Nobody can seem to do these sisters justice, or give them justice, but I will attempt to….
Nobody can seem to do these sisters justice, or give them justice, but I will attempt to.
The Marvelettes was an African American girl group that achieved popularity in the early- to mid-1960s. They consisted of schoolmates Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson (now Schaffner), Georgeanna Tillman (later Gordon), Juanita Cowart (now Cowart Motley), and Georgia Dobbins, who was replaced by Wanda Young (now Rogers) prior to the group signing their first deal. They were the first major successful act of Motown Records after the Miracles and its first significantly successful girl group after the release of the 1961 number-one single, “Please Mr. Postman”, one of the first number-one singles recorded by an all-female vocal group and the first by a Motown recording act.
Founded in 1960 while the group’s founding members performed together at their glee club at Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan, they signed to Motown’s Tamla label in 1961. Some of the group’s early hits were written by band members and some of Motown’s rising singer-songwriters such as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, who played drums on a majority of their early recordings. Despite their early successes, the group was eclipsed in popularity by groups like The Supremes, with whom they shared an intense rivalry.
Nevertheless, they managed a major comeback in 1966 with “Don’t Mess with Bill”, along with several other hits. They struggled with problems of poor promotion from Motown, health issues and substance abuse with Cowart the first to leave in 1963, followed by Georgeanna Tillman in 1965, and Gladys Horton in 1967. The group ceased performing together in 1969 and, following the release of The Return of the Marvelettes in 1970, featuring only Wanda Rogers, disbanded for good, with both Rogers and Katherine Anderson leaving the music business.
The group has received several honors including induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, as well as receiving the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 2005, two of the group’s most successful recordings, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill” earned million-selling Gold singles from the RIAA. On August 17, 2013, in Cleveland, Ohio, at Cleveland State University, the Marvelettes were inducted into the 1st class of the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame.
The group that would become the Marvelettes formed at Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb located west of Detroit, Michigan by fifteen-year-old glee club member Gladys Horton in the fall of 1960. Horton enlisted older glee club members Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Georgia Dobbins (already a high school graduate) to join her. The members struggled to come up with a name for their new act until one of the members jokingly took a stab at their own singing abilities, saying “we can’t sing yet.” Horton altered the saying to “The Casinyets”.
In 1961, the quintet, now called the Marvels, entered a talent show contest on the behest of their teacher and ended up finishing in fourth place. Though only the first three winners were offered a trip to audition for the fledgling Motown label, two of the girls’ schoolteachers advised that they be allowed to audition too. Upon auditioning for Motown executives including Brian Holland and Robert Bateman, they had a second audition with bigger staff including Smokey Robinson and the label president and founder, Berry Gordy, who while impressed with their vocal styles advised them to come back with their own composition. Returning to Inkster, Georgia Dobbins contacted a local musician named William Garrett, who had an unfinished blues composition titled “Please Mr. Postman”; Garrett allowed Dobbins to use it as long as he received songwriting credit if the song became a hit. Despite having no previous songwriting experience, Dobbins took the song home and reshaped it overnight to reflect the teenage sound of doo-wop.
Prior to returning to Motown, Dobbins left the group due to her growing family and her father, who advised her not to continue her career in show business. Dobbins’ departure left Horton in full charge of the group. To replace her, Horton asked another Inkster graduate, Wanda Young, to replace Dobbins. When the group returned and performed their composition, Gordy agreed to work with the group but under the advice that they change their name. Gordy renamed them The Marvelettes and signed the act to Motown’s Tamla division in July 1961. The following month, the group recorded “Please Mr. Postman”, which was polished by Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Freddie Gorman, another songwriting partner of Holland (before Holland became part of the Holland–Dozier–Holland team), who moonlighted as a mailman, as well as the song “So Long Baby”, sung by Wanda. Tamla issued “Please Mr. Postman” on August 21, 1961. The song then climbed to the top of the singles chart, reaching #1 that December. making them the first Motown act to have a #1 hit on the Hot 100.
