Can’t forget the Motor City: Motown hits 50Posted: February 2, 2009
The following article was originally published in the Ann Arbor News following the sale of Motown Records to MCA Inc. in 1988. The article was subsequently cited in the bibliography of Gerald Posner’s 2003 book “Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power.”
By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor
During the heady days of the civil rights movement, many viewed Motown as a triumph of black achievement. This degree of success was unprecedented for a minority-owned enterprise. As Motown marks its fiftieth anniversary in 2009, the legendary Detroit label continues to inspire dreams and imaginations.
Much of the lure of Motown stemmed from the meteoric rise of its stars and the company’s phenomenal growth, despite social conditions that said success of this magnitude was impossible. As singer Sam Cooke discovered when he formed his own publishing company, the industry was simply a microcosm of the nation’s racism, with discrimination and outright thievery preventing many artists from attaining even a fraction of their fair share.
Motown challenged these seemingly insurmountable odds. Esther Gordy Edwards, sister to founder Berry Gordy Jr., attributed the company’s success to the family’s drive which was also a core philosophy: “to make a better product.”
“One time Berry called Smokey at three in the morning, Edwards recalled, “and told him to come in and recut ‘Shop Around.’ ” Gordy thought the song’s tempo was too slow, and in the days of Motown’s rudimentary two-track studios, that meant everyone was needed to recut the single. The revised track reached number one in Cashbox’s listings.
“Berry was making a commercial product, and young people was the market he was trying to reach,” Edwards noted. “He knew what young people wanted to hear. If small stations played one of our songs, then you could turn your dial to that station. The airwaves were free.”
Edwards was vice president of management and international relations for the company in the 1960s. She negotiated engagement contracts, determined where acts appeared, and who accompanied them. It was Edwards who convinced Dick Clark to accept a struggling vocal group for an upcoming package tour. The “no-hit Supremes” broke during the tour when “Where Do Our Love Go” climbed to number one. Led by the theatrical and style conscious Diane Ross, the group embodied the aspirations of the company: total pop music crossover and unending upward mobility.
Although Detroit was brimming with extraordinary musical talent in the 1950s and 60s, aspiring artists had few commercial outlets. Consequently, when Motown got up and running, Gordy had his pick of some of Detroit’s best talent. William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s A&R chief, aided the effort by combing Detroit nightclubs in pursuit of musicians. One session musician, Carol Coleman-Cunningham, even came from Bethel A.M.E., the Detroit church where the Gordys were members.
“Mrs. (Bertha) Gordy and my mother were friends and attended the same church,” Coleman-Cunningham recalled. “Mrs. Gordy told my mother: ‘Your daughter is a musician; why doesn’t she try out at the company?’ ” She did. From 1963 through 1966, Coleman-Cunningham’s classical harp embellishments helped “sweeten” the hits being recorded in Studio A. She performed on the Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” album, and in sessions for Billy Eckstine, Barbara McNair, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and most of the major Motown acts of the period.
Although the music pouring out of Hitsville was soulful, exciting and original, the songs relied on a few formulas. Lyrics were written in the present tense to intensify a song’s emotional impact. Like gospel, songs told a story from beginning to end. Loop melodies pulled in a listener regardless of when they tuned in on the radio. Songs were kept under three minutes to ensure greater airplay. And conflicts, as a competitor at Stax records astutely observed, were rarely resolved when a song ended.
Motown’s success had other artists making pilgrimages to the Motor City thinking they could duplicate the music’s feeling and sound by being in Detroit. Others tried to crack the label’s Rosetta Stone by concentrating on its individual components.
The Motown Sound was difficult to distill since it was essentially a hybrid. It wasn’t one sound but rather a synthesis of gospel, soul, rock and roll, pop, jazz, African rhythms, pre-rock standards, plus occasional dashes of show-business schmaltz. The musical influences were far-reaching and sometimes obscure. Session musician James Jamerson once said he came up with a bass line based on the way a woman walked. During one session in the 1960s, Gordy asked Coleman-Cunningham to play her harp like a sitar.
The Sound of Young America – in all its youthful exuberance – had Motown’s competitors confused. Sometimes there was so much buried in the musical mix that even after repeated listenings Motown’s competitors and fans were perplexed. At one party in the 1960s, John Lennon of the Beatles was heard shouting over the din to a Motown artist: “How do you get that backbeat on the drums? By using a tree or what? Amhet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, said the Motown Sound was one he couldn’t imitate, although he did with artists like Barbara Lewis.
