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Forgetting the Motor City

The Hits, Misses, and Many Reinventions of Motown, the Legendary Label that Rightly Claimed to Produce “The Sound of Young America”
DISCUSSED
Quibbling Over Details, 7-Inch Records in Uniform Paper Sleeves, The Sequels of Hit Songs, The Last Big Stars to Come Rolling Off the Assembly Line, Confusing Gladys Knight with Marvin Gaye, Breaking Every Law of Early-’60s Song Construction, All-Night Soul Dance Parties, Vanquishing a Corporate Ogre, The Way Time Winnows the Canon, The Fast Track to Economic Desolation, Going West
by Douglas Wolk
1969 advertisement from Billboard magazine, courtesy of billboardingparty.tumblr.com

Forgetting the Motor City

Douglas Wolk
13 Snaps

TAMLA

The middle-class-to-riches ori­gin story of Motown Records has been told so many times that it’s become mythological, in the sense that almost all of its details are open to argument and revision. The label was founded in 1959, the story goes, by Berry Gordy Jr., a semi-successful Detroit songwriter who’d had a handful of his songs recorded by Jackie Wilson. Gordy’s family had run a prosperous printing company in the ’40s, and with part of the proceeds they’d put together the Ber-Berry Co-Op to fund family members’ projects. Berry had run an unprofitable business or two, and he wanted to get into the record business, so Ber-Berry loaned him eight hundred dollars to start a label, named after Detroit’s nickname. Several decades later, Gordy sold his interest in Motown Records for sixty-one million dollars, and now it’s the only record label to have gotten its own jukebox musical—Motown the Musical, centered on Berry Gordy’s love affair with his star singer, Diana Ross.The label also spawned a book by Berry Gordy, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, based on his own autobiography.

All of this is true in broad terms, but the details are worth quibbling over. Before Gordy started the label proper, he opened a music publishing company, Jobete. (As with many music-business names of the time, it combined the first few letters of several people’s names, in this case those of his three children.) He had figured out early on that the most reliable long-term source of income in the music business was publishing. Performers had to get out on the road and impress audiences every night; labels had to get their records on racks and on the radio. But being the publisher of a hit meant an ongoing trickle of income without any further work. If you look at the fine print on any compilation of classic Motown recordings, you’ll see the name Jobete again and again.

The label wasn’t initially called Motown, however: it was called Tamla, which, surprisingly, wasn’t a combination of the first syllables of anybody’s name. Gordy had wanted to call the label Tammy, after Debbie Reynolds’s then-recent hit, but apparently found that the name wasn’t available. So Tamla it was, at first, and Tamla is the logo on a lot of the records we now remember as Motown standards. Gordy also started another label immediately after Tamla, called Rayber—this one named after himself and his then wife, Raynoma—but it released only one, forgettable single. (He apparently thought it would look suspicious if radio stations played too many songs from a single company, so he was forever spinning off new label names.)

The Complete Motown Singles—a seventy-five-disc chronological series, released in the form of fourteen boxed sets over the course of the past decade—documents (nearly) every single that Gordy’s various concerns released between 1959 and 1972. It’s enormously different in tone and effect from the innumerable best-of-Motown sets that have appeared over the past half century, in part because parts of it are awful. (But even the worst of it isn’t uninteresting in the context of the best, and there is a lot of “best.”) It’s also an absolutely fascinating portrait of a collective artistic process that depended on the marketplace for feedback—that produced hits by trial and error rather than generating success after success. And it’s a monument to the glories of an all-but-dead form: the single.

Over the past few decades, listeners have been trained by the economics of the music industry to regard single songs as trailers for more-expensive things—albums, mostly, and sometimes tours. During the period of Motown surveyed in The Complete Motown Singles, though, albums were a secondary concern. Sometimes they were collections of a few hits and a lot of also-rans. Often they were attempts to grab the audience for bland pop that Gordy, with some justification, thought of as the (white) mainstream: Diana Ross and the Supremes Sing and Perform Funny Girl, say, or The Temptations in a Mellow Mood.

