“Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” – Smokey Robinson
“[Berry] Gordy moved his relatives and his handful of youthful recruits into a collection of seedy, converted residences, brick houses with front porches and shingled walls, on both sides of a heavily traveled (West Grand Boulevard) street in central Detroit.” – The Story of Motown
The twenty-nine-year-old Gordy – apparently feeling the flush of youthful optimism – hung up a sign saying “Hitsville USA,” before he even had a hit. Berry’s “youthful recruits” were, by and large, local teenagers who he enlisted from talent shows, clubs and Detroit street corners.
They were mostly kids who were living in housing projects and who – minus Berry’s outreach – may have stayed there forever. Or who perhaps might have gotten jobs at Ford or started their own small businesses, but who might never have scaled the heights of fame to which he brought them. Berry found them and he groomed them to be just what he wanted.
The first hit released by Motown/Tamla was a 1959 song – co-written by Gordy – called “Money (That’s What I Want)” sung by local singer Barrett Strong. (Gordy wanted to name the label Tammy, after the movie Tammy and the Bachelor. But that name was already taken so he instead called it Tamla, a name by which Motown was more closely associated in England). The Beatles and Rolling Stones – often drawing from the same pool – both covered this song:
After “Money,” Tamla – by now renamed Motown for the Motor City of Detroit – was off and running. But Gordy, having been burned by his foray into jazz, wanted to be sure that most, if not all, of his songs. were hits. The only way for him to do this was to hold each and every song up to very high, very exacting standards.
It had to tell a story. It had to have a beat. It had to sound good on car radios. And it had to pass by a committee. (Some called this his “quality control” but it’s not clear to me that he actually used that term. He might well have heard that at Ford.)
By all accounts, this was a brutal, Darwinian “rooting out of the worst and keeping the best” process. Gordy reportedly rejected the first one hundred songs Smokey Robinson wrote. Producers would continually rework songs till they were fit for release. And when Gordy found a song he liked, he’d record it over and over and over again until he got exactly the sound he wanted.
Wikipedia: “Rolling Stone [said] that the [Motown] Sound consisted of songs with simple structures but sophisticated melodies, along with a four-beat drum pattern, regular use of horns and strings and “a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio. Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used.”
The other thing I might add here is that this was a very pop-oriented form of soul, with the rough edges smoothed off to appeal to a larger mainstream, white audience.
I’m elaborating on the Motown Sound here because it is so key to the success of these records that one could almost argue that this difficult-to-reproduce sound was as much the star as the performers. Like Berry’s contemporary Phil Spector, Berry knew the sound in his head and had to get that out onto records.
And since he used the same musicians over and over again, they always knew how to get that beat. These were great players. In fact, in its special “100 Greatest Bass Players” issue in 2017, Bass Player Magazine named Motown bassist James Jamerson the number one “Greatest Bass Player.”
One of the first significant signings to the label was the band The Matadors, who changed their name to the Miracles and became Motown’s first supergroup. The Miracles are one of the most important R&B/soul acts ever. This is, in great part, thanks not only to Berry Gordy but also to their co-founder, lead singer, and songwriter, William “Smokey” Robinson on whom high enough praise cannot be bestowed.
In 1960, Motown released the Miracles song, “Shop Around.” Co-written by Robinson and Gordy, this was the smash Berry had been waiting for. It not only reached the top of the charts, it became the label’s first million-seller and was later elected into both the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. (Listen to it and some other Motown hits on my “Indispensable 150” list here.)
Other hits followed: “Please Mr. Postman,” by the Marvelettes; “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” by the Miracles, “Fingertips (Part 2),” by Little Stevie Wonder.
Here’s “Please Mr. Postman,” another song the Beatles could not resist. (And which helped until they got their own songwriting shit together:)
With this new infusion of artists and songs, Gordy decided to put the acts on the road in what he called Motortown Revues.** (“Fingertips” was recorded at the legendary Regal Theater on one of these tours.) These were incredible package tours of the major Motown artists who traveled together in a sort of convoy, suffering all the indignities that you would expect a bunch of black acts to encounter while touring the US in the early ’60’s.
They often had difficulty finding a place to eat or sleep, sometimes settling for flophouses. Audiences either had to go to separate shows or were divided by a police-guarded rope, especially in the segregated South.
Not only did these tours feature the first-tier bands, it also gave the second-tier bands a chance to showcase their talents. Among these were two groups, one formerly called the Primes, the other the Primettes. The Primes changed their name to The Temptations, the Primettes to The Supremes.
I’ve always thought of the Supremes and Temptations as Berry’s one-two punch, much as the Beatles and Stones played those roles in the British Invasion. But that was not always the case, especially with the Supremes. As a matter of fact, between 1960 and mid-1963, the Supremes recorded seven straight flop singles. This led their fellow revue travelers to refer to them as the “no-hit Supremes” and the ladies to wind up adding handclaps to other artists’ songs.
It wasn’t until late 1963 with the release of the song “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” that the Supremes had a Top 40 hit. This song not only helped establish them but also the great songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
Holland-Dozier-Holland went on to write 10 out of the 12 Supremes hits and a significant number for others at Motown. To make the British comparison again, they were Motown’s Lennon and McCartney. Berry had figured out and perfected his formula.
In 1964, The Temptations released “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” and “My Girl,” (both written by Smokey Robinson) and The Supremes released, “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me.” (All written by Holland-Dozier-Holland).
And baby – BAYbeh! – Motown was on the map. Big time.
Now is that some smooth shit or what?
**Some version of this revue called The Tamla Motown show made its way to the UK in 1965. But as this article makes clear, “the Motortown tour was a mixed critical success – and a complete commercial disaster.” A little too ambitious and too expensive.
Sources: The Story of Motown by Peter Benjaminson; Wikipedia.