Current Affairs

The Magic of Motown

And how a democratic workplace might have improved it…

It was an unfathomable number of great songs in a brief span of time. The “golden age” of Motown, from the Miracles’ “Shop Around” in 1960 to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in 1971 was only 4,000 or so days. In those prime years, the label had over 100 Top 10 hits. In fact, the Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house studio band, reportedly played on more No. 1 records than Elvis, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones combined. Even after the label left Detroit for Los Angeles in the early 1970s, never again reaching the same heights as it did during the “Hitsville” years, it was producing artists like Rick James, The Commodores, and DeBarge, and continuing to put out classic albums from Gaye and Stevie Wonder. 

How great was Motown Records’ accomplishment during its golden era? It was stunning. In 1959, Berry Gordy, a 30-year-old black songwriter and ex-boxer who had dropped out of high school, started a small record label with $800 he had borrowed from family. Within a few years, Motown was regularly topping the Billboard charts, and introducing the world to Gaye, Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Gladys Knight, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, and later the Jackson 5. By 1966, the company had over 450 employees.

Motown’s music has now seeped so deeply into our culture that it’s difficult to be appropriately amazed by it. But what a colossal achievement it was. First, it was a black-owned label, competing with—and beating—the New York and L.A. music industry. Motown changed American music forever, and its songs spread across the entire planet. When you visit “Hitsville USA” in Detroit, the site of the original recording studio, you realize that they were essentially operating out of a pair of single-family houses. It’s as if someone started producing dozens of No. 1 blockbuster films out of a warehouse in Cleveland. 

What was happening in Detroit? All of those brilliant artists recording with the same musicians in the same place, putting out classic after classic. The band was tops, the songwriting magical, the voices the best in the world. How did it all happen? How could a sound, unlike anything else ever heard, spring up in a place for a few thousand days, then disappear? Could anything like this ever happen again?

Before thinking about what made Motown successful, it’s worth remembering what made the music so special. Go back and listen to the hits. There are so many to choose from, from the early girl-group sounds of “Please Mr. Postman” to the “psychedelic soul” of The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.” They have in common a deceptive simplicity. They’re catchy and poppy, but when you break down what’s actually going on in a Motown song, you can hear how many elements had to fall into place. YouTube makes this easy: You can listen to Michael Jackson’s isolated vocal track, or one of James Jamerson’s intricate basslines. (One person on YouTube has made remarkable extended versions of classic Motown tracks that allow for better appreciation of the components of a Motown song—you realize what an odd choice it was to put a bassoon on “The Tears of a Clown,” and yet it works. And you are bowled over by just how powerful Levi Stubbs’ screams for “Bernadette” were.)

The bass intro on “My Girl.” The drums that kick off “Nowhere to Run.” The way the Vandellas sing “Burning, burning, burning” in “Heat Wave” like they can feel the flames. The tambourine like a rattlesnake on “Heard It Through The Grapevine.” There’s a great deal of variety within certain fixed parameters: Nearly every Motown song is about love, and they’re almost all three minutes long and follow conventional pop-song structure, but you’ve got everything from sweet Diana Ross to The Contours’ wild and crazy “Do You Love Me.”

Without Berry Gordy, Jr. there could have been no Motown. The label’s roster of artists included some of the most creative players and singers of the time, but Motown’s success was not just due to its talent, but its production process and organization. Gordy could be dictatorial in his governance of the label, and records did not get released without his personal approval. His standards were exacting, and songs would be reworked over and over again until he deemed them satisfactory. Gordy was also ruthlessly capitalistic, and numerous artists complained of the small proceeds they received for their labor. The Funk Brothers were decently-salaried during their hit-making era, but struggled financially later and life, without the cushion that could have been expected from Motown’s vast continuing royalties.

