The Motown Story

The label's best songs and how its writers, performers and producers created its singular sound

Motown boss Berry Gordy in his office, circa 1970. Credit: RB/Redferns/Getty

As surely as Atlantic was the greatest independent record company of the Fifties, Motown was the greatest of the Sixties. As one after another of the independents have sold themselves to the conglomerates, and as each, to one degree or another, has lost touch with its original source of strength, only Motown continues to reflect the musical as well as business vision of its founder: namely, Berry Gordy, Jr. It is a flawed vision but a consistent one and the fruits of his labor have been on view since he started running the company; they will continue to multiply until the day he stops.

Independent record companies are started by men personally involved with the art they intend to distribute. The late Leonard Chess discovered his artists in his bar, recorded them himself, and then sold their releases from out of the trunk of his car. He knew blues so he recorded blues. I would venture to guess that for most of his years at Chess it never occurred to him that he might be recording anything else. And consequently, for the twenty years he ran the company, the Chess label signified something musically.

The inner determination of a Leonard Chess, the personal commitment to a specific musical outlook, has always been the strength of the independent. Ultimately——in a business sense——it is their weakness too. For when the blues market (or country, or gospel, or whatever the case may be) can no longer support the company financially, these are not the men who know how to diversify: they have no heart for it. (The major exception: Atlantic.) And it is then that they sell their company to the anonymous men of the conglomerates, men who lack any musical vision at all, men who only know how to read a bottom line, men who don't care what puts it there.

Unfamiliar with the market and the music, the new men (as well as the older record men still active) do not run an in-house operation with all of its fixed expenses, but instead prefer a system of independent production in which the company invests in specific projects, finances and distributes them, and occupies itself as little as possible with the actual details of artistic production, about which it knows very little. Today, no one on the Atlantic staff has anything to do with the actual recording of Led Zeppelin or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, no one at Warners pretends to understand the musical virtues of Black Sabbath, and when the Band goes into the studio for Capitol these days, one assumes they do as they please. As long as these artists can turn out profitable records, the executives of their companies are happy to let them do as they wish. Most of them freely admit their ignorance of the new artists' musical techniques.

Of all the major companies, only Motown remains completely an in-house operation. One has the feeling, whether it is true or not, that Berry Gordy passes personal judgment on every single that comes out on his label. There is still a Motown look to the album covers, a Motown touch to the song-writing, a Motown style of singing, and, above all, a Motown sound. Anyone with ears can still tell a Motown record ten seconds after it comes on the air.

So the history of Motown over the last ten years is the history of two things: the growth of an independent corporation and the development of a creative musical collective (factory) responsible for a specific musical style. That style has resulted in a series of records and a body of music so commanding, so sophisticated, and so fine, as to make Motown a contender for the supreme pop acheivement of the last ten years.

Motown began the decade groping for a style. Originally, it was just another R&B label, noteworthy primarily for the consistent high quality of its singles. Through the early Sixties and out of the combined efforts of artists such as the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Contours, and producers like Smokey Robinson, Mickey Stevenson, and Berry Gordy himself, Motown records began to achieve a certain stylistic identity. In 1964 Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier began producing the Supremes and with the unprecendented success of that group, the Motown sound came into full flower.

For the next three years Holland and Dozier defined, expanded and elaborated on that sound, their achievements towering over and affecting the work of their colleagues in both the largest and smallest of ways. In 1967 they left the company and Motown moved into its modern phase. No one production team has been allowed to dominate the creative process the way Holland and Dozier did in the middle Sixties. Instead a variety of men and women have emerged, each with their own special talents, each capable of consistently producing top ten records. As a result, the Motown sound today is more diversified than at any time since its earliest days, and yet, like those early records, they are all clearly Motown records.

What was the Motown sound? In its heyday, in the middle Sixties, it consisted of: 1) simply structured songs with sophisticated melodies and chord changes, 2) a relentless four-beat drum pattern, 3) a gospel use of background voices, vaguely derived from the style of the Impressions, 4) a regular and sophisticated use of both horns and strings, 5) lead singers who were half way between pop and gospel music, 6) a group of accompanying musicians who were among the most dextrous, knowledgeable, and brilliant in all of popular music (Motown bassists have long been the envy of white rock bassists) and 7) a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio.

It is safe to say that from 1965 to 1967 ninety percent of all Motown records possessed every one of these qualities. But it is not true, as has been charged from time to time, that as a result, all Motown records sounded the same. They only did in the sense that all Warner Brothers detective pictures looked the same in the Forties. If you listen for the common elements, that's what you hear. But the beauty of the records is in the differences, subtle as they may be, that separate one from another. The nuances, the shadings, the giving and taking away of things to emphasize points: this became the area of personal creativity at Motown.

