Motown (final) – Can I Get a Witness?

The choreography that you saw in the Tempts and Supremes videos was, of course, no accident. Hitsville wasn’t there just to record songs. According to The Story of Motown, Berry Gordy set up a rigorous training program for his fledgling stars. “One floor was for choreography, another for musical arrangements, and a third for wardrobe design.

The training began with grooming, etiquette, diction, elocution, table manners, and personal hygiene. The would-be stars learned how to put on makeup, how to handle a fork, how to climb up on a piano…. Stage movements were … to correspond to what the performers were singing about. When a performer sang, “You’ve gone and left me and I sit here crying,” … an onlooker might truly believe the performer was depressed.”

The education worked, the performers looked great on TV and on stage, and the hits kept coming. In fact, in the years between 1964 and 1970, there was an average of eight Motown songs on the year-end Billboard 100 each year. This era coincided with the British Invasion and in fact, the two genres for the next six or seven years comprised anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the Billboard Year-End Top 100 lists. (I know this because I counted.)

While the Temptations and the Supremes were the leading Motown groups of the day, they weren’t the only groups. Junior Walker and the All Stars were providing that funky groove, but not the Motown Sound per se. The Four Tops recorded a ton of songs, at least half a dozen of which were hits. Their first hit, the Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned “Baby I Need Your Loving,” was released in 1964:

Baby I Need Your Loving on Spotify

Wikipedia: “During their nine-year run on the charts from 1963 to 1972, Martha (Reeves) and the Vandellas charted over twenty-six hits and recorded in the styles of doo-wop, R&B, pop, blues, rock, and soul.” Martha is a way funkier singer than Diana Ross.

While they’re likely best known for “Dancing in the Streets,” I kinda dig “Nowhere To Run.” (Earl Van Dyke was a keyboard player for Motown. Why his name is so prominent in the background on this video is beyond me):

Nowhere to Run on Spotify

Berry Gordy can be given much credit for being one of the truly successful African-American entrepreneurs, becoming a role model for black people who thought they could not possibly succeed at this level at this point in American society. Berry did find, though, that he had to hire some white executives to deal with white-owned record companies.

Now, not all was necessarily equal in Hitsville. Berry had his favorites. Many of the stable of performers felt that he was lavishing too much attention on the Supremes. And especially on Diana Ross, whom he took on as sort of a pet project (and lover) to turn into a superstar. And the more attention he spent on her, the less he spent on Florence Ballard, the original lead singer.

In one of the saddest stories not only of Motown but also of the entire music industry, Ballard started to feel marginalized. She fell into a depression, drank to excess and put on weight. The relationship between Ballard and Ross started to deteriorate. By 1967, Ballard either didn’t show up for recording dates or was too drunk to sing.

Eventually, Berry took action and contacted Cindy Birdsong who was singing with Patti LaBelle. Birdsong was brought in to rehearse. Gordy didn’t fire Ballard outright but did encourage her to move on. She was eventually let go in 1968 and received a one-time payment of $140,000 (almost $1 Million USD in today’s dollars.)  She sued Motown, claiming that Gordy and Diana Ross conspired to force her out of the group. She lost.

She tried to make it as a solo star but minus the Motown magic was unsuccessful. Per Wikipedia: “Ballard eventually sank into poverty and died abruptly on February 22, 1976, from coronary thrombosis at the age of 32. At the time of her death, she had begun to make financial and personal strides and was planning to reinvigorate her solo career.”

If any of this sounds like the plot of the Broadway play Dreamgirls, well, that’s not a coincidence. The producers denied it but – with the exception of a happier ending – the stories are incredibly similar. The consensus is that they denied it because they didn’t want Berry to sue them.

Socially, America was a very different place in 1968 than it was in 1959 when Berry started Motown. There wasn’t dancing in the streets, there was rioting in the streets, political assassinations, anti-war turmoil and black empowerment. While Berry’s crew were singing love songs, James Brown was singing “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Berry did not want to rock the boat and he certainly wasn’t going to do anything to alienate his largely (estimates as high as 70 percent) white audience. But with war and social unrest in the air, the performers needed to express themselves.

