All-time marks for chart dominance by a single record company don’t mean what they used to, now that two major conglomerates control most of the music released in the United States. Not so back in the day. And so it was that beginning this week in 1968, Motown accomplished the greatest feat of chart domination until the conglomeration era, by nailing down the top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100 with three different performers. Here’s the Top Five from this week in December 1968, starting with the non-Motown stuff:
5. “Who’s Making Love”/Johnnie Taylor. A fine example of the sort of rough-hewn Southern soul that often topped the charts between about 1964 and about 1972. Taylor scored a lot of hits on the R&B charts during this period, but his biggest pop hit came afterward–in 1976, with the first 45 ever certified platinum, “Disco Lady,” which is far better than its title.
4. “Abraham, Martin and John”/Dion. The sort of record that could only have happened in the 1960s, before our cynicism about idealism went terminal. And one of the prettiest songs you’ll ever hear.
3. “For Once in My Life”/Stevie Wonder. Stevie wrote dozens of songs that became hits, but this one had a life beyond its chart run. It may be the Stevie song most covered by other artists. Either that or “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
2. “Love Child”/Supremes. Many Motown artists released records that we’d have called “socially relevant” beginning around 1968. This was the first for the Supremes, and their first big hit not produced by Holland/Dozier/Holland.
1. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”/Marvin Gaye. In his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh picked it as number one, noting that it’s both more ambitious and utterly unlike anything else Motown ever attempted. “‘Grapevine’ would top the charts for seven weeks, making it the biggest Motown hit of all time, at least until “Endless Love” slurped down the pike in 1981.
Motown’s domination of the top three slots on the chart would continue for a month, as “For Once in My Life” dropped out and the Supremes/Temptations’ collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” moved in. And if you’re tempted to quibble, I know the Beatles had the top five slots during a single week in 1964. This is about domination by more than one artist from a label. I know also that that RSO Records had four of the top five during a single week of March 1978, but only the top two slots were held by RSO product (the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive”). So there.