The week of December 11 will mark a special day in Motown history. Fifty years ago, the two-year-old label had its first No. 1 Billboard pop hit. Earlier in 1961, Smokey Robinson had the label's first No. 1 hit on the R&B chart. But a No. 1 pop hit was a big deal, showing that Motown could crossover and connect with white teens. The group that pulled off that landmark recording was the Marvelettes and the song was Please Mr. Postman. The song has a fascinating history, as original Marvelette Katherine Anderson Schaffner relates in my article in today's Wall Street Journal. [Pictured at top, from left: Kat Anderson, Wanda Young and Gladys Horton, circa 1966]
But the song was more than just a pop chart-topper in 1961. By connecting with white and black teens coast to coast, Please Mr. Postman helped move the civil rights movement forward, serving as a teen election of sorts that ignored racial divides in favor of moving music. The song's success also signaled to Motown founder Berry Gordy that the label could build on the Marvelettes' formula and become a national brand rather than remain a small independent Detroit label. The Marvelettes also opened a new door for all girl groups, which until then had been doo-wop novelties and fringe vocal groups.
Here's my conversation with Kat, 67, about how the Marvelettes got its start, how Please Mr. Postman was recorded, and what life was like for a quintet of singing teens:
Marc Myers: Growing up in Inkster, Mich., where did you live?
Katherine Anderson Schaffner: I lived in the Carver Homes projects that Henry Ford developed for people who moved up from the South to work at his car factories. These projects weren’t apartment buildings, like in New York or Chicago. They were duplex houses and subdivided homes. Inkster is about a half hour from Detroit.
MM: Did you listen to the radio?
KAS: In the late ‘50s, when I was a teen, as soon as you stepped outside you could hear music coming from every different house. I listened to all kinds of music then—rock and roll, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Little Willie John, Bo Diddley [pictured], Bill Doggett—you name it. But I didn’t start buying records until after I was a Marvelette. Records were too expensive.
MM: What did your father do?
KAS: My dad was a cement finisher. His job was to make sure the cement was even and smooth as it poured out of the mixer. My mother was a housekeeper and then went to work at Eloise Hospital [pictured] in Westland, Mich., as a nurse’s aide. I have one sister and two brothers. My older brother died in 1993 of cancer. My baby brother is the only surviving boy.
MM: When did you start singing?
KAS: In high school. I sang with the glee club and chorus. I also sang with some church gospel groups. In 1960, a few friends and I formed a vocal quintet to compete in a talent contest. The group was Gladys Horton, Georgia Dobbins, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and me. Gladys, Juanita and Georgeanna sang alto. Georgia and I sang soprano. [Photo from left of Georgia Dobbins, Juanita Motley and Kat Anderson Schaffner earlier this year by Larry Buford]
MM: How did you come up with your name, the Marvelettes?
KAS: We had a different name at first. Once we started rehearsing as a group, we began thinking up names for the group. This was just before the high school talent show. While we rehearsed, Gladys [pictured] pointed out that we couldn’t really sing yet as a group because we had just gotten started. Then it hit her. She said we should call ourselves the Cansinyets—“because we can’t sing yet.” We all fell out laughing when she said that, but we decided to keep it because we needed a name for the contest. The prize for the top three finalists was an audition at a new record company called Motown.
MM: How did you do?
KAS: We came in fourth. But that didn’t stop us. We just asked one of our teachers, Shirley Sharpley, to get us an audition at Motown. The label agreed. She knew Berry Gordy's driver. Just goes to show that it always pays to ask [laughs]. At the time, Motown didn’t have that many acts. They had Mary Wells [pictured], the Miracles and the Satintones. So they were hungry for new acts.
MM: What did you sing at your audition?
KAS: We sang two or three numbers. I think one was a Shirelles song and the other was by the Chantels. We had to pattern ourselves on someone who was out there and well known.
MM: Who sang lead?
KAS: I didn’t sing lead because I was a soprano and my voice wasn’t commercial enough. I didn’t have the sound they were looking for. Gladys, on the other hand, had a high alto sound, which was perfect. After the audition, Motown said they liked us but wanted us to bring in original material to record. This was before they could afford staff writers and all that, which would come a few years later. [Pictured: Motown's Berry Gordy in the label's Hitsville studios]
MM: What happened when you left the studio?
