In the mid-fifties, two independent studios and record labels helped pioneer the new sounds of rock ‘n’ roll: Chess in Chicago and Sun in Memphis. In the early sixties, two other independent studios and their record labels helped bring about a new era of African-American music: Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis.
The Motown story is one of the most fascinating in rock ‘n’ roll history. A young black entrepreneur from Detroit with no experience in the music business other than owning a record store borrows money from friends and family to develop one of the defining sounds of the entire decade. In accomplishing artistic goals, he also established some of the most successful singers and groups of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, created dozens of Top 10 hits and built a business that, when finally sold in 1988, was the largest black-owned corporation in history.
Berry Gordy, Jr., ex-boxer and jazz record storeowner, believed that if a carefully crafted form of black-pop could be successful in the music industry. The foundational concept behind the entire project was “crossover” – creating a wholesome, likable, dance-able, accessible sound for the broad, black and white, pop market.
Gordy’s goal of creating crossover hits was also accompanied by a second goal: developing a stable of polished, young black professional performers that would be able to successfully penetrate the racial ceiling which kept many black singers from national exposure and the elite performing markets such as those in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. To do this, he would need to be involved in every aspect of their training, from song selection and studio work to choreography and stage deportment. Only then could he be assured that the polish of the final product would meet the industry standards.
He began in 1959 with a few dollars, a dream, determination and a renovated house that he brashly labeled “Hitsville, U.S.A.”. Jackie Wilson, a fellow ex-boxer turned singer, was the first to join Gordy’s project. Wilson recorded several of Gordy’s songs, including “Lonely Teardrops” which was a local hit. The same year a nineteen year old singer/songwriter named William “Smokey” Robinson joined Gordy’s group and within a year had the #1 R&B and #2 pop record in the nation with “Shop Around”. According to one story, when Gordy met Robinson, the younger songwriter had hundreds of finished and unfinished songs and lyrics in notebooks. Together they were able to cull out the best from the group, find the singers and record them.
Smokey, who was frequently backed up in the studio by his vocal group, the Miracles, believed in the crossover concepts that Berry Gordy, Jr. preached. Within a couple years of starting, Gordy had renamed the company Motown (a contraction of the term Motor Town, Detroit’s nickname) and had a #1 hit on the pop charts: “Please, Mr. Postman” by the girl group the Marvelettes.
Gordy built the successful Motown, gospel/pop sound on several key principles.
1) Create a song with a dance-able beat. While many of the pop songs of the late ‘50s were romantic, it was those with a consistent, prominent beat that teens found danceable. By making the beat more prominent in the final mix, either through bumping up the volume of the bass and drums or by doubling the drum beat with stomping boards or other percussive sounds, Gordy made sure that the beat punched through the small speakers of a car, record player, or transistor radio that was owned by American teens. Pushing the beat forward meant making it a dance tune rather than a passive, listening tune.
2) Create a memorable melody. While the prominent beat made it dance-able, it was the melody and lyrics that made it memorable. The melodies of Motown songs were to be repetitious and simple enough for the listener to be able to hum along half way through the first listening and sing along the second time through. Short, smooth, repeated melodic fragments are one of the keys to hits like “Stop, in the Name of Love,” “My Guy” and dozens more. If you can get the listener humming and dancing, Gordy reasoned, you can sell a record.
3) Use romantic lyrics. While Berry Gordy, Jr. firmly believed in the civil rights movement, was certainly one of the shining examples of black America’s success and was a personal friend with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he never felt the need to use Motown songs to carve a political or social statement. Aside from a few rare exceptions (Stevie Wonder’s recording of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” perhaps the only), Motown songs are about love: found, lost, rediscovered and the desires, hurts and ecstasy of it all. This is not to be confused with songs about sex, which abounded in the rhythm and blues literature of the ‘50s, but the lyrics of Motown songs were about being in love, not the act of “making love”. This clear, and conservative, standard for Motown song lyrics assured airplay on even the most conservative of radio stations throughout America.