Berry Gordy Jr. rolled out the hits with a precision much like you’d expect from the Big Three. Quality control, an auto industry concept learned by Gordy during his brief tenure as a chrome trimmer at Ford, meant that Friday mornings were reserved for staff meetings to discuss which singles should be released. Other times, the company president would treat neighborhood kids to snacks and Cokes in exchange for their opinions on records. And Gordy, a successful songwriter himself, was blessed with an uncanny ability for sensing top 10 material.
“Berry is a creative genius, a God-given talent. He could write songs on the spur of the moment,” said Edwards. Pausing briefly, she glanced out the window onto West Grand Boulevard and uttered the word “traffic.” “He could write a song about traffic, put it into the context of a boy-girl relationship and make it a hit song.”
As the homegrown label became more successful, Gordy heightened the level of his aspirations. Like scores of others, he had established an independent label, but the vision was grander, the goals more complex, the game plan more long-term. Unlike his rivals, Gordy looked beyond the temporary gain of a top ten smash and sought to create long-term careers for his artists.
“Each plateau was to get to the next plateau,” Edwards recalled. Part of this evolution included the creation of Motown’s fabled Artist Development department. Gordy took unpolished, yet talented, performers and groomed them to play any venue in the world. Almost from the onset, Gordy had looked beyond the grueling Motortown Revues and toward the more lucrative supper club and Las Vegas engagements. These venues not only meant higher earnings for the company, but helped establish an artist’s across-the-board credibility and longevity. Before Motown, most African Americans were relegated to the “chitlin circuit,” an archipelago of black clubs, theaters and auditoriums in the East and South – with little chance for success in mainstream America.
To achieve Gordy’s crossover goals, intense preparation was needed and Artist Development provided the elements of style. A small, in-house staff schooled artists and groups in choreography, voice, etiquette, interview techniques, and all the other basics Motown deemed necessary for presenting a polished image.
The department was headed by Gordy’s sister, Gwen Gordy Fuqua. Cholly Atkins, a noted dancer and choreographer, translated a group’s latest hit into a coherent and convincing stage routine. Maxine Powell, owner of a Detroit modeling agency and finishing school, taught grooming techniques to the female acts. Bandleader Maurice King prepared acts like the Supremes for major venues like the Copacabana in New York.
The department scrutinized every aspect of a performance and tailored it to maintain a consistent and prescribed image. The choreography of the Temptations was athletic and exciting. The Supremes, due to the restrictions of floor-length gowns, were more demure: movement was often confined to stylized hand gestures and sexy over-the-shoulder glances. Image was everything. When the Supremes returned to Detroit to play a triumphant club date at the Roostertail, Motown had the scent of gardenias floated through the room via the nightclub’s ventilation system.
Martha and the Vandellas – like the Supremes, Temptations, Jackson 5 and others – went through Motown’s star-making machine. Reeves said she still found herself relying on the lessons of Motown’s “charm school” and called it “her degree from college.” Most recently, Reeves has served on Detroit City Council, after winning elective office in 2005.
Motown’s early successes let to phenomenal growth for the company and the restless music that poured out of the two-story house on West Grand Boulevard soon became a cross-cultural phenomenon.
The late Doris Holland worked in the billings and collections department under Louyce Gordy Wakefield in the sixties. During a 1988 interview when she was secretary to Edwards at the Motown Historical Museum, she recalled that the company “grew very fast. Faster than management thought it would. It just kept growing, growing, growing.”
Katherine Anderson Schaffner, an original member of the Marvelettes, was astounded by the growth too. “We did not expect the single [“Please Mister Postman”] to be a million seller. Today, you’re a high school student and the next day you’re stars.”
Although Motown’s music was never overtly political, the company’s influence on American culture was profound. Motown created a form of black music that crossed virtually all racial and cultural barriers. And repeated images of its beautiful and poised artists on network TV helped alter white America’s perception of African-Americans. And the company’s success sent a strong message to countless young African-Americans to do the same.
In retrospect, it’s easy to praise Motown’s achievements, but Gordy’s accomplishments often ended up at odds with the political and social movements of the 1960s. While magazines and news programs of the day heralded Motown’s achievements in glossy photo spreads and splashy features, success was not without censure.
