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Motown turns 50, but the party's far from over

By Mike Householder and Jeff Karoub
Associated Press | Last updated: Sep 18, 2009 - 8:45:03 AM

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DETROIT - On Jan. 12, 1959, Elvis Presley was in the Army. The Beatles were a little-known group called The Quarrymen casting about for gigs in Liverpool. The nascent rock ‘n' roll world was a few weeks away from “the day the music died”—when a single-engine plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens.

It's also the day a 29-year-old boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. used an $800 family loan to start a record company in Detroit.

Fifty years later, Motown Records Corp. and its stable of largely Black artists have become synonymous with the musical, social and cultural fabric of America. The company spawned household names, signature grooves and anthems for the boulevard and bedroom alike that transcended geography and race.

And time.

Motown may be 50 years old, but it isn't any less relevant with current hitmakers—from Taylor Swift to Coldplay—citing the label's signature “sound” as an influence.

Would there be a Beyonce or Mariah Carey had Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight not come first?

How about Kanye West and Justin Timberlake? What would have become of their musical careers had Motown not blazed a trail with the likes of Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Four Tops?

“There were just so many amazing artists that came through. It was such a surge,” said singer-songwriter Jewel, whose recently released collection of original lullabies includes Motown influences. “And it really informed The Beatles' melodies. So much of what pop music and popular culture became. I recommend everybody go back and look at those melodies and see where they find them today, because they're resurfacing and being remixed, basically, into new pop songs.”

From its founding in 1959 to a much-debated move to Los Angeles 13 years later, what has become known as “classic Motown” created a once-in-a-lifetime sound that was local and global, Black and White, gritty and gorgeous, commercial and creative, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

“I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” “My Girl.” “The Tears of a Clown.”

Like the two-sided singles the Motown factory churned out 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Studio A inside the Hitsville, U.S.A., building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Motown Records in the 1960s stood out from the musical pack—and still does today—because of its ability to tune the tension between two opposing forces.

The tale of the $800 loan has become the stuff of legend.

Gordy worked at a Ford Motor Co. plant and wrote songs when he could, all the while dreaming of owning and running his own record company.

The loan from his family's savings club allowed him to make that happen.

He had the vision and the seed money, but next Gordy needed the talent—the singers, songwriters and musicians.

He didn't have far to look.

Detroit alone produced many of the creative wizards who gave Motown its initial burst.

Robinson and the Miracles attended high school together, while Ross and future Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard grew up in the city's housing projects.

Gordy plucked from Detroit's flourishing nightclub scene a group of supremely talented jazz musicians who would become the label's house band, the Funk Brothers. Strings, winds and brass came from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other classical outlets.

And the prolific songwriting trio known as Holland-Dozier-Holland—Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie—also were local hires.

The talent was there. Now what?

Gordy sought to incorporate some of the same principles from the auto factory floor and bring them to bear in the studio on West Grand.

He wanted it to be a place where everybody had a role, but the best ideas would win.

“Berry Gordy—people think of him as an entrepreneur, but he's a songwriter at heart, which makes total sense. You have a songwriter here and amazing songs. A guy has the brilliance to understand that it starts with great songs,” said Anita Baker, R&B singer and Detroit native.

Of course, it started with songs, but even that came with a competition more common to commerce than art.

Gordy knew cooperation was crucial but rivalries among singers as well as songwriting teams would be the best way to get a record out the door and onto the top of the charts.

“If (songwriter) Norman Whitfield had a No. 1 hit on The Temptations, Holland-Dozier-Holland would say, ‘Shoot, we gotta get a No. 1 with The Four Tops. Come on in here, Tops,' “recalled Abdul “Duke” Fakir, the lone surviving original member of The Four Tops, which signed with Motown in 1963 and produced 20 top 40 hits during the next decade.

“I'd say, `Yeah man, you'd better hurry up, man. I got a bet with The Temptations we're gonna have one in the next two weeks.' We would just push and push and push.”

Fakir says there was a relentlessness on all levels of the recording process.

In 1965, during his label's ascendancy, Gordy said passion helped spur Motown to greatness.

