TV One’s top-rated “Unsung” series of one-hour biographies presents the full picture of Black music in America. These multfaceted artists featured in “Unsung” have contributed significantly to popular culture and to the life memories and experiences of the past three or four generations, yet have either failed to achieve that same level of superstardom — or have compelling life stories, the details of which have largely remained untold.
In 1961, five teenage girls from the sleepy Detroit suburb of Inkster, Mich., began a meteoric rise to fame that would revolutionize Motown, while creating a catalog of popular songs that endure to this day. Plucked from the obscurity of a high school talent show, the Marvelettes were signed on the strength of an original song titled “Please, Mr. Postman.” Within months, the song became Motown’s first number one pop single. But despite an impressive array of follow-up hits like “Beechwood 4-5789,” “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” and the Smokey Robinson-penned classics “Don’t Mess With Bill,” and “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” the Marvelettes remained strangely anonymous, never achieving the stature of rival acts like Martha and the Vandellas or the Supremes. And in the space of a few short years, a stunning series of misfortunes and personal tragedies put an end to the group for good.
Founded in 1960, The Marvelettes were an all-girl group that achieved popularity in the early to mid-1960s. They consisted of schoolmates Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman (later Georgeanna Tillman-Gordon), Juanita Cowart (later Juanita Cowart Motley), Katherine Anderson (later Katherine Anderson Schnaffer) and Georgia Dobbins, who was replaced by Wanda Young prior to the group’s signing their first deal.
“I am so excited, because, really,to be truthful, the Marvelettes never had the opportunity to do anything or be recognized for some of the contributions that they made to the music industry,” said Anderson, 68. “I am really excited for everybody to look at the TV One episode and hear our story — that makes me excited and really, really happy.”
The group ceased performing together in 1969, and, following the release of “The Return of the Marvelettes” in 1970, featuring only Wanda Rogers, the group disbanded for good, with both Rogers and Anderson leaving the music business.
Anderson married, raised three children, held several jobs, wrote a book and is a two- (possibly three-) time stroke survivor. “When I had my first stroke (in 1997), I was paralyzed on my left side. I worked hard and was determined because of the fact I was not going to let it beat me. And then, the bottom line is, vanity kills!”
Anderson then laughed long and hard and said, “You know, when you have had the life that I have had, and I had it from age 16 on, you do have a bit of vanity ,because you learn how to have vanity. I had to learn how to use my hand, how to walk. I’ve had the experience. It’s all good now.”
Despite their early successes, the group was eclipsed in popularity by groups like The Supremes, with whom they shared an intense rivalry, and struggled with issues of dismal promotion by Motown, illnesses, mental breakdowns and group infighting. “It’s pretty much a man’s industry,” explained Anderson. “They don’t really care that much about women being in it. But women always come in it, and they have to show out to show up — and that’s exactly what they do.”
In recent years the group has received several honors, including being named to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 2005, the band’s most successful recordings, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill” earned them two gold-certified awards from the Recording Industry of America. “I only remember two other girls groups that came out when we came out, and that was The Chantels and The Shirelles,” noted Anderson. “No other girl groups were out. So then I’m a pioneer of the girl groups.”
“The Marvelettes” premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, July 23 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.