Gordy’s dominance in the company decision-making process was also arguably responsible for both Motown’s ascent and its decline. Discriminating as he was, Motown released a lot of saccharine and forgettable music (see, e.g., “After The Showers Came Flowers” by Joanne and the Triangles). Browse the “Complete Motown Singles” collection and you’ll find some truly embarrassing dreck, especially when the label tried to branch into country and rock music. Gordy was single-mindedly focused on maximizing sales, which meant that he frequently privileged commercial success above originality. For instance, when Motown had a big hit, songwriters would attempt to replicate the success by penning a follow-up in the same style, with a similar feel, e.g., Edwin Starr’s only major hit “War” was followed up with the blatant rip-off “Stop the War.” On top of that, Motown’s roster would record different versions of the same song in order to maximize its chances of success—which is why there are so many Motown versions of, for example, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (The Motown vault does have plenty of “should-have-been-hits” in it, like “Just A Little Misunderstanding” by The Contours and “I’m On The Outside Looking In” by Eddie Holland.) It’s therefore fitting that the label was named after a portmanteau of “Motor Town,” given that it often seemed to be structured more like a car manufacturing plant, churning out Motown-brand songs, than a creative artistic endeavor. Gordy frequently boiled music-making down into a formula. And he seemed to have internalized the ethos of the automobile industry that Detroit was built on.

Gordy’s idiosyncracies and preferences also directly affected the music. Sometimes he would become infatuated with a woman and give her preferential treatment. One reason The Supremes had so many No. 1 hits (12 of them!), and got the best songs written for them, is that Gordy was obsessed with Diana Ross, though she was never the most talented singer at Motown. Similarly, an unexceptional white singer named Chris Clark received unusual amounts of recording time because Gordy took an interest in her. But perhaps the most consequential move came with Gordy’s wrongheaded decision to relocate the label to Los Angeles, and to send the Funk Brothers—the band that created the Motown sound—scattering to the wind.         

Gordy was also extremely cautious on matters of race. Early record sleeves did not show the artists’ faces to avoid being categorized “race music” in Southern markets. Gordy was strongly concerned with the image the label presented to white music-buyers, even requiring etiquette coaching for the artists. The Funk Brothers had to bill themselves as The Soul Brothers because “funk” was too black. The assiduously apolitical Gordy was even reluctant to release Marvin Gaye’s seminal record “What’s Going On.”

To what extent can Motown’s success be attributed to Gordy? To be surrounded, as Gordy was, by some of the greatest musical artists of all time—like Wonder and Gaye—was this because Gordy himself turned these artists into what they were? Was he merely in the right place at the right time?

The question of how the “Motown magic” happened, and who caused it, is worth thinking about, because Motown raises some dilemmas about capitalism and workplaces. Does the ruthless pursuit of profit damage artistic innovation? In Motown’s case, the answer was both yes and no. Yes, because it meant Motown songs were often formulaic. No, because they were also often incredibly good.

It’s true that there happened to be a large number of gifted performers in the Detroit of the early ‘60s. It was a musically vibrant place, and in some ways Motown captured on wax the existing culture. But it’s also true that Motown was built, its songs came through a process. A black-owned, largely black-run, label like Motown—with in-house recording, musicians, producers, marketing, promotion, management, and more—was to a significant extent without historical precedent. There had been black record labels before. But Motown’s achievement was pretty much unparalleled.

Of course, at a certain point, success bred further success. Some artists traveled to Detroit with the express intent of getting signed by Motown, or at least landing a songwriting position. Ashford and Simpson, for instance, who penned the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell mega-hit duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” traveled to Detroit with the song in their back pocket, as their “golden egg,” with the hope of using it to gain entrance into Motown. In this sense, there was an element of talent attracting talent, compounding Motown’s dominance.

The “snowballing” effect still doesn’t explain, however, just how Motown got the right people together, and created the conditions for their talent to flourish. How rare are the “right people,” anyway? Is the chance of finding Robinson, Gaye, Ross in the same city at the same time an incredible stroke of luck? Or did good management matter? 

