“Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?”
Jack Ryan didn’t need to hear it through the grapevine that the time was right — April 14, 1960 if you’re a stickler for details — for Berry Gordy, Jr. to set up shop for the Motown Record Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. He was born and raised, lived and worked all his life in the Motor City, and as an entertainment writer who had an opportunity to rub shoulders with and interview many of Motown’s movers and shakers and up and comers, he compiled a lot of first-hand and authoritative accounts and know-how. And it all goes into making the wide-ranging yet informal and conversational Recollections: The Detroit Years: The Motown Sound By The People Who Made It such an engrossing and enjoyable read, one that will take you back while it fills in any musical or biographical gaps you had or didn’t even know you had until now.
While Gordy himself isn’t the main focus here – that would require another book entirely (and already has, a few times over) – his presence is continually felt as a guiding force throughout Recollections. Anyone who remembers, or who currently views, footage of the such Motown performances of such essential artists as the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Rare Earth (not the only or the earliest white group on the label), Mary Wells, Gladys Knight and a Pip or two or three from the 1960s-’70s heyday, can’t help but be impressed by the stage presence, appearance, and overall professionalism conveyed not just through the singing and the songs, but by the choreography, costumes, and charisma. This kind of quality control, so to speak, was driven in part by Gordy’s primary desire that his acts have cross-over commercial success, sixties-style, that they appeal not only to black audiences but to all segments of society as their hits keep moving down the assembly line of the star-making machinery. (Remember, the early years of Motown also coincided with – though it usually rose above — the safe, bland early sixties era of pop music: Fabian, Frankie Avalon, a time BB [Before Beatles], Elvis in the army and then in bad movies).
This objective to maintain a positive public image as a standard feature in Gordy’s acts and in his insistence on instilling it fell to the hard work of Motown’s Artist Development Department – the first of its kind connected with a record company, Ryan contends — wherein a structured program and adamant taskmasters aimed at getting the raw talent up to speed by putting them through the paces of dance, music, voice, poise, diction, and dress. It was, in effect, a comprehensive charm school for the street smart, but the end, as it was seen at the time, justified the means, make-up tips, and choreographic routines: “Few things,” Ryan says, “were left to chance at Motown. Nothing was left to chance at Artist Development.”
Artist Development may have been the place where the great Temptations perfected their precision-perfect choreography and always-imitated, never-duplicated “Temptation Walk.” In any case, as Ryan tells it, chance — as we learn in the rewarding chapters that covers the many performing and recording artists of Motown — played a part in the formation of the group in a happen-so meeting at a neighborhood party. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the spark of inspiration and ambition to sink in as Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams gave into the namesake temptation to merge their respective groups and fulfill an almost fated rise “from the ghetto to become one of the most imitated singing groups in the world.”
They persisted and prevailed over some misfortune and vicissitudes that got thrown into the mix, and the roller-coaster of career options and revolving-door Temps set off by the clash of egos and personalities. The group was fortunate enough, however, to get the multitalented Smokey Robinson producing and writing songs for them, including their first big national hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” (A separate and essential chapter is devoted to “The Writers of Motown” which also includes the prolific and vital Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Ashford and Simpson.) A little infighting and jockeying for position eventually made way for the charismatic David Ruffin, who brought a distinctive singing style and star quality — but also brought along his prima donna baggage and eventual ouster from the group in 1968, and some subsequent and disturbing near-stalking behavior by him before a solo career got his mind back on a professional track.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Temptations roll on with personnel changes and more hits under the longtime leadership of Paul Williams, until exhaustion and ill-health cause doctors to order a major reduction in his workload. In 1973, Paul Williams, beset by personal and financial troubles, committed suicide, his body found in his car just two blocks from Motown’s original studios. With, according to Kendricks, “the chemistry that made our group work” gone, closing a chapter that more or less coincided with Motown Records splintering – and arguably the end of the distinctive Motown Sound — in its big move to Los Angeles, the Temptations faltered a bit through reinventions and different incarnations, including being signed by Atlantic Records and eventually re-signed by Berry Gordy, Jr. at their old label.
“Don’t forget the Motor City,” Martha Reeves reminds us in “Dancing in the Street.” Easier sung than done, in a life lesson that points up the unintended consequences of the best-laid pipe dreams. When the relocation to Los Angeles is first announced in 1970 the plan is to make it a gradual one with a number of artists, if not leaving the company altogether, then staying behind in Detroit, among them Martha Reeves, along with The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and the Funk Brothers studio band (whose indispensable signature sound warrants them their own recognition and chapter in Recollections). With most of Motown packed up and split for that car-town on the far coast, Martha and her Vandellas chose to cool their heels and resume their careers where it’s not the “Heat Wave,” it’s the humidity and a freezing winter.
