The Marvelettes were an American singing girl group on the Tamla label. Motown’s first successful female vocal group, the Marvelettes are most notable for recording the company’s first #1 Pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman”, and for setting the precedent for later Motown girl groups such as Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes.
During their eight-year run on the Billboard music charts the group scored 21 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and 23 Billboard Hot 100 hit singles. Of these hits 3 were Top 10 Pop singles, 9 were top Top 10 R&B singles and their debut was #1 one on both charts.
Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins formed the Casinyets (or “Can’t Sing Yets”) in their hometown Inkster, Michigan a suburb located west of Detroit, Michigan with backing vocalists Georgeanna Tillman, Wyanetta (usually spelled “Juanita”) Cowart, and Katherine Anderson.
In 1961 the quintet, now called the Marvels, entered the Inkster High School talent show where they finished fourth. Although only the first three winners could win the prize of a trip to audition for the new Motown record company located on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, an exception was made and they were allowed to audition as well. In April they did this for Motown executives Brian Holland and Robert Bateman with the girls alternating lead parts. They auditioned for Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson who scheduled a second audition after asking if the group had any original material.
At the next audition Georgia arrived with pianist William Garrett who had also written a few tunes. Georgia had asked Garrett if he had any new songs and he showed her a blues song called “Please Mr. Postman” that had only a few lyrics and no music. Garrett agreed to Georgia’s rewriting the song into something more favorable for a young girl group as long as he was given songwriting credit. Georgia, who had no previous songwriting experience, took the tune home and reconstructed it overnight keeping only the title.
The song by Dobbins and Garrett turned out to be the Marvelettes first single and their biggest hit, “Please Mr. Postman.” The group returned to Motown with the song and a new member, Wanda Young (later Rogers), who replaced Dobbins (whose church-going father was against the idea of his daughter singing in nightclubs) giving them, like The Shirelles before, two lead singers.
Early successMotown gave the Marvels the star treatment. Gordy renamed the group the Marvelettes and had “Please Mr. Postman” re-written for them and released as their first single in the summer of 1961 on the Tamla imprint with Horton singing lead. The song took fourteen weeks to hit the #1 position on the Pop chart, a record for its time. The song also held at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart for seven consecutive weeks. It was the first of two million-selling gold certified 45’s for the group. An album also called Please Mr. Postman was rush released to capitalize on the girls initial success but neither it nor subsequent four albums charted.
As their follow up, in a short-sighted move, Motown released “Twistin’ Postman” to capitalize on both the success of the group’s first single and the twist dance craze. Released in December 1961, as the fad was dying down, the song only reached #34 on the pop chart and #13 R&B. Despite this, the Marvelettes were becoming a popular touring group going on various Motown ensemble tours and even a few solo outings. A second album entitled The Marvelettes Sing (a.k.a. Smash Hits of ’62) comprised 99% cover versions as the title suggests.
Their third album was called Playboy and included songs from many accomplished writers such as Brian Holland, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Lamont Dozier. The album featured the hit singles “Playboy” (#4 R&B, #7 Pop), “Beechwood 4-5789” (#7 R&B, #17 Pop) and “Someday, Someway” (#8 R&B).
Stumbling blocksBy this time founding member Juanita Cowart was suffering from depression. After a mistake on American Bandstand in 1962, Cowart finally left the group. Motown press releases called it a “nervous breakdown.”
Not wanting to rest on their laurels, the group forged ahead recording their fourth album The Marvelous Marvelettes. Despite their previous track record this album did not produce any major hits. Of the three singles released from the album the second single, “Locking Up My Heart”, fared the best. Horton was the main lead with Rogers on the latter portion on the tune singing falsetto. It reached #25 R&B and #44 Pop. The single may have done better chart wise but suffered from split airplay as the track “Forever”, which featured Rogers, was its “B” side and also charted reaching #78 Pop. The other singles were “Strange, I Know” which reached #10 on R&B but only peaked at #49 Pop and “My Daddy Knows Best” which peaked at #67 Pop.
By 1964 the Marvelettes faced major competition, not only from other Motown artists like the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, but from bands from the British Invasion and surf-pop movements. The Marvelettes, Velvelettes and others turned down the song “Where Did Our Love Go”, written by the Holland–Dozier–Holland songwriting team. Instead, the Marvelettes chose to record Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland’s “Too Many Fish in the Sea”. Meanwhile Motown made the ‘no hit’ Supremes record “Where Did Our Love Go”. Even they did not much care for the song, which went on to reach #1 Pop and R&B.
In 1965 Georgeanna Tillman was battling lupus. As her health problems worsened, her doctor advised her to stop touring and she left the group for good. She remained at Motown for a while as a secretary. Georgeanna Tillman married Billy Gordon (of the Contours) in 1963. She died in 1980 from the complications of sickle-cell anemia. The Marvelettes continued on as a trio.
During the two years following The Marvelous Marvelettes they issued a number of under-achieving singles, a live album called The Marvelettes Recorded Live On Stage and a greatest hits compilation The Marvelettes Greatest Hits which was actually not released until 16 February 1966. It included the earlier non-studio album singles “As Long As I Know He’s Mine”, “He’s A Good Guy (Yes He Is)” and “You’re My Remedy” all of which failed to make the Top 40.
The “comeback”The group’s first notable hit in nearly two years came at the end of 1964 with the Holland-Whitfield composition “Too Many Fish in the Sea” which has become a Motown and soul classic, reaching #15 R&B and #25 Pop on the Billboard charts. On the heels of their new-found success further singles were issued. “I’ll Keep Holding On”, now a Northern soul anthem and non-album track, reached #34 Pop and #11 R&B, whilst “Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead” stalled at #61 Pop but also got to #11 R&B.
Just prior to the issue of their Greatest Hits album, a Smokey Robinson composition called “Don’t Mess with Bill” was released as a single, marking the beginning of a renewed partnership with the songwriter and leader of the Miracles. “Don’t Mess with Bill”, a seductive anthem about cheating, brought the group major success and a second million-selling, gold certified record. It reached #3 R&B and returned them to the Top 10 where it climbed to #7.
They continued their partnership with Robinson on their seventh album, The Marvelettes (Pink Album), which was released in 1967. It spawned the massively popular “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” which just missed the top of the R&B charts, peaking at #2 and hit #13 Pop. They followed it up with a remake of the Ruby & the Romantics’ “When You’re Young and in Love”, written by Van McCoy, peaking at #9 R&B and #23 Pop. It also gave the Marvelettes their only UK hit where it reached #13. During this period Robinson had begun to favour Rogers over Horton as lead singer on many of the groups songs.
Danger: dead end aheadIn 1967 co-lead singer Horton left the group to get married and was replaced by Anne Bogan. Their eighth album was named Sophisticated Soul after the new style under Rogers’ lead and their reformed appearance. Singles released from the album included “You’re The One” (#20 R&B, #48 Pop), “My Baby Must Be a Magician” (#8 R&B, #17 Pop, featuring an exceptional introduction by Melvin Franklin of the Temptations, “Destination: Anywhere” (#28 R&B, #63 Pop), (written by Ashford & Simpson) and “Here I Am Baby” (#14 R&B, #44 Pop).
Motown had long since shifted support to more successful and newer artists on their roster. By the time their 1969 ninth album In Full Bloom was released Motown had all but sidelined the group providing mediocre publicity and a smaller budget. The group were also experiencing some internal problems which left them unable to do promotion. The album’s only single, a remake of Justine Washington’s “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”, peaked at #97 Pop and failed at R&B. The Marvelettes were never to have another hit single. The album failed to chart on either Pop or R&B.