The heart of Motown’s output was 7-inch, two-song records, packaged in uniform paper sleeves and flung out to the public as quickly as they could be produced. Each volume of The Complete Motown Singles covers an era and is presented as a hardcover book, with a newly pressed single inside and a cover that’s a replica of that era’s single-sleeve design. When the Four Tops or Mary Wells released a new single, it wasn’t a teaser for their next album (as it is when Usher or Nicki Minaj releases a single now): it was the way their art was meant to be experienced.

The R&B marketplace of the late ’50s and early ’60s was crowded and more or less democratic. At the time, small, independent labels routinely scored hits if their records were good enough, and if they could afford to spend enough money on promotion and distribution. Gordy couldn’t, initially: when the first single on Tamla, Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” started to take off, Gordy licensed it to United Artists, which made it a national hit. A few months later, he licensed Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” to Anna Records, which was run by two of his sisters, Anna and Gwen Gordy, and his childhood friend Roquel Billy Davis, and received better distribution.

His first order of business, then, was to raise his company above the crowd, and his first stroke of genius was making Tamla and its associated labels a vertically consolidated music business. Its headquarters was “Hitsville USA,” the small but ambitiously named building Gordy bought on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Hitsville was home to “Studio A,” where the majority of the Motown classics were recorded (for a few years, it was home to the Gordy family, too). Gordy’s complex also incorporated Jobete’s publishing, in-house songwriters and producers, a tightly knit house band, a choreographer, and an “Artist Personal Development” department, where finishing-school trainer Maxine Powell taught performers how to project gentility and elegance. Motown’s music had a brand (and the brand eventually became what it was selling), and it also had an aesthetic: it was the work of a small, evolving community whose members pretty much agreed on what they wanted to make together.

 

MOTOWN

Motown is the name of that mythical community and that aesthetic, no matter what the records themselves had printed on them. In the late ’80s, its remaining sub-labels were consolidated under that name, the name that appeared on boxed sets and in The Big Chill and eventually on a Broadway marquee. Forty or fifty years after its heyday, it’s become a hit-making monolith of sequined gowns and immaculate hair and glockenspiels playing Holland-Dozier-Holland tunes. See the Motown logo, and a medley of chorus fragments will immediately begin playing in your head, and you’ll expect an 800 number and “Order now!” to appear on the nearest TV screen.

At the time of The Complete Motown Singles, though, Hitsville was a wriggly complex of individual creators, experimenting in collaboration and competition with one another, and the frantic experimentation of its misses is what made the confident innovation of its hits possible. The Complete Motown Singles presents a weirdly balanced view of the company’s output, one where Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” has the same weight as Soupy Sales’s “Muck-Arty-Park”; where 1962 belongs to Martha and the Vandellas but also to Lee and the Leopards, Mike and the Modifiers, and LaBrenda Ben and the Beljeans.

Each volume includes some songs that everyone in the Western world has heard countless times. But there are also country singles and jazz and surf-rock and gospel, psychedelia and god-awful novelty songs, a single by the duo Stoney and Meatloaf (yes, that Meat Loaf), multiple versions of “Abraham, Martin and John,” and a never-before-officially-released single by the Mynah Birds, the legendary band that included both Neil Young and Rick James.

There are some ridiculous copycat records, too. For the company’s first few years, Gordy raced to cash in on anything that sounded like a hit. When Jimmy Dean blew up with “Big Bad John,” Bob Kayli (a pseudonym for Gordy’s younger brother Robert) responded with “Small Sad Sam”; when the Coasters scored with “Yakety Yak,” Gino Parks countered with “Blibberin’ Blabbin’ Blues”; when the Marvelettes broke through with “Please Mr. Postman,” their own follow-up was “Twistin’ Postman.”

(Once or twice, the imitate-the-hit formula worked out. In 1965, as the popularity of the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” was winding down, their former label Columbia Records dug up a song from the vault to re-release as a single. Gordy demanded a Motown follow-up immediately; thus it came to pass that “It’s the Same Old Song” was written—by reversing the chords of “I Can’t Help Myself”—and recorded and sent off to the pressing plant roughly twenty-four hours after the boss’s edict. It’s a knockoff whose enduring power comes from acknowledging that fact.)

