Born into the girl-group era of the early 1960s, the vivacious Marvelettes are forever famous for delivering (“de sooner, de better”) Motown’s first No. 1 record on the pop charts, “Please Mr. Postman.” The song continues to have its own life – as recently as 2017, when it was a foundation stone for “Feel It Still,” the global smash by Portugal. The Man – but the charmers from Inkster, Michigan, are remembered through other fine music made at Motown.
- First hit: “Please Mr. Postman”
- Biggest hit: “Please Mr. Postman”
- Top album: Sophisticated Soul
- Career highlight: the first No. 1 pop hit in Motown history
- The quintet coalesces in the spring of 1961 when savvy teenager Gladys Horton (who had previously recorded for Detroit’s JVB label) auditions glee club members at Inkster High. She wants to form a group to take part in the school’s annual talent contest, and recruits Katherine Anderson, Wyanetta (aka Juanita) Cowart and Georgeanna Tillman, and then Georgia Dobbins. They jokingly call themselves the Casinyets (as in “can’t sing yet”)
- “Please Mr. Postman” takes 15 weeks to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, finally stepping up in December 1961. The following year, The Marvelettes score two more Top 20 pop hits, “Playboy” and “Beechwood 4-5789” (co-written by Marvin Gaye), then deliver the first Top 50 success for an up-and-coming writing/production trio at Motown. That team is Holland/Dozier/Holland, the hit is “Locking Up My Heart.” The Marvelettes’ line-up evolves: Georgeanna Tillman and Wyanetta Cowart depart.
- Smokey Robinson pens and produces a pair of hits for The Marvelettes, “As Long As I Know He’s Mine” and “He’s A Good Guy (Yes He Is),” but the group turns down “Where Did Our Love Go” in favor of “Too Many Fish In The Sea.” The latter awards them a Top 5 slot in the R&B best-sellers, while “Where Did Our Love Go” carries Diana Ross, Florence Ballard (who briefly sang with the Marvelettes on the road) and Mary Wilson to pop chart supremacy.
- Smokey returns The Marvelettes to Top 20 glory with “Don’t Mess With Bill” in 1966, “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” in ’67, and “My Baby Must Be A Magician” (with spoken intro by Melvin Franklin of the Temptations) in early ’68. “She had this little voice that was sexy to me,” says Smokey of Wanda Young, lead singer on all those hits. “A little country kind of sexy voice.”
- “When You’re Young And In Love” is a Top 20 hit in the U.K., while The Marvelettes and Sophisticated Soul prove to be impressive back-to-back albums. In 1967, group founder Gladys Horton departs, succeeded by Ann Bogan, who takes lead vocals on “I’m Gonna Hold On Long As I Can,” a big favorite with Britain’s “Northern Soul” crowd.
- “Destination: Anywhere” is the trio’s final R&B chart success, penned and produced by a new creative pair at Motown, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford. The girl group’s last Hot 100 credit belongs to “That’s How Heartaches Are Made” in 1969, a Wanda-led remake of a Baby Washington R&B hit from six years earlier. As the decade turns, The Marvelettes go their separate ways.
- Revivals help to sustain their legacy. The Carpenters’ interpretation of “Please Mr. Postman” climbs to No. 1 in January 1975 – one of a handful of songs ever to reach the Billboard summit in versions by different artists – while Karen and Richard also record “Beechwood 4-5789” several years later. In 1991, “Destination: Anywhere” becomes a central song in the film soundtrack of The Commitments, and in 2011, “Please Mr. Postman” is inducted into the Grammy® Hall of Fame. Six years later, the Marvelettes’ first hit is still delivering. To create “Feel It Still,” the singer/songwriter of alt-rock band Portugal. The Man, John Gourley, said he used the melody from the Motown record as a placeholder, “and it just stuck.”
- “The Marvelettes,” says Martha Reeves, “paved the way for Motown’s girls; the Supremes, everybody. If they hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have worked.”