As the civil rights movement grew increasingly militant in the late 1960s, some charged that the company’s success was at the expense of its ethnicity. In “Where Did Our Love Go,” author Nelson George said there was a point – after seeing the Temptations in synchronized dance routines – that it wasn’t to hard to think “Uncle Tom.” Author Gerri Hirshey theorized in her book “Nowhere to Run” that Motown’s upwardly mobile blacks were criticized because such desires were out of sync with the times. “In the late sixties, as the civil rights and anti-war protests grew, Berry Gordy Jr. and his employees found themselves in the peculiar position of visibly enjoying the good life while the ashes fell around them,” she wrote.
Yet despite challenging times, Motown survived and prospered.
Hitsville adapted and offered challenging material, yet it was clear that times were changing. As Motown marks its 50th anniversary in 2009, the public’s fascination is largely confined to the company’s undisputed golden age – the Detroit era of the 1960s. Motown realizes the lure of the era. The company’s Web site (http://www.motown.com/) divides the label’s relevance into two distinct sections: “Universal Motown” and “Classic Motown.” However, Motown trades heavily on the legacy years with repackaged and remastered albums and rare and unreleased material. But how did Motown go from being a musical trend-setter to a company whose legacy is often more important and significant than its present-day output?
Despite earlier successes, changing times appeared to be Motown’s greatest enemy. Like the music of the Brill Building or Phil Spector, Motown was a producer-driven company. Producers shaped the sound and style of the company’s groups and artists. Although being a producer-controlled company afforded Motown an instantly recognizable sound, the advent of the self-contained groups [ones that could write and perform their own music] forced the company to broaden its approach. Although artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson enjoyed continued success, groups whose songs and styles had been created for them faltered.
And by the late sixties, the counter-culture came knocking. While the Supremes were staples on network television and the Tempts were wowing the highball set at the Copa, the world was changing – and fast. Anti-war sentiment was growing across the U.S. and popular music was getting funky, hard-edged and socially relevant.
Music was embracing a wider spectrum of themes and stretching beyond the three-minute structure that Hitsville had traded on so heavily. Although producers like Norman Whitfield introduced trippy, psychedelic elements to the music of the Temptations and heretics like Marvin Gaye fought to modernize the company’s sound with socially relevant themes, sometimes the changes were met with resistance.
In the Marvin Gaye biography “Troubled Soul,” author David Ritz claimed Gordy refused to release Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” because its jazzy, rambling arrangement strayed too far from the Motown formula. Gordy allegedly relented after Gaye threatened a work boycott. Upon release, the album went on to enjoy widespread critical acclaim and commercial success.
Despite such successes, the Detroit era was nearing its end. Two years prior, in 1968, large sections of the city were in ruin following the worst riots in U.S. history. Although Motown was spared, Twelfth Street, the epicenter of the destruction, was only a few blocks away. By 1972, Gordy had officially relocated the company to Hollywood.
On the West Coast were future goals – particularly an interest in film production. For some, this move and the launching of Diana Ross’ solo career, signaled the decline of individual careers as well as the label.
“When Motown moved, my life was torn apart,” said Martha Reeves in a 1988 interview. Nineteen seventy. The company was sold in 1970 as far as I’m concerned.” Reeves said she “was put on hold” many times in those days and learned of the company’s relocation to Los Angeles “six months after the move. . . . They told who they wanted to tell. I had to start fresh with MCA records.”
Others, simply disappointed by the move, theorized that the company simply faltered with the move west. Some said that Motown, like many homegrown businesses, grew too big and too fast or that Motown channeled itself into areas where it had too little expertise.
“I was disappointed when Motown moved to California,” Schaffner recalled. “Disappointed in the way that you hate to see things change. But change has to occur. Business is business. You were family. Many people were friends that you saw move.”
When Motown relocated, the careers of many of the company’s founding artists were essentially over. Other artists with more sustainable careers, left the company for the major labels. Still others brought suit against the company, claiming lost royalties and earnings. Yet despite bruised egos and contentious litigation, even many of Gordy’s harshest critics acknowledge that Motown made their lives better.
Reeves said that Motown meant being “part of something of a creative nature,” something “internationally renowned.” Another figure from the Detroit era defended the company: “People always want to talk about what Motown did to them instead of what Motown did for them.”
Schaffner put Motown’s legacy into perspective following a ceremony marking the company’s historical significance to the state of Michigan. “I encountered a person at the Motown dedication ceremonies that made for an unpleasant experience. It made me angry. Then I realized that some of these people were trying to be somebody. I knew I was somebody. I was blessed with my name in stone – in black history.”
© 2009, The Metro Monthly. http://www.metromonthly.net