Motown turns 60: A look at its influence
Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. had a simple goal when he started the legendary record company 60 years ago in Detroit.
“My whole dream was to make the world hear our music,” Gordy says in the new documentary “Hitsville: The Making of Motown,” which premieres Saturday on Showtime. “And they could either like it or not like it.”
But Motown’s success was far broader than getting people to like a few songs. “Born at a time of so much struggle, so much strife, it taught us that what unites us will always be stronger than what divides us,” President Barack Obama said when he honored Motown founders and artists at the White House in 2011. In “Hitsville,” Oprah Winfrey talks about the thrill of seeing The Supremes on TV for the first time, saying, “It was magical to me, because I’d never seen black women on television … who conveyed such glamour and such grace.”
R&B DJ pioneer Ken “Spider” Webb remembers seeing The Miracles perform in Farmingdale, New York, before Motown Records was even formed. “Long Island was a good area for bands and groups to come and perform,” says Webb, who made his name as the popular drive-time host on WBLS and WRKS in the 1970s and ’80s. “There was a club called Cloud Nine that was a hot place for groups, and that’s where I met Smokey Robinson and, back then, they were just like the guys on the block … They were like some of the groups from Lindenhurst or The Casualeers, who were from Amityville. They all got auditions at Motown, but the competition was just a little too high.”
Webb said that, initially, Motown struggled, not because the quality of the music was lacking, but because of discrimination. “At that particular time, very, very few records from black artists made the Billboard charts,” he says. “We’re talking about maybe Nat King Cole and Ray Charles. But in my neighborhood, in Amityville, in Brooklyn, where I had family and friends, we didn’t listen to radio for black music because they never played it. We used to listen to the jukebox. We’d put nickels in the jukebox and it would play for an hour. We’d dance in the store or out on the street … This is the way we heard our music.”
Gradually, though, Motown’s music, written by Gordy, Robinson and legendary songwriting teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland, became undeniable. And Webb was happy to support it, especially once he started on the radio.
He would have Stevie Wonder as a guest in his studio. He had The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks out to his house in Wheatley Heights. And he has enjoyed a close relationship with Robinson over the years, so close that Webb even got him to make a revelation on the air. “He says, ‘I swear to God, Ken, I ain’t got no rhythm at all, man. I can’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time. I just can’t do it,”” recalls Webb, who makes a “Motown Moment” part of his current Soul Town show on SiriusXM every day. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me that. You’re destroying my image of you, my brother’ … But if you notice anytime he performs, he just holds the mic.”
In “Hitsville,” directors Gabe and Ben Turner use Gordy’s idea of a Motown assembly line, one he modeled after what he saw working for car companies in Detroit, as the framework for the movie. Many credit Motown’s success to that business strategy and generations later, musicians have tried to imitate it.
Roosevelt’s Chuck D, leader of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rap group Public Enemy, has said he tried to follow the strategy Gordy set up in Motown. “The Bomb Squad is no different than the assembly line of Motown,” he said about the group’s production team in an interview with The Current in 2016. “Everybody had their piece to add to something that’s going to be a collage of sound. And Hank Shocklee was the admiral of that ship … And we had that ability because we had the technology at the time, just making a turntable mix would collide sounds differently with a certain lined-up pitch than any instrument beforehand. So we learned those tools very well.”
And there are plenty of musicians who still look to Motown as inspiration.
“These are songs that bring back memories,” says Lon Dolber, who manages and plays bass in That Motown Band, the East Moriches-based tribute act that drew nearly 1,000 to its Patchogue Theatre show last month. “People relate to the songs because they remember where they were when they first heard them. Now, some of the songs do something different. Like for instance, we do Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ Well, guess what? You can play that song today and it’s still timely. You could ask yourself, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “
Dolber says That Motown Band, which has been together for three years, is dedicated to performing Motown classics in their original form. It’s something the band’s musical director Johnny Gale, who has performed with everyone from Darlene Love to Cyndi Lauper, strives for.
“He brings authenticity to the table when we rehearse,” says Dolber, who says he has intensely studied the bass lines of James Jamerson, of the Motown house band, The Funk Brothers. “Believe me, he is a stickler for detail.”
Dolber says it is that detail and that love of Motown that keeps That Motown Band in demand, set to play Town Hall on Sept. 10, opening for The Doo Wop Project, as well as Mohegan Sun and the Long Island Aquarium in the coming months.
With “Hitsville,” the accompanying soundtrack and numerous special concerts, all sorts of artists are set to remember what Motown accomplished and continues to accomplish.
“What he realized,” Webb said of Motown founder Gordy, “was it wasn’t about assimilation. The Temptations, The Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Supremes – they were not making music that their parents listened to. They were making ‘The Sound of Young America’ and it was paving the way to a new energy driving to the promised land.”
The sound of young America
To celebrate the release of “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” and the company’s 60th anniversary, Motown has put together a new soundtrack that includes some of its most important songs. Here’s a look at some of the 16 tracks:
“Please Mr. Postman” The Marvelettes’ song hit No. 1 in 1961 and became the first chart-topper in the company, as part of the Tamla Records label.
“Fingertips (Pt. 2)” Stevie Wonder became the youngest solo artist ever to hit No. 1 when this song top the charts in 1963 when he was 13 years old.
“My Guy” The Mary Wells single hit No. 1 in 1964 and became the first chart-topper for the Motown Records label.
“Where Did Our Love Go” The Supremes’ 1964 hit became the first of the group’s 12 No. 1 songs, still the most of any American group in history, trailing only The Beatles among all groups.
“What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit was the first of three Top 10 hits from his “What’s Going On” album, which made him the first male solo artist to ever have that many hits from one album.