Finally, 4) Keep the song to a maximum of 3 minutes. Berry Gordy, Jr. understood that the greatest vehicle in the early ‘60s for song exposure was the radio, and that most radio stations with a Top 40 format tried to play as many songs in their playing hour as possible. By keeping the Motown song to a maximum length of 3 minutes (2:30 was even better), it would increase the number of times it would appear on the program director or deejay’s play list, which increased public exposure, song awareness and theoretically, record sales.
A crucial part of the success of the Motown sound lay in the studio musicians Gordy hired to work with his producers and back up the singers. Nicknamed the “Funk Brothers,” the ex-jazz musicians, Earl Van Dyke (keyboards and leader), James Jamerson (Fender bass), and Benny Benjamin (drums).
The Supremes – “Stop In the Name of Love” 1965
Berry Gordy, Jr.’s formula for Motown songs to crossover was a success. By 1964, when the British Invasion by the Beatles and other bands had knocked most black singers from the charts, Motown was just reaching its peak of popularity. The Motown roster of artists in ’64 included the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Four Tops and amazingly, three out of every four Motown songs released made it to the pop or R&B charts. The essence of gospel with a polished pop shell comfortably fit in the mainstream market.
The key to the success of Motown was not merely crafting hit singles; it was also in crafting the artists who could perform those singles in live concert situations. In this, Motown was much more than a record label; it was an entertainment industry. Following the pattern of Detroit’s automobile industry, Gordy insisted on weekly product evaluation meetings to determine the path and progress of his artists. At the same time, Gordy allowed both his producers, songwriters and artists to experiment creatively, giving them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes.
Most of Motown’s young black artists were from blue-collar backgrounds. Their previous performing experiences may have included high-school dances, church services or small club venues, none of which required any degree of polish or sophistication. Stage movement was distracting or non-existent; costumes uncoordinated or tacky; singing techniques amateurish; and off-stage deportment embarrassing. The polish of the Motown sound needed to extend to the Motown look as well.
To accomplish this polishing of his artists, Gordy established a “finishing school” for the artists. He hired veteran choreographer Cholly Atkins to address their stage movement and dance, he added local beauty-school owner Maxine Powell to teach them manners, etiquette and conduct. Producers and others working for Gordy taught them correct vocal technique and fitted them with fashionable costumes that looked appealing on stage or in front of television cameras but allowed them to do the choreography that Atkins had drilled into them. Beyond the hours spent in the studio recording their songs, artists spend many additional hours being groomed and prepared in the department of artist development.
The end result was that many of the Motown artists achieved a long-term success that is unique in the music industry, not only on the charts, but also as performers. During the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Motown acts were constantly booked at Las Vegas showrooms and concert venues around the world. The most successful pop performer of the ‘80s, Michael Jackson, dubbed the “King of Pop” received his early training at the Motown hit factory in the early ‘70s. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has already seen fit to induct into its membership Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson Five, and Michael Jackson.
James Jamerson, the session bass player of the “Funk Brothers,” Motown’s studio rhythm group, was inducted with the first group of sidemen recognized for their contribution in the studio. Jamerson’s creative bass lines remain as unique signatures in dozens of well-known Motown hits including “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”. In 2005, another member of the Funk Brothers, drummer Benny Benjamin, was also made a member of the Hall. Gordy recognized the importance of the rhythmic groove created by Benjamin and Jamerson and worked to include them as the foundation for as many Motown recording sessions as possible in the ‘60s.
Berry Gordy, Jr. was also inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the same year that he sold the Motown corporation. For more than a decade Motown was, as Gordy put it, “the sound of America”. The influence of Motown extended into the ‘80s with the emergence of Michael Jackson’s highly choreographed, polished, and costumed productions. The basic elements of Jackson’s music videos, which saved MTV from an early grave, were born first in the Motown studios and rehearsal rooms.
Though Gordy has relinquished control of Motown, several early artists continue to record and perform under its banner. Stevie Wonder and the Temptations are still part of its roster, but have been joined by contemporary artists like Brian McKnight, India.Arie, Erykah Badu and Kem.
The Broadway show “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, the story of The Temptations, is highlighted on CBS Sunday Morning.