I was just scanning the radio dial in the car the other day, and it dawned on me that our ever-popular oldies station that features hits from the ’50-’70s (but REALLY leans on the ’60s) is relying on pop music that is now 40 years old for its bread and butter.
Think of it this way: when I was a kid in L.A. in the ’60s, “golden oldies” meant music four years old, not four decades old. If there had been a comparable “oldies” station in the ’60s, it would have been relying music from the ’20s (with ‘teens weekends!).
Of course the march of technology plays an important role: recordings from the ’20s sound like crap down a well, whereas many recordings from the ’50s-on sound just great today. But it’s also shows that the last real pop music revolution — the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the ’50s, which intersected and complemented the equally important youth culture revolution of the same time — is now 50 years old, and everything that has happened since is mostly just variations on a theme.
As a result, the best music from the ’50s and ’60s is still “contemporary-sounding” to a certain extent and is very popular with a wide age range. And sitting at the center of oldies radio is the music of Motown, the inimitable Hitsville U.S.A.
You want another time-jolt? Not only was Motown’s classic era 30-45 years ago, but the flipping museum dedicated to Motown is now 20 years old. On Saturday, November 12, Smokey Robinson and other Motown luminaries will reunite to illuminate Detroit for a nostalgic evening of memories and music celebrating “Motown Forever: Motown Historical Museum’s 20th Anniversary Gala and Tribute to Esther Gordy Edwards,” with Berry Gordy himself at the helm at the Detroit Marriott-Renaissance Center.
“‘Motown Forever’ will serve as this year’s annual benefit gala for Motown Historical Museum. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to celebrate this great milestone with Motown alumni and fans from around the world,” said Robin Terry, Executive Director of Motown Historical Museum.
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown said, “I am thrilled to be coming home to honor my sister Esther who has done a remarkable job with the Motown Historical Museum over the past 20 years. I am happy to be a part of this special tribute to her.”
In 1985, Mrs. Edwards founded the museum to educate and inspire people, particularly youth, with Motown’s lessons about the “power of vision, creativity, and entrepreneurship.” Mrs. Edwards, a former Senior Vice- President at Motown Records, was responsible for managing the careers of many Motown artists. In addition, Edwards was the first woman elected as a board member of the Detroit Bank of Commonwealth in the mid-1970s and the first woman elected to the board of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce in 1973.
More on the gala/tribute here.
The Motown Historical Museum’s exhibits trace the roots of the Motown story and chronicle its impact on 20th century popular culture and musical styles. The story begins with Berry Gordy, Jr. and a small house in Detroit that he christened “Hitsville USA,” which is now home to the museum. The story continues as Motown evolves into a major entertainment enterprise that was among the most influential in the world.
Exhibitions include a collection of historical photographs, artwork, music, costumes and other memorabilia from this astonishing musical era. Visitors can time warp as they walk through the fully restored apartment that was once home to Berry Gordy, Jr., and stand in the original recording studio “Studio A” where Motown’s greatest hits were recorded.
The Gordy story bears retelling. Berry (“Pops”) Gordy Sr. and his wife Bertha came to Detroit from the South in 1922. Once in Detroit, the driven Pops first went into the plastering business, then opened a grocery store and a printing shop; he also produced seven children including Berry Jr., born in 1929.
As his father had done before him, Pops instilled the twin tenets of hard work and family concord in his offspring. Berry Jr. bought the dream but not the means, and in pursuit of big, quick, cash the adolescent turned to boxing. Pops encouraged this pursuit – he wanted his boys to be able to take care of themselves – and Berry rose to the challenge.
He trained hard – sometimes with Jackie Wilson, the local Golden Gloves winner – and had enough success as an amateur bantamweight (later featherweight) to quit school at 16 and turn professional. Berry finished his career after about 15 fights with a winning record, but purses weren’t large for the little guys, opponents in his weight class were scarce, and he was tired of people beating on his face.
After a stint in the Army, Berry labored unenthusiastically for his father in the day and frequented the hot jazz clubs of Detroit almost every night, making the scene and digging on Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. Gordy tried to turn his passion for jazz into a living when he opened the 3-D Record Mart in 1953, but the public was more interested in R&B and the blues, and the store closed two years later, a victim of public taste. Reluctantly, Gordy went to work at the Ford plant to support his young family, humming made-up tunes in his head as he fastened chrome strips to Lincolns, according to Nelson George in his excellent study of Motown Where Did Our Love Go?.
Meanwhile, two of Berry’s older sisters, Anna and Gwen, snared the photography and cigarette concession at the swinging Flame Show Bar. As Berry began to write his tunes down, the sisters started showing them to the musicians who played the club, including Jackie Wilson, who recorded Gordy’s “Reet Petite” in 1957. Overtly commercial, the bouncy “Reet” hit No. 11 on the R&B chart, followed by “Lonely Teardrops” which featured some future Motown emblems: lyrics with stories, a rocking backbeat with tambourine, a big sax break, and a family of supportive background singers. Marv Johnson’s hits in ’59 and ’60 featured many of the same amenities as Gordy moved into production.
