The Motown Sound began when many Africans Americans from the Mississippi Delta moved to Detroit from 1900 and 1940 to work in the auto factories. Blues and Gospel music arrived with their luggage. In the 1930s, Detroit developed a healthy share of national Jazz bands. Jump Blues bands arrived in the 1940s. Borrowing heavily from its Gospel, Blues and Jump Blues heritage, in the 1950s you could find many a Doo Wop trio or quarter singing in local nightclubs and on street corners. From this heritage, the one-of-a-kind stage and recording artist Jackie Wilson emerged. Michael Jackson credits Jackie as one of his most profound musical influences.
The signature of Detroit’s music tradition was written at Motown by its mercurial founder, Berry Gordy. He began as an auto assembly worker, then jazz shop owner, and a moonlighting songwriter for Jackie Wilson. Entrepreneurial endeavor was a Gordy family tradition. After urging from a pre-famous Smokey Robinson, Gordy borrowed $800 from family members in 1959 to found Motown Records in a modest house he called “Hitsville USA”. Plenty of African Americans owned record companies from 1920s-1960s, but none had the combination of strategic vision, business instincts and business practices of Gordy. Those characteristics and market timing are why Berry Gordy became the crown prince of Black music before he sold Motown.
In various attempts to reach the crossover (“White”) market, Black record companies created non-Black sounding record labels and removed artist photos of from album covers sold in white neighborhoods. Some hired white recording artists like Bobby Darin to cover R&B hits. Berry Gordy did all of those things as well, but he wanted more. Gordy envisioned R&B music as a crossover vehicle to whatever popular music of the time was called, as long as it sold in the millions. He figured if a White record company could have Elvis Presley sing R&B like a Black man and make millions selling to White and Black fans, why should they have all the fun?
The late 1950s-1960s presented a time in America that may never come again. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly recordings, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and various other Rock & Roll TV programs conditioned white youths to accept black R&B artists featured on those programs. This programming decision was not a musical stretch, since record executives knew that Rock & Roll was repackaged R&B for white folks. More importantly, black recording artists upheld their portion of the sales rankings. Furthermore, due to the televised Civil Rights Movement, young Anglo-Americans bought more R&B music from black record companies. More parents allowed those records in the house, if they were PG-rated and did not have black folks on the album cover. The 1960s market timing was perfect for a handful of black record companies to capitalize on these trends.
Gordy’s broader vision to enhance Motown’s crossover appeal led him to hire Artist & Repertoire managers Harvey Fuqua and Suzanne De Passe. They polished his stable of raw artists into professional entertainers. He employed Maxine Powell to teach the girls how to walk, sit and talk. He hired an elocution coach to insure that vocalists enunciated words in the songs and press conferences. He hired extraordinary tap dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins to teach step routines and develop a compelling stage presence. To these grooming features, Gordy placed a firm muzzle on his artists to prevent over-the-top sexual or political statements. Despite these overt outreaches to the white youth market, Motown musical sensibilities stayed rooted in the African American experience. Though Gordy correctly determined that the Rock & Roll market was increasingly being driven by Anglo-American and European musical sensibilities, he insured that Motown remained rooted in black sensibilities. So unlike Little Richard and Chuck Berry in pursuit of the Rock & Roll market, Motown artists maintained a connection with evolving tastes of, a Malcolm X would say, Negroes and Colored Folks who proudly became African Americans.
Though Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson wrote most of Motown’s early songs, Gordy knew that his artists required additional lyricists to continuously write hits. So he hired the hottest R&B songwriters such as Mickey Stevenson, George Gordy, Barrett Strong, Ivy Hunter, Hank Cosby, Ashford & Simpson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Norman Whitfield. He also published some songs written by Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Gordy hired session bandleader and keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, Robert White and Eddie Willis as guitarists, Jack Ashford on vibes and tambourine, Eddie “Bongo” Brown on percussion, James Jamerson on bass, and Benny Benjamin on drums. Informally, these top-notch musicians were called the Funk Brothers. Only the Stax Records session band, Booker T & the MGs, could come close to matching the Funk Brothers for creative R&B tunes that established the mood and dance rhythms of so many songs we’ve come to love. Unfortunately, Motown did not promote the Funk Brothers as a separate group, like Stax Records did for Booker T & the MGs in their heyday.
The creative junction called “Motown” attracted an unmatched family of R&B singers. Gordy likes to say it was something about Michigan that provided so much great local talent, but it was really the Motown success formula that brought in Little Stevie Wonder, Contours, Supremes, Temptations, Isley Brothers, Marvelettes, Four Tops, Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Spinners, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Jimmy Ruffin, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, and the Jackson Five (from Indiana). And many of them gladly sang background for their fellow artists. Instead of struggling in local clubs with an occasional hit record, like so many other talents in large cities nationwide, Studio A at Hitsville became their professional home. Consequently, a Motown recording contract became the crystallized goal for Black singing group around the nation.
Motown was the first major R&B record company to book a roadshow of concerts that featured all of its artists all over America in just a few months. It was called The Motortown Revue (Motortown was later shortened to “Motown”). Imagine getting Stevie, Smokie, Temptations, Supremes, Marvin, Four Tops, Martha and Gladys approaching their prime. That would be like getting Jill Scott, Usher, Eric Benet, Tamia, Howard Hewitt, Alicia Keyes, New Edition, Gerald Levert, Whitney Houston, En Vogue, Babyface, and Boyz II Men in the same show at one affordable price!
In fitting juxtaposition to the British Invasion of music at the time (Beatles, Rolling Stones), Gordy positioned Motown with the media as “The Sound of Young America”. Gordy had his groups play in front of both integrated and segregated audiences. He would not let a political statement (only play before integrated audiences) reduce his concert attendance in the South. Gordy was, however, sensitive to the value of the Civil Rights Movement. The Motortown Revue motorcoach was shot at and many places in the South would not let them use the rest room. In the process, Gordy forged a Motown family on the motorcoach where they slept. He left political matters to Dr King’s SCLC organization, the SNCC, and the NAACP, to whom he wrote many checks in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Isn’t it a little ironic that revenue from white fans in segregated audiences of the South, helped Gordy write larger checks in support of the Civil Rights Movement? In a savvy reversal of the British Invasion, Gordy also took the Motortown Revue to Europe. That strategic move brought legions of new fans and helped make Motown a global music force.
Throughout his dealings, Gordy avoided a reputation for strong-arm tactics, payment discrepancies, tax and financial flaws common to Black record companies. Instead, he and to a lesser extent, Smokie Robinson, shrewdly controlled Motown song rights. Gordy’s critics would say he was too tight-fisted in negotiations. In his defense, one should acknowledge that Gordy took the business start-up risks, paid his employees on time, grew the start-up into a multi-million dollar entertainment brand, and successfully launched the careers of many artists.
Some wish he had kept Motown in the Motor City. Perhaps Motown Sound would have developed the same economic ecosystem in Detroit that Country Music companies enjoy in Nashville. But Detroit of 1972 was reeling financially, socially and culturally due to the disastrous 1967 Race Riot. You can also make the business case that Gordy saw a Los Angeles location as a necessary to expand into movies, which he did. But the major issue with Gordy that still irks some people is that Motown is no longer Black-owned. How one feels about that depends on their view of Motown as a cultural institution or as a business.
Motown Artist Reviews & Audio Clips courtesy of Soul-Patrol.com: