Great Songwriters

This is the Motown Junkies Great Songwriters index: a list of the greatest songwriters in Motown history.

The concept is pretty subjective, I know – who am I to say who’s a great songwriter and who isn’t? So, these are the men and women who wrote the most songs used on mainstream (i.e. non-novelty, non-niche) Motown 45s, the writers whose names crop up on singles (not albums) often enough for them to be called a “Motown songwriter”. Some of them have entries as performers too, and where applicable they’ll be linked below under each biographical sketch.

The writers are listed in order of how often we’ve seen their songs here on Motown Junkies; the number after each name tells you how many of their songs we’ve discussed. Enjoy!

BERRY GORDY JR. (118)

Motown founder, president and – especially in the early days – the fledgling company’s hottest writer and producer, Mr Gordy was the difference between Motown and any number of would-be competitor black-owned independent labels. A brilliant songwriter, Gordy cut his teeth writing hits for his friend Jackie Wilson (including Lonely Teardrops and Reet Petite) before striking out on his own. He set the standard by which all other Motown writers would be judged.

WILLIAM “SMOKEY” ROBINSON (112)

Smokey Robinson was Motown’s greatest all-rounder, a Renaissance man who ranks among the finest writers, producers, singers and talent scouts in American music history. As well as writing dozens of hit singles for other Motown acts, Smokey had a remarkable career as lead singer of his own band, the Miracles. He served as vice-president of the Motown Record Corporation throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.

WILLIAM “MICKEY” STEVENSON (95)

One of Motown’s best writers and producers in the first half of the 1960s, Mickey Stevenson was also head of A&R during the company’s biggest period of expansion, overseeing the development of a roster of artists which would make Motown the most profitable company in America. Along with his wife Kim Weston, he left Motown in the mid-Sixties to take up a similar role at MGM (and later recorded an album as an artist), but never enjoyed the same success he had had while at Motown.

HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND (62)

The writing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr. – the latter two having both previously been Motown recording artists – were responsible for some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed hits of Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, writing all of the big hit singles for the Supremes and Four Tops as well as for numerous other Motown acts. Coming together towards the end of 1962, their musical development was prodigious; Brian and Lamont generally wrote the music (and produced), Eddie usually wrote the words. Eddie Holland took over as head of A&R when Mickey Stevenson left for pastures new, but the team left Motown at the end of 1967 amid an acrimonious financial dispute. The trio later set up their own Hot Wax/Invictus label, writing and producing under the name “Edith Wayne” and enjoying a great deal of initial commercial success before the money ran out.

BRIAN HOLLAND (45)

Brian Holland, one-third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio (see above), had written and produced many singles for Motown as a teenager before the team came together, often in partnership with Robert Bateman (below) as a double-act under the name “Brianbert”. Unlike his older brother Eddie, after 1962 he rarely wrote or produced outside the confines of the HDH team.

CLARENCE PAUL (44)

Like Eddie Holland, Clarence Paul had a substantial but unsuccessful attempt at a solo singing career before venturing to the other side of the glass, the North Carolina native moving to Detroit and joining Motown’s writing and producing staff in 1962 at the invitation of his friend Mickey Stevenson. Clarence quickly became popular with the musicians, sharing his cigarettes and cash with the players and becoming one of only a handful of “outsiders” invited to the band’s after-hours parties. Clarence was best known for his long association with (Little) Stevie Wonder, writing and producing many of Stevie’s early hits and becoming an all-round minder and surrogate father figure for the young artist. As with many ex-performers turned Motown writers, Clarence harboured faint hopes of reviving a singing career, and the suspicion was widely voiced that he was using Stevie Wonder’s career to relaunch his own (not helped by his habit of appearing as a co-vocalist on a number of Stevie’s songs). Clarence eventually left Motown at the end of the decade to hook up again with Mickey Stevenson. He died in 1995.

JANIE BRADFORD (25)

One of the great unsung heroines of the Motown story, Janie Bradford joined Motown as a schoolgirl receptionist – but her quick wit, genial manner and ear for a tune saw her quickly promoted to the writing staff, ending up as head of Writer Relations (the official go-between for the label and the writers). She co-wrote one of Motown’s biggest early hits, Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), and remained a valued writer with the company until the early 1980s.