In late 1970, early 1971, Marvin Gaye wrote and recorded the seminal album What’s Going On. This record was a looser, funkier song cycle and “is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice.” And how did Berry and his team of quality experts react to this masterpiece?

Fucking hated it. Gordy called the title song “the worst thing I ever heard in my life. The quality committee turned it down too, stating that “they were used to the ‘baby baby’ stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp.” They felt it was too political and would never make it commercially. 

Well, not only was the song a hit, the album is considered a landmark in popular music. It is on the list of just about everybody’s greatest albums of the Twentieth Century, is on Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Greatest Album lists, is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and has been inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

What’s Going On on Spotify

If Marvin Gaye didn’t put the very last nail in the Motown Sound, then Stevie Wonder did with his remarkable series of albums starting with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. And by the time they released the seven-minute “psychedelic” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” in 1972, the Temptations proved they had come a long, long way from “My Girl.” Co-written by Barrett Strong who sang “Money.”

Papa Was a Rolling Stone on Spotify

By the early ’70’s, the bloom was off the rose. Performers, now successful on their own, were tired of being told how to dress, what to say on-stage and how to act in interviews. Some newly signed artists even suspected that they’d been hired not to create hits but to prevent them from making hits for others.

According to The Story of Motown, the already-successful Spinners were hired only to see their careers falter. And they were asked to chauffeur for other stars. And work in the mailroom!

One could make the argument that Berry Gordy’s fatherly attitude had become paternalistic, controlling and autocratic. And the major stars weren’t going to stand for it. And didn’t. Marvin Gaye dressed as he damn well pleased and after the success of What’s Going On, recorded whatever he wanted. Stevie Wonder signed a 12o-page contract that gave him a much higher royalty rate and artistic freedom.

Berry moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972 where it remained independent until 1988. Motown remained a viable force during that time, releasing songs by Wonder, The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross (solo), The Miracles, The Commodores and Lionel Richie. (And in the Nineties, Boyz II Men.)

And while many of these songs were quite successful, The Motown Sound – like the British Invasion – is largely a product of the Sixties.

Motown Records is now a division of the Capital Music Group. A trip to their site is instructive as it shows the newest crop of artists right beside “Classic Motown.” Their president is an African-American woman named Ethiopia Habtemariam.  The times – as someone wiser than me once said – they are a’changin.’ 

Coda: (Everyone below has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) 

☛Holland, Dozier, Holland – all still with us and also inducted into the Songwriters, and SoulMusic Halls of Fame.

☛Jackie Wilson, while performing “Lonely Teardrops” at a show in New Jersey in 1975, suffered a heart attack. He went into and out of a coma and died in 1984 of pneumonia. TV and radio personality Dick Clark is said to have paid many of his medical bills.

☛Martha Reeves, at 75 still performs. She served on the Detroit City Council from 2005 to 2009 and was inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame in 2015.

☛Four Tops and Temptations, continue to tour, members being replaced as they pass on or retire.

☛Smokey Robinson appears to be healthy as a horse and at age 77 is still touring. He was, for a while, an executive of Motown. He has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and awarded the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his lifetime contributions to popular music.

☛Stevie Wonder, at 66, is still doin’ it. He has been inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, won 25 Grammy awards (most by a solo artist), and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We saw him a couple of years ago on his Songs in the Key of Life tour. Fantastic!

☛Diana Ross, at 73, will be on tour this year and still keeps cranking the tunes out. In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Ross the most successful female music artist in history. She was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

☛Marvin Gaye continued to pump out great tunes through the Seventies. He was inducted into the Songwriters and R&B Halls of Fame, as well as winning a posthumous Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award. His long-simmering feud with his father became tragic when his father shot him to death in 1984.