And as the song writing——both melody and lyrics——became ever more beautiful and singing ever more direct, the quality of the records improved at a pace that was all but astounding. For, like all great popular art, Motown confined itself in formal ways to liberate itself in other ways. You can't shatter conventions when none exist. And conversely, you can't invent a meaningful convention if you don't feel it.

Just as all Motown records do not really sound alike, so too must it be understood that the sound itself was not a contrivance but a style that grew out of the musical wisdom of some true rock and roll revolutionaries. They didn't add the four beat to the drum part because everyone else was doing a two-beat: they did it because it felt right to them. When it proved right to millions of record buyers, it only served to confirm their personal judgment, not to determine it. As slick as Motown records may sometimes sound, the sense of conviction and commitment seldom fails them; it's just that to fully appreciate it their records must be listened to as a totality.

I say as a totality, because it is often hard to know who to call the artist on a Motown record. No matter how much Sam Philips did for Jerry Lee Lewis in the studio no one has ever thought of calling a Jerry Lee Lewis record a Sam Phillips record. But, was "Baby Love" a Supremes record or a Holland and Dozier record? The only thing that can be said for sure is that the record wouldn't exist without either component. Diana Ross played her part so well it would be ludicrous to suggest that anyone else could have done it justice.

On the other hand it is impossible to form a picture of Diana Ross as a recording artist apart from the production that gave her her musical identity and image. With a Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops) or a Martha Reeves (from the Vandellas) one is more tempted to give the artist the major share of the credit. They have built an identity through the production that often transcends the production.

Perhaps the true relationship between Motown artist and producer is revealed by what happened to Holland and Dozier after they left the company——and to the acts they produced. Their two biggest, the Four Tops and the Supremes, have never regained the hit-making consistency they had under Holland and Dozier, and the Tops in particular have suffered a long dry spell. However, Holland and Dozier themselves have fared far worse. Separated from their original group of artists they have yet to produce half a dozen memorable singles on their Invictus label, and not a single one that compares at all with the best of their Motown work. In fact, a great deal of their time has been spent trying to copy the styles of the groups they originally produced. All of which makes a strong case for the interdependence of producer and artist at Motown, in the first place.

In any event, the common purpose of artist and producer was making records and the history of Motown is, as the logo on the Gordy label reads, "in the grooves." The best of them continue to speak for themselves both aesthetically and as pieces of personal history for those who lived with them in one way or another.

The following list is intended to include some records of historical importance, some that achieved vast popularity and some of merely personal preference. Taken together, they are but a sample of the best Motown had to offer in the Sixties. And a sample of the best of Motown is a sample of the best, period.

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"Wonderful One," by Marvin Gaye. An early record and the best example of Motown's gospel-blues roots. The only element of the later style evident here is the treble recording sound and the beautiful lyrics written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland. In the record's crucial moment the lyrics skirt the gospel implications of the music for the secular intentions of the voice with the lines, "You make my burdens a little bit lighter/You make my life a little bit lighter/ you're a wonderful one." For a second you forget whether Gaye is singing about God or his woman.

"Stubbon Kind of Fellow" by Marvin Gaye. On the threshold of the complete Motown sound, Gaye sings this one at the top of his range while Diana Ross and the Supremes sing a perfectly stylized background (in the Curtis Mayfield mold) over a rhythm section that churns like a pulse reacting to high blood pressure.

"Come and Get These Memories," by Martha and the Vandellas. A song about a guy who has gone "and left behind so many memories." The whole thing is rather predictable until it gets to the brief, beautifully timed hook at the end! "Because of all these memories/I never think of anybody but you/ So come on and get 'em/Because I've found me somebody new." The deliberate quality of Martha's singing at this moment is so unexpected that it may well provide the supreme example of a Motown nuance.

"Tracks of My Tears," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. An acknowledged masterpiece by one of the great stylists in pop music history. I bought this single the same day I bought two other records—"Like a Rolling Stone" and "Do You Believe In Magic." I played those two once apiece and then played the "Tracks of My Tears" until I wore out its grooves. Of the three records——all hits in 1965——is there any doubt that this is the one that has survived with its original intentions and beauty least faded by age?

"Come See About Me," by the Supremes. First there was "Where Did Our Love Go," then there was "Baby Love," and then there was the one that made me a believer, "Come See About Me." It's the background voices that make it work: the call and response so calculated and yet so soothing. A superb arrangement and vocal performance.

"Stop! In the Name of Love," by the Supremes. A great record in every respect, but one that deserves inclusion simply because of its title.

"Ain't Too Proud to Beg," by the Temptations. "I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go"—and then came the piano and David Ruffin was off and burning his way through another beautiful Motown R&B Temptations record. The Temptations may not have hit as many high spots as some of the others but, song for song, their first Greatest Hits album is more consistently enjoyable than any of the others. David Ruffin managed to make every performance memorable in some respect. Like so many other of his admirers, I wish he were still singing with them today.

