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