☛Berry Gordy quit the music industry in 1988 after selling his company. Having worked in movies (Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany starring Diana Ross) in the early ’70’s, he felt comfortable enough to produce a Broadway play called Motown: The Musical which now I’m going to have to see. Gordy received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Pioneer Award and is the first living individual to receive the honor.

In 2016, Gordy received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama “helping to create a trailblazing new sound in American music. As a record producer and songwriter, he helped build Motown, launching the music careers of countless legendary artists. His unique sound helped shape our Nation’s story.”

And the original Motown? Well, Hitsville is now a museum. And like Sun records, we all ought to really visit there one day.

Motown discography.

Sources: The Story of Motown by Peter Benjaminson; Wikipedia; my sister’s record collection. 



23 thoughts on “Motown (final) – Can I Get a Witness?

  1. I like a lot of this history. You have added to my limited knowledge on “Motown’. I’ve seen a couple good docs on the music and some of the artists. CB would have had to live in a cave not to hear some of these songs. The Tops, Temptations and Smokey all cut some tunes I really dig. The Jackie Wilson (CB loves that guy) history was pretty cool. ‘Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and the Temp song above are a couple fave songs. Good job!


    1. I was wondering where CB was in all this. I knew he had to dig Motown. Can’t Help Myself – good tune. Four Tops are the only Motown band I saw.

      Hey, on another note, sad day. Just found out Jay Geils passed away. Don’t know details yet. Will need to do long overdue post.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What the hell you doing up? Too many good songs. It’s like the tunes you put on your “Indispensable”piece. Can’t deny them. I know Wilson and Ben E King, Mayfield weren’t Motown but it’s the same feel. It’s uniquely American music and it just makes you feel good. CB opened up his music mind (And ears) years ago and let some of this stuff in. Glad I did.


        1. Hee-hee. Sometimes I wake up at 2, can’t sleep and read for a bit. That’s when I found out about Geils.

          Yeah, all those bands were good and were happening at the same time as Motown. Motown dominated the airwaves but I think some of those artists either weren’t offered a contract there or didn’t want to be subject to Berry Gordy’s sound. I always learn something myself when I research these things and I had no idea Wilson and Gordy knew each other, much less kicked off each other’s careers. And were boxers!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Oh yeah, I forgot about Geils, I got focused on the Motown thing. I seen he got busted for DUI a while back. Like how that makes the news and all those years of pumping out great music doesn’t get much ink. A post would be cool Doc. That early Geils stuff is essential listening (For CB anyway). Your listeners need to know about that great band. On the Motown thing, guys like Mayfield probably wanted more artistic control. Great post. It’s an interesting story.


    2. To your Geils note, yeah, too many people know them from “Freeze Frame” or whatever. The TV stuff was all about that. That wasn’t what they were at all and in fact, I think that that difference of opinion helped break up the band. Definitely looking forward to sinking my teeth into the Geils story. Second Boston rocker in a couple weeks, BTW. Sib Hashian, drummer from band Boston died playing on a cruise.

      As to Motown, yeah there were definitely parallel tracks for black artists in the ’60’s. Curtis, James Brown, Sly Stone all evolved out of different schools, not even to mention the Philly soul sound.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read your response to Greenpete and that’s kind of the same track I took. Hooked up with the sound a little later in the musical journey. But always liked some of the stuff I heard on the radio when I was a kid. The great thing about music that you know is, there is so much to discover. I really let my ears be the judge. It takes time.
        I thought the ‘Boston’ thing was a one man show? Needless to say look forward to you biting the Geils thing.


        1. Boston? Well, yes and no. Tom Scholz was the guy who came up with the songs and the sound. But he needed other musicians to flesh out the band. (Not a singer for example). So Brad Delp did the singing, Hashian the drumming. So despite Scholz being the mastermind, they were a real band. Delp was a gigantic Beatles fan and went on to front a tribute band called Beatlejuice. They were pretty good. My sister and I (world’s biggest Beatlemaniac to this day) saw them in a small club in Cambridge. All she could talk about is how much she misses Lennon.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. You are a walking musical info machine. I love those super fans like your Sis. I’ve seen those Elvis fans still hanging out at Graceland, pining for the King.