"I'm Losin' You," by the Temptations. Ruffin's last single with the group combined a beautiful lyric with the only man at the time who could do it justice: "Your touch, your touch has grown cold/ As if someone else controlled your very soul/ I've fooled myself for as long as I can/I feel the presence of another man." And then "It's in the air, it's everywhere, Ooh baby, I'm losin' you." As great as he is, Rod Stewart's interpretation of this song only confirms the matchless perfection of the original.

"Uptight," by Stevie Wonder: "On the right side of the tracks she was born and raised/In a great big house filled with butlers and maids/Can't give her lots of things that money can't buy but I never, never make my baby cry." Stevie Wonder has always been the voice of pure R&B at Motown. Here he takes two chords and tells the story of his musical persona. It's one Motown record that no one will ever call slick. Listen to the bass player work out.

"You're All I Need to Get By," by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was musically more daring but this is probably the best of the Gaye-Terrell collaboration because it is the best song. It was written by the record's producers, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote "Let's Go Get Stoned" before coming to Motown. The higher ranges of the harmony are breathtaking but it is the superb attention to melodic detail throughout that mark it as a classic.

"I Want You Back," by the Jackson 5. Along with Stevie Wonder's tribute to Stax records, "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," this has to be the finest recent Motown record. The group's harmony, in execution and conception, surpasses the work of all pop white practitioners of the art. The arrangement, energy, and simple spacing of the rhythm all contribute to the record's spell-binding impact. Surely the coupling, of this group with the Motown production staff is one of the most fortuitous events in the recent history of pop music.

Finally, perhaps because I was most involved personally with Motown's music in the mid-Sixties, I would pick three songs from that period that form an apex in the company's development and together define the summit of its accomplishment. "You Keep Me Hanging On" was Holland and Dozier when it looked like they would never stop. It is lyrically their finest work, rhythmically stunning although subtly complex, and considered as a performance it as perfect as a record can be and still convey feeling. Diana Ross never conveyed more than when she sang:

Why do you keep comin' around, playing with my heart,
Why don't you get out of my life and let me make a new start,
Let me get over you the way you've gotten over me,
Set me free why don't you babe,
Let me be, why don't you babe,
You don't really love me,
You just keep me hanging on.

The song expresses a state of mind with such confidence and accuracy that I doubt it has been done better anywhere else, in any other form.

All of this applies even more to the Four Tops' song of the same time period, "Reach Out I'll Be There." Holland and Dozier bowed in Bob Dylan's direction on this one, coming up with a structured, repetitive verse that built to a climax in exactly the manner of Dylan's middle period songs. The song's intentions were the same as Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" but a far superior statement of the theme.

Simon's song is a studied and affected attempt at communication: it strains for effect. The Tops' song is conversation pared down into lyrics, interwoven with a music that does not aim for intensity, but is intensity itself. As Levi says, in the spoken introduction to the song on The Motown Story, it just meant, "C'mon girl, reach out for me."

Finally, I would choose one of Holland and Dozier's first hit records, Martha and the Vandellas's "Heat Wave." Everything Motown is and can ever hope to become is on that record. Because it came in the struggling period it has none of the decadent qualities that marred some of the company's later work. It is, in fact, the purest of Motown singles. And if ever an artist expressed herself through production it is on this record: Martha takes everything, the song, the band, the sound, the background singing——and goes for herself. How many moments on albums by white guitar bands could ever compare with Martha singing: "Sometimes I stare in space,/ Tears all over my face,/Can't explain it, can't understand it,/ You know I never felt like this before." And then, over the horn break, and in answer to her cries, the Vandellas answer her back with startling intimacy, "Go ahead girl" and "It ain't nothing but love" and, finally, "This sounds like true romance, like a heatwave." It is a song to live with and music to learn from.

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Through these records we can get a sense of the continuing growth of the company as well as its continuing musical accomplishments. Behind that growth has been the vision of the company's founder, the record business's closest thing to Howard Hughes, Berry Gordy, Jr. He was there to start it, there to make it work, and is there now to make it continue. Like the movie moguls and the independent record men that preceded him, he provides the company's continuity. Artists and producers may come and go; Berry Gordy will still be there.

His company has past through ten years of growth and come out of them a giant in every respect. In the decade ahead, it is my personal hope that Motown will keep alive the tradition they upheld so brilliantly in the Sixties: the independent record company. As an independent they have created a body of work that, for what it is intended to be, is without peer; they have mastered the art of the single. For me personally they have done more. When I hear Barrett Stong, Mary Welles, Martha and the Vandellas, Brenda Holloway, Smokey and the Miracles, the Marvelettes, David Ruffin, the Temptations, Junior Walker, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, or even, and in someways, especially, Diana Ross——when I hear them at their best, I hear a voice calling me and it can't be denied. May that call be as loud and clear during the next ten years as it was during the first.