Black History Month – The 1960s
By Perry Timms
By Perry Timms
When we think about Black History Month (here in the UK in October), we tend to focus on socio-political movement creators. And yet, they marched to a beat. A beat that has a firm place in the heroic feats of people of colour through the years.
One such heroic act was the establishment of not just a musical venture, but an empire.
The Motown empire.
There’s so much I’ve researched and read about after initially falling in love with the beats, melodies and songwriting genius, this could be a LONG post. But I’ve condensed what is the essence of entrepreneurship that just happens to reside in entertainment. But it’s more. Much more, than songs and performances. It’s changing people lives through music.
The hero of the story is, as some are, flawed but a genius. Flawed because he drove hard bargains with his “stars” and disputed and isolated those who he thought were not fully aligned to his vision. And yet he succeeded at a time when this wasn’t at all a given even if you were young, gifted and black.
Berry Gordy Junior set up foundations for this with a (now famous) loan of $800 from his family. A former boxer and sheet metal worker in Detroit, Michigan’s car factories, Gordy had some songwriting successes before setting up his own label and publishing house, notably for Jackie Wilson (another former boxer now singer) on Reet Petite and Lonely Teardrops. Big sellers. He was actually encouraged to create a label in 1959 by his fellow songwriter and singer William “Smokey” Robinson. “Why work for the man?” Was his simple encouragement.
So begins the link to work. Gordy wasn’t a singer. He didn’t want to simply live off of songwriting royalties, he wanted to create a venture that did all that AND gave him creative control, freedom to enlist great artists and musicians. So an empire was born.
The glittering array of stars he brought to his stable are some of the biggest names in contemporary music. Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations and yes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5.
A hard taskmaster (Berry had recording sessions going on literally 24-7 and didn’t like his musicians moonlighting in clubs and for other labels in Detroit – though they did – he apparently didn’t pay THAT well), Gordy also secured business help. Accountants, Artist & Repertoire (A&R) talent spotters and enlisted people like Maxine Powell (who schooled the artists in etiquette, elocution and cosmetics) and Cholly Atkins (a veteran dancer who helped choreograph their iconic stage movements).
This wasn’t just music. It was a burgeoning Black-owned enterprise. Were it today, Gordy would be more famous than Dr Dre (probably with his own headphone range too).
Christening the house he bought to turn into a recording studio and HQ “Hitsville USA” Gordy knew a strapline that would draw attention. He wanted to sell not just to R&B aficionados, but to the middle-class, mainly white, record-buying public of the USA.
Despite tours to Alabama and Mississippi where the Motortown Revue was stopped at checkpoints and rocks thrown at their buses (it was a time of heated racial tension don’t forget), Gordy and the acts used music as a platform to bring about integration, prosperity and opportunities.
Hit after hit means ANY Best of Motown compilation runs to volumes not one edition.
So when I’m asked who are my heroes? Or who I’d have to dinner, I’d include Berry Gordy Junior. Not because he was an inspiring leader, but because he inspired a generation, a nation and a world to appreciate the contribution to entertainment, unity and love that came through this music of black origin.
The legacy is incredible, the songs lasting. Reach Out (I’ll Be There), Love Child, Living For The City, What’s Going On, My Girl, Dancing In The Streets.
If there’s one label that epitomises how enterprising people can be, it’s Motown. If there’s one owner that stands above all for the socio-economic gains created for people living in oppressed communities, it’s Berry Gordy Junior. If there’s one reason to appreciate Motown, it’s beyond the musical harmonies. It’s the essence of triumph over adversity and hard work, a vision and talented people with you.