How Motown became America

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 14 2003 3:18 PM

Hit Man 

Learn to love the tyrant who made Motown.

Motown strong-man Berry Gordy
Motown strong-man Berry Gordy

In a recording industry where" Quality Recordings at the Price of a Quality Paperback"passes for a good corporate slogan, Motown, which once had a company song written by Smokey Robinson, has always stood apart. Motown was not the first black-owned label (Black Swan Records had been founded in 1921) or the first black label to record rhythm and blues and soul music. (Vee-Jay, Sue, Red Robin, and Sam Cooke's short-lived Sar all came first, and white-owned labels had come before them.) But Motown was the first black label to win over a mass audience (which continues to adore it) and the critics (who continue to marvel at it). It was the biggest independent label of its time, the most successful black company America had ever had, and one of the very few record labels (Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic is another) to have lodged permanently in the public imagination. For middle America, Motown's songs are the sound of the 1960s—civil rights, slow dancing, sexual revolutions, student revolts, and Vietnam. For Hollywood, Motown is the soundtrack to Platoon, The Big Chill, The Wonder Years, and American Dreams. For the rest of the world, Motown's music is a stand-in for America itself.

But the more love the public and critics lavish on Motown, the more hate they heap on its founder: Berry Gordy ran his company like a benevolent tyrant, stuffed his pockets with other people's money, commissioned portraits of himself dressed as Napoleon, and betrayed his hometown by decamping for Los Angeles—there has been a general reluctance to credit the bastard for anything at all. Given all this, it's not surprising that people have fallen into two camps when writing about Motown's product—let's call them the "labor" and "management" camps—and that the two have been at war for years. The slings and arrows keep on coming: This season's include a book by Gerald Posner and an affectionate, but amateurish, documentary that seeks to rescue the members of Motown's brilliant house band, the Funk Brothers, from the dustbin of memory.

Paul Justman, the director of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, is the latest historian to throw his hat in with the "labor" party. The Funk Brothers, we learn, "played on more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined." Gordy denied them credit as a matter of course. But these were no run-of-the-mill session men: Funk Brothers had played with Charlie Parker, Yusef Latef, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, and other jazz greats. So good were they, the film informs us, that "When these cats cut tracks—and really, no offense to any of the great artists who sang on them—Deputy Dawg could've sung on them and they would've been a hit." And yet it wasn't until Marvin Gaye's 1971 breakthrough "What's Going On" that any of their names appeared on a record sleeve.

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But as good as the Funk Brothers were, and as sad as many of their stories have turned out to be, Justman overestimates their contribution to the whole—it's absurd to suggest that artists such as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson were mere "Deputy Dawgs" or to deny that Motown's songwriters stood in a class by themselves. Justman also misunderstands the wrong that was done them: Session men have always labored in obscurity—few people could name a single player on the Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds—and anonymity goes with the gig. Sure, this may be a travesty of justice, but it's a systemic one, not particular to Motown. And in any case, at Motown—where the means of production was inspired, in part, by Gordy's experience on the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury assembly lines—process always mattered more than personality.

Posner, a Wall-Street-litigator-turned-investigative-reporter, understands this better than most. His book Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power starts off as something of an exposé, complete with teasing mentions of uncovered court cases and anonymous manila envelopes, but it ends up as something of a mash note to Gordy—and the strongest defense of "management" in recent memory. Posner's Gordy is such a presence, and that presence is so inextricable from Motown's inner workings, that secondary characters emerge as mere satellites of his personality: Diana Ross, with whom Gordy had a long, torturous affair, is his Dorian Gray—a beautiful distillation of raw, unbridled ambition; Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye represent the lighter and darker sides of Gordy's id, respectively. The company that emerges is half auto plant, half jam session—a joining of opposites that Gordy sustained though sheer will and vision. That he was able to do so for so long is something of a miracle.

Ultimately, what Posner grasps and Justman fails to understand is that Motown's success had always been predicated on erasure of the individual artist's personality.

Signing to the label was an all-or-nothing affair. Your songs were composed by a stable of in-house writers that rivaled the Brill Building's (Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Holland-Dozier-Holland; Gordy himself wrote "Money" and several other Motown standards). Your management and bookings were handled by in-house agencies. Your royalties were withheld in favor of cash allowances. Your conversation, movements, and manners were adjusted by an in-house finishing school. Gordy ordered his songwriters to keep lyrics in the present tense and consistently stripped their songs of names and other specifics. As a result, Motown's songs sounded timeless—as if they'd sprung into existence fully formed, and no individual could have perfected, or subtracted from, the mix—and universal. This is why they mean so much to so many of us. 

But if universality has been Motown's great strength, it has also proven to be Gordy's Achilles' heel: Soul—the music of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke —was received as a raw and spontaneous outpouring of emotion and carried a built-in stamp of authenticity. Gordy drove his artists toward the opposite extreme: "Some people write songs from experience," Smokey Robinson explained. "Not me. I write songs no matter what mood I'm in—it's my work, dig?" Motown's were not the only black songwriters to look beyond the specifics of circumstance—Chuck Berry has said that "a portrayal of popular or general situations and conditions in lyrics has always been my greatest objective in writing"—but Motown's genius was collective and thus open to charges of exploiting the soul and blackness of its artists to curry favor with the white audience. By the same token, Motown's phenomenal success in a white market was seen as a political statement in and of itself. But the possibility that Motown's musicians didn't revel in their blackness because they sought to transcend race altogether, in ways that today's artists seems incapable of, or unwilling to, is seldom considered.

Reading Posner's book, you can't help thinking that the criticism Motown and its founder have suffered has not a little to do with racism: Gordy is a greedy man, but so were his white counterparts. (Sun's Sam Phillips reserved his highest praise for records so good they "didn't sound paid for.") Consider the practices of some sharks Gordy swam with, and his sins pale in comparison. And, while it has been pointed out that many of Motown's best artists had terrible fates— Marvin Gaye slipped into cocaine-induced paranoia for years and met death at his own father's hand; Supreme Flo Ballard drank herself to death at 32; James Jamerson, who defined the electric bass as a musical instrument, died broke and broken, far from home—the fates of Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain were no prettier. Famous people have a way of dying ugly, and white label heads are seldom blamed for their deaths. The obscurity the Funk Brothers and other Motown artists have endured is inexcusable, but slighting Gordy's achievement does nothing to balance the scales. If there was one great artist who forged Motown's songs into "the sound of young America," it was Gordy himself.

Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.