Henry Ford gets credit for inventing the mass-produced automobile, but in a way, he is also partly responsible for Detroit’s second-most important product: Motown.
A young man named Berry Gordy emerged from the Army in 1953 at age 24 and began working at a Ford assembly plant, while putting in time at a jazz record store on the side. The monotony of the job gave him the freedom for his mind to wander and think about his passion: Music. Rhythm and blues, mostly. And he thought about how the way a car was made — empty shell moving along the assembly line, brakes fastened on, motor hooked up, upholstery installed, finishing touches added — could be a template for how a song might be made.
Five years later, he founded a record label and publishing company, named after the city he lived in and loved: The Motor City. Motor Town. MoTown. Additional subsidiary labels and corporations sprang up — Tamla, Jobete — but that was just window dressing. The public will always know and define the wondrous, smooth, sexy, soulful music that came from there as Motown.
I should say right here that, as a 9-year-old in 1964 — when Motown’s greatest success, The Supremes, rivaled The Beatles on the US singles charts with five consecutive #1 songs — I wouldn’t have been as aware of their magnificence without the considerable influence of my then-12-year-old sister, who was a fanatic for the contagious, danceable, singable music of Motown acts. I am forever grateful that she exposed me to the irresistible melodies, harmonies, bass lines and lyrics of the iconic stable of artists that, collectively, will forever be known as The Motown Sound.
And what a stable it was: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Marvin Gaye. The Temptations. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Little Stevie Wonder. The Four Tops. Mary Wells. The Marvalettes. Gladys Knight and the Pips. And, of course, Diana Ross and The Supremes.
Gordy never played an instrument and wasn’t a singer, but he had an uncanny ear for what could be a hit, and he could even compose a great song now and then. In 1960, he co-wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” which became Motown Records’ first hit, sung by Barrett Strong and later covered by The Beatles, among others.
It was the beginning of a spectacularly successful, even revolutionary company — and a sound and approach that shook the popular music scene to its core just as it was evolving from a safe, white-bread confection into the multi-headed juggernaut that redefined pop culture forever. An exaggeration? I don’t think so. Every wedding reception you’ve ever attended still plays Motown. Satellite radio stations still play Motown incessantly. Even the shopping malls play it through their sound systems. It’s intrinsic. And in my view, that’s a good thing. Because it’s so damn good.
Gordy’s mission was simple. As the Fifties became the Sixties, he was tired of black artists writing, recording and releasing great music, only to have it ignored on mainstream radio in favor of inferior cover versions by white artists who bleached the soul and emotion out of it. Witness Pat Boone’s lame take of “Tutti Frutti” compared to Little Richard’s incendiary original. “It drove me crazy,” said Berry.
He strove to create an environment where black artists could write, produce, sing and record great songs that black AND white American audiences could enjoy. Gordy made it very clear: He wanted tracks that were catchy, memorable, easy to digest, and sounded great on a transistor radio or through tinny car radio speakers.
He put together the assembly line he had envisioned: He hired songwriters and producers like Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and William “Smokey” Robinson, and Norman Whitfield, to come up with the great material and give it the compelling sound that would make the songs burst through the radio. He brought in a band of largely unheralded studio wizards known loosely as The Funk Brothers — Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson (bass), Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen (drums), Robert White and Joe Messina (guitar), Jack Ashford (percussion), among others — to provide the all-important accompaniment. And most prominently, he cultivated the vocalists who would be the very visible “face” of Motown.
A crucial part of that plan was the presentation. When the Supremes, the Tempts and others appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other mainstream venues, they were polished. They were impeccably dressed. They were choreographed to the hilt. This was no accident. Gordy knew that if they were to be accepted by white audiences back then, they would have to be charming and delightful, not even remotely edgy or threatening. He even brought in some charm school people to give the artists etiquette lessons. This all translated into major chart success and packed houses at their ever-broadening live appearance opportunities.
This acquiescence to a “safe” approach had its detractors, particularly among blacks. Stax Records, operating out of Memphis with acts like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin, offered what many felt was a much more authentic “soul music” experience — grittier guitar parts, horns instead of strings, vocals far more passionate. The lyrics of the Stax songs were more suggestive, more sexual, more genuine, and the records of these artists sold better in black communities, and, in hindsight, they’re arguably the more vibrant recordings (“Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin; “Shake” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding; “In the Midnight Hour” and “Funky Broadway,” Wilson Pickett”; “”Soul Man” and “I Thank You,” Sam and Dave).
But Motown ruled the roost, in the public’s eye, from the early ’60s into the 1970s. Beginning with Barrett Strong’s “Money” in 1960, Motown started slowly but strongly, with hits like “Shop Around” (The Miracles), “Please Mister Postman” by The Marvalettes (the first #1 Motown hit), “Do You Love Me” (The Contours), “You Beat Me to the Punch” (Mary Wells), “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (Marvin Gaye), “Fingertips” (Stevie Wonder) and “Heat Wave” (Martha Reeves).
