy at Motown and say, ‘Berry, I’ve got a song here called “Mashed Potato Time.” I know you’re going to sue me, so let’s work this thing out now.” What they worked out was that the writers of “Please Mr. Postman” were added to the authorship of “Mashed Potato Time,” and Motown’s publishing arm, Jobete, shared in the song’s royalties. And when Dee Dee recorded her 1962 album, All The Hits, she included a version of “Playboy.” All’s well that ends well, then.