Gladys Horton: Singer with the Marvelettes, who had Motown's first No 1 with 'Please Mr Postman'

Gladys Horton was the lead singer with the Marvelettes, who topped the American charts with "Please Mr Postman" in December 1961. It was a key record for boosting morale during the Vietnam War. Although not a British hit, the record has become so familiar that it has obscured much of their later, equally fine work.

Although never adopted, Gladys Horton never knew her parents, but she was born in Gainesville, Florida on 30 May 1945 and was immediately put into foster care. As a teenager she was raised in Inkster, a housing project built by Henry Ford 35 miles from the centre of Detroit.

Berry Gordy Jr, who had hadsuccess writing songs for JackieWilson and Marv Johnson, had started a record company, Tamla-Motown, and was keen to sign local talent.Horton, with her schoolfriends Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman and Juanita Cowart, plus an older girl, Georgia Dobbins, attended a school talent contest, mockingly callingthemselves the Casinyets (can't sing yet). They learnt songs by their favourite girl groups, the Shirelles and the Chantels. The prize was an audition with Motown, and although they didn't win their teacher insisted that they should be heard.

"Berry Gordy told us, 'You are so marvellous, you should be theMarvelettes,' Horton told me on a UK tour in 1990, "but we needed a song. Georgia knew William Garrett, who gave her a blues song, 'Please Mr Postman' [sings] 'Please please please, I want a letter from my baby.' That would suit BB King more than us but Georgia took the title and rewrote the song. She did that and then the producers added their names, so there are four writers on that record."

Dobbins had an ailing mother, so she was replaced by Wanda Young, who was planning to be a nurse. They recorded "Please Mr Postman" with Marvin Gaye playing drums. It was a slow climber but topped the US charts in December 1961, becoming Tamla-Motown's first No 1.

They followed it with the catchpenny "Twistin' Postman", but thenhad US Top 20 hits with "Playboy" (co-written by Horton and similar to"Postman") and "Beechwood 4-5789" (written by Gaye). Horton sang lead on "Too Hurt To Cry, Too Much In Love To Say Goodbye", a Phil Spector-styled production issued under the name of the Darnells.

Horton and Young shared the lead vocals on their albums, Please Mr Postman (1961), The Marvelettes Sing (1962) and The Marvellous Marvelettes (1963). One of Horton's best vocals is on "Too Many Fish In The Sea", a song they had favoured over "Where Did Our Love Go" This was ironic as they were to be overshadowed by the Supremes.

In 1963, "Please Mr Postman" was recorded by the Beatles on their second album, With The Beatles, and it was also a US No 1 and UK No 2 for the Carpenters in 1975. The Marvelettes themselves had further US hits with "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game" (both written by Smokey Robinson), "Don't Mess With Bill" and "When You're Young And In Love", a revival of Ruby and the Romantics' doo-wop hit and the Marvelettes' only UK chart entry. A classic track, "My Baby Must Be A Magician" featured Melvin Franklin of Temptations.

By 1965, Cowart and Tillman had left, but the Marvelettes continued as a trio. Gladys Horton married one of Joe Tex's horn players and she stayed with the Marvelettes until her first child, Sammy, was born in 1967. As he had cerebral palsy, she knew she could not return to the group. She had two further children, and when the marriage broke down she raised the three children as a single mother.

The Marvelettes had a replacement in Ann Bogan, but the group disbanded in 1969. Horton revived the group in the 1980s, often working with Young. When I met her, she wanted to make a concept album about her life and was writing a book, Wait A Minute, Mr Postman, I've Got Something To Say, but neither materialised. She did however co-operate with a biography, The Original Marvelettes – Motown's Mystery Girl Group, written by Marc Taylor in 2004.

Spencer Leigh

Gladys Catherine Horton, singer: born Gainesville, Florida 30 May 1945; married (divorced; three sons); died Sherman Oaks, California 26 January 2011.

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