Gladys Horton, one of the lead singers for the Marvelettes, has died. It’s a measure of how little respect this great girl-group has been given that The New York Times obituary of Horton had to resort to many hedges due to a lack of outside scholarship about the group. Horton was either 64 or 65 when she died; she was born either in Inkster, Michigan, or Gainesville, Florida; the Marvelettes broke up either “in the late 1960s or early 1970s.” Sigh. I think we know the exact moment the Beatles broke up, and the precise moment Dylan “went electric,” don’t we?
The Marvelettes will always be obscured by other acts on the Motown label starting with the Supremes. But they released a string of singles that are exceptional examples of girl-group soul. Their tight harmonies, no-nonsense phrasing, and lack of melodramatic flourishes may actually have worked against them, as did their talent for putting across a novelty song such as (the Marvin Gaye-written) “Beechwood 4-5789” as skillfully as they did more poetic work such as Smokey Robinson’s extraordinary “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.”
Horton didn’t sing lead on that last song, but she did on the group’s biggest hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” and one of the Marvelettes’ trickiest, wittiest performances, “Too Many Fish In The Sea.”
“I don’t want nobody that don’t want me,” sang Horton on that song. The firm decisiveness is in the lyric written by Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland, to be sure. But it wouldn’t be half as effective had Horton not sung the sentiment with such a whiplash sting, flicking each consonant at the listener as though she wanted to commingle pain with your pleasure. She was a fine, fine vocalist, and you’d do well to track down a copy of The Marvelettes: Anthology, the best showcase for the group’s work, a short history of soul music across 28 tracks, concluding with the superbly punctuated song title, “A Breath Taking Guy.” Every breath Horton took on these hit singles was a strong one