From Road & Track
All music is a product of time and place. Often, this happens in subtle ways—composers and songwriters absorb the sounds, moods, and cultures of their environment, sometimes without even realizing it. Other times, the influence is a bit more explicit.
Berry Gordy Jr. began working at a Lincoln-Mercury plant in 1955. Gordy was an aspiring songwriter at the time, but with a young family to support, he did what so many musicians have to do, and took a day job. “Those slow-moving car frames were the loveliest sight I’d ever seen,” he wrote in his autobiography To Be Loved. “There was a pleasing simplicity to how everyone did the same thing over and over again.”
The work paid reasonably well—$86.40 a week—and by Gordy’s account, was fairly easy. “I learned it so fast I could jump into each car as it arrived, do my job, get out and have time to spare,” he wrote. “Before long that extra time was devoted to singing and writing songs.” It was a good job, but Gordy was never going to be the type to stay at the company for 30 years and retire with a healthy pension. In 1957, a restless and ambitious Gordy quit the assembly line to make music full-time, soon linking up with singer Jackie Wilson and songwriter Smokey Robinson. Two years later, he founded Tamala records, which later became Motown.
At the home Gordy had chosen to set up Motown, 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the words “Hitsville, U.S.A.” were written above the front window. It seemed boastful at first, but by the mid Sixties, it was proven not to be understatement.
Unlike most record companies, Motown was almost completely self sufficient. It had its own in-house songwriters, backing musicians, recording studios, producers, and everything else you’d need to cut a record. “It was that self sufficiency, and that ownership of the means of the production, if you like, that I think was absolutely essential to its success, and fairly unusual,” says Adam White, who wrote Motown: The Sound of Young America with longtime Motown sales chief Barney Ales.
“My own dream for a hit factory was quickly taking form, a concept that had been shaped by principles I had learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line,” Gordy wrote. “At the plant, the cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line… I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist—a star.”
Motown found success quickly. In 1961, “Shop Around” by The Miracles became Motown’s first million-selling single, hitting the top of the Billboard R&B chart and number two on the Pop chart. Later that year, “Please Mister Postman” by The Marvelettes reached the top of the Pop chart. In 1962, success came more frequently. Notably, Mary Wells had three Top-10 Pop hits in a row, all written and produced by Smokey Robinson. “There was a consistency there, and something of a sound,” White says. Gordy realized that this sort of consistency was necessary for the success he envisioned. “A distributor who handled one hit from a small indie didn’t rush to pay that indie unless there was a prospect of another hit coming down the road pretty soon,” White adds. Gordy realized that you can’t simply cut a record and hope it’s a hit—you have to guarantee it. And thus emerged the idea of not just the artist as a replicable product, but the actual records, too.
Around this time, Gordy had set up what he called Quality Control, inspired by what he saw at the Lincoln-Mercury plant. Billie Jean Brown, an outspoken college student first hired to be an assistant to Loucye Gordy, Berry’s sister, headed up the division. She had an ear for what made a hit record, and in Quality Control, she listened to everything produced at Motown, picked the best, and brought them to a weekly company meeting. Most Motown artists didn’t write and produce their own material, and often, songs were recorded by a number of artists until the best version was determined. “The artists were a means to an end, in a way,” White says.
Motown’s unorthodox methods were working. The songwriting team of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier—Holland-Dozier-Holland—formed in 1963, producing hits and helping better define the Motown sound. That same year, a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder gave the label its first top-ten album, and The Beatles covered three Motown songs on With The Beatles. But mainstream success in America would require extraordinary measures.
Nelson George in Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound writes that “Black popular music was the industry’s bastard child and mother lode” in the late Fifties and early Sixties. This was an era where Black music didn’t automatically cross over into the mainstream as it does now. To combat this, Gordy set about refining the artists even further, hiring etiquette coach Maxine Powell to teach artists how to carry themselves on and off stage. Miss Powell worked with artists for two hours a day, sweating every detail. She got Marvin Gaye to stop closing his eyes when he sang, and stopped Diana Ross from holding the microphone too close to her mouth. “I believe I brought class to Motown,” Powell said in a later interview.
Having someone like Powell on staff was ingenious. She helped Motown artists break down the cultural barriers that previously kept Black entertainers out of the American mainstream. Without Powell’s influence, it’s hard to imagine The Supremes—Motown’s biggest stars in the mid Sixties—appearing on Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or headlining New York’s ritzy Copacabana. The Supremes’ July 1965 run at the Copa was pivotal, turning the group into a hot attraction for upscale supper clubs across the country, with other Motown acts following close behind.
The production line was complete, cranking out near-perfect artists and records, bringing Motown success that was not only excellent for a record label, but unprecedented for a Black-owned company in America. “When I look back at these years from 1965 to 1968, it seems we could do no wrong,” Gordy wrote. “The stream of hits was endless. The whole world was fast becoming aware of our overall success—our artists, our songs, our sound. I was being called the star maker, the magic man.”
