“I just came out of retirement to handle a singer,” Berry Gordy. Jr. starts to tell me, leaning forward confidentially with a twinkle in his eye.

“Stop!” one of his female handlers interrupts. “That’s all you can say, Mr. Gordy. Don’t say anymore!”

The legendary founder of Motown, still dapper at 80 in a sharp gray suit, tries to argue. Fifty years after discovering the Supremes and Mary Wells, Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye, creating one of the most unique and universally popular catalogues in American musical history, Mr. Gordy wants the world to know that he can still pick the hits, dammit.

But the phalanx of five women in the penthouse suite at the Century City Hyatt Regency Hotel is tough. Publicists from Universal Music and others from who-knows-where, they’re making sure the octogenarian sticks to the script and it’s all about Motown’s 50th Anniversary: a 10-CD boxed set of Motown Number One singles, a TV documentary and even a Broadway musical. So the first African-American to own a major record label, the man who guided black music out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, is overruled when it comes to talking about his latest discovery and for a moment Gordy’s remarkably youthful face wrinkles into a frown. Women have always ruled his life.

“Is she really cute?” I ask.

“Uh, yes!” He breaks into a broad smile. The old rake has been married and divorced three times, producing seven children including a daughter with Diana Ross and a son with an ex-girlfriend, and along the way from Detroit to Hollywood has probably had more liaisons with more fabulous chicks than any man has a right to claim. So, he laughs and we laugh together – this new young singer he’s chosen to produce, whoever she is, has got to be good looking! But the women in the room aren’t laughing.

“Yes! Uh, not for me,” he hastens to add. “I mean, I have a granddaughter almost her age.”
Gordy was 29 years old when he started his record business on January 12, 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. The seventh of eight children from an upwardly mobile family, he had been a boxer, spent two years in the army, tried running a record store specializing in jazz, worked in the foundry at Ford's Mercury plant, earning $85 a week. Nothing clicked. “I was failure at everything else I did until I started Motown,” says Gordy. It was the women in his life who put him the right track. “My mother and my sisters, they ran the family. They were responsible for me getting my first writer’s contract with their boss, a guy named Al Green who ran the Flame Show Bar.”

He’d tried to enter the music business as a songwriter, achieving modest success with Reet Petite, a song he’d co-written with his sister for Jackie Wilson. Gwen Gordy ran a photo concession at the Flame Show Bar, a popular nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom section where Wilson was a budding star. Seven nights a week you could find top acts like Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris and Sarah Vaughan onstage, backed by Detroit’s finest musicians. Lonely Teardrops, another song penned by Gordy, was a breakout hit for Wilson in 1958 on the Chicago-based Brunswick label. The family loan and the hit song co-penned with his sister provided Gordy with the cash he needed to start his own label, and he wanted to do it in Detroit.

“Detroit was difficult,” Gordy says, describing the Motor City music scene in the late 1950s. It was a city dominated by the auto industry, its population swelling with black émigrés from the poverty-stricken South. They came to work on the assembly lines of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in the post-war years when the world’s biggest car companies built more and bigger factories to meet America’s insatiable demand for transportation. The new immigrants, schooled in Delta Blues, New Orleans jazz and African-American gospel, brought a rich supply of musical talent to Detroit, but the center of the music business was elsewhere. “The big studios were in Chicago and New York. I felt that Detroit was my home and I could figure out how to make it work in Detroit.”

He bought a drafty two-family home at 2648 West Grand Boulevard previously owned by a photographer. Gordy moved into the upstairs apartment with his girlfriend and three children. Gordy’s father “Pops,” a contractor, helped convert the downstairs rooms into offices for Gordy’s newly hatched Jobete Publishing and the basement photography studio into a recording space labeled Studio A. The new sign out front declared "Hitsville USA, The Sound of Young America," and Gordy was in business.

He was controversial from the start. “People didn’t know how I made it,” says Gordy, shaking his head at the memory of the struggle he went through. “They thought I was in the Mafia – they couldn’t believe a black kid from Detroit could create one of the biggest record companies in the world with very little money. In those days people would say you can’t do that, it was impossible then to do that because no one had ever done that before. I say that’s no reason not to do it. That’s the reason more likely you should do it, because no one has ever done it before. So why not do it and be special.”

The eager young hopefuls who knocked on the doors of The Motown Record Corporation in the early years were schoolgirls and sons of autoworkers, ex-church choir members and former gang members with police records. Under Gordy’s tutelage they became Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, The Marvelettes, and Martha and The Vandellas.

