In another of our popular Top 10 series, we’re looking at Motown music to play at your wedding reception.
What is Motown?
The Motown record label was originally founded in 1960 by Berry Gordy Jr in Detroit, Michigan. It produced a huge range of instantly recognisable hits that still resonate with all generations today. The name itself is a portmanteau of the words “motor” and “town”, a nickname for the city of Detroit.
As an African-American record label, the development of Motown played an integral part in the inclusivity and racial integration of pop music at the time. Known as a style or sub-genre of soul music with aspects of pop, it combines rhythm, blues and jazz. Specifically though, as a genre Motown is a rhythmic gospel inspired sound. It was incredibly influential during the Civil Rights Movement. The songs generally have an upbeat tempo, contain catchy pop hooks and feature fantastic, relatable lyrics.
With such a positive and life-affirming sound, Motown music is perfectly suited to a celebration and is guaranteed to have all your wedding guests twisting the night away on the dance floor. Including artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations, this soulful sound is as romantic as it’s optimistic.
In honour of this wonderful musical style, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 Motown songs you should have at your wedding.
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher – Jackie Wilson
Upbeat, catchy and all about love, what better song to play at your reception?
Jackie Wilson was a soul singer who went by the nickname “Mr Excitement” because of his mastery over the stage. However, this upbeat R&B hit was nearly sung by someone else. Supposedly, Wilson sang the song like a soul ballad and did not wish to sing it like an upbeat jaunt. However, the producer warned Wilson that he’d record it himself if he didn’t sing it properly. After this, he recorded his lead vocals in just one take.
We are very glad that he relented and found a way to push his voice for this terrific track. Although technically released by Columbia Studios (and not Motown’s Universal Music Group), we think it fits here perfectly.
Heat Wave – Martha and the Vandellas
This song, later seen as one of the founding tunes of the “Motown Sound”, was a great hit at the time of its 1963 release. If you’re looking for a track to get the wedding party jiving, this is such a great choice.
If lyrics like “Whenever I’m with him, something inside starts burning” don’t attract you to this song then surely the doo-wop jazz will. The saxophone and gospel elements are what truly cemented the Motown genre, and this song’s place within it. Moreover, it made the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland a force to be reckoned with within the genre. “Heat Wave” was even nominated for a Grammy award, although lost out to Ray Charles’ “Busted”.
Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
“I’ll be there with the love that will shelter you” is such a great sentiment for a wedding that you could even use this song in your vows, let alone your reception! Also written by the hit-writers Holland-Dozier-Holland, it is generally considered one of the best known Motown songs. It also topped the UK singles charts in 1966 and stayed in the pole position for three weeks.
A lot of the passion in this song comes from Levi Stubbs’ lead singing as he topped his vocal range and reached an emotional semi-shout similar to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” released the previous year. He also improvised a couple of lines in the studio which made it into the final song. Most of all, nobody can argue with the message as the song will take a happy couple dive into married life.
I’ll Be There – The Jackson 5
While many love songs are sung from one lover to another, Michael Jackson was just eleven years old when he recorded “I’ll Be There” with his brothers. However, this youthful voice brings an earnestness to the song. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 at release, and charted again following Michael’s death.
At its simplest, this is a song about unconditional love and being there for someone else. Dozens of acts have released different songs with the same name, but none quite as pure as this one.
You Can’t Hurry Love – The Supremes
Released in 1966, “You Can’t Hurry Love” features a girl desperate to fall in love and settle down. The song is based on a gospel song from the 1950s, “You Can’t Hurry God”, and features many similar lyrics.
The song came at a time when the young Supremes singers were growing up and starting to sing about more mature subjects. This became not only a signature song of The Supremes but also of Motown and hit number one on all of the US charts.
As it is so popular, it would be a fantastic song to get everyone dancing at your wedding reception. Furthermore, it is a celebratory song for all of your single guests, letting them know love will come their way.
My Girl – The Temptations
In homage to the bride, the groom can sing this number to make his new wife feel extra special. This is probably the best known song from the quintet, The Temptations, released in 1964. This was the first recorded song to feature David Ruffin as lead vocalist after producer Smokey Robinson saw Ruffin lead on “Under the Boardwalk”. His sweet and rich voice certainly adds a lot to this crooner. They even won Motown its first Grammy award five years later.
Really, is there any song better for a wedding than a partner singing to their new spouse?
My Guy – Mary Wells
Well, having said the above, this is the opposite take! If you ask your DJ to play one at your wedding, it might be fun to play the other next. Recorded by Mary Wells and released nine months before “My Girl”, “My Guy” was also written and produced by Smokey Robinson. As such, we think the two pair perfectly together.
However, instead of being a straightforward celebration of her boyfriend, this song is actually directed at another man. The lyrics warn that any advances towards her would be pointless as she is committed to her guy. And, as a matter of fact, isn’t this exactly what the commitment of marriage is about? The bride can return the compliment of the groom’s singing with her own reply.
For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder wrote and sang countless hits for the Motown label. He is a multi-award winning artist, with 25 Grammys, an Oscar and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Therefore, we had to include one of his songs in this article. We did consider “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for the wedding connotations, or even “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. However, we decided on “For Once In My Life”, but maybe avoid this if either of you are divorced!
Actually, this song has been recorded by many other artists, including some in this list. Four Tops and Diana Ross both recorded ballad versions of this hit, but Stevie’s is the most famous and popular. He recorded it at the same time as The Temptations, but Motown’s CEO Gordy disliked Wonder’s rendition and nearly stopped its release. Luckily for us, Billie Jean Brown convinced him and we have this fantastic wedding song.
You’re All I Need to Get By – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Unlike many songs on this list, “You’re All I Need to Get By” was a Motown track without the Motown sound. Instead, it is more reminiscent of gospel and soul tracks.
A year before, the duo recorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, another great, classic wedding song. Unfortunately, their amazing duets were short-lived as Tammi died three months after recording “You’re All I Need to Get By”. Both songs, as well as most of their other duets, were written by the husband and wife Ashford and Simpson.
If anything, the history of the song makes it all the more appropriate for the lifelong commitment of a marriage. Certainly, Gaye’s constant encouragement to Tammi throughout the song it something we’d love at our nuptials.
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
“I want to spend my life with you” is the ideal lyric to play at a wedding and it could make a perfect first dance song, too. Admittedly it was released on Hi Records instead of Motown, but the sound is very similar.
Al Green celebrated a string of successes in the 1970s as he released a series of soul songs. In 1971 he recorded what would become his signature song, “Let’s Stay Together”, which immediately jumped to number one on the Billboard charts. The sentiment is undeniably fitting for a wedding as Al croons “whether times are good or bad, happy or sad”. To us, this is just another way of saying “for better or for worse”, as in the traditional wedding vows.
This Top 10 selection of timeless classic Motown hits is perfectly suited to a wedding party, although of course there’s also a huge range of other songs – we’d love to hear your suggestions. If you are looking for a Motown Band to perform at your wedding, look no further than Hop Till You Drop, the live music specialists.