Diana Ross. Smokey Robinson. The Jackson 5. Michael Jackson. Marvin Gaye. Stevie Wonder. The Temptations. The Four Tops. Gladys Knight & the Pips.
These acts represent R&B and pop royalty. Their songs tell the story of popular music from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 20th century. And they all share one thing in common – they recorded for an independent label run out of a dilapidated house stuffed between a hair salon and a funeral home in a dirt-poor area of Detroit.
Motown, its name coined by founder Berry Gordy in honor of the urban wasteland known as the Motor City, the heart of the American automobile industry, lived up to the words Gordy ordered emblazoned across the top of the humble shack at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. – “Hitsville U.S.A.” Motown was a hit factory. Between 1959 and 1970, no one could touch the label’s hot streak. Not even the Beatles.
When Billboard magazine labeled Ross, who comes to the Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center on Saturday, the “Female Entertainer of the 20th Century,” the music business bible underscored the significance of both Motown Records – the label for which Ross recorded her biggest hits with the Supremes and as a solo artist – and the “Motown sound.”
Unlike any other record label, Motown came to represent a style, a level of excellence and a reliability, to the point where, nearly 60 years after Gordy borrowed $800 from his folks to launch his dream, one can simply utter “Motown,” and a sound is immediately conjured.
(Read about 5 of Motown's greatest artists here.)
It’s a sound that broke ground by marrying the call-and-response vocal stylings of African-American gospel music to incredibly catchy pop-styled choruses, bright, chiming melodies, distinctive and readily identifiable chord changes, orchestral accompaniment that came close to being saccharine without ever crossing the line, and a spacious arrangement of drums, tambourine, bass guitar and keyboard that sounded simple, but was in fact a result of ingenious songwriting and instrumental performance.
From the beginning, Gordy ran Motown as an in-house hit-making assembly line, the pop music equivalent of the Detroit muscle being pumped out of the nearby automobile factories. He employed a team of songwriters and musicians to back the singers he signed, and he controlled every aspect of the end product. You didn’t so much work with Gordy as you worked for him. There was never any mistaking who was in charge.
Gordy made stars out of his singers. But the musicians responsible for so much of the Motown sound? Not so much. Gordy cared about the brand, not the band.
Members of the Funk Brothers – the backing group on nearly every hit bearing the Motown imprimatur between 1959 and 1970, Motown’s glory days – were paid a wage. They punched the clock, whether the day’s session produced a massive hit for Ross and the Supremes, or a game-changing collection for Gaye.
More often than not, these musicians – among them such undervalued maestros as drummer Benny Benjamin, guitarists Robert White and Joe Messina, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, and bassist James Jamerson – were paid $10 each per completed tune. Gordy, meanwhile, became one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the music business.
There’s a reason that author Gerald Posner named his definitive 2002 biography of the label “Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power.” The record indicates that Gordy was not the nicest guy to work for, and that rather often, music, money, sex and power were intermingled in his mind and in his actions in a rather unsettling fashion.
In this sense, Gordy – a visionary, to be sure, but also an aggressive and unflinching Svengali – laid a template for the music business that still applies to today’s in-house hit-making assembly lines, one in which the singers may come and go, but the sound remains the same, and the musicians are undervalued. (That last bit applies less and less as the years go by, and fewer performing musicians are deemed necessary for the crafting of hit-worthy musical products.)
Gordy’s musical children – from Ross to Gaye, Wonder to Knight – would eventually bridle at his paternal parental control, and yearn to break free from his grasp.
When they did so, we, the listening public, were rewarded with watershed albums that stood in stark contrast to Gordy’s initial vision of short, sweet, romance-based pop songs, well-crafted cash-collectors meant to be enjoyed and disposed of. Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” – implicit in their creation is a rebellion against Gordy’s dictates. But that insistence, all but beaten into them by Gordy, that the singer serve the song? It remained.
Motown’s legacy is a tainted one, in many ways. Its gifts to the world have not all been positive. Its blueprint for a music business run by elite money-makers and bean-counters who call the shots and bend the talent to their will is still the one being followed by what’s left of the music business today.
Ahh, but the music of Motown? It transcends, to this very day, all of the glossed-over dirty deals, the forced compromises, the assaults on personal dignity, and the unpaid overtime that went into its creation.
It is simply the high watermark of mainstream popular music. More than likely, it always will be.