Gary: “This will be a story about Hittsville USA (Motown) and Berry Gordy Jr., a man whose vision created it, and all of the wonderful artists and musicians that made it as powerful as it grew to be…
Founded on Jan. 12, 1959, Motown quickly became another Detroit factory. Where the Big Three built automobiles, Motown produced music by assembling the soul and pop classics that changed America.
A former boxer and automobile worker, Berry Gordy was a fledgling songwriter when he decided to establish Motown Records.
He was urged to start Motown by another songwriter, 10 years younger, by the name of Smokey Robinson. The two had become friends years earlier and Robinson, who was the lead singer of a band called The Miracles, produced, wrote, and sang several of Motown’s most memorable hits — including the labels’ first smash song, “Shop Around” in 1960.
1960: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – Shop Around
A year later, “Please Mr. Postman,” by The Marvelettes, was the label’s first No. 1 song.
1961: The Marvelettes – Please Mr. Postman
Over the next decade, the sheer number of chart-topping artists, musicians, and groups produced by Motown defied comprehension:
- Martha and the Vandellas,
- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles,
- The Temptations,
- The Four Tops,
- Diana Ross and the Supremes,
- Gladys Knight and the Pips,
- The Jackson 5,
- Stevie Wonder,
- Marvin Gaye.
All became part of what would come to be known as the “Motown Sound”.
Now, it is rumored that Gordy may have modeled his hit factory after the Detroit car assembly line that he knew so well:
Make a good product, then make something similar, and make it quick.
Over here were the songwriters — Robinson and the team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland (Holland-Dozier, Holland, or H-D-H).
Over there was the talent — Stevie Wonder, whom the label discovered when he was 11; Marvin Gaye, who wanted so much to be a jazz crooner before he came into his own in the late 60’s; and, above all, Diana Ross, whom the label put its stake in early on, and who was told so many times that she was a star that she drove off one of the Supremes before quitting to launch a solo career.
In a neglected corner were the session musicians: the Funk Brothers, who played on God knows how many hit songs. Let’s just say A LOT!
So what was the Motown Sound? Great melodies, lots of tambourines and hand clapping, blaring horns, interplay between the lead singer and his or her backup vocalists, driving bass lines and foot-slapping drum parts. Here’s an example:
1959: Barrett Strong – Money (That’s What I Want)
In his still essential Motown history, Where Did Our Love Go?, Nelson George writes, “Motown chief engineer Mike McClain built a minuscule, tinny-sounding radio designed to approximate the sound of a car radio. The high-end bias of Motown’s recordings can be partially traced to the company’s reliance on this piece of equipment.”
They knew people would be listening on their car stereos and on their transistor radios and the engineers were going to do what it took to make their songs sound good and memorable. Even if you couldn’t put your finger on it, when a Motown song came on, you knew it.
Throughout the Sixties, Motown produced a catalog of songs that cannot be rivaled. “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me“, “Heat Wave“, “Dancing in the Street“, “Tracks of My Tears“, “Where Did Our Love Go“, “My Guy“, “My Girl“, “Baby Love“, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There“, “I Can’t Help Myself“, “Get Ready“, “Stop! In the Name of Love“, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and so on.
They were simple love songs that told simple stories, often in joyously happy or heartbreaking sad ways. And all the while Motown was the pride of Detroit and the pride of black America (though Gordy tried, with his usual bluster, to make it the “Sound of Young America“, a label he began to stamp on all of the company’s vinyl).
The Funk Brothers:
- Keyboards- Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke, Popcorn Wylie
- Guitars – Robert White, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, Larry Veeder, Dave Hamilton
- Bass – James Jamerson, Clarence Isabell
- Drums – Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen, George McGregor, Clifford Mack
- Percussion – Jack Ashford, Eddie “Bongo” Brown
- Vibes – Jack Ashford, Dave Hamilton, James GittensTrumpets – Herbie Williams, John “Little John” Wilson, Marcus Belgrave, Russell Conway, Johnny Trudell
- Saxophones- Hank Crosby, Andrew “Mike” Toney, Norris Patterson, Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Teddy Buckner, Ronnie Wakefield, Lefty Edwards, Eli Fontaine, Ernie Rodgers
- Trombone – Bob Cousar, George Bohanon, Paul Riser
They are Motown’s unsung heroes. Known as The Funk Brothers, the studio band put the backbeat into hits for Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, etc. They played on more #1 records than The Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined, but no one knew their names.
Now if for some reason you do not believe that all of the great music that came from the Motown Factory in the mid-sixties had a lot to do with the musicians, buy or find someone who has a DVD called “Standing in the Shadows of Motown“, after that, you will be a believer.
Through the next several posts, Motown 1960 – Motown 1971, we will try to cover some of the essential artists, and some of their hit songs (with audio clips,) in a year by year approach…
the first one of this series being: “Motown 1960 – Hittsville, USA”.
I know that I will omit songs that some people believe should be included. I apologize, but I am old and I screw up a lot. It is rare that I get stuck for music, but if I do I just reach all the way across Canada and turn left at British Columbia and end up in the State of Washington. Now in that State there are two people who are always willing to provide me with some pretty rare music. In Seattle, Wally Ridgway and in Lynnwood, Drew Martin, thanks guys.