A look back at a phenomena in American Music history-- the first 50 years of Motown. This article is dedicated to Jeffrey Dickerson and William Ison.
The soundtrack of my life can be defined and cataloged by songs, songwriters and producers of record companies that gave us much more than hip-shaking music. One such company went far and beyond normal application -- Motown. There’s so much to say about Detroit and it’s legendary contribution to the music world. Motown Records and all of the icons, stars and overall aura that precipitated it all celebrates 50 years -- that’s half a century of music, some of which I have deep in my permanent files. Rhythm and Blues and any derivative of it, embodied talented singers and the producers who squeezed every ounce of ‘soul’ from anyone who stepped up to the mike, including the iconic record labels. Every noted urban center were represented, from Chicago (Decca, Vee Jay, Chess), Philadelphia (Philadelphia International, Cameo), New York (Atlantic), Memphis (STAX), Miami (Alston), et al. But Detroit had a magic and an unprecedented run that made stars of the teens and anybody in between that came across its threshold. I grew up on this music and wanted to share my sentiments of the first 50 years.
It all started in 1959. I was only 8 years old and didn’t grasp this phenomena until after my tenth year. By that time finger-popping primed me for what had become an obsession. Who would have thought that the soul of young America would emulate to proportions that transcended race. By the time Berry Gordy found a winning formula different persuasions found it not a crime to embrace, copy and spread the word that something special was on the horizon. Motown artists are credited with being among those who broke down these barriers so later audiences would no longer be separated by color. Witness the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Dell Shannon and others of a different persuasion who wanted a piece of that magic. In my opinion I feel that the music that Motown created was a visionary force, and today it’s etched into the mindset and archives of legendary proportions. For me, I used the music to identify with every emotion that fueled my existence. When I needed a love song, I sought Smokey Robinson; when I wanted social consciousness complete with a soothing sense of sentimentality, Marvin Gaye was my surrogate; when I craved that sophisticated soul that possessed unique phrasing, The Temptations was there with a lead singer with charisma; when I felt that jazz overtones needed and upbeat with a groovy intonation, up jumped Jr. Walker and his All-Stars; and when I felt the need to be buck-wild and wanted to dance in the streets, Martha Reeves and her Vandellas along with the Marvelettes this was my elixir that kept me in rhythm. I cannot overlook Mary Wells, who gave me a chance to see how love could be requitted and regained for intrinsic value.
If you don’t know the history of Motown, know how important Smokey Robinson was to the early growth of this music, and you will then understand how and why the tandem of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland) was so instrumental in its success. Listen to any song by the Four Tops, the aforementioned Mary Wells, et al and you will get to know who the Andantes were -- who historians say appeared on more than 20,000 recording sessions. They were the background singers that were expected to create that for high end falsetto-like technique found on every Four Tops, Mary Wells and Supremes recordings. Do I dare mention Motown without heralding The Funk Brothers? This rhythm section is credited with creating the Motown sound. Without them there would be no Motown! I distinctly remember that I purposely used to monitor how a record first started out in determining whether it had that unique sound I was looking for. I surmised that a hit record needed a signature line or something that would give it that preliminary hook, and those brothers brought the bacon home.
Now comes the 50 year anniversary and a unique compilation of talent that the world cannot overlook for what it meant to music in the Black community. Think Motown, and I’ll willing to bet everything I own that memories will take you back to those halcyon days of yore when you were a teeny-bopper looking for love, or a young adult that was captivated by how soul could serenade and color your world with melodious sound. When I first heard Stevie Wonder sing “Fingertips” at 9-years old I felt that no other musical genius would come to fore again in my lifetime, but just a scant five years later we were introduced to a pint-sized James Brown (spins and all, along with the verve to manipulate a microphone) out of Gary, Indiana along with his four other brothers! Yes, the Jackson Five was a part of that legacy in 1969. My favorite group at Motown was the Temptations, which I also include in the same breath as The Platters and The Drifters. Because of Motown’s success and the type of artists they spawned, I’ve tended to be most critical in how I appraised singers, groups and record labels. I realize too, that this is a new era -- a generation where music to them is not the same, nor is the music they’re making. I can readily say that the music of today is a far cry from what GOOD music is supposed to be. You see, I judge groups by the persona that style and substance produces within (the group). I always ask myself can they dance, does the lead singer has more than just a good voice, do they possess tight harmony and that the phrasing is indicative of what would make them unique?
I truly miss Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Barry White and others who have been influenced by that motor town sound. But Studio A at Hitsville, USA was where legends were made. Motown has come and gone, but the memories are here to stay. I learned a lot about Berry and his empire -- flaws and all, but now that we can sit and enjoy the old school flavor that those songs inspired I can always relive, relax and retrieve it all, for I have my ipod with 10,000 songs securely in place. I’m proud to acknowledge that the celebration of Motown 50 continues around the globe with events, specia programming, and exhibitions. With uncanny timing while changing the dynamics of musical lore, Berry Gordy's legendary Motown sound made its mark not just on the music industry but the social consciousness of America that needed a change. If you are a baby-boomer you will remember back to your teen years and know when and where good music was made; if you weren't born during that time, or if your local radio station plays the old ones from time to time, and perhaps if you've read, heard or stumbled upon a catchy tune, know that it indeed was real and the music didn't die. It's STILL here. Go and relive it!