The stars were polished by "Motown U pros," mainly Gordy’s sisters who taught the young performers how to dress, stand, wear makeup, and do their choreographed motions onstage with style, poise and grace.

Gordy’s in-house staff of songwriters and producers included Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team and Gordy himself, assembling the basic architecture of the distinctive Motown Sound. Artists were assigned to a specific team of producers, and each artist’s team worked on every recording by that particular artist. Some of the producers were also recording artists: Smokey Robinson produced Mary Wells, the Temptations produced the Miracles, and it all added up to a product consistency not unlike the automobiles rolling out of Detroit’s factories.

“It’s so simple,” Gordy says about The Motown Sound, “that it seems complicated. It’s a combination of everything I heard in my life that makes you feel good. Whether it be gospel, blues, jazz, whatever. I don’t like labels. When people ask me, I just say it’s pop. That means it is popular – it sells over a million records. That’s what it was.”
Underneath the smooth surface of Motown’s million-sellers, pop songs so perfect they sound today like something eternal, lay innovative techniques that evolved in the making of every track: two drummers instead of one, sometimes overdubbed or playing in unison, and three or four guitar lines as well; charted string and horn sections; meticulously arranged harmonies. A new marketing approach sprang organically from the talent on hand; Motown was first to introduce girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and The Marvelettes as marquee attractions.

From 1964 to 1967, Motown scored fourteen Number One pop singles, twenty Number One singles on the R&B charts, forty-six Top Fifteen singles on the pop charts and seventy-five other Top Fifteen R&B singles. In 1966, three out of every four Motown releases made the charts, a huge success for black culture at a time when African-Americans were struggling for their lives in the Land of the Free.
Although the Motown Sound brought white and black together on the dance floor, the company was not immune to the turmoil of the times, even if Gordy might have preferred to hide from the storm brewing in the streets. Marvin Gaye ushered the storm into Studio A with his groundbreaking album What’s Going On.

“What’s Going On was a turning point,” Gordy admits. “I didn’t want him to release the record at first until I realized how passionate he was about it. He wanted to awaken the minds of men He was the truest artist I’ve ever known but I didn’t want him ruin his career because he was a sex symbol. He was a beautiful, great singer – all the women really liked him, and I didn’t want him to do protest records at that time. Motown was not about Vietnam and all the protest stuff at that time. Because he was just at the peak of his career at that time, my number one male artist. But when he told me how passionate he was, well, then I had to let him do it.”

Unlike many people who regard What’s Going On as one the era’s most eloquent rallying cries against poverty, war, and racial discrimination, Gordy doesn’t see Gaye’s work as a political statement.

“I don’t know that it’s political,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s a meaningful record because it opened up the minds of so many people. That was Marvin’s goal. And he succeeded at that. He had a divided soul, himself, but he was the purest artist. He believed he was spiritual.”
Gordy wants to make sure he’s not misunderstood about his political activism. “Hey, I made a political record with the Temptations called Power. It’s an incredible record about greed, power and stuff like that. It was never a hit because every time they played it there would be such uproar. It was too powerful. It was a long way from My Girl, But so was Ball of Confusion, Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack.”

He grins, recalling the heady times of the 1960s. Somehow, he survived and now here he was, the Elder Statesman of Soul. How the hell did he do it?

Looking back and trying to analyze the reasons for his success, Gordy says, “You have to have a vision. That’s what we had. We had a vision. We wanted to make music for all people. Not just black people. We knew that they would like our music. But this music was for people all over the world. Black, white, blue, green. We wanted to spread music that had a lot of love in it. It was built on truth. We knew we were successful when our first big international record Baby Love hit the charts in 1964 – people around the world loved Motown music.”

Sure, but day to day life at Motown, handling a roster of tempestuous talents like Gaye, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and all the Jackson brothers, must have been a constant trial for the man at the top.

“All the artists were tough to deal with because they were so pure in their determination,” says Gordy. “I always believed that competition breeds champions. I always believed that if I made logic the boss I would win. I was in charge but logic was the boss.”

Sometimes, apparently logic didn’t always work at Motown, such as when Gordy resisted the release of Gaye’s version of “I Heard It On The Grapevine,” no matter how much producer Norman Whitefield argued. It eventually became one of Motown’s biggest hits and remains the iconic Motown recording.

“Anybody could argue with me,” Gordy says genially, a rosy view of the past painting over any painful facts. “I love people to argue with me, I love people to debate, as long as they know I can veto whatever I want to veto, which I never do because I know I can’t. But I love it when they have better ideas, because if they have the same ideas as me, then one of us is not necessary.”
Behind every song, and every battle over every song, was the superb musicianship that Gordy demanded. He recruited the best jazz musicians he could find to hunker down in “The Snakepit,” as Studio A became known, to play the simple tunes Gordy handed them.

