Motown turns 50, but the party’s far from over
By: Jeff Karoub and Mike Householder, AP
DETROIT — On Jan. 12, 1959, Elvis
Presley was in the Army. The Beatles were a little-known group called
The Quarrymen casting about for gigs in Liverpool. The nascent rock ‘n’
roll world was a few weeks away from "the day the music died" — when a
single-engine plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. "The
Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens.
It’s also the day a
29-year-old boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter named Berry
Gordy Jr. used an $800 family loan to start a record company in Detroit.
years later, Motown Records Corp. and its stable of largely
African-American artists have become synonymous with the musical,
social and cultural fabric of America. The company spawned household
names, signature grooves and anthems for the boulevard and bedroom
alike that transcended geography and race.
Motown may be 50 years old, but it isn’t any less relevant with current
hitmakers — from Taylor Swift to Coldplay — citing the label’s
signature "sound" as an influence.
Would there be a Beyonce or Mariah Carey had Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight not come first?
about Kanye West and Justin Timberlake? What would have become of their
musical careers had Motown not blazed a trail with the likes of Michael
Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations
and The Four Tops?
"There were just so many amazing artists that
came through. It was such a surge," said singer-songwriter Jewel, whose
recently released collection of original lullabies includes Motown
influences. "And it really informed The Beatles’ melodies. So much of
what pop music and popular culture became. I recommend everybody go
back and look at those melodies and see where they find them today,
because they’re resurfacing and being remixed, basically, into new pop
From its founding in 1959 to a much-debated move to Los
Angeles 13 years later, what has become known as "classic Motown"
created a once-in-a-lifetime sound that was local and global, black and
white, gritty and gorgeous, commercial and creative, Saturday night and
"I Heard it Through the Grapevine." ”My Girl." ”The Tears of a Clown."
the two-sided singles the Motown factory churned out 24 hours a day,
seven days a week at Studio A inside the Hitsville, U.S.A., building at
2648 West Grand Boulevard, Motown Records in the 1960s stood out from
the musical pack — and still does today — because of its ability to
tune the tension between two opposing forces.
Press, on the occasion of Motown’s 50th, invited both Motown greats and
heavyweights from the worlds of music and beyond to discuss how the
legendary Detroit musical movement’s sound, style, savvy and sensuality
have stood the test of time.
that struck me was how ferociously determined he had to be to borrow
that 800 bucks and start with nothing." — Bill Clinton, former U.S.
The tale of the $800 loan has become the stuff of legend.
worked at a Ford Motor Co. plant and wrote songs when he could, all the
while dreaming of owning and running his own record company.
The loan from his family’s savings club allowed him to make that happen.
He had the vision and the seed money, but next Gordy needed the talent — the singers, songwriters and musicians.
He didn’t have far to look.
Detroit alone produced many of the creative wizards who gave Motown its initial burst.
and the Miracles attended high school together, while Ross and future
Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard grew up in the city’s housing
Gordy plucked from Detroit’s flourishing nightclub
scene a group of supremely talented jazz musicians who would become the
label’s house band, the Funk Brothers. Strings, winds and brass came
from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other classical outlets.
the prolific songwriting trio known as Holland-Dozier-Holland — Lamont
Dozier and the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie — also were local
The talent was there. Now what?
Gordy sought to
incorporate some of the same principles from the auto factory floor and
bring them to bear in the studio on West Grand.
He wanted it to be a place where everybody had a role, but the best ideas would win.
Gordy made sure everything they put out was 100 percent fierce, 100
percent listenable," said R&B singer Patti LaBelle, who was not a
Motown artist but rose alongside it in the 1960s.
"Then, you know if you … put on a Motown record, you were going to hear something with substance."
Gordy — people think of him as an entrepreneur, but he’s a songwriter
at heart, which makes total sense. You have a songwriter here and
amazing songs. A guy has the brilliance to understand that it starts
with great songs." — Anita Baker, R&B singer
Of course, it started with songs, but even that came with a competition more common to commerce than art.
knew cooperation was crucial but rivalries among singers as well as
songwriting teams would be the best way to get a record out the door
and onto the top of the charts.
"If (songwriter) Norman
Whitfield had a No. 1 hit on The Temptations, Holland-Dozier-Holland
would say, ‘Shoot, we gotta get a No. 1 with The Four Tops. Come on in
here, Tops,’" recalled Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the lone surviving original
member of The Four Tops, which signed with Motown in 1963 and produced
20 top 40 hits during the next decade.
"I’d say, ‘Yeah man,
you’d better hurry up, man. I got a bet with The Temptations we’re
gonna have one in the next two weeks.’ We would just push and push and
Fakir says there was a relentlessness on all levels of the recording process.
was done generically. I’ve been to a lot of sessions outside of Motown
where the session is very generic, very laid-back … very
professional, and there’s no guts and blood," he said. "But here,
everything was done with passion."