In response to the British Invasion, The Beach Boys and the mainstream pop artists of that period, Gordy cranked up his assembly-line hit machine with The Supremes and the Temptations and others, and for five years or so, no one could touch Motown. From 1964 through 1969, Motown artists had an incredible 65 Top Ten singles. In 1966 alone, 75% of the songs they released reached the Top 40.
I mean, come on. It’s a ridiculous embarrassment of riches: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” “Baby I Need Your Loving.” “Get Ready.” “For Once In My Life.” “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “My Guy.” “The Tracks of My Tears.” “Baby Love.” “Nowhere to Run.” “I Can’t Help Myself.” “Uptight.” “My World Is Empty Without You.” “Ain’t That Peculiar.” “My Girl.” “More Love.” “Dancing in the Streets.” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” “I Was Made to Love Her.”
Sure, the Motown labels had struggling artists who never reached the chart success of their peers. Have you heard of The Velvelettes? Shorty Long? Marv Johnson? Choker Campbell? Debbie Dean? Didn’t think so. But mostly, Motown had a superlative track record. A few had just one or two hits — The Contours (“Do You Love Me”), Junior Walker and the All-Stars (“Shotgun,” “What Does It Take”), Edwin Starr (Agent Double-O-Soul,” “War”) — but they were HUGE hits.
Gordy and his team were remarkably good at listening to a song in production and identifying it as a hit single. As legend has it, every Friday there would be a staff meeting, at which everyone was asked to listen to the latest songs in the works and ask themselves: “If you have a dollar and you’re really hungry, would you buy a hot dog, or would you buy this record?” In most cases, if they wanted the record, it ended up as a million seller.
But his Midas touch was not without its missteps. My favorite anecdote involves his inexplicable refusal to fully appreciate “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966, the song was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, but Gordy was unenthused, and sent it back for re-tooling. Then Marvin Gaye took a stab at it, but that too was rejected. Finally Gladys Knight and the Pips tried a faster, upbeat arrangement, and Gordy approved, and it went on to reach #2 on the charts in late 1967. But it was in the summer of 1968 when Gaye re-recorded it, and although Gordy was hesitant to release it as a single in the wake of Knight’s successful version, he finally relented, and it not only went to #1 but became the definitive version. Creedence and other bands went on to do credible cover versions based on Gaye’s rendition.
Ultimately, like all empires, Motown began to crumble. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the trio that wrote dozens of major hits for the Supremes and others but didn’t own their songs, felt slighted by their pitiable royalty payments and defected in 1967. By 1968, the country had become a different place, between the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and the Motown artists insisted that their songs should comment on what was going on, despite Gordy’s preference for sunny songs about love and heartache. He resisted, but Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, in particular, won the right to compose and produce their own material, and the result was a radical shift from boy-girl love songs to diatribes about the state of society, reflected in songs like The Supremes’ “Love Child” (1968), The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” (1970), Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971) and Wonder’s “Living For The City” (1973).
Gordy was not blameless for Motown’s fall from grace. He had his own share of personal dalliances, most notably a relationship with Diana Ross that produced a child and ended up bringing about her departure from The Supremes in 1970 for a successful solo career (although she ultimately left Gordy and Motown a decade later).
Still, Motown remained a powerful force in the ’70s and ’80s. Wonder’s extraordinary string of self-produced records (“Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” “Songs in the Key of Life”), three of which won Album of the Year Grammys, and the emergence of the Jackson 5, who showed up in 1969 and dominated the charts in the early ’70s, kept Motown wildly profitable and in good stead. (Of course, Michael Jackson the solo artist was a Motown thoroughbred, and he eventually became the biggest star in the universe in the ’80s, but he’d left for Columbia Records by then.) And new sensations like The Spinners, The Commodores, Billy Preston and Thelma Houston helped the label navigate the evolution from soul to funk and disco. Even into the ’90s and beyond, artists like Boys II Men, The Dazz Band, and Tony! Toni! Tone! kept the Motown boat afloat, but Gordy had sold his interests at that point.
He was rightfully inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Non-Performers category in 1988, and his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, Magic and Memories of Motown” is definitely worth reading, if a bit too self-aggrandizing. As recently as 2013, “Motown The Musical” made a big splash on Broadway and in various touring versions nationwide.
If you want to learn more about the Motown story from a fresh perspective, I strongly recommend the 2002 documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which tells the tale from the viewpoint of The Funk Brothers, whose musical stylings played a crucial role in the Motown Sound’s widespread popularity.
Gordy deserves a world of praise for the results of his “Hitsville USA” efforts back in that long-ago era. It was truly a magical time, the mid-’60s… Magical music that still resonates passionately today. “Reflections of the way life used to be…”