“Motown” seems like an apt name for the company (although whatever name Gordy picked probably would seem apt in hindsight). It’s a nickname for Detroit (“Don’t forget the Motor City,” Martha Reeves sang) and its music had a sense of place—not that of a particular Midwestern metropolis, really, but that of a place where its musicians belonged. Detroit was famous for making cars, and Berry Gordy learned from that industry how to assemble specialists and have them work in proximity to one another. The final great creation of ’60s Motown was a family act that he threw the promotional and production machine behind: the Jackson 5. Gordy called them “the last big stars to come rolling off my assembly line.”

 

MIRACLE

Gordy built a hit-making factory—one that was remarkably open to artistic expression and to innovation, but a factory nonetheless.

Motown’s first miracle was making that factory’s output “the Sound of Young America” (which was its slogan for a few years). As all-embracing as those words are, they do suggest that one group is being excluded: the un-young. The phrase also elides the company’s regionalism and plays up its Americanness. (This may have been beneficial for sales overseas, where imported US singles still seemed exotic in the ’60s. The first British label formed specifically to re-release Motown material was called Stateside; the first S in its logo was a dollar sign.)

The Motown sound vaulted over the considerable racial barriers in ’60s pop. For a black-owned business in the Midwest to become the decade’s dominant force in American popular music was nearly unthinkable, but it happened. Motown owns the sound of the American 1960s, and it accomplished that as a company.

The contemporary list of Mo­town’s great successes has changed and narrowed over the decades. To a present-day music fan, the Supremes are the performers of “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” but probably not of “The Composer” or “Stoned Love” (unless that fan is British) or “Nathan Jones.” The Four Tops’ “You Keep Running Away” now sounds a lot like that one band that did “Bernadette.” If you mention Gladys Knight and the Pips’ hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” most people will think you’re somehow confusing her with Marvin Gaye.

The Motown songs that endure in the tiny, tight orbit of oldies radio and the slightly wider reach of its related Pandora playlists and satellite-radio channels have pulled off the second miracle. They have lasted forty or fifty years or more in the central canon of pop music.

There are always more works pouring into living canons, and more closed categories that each have canons of their own. Each one erodes as it expands, and there are always works and artists being squeezed out of a canon. There is a gigantic body of ’60s soul hits beyond Motown that are all but unheard now. Maybe somebody makes a YouTube clip of the single on a turntable, and perhaps it has a couple hundred views, but mostly they’re out of print and forgotten—though forty-five years ago there were a couple of weeks when these songs were a lot of people’s favorites. (When was the last time you heard Charles Bevel’s “Sally B. White”? How about Ike Lovely’s “Fool’s Hall of Fame” or the Invitations’ “They Say the Girl’s Crazy”?)

There are enormous R&B stars from the Complete Motown Singles era whose work is now gathering dust. Joe Tex had the misfortune of recording most of his hilarious, biting ’60s hits for a little label, Dial, that didn’t fall into the hands of a bigger one soon enough to keep them in circulation. Bobby Bland is now remembered, if at all, mostly for having recorded the original version of “Turn On Your Love Light.” B. B. King is a name and a touring attraction, but can you name any of his seventy-plus R&B hits other than “The Thrill Is Gone”?

So what made that core of Motown’s stars—the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and a few others—endure? “Their innate excellence” is not a satisfying answer: innate excellence got a lot of other records into the R&B top twenty. The second Motown miracle came about because Gordy and his company didn’t stop selling their hits once they became hits.

Motown encouraged its artists to re-record material from the Jobete catalog. (One recording won’t turn a song into a standard. Four or five might.) It nurtured the careers of its big artists, spinning off lead singers as solo acts, but also finding replacements for them in their groups. (The Temptations did just fine after David Ruffin left, in 1968, and again after Eddie Kendricks left, in 1971.)

Then, at some point, the company realized that having that core of writers and producers and instrumentalists all working in the same studios meant that it could sell collections of Motown music—that if you put those songs next to each other, they sounded both similar and different enough that they’d flow together like the great albums individual Motown artists hadn’t ever really made. In 1970, the label released a five-LP boxed set called The Motown Story: The First Decade. Greil Marcus called it “the history of James Jamerson’s bass playing, on fifty-eight hits.”