NORMAN WHITFIELD (24)

Hailing from New York City, Norman Whitfield was an enigmatic character: a hard-driving taskmaster and studio perfectionist, but also given over to long periods of intense silence and contemplation, with a boastful attitude thrown into the mix. Initially more interested in producing than writing, Whitfield (like Clarence Paul before him) became close friends with the Motown musicians and ended up creating a whole new sound. He first began to develop his ideas with the little-known girl group the Velvelettes, before taking over writing and producing duties for the Temptations in the mid-Sixties. Allied with writing partner Barrett Strong, Whitfield quickly steered the Temptations from their harmony group roots to a more funk-influenced, socially-conscious “psychedelic soul” sound. The group eventually balked at being sidelined on their own records by Whitfield’s predilection for nine-minute instrumental epics, and Whitfield left Motown to set up his own label, but his legacy was secure.

EDWARD HOLLAND JR. (21)

The older of the Holland brothers began as a vocalist, singing demo tracks for the songs Berry Gordy wrote for Jackie Wilson. Eddie cut one of the very first Motown singles in 1959, It Moves Me, before his contract was bought out by United Artists; his stint at UA was not a success and he returned to Motown as an artist a year later. Sales remained disappointing, Eddie was constantly afflicted by stage fright, and when he caught sight of his younger brother Brian’s songwriting cheques, he realised he was in the wrong game. He joined the Holland-Dozier-Holland team as primary lyricist in 1963 and went on to sell millions of records as a writer; he also wrote a large number of Motown single sides outside the team, mainly in association with Norman Whitfield. Along with his brother and Lamont Dozier, he left Motown in 1967, but never resumed his performing career.

ROBERT BATEMAN (20)

Originally part of the vocal harmony group the Satintones, the first group ever signed to Motown, Robert Bateman released six singles as a group member before transitioning to writing and producing, initially in partnership with Brian Holland under the name “Brianbert”. He left Motown in the early 1960s to pursue a successful career as a songwriter and occasional performer based out of New York.

IVY JO HUNTER (19)

Not to be confused with Ivory Joe Hunter, Ivy Jo was one of Motown’s best-kept secrets. He arrived at Hitsville as a performer, but almost none of his many recordings ever saw the light of day; he was quickly absorbed into the writing staff, where he picked up credits on several significant hits for Motown, often in collaboration with Mickey Stevenson (most notably co-writing Martha & the Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street), but the promise of his own album never materialised, the completed LP (“Ivy Jo Is In This Bag”) remaining unreleased.

LAMONT DOZIER (17)

Frizzy-haired baby-faced genius Lamont Dozier arrived at Hitsville as a performer in 1962, but quickly struck up a partnership with Brian Holland and learned the ropes producing and writing minor hits for several lesser-known Motown acts. In 1963, the team was completed with the arrival of Eddie Holland as lyricist, and the trio went on to become Motown’s biggest hitmakers. After leaving Motown with the Holland brothers at the end of 1967, Lamont resumed his performing career, initially as part of the duo Holland-Dozier (with Brian Holland) and then as a solo singer, releasing several albums in the 70s and 80s.

FREDDIE GORMAN (26)

The famous “Singing Postman”, blessed with a fine voice as well as being one of the great writers of the earliest days of Motown, Freddie Gorman was originally the lyricist for Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, before being squeezed out by the arrival of Eddie Holland in 1963; he later left Motown before resuming his performing career with the group the Originals, who ironically then returned to Motown at the end of the 1960s with Gorman centre stage. After a successful recording career, Freddie passed away in 2006.

ANDRE WILLIAMS (16)

A true original, Andre Williams had enjoyed a massive national hit with “Bacon Fat” in the late 1950s, but his signing to Motown in the early Sixties as a performer was a damp squib, the company having no idea what to do with such a mercurial figure. His greater worth to Motown during his short spell with the company was as a writer-producer, where his salacious stage act and loquacious personality belied an intelligent and sensitive nature. As at the time of writing, Andre is still performing.

