January 26, 2011 – Gladys Horton was born in Born in Gainesville, Florida on May 30, 1945, according to her son Vaughn Thornton, even though there is some dispute on the correct date being May 30, 1944.
By the time she was nine months old, her son said, she was an orphan and consigned to foster care, growing up mostly in different towns in Michigan. Her full name was Gladys Catherine Horton. She was married once and divorced, and had three sons. Besides Mr. Thornton, one other son, Sammy Coleman, survives her, along with two grandchildren.
She was raised in the western Detroit suburb of Inkster by foster parents. By the time of her high school years at Inkster High School on Middlebelt Road, Gladys had taken a strong interest in singing, joining the high school glee club.
In 1960 Horton formed a group with her former highschool glee club members Georgeanna Tillman, Katherine Anderson and Juanita Coward. The origin of the Marvelettes is variously recounted in music encyclopedias and other sources, and they usually describe Ms. Horton as a co-founder of the group. But in an interview Ms. Schaffner, one of the original Marvelettes, gave her full credit: “We only started singing together because Gladys asked us,” she recalled. “Usually we’d go to Georgeanna’s house and play canasta.”
Ms. Horton also invited Georgia Dobbins to join her new group. They called themselves the Casinyets — a contraction of the words “can’t sing yet,” an acknowledgment of their lack of experience.
Competing in a talent contest whose winners were to receive an audition for Motown, they didn’t win, but got the audition anyway. Motown executives, including Berry Gordy Jr., the label’s founder, were impressed but said they needed to come up with original material. A friend of Ms. Dobbins, William Garrett, had just written a blues song, and with his permission Ms. Dobbins rewrote the song, about a girl aching for mail from her far-away boyfriend, casting it in a pop vein, though she kept the title, “Please Mr. Postman. Then Ms. Dobbins left the group because her mother was ill and her father wanted her at home, and she was replaced by Wanda Young, another graduate of the same high school in Inkster, leaving Ms. Horton to sing the lead vocals, including the memorable line “De-liver de let-ter, de sooner de bet-ter.”
They changed the group’s name to the Marvelettes and Ms. Horton sang lead vocals on recording of “Please Mr. Postman,” and after three months working itself on the way to the top, the song became Motown Records’ first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Dec. 11, 1961. The song would later be recorded by the Beatles and, in 1975, the Carpenters, for whom it was also a No. 1 hit.
Smokey Robinson then wrote several songs for the Marvelettes, who went through a number of personnel changes — becoming a quartet and later a trio — before disbanding in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Ms. Horton stayed with the group until 1967, when she became pregnant with her first child. She sang on a number of hit recordings, including “Playboy,” “Beechwood 4-5789” and Mr. Robinson’s tunes “Don’t Mess With Bill” and “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.”
Some of the group’s early hits were written by band members and some of Motown’s rising singer-songwriters such as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, who played drums on a majority of their early recordings. Despite their early successes, the group was eclipsed in popularity by groups like the Supremes, with whom they shared an intense rivalry.
Nevertheless, they managed a major comeback in 1966 with “Don’t Mess with Bill”, followed by a few smaller hits. They struggled with issues of dismal promotion from Motown, illnesses, and mental breakdowns, with Cowart the first to leave in 1963, followed by Georgeanna Tillman two years later, and Gladys Horton two years later. The group ceased performing together in 1969 and, following the release of The Return of the Marvelettes in 1970, featuring only Wanda Rogers, disbanded for good, with both Rogers and Katherine Anderson leaving the music business.
The group has received several honors including induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, as well as receiving the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 2005, two of the group’s most successful recordings, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill” earned million-selling Gold singles from the RIAA. On August 17, 2013, in Cleveland, Ohio, at Cleveland State University, the Marvelettes were inducted into the 1st class of the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame.
The Marvelettes were nominated for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 and again in 2015.
Her son Vaughn Thornton said in an interview that her health had been in decline for several years. In a statement released by the Los Angeles chapter of the Motown Alumni Association (an independent group not associated with Motown Records, which is now an affiliate of Universal Music), he said she had not recovered after suffering a stroke.
She died on January 26, 2011 in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 65 at her death.