Holland-Dozier-Holland produced tons of hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, and more. Norman Whitfield, hired at Motown to do a number of odd jobs, emerged as a songwriting force in his own right, penning a number of hits for the Temptations. But all this success came amidst a changing world. Psychedelia was reaching the mainstream, while war was raging in Vietnam. San Francisco had its “Summer of Love” in 1967, and Detroit was home to what’s considered one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history.
Motown’s West Grand home was spared damage, but the riot left the city forever changed. In any case, Motown was outgrowing West Grand and moved much of its business operations to a larger building on Woodward Avenue, closer to the river. In its early days, Motown employees considered themselves part of a family, with long hours spent together in the house on West Grand. Motown kept studios there, but the move did permanent damage to the intimacy that once defined the company. Gordy himself was spending more time at Motown’s California office while another parallel with Detroit automakers emerged.
“Just leaving the wider picture aside, if you take ’68, the company had grown to an extraordinary level of success, income and influence,” White says. “Anyone is pretty reluctant to sort of change the formula, right? You want more of that, and it takes a remarkable businessman to sort of rip up the rule book and do it differently.”
Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown over a dispute about royalties in 1968 as well, and while their departures didn’t grind the production line to a halt, signs were emerging that it was winding down. Still, Norman Whitfield helped fill the vacuum, and Motown released a number of hit records in ’68, notably “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The next year, Motown made another important hire—The Jackson 5.
Fronted by a precocious Michael Jackson, The Jackson 5 were an immediate success. “I Want You Back” was released in October, 1969, and it topped the chart the following January. Their next three singles went to number one, as well. But things were changing. “I didn’t realize that the launching of the Jackson 5 would mark the end of something major for me,” Gordy wrote. “They would be the last stars I would develop with the same intensity and emotional investment as I had with the earlier Motown artists. They would be the last big stars to come rolling off my assembly line.”
A lot of factors lead to the decline of the assembly line method; Motown’s growth, and the end of the sense of community created by a small company working out of one house; changing music tastes in a rapidly changing world; and Gordy’s evolving interests and time spent in Los Angeles. Perhaps most notably, though, a couple of big Motown artists became dissatisfied with the production process, seeking more artistic freedom, and expressing a desire to create music that reflected the state of the world.
Gordy had a complicated relationship with the civil rights movement. In his 1998 book about R&B and race, Just My Soul Responding, Brian Ward wrote that “Gordy, the most successful Black entrepreneur of his generation and a living embodiment of Black integrationist aspirations, was always reluctant to allow his artists to embrace potentially controversial subjects that my jeopardize their white audience.” Gordy was a businessman, though, and if he thought political consciousness could be successfully monetized, he’d allow it.
Marvin Gaye was one of the first to push for more. Gaye was Motown’s sexy crooner, but he wanted to record a protest album. Gordy recalled telling Gaye he was being “ridiculous,” but the singer was insistent, so Gordy relented. “If you’re gonna do something different at least make it commercial,” Gordy said.
“What’s Going On” was penned by Four Tops member Obie Benson and Motown staff writer Al Cleavland. According to Nelson George’s book, Gaye didn’t want to record the song at first, but eventually he relented, changing some of the lyrics to reflect his social consciousness. Gordy didn’t like the record, but Billie Jean Brown and Barney Ales decided to release it anyway. “How could you release that record? It was the worst I ever heard,” Ales recalled Gordy saying afterwards, but “What’s Going On” hit number two on the pop chart, and Gaye quickly got back to the studio to finish the landmark album of the same name.
And then there was Stevie Wonder. With the help of lawyer Johanan Vigoda, Wonder signed a new deal with Motown shortly after his 21st birthday that made him one of the label’s highest-paid artists and gave him unprecedented creative control. It’s hard to imagine Gordy agreeing to such a deal, but many of Motown’s biggest stars were leaving for other labels, and Wonder wanted to stay loyal to the people who first gave him a shot. It was well worth it.
The string of albums Wonder released from 1972 to 1976—Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs In the Key of Life—are works of unparalleled virtuosity. Never before or since has the pop world been given so much genius in such a short span. When accepting the Grammy for Album of the Year, Paul Simon thanked Wonder for not releasing an album in 1975. Wonder won the award the following year for Songs In the Key of Life.
“[Gordy] gave a speech at Yale in which he said one of the hardest things about Motown was recognizing… Berry thought he was a pretty talented guy, but then he realized that the people around him, particularly Marvin and Stevie, were more talented than he was,” White says. It was something Gordy was reluctant to accept, but he eventually came to terms with it. There was life after the assembly line.
Gordy retired last year at age 89, but Motown is still going strong today. The production line might have stopped, but the sound of 1960s Detroit still reverberates.
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