THE MOTOWN SOUND, the primo sound of black gold in the '60s, and primo nostalgia fodder now on its 25th anniversary, was conjured up for tin ears.
The hits that came from Supremes and Miracles, from Marvelettes and Temptations, were pre-tested in Motown's Detroit studios on cheap phonographs and funky jukeboxes and played through tinny speakers to approximate the sound of cheap transistor and car radios, and the jukeboxes of an increasingly mobile America. If the songs sounded good there, said Motown founder and owner Berry Gordy Jr., they'd sound good to the majority of record buyers.
"I made $387 million in 16 years," Gordy once boasted. "I must be doing something right."
Gordy's calculations told him to pursue white and post-teen audiences. He did not invent black pop--black music had made strong inroads with white audiences several years before Motown had its first hit--but what he offered was whitened to the point of palatability.
As one writer noted, it was "baked in an oven that was only moderately hot and the resulting biscuits are light and fluffy. It's hardly soul food, but rather a dish for which white listeners have acquired a taste and which attracts because of the freshness imparted by black flavoring."
Motown once estimated that 70 percent of its customers were white.
One can still conjure up delicious and vivid images with '60s names like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. Each name comes with a dozen songs attached, the soundtrack of a country's coming of age.
"Motown created a sound that mixed your bloodstream and heartbeat before you ever listened to it," wrote critic Vince Alleti. "The sound had infinite variations, it evolved, it changed, it retained the ability to surprise, but it was always the same and the fact that it remained instantly recognizable was another key to its success."
As a small company, Motown sought to maximize the return on each record. The number of singles released was low, but Motown's percentage of hits was the highest in the record industry. Of 536 singles released in the great years between 1960 and 1970, an astounding 357 (or 67 percent) were hits.
Those singles had been discussed to pieces at Motown production meetings. The central question posed by Gordy was: "Would you buy this record for a dollar or would you buy a sandwich?" They were recorded and re-recorded, rejected and revised. One meeting saw 68 singles offered for approval, and only one, "Love Child," was accepted. The Supremes turned it into a number-one hit.
Motown may have celebrated 25 golden--and platinum--years last month, but for many its art and heart barely made it out of the '60s. The Motown story, the brilliant pop illumination that still frames millions of musical memories, was played out between 1959--when Gordy, a former professional featherweight boxer, founded the company on $800 (borrowed)--and 1972, when he abandoned the care-worn streets of Detroit for the glittery avenues of Los Angeles.
There was a pervasive camaraderie at Motown, with one-time secretary Diana Ross remembering that "Everyone was so young and there was such a feeling about it."
Ross, known early on as "the secretary who thought she could sing" (she was fired from one job, but got the other), was the supreme Supreme, the jewel in Gordy's crown.
The Supremes, with 16 top-10 singles between 1964 and 1969, became a burning symbol for Motown itself. Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson had grown up hard together in Detroit's low-income housing projects. As they became sophisticated ladies, they grew apart. Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight were more impressive and interesting singers, but they were less marketable to white audiences.
Detroit, like many cities, had a wealth of young, gifted and black singers and musicians. What other cities lacked was a Berry Gordy to champion their talent and to expand their audience. Four years into the business, he had a fistful of stars and empire-builders, including the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Marvelletes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and Mary Wells, with 13-year-old Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, The Jackson Five and Jr. Walker and the All Stars waiting in the wings.
Gordy had an instinct for spotting talent, not just the run-of-the-mill unknown type, but talent in artists who'd been around for a while without having the luck to run into him. Many of Motown's artists never equaled--or even approached--their successes after leaving the warm cocoon of the company.
Gordy sent artists to his own finishing school--the Special Projects Division--where they learned to dress, dance, sing and be charming. Gordy graded everything and everyone (to the point of rejecting Smokey Robinson's first 100 songs). He booked tours, controlled repertoires, managed money and careers, and shaped the sounds at his Hitsville USA recording studios.
Early on, he had described the Motown sound as "a stylized reflection of Afro-American traditions," a distillation of the ghetto experience of "rats, roaches, struggle, talent, guts and love." Later, he redefined it as "a happy sound, a big happy beat with a good strong bass."
Having tasted success, Gordy repeated the hit-singles formula ad nauseum, replicating and constricting his artists, many of whom, such as Diana Ross and Mary Wells, left Motown. Smokey Robinson, however, stayed on as a company vice president, and Stevie Wonder stayed after negotiating for creative independence traditionally denied to Motown artists.
Somewhere in transit to Los Angeles, Gordy seemed to lose interest in the music (his energies switched to films such as "Lady Sings the Blues," "Mahogany" and "Bingo Long"). At the same time, the music began to lose the loyalty of the public who had turned Motown into the most successful independent record company and biggest black-owned corporation--and Berry into the richest black man--in America. With acts like Stevie Wonder, Rick James, the Commodores and Lionel Ritchie, Motown has remained strong in the '80s, but the magic of its early years has been lost.