Heroes (Part 9)
Berry Gordy, boss of Motown
Berry Gordy put the momentum into Motown. John Morrish put the pen to paper.
The parallels between the Motown Records organisation and the giant motor companies also based in Detroit are obvious enough: even founder Berry Gordy was happy to talk about them. But stories of Gordy thinking up the essential Motown "driving" beat while operating production-line machines in the Ford plant are at odds with the historical facts.
Like all notable producers, Gordy scratched around a bit before he found a style that suited him. That celebrated "beat" came later, and was the product of other hands.
But in some ways that motor factory comparison stands.
It is usually said that Henry Ford invented mass-production and the production line system when he launched the Model T. Certainly he was the first to put it into practice, but in fact the idea had an extended history. The reason it had never been put into practice before is simple. It depended for its success on the manufacture of an almost infinite supply of identical parts. Previously when a car was built it had had its own individual set of wheels built with it. Now, in Ford's factory, any axle could find itself mated with any set of wheels. The parts were interchangeable.
And it was this, more than anything else, that the young Berry Gordy tried to build into his new company. All the parts of the Motown empire, the performers, the songwriters, the producers, the session players and the executives, were designed to be easily exchanged for others.
Actually, the car factory has been over-emphasised as an influence on Gordy. He was there for a matter of only two years. Before that he'd run a failed record store and had a brief career as a professional boxer. As a kid, he'd picked out tunes on the family piano, but nobody had thought much about that, least of all as a prospective career. But whiling away the hours on the upholstery trimming line at Ford's, he began to work out songs in his head.
In July 1957, before he'd sold a single important song, he left the Ford line and took up a new career as a songwriter. Jackie Wilson was an early buyer, achieving a gold record with "Lonely Teardrops". But the success he was starting to achieve did not satisfy Gordy. For a start, he wasn't really earning anything. When he was taken to court over his alimony payments to his first wife in June 1959, he said he was earning only $27.70 a week as a songwriter.
Secondly, he didn't like the interpretations some singers were giving his songs. In his mind he knew what he wanted, and he wasn't hearing it on the records other people were making from his material.
So he decided, rather as Leiber & Stoller had done, to become a producer. The plan was to record masters of his songs and hawk them around, getting five per cent of the net sales at the end. It didn't amount to much. A Jackie Wilson hit he produced brought in $1,000, and that was about his biggest success. Finally, singer Smokey Robinson persuaded him to start a record label and, with a borrowed $800, he did so in January 1959. The new company and its labels Tamla, Motown and later Gordy, Soul and several others, were formed in Gordy's own image, being amateurish, fiercely competitive, and fuelled by massive ambition.
From the beginning, Gordy began to lay down the principles upon which Motown would operate. As a black-owned private record company it was almost unique – more so in view of its success – but Gordy was not interested in recruiting black people just because of their colour. His first employee was white, and many of his employees would be in future.
He wanted everybody in the same place, so he took a house in a residential street and filled it with a studio, offices and the famous Training Program. When the house was full, he simply moved part of the operation to another along the street. And he carried the "car factory" idea along with him. There was to be strict company discipline, with fines for lateness or bunking off Training. At one stage he even introduced punch clocks for all employees, and asked Smokey Robinson to write a company song. For a while the song was sung at every staff meeting, before each department head stood up and recited the section's achievements in the recent weeks. The picture is strangely reminiscent of Japanese management methods, although this was years before the Japanese import explosion began.
The same can be said of Gordy's quality meetings, at which executives assessed possible future releases. Gordy, it is reported in Peter Benjaminson's "The Story of Motown", would ask his staff this question: "Would you buy this record for a dollar, or would you buy a sandwich?" It seems an awful lot of them preferred sandwiches: a meeting in 1968 listened to 68 finished songs before deciding to issue "Love Child" as the next Motown single.
Gordy had strong views on songwriting as on everything else. He insisted that his songwriters produce stories, snippets of life, rather than abstract verses. And he insisted that they keep things in the present tense.
