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Motown: The Music that Moved the World

Music aficionado Gary Wenstrup presented the Levy Lecture on June 22. He is a retired ad sales executive with a passion for music of all types. His presentation, “Motown: The Music that Moved the World,” had the virtual crowd of several hundred seniors reminiscing about and singing along to the music of their youth.

Motown was the creation of one man: Berry Gordy Jr., who was born in Detroit, the seventh of eight children in a loving and entrepreneurial family. He was clumsy and a poor student, but what he lacked in academic skills he made up for with self-confidence and entrepreneurial moxie. His first business – a record store that sold only jazz music – failed after two years. Undeterred, he took a job at Ford Motor Company and worked on the assembly line, composing lyrics and music in his head to deal with the monotony. One of his songs, “Lonely Teardrops,” was purchased and sung by Jackie Wilson, a local star in Detroit.

Within a few years, Mr. Gordy had written and sold several hit songs, but he had no real money to show for his efforts. He realized that if he was going to truly succeed in the music business, he needed to be responsible for every phase of the process. He needed to start his own record company.

His dream was to make music for the world with great beats and great stories, but he did not have the funds to get this new venture started.

Enter the family savings and loan.

It worked like this: Each family member needed to contribute $10 per month. Family members who needed a loan could submit a request. The monthly meetings were mandatory; loan approvals needed to be unanimous.

Mr. Gordy asked for a loan of $1,000 to get his record company started. He received approval for a loan of $800, which led to the creation of Motown in 1959. Motown is an amalgam of ‘motor’ and ‘town,’ a nickname of Detroit.

Smokey Robinson was the first artist he signed, in 1960. That first year, one of Smokey’s songs, “Shop Around,” reached number two on the pop charts. In 1961, The Marvelettes, an all-female group whose five members were only 17 years old, reached the number one spot on the Billboard charts with their hit “Please, Mr. Postman.”

Motown’s second number-one hit, Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” hit the charts in 1963. By then Motown was releasing one single a week and had become a dominant creative force in the music industry.

All of the work was done at company headquarters, a small house on a residential street. Above the entrance, a sign read “Hitsville, U.S.A.,” announcing to the world that Motown had arrived. Mr. Gordy, his wife, and two small children lived on the second floor. The home, a former photographer’s studio, had a garage in the back that was converted into a recording studio.

All the people, equipment, and instruments – including a grand piano – were squished together.

Musical experts have theorized that the distinctive, big sound of Motown came from the tight space of that recording studio. It was called “The Sound of Young America,” regardless of one’s race, religion or profession.

Mr. Gordy ran Motown with efficiencies similar to those he had observed at Ford Motor Company. He hired a local group, The Funk Brothers, to serve as the house band. The Funk Brothers did not tour or release their own records; they were the band on hundreds of releases. Many of the songs were written by Holland-Dozier-Holland: Eddie Holland composed lyrics; Brian Holland, music; and Lamont Dozier, lyrics and music.

Motown was run like a well-oiled machine: beginning at 9 a.m., every two hours, a new group of singers would come to the studio and work on their music. Berry Gordy believed in developing a group’s brand over time, and that “direction was more important than speed.”

He matched artists with writers and producers.

He hired choreographers to create and teach “vocal choreography” to correspond to the lyrics of a song.

He instituted the mandatory “Artist Development Finishing School” run by Maxine Powell, an etiquette instructor and talent agent at Motown.

Many of the groups were musically talented, but socially sheltered and unsophisticated. Lessons in grooming, social graces, and etiquette were essential. They gave the musicians social confidence, especially as they started touring across the country and overseas.

Many of them saw themselves as “Black Ambassadors to White America.” Artists not on tour were expected to be at Finishing School at least twice a week.

The Friday Quality Control meetings were open to everyone in the company. People were encouraged to share their impressions of the music reviewed at the meetings and potential new songs were voted up or down by majority rule.

The meetings started promptly at 9 a.m. and the doors were locked at 9:02 a.m. The Quality Control meeting was the most important company meeting in any given week, and the risk of being locked out was a big incentive for interested parties to be prompt.

Careers and fortunes were made at Motown Records. Under Berry Gordy’s guidance, The Supremes became the number-one “girl group” of all time with 12 number-one singles, including three in 1964 and three in 1965.

Motown helped move the country along racially, as musical integration led to inroads of cultural, emotional, and intellectual integration.

By 1965, Motown was the biggest seller of 45 rpm records in the United States. It was a thriving, successful Black-owned business, and it played a critical role in integrating popular music and achieving crossover success.

Motown had 200 groups under contract and 75% of all releases made it onto the Billboard charts, an astounding percentage where the industry average is only 10%.

The songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967 in a dispute with Berry Gordy over money and artistic control. Their replacement was Norman Whitfield, a music producer who brought a sound that Mr. Wenstrup describes as “funkier, darker, tougher, more psychedelic, and more progressive.”

The hits still kept coming.

In 1988 Berry Gordy sold his stake in Motown to MCA Records.

Today he is 91 years old with a net worth of more than $400 million. Not bad for an $800 loan.

By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.


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