Saturday Night Music, January 29, 2011: The Marvelettes, “Too Many Fish in The Sea,” and The Ancestors Call Its First Lead Singer, Gladys Horton, 66
This is one of the recordings I liked best from The Marvelettes. The other is “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.”
On Thursday, The Ancestors took home Gladys Horton (right), former lead singer of The Marvelettes, from the lingering effects of a stroke that she suffered last year. Horton had been living in Southern California with her family since the early 1970s.
Raised by foster parents, she was only 15 (17 in one account), when she recorded “Please Mr. Postman” with Motown. It stayed on the charts as number one for six months. The recording also features Marvin Gaye, uncredited, as drummer.
Horton died Wednesday in Sherman Oaks at age 65, said her other son, Vaughn Thornton. She had been in declining health for some time.
“Gladys was a very, very special lady, and I loved the way she sang with her raspy, soulful voice,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “We will all miss her, and she will always be a part of the Motown family.”
The Marvelettes never topped the chart again, but they had six Top 20 singles, including “Beachwood 4-5789,” “Don’t Mess With Bill” and “Playboy.”
The Beatles recorded a version of “Please Mr. Postman” that was on their second U.S. album, and the Carpenters brought the song back to No.1 with their 1975 remake.
The original group — five students at Detroit’s Inkster High School — was given a Motown audition after a school talent contest. After signing, they were asked to come up with an original song, so member Georgia Dobbins reworked a blues song that she got from a friend (an actual mailman, William Garrett). Others, including Motown producers Robert Bateman and Brian Holland, also have been listed as co-writers.
With its rough edges and aggressive attitude, “Postman” sounded more like a product of the era’s girl-group genre than the Motown hit machine that would soon develop, and the Marvelettes’ prime period predated Motown’s famous “charm school” grooming process.
As unpolished as they were, they were the first queens at the label, a position that led to some conflicts with their rivals. In one famous incident, the Supremes’ Diana Ross punctuated a bout of bickering with Horton by driving a car in her direction and screeching to a stop with little room to spare.
Still think Diana Ross deserves all our sympathy? But I digress.
Apparently, Georgia Dobbins’ church-going dad didn’t want his daughter singing in nightclubs. So reluctantly, on the eve of what might have been for Georgia, Gladys Horton filled in that spot, and the rest was music history. The group varied from three to four singers over its eight-year run ; the original line-up was Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Wyanetta (usually misnamed as “Juanita”) Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, and Wanda Young.
The Marvelettes provided Berry Gordy with Motown’s first number one single on the Billboard Top 100 with “Please Mr. Postman,” but there would never again be another hit single like it for the group, despite later successes like “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” and “Beechwood 4-5789.” In all, three singles were Top 10 Pop singles, nine were Top 10 R&B singles and their debut single, “Postman,” was number one on both charts. Horton, though, proved too bluesy for Gordy’s marketing tastes. Eventually, with the group taken in hand by Motown vice president Smokey Robinson, Wanda Young replaced Horton as lead when Horton left the group to get married in 1967. Horton divided her time between performing solo as “Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes,” and caring for her handicapped son.
Because what isn’t widely known is that Gladys Horton, as the co-founder of The Marvelettes, spent the rest of her life trying to wrest the name back after it was sold by Berry Gordy to a promoter, Larry Marshak, that fronted girl groups who sang The Marvelettes’ hit songs. If Horton had regained control, she could have reformed part or all of the old group, toured or even recorded again. Or she could have fronted her own chosen group members around the country. This would have resulted in Horton (and other Marvelettes) amassing hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of dollars a year.
So remember, those of you who like to attend oldies shows, if there is any group claiming to be The Marvelettes, understand that they may not be the original members. A clear hint would be that these groups are years younger than what the original members would be. As a result of former Supreme Mary Wilson’s activism on this matter, since 2006, an oldies group must have at least one original member to qualify for the name.
The Marvelettes have not yet been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rest in peace, Gladys.