Home Music Gladys Horton, RIP: Sang Motown’s First#1 Hit “Please Mr. Postman”

Gladys Horton, lead singer of what was really Motown’s original group, the Marvelettes, died yesterday. She was 66. Among the hit records she sang  on: “Please Mr. Postman,” “Beachwood 4-5789,” “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” and so many more.

Horton was 15 when she and her high school friends, whom she’d dubbed “The Marvelettes,” had Motown’s first #1 hit in 1961. “Please Mr. Postman” was later covered by the Beatles, and in 1975, the Carpenters, each of whom had memorable recordings. But the original is the best.

I think the most shocking thing about Horton’s death is her age. Why is it that so few Motown artists have lived into their late 60s? It’s almost like a curse. Whether it was drugs or disease, the Motown label has the worst mortality rate in music history. Marvin Gaye, Florence Ballard, Mary Wells, Levi Stubbs, nearly all of the Temptations and Four Tops, Tammi Terrell, Michael Jackson– none of them have lived into old age.

But we do still have Stevie, Smokey, Diana, Mary Wilson, Gladys and Bubba Knight, and the Miracles.

Rest in peace, Gladys. (She’s on the right in this 1966 photo.)

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Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
2 replies to this post
  1. What I think people fail to realize is that Motown’s artists were very young people who had drive to succeed and were very competitive amongst one another. Many had issues before coming to Motown, whether it be past abuse, poverty, rape, or neglect. Music was their outlet, especially since the African American community at that time didn’t discuss such things. Add to it the stress of the grueling schedules they kept (working as many as 20 hours in a day), it explains a lot in terms of addictions and dependency. What it doesn’t explain are the cancers. Tammi Terrell, Eddie Kendricks, Jr. Walker, Mary Wells, Levi Stubbs, and many of the others who’ve passed on died from cancer related complications. Others like Rick James, Teena Marie, and Melvin Franklin had other illnesses to which they succumbed; not to mention the host of executives, The Funk Brothers, and other office staff during the Golden Age of Motown (1958-1983) have died for an array of reasons related to cancer, heart disease, etc. Fewer died from drug issues (in fact only the deaths of Michael Jackson and David Ruffin have officially been declared as drug-induced). What they do have in common is Studio A. The studio was a very small area and the house in which it was located was likely full of asbestos, lead, and other toxins we guard ourselves against now. Also, if you look at old stock photos and those from the archives, there was a LOT of smoking going on during those sessions. The studio was open 22 hours a day for recording and rehearsal. We know now that second-hand smoke is harmful.

    The author mentioned Smokey, Stevie, Diana, and Gladys. These artists, though still with us, have not been without drama. Smokey admitted in 1989 that he fell victim to an addiction to crack cocaine and marijuana, Stevie Wonder was involved in a near-fatal car accident in 1973, Diana Ross had that DUI in 2002, and Gladys Knight had a gambling addiction. It seems to me that only Martha Reeves “appears” to have not struggled with any of these issues, but she was a politician for some time and that could be considered tragic, in my opinion.

    I wrote this about Motown in a book I will finish this year and I think it sums up what I feel about this particular topic: “Motown was full of ingenuity…and genius, while admirable, creative, and exciting, is almost always tragic.”

  2. Why do Motown recording artists not live beyond 70 years old? Could it be because they’re black and poor? Not to mention some had drug and alcohol problems. Motown had the highest roster of black artists of any label, so by shear numbers, that’s why.

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