One of the biggest ironies of the history of pop music is that during a time when African American Blues musicians were seeing their material being recorded by white performers without them receiving a penny in royalties, the one pop music label featuring Black performers had no interest in working with the Blues. Berry Gordy's Detroit-based Motown Records was so concerned with receiving mainstream, in other words white, acceptance for their music, that anything even bearing the slightest tint of Blue was deemed too risque for mass production.
Berry Gordy Jr. was born in 1929 in Detroit, the child of an affluent middle class African America family. They owned commercial property in downtown Detroit, his father ran the Booker T. Washington grocery store, and his mother founded the Friendship Mutual Life Insurance Co. All in all not your typical African American family of the '30s and '40s.
Berry's first career was as a featherweight boxer, and it wasn't unit after he had served two years in Korea with the American army from 1951-53 that he even entered into the music business as owner of a Jazz record store.
In spite of putting the store into bankruptcy due to his refusal to stock the Blues music his neighbours wanted, Berry took to song writing for Al Green in the late 1950s. He was determined to come up with a sound that wasn't going to be Blues based. He very rightly figured that mainstream America wouldn't stand for the rough and unpolished sound of the Blues or any of the images that went with it. Once Motown was up and running in the early 1960's he actually hired a woman who had run a finishing school to turn his talent into debutantes and gentlemen.
At its best the music of the Motown hit factory was slick, professional and infectious music that could pull you out of your seat and onto your feet. At its worst it was insipid dance music without any of the edge of Funk or the groove of Rhythm & Blues. Gordy operated Motown along the same lines as the rest of the assembly line businesses in Detroit with teams of songwriters creating specific songs for particular acts. From wall of sound girl groups like Martha Reeves & The Vandellas to the slick sounds of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, under his guidance Motown lived up to the name he coined for it of "Hitsville USA," as it produced hit after hit through out the '60s.
However like any product that's mass produced the music gradually began to fall to the lowest common denominator, and in the long run the dross out weighed the vintages. A new triple disc DVD called Don't Forget The Motorcity which gathers together 100 videos of Motown music makes that perfectly obvious. Of the 30-odd songs on each disc of this collection I was hard pressed to find two or three that were worth listening too. Part of the problem was the lousy sound quality of some of the performances, while in other instances they are recordings made when the performers were years past their prime and out on low rent tours.
Although the cover of the promises performances by the Miracles, The Supremes, Mary Wells, and Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, it doesn't say at what point in their careers these videos were made. So there is no Smoky Robinson leading these Miracles, Diana Ross isn't with these Supremes, Mary Wells is past her prime, and Martha Reeves & The Vandellas are just going through the motions. If that's not bad enough, the majority of the material on these discs are from performers who seem to have been the second or third tier at Motown, and should have been allowed to fade into graceful obscurity instead of having their careers revived so they could lip synch to material that wasn't very good the first time round.
On the plus side, if anyone needs any reminders of how awful disco really was this collection has that going for it. Not since K-Tell records have there been so many examples of really atrocious disco music accumulated in one place. It's the type of music that immediately calls drag queens to mind, as you can't think of anybody actually taking this stuff seriously as music, and the only possible entertainment value it can possess is high camp.
Yet no matter how awful some of those tracks are, I think the worst parts of this collection are the tracks where you see people's talent shining through in spite of the material they are having to perform, and the style they are being forced to conform to. Bettye Lavette and Liz Landis in particular impressed me as having what are obviously great voices going to waste either on schmaltzy love songs or soulless disco tunes. I don't know about anybody else but I can't think of anything worse than seeing really good talent being wasted on bad material.
Over the years of Motown's existence the company released some classic pop music that was fun to listen to and enjoyable to dance to. Don't Forget The Motor City bears little or no relation to any of that music and is not the way anyone is going to want to honour Motown's musical legacy. You'd be far better off finding a copy of the 1983 25th anniversary celebrations that were held at the Apollo Theatre than allowing this collection to serve as a reminder of what Motown produced.