Leaving aside for a moment the individual contributions made by the producers, the classic Motown sound has a number of sources. The first was the original studio, sometimes described as "a bedroom". Certainly it may have been a bedroom at some time in the Motown House's history, but it was apparently a large one, giving a characteristically boomy sound to bass and drums in the early recordings.
Even at the beginning, Gordy needed to make the fullest use of multitrack. Whereas other record companies at the time might have bought a new 3- or 4-track machine, Gordy bought an ancient 8-track recorder that needed occasional manual assistance to keep it turning. But the insistence on multitrack was only part of the factory ethos. It meant that Gordy could replace the contributions of individual musicians if necessary, could send back endless remixes until he heard one that satisfied him, and most importantly could use the same backing track with different singers. "The way you hear them is the way we got them," said Supreme Mary Wilson explaining their working method to Alan Betrock.
Mary Wells was a fine singer who suffered more than most from this approach. Late for a session once, she later learned that a company secretary called Martha Reeves had taken over. It was the beginning of Martha's Motown career, and almost the end of Mary's.
Another important factor was the way a record was finished. Motown had its own cutting room, and its cuts were special, geared like the mixes to car radio, portable record player and transistor radio reproduction.
All these things formed the background to Motown's success, but what really drove the company on was the quality of the people it had working for it. The most exceptional were the producers Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield. Of course Berry Gordy was no slouch as a producer himself, especially if his hit ratio is taken into account. "Rhythm is basic – if you get that, that's what people want," he once said, and rhythm became Motown's hallmark. This was less evident at the beginning of the company's existence. 1961 and 1962 found Gordy trying out various r'n'b rhythm styles, the outdated triplet sound, the twist. The all-pervasive Latin influence of those years even got a look in. In fact, Gordy never really did find the true Motown sound.
And neither did Smokey Robinson, though he made up for it as writer, producer and sometimes singer of some classic soul ballads. Smokey's productions, for instance Mary Wells' "My Guy" or The Miracles' "You've Really Got A Hold On Me", are almost invariably built around a softer, less emphatic beat than some of his colleagues' efforts. Smokey didn't really produce a big beat record until some of the company's other producers had shown him how: and after that, as the Temptations' "Get Ready" showed, he didn't need lessons from anybody.
And although it is, strictly speaking, nothing to do with production, Smokey did invent the classic Motown song form. The classic popular song format went like this: two verses, chorus, middle eight, chorus, verse and so on. Smokey did away with all that, introducing a simple alternation between a verse and a chorus of about equal length, continuing throughout the song. Smokey has also been the most consistently skilful arranger amongst the Motown producers, whether we are talking about traditional rock instruments such as the plaintive introductory guitar of "The Tracks of My Tears", or of such sounds as the comical burbling bassoon of "The Tears of A Clown".
But Motown is not really about the wit and good taste of a Smokey Robinson. It's about the driving metallic sounds created by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier for the Supremes and the Four Tops, amongst others.
It's usual to say that the Holland-Dozier sound was derived from gospel, with its emphatic beat and tambourine-pounding sound.
To these ears, though, the sound of the Supremes and the Four Tops is about as far from gospel as Motown ever got, especially when compared with the singing of Smokey Robinson or the young Stevie Wonder. It seems to derive more from the Spector formula, as identified by Brian Wilson: a big bass sound, a clear mid-range framing the vocal, and a noisy attention-grabbing treble. But where Spector insisted that each record he made would be a unique statement, Holland and Dozier were happy to follow up each hit with two or more soundalikes, to cannibalise old songs and re-use their parts, and to hammer out the same basic formula over a five-year period with massive success.
Holland, Dozier and the other Holland, Eddie, produced a series of songs which refined the Smokey Robinson ababababa formula still further. They would start with the chorus, or remove the distinction between chorus and verse altogether. Their first attempts, with Martha & The Vandellas ("Heatwave") and the Miracles ("Mickey's Monkey"), had all the ingredients but tended to run up against the abilities of their singers. In Simon Frith's phrase, they were not "malleable" enough. But The Supremes and the Four Tops, being less characterful as singers, certainly were.