 

SOUL

A lot of the revelatory bits of The Complete Motown Singles come from Hitsville’s mercurial, wingtip-sharp house band, whose notable members over the years included Jamerson, drummers Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen, guitarist Dennis Coffey, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, and a lot of other names you’re likely to recognize if you’ve seen the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The most thrilling moment of the whole set might be the instrumental break in the Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” from 1963—the first Supremes single written and produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland), whose names appeared on the labels of two dozen top-ten hits over the next six years. The song’s groove stomps and blares like a marching band. Every law of early-­’60s song construction demands that the second chorus be followed by a sax solo—but it isn’t. Somebody growls, “Rrrrraaaaah!” and the band just keeps on galumphing on a single chord for a few bars, and then the growler growls again, more gently, and Diana Ross snatches the microphone back. It’s like expecting to see a painting and being shown an even better empty wall instead.

 

RARE EARTH

In 1970s America, old Motown records offered a pleasant nostalgia trip; in the United Kingdom “the Sound of Young America” was a portal to another dimension, and its non-hits weren’t duds
but rarities.

That’s what led to the phenomenon of “northern soul”—the only musical genre named not after how it was intended to sound but after how the music was consumed long after it was released. A handful of discotheques in the north of England hosted all-night soul dance parties: the Golden Torch, the Nottingham Palais, the Blackpool Mecca. As the ’60s and then the ’70s passed and American R&B and funk moved on, the northern England clubs stuck with the kind of music they liked, which wasn’t being recorded anymore. Their preferred sound was Motown, and specifically the Motown sound circa 1965–67: fifteen or so CDs’ worth of The Complete Motown Singles, which isn’t enough music to keep a subculture dancing forever.

Still, there were hundreds or thousands of Motown knockoffs in the mid-’60s—records that might have been national or regional hits, or that might have sunk straight to the bottom—and the northern soul clubs’ disc jockeys competed with one another to find up-tempo soul records from that era that nobody else knew about. The more obscure they were, the more they were prized. (As Simon Reynolds puts it in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, this inevitably led to a “cult of the substandard.”)

The ultimate prize of northern soul was an echt golden-era-of-Motown single so rare that there are supposedly only two confirmed extant copies: Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” (It is, of course, included in The Complete Motown Singles.) As legend has it, Wilson was an up-and-coming songwriter/producer at Motown when he recorded his masterpiece, an imploring, pounding declaration of love backed by the roar of a gospel choir and the Motown house band in full flight. It was scheduled for release, and 250 test pressings were made—but the cruel god Berry Gordy didn’t want his producers to succeed as artists, lest they become too powerful and challenge him, and he ordered the entire run destroyed. Only a pair of copies survived his wrath, like Moses in the bulrushes, and that (the legend concludes triumphantly) is why we are able to dance today to the crowning glory of Hitsville USA.

It’s a compelling story—a forgotten masterpiece rescued from the flames, dancing youth vanquishing a corporate ogre—but a story is all it is. Gordy canceled scheduled releases all the time, for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because of his habit of second-guessing, but generally because they weren’t quite up to the standard he expected. Wilson was a much better producer than he was a singer; convincing him to stick to his strengths wasn’t a bad idea. (Just after the eras covered by The Complete Motown Singles, Motown released a dramatic, beautifully sculpted single that Wilson wrote and produced for Eddie Kendricks, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” which really is a masterpiece, and which laid the groundwork for the next decade’s dance music.)

“Do I Love You,” to be fair, is a perfectly decent record—nicely produced (the backing vocals are pretty cool) and well played. As a song, it sounds a little undercooked. Had it been released, it might have hovered around the bottom of the charts for a bit; it might even have had a few fans. But since it wasn’t released, it became something more.

The most beloved of the northern soul clubs, the Wigan Casino, closed in 1981. The DJ Russ Winstanley ended its final night by playing the “three before eight,” the songs that traditionally closed out the evening: Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Long After Tonight Is All Over,” Tobi Legend’s “Time Will Pass You By,” and Dean Parrish’s “I’m On My Way.” Then he played them again. In 2002 Winstanley told MOJO magazine, “I then played what has since become recognized as the best and most valuable Northern track ever, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You.’ After that, people just sat down and cried their eyes out.”

Note the phrase “best and most valuable”—as if those attributes were two sides of the same coin. (Wilson’s recording had, in fact, been reissued, in 1979.) The subcultural value of  “Do I Love You” came from its financial value, which in turn came from its rarity—and it’s not rare anymore. No recording is actually rare anymore.

