Organizing Genius: Berry Gordy and The Motown Story
Motown is both a style of music and a label and is now a metaphor for success and excellence. Motown set the standard for popular music, and developed a sound which others musicians and record companies sought to emulate. No other label is more identified with the sound it produced which gives credence to its slogan, “The Sound of Young America.
Motown is the brainchild of Berry Gordy Jr. From the beginning, Gordy envisioned a record company which would be distinguished by its sound and the quality of the music it produced. Indeed, as history shows, Gordy established not just a record company, but an institution of American musical know-how and a new paradigm for producing records. As Quincy Jones writes, “the music of Motown Records is a challenge and an inspiration to anyone making pop records. Because quite simply, the musical achievements of Berry Gordy’s company have been monumental. The talented people that flowed through Motown, both the performers on stage and the writers and producers behind the secences, broke down the barriers between black and white, between the R&B world and the “mainstream,” letting everyone see the beauty of black music.”
To gain the control he needed, Gordy decided to start his own record company. Borrowing $800 from his family, he founded Hitsville USA in 1959. “This was something”, Gordy says “I’d been thinking hard about wanting to come up with the perfect name… I came up with…Hitsville, I proclaimed, that’s the only mane I think expresses what I want it [Motown] to be, a hip name for a factory where its are going to be built.”
Gordy’s conception of how Motown would function was informed by his experience working Lincoln-Mercury. Gordy says:
My own dream for a hit factory was quickly taking form, a concept that had been shaped by principles I had learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. At the plant the cars started our as just a frame, pull alone on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line- brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only artist and songs and records. I want a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door and unknown and come out another a recording artist-a star.
Gordy used the assembly line model from the car industry to develop the Motown Production System (MPS). Music critic Nelson George argues that Motown’s edge, the difference that made it work where so many others [record companies] failed was the talent Gordy acquired the way in which he organized the talent he acquired.
Motown Production System
Gordy organized and broke down MPS into three functions: Create, Make and Sell. The Create phase, as Gordy calls it involved writing, producing and recording; the Making phase, manufacturing, pressing of records; and the Sell phase- placing records with distributors, getting airplay, marketing, and advertising. Motown succeeded in all three areas, but excelled in the Creative phase.
Motown developed and produced a who’s who of the musical world: poet Smokey Robinson; “My Girl”, “My Guy”’ “Tracks of My Tears”; legendary songwriting trio, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Holland/Dozier/Holland; “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, “Heat Wave”, and “Stop! In the Name of Love”; Nick” Ashford and Valerie Simpson, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”; Norman Whitfield; Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” and “I Know I’m Losing You”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”; Lionel Richie, “Easy”, “Three Times a Lady”; and Stevie Wonder, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, “Higher Ground”; Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”, Let’s Get It On”. In a word, as Herb Jordon observes, the Motown song writers, ‘invisible architects of the Motown sound assembled the substance of everyday into songs that were at once sophisticated and earthy, personal and universal. In many ways it was the Great American Songbook of the second half of the [twentieth century].”
Producing the Motown Sound
Motown is forever known for its sound- the Sound of Young America. The classic Motown Sound, 1959-1968 was defined by a number of characteristics: the use of tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent and often melodic electric bass guitar lines, distinctive melodic and chord structures, and a call and response singing style that originated in gospel music. In addition, pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used.
Keyboards - Johnny Griffith, Earl Van Dyke
Guitars – Robert White, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina
Bass – James Jamerson
Drums – Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen
Percussion – Eddie “Bongo” Brown
Vibes – Jack Ashford
The Funk Brothers were the brilliant but anonymous studio band responsible for the instrumental backing on countless Motown records from 1959 up to the company’s move to Los Angeles in 1972. They were central architects of the fabled “Motown sound.” Motown’s sophisticated, urbane brand of R&B certainly would have been difficult to achieve without the extensive jazz training that many of the Funk Brothers brought to the Hitsville.
The Motown used innovative techniques. For example, most Motown records feature two drummers, playing together or overdubbing one another — Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” used three drummers. A number of songs utilized instrumentation and percussion unusual in soul music. The Temptations’ “It’s Growing” features Earl Van Dyke playing a toy piano for the song’s introduction, snow chains are used as percussion on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, and a custom oscillator was built to create the synthesizer sounds used to accent Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Reflections” A tire iron was used in the Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets”. Gordy put it best saying: “Long before thee were electronic synthesizers, I was looking for new ways to crate different sound effects. We would try anything to get a unique percussion sound: twp blocks of wood slapped together, striking little mallets on glass ash trays, shaking jars of dried peas. I might see a producer dragging in big bike chains.”
Motown developed and cultivated a rooster of the finest recording artists in the history of American music. A partial list of the Motown artists tells it all: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, The Temptations, The Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, Lionel Richie and The Commodores, and Rick James. These artists were the faces of Motown and gave voice to the Motown sound. The stylist Temptations established the bar for men’s fashion and three-part harmony, featuring five lead singers. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles put poetry in the music and provided material for love letters. Marvin Gaye excited female listeners with a voice smooth as silk. At their peak in the mid-1960s, The Supremes rivaled The Beatles in worldwide popularity. The Jackson Five astound the world with their musical maturity and hits Stevie Wonder created the songbook for the 1980s. The list and narrative achievements are exhaustive.
The other ingredient which helped to create the Motown sound was the art of mixing. “Mixing,” Gordy says, “was so important to me that it seem I spent half my life at the mixing board. To get just the right sound, the right blend, I would mix and mix and them remix.” Not to be minimized, mixing Gordy maintains was the make or break of the record. He emphatically states: “Often the differences between the various mixes were subtle, but those subtleties, I felt could make or break a record.”
One of the truly unique features of the Motown Production System was its quality control component. Gordy again borrowed from the Detroit automatic industry to create his quality control unit. Gordy credits the quality control meetings with contributing to the overall growth of Motown. “In order to ensue top product”, Gordy asserts, “I set up quality control, a system I had heard around at Lincoln-Mercury. The producers would submit their final mixes into our quality control where Billie Jean (quality control expert) would listen to them.” This was the first step in getting a Motown record released. If the records met Jean’s standard, Gordy says Jean would “bring them into our Friday morning meeting. The Friday morning product evaluation meeting was my meeting. That’s where we picked the records we would release.”
Berry Gordy conceptualized and created a musical paradigm that changed the way music was made in the 1960s and in the process established a special place for Motown in the musical history of America. American Idol, for example, coordinated its Motown show to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of Motown.
Gordy created the American songbook of the second half of the twentieth century. Through his artist, producers and musicians, he gave a fresher meaning to love and now possibilities to male/female relationships- “The Hunter Get Captured by the Game”, and “Baby Love” which appealed appropriately to “young” America. To be sure, he took talent people and organized them in a fashion to produce the greatest hit-making process in American history.