To follow up on this success, Motown had the group record “Twistin’ Postman” to take advantage of the twist dance craze and the re-release of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. The song eventually peaked at #34 on the pop chart in early 1962. Before the end of 1961, Tamla issued the first Marvelettes album, also named Please Mr. Postman, but it failed to chart. The group’s next single, “Playboy”, marked the second time one of their singles was written by a band member, this time by Gladys Horton. Like “Postman”, the song was retooled by other writers and upon its release in early 1962, reached #7. A fourth hit, “Beechwood 4-5789”, co-written by Marvin Gaye, reached #17. During 1962, two more albums would be issued by the band including Smash Hits of ’62 (later issued as The Marvelettes Sing) and Playboy. Following the success of “Beechwood”, R&B radio stations also frequently played the single’s flip side, “Someday, Someway”, which paid off sending the song to #8 on the R&B chart—their first double-sided hit.
Due to their success, the group had to leave school in order to perform and despite the promise of tutors to help with their schooling, they were never granted any. Due to their young ages and Horton being an orphaned ward of the courts, they eventually were taken in by Esther Gordy Edwards, who bused them to Motortown Revue shows. After several successful Top 40 recordings, the group released the modest success, “Strange I Know”, which peaked at #49. In early 1963, the group was shortened to a quartet when Juanita Cowart opted to leave the band citing a mental breakdown—caused by stress from performing on the road and a mistake she made in describing the group’s background during an appearance on American Bandstand. Carrying on as a quartet, the group issued one of Holland–Dozier–Holland’s early compositions, “Locking Up My Heart”, which peaked at #44. It was one of the first singles to feature Horton and Young in co-leads. The success of “Locking” was probably tested due to strong airplay by the song’s B-side, the Young-led ballad “Forever”, which also received a pop charting, peaking at #78. Then Berry Gordy composed and produced the single, “My Daddy Knows Best”, but it was their lowest charting at the time, #67.
By 1964, the majority of American vocal groups especially all female bands such as the Shirelles and the Ronettes started struggling with finding a hit after the arrival of British pop and rock acts. In the meantime, other Motown girl groups such as Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were starting to get promoted by Motown staff with the Vandellas becoming the top girl group of 1963. The following year, the Supremes took their place as the label’s top primary female group after a succession of hit recordings that year, culminating in the release of their second album, Where Did Our Love Go, which Motown was able to promote successfully. Regarding the aforementioned ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, page 97 of the book The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group by Marc Taylor makes it clear that the Marvelettes did turn it down. Gladys recalls “When they played ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ they played ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’. We picked ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ because it had all the music and all the bongos. We were all together and said at the same time we didn’t want ‘Where Did Our Love Go’.”
That year, the Marvelettes reached the top forty with the Norman Whitfield production, “Too Many Fish in the Sea”, reaching #25 with the recording. By now, Motown had begun its charm school hiring choreographer Cholly Atkins and Maxine Powell to refine the label’s acts. Atkins began polishing the Marvelettes’ dance moves while Powell taught the group to be more graceful. telling them and every other Motown act that they would “perform in front of kings and queens”. Meanwhile, two of the Marvelettes got married: Georgeanna Tillman married longtime boyfriend Billy Gordon of the Contours and Wanda Young married her longtime boyfriend Bobby Rogers of the Miracles changing her name to Wanda Rogers. By the end of 1964, Georgeanna Tillman, a longtime sufferer of sickle cell anemia was diagnosed with lupus. By early 1965, struggling to keep up with their stringent recording sessions and touring schedules and her illnesses, a doctor of Tillman’s advised her to leave performing for good. The rest of the Marvelettes carried on as a trio from then on.
In mid-1965, Wanda Rogers took over as lead vocalist, as Motown producers felt Rogers’ voice was more suitable for this role than Horton’s. With Rogers as lead, the group had a hit with “I’ll Keep Holding On”, which reached #34 while “Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead” settled for a #61 showing but was #11 on the R&B chart. Later in 1965, the group released the Smokey Robinson composition, “Don’t Mess with Bill”, which brought the group back to the top ten reaching #7 and becoming their second single to sell over a million copies. From then on, with Robinson mainly in charge, most of the Marvelettes singles would feature Rogers on lead. In 1966, they had a modest success with “You’re the One” and by the end of that year, they reached the top 20 with “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, which Smokey had to fight to get released. In 1967, the group recorded the Van McCoy composition, “When You’re Young and in Love”, which had been originally recorded by Ruby & the Romantics. The song reached #23 in the U.S. and peaked at #13 in the UK, becoming their only British hit.