Only that’s not what happened. The transition period did not prove to be as smooth as anticipated. “The producers they left behind couldn’t capture what we had established,” Reeves recalls in an interview with Ryan. “We were used to Holland, Dozier and Holland material [the prolific and signature songwriting team had left Motown in 1967] and the type of songs we were getting weren’t that quality.” When the move was ultimately made and there was nowhere to run, the lately hitless Martha and the Vandellas were dropped from the roster in favor of the up-and-coming Commodores.
The group — ever once, twice, three times the ladies – had no bitterness burning in their hearts. In line with her original appreciation upon being hired at the fledgling record company in the early sixties to perform secretarial duties or odd jobs (including the development of a vastly improved payroll system) on top of now-and-then backing vocals, Reeves never had an unkind word to say about Berry Gordy, only holding undying loyalty. Ryan also clears up any issues about misconceptions regarding Reeves’ rivalry with Diana Ross, chalking off any such notions to “friendly competition.” “We pulled for each other’s groups to do well,” Reeves explains. “After all,” she says, ”if one of us looked good, it made the other groups look good.”
By extension, Ryan relates this allegiance and unity to a larger sense of community through the efforts of Martha and the Vandellas who were instrumental in helping Motown be a calming influence during Detroit’s debilitating and deadly riot in 1967. Disc jockeys all over the city were playing “Dancing in the Street,” Ryan notes, in hopes of suggesting a less violent option. As Martha Reeves remembers:
“We were onstage at the Fox Theater in Detroit, when word reached us that rioting had broken out. We had to stop the show and tell our audience to go home at once. From the show we were ushered to a local radio station, where we stayed on the radio for almost 24 hours straight. We took calls from listeners and spoke to the people of Detroit. I hope we did some good; the people of Detroit held us in high regard and I hope they listened to what we had to say.”
It’s as unthinkable to turn a deaf ear to the Sounds of Motown as it’s easy to turn pages in a page-turner in and be engrossed in another chapter, or pick-and-choose purposefully to a particular page, or sidetrack yourself in dissimilar subject. You can easily catch yourself mid-thumb-through getting instantly preoccupied in an “oh-yeah!”-style bio, as I did on the cut-short career of Tammi Terrell, her tragic death, subsequent rumors and speculations that became in part a catalyst for the personal transformation – and downward spiral – affecting her sometime singing partner Marvin Gaye. Ryan offers his own persuasive theories to an account that leaves many unanswered questions, while the whole saga continues in the fascinating chapter on Marvin Gaye, which I of course had to read right away.
So, what’s going on? If you’re a music fan beyond the fair weather variety, the kind who has not lost a lifelong proclivity — or a new one trying out a new found curiosity — to devour books about pop and rock history, appreciation, criticism, and such, you will recognize this eagerness. It’s part and parcel of Ryan’s acknowledgement that, while the Motown label was once called the “Sound of Young America,” it may no longer “be the sound for young America but it will always be the music that makes the Motown fan feel young.”
In reading Recollections, you might think you’ve hit a mother lode of Motown lore, one that’s clearly a labor-of-love survey history of more breadth than depth. But by no means are we talking Motown 101. Major acts, and some lesser known, along with the behind-the-scenes departments and personalities, keep the hits, the hard facts, and Ryan’s analysis and commentary coming. Yet on top of being an informative you-are-there resource focusing on the Detroit side of the pop and soul music matter, the ever-inquisitive Ryan serves up some delectable escapist nostalgia for those of us who can pinpoint certain events and places with particular songs; Motown hits were an abundant inclusion on the playlists of Top 40 AM radio stations, blasting between Beatles and British Invasion hits, Beach Boys, James Brown, and so on into the perpetual mix. For those not old enough to have these touchstones (many Supremes’ songs trigger my personal wayback déjà vu) — and wanting to get up to speed – the photo-rich Recollections: The Detroit Years: The Motown Sound By The People Who Made It is certainly not a daunting book — its accessibility also allows for an inspired, all-embracing, and thorough presentation.
Really, the only thing missing are the foot diagrams for choreographing the “Temptation Walk.”