In 1965, during his label’s ascendancy, Gordy said passion helped spur Motown to greatness.
talked about this one night over dinner with Smokey and Diana Ross," he
told AP at the time. "We thought back about the neighborhoods we were
in … and we came up with a six-word definition: rats, roaches,
struggle, talent, guts, love."
Motown left nothing to chance: A
"quality control" committee met weekly to review the latest sonic
offerings. Gordy was the final arbiter, but posed this question: Would
you buy the record or a sandwich if you were down to your last dollar?
Don Felder, former guitarist for the Eagles and co-writer of their hit "Hotel California," says the results rarely failed.
don’t know if anybody ever sat down and looked at the percentages of
acts that Berry actually signed, recorded and released and the
percentages of hits versus failures. But his track record has just been
astronomical. … He has just, in my opinion, the ears of a genius."
had naturally gifted engineers and producers that didn’t let that
technical expertise interfere with that rawness. … Somehow the …
engineer/producers, thank God, either admittedly or just instinctually
saw when these guys started jamming it just sounded good." — Ted
Nugent, rock guitarist and singer
Gordy may have been blessed
with an unparalleled ability to recognize hits, but many say those
great songs probably would’ve been a bit more ordinary if not for
It didn’t look like anything special — certainly by today’s standards of digitized recording — but the sounds it produced were.
didn’t have Pro Tools. It was perfectly imperfect," said country star
Wynonna Judd. "You had a lot of people who were sweaty and tired and
who were singing from their toenails. … If you can’t cop it live, get
off the porch."
A square, smallish room, Studio A was accessed
by descending a small flight of stairs. Its below-ground standing
earned it the nickname "The Snake Pit."
There, artists, writers, producers, engineers — anybody associated with music-making — gathered to record.
For 13 years, nearly every Motown hit was cut in Studio A and the adjacent control room.
Funk Brothers set up shop — James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on
drums and so on — and the singers did their thing, all face-to-face in
the same room.
"The studio itself is its own beast. It can take
away or it can add to the sounds you’re making with your instruments,"
said pop singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw. "Some rooms are dead. You play
a note, and the sound disappears.
"Some rooms they ring too
much. Acoustically, they’re just too active. But some of them, they
just have good sound. The (Motown) recordings I’ve heard come out of
that room. I listen to those recordings all the time, and I think: ‘Why
does that room sound so good?’ There’s something to be said for it."
liked the Motown recording approach so much that he rereleased his 2003
hit album "Chariot" a year later in a "stripped" format.
really using that Motown … sound as a template," he said. "I was
thinking about those records and the rawness of those records."
"sound" itself was a blend of traditional gospel, jazz, R&B and pop
that had crossover appeal for audiences of all ages and races.
was the first, I think, black record company that was able to make the
transition … and was not only for the black music audience but also
for a world music audience. I think that’s what Motown represented." —
Danny Glover, actor and activist
When Motown was born, as
Robinson tells it, songs produced by African-American artists
automatically were categorized as R&B, while a similar sound coming
from a white artist would have been classified as pop.
would have none of it. He set out to make music for all people, not
"black music for black people" as had been the standard. While certain
African-American artists had found a wider audience in the jazz and
early rock-and-roll eras, Gordy took it a step further by pushing a
sound that gained universal appeal and helped break down racial
barriers in music.
His belief was that quality music would find its way into the ears of all, regardless of race.
think that’s why it was so successful as a social tool, because it
wasn’t race-specific," DeGraw said. "It was just great music.
it allowed people to look past those typical lines. … People could
hear music like that in a time when people were looking at each other
strangely, wondering what their motivations were, and they could go:
‘Hey man, OK, no one’s holding a grudge. It just sounds good. Let’s
For Baker, Motown’s barrier-busting ways hit home.
remember ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ … I’m a little kid. Every Sunday, Ed
Sullivan comes on. And you get to see all of these artists from around
the world. But Diana Ross and The Supremes come on. And I saw myself.
Do you understand? I saw me," she said. "I saw a little black girl. …
I saw myself in a way I had never seen it before."
itself as the "sound of young America," and it was that demographic
that found itself at the center of the growing civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama a few years before Motown’s
founding, but the movement gained steam at the same time Motown did.
in the ’60s, when we weren’t allowed to do or go certain places, our
music crept into people’s homes … into their bathrooms, their
bedrooms, their living rooms, their kitchens, their cars," Fakir said.
"We spurred marriages and poor little crib babies … ’cause parents
were playing (our) music. … That’s how our legacy is going to be
"That sound is just as alive today.