The sound sprang fully formed into the world with "Where Did Our Love Go", which featured an emphatic stamping 4/4 beat underpinned by the skilled work of drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. These two created a sound that has been imitated ever since, even into the age of drum machines and bass synthesisers. The trick was for the bass to anticipate the beat slightly, thus giving it a "kick".
As time went on, the singers, especially Diana Ross, were given spoken interludes over ever-more-exotic instrumentation, until some sort of watershed was reached with the weirdly electronic "Reflections" of August 1967. Meanwhile, the Four Tops became their male counterpart, with "Reach Out, I'll Be There" setting the tone, with Levi Stubbs prominent pleading, cajoling, tenor taking the lead in a series of songs which fulfilled Berry Gordy's original dictum that songs had to tell a story. "Reach Out" took 1¾ hours to make, apparently a Motown record at the time.
The HDH team lasted until it started to question Motown's royalty accounting and left, pursued by the curse of Gordy which seems as implacable as the curse of Gnome. They had a good run after leaving the fold, with the Chairmen of the Board among others, but soon their record company had collapsed.
Back at Motown, the top spot was taken by Norman Whitfield, who took over the Temptations when Smokey was beginning to get a little tired. The most innovative and open to change of all the Motown staff producers, he started by trying to graft on to Detroit's chosen sons some of the Memphis backbeat. "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was the result.
Marvin Gaye was another early customer for that "Detroit funk" approach, with the murky "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" opening up a whole string of Whitfield-produced hits. But Whitfield's real breakthrough came with "Cloud Nine", the first in a cycle of songs which took Berry Gordy's story-telling scheme to its limits. Pieces like "Cloud Nine", "Runaway Child, Running Wild", "Psychedelic shack", "Ball of Confusion" and finally the superb "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" were essentially theatrical.
Whitfield broke up the traditional harmonic use of voices and replaced it with a new sequential style. Rather than ornamenting the main vocal line, the Temptations' vocals would burst in one after the other, passing the song on from one to another with only the briefest bursts of harmony to remind the listener of the group's fine heritage.
And behind that he built a wall of sound that owed nothing to Gospel, Phil Spector or anything else in Motown: a web of phased, fuzzed and wah-wahed guitars, thudding bass, exotic percussion, filtered strings, brass, organs and a strange collection of sound effects. OK, so he stole a lot of it from Sly Stone, but Norman Whitfield's contribution was to drag it out of the Land of the Endless Riff and back into "Hitsville USA", as Motown habitually called itself.
By 1972, Motown had moved away from Detroit and into Los Angeles. It saw itself as a film company first, a record company second. And the excitement in black music had moved to Philadelphia, where Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell were making smooth music with an obvious debt to the Detroit originators.
Motown's salvation, in the end, came from a pair of rebels who defied Berry Gordy and won the right to bypass the Training Program, Quality Control and all the rest, and to produce themselves. They were Stevie Wonder, and the late Marvin Gaye.
But that is another story.
"The Story of Motown" by Peter Benjaminson. Strangely unrevealing and woefully constructed, but better than nothing.
"Motown" by David Morse. Again, makes up for a lack of hard information by veering wildly into unhelpful areas. He despises Norman Whitfield's work as "inauthentic."
"The Soul Book" editor Ian Hoare. Includes a Simon Frith essay on Motown which is among the best things on the topic.
(Plus the "Rolling Stone Book", Charlie Gillett, etc.)
Thankfully, there are plenty of Motown compilations on the market, though in hi-fi terms they usually sound pretty duff.
"The Motown Sound – 16 Big Hits", two records covering early and late Sixties. All the best stuff.
"The Temptations – All the Million Sellers". Some strange omissions, but excellent stuff.
"Diana Ross & The Supremes – 20 Golden Greats".
"The Best of Marvin Gaye", "The Best of the Four Tops".
"Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – Anthology".
Feature by John Morrish
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