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Mighty Tamla Motown is the Great Survivor of Music Labels

Motown Museum, Detroit, Michigan - Blob4000
What turned one man’s recording label dream in Detroit, Michigan into one of the best-loved surviving musical and cultural icons from the 1960s?

While big 60s’ recording companies like Stax, Pye, Island, Decca, Chess, Fontana, Columbia, Bell are now recalled only by devotees and less frequently than mods versus rockers or hippies, Motown has remained one of the triggers into that controversial decade and since. The music, like other aspects of ‘the swinging sixties’ is subject to revision and the vagaries of faulty memories.

People either blame that period for the drugs, moral-sapping liberalisation behind the ills of today, or see it fondly through rose-coloured spectacles as a time of freedom, peace, love and ‘doing your own thing, letting it all hang out’. But there is widespread agreement that Hitsville USA, Motown, is an enduring legacy of high-quality, soulful music; memorable and relevant today.

The Genius of Berry Gordy

The Tamla Tigers are a UK-based group who lovingly recreate Tamla and Soul sounds. Their Roy Norris said: ‘the aim was to recreate those fantastic grooves that have made that music so enduringly popular. Even if you don’t dance, no-one can resist responding to Motown’s unique beat’.

In 1959 Berry Gordy Jnr borrowed $800 to fulfill his dream of a recording studio for black ghetto music. His location was 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, the home of Ford cars. A popular nickname was Motor Town, abbreviated to Motown. Tamla he added from the Debbie Reynolds movies, Tammy (1957-67), as Tammy Records already existed.

The Miracles scored early with Money, (That’s What I Want), and it was lead singer ‘Smokey’ Robinson who talked Gordy into establishing his own label. Robinson was a classic songwriter as well as singer, and his own Shop Around became the label’s first gold single.

Gordy’s energy and drive developed sound, label and image, but his special skill was in recognising other truths about the music business at that time, which led to success. African-American music, local-blues, R&B, soul-based, partly gospel-inspired, dance-focussed, pop-tuned songs would always appeal to black youngsters, but he realised there was a crossover with white pop music. In other words, the potential market was open-ended and racial integration was helped.

The Funk Brothers

Gordy also grasped that it wasn’t only singers who made hits, so surrounded himself with teams of talented songwriters, producers and musicians. Groups like The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Junior Walker & the All Stars, The Isley Brothers and later The Jackson 5 and The Commodores were attracted to the set-up; The Supremes were moulded in the Motown forge. Solo artists such as Marv Johnson, Little Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, later Edwin Starr signed up.

Holland, Dozier & Holland and Norman Whitfield led the teams of writers and producers who created consistent hits in assembly-line efficiency that was the studio hallmark. Sessions could be called at any time, so a team of musicians was on hand permanently. The Funk Brothers as they became known, were paid $10 a song until everything was deemed ready to release. Union rules of the time limited to four the number of songs that could be laid down in a single session, but as they were a house band, such rules were never applied.

In the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown a clever play on the Four Tops’ classic hit Standing in the Shadows of Love, penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it’s quite clear that most of the surviving players acknowledge they did what they did through love of playing for at least some regular money, but that without their musicianship, Motown would not have taken off and lasted.

The Image, Style and Culture

Gordy started other labels recording soul and R&B beside Motown Records (itself a merger of his separate Tamla and Motown labels), but it was his attention to detail and careful control of his artists’ public images, stage costumes, manners and crafted choreography that enhanced the corporation and separated them from other artists.

Motown came to Britain via individual singles, but it was the first tour in 1965 that really opened up the British and then European markets. Also, they took advantage of the pirate/commercial radio ships to promote even further. In 1971 BBC Radio 1‘s disc jockey Tony Blackburn pushed Diana Ross’ album track I’m Still Waiting to make it a UK Number 1 single.

The Motown Museum describes ‘Motown as business and cultural force’. Many of the specially designed suits and dresses are on display along with Michael Jackson’s jeweled white glove and black fedora, at the museum, housed in the original Hitsville building. Then Gordy family home, the dining room table served as ‘shipping department’ till they moved out, when it became offices.

Long before computers and synthesisers, engineers created an echo chamber to make early reverb (a hole in the ceiling). The three-track recording console upgraded to eight-track is at the museum. Visitors get a sense of the 24-hour, 7 days a week feel of those early days, before Motown moved to a 10-story HQ in 1968, and then California in 1972.

From this stable of the music industry, came success matched only by Abbey Road and a handful of others. Some 70% of their released singles made the charts. While that speaks volumes for business, it says more about the fabric of 20th century musical history, in which Tamla Motown is an interwoven part.

First published on Suite 101, 24 August 2010.

Photo: Motown Museum, Detroit, Michigan – Blob4000

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