KAS: Georgia said she knew a pianist friend named William Garrett, who lived near us in the projects and played blues. When she went to see Garrett, he had a valise of sheet music, some with just titles on them. Georgia found a title she liked—Please Mr. Postman— and asked if she could have it. He said that was fine, and the two of them collaborated on the song. The words came easily for Georgia. She had a boyfriend in the Navy, and she was always waiting on a letter from him.
JW: What did you think?
KAS: When Georgia brought the song to us, we learned the words that she and Garrett had written. But once we were back at Motown to audition the song, the producers and musicians there started to fool around with it. They increased the tempo, added a new beat and made it more up to date. Everyone wanted to add their mark to the song. We were just teens and too young to know that someone could take a song and add words. Someone at Motown added the line, “Deliver the letter, the sooner the better.” We sang the song a cappella, and they loved it. Motown gave us contracts to take home for our parents to sign. We were all still in high school, going into our senior year.
MM: What happened when you got home?
KAS: I never thought my mother would sign. She didn’t really care one way or the other but my father said that this could be my golden opportunity so my mother didn’t stand in my way. Then he said, “We can trust her.”
MM: Did anyone in the group have a problem at home?
KAS: Georgia’s father wouldn’t sign. Georgia’s mother was very ill, and Georgia’s father worked two jobs and wanted her around to take care of the family’s four boys. She gave her part to Gladys, who was a close friend of hers. Georgia was so broken-hearted—and she stayed that way for some time, especially after the group became famous. She was replaced by Wanda Young, who had already graduated from high school and sang soprano. [Pictured above, from left: Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, Gladys Horton, Wanda Young and Kat Anderson]
MM: When did you head back to Motown?
KAS: About two weeks later. We called ourselves the Marvels. But as the song came together in rehearsal, Motown realized they had something in us. They said we had to change our names to something better. Someone came up with Marvelettes.
MM: How did the session go?
KAS: Once the music and words were set for Please Mr. Postman, we began to record. Gladys sang lead, and they worked her until she became hoarse. That’s the version they liked and the one you hear on the record.
MM: Was it exciting to have a hit?
KAS: Yes but we were still in school. But as Motown held its revues, audiences started screaming for us. Motown said if we didn’t join the show, they would put in five ringers to keep the audiences happy. So we quit school and turned pro. When Please Mr. Postman became a No. 1 pop hit in December 1961, we didn’t find out until later. We were touring. Besides, we didn’t even know there were things called "charts."
MM: Having a No. 1 pop hit was a big deal.
KAS: Yes it was. We kicked open the door for everyone else at Motown to walk though. I think the song connected with both girls and boys, blacks and whites, because everyone has been in a situation where they’ve waited for a letter. Instead of songs about love or breaking up, it was about waiting for the mail. It was a different approach. The song’s words clearly connected more with girls, which made sense, since they were buying a lot of records.
MM: Who choreographed your dance steps?
KAS: For the first few years we did all of our own steps. We used to do whatever we liked, and the routines were absolutely phenomenal. Most of our steps were based on the latest dances. We also tended to do songs that were fast paced, really amped up.
MM: Did Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins work with you?
KAS: Yes. By 1965 our routines changed. Cholly [pictured] cut out the dancing and added more polished steps. He said, “You don’t have to do all that dancing, you just need to do a few steps.” He typically had us stepping out and swinging our arms.
MM: What about Motown’s famous finishing school?
KAS: The Marvelettes didn’t have to go through too much of the label’s finishing school. Most other groups on the label did. The reason is that we were already established with Please Mr. Postman and other hits. And being on the road most of the time—performing six or seven shows a day on the weekends—we didn’t have time to return to Detroit for lessons with Maxine Powell [pictured]. She taught everyone how to sit and do this or that with etiquette.
MM: On the road, you were the co-manager, weren’t you?
KAS: Yes. I sang the highest and was the tallest, at 5-foot, 7½-inches. We’d be chaperoned by adults but I’d be responsible for things like picking out our uniforms and jewelry, and picking up the money at gigs. I’d count the bills and give them to our driver, who got the money back to Detroit after he took out some for our expenses. I never had a problem with the count because I always collected before the gig, so the money was always right.
MM: And you grew rich.
KAS: [Laughs]. Not quite. Most people don’t realize that most of the expenses were ours. We had to rent the cars, get the hotel rooms, pay the restaurant bills. After we put out the money, we’d get reimbursed from our cut when all was tallied back in Detroit.
MM: Was the road hard?