 

ECOLOGY

The Motown factory wasn’t the sort of environment in which every artist could thrive. The ones who could become part of Gordy’s grand assembly line tended to do fine, but even some artists who were enormously successful elsewhere flailed at Hitsville. Sammy Davis Jr. released the only single that ever came out on Motown’s sub-label Ecology, a flabby ballad called “In My Own Lifetime.” Liberated from his Motown contract, he went straight to MGM and straight to number one with “The Candy Man.” The Isley Brothers, who were stars even before Gordy signed them on, briefly contorted themselves into the Motown mold with “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” and “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” Then they decamped to their own T-Neck label, where they debuted with “It’s Your Thing,” the sort of lean-muscle funk-groove that rarely got past Motown’s quality control. It was a massive hit and launched a hugely successful phase of their career.

The way time winnows the canon has also changed which artists belong to what we now consider Motown. Some artists were legitimately part of the label’s core and sold records and were played on the radio at the time but now have basically been written out of the story. The Velvelettes, for instance, were sort of a bridge between the early-’60s girl-group sound, which accommodated the frailties of teenage girls’ voices, and groups like Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes, whose voices were case-hardened metal parts for the assembly line. The Velvelettes are redundant in the Motown story; they don’t reinforce the label’s reputation for innovation. But dropping them from the list of “bands that everybody who likes pop from that era has heard” means losing “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’” and “Needle in a Haystack,” which is a shame.

Another loss: R. Dean Taylor, a white Canadian singer-songwriter—more Ricky Nelson than Marvin Gaye—who cowrote songs for the Supremes and the Four Tops. On his own, he had one significant American hit, “Indiana Wants Me,” a morbid rocker sung from the point of view of a killer on the run. His other Motown singles were even weirder and more tormented: “There’s a Ghost in My House,” “Gotta See Jane,” the overtly suicidal “Candy Apple Red.” When they turn up on The Complete Motown Singles, Taylor’s arrangements and compositions sound of a piece with the songs around them, but his voice doesn’t: his words stick out. He’s the sort of rough edge that time has smoothed away from the meaning of Motown.

 

BLAZE

Motown was best at being an R&B/pop label, but it would take a crack at any kind of music that seemed like it had a chance of selling to somebody, often on sub-labels created for the occasion. In its early years, it cranked out a string of mostly terrible country records (and one shockingly good one, the Hillsiders’ “You Only Pass This Way One Time”). It put out some generally not-so-hot jazz sides on the Workshop Jazz label. There were four gospel singles that came out on an imprint called Divinity. Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine’s African-inspired soul label, Chisa, was annexed to Motown between 1969 and 1971, and put out some wonderful stuff, especially South African singer Letta Mbulu’s records. There were a couple of “break-in” singles—a now-forgotten novelty genre in which a fast-talking interviewer’s questions are answered by snatches of familiar tunes, in this case mostly from the Jobete catalog.

When psychedelic rock blew up, Gordy decided to try to cash in on that, too. One problem was that rock musicians weren’t big on the assembly-line system or on revues and tuxes; to send a band of rebellious longhairs to “artist development” would be folly. Another problem was that Motown was pretty sure the new music’s popularity had something to do with drugs, but some sectors of Hitsville were tone-deaf to drug culture for a while. “I couldn’t really put myself into ‘Cloud Nine’ because I couldn’t identify with the dope thing,” Gladys Knight said of her version of the Temptations’ hit. “We tried to cooperate, but… it just wasn’t in me to put myself into it.” An LP by Chris Clark, a pretty good white singer whose market niche Gordy had been trying to find for a while, became the only record released on Motown’s subsidiary Weed Records. Its slogan: “Your favorite artists are on Weed.”

Even more problematically, the most interesting rock bands coming out of the Detroit area at the time—the Stooges, the MC5—were anarchist hell-raisers, which placed them far from Motown’s wheelhouse. Eventually, the label signed Rare Earth, a Detroit group who had grown up listening to Motown, already had some Temptations songs in their repertoire, and were willing to spin them out to LP-side-length jams that could get some action on FM radio. When they were asked what would be a good name for the new rock imprint, the group suggested “Rare Earth,” and apparently nobody laughed it off. While the label tried to find some other appropriate acts, it licensed a handful of British records to release, by acid-rock arrivistes like the Pretty Things and Toe Fat. (Motown didn’t keep the rights to those, so they’re not included on The Complete Motown Singles.) Rare Earth’s first two hits were both Temptations covers; they eventually got a hit song of their own, “I Just Want to Celebrate.”

