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20 of the Best Motown Song Lyrics

“Hitsville U.S.A.” — that’s what the sign in front of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan, promised, and the cadre of talent assembled by founder Berry Gordy delivered. With iconic songs written and performed by such legendary musicians as the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mary Wells, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lionel Ritchie, and so many more, the sound of Motown was on the lips of the nation throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

Motown’s songwriting crew penned some of pop music’s most enduring (and chart-topping) songs about love and heartbreak, but they also wrote about social justice and brought the point of view of Black Americans into the mainstream at the height of the civil rights movement. To celebrate this unforgettable chapter in music history, here are some of the most poetic, beguiling, confrontational, and confessional lyrics from the Motown songbook.

I'm sticking to my guy like a stamp to a letter / Like birds of a feather, we stick together / I'm tellin' you from the start / I can't be torn apart from my guy
— Mary Wells’ “My Guy” (written by Smokey Robinson)

Father, father / We don't need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate
— Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” (written by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson, and Al Cleveland)

I heard them talking papa doing some storefront preachin' / Talking about saving souls and all the time leechin' / Dealing in dirt, and stealing in the name of the Lord / Momma just hung her head and said / Papa was a rolling stone
— The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield)

Say you wanna be kissed / But you won't let me kiss you / Say you wanna be missed / Can't you see how my arms are missing you?
— Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Everybody Needs Love” (written by Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland)

Peace, love, and understanding / Tell me, is there no place for them today? / They say we must fight to keep our freedom / But Lord knows there's gotta be a better way
— Edwin Starr’s “War” (written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield)

'Cause your touch, your touch has grown cold / As if someone else controls your very soul
— The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (written by Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland, and Cornelius Grant)

Well, well, I once believed all fellas were nice / But girls, listen to me, take my advice / Girls, you'd better get yourselves onto my track / 'Cause findin' a good man, girls, is like findin' a / Needle in a haystack
— The Velvelettes’ “Needle in a Haystack” (written by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Norman Whitfield)

Reading, writing, arithmetic / Are the branches of the learning tree / But without the roots of love every day, girl / Your education ain't complete
— The Jackson 5’s “ABC” (written by The Corporation, Berry Gordy, Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards)

I'm so darn glad He let me try it again / Because my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin / I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then / Going to keep on trying / 'Til I reach my highest ground
— Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” (written by Stevie Wonder)

Always with half a kiss, you remind me of what I miss / Though I try to control myself / Like a fool I start grinnin' / 'Cause my head starts spinnin'
— The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine” (written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Sylvia Moy)

I walk in shadows searching for light / Cold and alone no comfort in sight / Hoping and praying for someone to care / Always moving and going nowhere
— Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” (written by James Dean, Paul Riser, and William Weatherspoon)

What about this overcrowded land? / How much more abuse from man can she stand?
— Marvin Gaye “Mercy Mercy Me” (written by Marvin Gaye)

Secretly I've been trailin' you / Like a fox that preys on a rabbit / I had to get you and so I knew / I had to learn your ways and habits
— The Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” (written by Smokey Robinson)

You're the kind of woman that any man would be proud to know / Kind of woman that'll have a man bragging anywhere he goes
— Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You” (written by Willie Hutch)

Build my world of dreams around you, I'm so glad that I found you / I'll be there with a love that's strong / I'll be your strength, I'll keep holding on
— The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (written by Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, Bob West, and Berry Gordy)

So many dreams that flow away / So many words we didn't say / Two people lost in a storm / Where did we go?
— Commodores’ “Still” (written by Lionel Richie)

Soft and warm, a quiet storm / Quiet as when flowers talk at break of dawn / A power source of tender force generating / Radiating / Turn me on
— Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” (written by Smokey Robinson and Rose Ella Jones)

Once we were standing still in time / Chasing the fantasies that filled our minds / You knew I loved you, but my spirit was free
— Diana Ross’ “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” (written by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser)

We are amazed but not amused / By all the things you say that you'll do / Though much concerned but not involved / With decisions that are made by you
— Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” (written by Stevie Wonder)

I started my life in an old, cold, run-down tenement slum / My father left, he never even married mom / I shared the guilt my mama knew / So afraid that others knew I had no name
— The Supremes’ “Love Child” (written by Deke Richards, Pam Sawyer, Frank Wilson, and R. Dean Taylor)

Photo credit: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive/ Alamy Stock Photo

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About the Author
Courtney E. Smith
Courtney E. Smith is an author, podcaster, and editor based in Dallas, Texas.
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