Gladys Horton, who helped launch the girl group era of the ’60s with her sassy, girlish lead vocal on the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman,” the first Motown song to reach No. 1 on the pop charts, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. The singer, 66, had been recovering from a stroke in a Los Angeles nursing home when she died, according to her son, Vaughn Thornton.
“She fought until the end, her son told me,” said fellow Marvelette Katherine Anderson Schaffner. She had alerted friends and fans several weeks ago that Horton was ill.
“When I let everybody know on my Facebook page that she was ill, she was already in hospice,” Schaffner said. “Even though you try to prepare, and know the inevitable is about to happen, I don’t think you’re ever prepared for (someone’s) death.”
Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who was wowed by the 15-year-old Horton and her group, said in a statement, “I am so saddened to hear of the passing of another Motown great, one of our first, Gladys Horton, who with the Marvelettes, recorded our first #1 hit, ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ and many others. Gladys was a very, very special lady, and I loved the way she sang with her raspy, soulful voice.”
They were just teenagers when Horton, Schaffner and several friends from Inkster High School’s choir formed a group so they could enter a talent contest.
Schaffner remembers that Horton was determined to get into the mix when she heard the prize was an audition at Motown. They called their group the “Casinyets” (i.e. “can’t sing yet”), and no, they didn’t win the contest.
But a sympathetic counselor secured a meeting at Motown for the group. They wowed Gordy and his staff.
What happened to the raw Inkster teenagers over the next decade is both an inspirational story and a cautionary tale.
They hit in 1961 with “Please, Mr. Postman” and instantly were a national sensation.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we figure that it would be 50 years later, and it would still be just as powerful as the day it was made,” Schaffner said. “I can’t understand that for the life of me.”
It was still early in Motown’s hit-making era, so the Marvelettes didn’t have the benefit of the Motown grooming factory — the glamorous dresses and etiquette training that later girl groups such as the Supremes enjoyed.
Thrown into the music business at a vulnerable age, the group slept on the tour bus and performed wearing whatever matching dresses they could scrape together. They did their own choreography early on, before Cholly Atkins was hired to smooth out the rough edges. But they had an unpolished, engaging live energy that can be seen in a video on YouTube taken from a film Motown shot at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Follow-up hits to “Postman” included “Playboy,” “Beechwood 45789” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” Horton was the sole lead singer early on, but with the addition of Wanda Rogers, the Marvelettes segued into a new era of hits in the late ’60s with Rogers’ lead voice on the Smokey Robinson-penned “Don’t Mess with Bill” and “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” among others.
When the hits stopped coming and Motown moved to Los Angeles, the Marvelettes were among the acts who suffered the most.
Although “Please, Mr. Postman” helped launch the company into the national spotlight as its first No. 1 pop hit, the group wasn’t part of the big Motown specials. They have yet to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although they were the first of an early ’60s tidal wave of girl groups.
The worst blow was that the original members of the group couldn’t use their own name. Over the years, the rights to the Marvelettes name were picked up by a New York businessman, Larry Marshak. Marshak had a group of women in their 30s, much too young to have recorded in 1961, touring as “The Marvelettes.”
“You want a sad story?” Gladys Horton told The News in 1998. “I’ll give you sad.”
While Schaffner and the rest of the group weren’t interested in performing — Rogers couldn’t as she battled drug and alcohol problems — Horton wanted to tour. But she said she was prohibited from billing herself as “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes” because Marshak would sue.
“I told Marshak that I have a handicapped son I have to support, but he’s heartless,” Horton told The News. “I don’t even know what you call it. … Every time he puts a group out there, he’s taking money out of my pocket.”
The Marvelettes were honored in December when “Please, Mr. Postman” became part of the Grammy Hall of Fame collection, which honors “recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old.”
Schaffner isn’t sure if Horton was well enough to know about the award. “I’m not sure if her son told her,” Schaffner said.
“But since I believe that Gladys is in heaven looking down on us, she knows.”
Gladys Horton is survived by two sons, Sam and Vaughn, and two grandchildren. A Los Angeles memorial service will be organized at a future date.
Wire reports contributed.
I was 4 years old when ” Please Mr. Postman ” came out in 1961 and I remember a cousin living next door on the east side of Detroit running out and buying the 45. She was much older than me, 20 but we wore that record out. In fact this song is probably the first song I danced to as much as a 4-year-old can dance. That was the beginning to the love affair not only the city of Detroit but the whole world had with ” Motown “. We knew the Marvelettes before we knew anybody else.
The Marvelettes original group was Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman, Georgia Dobbins, Wanda Young ( Rogers ), Wyanetta (“Juanita”) Cowart, and Katherine Anderson.
Dobbins was forced to leave the group by her church going father who forbid her to sing in night clubs.
I’ve got to admit besides this first hit and the earlier ones the group had, it was ” The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game ” & ” Don’t mess with Bill ‘ that ended up being my favorites from
” The Marvelettes “.
WOW, Heaven has just gotten a lot Richer. Say Hi to Flo from all of us here in Detroit ” Motown ” USA,
Forever in our Hearts, Never to be Forgotten.
DETROIT ” MOTOWN ” USA