 

INFERNO

Another chain of events becomes clear through hearing Motown’s singles in chronological order, and in light of these events it’s a little bit astonishing that the label survived the late ’60s at all. Tammi Terrell, who’d had a string of hit duets with Marvin Gaye, suffered a brain tumor that killed her at the age of twenty-four. Shorty Long, who’d recorded the crossover hit “Here Comes the Judge,” in 1968, died in a boating accident. The Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/production juggernaut quit Motown and started two labels of their own, Invictus and Hot Wax. By 1970, Diana Ross had left the Supremes, Gaye was making a vague, grand concept album, and Stevie Wonder was demanding total artistic control and threatening to void his contract when he turned twenty-one. But Berry Gordy still managed to hold the company together—signing new artists, reshuffling duties at Hitsville, and recasting Motown’s style, sometimes grudgingly.

 

GORDY

There’s a cult of personality around Gordy, which he hasn’t discouraged at all. Former Motown artists always seem to frame their history with the company as an extension of their personal relationship with him. His sister married Marvin Gaye (which ended up making things awfully difficult when they divorced, in the ’70s); his daughter married Jermaine Jackson. Smokey Robinson named one of his sons Berry and his daughter Tamla. Gordy’s son Kennedy eventually became a Motown artist himself, under the name Rockwell (he recorded “Somebody’s Watching Me”); another one of Gordy’s sons and one of his grandsons have recently had pop hits as the duo LMFAO.

Gordy didn’t do a lot of songwriting after the first couple of years of Motown—although he did cowrite one of its earliest hits, “Money (That’s What I Want),” with Hitsville’s receptionist Janie Bradford. Instead, he concentrated on running the show. Every Friday morning, Motown had its “quality-control” meeting, when that week’s new recordings were evaluated for possible release, determined by a vote of Gordy’s favorite staff members. Except it wasn’t quite democratic: Gordy had the right to overrule any vote he didn’t agree with.

Gordy was a micromanager—at least when it came to the singles he released—and The Complete Motown Singles suggests that he was wildly capricious. Some discs in the set are maddeningly repetitive, documenting multiple versions of records Gordy tweaked after they’d already come out, adding overdubs, fiddling with mixes, second-guessing himself until the market drowned him out.

For a member of the Motown collective, to fall out of favor with Berry Gordy was to be doomed commercially—or, perhaps, falling out of commercial favor doomed one’s relationship with him.

 

MELODY

It may be due to the quality-­control process that even much of the lesser stuff on The Complete Motown Singles is pretty wonderful. Immersing yourself in the set would be worthwhile even if the only new song you discover is Brenda Holloway’s delicious 1965 B-side “I’ll Be Available,” which, as its title suggests, is about being a doormat. The premise is “Go do whatever you want to do, and when you’re ready for me I’ll be here”; it was written by Smokey Robinson, who recycled “Shop Around” for its structure, appropriately enough.

 

VIP

For most of Motown’s first decade, it seemed that everyone associated with the company was contributing to its collective voice—the sort of phenomenon that Brian Eno later called “scenius.” (Other examples include the Bloomsbury Group, the Lunar Society, and the New York City downtown scene in the ’70s.) Is there another record label that has as strong an identity and as consistent a reputation for hits of a particular era? Only Stax is even in the ballpark. RCA had Elvis, Reprise had Sinatra, Atlantic had some A&R guys with golden ears; Impulse! and Folkways have enduring catalogs in lieu of broad popular success. But there’s never going to be a musical about the RCA or Folkways catalogs. Motown—at least the Motown of the ’60s—is effectively a genre of its own.

The idea that Motown represented a unified body of work sputtered out in the early ’70s, in part because pop music had shifted to a model in which one person was supposed to be the mastermind of every great recording, and writing the songs you recorded was presumed to be a marker of their aesthetic value. A couple of Motown’s artists actually did direct every aspect of their best ’70s recordings: Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, whose demands for total creative control might have yielded self-indulgent messes but in fact produced the likes of “Superstition” and “What’s Going On.” Wonder had been billed as “little Stevie Wonder, the twelve-year-old genius” near the start of his career, a marketing ploy designed to associate him with Ray “The Genius” Charles (he’d also recorded an album of Charles covers called Tribute to Uncle Ray). But then he turned out to be a mature genius.

