The 2019 documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown has the slug-line “The soul of a city, the rhythm of a nation”. Very catchy and with some truth, no doubt, though an equally valid subtitle might have been “The house that Berry built”.
Berry Gordy cheerfully admits—several times, in fact—that his reason for getting into music production was to make money and meet women. His gleeful laugh and air of quiet opulence suggest both were achieved. It is truly fascinating to hear how Gordy’s time working in the Ford motor car plant laid the groundwork for the soul and R&B empire he subsequently built and ran (for many years) out of a modest house in Detroit.
Dancing classes, clothes and deportment, etiquette, A&R, songwriting. With departments for every aspect of music and music business, Gordy ran a tight ship. In fact, he was a benevolent patriarch; doling out love, money and decisions and constantly pushing his roster of songwriters and singers to exceed their own expectations. Their success was indeed his success. Motown was the complete package with a passionate, driven leader.
The boxed set Motown—The Complete No.1’s sat on the coffee table as I watched this lively and hugely entertaining documentary. I remember buying it, a dozen or so years ago, party because I’ve always felt light on in the soul/R&B area of the collection and… because it’s so cute!
I mean really, look at that little house, attic and all, just like the real thing. (That’s Gordy and constant side-kick Smokey Robinson about to mount the front steps, a still from the film). Inside are five 2-CD sets of all those Motown hits, plus a few welcome bonus tracks of brilliant songs that didn’t make #1. Hello, “Dancing In The Street” by Martha & The Vandellas, and welcome Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”.
The film focuses on the early days, the electrifying years of the mid-60s where The Supremes reigned, Stevie Wonder grooved and The Temptations emerged. The first two discs are simply wall-to-wall classics; fifty or more songs that provide the core curriculum for the era.
Things changed. Both the world, and inevitably the black artists finding their individual voices in a turbulent American society. Gordy admits that he struggled as first Marvin Gaye, closely followed by Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, strained against the rigid scaffolding of the Motown production line. That makes discs three and four exciting and more diverse as those voices rise. Marvin Gaye sings “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” while The Temptations deliver their classic epic, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”. Some of it is goose-bumpy thrilling, all these years on.
Into discs five and six and although I know almost all the artists, fewer of the songs make neural connections. I suspect that my musical interests were going in a very different direction by the time The Commodores and Thelma Houston were strutting their stuff. That trend continues for eight and nine, but with an increasing number of ‘Who dat?’ experiences. I may not have ever listened to a Lionel Ritchie album but I know who he is. Same with Diana Ross and later Stevie Wonder. But what is an El Debarge with Debarge? Some kind of European canal craft?
By the time we get to the final pair of CDs it is easier to count the artists I know, although simply seeing Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson listed at all is an amazing testament to their enduring talents and strangely comforting. As for The Boys, and Boyz II Men, huh?
I suppose some day I should listen to discs 7—10, but not today. Today I’ve grooved to The MIracles and early Marvin Gaye, sung along with Martha and the Vandellas and swooned as Diana and the Supremes first explained that you can’t hurry live then, ten minutes later, kept me hanging on. And when Marvin relates how he heard it through the grapevine, you can’t help thinking that ‘rhythm of the nation’ was an understatement. I reckon more of the same might be a very good thing indeed. Let’s get it on.