And that sound still stands up. … Everybody in the whole wide world
has been influenced by Detroit and the Motown sound." — Dolly Parton,
country singer, songwriter and actress
Motown was groundbreaking
in many ways — from its signature sound and lengthy list of
high-profile artists to the unique way it created and recorded music —
but what’s harder to pin down is what’s kept the sound alive all these
"You hear (Motown) in almost everything," said Wilson,
one-third of The Supremes. "I think Motown music, the Motown sound, is
the model, the template that people use today in the music, and yes,
you can hear it."
For many artists, it’s inevitable that they
would tread over some of the same ground because of the music’s quality
"You can’t get within sniffing distance of
music, whether as a performer or listener, without being definitively
impacted by these gods of thunder from Motown," said Nugent, the "Motor
City Madman" who as a teenager played in a band that opened for The
Supremes at Cobo Hall in Detroit.
Swift, a country
singer-songwriter, admits it: She’s one of the those whose sound is
influenced by Motown. The 19-year-old, who has entered the realm of
superstardom after back-to-back multi-platinum albums, says she and her
father listened to his Motown greatest hits CD on the way to school.
an early age I had a bunch of different musical influences, but Motown
I was just always so fascinated by the chord progression and how the
lyrics and the melodies are so simple but they made you feel so much. I
think that’s the art of Motown," Swift said.
Another of the
music world’s hottest young acts, the Jonas Brothers, couldn’t hide
their glee at performing on this year’s Grammy Awards telecast with
Wonder, saying beforehand both they and their father grew up on the
Motown legend’s songs.
Not only did Motown bridge racial and generational gaps, but it also succeeded in crossing cultures.
manager Brian Epstein promoted Motown revues in the United Kingdom,
which were popular with fans and stars alike. Fakir recalls being at a
party with The Beatles, where the Fab Four peppered The Four Tops with
questions about how they sang their harmonies and achieved other
elements of their sound.
Motown even penetrated the Iron Curtain.
was in Russia some years ago before the walls came down. And we
couldn’t hardly get into Russia at that time — the Cold War," said the
Rev. Jesse Jackson. "All night long they played The Supremes, The
Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. So the joy of Motown has
been infectious around the world."
"Let’s just say
it’s a collision of grit and beauty. They’re raw records. … But
they’re beautifully crafted. They’re wonderful to listen to, on every
level." — Don Was, record producer and musician
at Jackson’s memorial service in July, talked about the 10-year-old
prodigy he signed, calling him "the greatest entertainer that ever
Jackson and his brothers became instant teen sensations,
but his stratospheric success came post-Motown in his adult years; he
and his brothers left the label in the mid-1970s.
The Jackson 5
were one of the first acts to come up as Motown left Detroit for Los
Angeles in the early 1970s. Most agree Motown’s own California
adventure has had its moments, but they don’t match what happened in
The Jackson 5, Gaye, Robinson, Ross and Wonder
made the transition to L.A. and had chart-topping success, as did acts
ranging from The Commodores to Rick James. Despite the plentiful hits
among them, the sound was being challenged by newer grooves, and Motown
lacked the deep roster it once had.
But by 1988, Gordy was ready
to move on, selling Motown Records to MCA and a private equity firm. It
was sold to PolyGram in the 1990s and now is held by Universal, where
current acts include Lil’ Wayne, Erykah Badu and Nelly.
of its present physical location, Motown is a Detroit creation, and
that struggling Midwestern metropolis always will identify itself with
"I’m glad they started in Detroit, and I hope that
given the troubles they’ve got in Detroit now I hope they’ll find some
new version of Motown — maybe in clean energy or something — and 50
years from now somebody will be interviewed about that because Detroit
gave America a great gift there," Clinton said.
Robinson don’t get back to Detroit all that often these days, but they
were front and center at Hitsville on a crisp day this past March.
Contestants on the smash Fox singing competition "American Idol" came to Studio A to film segments for the show.
called it ‘Motown,’ rather than ‘Motor City,’ because there was more
warmth here," Gordy told reporters that day. "The town was just
beautiful. … I may have left Detroit but wherever I go I carry
Detroit with me. They know that’s a Detroiter."
Robinson said the building that now houses the Motown Historical Museum was where "his real life began."
the music that Robinson and scores more churned out of the cramped,
sweaty confines of Studio A between 1959 to 1972 belong no more to them
than the world.
"You can’t ever know why something becomes
timeless, whether it’s the Jacksons, anybody. Beethoven — we don’t
know," said Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony.
it’s a simple thing: It’s infectious. … Something about this music —
I don’t think of as being from the ’60s or ’70s anymore when I listen
to it. It seems very fresh and new."
AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.