“We didn’t have music written out,” he says. “We had chord charts in most cases. The producer would tell them what to play. If I was producing I’d always have to have Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass.”

Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and bassist Jamerson were part of the studio session band that became known as The Funk Brothers, including keyboardists Joe Hunter and Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, Eddie "Chank" Willis. It was a collision of sensibilities that churned together, playing from 1959 to 1971 on more Number One singles than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined. They contributed enormously to Motown’s success even if Gordy never quite understood or truly appreciated what the hell it was these talented jazz players were doing in The Snakepit. That is still evident today from the way Gordy talks about the late James Jamerson, regarded as one of the most influential bassists in modern music history.

“Jamerson was the hardest to handle because he was a jazz person,” Gordy explains, “and he looked down on the rhythm & blues music. He was so talented but he would always try to put jazz riffs in my stuff. I would say ‘James! Jimmy! Jamerson! You can’t do that! We are not doing a jazz record! We’re doing rhythm & blues and we want to get that feeling.’ And so he would say okay, and he kept slipping little notes in. Anybody else who defied me like that, they’d be gone. But Jamerson was so good I had to bear my embarrassment at him slipping in those notes. Everybody knew it and they would look at me to see what was going to happen. And I’d look at him and I would want to go in and say you’re fired. But I couldn’t.”

The only sideman bassist ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jamerson died broke and bitter at the age of 47 a fate not unusual for Motown musicians. Un-credited on the recordings and paid a session fee instead of sharing in the millions of dollars of royalties earned by Motown hits, the musicians’ bitterness lingers on, as detailed in the recent documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

By 1972 Berry Gordy was the richest black man in America with an annual income in excess of $10 Million. With an increasing interest in the movie business and dismayed at the deterioration of Detroit after the devastating 1967 riots, Gordy moved the company headquarters to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, expanding into film and television production. Removed from its roots and a long way from the time and place when Gordy would say Motown’s music was based on “rats, roaches, soul, guts and love,” did Motown lose its touch?

“Well,” says Gordy, with the kind of ready answer that comes from hearing that question before. “If he were living you could ask Rick James.”

It’s true that Superfreak Rick James was a big star for Motown, working as a recording artist and producer (Teena Marie was one of his protégés) in the late 1970s and 80s. “We carried our music with us,” asserts Gordy. “We carried Detroit to the West Coast.”

Nevertheless, despite five Academy Award nominations for Lady Sings The Blues, the Gordy-produced feature film with Diana Ross starring as Billie Holliday, Motown’s movie and TV ventures faltered. Motown’s $100 million annual sales slipped to $20 million by 1989, with few stars left on the roster beyond Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah. By then, with the company hemorrhaging money, Gordy had sold his ownership in Motown to Music Corporation of America (MCA) and Boston Ventures for $61 million. The company went through various upheavals and management changes until it came to reside with its current owner, Universal Music. Gordy had already sold part of his ownership in Jobete Publishing to EMI. One of the most valuable catalogues in the music industry with 15,000 titles, Gordy sold the rest of his interest to EMI in 2004 for $80 million.

If he were a younger man, just starting out today, would he do it all over again?

Gordy thinks about it, but acknowledges the music business has changed radically. Downloading music is not the same as selling a stack of 45s and today’s sounds don’t excite him. He likes the late Tupac, he says, but confesses he doesn’t listen to a lot of hip hop.

“P. Diddy is one of my favorite producer-type people,” he says, mainly because Diddy is an admirer of Motown. “He’s not only looked at the music, he’s looked at the business model, too. He studied me. He told me the last time I saw him that everything that he’s done has been based on Motown in some way.”

With the failure of the American auto industry, the city Gordy left behind is in danger of becoming a ghost town, but that prospect just leaves him sounding philosophical.

“At one point Detroit was one of the top three cities in America,” he says. “But the whole thing fell apart. I left Detroit over thirty years ago but it will always be my home. It was a great place to grow up. It was warm and friendly and I worked hard. Worked for Ford in the foundry but it was the worst day in my life.”

The government bailout? A tough question. He’s thought about it. But saving Detroit is not foremost on his mind right. You see, Gordy has this new singer and maybe we’re all going to know her name someday. But whatever happens to her, the Motor City or even Berry Gordy Jr., nobody’s ever going to forget Motown.

1 comment: