11 December, 1961
“Although they’re the hottest female rock’n’roll quartet in the nation with their Please Mr. Postman record, The Marvelettes can only work at weekends,” babbled Jet magazine in early December 1961. “Reason: they’re all students at Inkster, Mich, High School.”
The four schoolgirls did indeed have America’s biggest-selling single of the moment, yet earlier that year, as a quintet named The Casinyets – shorthand for Can’t Sing Yet – they’d entered a school talent contest and lost. The prize had been an audition with Motown.
They did well in the contest, but not well enough. Fourth place in a school talent show hardly marked them down as world- beaters. But their teacher, a certain Mrs Sharpley, heard something in them that augured well for their future. After a discussion with the school principal, The Casinyets were allowed to travel with the three top groups to the Motown audition, where, heavily influenced by The Chantels and The Shirelles, they sang He’s Gone and I Met Him On A Sunday.
“I realised that doing ballads and singing jazz was cool, but I wanted a hit too.”
The girls – Gladys Horton, Catherine Anderson, Georgia Dobbins, Juanita Cowart and Wanda Young – impressed Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. Horton’s lead vocals, in particular reaped praise. As she later recounted, “Until we got to Motown, it still hadn’t reached my mind how important it was. We met Berry Gordy and The Miracles and it was then I realised the potential of this meeting. We began to picture ourselves like The Supremes, who were the company’s girl group.”
They sounded good, they looked good. As Raynoma Singleton, who was once Mrs Berry Gordy, remembers, “their sound was sweet and young, their look cute and innocent.” But could they come up with original material? They could and would.
Georgia Dobbins knew a man named William Garrett who was a dab hand at putting dots in all the right places on sheet music. He handed Dobbins a blues song he’d constructed called Please Mr. Postman. Dobbins liked the melody line but gave the lyric a thumbs-down. Accordingly, she wrote a new set of words overnight, merely retaining the song’s title. It would be one of her last actions with the group. Her mother was ailing. Dobbins’s place was at her side and a career with a touring vocal group was deemed unthinkable. Into her place stepped her old schoolmate Wanda Young, who’d left the group to go in to nursing.
Motown's First Number 1
A trip to Motown’s studios, where the girls delighted producers Brian Holland and Robert Bateman with their new song, convinced Young otherwise. Eventually, working with a band rumoured to include 22-year-old drummer Marvin Gaye, whom they regarded as “cute”, they pieced everything together. Berry Gordy renamed the foursome The Marvelettes, the resulting single, backed with a song titled So Long Baby, gained a release on Gordy’s Tamla label in July 1961, around four months in the wake of the debut single, I Want A Guy, by Motown’s other female vocal group, The Supremes. Not that Mr. Postman seemed likely to deliver at first. The single took until September to appear in the Billboard chart and then took the slowest of climbs up the listing before pushing aside Jimmy Dean’s Big Bad John on December 11 to hoist itself to the top of the US Billboard charts and provide Berry Gordy’s Motown Record Corporation with its very first Number 1.
“That first Number 1 came easy to us,” said Gladys Horton. “We weren’t pretty city girls from the Projects like Motown’s other girl group, The Supremes. We had no experience of life at all. We had no idea how to behave, we didn’t know what to wear. We didn’t even know how to put on make-up.” Maybe not, but at that moment they were the Queens of Detroit and the envy of the other artists on Gordy’s roster.
“You’d come in on a Monday morning and, ‘Boom’!” recalled Marvin Gaye. “The new Billboard was talking about The Marvelettes’ smash, Please Mr. Postman, and everyone was jumping up and down. I realised that doing ballads and singing jazz was cool, but I wanted a hit too.”
Berry Gordy smiled when others voiced similar chart ambitions. At last, two years after the launch of Tamla, he had achieved his first Number 1. The era of chart-topping hits on the Tamla and Motown labels had begun, and young British performers took notice; in July 1963, Please Mr. Postman was one of three Motown covers on The Beatles’ second LP, With The Beatles.