By 1967, Gladys Horton had reconsidered her involvement with the Marvelettes. After her first child, Sammie, was born with cerebral palsy, Horton decided to leave the group entirely, doing so before the release of the hit “My Baby Must Be a Magician”. The song peaked at #17 and was noted for featuring the Temptations’ Melvin Franklin providing the opening line. With Horton out, Harvey Fuqua introduced the group to Ann Bogan who became Horton’s replacement. However, by the time Bogan joined the group in 1968, most of the musicians of Motown’s early years had left, mainly due to financial disputes with the label. The group struggled with recordings after the release of “Magician”, with Motown offering little to no promotion. The 1968 singles “Here I Am Baby” and “Destination: Anywhere” were only modestly successful, peaking at #44 and #63 respectively. The release of their 1969 album, In Full Bloom, failed as did its only single, the remake of Justine Washington’s “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”.
Wanda Rogers, who had suffered from a number of personal problems for some time, became unreliable and difficult to work with. Concert scheduling was difficult as she sometimes failed to turn up for performances. In 1970, Rogers recorded songs for a solo album, produced by Smokey Robinson and including covers of earlier Motown recordings, which Motown decided to market as The Return of The Marvelettes. As this album featured no other Marvelettes, original member Katherine Anderson refused to participate in appearing on the cover of the album due to what she felt was Motown’s disrespect towards her and the group. The album was only a modest hit, reaching #50 on the R&B album charts and featured no charted hit singles. Following this, the group disbanded with Katherine Anderson settling briefly as a staff writer for Motown. After Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972, Anderson and Rogers left the business altogether returning to Michigan with Anderson settling in her hometown of Inkster while Rogers moved to Southfield, Michigan. Meanwhile, Gladys Horton had moved to Los Angeles where she raised her three sons.
In January 1980, former Marvelette and original member Georgeanna Tillman died from complications of lupus, in her mother’s house in Inkster, at the age of 36. Shortly afterwards, several of the former members filed suit against Motown, complaining of not receiving any royalties from their work. In 1989, Gladys Horton tried to reunite the original Marvelettes after being offered a contract with Motorcity Records. Wanda Young was the only other Marvelette to agree to sing on the recording. Following this, Horton continued to perform, sometimes as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes”. Due to a legal disagreement with Larry Marshak, who bought the Marvelettes’ name from Motown after the label lost rights to the name, Horton would fight for years to retain ownership of the name. Marshak had several groups billing themselves as “The Marvelettes”, but the women who portrayed themselves as the Marvelettes were much younger than the original lineup, and had not recorded on any of the Marvelettes’ original Motown hits.
By 2006, thanks to the efforts of former Supremes singer Mary Wilson, legislation had been launched in 33 states via The Truth In Music Act to prevent performers from using the name of a group that didn’t have at least one original member, causing the groups who Marshak had hired as Marvelettes to bill themselves as “Tribute to the Marvelettes”. Both Horton and Katherine Anderson began fighting to get back ownership of the name and were in their final stages of having the name returned to them when Horton died from a stroke at a California nursing home in January 2011. Following their exits from the Marvelettes, both Georgia Dobbins and Juanita Cowart remained in Inkster and settled into life outside the entertainment industry, with Cowart being active in her Inkster church choir. Wanda Rogers now lives with her daughter in Westland, Michigan while Katherine Anderson resides in Inkster and mentors several Detroit-area vocal groups. Ann Bogan, the latter-day member of the group, now lives in Cleveland, Ohio and became a part of the New Birth and their subgroup, Love, Peace & Happiness, before retiring to raise her children. All the surviving members of the group were recently interviewed for an episode of their lives on the TV-One show, Unsung.