KAS: Fans know we were young, but I don’t think they realized how young. We were kids but looked like we were in our 20s because of how we dressed and carried ourselves. Early on, we didn’t wear wigs, but later we did. At first I wore a weave in my hair. But after sweating quite a bit during performances, I switched to a wig. I perspired so much I had to take salt tablets. Wigs were just easier to take care of than your hair. You could roll up the wig at night and it would be ready to go at the next performance. [Pictured: Georgeanna Tillman]
MM: Did you practice a lot?
KAS: Show business was and is tough. Fans only hear the finished product and assume it all took just minutes and was a lot of fun. The truth is we were always rehearsing or touring. If we didn’t have to record anything, we would be working on new songs and routines or playing concerts and revues.
MM: You created the model at Motown.
KAS: We did. Even though the Supremes were there before us, we had the first No. 1 pop record, which allowed us to go out there and pave the way for everyone else.
MM: Was there competition at Motown?
KAS: Yes. Martha Reeves [pictured] came to the label after we were already recording. Mary Wells was a solo act, so there really wasn’t much competition there. But Martha Reeves of the Vandellas had an issue with us once she started recording. She wanted things her way. And when things didn’t go her way, she would get angry.
MM: The Marvelettes were offered Where Did Our Love Go?
KAS: Yes, in1964. But we decided to pass. That may seem foolish now, but the song wasn’t really right for us. We were always very high-energy, and that song was a little too laid back for us. We’d always sing uptempo tunes and danced a lot to charge up audiences. Wanda was the one who turned down the song after singing the lead sheet. Instead, we opted for Locking Up My Heart, which was faster and bouncier.
MM: Did you like the Supremes?
KAS: Of course. We sang different things, but I liked them a lot. Their success didn’t make us feel self-conscious though. Maybe Martha Reeves had a problem with them. When they changed the Supremes’ name to Diana Ross and the Supremes, that’s when Martha insisted that her group be called Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
MM: The Marvelettes didn’t change its name though.
KAS: We didn’t because we wanted to be known as the Marvelettes—and we had two lead singers, Gladys and Wanda. My feeling was that there was plenty of room for everyone. Each group had hits and its own sound.
MM: Fond memories of the past?
KAS: Looking back, I enjoyed the fact that I had an opportunity to travel to so many different parts of the U.S. and around the world. Most of the time, when you’re from a small place like Inkster, you don’t get that chance. We met Little Richard, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson Five and so many others. We were on tour with many artists being recorded by Motown and Stax.
MM: And Georgia Dobbins?
KAS: I still speak with Georgia today. She’s still upset that her father didn’t let her join the group and record and doesn’t like to talk publicly about the group. In 2005, when the Marvelettes were presented with a gold record for Please Mr. Postman by Motown, we insisted that Georgia get a gold record, too—even though she wasn't officially a Marvelette at the time. But she was the song’s co-writer and we felt she should share in the recognition. She was so happy. [Pictured: Kat Anderson Schaffner earlier this year holding two gold records awarded to the Marvelettes for Please Mr. Postman and Don't Mess With Bill]
MM: Sing a line from Please Mr. Postman for me.
KAS: [Laughs] Oh, no. I don’t sing anymore. I keep a pretty low profile. When my children were growing up, I didn’t want them to tell their friends about me. I assumed that if they said, “My mother was one of the Marvelettes,” other kids would resent them and pick fights. Now, I’m more willing to talk about the Marvelettes. I don’t want any of our fans to think I’m untouchable. [Pictured: Kat Anderson]
JazzWax tracks: There are many Marvelettes sets. The most recent is The Marvelettes: Forever, the Complete Motown Albums Vol. 1 (Universal). The Marvelettes: Forever More, the Complete Motown Albums Vol. 2 (Universal) will be released on Dec. 13.
JazzWax clips: Here are the Marvelettes in 1965 singing Please Mr. Postman. From left, that's Wanda Young, Katherine Anderson and Gladys Horton. By 1965, the group had been reduced to a trio after two members departed...
The Marvelettes were a surprisingly democratic group without a diva. In this 1965 clip of Don't Mess With Bill, Wanda Young sings lead as Kat and Horton sing backup. By the way, Kat told me the dresses and bows were Tiffany blue...
And here are the Marvelettes singing Please Mr. Postman when they were a quartet, during a Motown Revue at New York's Apollo Theater in 1963. From the left, that's Wanda Young, Kat Anderson, Georgeanne Tillman and Gladys Horton. The Supremes would not have their first hit for another year...