“I talked about this one night over dinner with Smokey and Diana Ross,” he told AP at the time. “We thought back about the neighborhoods we were in ... and we came up with a six-word definition: rats, roaches, struggle, talent, guts, love.''

Motown left nothing to chance: A “quality control” committee met weekly to review the latest sonic offerings. Gordy was the final arbiter, but posed this question: Would you buy the record or a sandwich if you were down to your last dollar?

The Motown “sound” itself was a blend of traditional gospel, jazz, R&B and pop that had crossover appeal for audiences of all ages and races—and a social impact.

“It was the first, I think, Black record company that was able to make the transition ... and was not only for the Black music audience but also for a world music audience. I think that's what Motown represented,” said Danny Glover, actor and activist.

When Motown was born, as Robinson tells it, songs produced by Black artists automatically were categorized as R&B, while a similar sound coming from a White artist would have been classified as pop.

But Gordy would have none of it. He set out to make music for all people, not “Black music for Black people” as had been the standard. While certain Black artists had found a wider audience in the jazz and early rock-and-roll eras, Gordy took it a step further by pushing a sound that gained universal appeal and helped break down racial barriers in music.

His belief was that quality music would find its way into the ears of all, regardless of race.

For Baker, Motown's barrier-busting ways hit home.

“I remember `The Ed Sullivan Show.' ... I'm a little kid. Every Sunday, Ed Sullivan comes on. And you get to see all of these artists from around the world. But Diana Ross and The Supremes come on. And I saw myself. Do you understand? I saw me,” she said. “I saw a little Black girl. ... I saw myself in a way I had never seen it before.”

Motown billed itself as the “sound of young America,” and it was that demographic that found itself at the center of the growing civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama a few years before Motown's founding, but the movement gained steam at the same time Motown did.

“Back in the ‘60s, when we weren't allowed to do or go certain places, our music crept into people's homes ... into their bathrooms, their bedrooms, their living rooms, their kitchens, their cars,” Fakir said. “We spurred marriages and poor little crib babies ... ‘cause parents were playing (our) music. ... That's how our legacy is going to be carried on.”

Motown was groundbreaking in many ways—from its signature sound and lengthy list of high-profile artists to the unique way it created and recorded music—but what's harder to pin down is what's kept the sound alive all these years.

“You hear (Motown) in almost everything,” said Wilson, one-third of The Supremes. “I think Motown music, the Motown sound, is the model, the template that people use today in the music, and yes, you can hear it.”

For many artists, it's inevitable that they would tread over some of the same ground because of the music's quality and distinctiveness.

Not only did Motown bridge racial and generational gaps, but it also succeeded in crossing cultures.

Beatles manager Brian Epstein promoted Motown revues in the United Kingdom, which were popular with fans and stars alike. Fakir recalls being at a party with The Beatles, where the Fab Four peppered The Four Tops with questions about how they sang their harmonies and achieved other elements of their sound.

Motown even penetrated the Iron Curtain.

“I was in Russia some years ago before the walls came down. And we couldn't hardly get into Russia at that time—the Cold War,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “All night long they played The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. So the joy of Motown has been infectious around the world.”

Another global sensation, the late Michael Jackson, also got his start at Motown as a member of The Jackson 5.

Gordy, at Jackson's memorial service in July, talked about the 10-year-old prodigy he signed, calling him “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

Jackson and his brothers became instant teen sensations, but his stratospheric success came post-Motown in his adult years; he and his brothers left the label in the mid-1970s.

The Jackson 5 were one of the first acts to come up as Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Most agree Motown's own California adventure has had its moments, but they don't match what happened in its hometown.

The Jackson 5, Gaye, Robinson, Ross and Stevie Wonder made the transition to L.A. and had chart-topping success, as did acts ranging from The Commodores to Rick James. Despite the plentiful hits among them, the sound was being challenged by newer grooves, and Motown lacked the deep roster it once had.

But by 1988, Gordy was ready to move on, selling Motown Records to MCA and a private equity firm. It was sold to PolyGram in the 1990s and now is held by Universal, where current acts include Lil' Wayne, Erykah Badu and Nelly.

(AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.)

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