Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat. The time is right for dancing in the street. Motown, born on the streets of Detroit in 1962, the child of Berry Gordy. Motown was an egalitarian organisation where everybody got paid the same, allegedly. There were writers, backing musicians, singers, engineers, accountants and ancillary staff and they all got paid the same. It was Berry’s idea to create the Hit Factory and boy did he ever.
Smart as a mid-west huckster selling a bottle of Dr Hook, Berry knew his market. The music was designed to be played on the tinny transistors and car radios of working class white kids. The production was always going to be rubbish, so he concentrated on beat and vocal, sacrificing middle tones that would not be heard. It was a revolutionary all-black organisation that sold to white kids. It crossed the racial divide like nothing else.
The three-minute pop song was defined and only matched by the Beatles. The longevity of the sound is acknowledged by the plethora of covers. The writers speak for themselves. Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Holland Lamont Dozier. The artists, all equals included the above and Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Edwin Starr. The songs punched out the love thing and stole middle America’s heart in the sixties.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in film is the incomparable “Platoon” by Oliver Stone, where the Tracks of my Tears, defined R&R and combat. It was the bedrock and the touchstone of the new music. The soundtrack that enabled the kids to cope with the madness of the age.
Motown was a black organisation selling to white kids. Contrasting that was Stax records, a white organisation with artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. They were true soul artists of a more authentic style that black Americans preferred. The Stax soul band, sometimes performing as Booker and the MG’s over the same period. Two were white, two were black. Both organisations began a crossover between the racial divide. And if music be the food of love play on.
The problem for Motown was that they did not all earn the same. Berry Gordy was the one who made the money. By the early seventies, the stars started making their own way and left for better contracts that suited their status. The Jacksons and then Lionel Ritchie kept things going in the same style, but dealing with the stars was different to dealing with the talented backing bands. Fame was the key, and perhaps Marvin Gaye’s insistence on recording “What’s going on” was a sign. A concept album that was not what Berry wanted, but Marvin got it. The musicians had gone beyond the three-minute love-song and they were setting the agenda. Berry could not react and they all left. Marvellous Marvin got it on and we all appreciate his creativity.
Motown was a statement of what of black Americans could do. If only it could have continued in a revised form, but the management structure did not survive into the seventies. Perhaps if can design better organisations, like Berry did, we can utilise writers, musicians, administrators and engineers. We could work together and allow the creative to create and help them survive the fame. Work together as a cooperative and create and soundtrack for the future. Berry made a start, c’mon America do likewise.
As the Rev James Brown said, Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. And Berry you should be.
Conway-Laird (2017)

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