The other notable auteur of the later end of The Complete Motown Singles was a producer and songwriter, not a performer. Norman Whitfield started working with the company very early on—his first contribution was cowriting the B-side of Mickey Woods’s novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” in 1961—and eventually he became the Temptations’ main producer. (Barrett Strong, who’d sung “Money” in 1960 but drifted away from performing after that, became Whitfield’s lyricist.) Whitfield’s response to psychedelic rock was to devise psychedelic soul: a series of records (“Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and the like) with expansive, bright-hued production, long instrumental passages, and arrangements that used his singers’ voices for startling contrasts as much as for smooth harmonies.

Whitfield had a habit of testing out his and Strong’s songs with one artist, then recording them again with others. When people started muttering that his successes were piggybacking on earlier hits that the Temptations had made without him, he assembled a group of unknown singers, the Undisputed Truth, and demonstrated that he could build an act’s reputation on his own—although the Undisputed Truth was also effectively his test laboratory for songs and production techniques that would end up on Temptations records (and sometimes the other way around: the Tempts got “Smiling Faces Sometimes” first; the Truth got “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” first).

It was Berry Gordy’s misfortune to have a gift for finding other brilliant control freaks, because when people realized that they could get by without the rest of the Motown machine, they tended to leave him. (Whitfield eventually followed Holland-Dozier-Holland’s example, starting Whitfield Records and taking a few of Motown’s second-string acts with him—though the new label really connected only with a freshly assembled group, Rose Royce.) When Gordy fired up his assembly line for the Jackson 5, he took steps to ensure that they would be deeply integrated into the machine. Their first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5; their first single was based on a demo by three guys from the satellite office Motown had set up on the West Coast. Gordy reworked it with them, and spent weeks coaching young Michael Jackson’s performance and tinkering with what became the glorious “I Want You Back.”

Like the Jackson 5’s subsequent hits “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “Mama’s Pearl,” “I Want You Back” was written and produced by the team of Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonso Mizell, whose names didn’t appear on any of those records: they were collectively billed as The Corporation. You distrust that the Man is in a position to bust your music? Gordy might as well have said. Then you don’t get to enjoy as great a record as anyone has ever made.

 

MOWEST

The B-side of “I Want You Back” was “Who’s Lovin’ You,” a backward gaze at the Motown that was passing: it was a cover of an old favorite that Smokey Robinson had written for the Miracles. But the A-side’s breakout success was a harbinger of where the company was going: California. The Detroit riot of July 1967 had permanently injured the city—as Mayor Coleman Young later put it, it set Detroit “on the fast track to economic desolation”—and Gordy had figured out that the real real money was in Hollywood.

In 1971, he spun off another Motown imprint, MoWest, which was meant to concentrate on artists and recordings from the West Coast office. Its first release—a peculiar sound montage by Los Angeles DJ Tom Clay, set to a medley of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Abraham, Martin and John”—was its only real hit. Gordy apparently canceled more planned releases than he approved over the rest of MoWest’s two-year existence. (Most of the good MoWest material was collected a few years ago on a single-disc compilation, Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love.)

By the time MoWest was folded back into its parent company, having a separate Californian imprint was redundant: in 1972, Gordy closed down the Hitsville studios and moved Motown to LA. That didn’t kill the company, though; there were five number one Motown singles in 1973 alone. What the move killed was the Motown sound—the shared aesthetic of the cluster of collaborators and competitors who had assembled around the house on West Grand Boulevard, some of whom got their names on records and some of whom didn’t.

With the assembly line halted, the label didn’t manage to successfully introduce a new artist between 1974, when the Commodores made their name with “Machine Gun,” and 1978, when Rick James finally got over with “You and I,” more than a decade after Gordy canceled the Mynah Birds’ single. Still, new hits from Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye kept coming, and so did the classic Motown compilations. Gordy could still sell records, and he was always happy to take credit for being the genius behind the scenes. But from the end of Hitsville onward, the Motown that he could sell was the one he’d left behind in the Motor City. 

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