Wanda Young, Motown Hitmaker With the Marvelettes, Dies at 78

She was the lead voice on “Don’t Mess With Bill” and other songs written by Smokey Robinson, who said she “had this little voice that was sexy to me.”

Wanda Young, one of the lead singers of the Marvelettes, the girl group whose 1961 song “Please Mr. Postman,” recorded when they were teenagers, was Motown’s first No. 1 hit, died on Dec. 15 in Garden City, Mich. She was 78.

Her daughter Meta Ventress said the cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The Marvelettes began recording in 1961, two years after Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records. They signed the same year as the Supremes and a year before Martha and the Vandellas, all-female groups who eventually overshadowed them at Motown.

Ms. Young (who was also known as Wanda Rogers) and Gladys Horton shared lead singer duties. “Don’t Mess With Bill,” which rose to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966, was one of several hits written by Smokey Robinson on which Ms. Young sang lead. (Ms. Horton was the lead singer on “Please Mr. Postman,” “Beechwood 4-5789” and other songs.)

“Wanda had this little voice that was sexy to me, a little country kind of voice,” Mr. Robinson was quoted as saying in the music writer Fred Bronson’s liner notes to the 1993 Marvelettes compilation, “Deliver: The Singles (1961-1971).” “I knew if I could get a song to her, it would be a smash.”

Among the other Robinson songs that featured Ms. Young’s voice were “I’ll Keep Holding On,” a 1965 release that peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard chart; “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” which rose to No. 13 in 1967; and “My Baby Must Be a Magician,” which hit No. 17 in 1968.

The Marvelettes, who recorded for Motown’s Tamla label, released more than 20 singles that made the charts.

The group, which started with five members and later became a quartet and eventually a trio, disbanded around 1970. That year, Ms. Young recorded an album, produced by Mr. Robinson with backing vocals by the Andantes, a female session group, that, although actually a solo project, was released as “The Return of the Marvelettes” and marketed as a Marvelettes album.

Wanda LaFaye Young was born on Aug. 9, 1943, in Eloise, Mich., and grew up in Inkster, about 20 miles west of Detroit. Her father, James, worked for the Ford Motor Company, and her mother, Beatrice (Dawson) Young, was a homemaker.

Ms. Young, whose early ambition was to be a pediatric nurse, joined the Marvelettes after one of the original members had to leave.

Ms. Horton had formed a quintet in 1960 with three high school classmates, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman and Juanita Cowart, and a recent graduate, Georgia Dobbins. The group — then called the Casinyets, a contraction of “can’t sing yet” — competed in a talent show whose top three finishers were to receive an audition with Motown. The quintet didn’t win, but a teacher helped get them an audition anyway. Motown executives were impressed but told the young women that they needed to return with original material.

They did: Ms. Dobbins’s friend William Garrett had composed a blues song, which Ms. Dobbins rewrote and recast as a pop song, about a girl pining for mail from her distant boyfriend. “Please Mr. Postman” was a hit, but Ms. Dobbins left the group before it was recorded because her mother was ill and her father had forbade her to be involved in the music business. Ms. Horton recruited Ms. Young.

“She wanted to know if I could sing alto, and I said, ‘I think I can sing all of them — soprano, second soprano and alto,’” Ms. Young said in an interview with Blues & Soul magazine in 1990. “So that evening I went over to Georgeanna’s house and instantly became a member of the group.”

Ms. Horton sang lead on the song. Three months after its release, it became a No. 1 hit.

While Ms. Young fondly recalled the family atmosphere that Mr. Gordy fostered at Motown, she was disappointed when he moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972.

“It was all done so quietly that we didn’t know if the gangsters had taken over or what was going on,” she told Blues & Soul. She added: “I felt like I’d been personally left behind. I’d grumble and complain within myself sometimes: Why would they move to California, knowing that this is Berry Gordy’s hometown?”

Ms. Young’s 12-year marriage to Bobby Rogers of the Miracles ended in 1975. They had two children, Robert III and Bobbae Rogers, who survive her, along with Ms. Ventress, her daughter from another relationship; seven grandchildren; a great-grandson; four sisters, Adoria Williams, Cynthia Young, Regina Young and Beatrice Wilson; and four brothers, James Jr., Stephen, Paul and Reginald Young. Another daughter, Miracle Rogers, was killed in 2015. Ms. Young lived in Redford, Mich.

Ms. Young reunited with Ms. Horton in 1990 for the album “The Marvelettes: Now!” on the producer Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records label. It featured some Marvelettes oldies, including “Don’t Mess With Bill.”

Ms. Horton died in 2011.

Ms. Ventress said that her mother — who lived off her royalties in the years after the Marvelettes broke up — was sometimes surprised at the longevity of her music.

“I told her constantly, ‘All these people love you,’” Ms. Ventress said in an interview. “And she’d say, ‘Wow.’” She added, “She didn’t wake up every day thinking of the Marvelettes, but she never lost that glamour.”

Source: Music -


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