        3. My sister is on par with me for her music love – saw the Beatles, went to Woodstock, turned me on to doo-wop, brought Hendrix and Cream records home. Funny, but I showed her the Motown write-up and she said she’s not a fan. Found it too much of a formula. Also, not an Elvis fan. Sometimes she gets personal about these guys, something rubs her the wrong way and that’s it. She likes jazz, too. I first heard ‘Sweetnighter’ at her house. Big sax fan. She and I can discuss this shit for hours and she goes toe-to-toe with me. Always sending me articles about music stuff. She followed the blog for a while but had to back off as she was getting into mellower stuff.

          As to my own knowledge, too bad I don’t turn it to something beneficial to society, eh? 😀

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I get the formula thing. Tell her Princess Falda took CB to see Sonny Rollins a few years ago (CB is a member of the sax club). Great Night. Yeah sounds like we could yak about music. Your knowledge and love of music is making the world a better place. Plus keeps you way from those politics. Go Bruins!!

          Liked by 1 person

        5. Yeh, I don’t say 10% of what I think of Bozo on this site. Just enough so that the international audience reading this blog knows there are a lot of people who are not aligned with him and would like him to leave office and have a nice life playing golf.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I lived in Detroit in 1968-69, and Motown music was everywhere. I still remember the first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” on the radio. It may have been the first 45 I ever bought. The B-side is also killer: “Don’t Know Why I Love You,” where he gets increasingly manic, and seems almost possessed by the end of the song.


    1. Wow, boy that must have been the place to be. Detroit is a great rock town, too. People forget or maybe younger people don’t know but Motown was a FORCE. Very influential. The stuff sounds great to this day. And it’s funny but I never really bought a lot of it. It wasn’t my primary thing and I could hear it any time I wanted by turning on the radio.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Detroit in the late ’60s was pretty special – if you were a suburban white kid, anyway. I was too young to know about them, but the MC5 recorded the live “Kick Out the Jams” the same night (“Devil’s Night”) that my friends and I were wreaking havoc in our neighborhood (see my post “We Glorious Bastards” from last year).


        1. Just read your ‘Bastards’ posts. Hee=hee. Some bad dudes. A tradition when my kids were in high school was that graduating seniors would TP the houses of juniors. Or something like that. Most parents took it pretty well but one a-hole my daughter’s group encountered freaked out like they were using Agent Orange on him or something. I think he chilled the next day too.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Congrats to this great series, Jim. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Motown and magic start with the same letter!:-)

    The Motown sound and its groove were truly magic. And it has stood the test of time! It’s the type of music that just makes you want to get up and dance.

    Yes, Gordy may have reigned with a heavy hand, but these artists delivered true performances on stage, not this mediocre crap you see all too often nowadays.

    And the singing? Just unbelievable, especially when you look at bands like The Temptations. When they start harmonizing, it just gives me goose bumps!

    In fact, I think I’m gonna put on some Motown next! 🙂


  4. Glad you liked it. Motown isn’t as well-known (especially to younger generations) as it rightfully should be. I’m happy to give it is due. When I listened again to “My Girl,” or “Stop in the Name of Love,” it reminded me of how great that stuff was. So when I write these series I get my own residual effect, if you will.


  5. Thank you for your three piece masterpiece on Motown. Growing up listening and enjoying Motown music it was nice to learn much more about Berry Gordy and all that he did for the music world.


    1. Masterpiece. Ha! Don’t know about that but hey, thanks for that. I did put a lot of work into it. I’m just glad that there were people like you out there who could appreciate it. And that Motown is not forgotten. Thanks again.


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