The Marvelettes are notable as one of the first hit groups from the Motown stable of artists. Though they were later overshadowed by the Supremes, the Marvelettes created a wonderful string of hits during the mid-60s.
Lacking confidence in their singing abilities, Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins formed the Casinyets (or "Can't Sing Yets") in their hometown, Inkster, 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. Though only the first three winners could win the prize of a trip to audition for the new Motown record company, 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. Berry Gordy, who walked in when Georgia was singing lead, 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. Flipping through his briefcase, she was drawn to a song that had only a few lyrics and no music. Georgia liked the title and wanted to change the tune from what Garrett had initially intended to be a blues song into something more favorable for a young girl group. Garrett agreed, as long as he was given songwriting credit along with Georgia. Georgia, who had no previous songwriting experience, took the tune home and reconstructed it into a song whose lyrics pointed to a girl missing her boyfriend who has been far away for a long time. That song turned out to be their first single and greatest 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 night clubs), giving them, like The Shirelles before them, two lead singers. They auditioned for Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, and received a recording contract.
Motown gave the Marvels the star treatment. Gordy renamed the group The Marvelettes and had "Please Mr. Postman" re-written for the group. Vocal coaches, etiquette teachers, fashion advisors, and others also worked on the group's image, and in the summer of 1961 their first single, "Please Mr. Postman," was released on the Tamla imprint, with Gladys Horton as the lead voice. The song proved to be a slow burner, not even entering the Billboard Pop Chart (now known as the Billboard Hot 100) until September 4th of that year. The song took fourteen weeks to hit number on the pop chart, a record for its time. The song also hit #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart.
In a short-sighted move, Motown execs released the vain "Twistin' Postman" to capitalize on both the success of the group's first single and the twist dance craze. Released in December of 1961, as the fad was dying down, the song only reached #34 on the pop chart and #13 at R&B. Despite this, the Marvelettes were becoming a popular touring group, going on various Motown ensemble tours and even a few solo outings. The next few years were a blur of publicity, concerts, and recording. As the first massively popular Motown act, they carried a lot of responsibility during this time.
Their sophomore album featured songs from many accomplished writers -- for example, Brian Holland, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Lamont Dozier. The hit album featured the hit singles "Playboy" (#4 R&B / #7 Pop), a catchy pop song, "Beechwood 4-5789" (#7 R&B / #17 Pop), and the strictly rhythmic ballad "Someday, Someway" (#8 R&B).
Not wanting to rest on their laurels, the group forged ahead, recording The Marvelous Marvelettes, their third album. Despite their early successes, 1963 and their third album brought some measure of disappointment. Of the four singles released from the album, the album's second single, "Locking Up My Heart," fared the best, featuring Gladys as the main lead and Wanda on the latter portion on the tune singing falsetto. It peaked at #25 at R&B and #44 at Pop. Its first single, "Strange, I Know," broke the top ten at R&B, but only peaked at #49 at Pop. The excellent track "Forever," which featured Wanda Rogers as lead, because it initially released as a "b" side, and "My Daddy Knows Best" were relative flops. The group was also beginning to lose its footing at R&B radio, with "My Daddy Knows Best" failing to chart.
By 1964, The Marvelettes faced major competition, not only from Motown upstarts like the Supremes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, but from bands from the British Invasion and surf-pop movements. They made their biggest mistake that year by turning down a song entitled "Where Did Our Love Go," written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. The Marvelettes chose to record Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland's "Too Many Fish In The Sea" instead, which resulted in a minor hit. Meanwhile, Holland-Dozier-Holland took "Where Did Our Love Go?" to The Supremes, who made the song a #1 pop and R&B hit.
By this time, founding member Juanita Cowart was suffering the ravages of depression. After a goof on American Bandstand in 1962, Cowart finally left the group. Motown press releases called it a "nervous breakdown." By 1965, Georgeanna Tillman was battling lupus. Weakened by her health problems, 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 left the group in 1965 due to illness. She died in 1980 due to complications of sickle cell anemia. The Marvelettes continued on as a trio.
For the two years after The Marvelous Marvelettes, the group depended on a series of mediocre singles, a hastily assembled album of their live performances (Recorded Live On Stage) and a greatest hits compilation to stay afloat. The final single from the Marvelettes' Greatest Hits compilation was a Smokey Robinson composition and marked the beginning of a long partnership with the songwriter and lead of The Miracles - "Don't Mess With Bill", a spirited anthem about cheating, brought the group major success, and peaked at #3 at R&B and #7 at Pop.
They continued their partnership with Robinson on their fifth album, The Marvelettes, released in 1967, and 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 at Pop. They followed with a remake of Ruby & the Romantics' "When You're Young and in Love," written by Van McCoy, peaking at #9 at R&B and #23 at Pop.
In 1967, after a comeback of sorts, lead singer Gladys Horton left the group to get married, and was replaced by Anne Bogan. Their next album was named Sophisticated Soul after the new style they had come to be associated with under Wanda's lead and their reformed appearance after Motown gained expertise in grooming and presenting their artists. 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). Unfortunately, Motown had long since shifted support to more popular groups, including Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and The Four Tops, as well as new groups like The Jackson 5 and solo hitmakers like Marvin Gaye. By 1969's In Full Bloom album, Motown had provided mediocre publicity and a smaller budget for the group's project. The album's only proper single, a remake of Baby Washington's "That's How Heartaches Are Made," peaked at #97 at Pop, and failed at R&B radio.
When Motown moved its base of operation from Detroit to Los Angeles, the group decided not to make the move. They disbanded shortly thereafter in 1970, and Smokey decided to cut a solo album with Wanda Rogers featuring The Andantes (Motown's in-house backing group), consisting mainly of older Motown songs that had been overlooked. However, Motown thought it would have more commercial appeal if it was released under the title The Return of The Marvelettes. Unfortunately, it couldn't have come at a worse time: Wanda was awaiting the birth of her third child (with husband Miracle Bobby Rogers ), Motown was in the process of moving to Los Angeles, and Diana Ross was getting her initial push as a solo artist after leaving The Supremes. Although it failed to chart or receive any airplay, Motown issued three more singles from the album. None of them charted, and the last, "A Breathtaking Guy," was released in 1971. Meanwhile, Anne Bogan went on to lead an RCA trio known as Love, Peace & Happiness, which itself was part of the larger group New Birth. Though her two partners, Leslie and Melvin Wilson, went on to greater fame as two of New Birth's main singers, she left right after they hit big with their hit "I Can Understand It."