By Susan Whitall / The Detroit News
Gladys Horton, who helped launch the girl group era of the ’60s with her sassy, girlish lead vocal on the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman,” died in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2011.
Horton, 66, was 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. Schaffner 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.”
They were just kids when Horton, 15, and Schaffner, 17, 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 that 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 anyway for the group. They wowed Berry 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, scoring Motown’s first No. 1 hit on the pop charts. “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 energy live that can be seen in a video on YouTube taken from 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 top-ranking hit, the group wasn’t invited to the big Motown TV specials, or even mentioned. The group has 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, somehow 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 even “Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes,” or 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.