WARREN “PETE” MOORE (11)

Better known as a member of the Miracles, Moore also picked up several writing credits alongside Smokey Robinson, as a much-valued lieutenant and palette-mixer as well as a source of inspiration.

RICHARD “POPCORN” WYLIE (10)

Popcorn was a lightning-rod figure who had several unsuccessful singles as a performer in the earliest days of Motown, but whose major claim to fame is his bringing his schoolfriend, the immortal bassist James Jamerson, to Motown. Wylie departed under a cloud before Motown hit the big time, writing and producing many of the Golden World label’s biggest mid-Sixties hits before returning in the 1970s for an unexpected encore.

GWEN GORDY FUQUA (9)

An outstanding songwriter in her own right, Gwen Gordy was the older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy and perhaps the most talented of Berry’s many siblings to be drawn into the Motown empire. She had her greatest success as co-owner of Anna Records with Billy “Roquel” Davis and her sister Anna (see below), and later Harvey and Tri-Phi with her husband Harvey Fuqua. When Motown bought out Gwen and Harvey’s mini-empire in 1963, Gwen came into the Motown fold proper, becoming a valued songwriter and heading up the Artist Development department under the guidance of Maxine Powell. An important figure in Motown’s later business success, Gwen passed away in 1999.

MARVIN GAYE (9)

Far better known as a performer, the jobbing session drummer turned teen pin-up hearthrob turned sensitive socially-conscious singer-songwriter was involved in writing his own material from an early age; he was also credited with a number of Motown single sides for other artists, both early in his career and after becoming famous (most notably in his late-60s/early-70s work for the Originals), evincing the songwriting talent that would later make him the voice of a generation. Marvin left Motown in the early 1980s and experienced a brief career revival before being murdered in 1984 one day short of his 45th birthday.

BOBBY ROGERS (9)

(biography to follow)

RONNIE WHITE (9)

(biography to follow)

ROBERT GORDY (8)

(biography to follow)

HENRY (HANK) COSBY (7)

(biography to follow)

GEORGE GORDY (6)

(biography to follow)

ANNA GORDY GAYE (5)

(biography to follow)

AUTRY DeWALT JR. (5)

(biography to follow)

MARV JOHNSON (5)

(biography to follow)

EDDIE KENDRICKS (5)

(biography to follow)

MARV TARPLIN (5)

(biography to follow)

FRANK WILSON (5)

(biography to follow)

HAL DAVIS (4)

(biography to follow)

FREDERICK EARL “SHORTY” LONG (4)

(biography to follow)

RONALD MILLER (4)

(biography to follow)

RICHARD STREET (4)

(biography to follow)

STEVIE WONDER (4)

(biography to follow)

HARVEY FUQUA (5)

(biography to follow)

ROBERT STAUNTON (3)

(biography to follow)

MICHAEL VALVANO (3)

(biography to follow)

ROBERT WALKER (3)

(biography to follow)

MORRIS (LUVEL) BROADNAX (3)

(biography to follow)

MARC GORDON (2)

(biography to follow)

SYLVIA MOY (2)

(biography to follow)

BARRETT STRONG (2)

(biography to follow)

R. DEAN TAYLOR (2)

(biography to follow)

JIMMY WEBB (2)

(biography to follow)

JOHNNY BRISTOL (1)

(biography to follow)

CORNELIUS GRANT (1)

(biography to follow)

WILLIAM WEATHERSPOON (1)

(biography to follow)

9 thoughts on “Great Songwriters”

  1. rbcommander said:

    Fell in love to “Jaime” at Pawleys Island i 1964. Never fogot the song.

    Like

  2. Bill Stevenson said:

    I worked with a gentlemen who said he worked for Motown as a song writer and session guitar player. Robert Jefferson. Do you have anything on him?

    Like

  3. Chris roberts said:

    I think Pam Sawyer should be included on this list hitting with Love Child, Gotta hold on to this feeling and then on to the 70’s.

    Like

  4. Why No Mention of Ashford & Simpson?! 😠

    Like

  5. How about adding Laverne Ware (Gloria Jones)? Great site by the way!

    Like

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