By 1970 the Marvelettes had ceased to exist in all but name due to serious internal conflict, Rogers personal problems and Motown’s lack of interest. However, Motown thought that there was some mileage to be had from making Rogers into a solo star. Despite all her problems which would have prevented her from touring, Smokey cut an album with Rogers featuring the Andantes, (Motown’s in-house backing group), consisting mainly of older Motown songs. Motown thought it would have more commercial appeal if it was released under the Marvelettes name, hence the title The Return of the Marvelettes. However Rogers was awaiting the birth of her third child (with her then husband Miracle Bobby Rogers), and Motown was in the process of moving to Los Angeles. Although it failed to make the Billboard 200 chart, it did reach #50 on the US Billboard R&B chart. Motown issued two singles from the album, neither of which were hits, “Marionette” and “A Breathtaking Guy”. Meanwhile former Marvelette Anne Bogan went on to join trio Love, Peace & Happiness which evolved into group New Birth.
LegacyDue to Motown’s decision to sell the name “Marvelettes” to a promoter, Larry Marshak, none of the original members are able to tour under the name “Marvelettes” in the United States. Several groups bill themselves as “The Marvelettes”, but these women are much younger than the original lineup. Thanks to the efforts of people like Mary Wilson of the Supremes, legislation was launched in 2006 to prevent artists from using the name of a group that does not have at least one original member.
In 2006, Horton appeared with Dazee Luv, Jaki-G & Denise Stubbs of Joe Harris’ Undisputed Truth on PBSs My Music Salute to Early Motown.
An in-depth history of the group can be found in Marc Taylor’s book, The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group and the Goldmine article on the group from its June 8, 1984 issue.
In 2007, the Marvelettes were inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
In 2009, as part of Motown’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, a new limited-edition triple-CD set on the group entitled The Marvelettes: Forever – The Complete Motown Albums Vol. 1 was released. This featured the group’s first six albums, some of which had never been released on CD. The Marvelettes: Forever More – The Complete Motown Albums Vol. 2, which included their later albums and bonus material, was released in 2011.
Later yearsWanda Young Rogers
Rogers currently lives in the Detroit suburb of Westland, Michigan. She made a brief return to performing in the early 1990s as a solo artist, re-recording some of the Marvelettes’ hits, such as the million-selling “Don’t Mess With Bill”. Her last public appearance was in early 2006 when she attended a play hosted by Katherine Anderson Schaffner.
Katherine Elaine Anderson Schaffner retired from singing when the group disbanded in 1972 (the year Motown began its transition to Los Angeles). She has become very involved in helping troubled teenagers in the Detroit area. She appeared in 2006 to attend a play in her home town of Inkster, Michigan, where she still lives. Her last appearance was at the Motown 50th Anniversary, held at the Roostertail in Detroit on November 21, 2009. Katherine (Kat to her friends) is the mother of two adult children, Keisha and Kalaine Schaffner. She is also the grandmother of one grandson, Toure Schaffner. Of all the original Marvelettes, Katherine is the most active today. She was one of the writers of the Gladys Knight & The Pips hit, “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong.”
Gladys Catherine Horton semi-retired from the business to take care of her handicapped son; however, she still performed on occasion as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes”. She had lived in southern California since the early 1970s. She died at age 66 on January 26, 2011, at a nursing home in Sherman Oaks, California following several strokes.
On August 12, 1963, Georgeanna Marie Tillman married Billy Gordon of The Contours; she left the group about two years later. On January 6, 1980, she died from complications of lupus and sickle-cell anemia, at age 36. She is interred at the Metropolitan Memorial Park in Belleville, Michigan.
Juanita (sometimes spelled Wyanetta) Cowart Motley officially left the Marvelettes back in the late winter/early spring of 1962 (though she would occasionally record with the group until early 1963). Shortly after, she bought a candy store on Michigan Avenue, in her neighborhood of Inkster, Michigan, with $1,500.00 she had saved as a Marvelette. Her last appearance in public was in 2006 when she attended a play in her home town of Inkster, Michigan, where she still lives.
After the Marvelettes disbanded in 1972, Anne Bogan went on to lead an RCA trio known as Love, Peace & Happiness, which was part of the group New Birth. Ann settled into a secure nine-to-five job in Cleveland. She is alive and well in Cleveland, Ohio, and sings with a gospel group.