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Molding Motown

April 28, 2006
Berry Gordy —

His legacy echoes across the radio dial every day, all over the world.

It's hidden behind those catchy songs on oldies stations, permanently placed on jukeboxes and playing on the speakers at grocery stores — the ones everyone knows the words to.

In a way, the music from Motown Records has become the soundtrack of our lives, especially in Michigan.

It's there on the hard baseline on "My Girl" before the Temptations launch into their famous song, on the upbeat tempo of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and in many of the powerful tunes that reflected a time of social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.

While the names of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross are known in every household, Berry Gordy Jr. was the mastermind behind their success.

Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, plucked talented singers out of Detroit's high schools, tracked down the best musicians and created a formula for catchy hit records.

On May 5, Gordy, now 76, will share his experiences with MSU, speaking at the undergraduate convocation. He'll receive an honorary doctorate degree in humanities and will participate in a town hall-type interview at Wharton Center on Thursday.

Chasing the music

Before Motown, Gordy tried to become a professional boxer, worked on Ford Motor Co.'s assembly line and owned a small record store serving jazz fans.

But after hanging up his gloves, leaving Ford and facing bankruptcy at his store, Gordy talked his close-knit family into giving him an $800 loan to start a record company.

He bought a house at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit and started making records.

Once Motown Records opened its doors, talented singers and performers started coming since there weren't many local spots to record music, said Bill Dahl, author of "Motown: The Golden Years."

Gordy knew how to delegate specific responsibilities, Dahl said. Performers, songwriters and producers all focused on their expertise and rarely crossed over — an assembly line style he learned at Ford.

Before songs were released, they had to survive quality control meetings where people from all segments of the company voted on whether they thought the tunes would be hits.

It worked. From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 Top 10 hits and released few songs that weren't.

During the British Invasion, many rock bands covered the Motown songs, including The Beatles.

Weldon McDougal III came to Motown from Philadelphia in the 1960s and had the job of promoting records to DJs all over the country.

In Motown's heyday, getting songs on the radio wasn't easy, said McDougal, the once-national promotions director for Motown.

"Motown would have four or five records on the charts already," he said. "I was always trying to figure out what to try to tell them to take off and put on."

The Motown Sound

Otis Williams of the Temptations remembers how the small Motown house was a second home for some local talent.

"You could find any of the Motown artists just hanging out there," Williams said on a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "You'd see them doing clapping parts in others' songs or even cleaning out the trash cans."

The songs had simple lyrics combined with melodies that could be easily remembered, which gave the tunes an iconic value, Williams said.

"We still hear them in movies and commercials," he said. "It's a testament to how great these songs really were to last for 40 to 50 years."

All the company's stars would go on the Motown Revues tour, traveling around the country in a bus and a few cars.

When performing in the deep South in the mid-'60s, the audience would be separated by ropes, one section for black people and the other for white.

A year later, as the songs appealed more to both black and white people, everyone danced together and sang the songs when the tour returned, Williams said.

"Music is a powerful force that can knock down all sorts of barriers," Williams said. "We'd be on stage with tears of joy in our eyes. It was a moving experience."

Martha Reeves remembers those tours when more than 40 performers would pile onto the bus for months.

"It was a time when people forgot about segregation and forgot about bias and just loved," said the lead singer of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas.

She remembers Little Stevie Wonder, 9 years old at the time, not letting anyone sleep as he would run around slapping people in a playful way, she said.

Reeves started at Motown by answering the phones in the artist and repertoire department. She'd sometimes sing background vocals on songs.

But with her earthy, soulful voice, Reeves eventually became one of the 1960s' biggest stars.

Although Motown had many artists, Reeves said Gordy managed each group himself in the early days.

"Him being hands-on helped us all prosper," said Reeves, who is now on Detroit's City Council and tours on weekends.

Lasting legacies

Making that Motown sound had to change eventually as companies began producing songs with social messages in the late '60s and early '70s.

The Temptations released a few psychedelic hits, Edwin Starr released "War," a popular anti-war tune and Marvin Gaye put out "What's Going On," which captured the pulse of what many Americans felt about war and other social issues.

While Gordy hesitated to release the original single, Gaye protested by threatening not to release any other material.

Some of the Motown stars also ended up in contract disputes with Gordy and Motown later in their careers.

But Dahl, who has interviewed most of the Motown artists, said few artists are still bitter.

"He gave them a way to make a living for their whole lives," Dahl said. "He made successful performers out of all of them."

Picking the right song

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said picking Gordy as the speaker can emphasize that Michigan's future economy doesn't need to be just based on science, but also that cultural entrepreneurship can create jobs, too.

Gordy, who didn't respond to interview requests for this story, isn't charging a speaker fee, but MSU will pay for the cost of his trip, Simon said.

"We think he can connect with the whole student body, parents and even grandparents who grew up listening to them," Simon said.

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