NOTE: Given that I’ve been hearing from people outside the US that certain YouTube songs won’t play, from this post forward I’m going to both embed a YouTube version of a given song as well as provide a Spotify link. Not sure how well that will work on different devices but let’s give it a shot.
Any half-decent attempt to write about Motown must of necessity start with the biography of Berry Gordy. What Sam Phillips was to rock ‘n roll in the ’50’s, Gordy was to a certain style of – as Wikipedia puts it – soul music with a distinct pop influence.
“Why work for the man? Why not you be the man?” – William “Smokey” Robinson to Berry Gordy.
Berry Gordy Jr. was born in 1929 into a line of, if not quite entrepreneurs of the George Washington Carver variety, certainly savvy businesspeople. His parents had long since moved to Detroit from Georgia where they had been cotton farmers. Both of his parents valued economic independence. Neither wanted to work on the assembly line in auto factories.
In fact, his father had a plastering company, his mother was a political activist and together they owned a print shop and grocery business. None of this excited Berry very much. But he did start to learn the value of working together as a family. This would ultimately extend to Motown where as many as one-third of the employees would ultimately be related.
Berry and his siblings had a recreation room with a piano in their house. He learned how to play well enough to plunk out a tune, even winning a talent contest with a song he wrote, “Berry’s Boogie.” (If you can find it, let me know.)
But music wasn’t his first love. It may come as a revelation to some, but for a period of time, Gordy was a professional boxer. At 5’6″, he was in the featherweight class and between 1947 and 1950, fought 17 bouts with 12 wins, 2 losses, 3 decisions. How do I know this? Check this out.
As promising as all this seemed, Berry’s biggest problem was his size. There was a dearth of local fighters he could take on and so he had to routinely make a 4,000 mile (6,437 km) round trip to places like California just to get a match.
And he quickly realized that traveling everywhere for low money was not sustainable and would never put him in the Joe Louis class. And since sports in the US would not be integrated until 1947, for a black man it was pretty much boxing or nothing, at least at the professional level.
After serving a couple of years in the Army during the Korean war, Berry came back to Detroit, borrowed $700 from his father and opened a record store specializing in jazz. Unfortunately, that genre did not sell in enough quantity for him to make a living and the store went bankrupt. Berry vowed to never again try to sell anything unless he was certain it was popular and would find a market.
But he was by now married with kids and needed a regular paycheck. So, unlike his parents, he was forced to take a job on the Ford Motor Co. assembly line. As boring as that was, some speculate that he learned at least two things there: One was that music could be kicked out assembly-line style, and the other was that there was something inherently compelling about the strong rhythmic beat of the line.
Not only did Berry refuse to abandon his dreams of somehow being in the music business, he also never lost sight of making something more – quite a bit more – than the $80 a week he was taking home from Ford. ($700 USD in today’s dollars.) He knew he had songwriting talent and – like his parents – had a strong tendency towards being his own boss and desire for economic independence.
In 1957, Berry quit his job with a determination to get back into the music business. A couple of interesting things converged at this time. One is that 1957 was an absolute heaven for the then-burgeoning genre of rock and roll music. Fully sixteen songs from my Indispensable 150 list came out that year.
Another is that there was a very popular club in Detroit called the Flame Show Bar. Regular performers included Billie Holiday, Della Reese, Etta James, Dinah Washington, B.B. King, and Joe Turner. Berry’s equally business-savvy sisters owned some of the concessions there.
Probably the most important thing that happened at the Flame Show Bar is that while hanging out there, Berry ran into an ex-boxer friend, up-and-coming singer Jackie Wilson. Wilson had been kicking around for a while but had never really had a breakout hit.
And so Berry, together with his sister and another writer, quickly wrote a succession of hit songs for Wilson. The first one, “Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town)” was a Billboard Top 100 song.
But it was another Gordy-written song from 1958, “Lonely Teardrops,” that really put Gordy and Wilson on the map. This was an across-the-board hit with both black and white markets.**
Due to his networking and connections, Gordy came to realize there was a lot of untapped black talent in Detroit. So for a while. he turned to producing records. But he quickly found that producers don’t make a whole hell of a lot of money, at least they didn’t back then. One of Jackie Wilson’s hits netted him $1000 (almost $9000 in today’s dollars.)
While that was not a bad sum of money to earn, Berry knew there was more – much more – to be made if he had greater control over the total product. Smokey Robinson, a singer/songwriter he had met in his travels suggested he manufacture and distribute his own records. “Why work for the man? Why not you be the man?” Smokey advised.
And so in January 1959 – with $800 borrowed from his family – Berry Gordy founded Motown. And never looked back.
**For many years, records made by black artists which sold primarily to African-Americans were called ‘Race Records.’ It wasn’t until 1949 when Billboard columnist and later co-founder of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, suggested changing it to Rhythm and Blues. Nothing really changed but the name. It just made everybody feel better.
For about 1 1/2 years from late 1963 to early 1965, Billboard discontinued the R&B chart, in great deal due to Motown’s influence in creating a crossover between white and black audiences. But with the divergence in tastes due to the so-called British Invasion, it was reinstated. It went through several name changes over the years and is now called the “R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay” chart.
Sources: The Story of Motown by Peter Benjaminson; Wikipedia. (I’m highly indebted to Benjaminson’s book. It is hardly a puff piece. The guy is a serious reporter and delves into what made Motown tick, good or bad.)