Gordy had met a 17-year-old Smokey Robinson at an open audition and had encouraged the youth’s songwriting efforts. Gordy wrote and produced Smokey and the Miracles’ first hit, “Got a Job” and licensed it to George Goldner’s End Records. The song hit No. 1 R&B but Gordy’s total royalty take was $3.19. Despite his succession of hits, cash was short and Gordy was sick of it. His attitude can be found on his biggest pre-Motown hit, Barrett Strong’s rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Money,” written and produced by Gordy and released on his sister’s Anna label with the immortal lines: “You’re lovin’ gives me a thrill, but you’re lovin’ won’t pay my bills, I want money.” It was time to combine love and commerce.
Gordy took the bull by the balls and with help from Robinson and the Gordy family, he set up a recording studio (first with a single three-track tape machine, then a pair of Ampex eight-tracks with state of the art equalizing capability by ’65) and offices at 2648 West Grand Boulevard (“Hitsville, U.S.A.”) and established the Motown/Tamla record group, Jobete Music Publishing, and International Talent management.
Now he was in charge, and Motown was to become the most profitable black entertainment company in the country. Determined to hang on to the cash, Gordy set up restrictive accounting practices that only allowed performers to see the books twice a year, and prohibited outside agencies like the R.I.A.A. from seeing them at all. This practice led to Motown receiving no gold record certifications in its heyday.
Writers, producers and artists were put on weekly salaries that were then deducted from their royalties. Studio musicians were on weekly retainer, not paid by the session, and on 24-hour call. Motown succeeded where others failed because Gordy, in addition to his keen ear for talent, was able to achieve a literal (most of his brothers and sisters came to work for Motown) and figurative family atmosphere where camaraderie and friendly competition brought out the best in talented artists, writers and producers while the company made most, but not all, of the money.
Gordy also audaciously sought to capture both black and the white audiences by emphasizing beat and soul in the vocals, but with a pop (i.e., non-blues-based) melody, and relationship-based (i.e. non-race-specific) lyrics (this formula changed in the late-’60s when the Supremes and the Temptations tackled social themes).
To ease his (black) artist’s segue into the (white) world of television appearances and posh night clubs, Gordy established the Artist Development Department, which included a vocal coach, choreographer Cholly Atkins, live music director Maurice King, and an etiquette/style instructor. Some blossomed and some chafed under Gordy’s “I’ll take care of you” paternalistic eye. Mary Wells left after her first contract expired in 1964, while Smokey lasted until the ’90s. Motown’s most productive writer/producers – the team of Eddie and Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier – left after a royalty dispute in 1967, cutting off the flow of hits for the Four Tops and the Supremes. Only Gordy’s personal devotion to the Supremes – and to Diana Ross in particular – kept them going for a few more years.
The family dream ended when Gordy picked up the company and moved to Los Angeles in 1971, where he expanded into film, producing Lady Sings the Blues (with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday) and The Last Dragon, among others. He sold Motown to MCA in the late-’80s for around $60 million.
Motown’s first big hit was the Miracles’ “Shop Around” in 1961. Its evolution is telling of Gordy’s skills. Smokey wrote the song and produced the first version. Gordy loved the song, but something was wrong with the arrangement. He sped up the beat and got drummer Benny Benjamin to play with brushes instead of sticks when they re-recorded the song at 3A.M. When it shot to No. 1 R&B, Motown was on its way.
Gordy’s assembly line training expressed itself in the company’s Quality Control Department: wherein creative staff (but not artists) reviewed the week’s output – sometimes listening to as many as a dozen different takes of a given song – and then voted upon the results. Gordy often brought in neighborhood teenagers to rate the songs, a la American Bandstand.
As Motown came to dominate the charts in the mid-’60s, there came to be something called a “Motown sound.” This sound can be traced to the writers: Gordy, Robinson, Norman Whitfield, H-D-H; the artists; engineer Lawrence Horn; and to the band – the fabled Funk Brothers – who backed up most of the artists recorded at Hitsville. The prototypical lineup was Benny Benjamin on drums, James Jamerson on bass, Earl Van Dyke on keyboards, James Giddons on percussion, and Robert White or Joe Messina on guitar.
In addition to the classic rock ‘n’ roll of “Money,” Gordy’s best work as a producer includes the Contours’ rocking “Do You Love Me”; Little Stevie Wonder’s raucous debut “Fingertips” (No. 1), a harmonica and call and response workout that captures the child genius at his most irrepressible; and Junior Walker’s sax-plosion “Shot Gun,” which captures a similar blast of adrenaline.
After several years in the mid-to-late-’60s concentrating on the business side, Gordy returned to production to help out his beloved Supremes after H-D-H left the company. He went to work with the writing/production team of Deke Richards, Frank Wilson, R. Dean Taylor and Hank Cosby – known as the Clan – to come up with the stinging single-mother commentary “Love Child” (No. 1), followed by the similar, but less so, “I’m Living In Shame” (this was another Motown modus operandi: put out slight variations on a successful theme until the public cried uncle). The Clan evolved into the Corporation, which guided Motown’s last great group, the Jackson 5.
Gordy must be given his due as a meta-producer who assembled the vastly talented Motown creative team of Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, William Stevenson, Henry Cosby, Frank Wilson, Ashford and Simpson, and many others; and created a competitive atmosphere that spurred the writer/producers to make the finest body of American music of the ’60s, generating 79 Top Ten singles over that golden decade. Gordy was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.