by Pat Jacobs
The city of Detroit began its own history-making musical revolution in the 1960s.
The enduring legacy of Motown started with the vision of ex-boxer, assembly line worker, and jazz store owner Berry Gordy. Born in Detroit in 1929, he was a jack of all trades, even working as a plasterer in his father's business.
But music was always his passion; Gordy started out as a producer and songwriter, penning "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" for Jackie Wilson and setting up the Jobete Music Publishing Company.
One of Gordy's first producing efforts was the Miracles' "Got A Job." (This was an answer or response song to the Silhouettes' no.1 1958 hit "Get A Job.") In 1959, the Motown Record Corporation was launched. (1959 seems to have been a very pivotal year in rock-and-roll history.)
On an $800 family loan, Gordy rented an eight-room, two-story house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. For several years, this location, the first headquarters and studio, would become world-renowned as "Hitsville USA".
Several family members and friends helped out by taking on various administrative roles within the fledgling organization. And here credit must also be given to Raynoma Gordy Singleton, the first Gordy wife. She was very involved in putting together Motown Records as well.
Among many things, she was a member of, and helped organize, the Rayber Voices, who did much of the background singing on early recordings.
Berry Gordy initially began recording R + B artists such as Mable John and Marv Johnson, who cut the new company's first release, "Come To Me" in 1959, on the equally new Tamla label. Later successful releases included "Money" by Barrett Strong, a no. 2 R + B smash and "Bad Girl" by The Miracles.
But Gordy wanted something more distinctive, a fuller sound with some overtures of gospel, but more of a "cleaned-up" pop flavor, that would appeal to both black and white record buyers. And he kept striving for that.
One of Gordy's passions while putting together Motown was to groom and cultivate street kids not just for the music, but to make them acceptable to mainstream America and eventually, the world. He firmly believed that just because you're from the ghetto, it doesn't mean that you have to look and act "ghetto."
To achieve this end, he hired experts such as Maxine Powell, a former modeling/finishing school operator, to transform their Motown artists into polished professionals. Speaking, table manners, makeup, clothes, how to move, posture, and even attitude management were taught. Many of the singers resented it, BUT, if you've ever watched any Motown star being interviewed or at a public function, it seems that her lessons paid off.
Gordy then hired choreographer Cholly Atkins. Atkins was a well-known dancer in the 1930s and '40s, having performed at The Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. His job was to teach the groups and singers to not only dance, but to move gracefully.
Maurice King was the executive musical director. He had been a show arranger for years at Detroit's Flame Show Bar (where a couple of Gordy's sisters worked!), and had also worked with Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, among others. His job was teaching the performers about stage patter, performing, of course, and refining their stage acts and presence. Gordy now had a top-notch training team in place.
He also wanted a paternal, production-line approach to making records that was modeled on Henry Ford's method of producing cars, (Later, there were critics who complained that many Motown hits tended to sound the same, or were rearrangements of a previous hit.) and a family atmosphere at the company, but this was an INTENSE one. There was a standardized songwriting dept., quality control (which was known to be brutal), and selective promotion. There was even a company pep song and picnics!
Meanwhile, William "Smokey "Robinson, the Miracles' lead singer and Gordy's close friend, convinced him that he should do his own record distribution. So he did. In late 1960-early 1961, "Shop Around", which Gordy co-wrote AND distributed, became a monster smash and established Motown as an up-and-coming INDEPENDENT company.
Even if he hadn't become the head of Motown, it was a given that Berry Gordy would have been a success in another venture. He and the rest of his siblings had a very strong work ethic instilled in them from their parents, particularly their father, Berry Gordy, Sr. And Gordy, Jr. carried this work ethic with him to Motown. He then sought out local talent. And what a find!
In 1959, a teenage Mary Wells, who had written a song for Jackie Wilson, approached him one day and sang the potential Wilson number to Gordy. (Wells was unable to write music.) Gordy was captivated and signed her immediately.
"Bye Bye Baby" became a Top 10 R + B hit in 1960 and I believe, no. 45, pop. While "BBB" was hitting the charts, Gordy had a plan: he had a contest among his writers and producers to create a portfolio of songs for Wells. The winner was Smokey Robinson. And the rest is rock-and-roll history.
The Marvelettes were discovered at a talent show in Inkster, Michigan. They didn't win, but a teacher arranged an audition with Motown. The group was signed and "Please Mr. Postman", written by group member Georgeanna Dobbins (accounts vary.), became a no.1 smash in Dec. 1961, and Motown's first no.1 hit.
Martha Reeves started out as a secretary for the company in 1961, but kept pestering Gordy to listen to her group, formerly known as the Del-Phis. The trio WERE used as backup vocals on "Hitch Hike", "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow," and "Pride And Joy" for another up-and-comer, Marvin Gaye, but the ladies (now known as Martha and The Vandellas) wanted to do their own songs.
By 1963, the pestering paid off.
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