There’s no question that Gordy himself could be a visionary. He saw the potential in an exceptionally young Stevie Wonder, who had joined the label as a preteen in the early ‘60s. Gordy spent years investing time, energy, money, and other resources in the precocious Wonder. In those early days, Wonder, a bit of a nuisance in the studio, was constantly pulling pranks, in everybody’s hair, and unable to produce a good follow-up to his first hit, “Fingertips.” Some Motown executives even considered ending his contract with the label. Nonetheless, Gordy afforded Wonder a significant degree of creative control, with little immediate payoff in sight. Wonder turned out to be one of the great musical talents of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1972—a full decade after his first record—that he really began to hit his stride with the excellent “Music of My Mind.” Once Wonder got comfortable, he was unrivaled and peerless: One would be hard-pressed to name a solo artist with a five-album streak more perfect than “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” and the creative zenith “Songs in the Key of Life.”

This happened in part because Wonder had a studio environment in which he could flourish. But we can imagine an alternate timeline, in which Stevie Wonder did not make it big. Dropped from Motown, he may have ended up busking on the street, if Gordy had not possessed the perspicacity and patience to nurture Wonder’s development. 

It’s sometimes tempting to think that great artists would have made it on their talent alone, no matter what. But that’s not necessarily true—there are immensely talented musicians performing on street corners, who will never gain wide recognition, and there are mediocre musicians who got a lucky break and became stars. Stephen Jay Gould once sagely quipped, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” The conventional conception of talent, genius, brilliance, and intelligence of some kind or other, is that the cream rises to the top: If you’re exceptionally skilled at something, you will be recognized for it. But we know that this is false, and we can see this even from the life trajectory of Motown’s geniuses. The Funk Brothers may have played on more hit records than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis, but most people have no idea who they are, let alone the names of the individual members. This likely occurred in no small part because their names were not even listed on their records until the 1970s, and the absurdly talented James Jamerson—whose iconic bass playing was a staple of the Motown sound—died tragically at age 47, reportedly penniless and in near obscurity.

The myth of the entrepreneur, of course, is that brilliant businessmen create the stuff we love, and should be thanked for creating jobs and innovations. The leftist counter-narrative is that workers create the stuff, and the businessmen squeeze the workers as much as they can. One can tell a story about Motown that emphasizes the genius of Berry Gordy in spotting talent, producing records, and running a label. But Motown also exploited its artists, and Gordy deliberately installed a white management staff above his mostly-black musicians.

The question on everybody’s mind, of course, is: Would Motown have been Motown if it was democratically run? The Funk Brothers, for instance, who were big jazz fans, were never allowed to stretch their creative capacities—when Gordy granted them the concession of producing a record for themselves, he made sure it was just instrumental covers of Motown hits. Artists like Mary Wells and Florence Ballard fell out of favor and were unceremoniously left behind to struggle. An artist-run Motown likely wouldn’t have lost its key songwriters (Holland, Dozier, and Holland, who wrote everything from the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” to the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On,” left in a dispute over songwriting royalties in 1967). Its mighty hit machine may have kept churning out classics well into the ‘70s.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps without Berry Gordy’s authoritarian leadership there would have been no Motown. Yet the one-party Gordyist dictatorship was ultimately too erratic to last. Is this the way it was destined to be? Could Motown have lasted? Could there ever be another like it, a place and moment where just the right people are arranged in just the right kind of institution to produce such an achingly beautiful and original body of music?         About the structural sources of Motown’s greatness, we can ultimately only speculate. Separately, though, we can still appreciate what a momentous artistic accomplishment the Motown canon is. If you’re ever in Detroit, make sure to stop by Hitsville, the original studio, which is now an excellent museum. You’ll realize just how little they were working with. Most of the great records were all recorded in one room by the same people, in an unassuming stretch of residential houses. How prolific they were! All the albums. All the singles. All the stuff that went unreleased and stayed in the vault. It is no exaggeration to say that Motown music is one of the greatest cultural triumphs in human history. And it was all produced outside the existing recording industry, by a black-owned company during the Civil Rights era. The Motown sound has become so familiar by now that it is impossible to hear the songs as they were heard when they were new. But if we try to listen with “fresh ears,” we can be stunned all over again that we have such songs as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,” and grateful to whatever mixture of persons, invisible social forces, and sheer magic came together to bequeath us this treasure.

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