Don’t be surprised if you see a little bit of Detroit in Atlanta some day soon. Motown: The Musical, still selling out on Broadway six months into its open-ended run, is likely to be a crowd-pleaser like Jersey Boys when it tours. And that may very well mean a stop at the Fox Theatre.
The show tells the real story of the one-of-a-kind sound that hit the airwaves in 1959 and changed American culture forever. Motown: The Musical charts founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more. The show uses more than 50 Motown hits to tell its story, from “Tears of a Clown” to “Stop in the Name of Love,” from “My Girl” to “ABC.”
How did something that has lasted so long begin?
To track the roots of the Motown sound, you have to go back to the Deep South of the early 20th century.
BLUES, GOSPEL GO NORTH
When the mechanization of agriculture sent 6 million African-Americans north for better jobs, they took their blues and gospel music with them. Among the families making this historic exodus was that of Berry Gordy Jr., whose parents moved to Detroit from Sandersville, Ga., seven years before his 1929 birth.
Berry dropped out of high school with dreams of becoming a professional boxer but was drafted into the Army in 1950. When he returned to Detroit three years later, he opened the 3-D Record Mart, specializing in jazz. It wasn’t until 1957, after a chance meeting with singer Jackie Wilson, that Gordy began to make his mark as a songwriter.
Their first collaboration, “Reet Petite,” was a modest hit. But Wilson recorded six other songs co-written by Gordy over the next two years, including “Lonely Teardrops,” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 7 on the pop charts. The Gordys (Berry often wrote with his sister) also had songwriting success with such artists as blues belter Etta James.
Berry invested his royalties in producing and developing new talent. In 1957 he discovered the Matadors (later the Miracles) and, in 1959, borrowed $800 to launch his first record label, Tamla. His third single, “Bad Girl” by the Miracles, was Motown Records’ first-ever release. I
By 1961, Motown had become an independent label to watch, with the Miracles’ “Shop Around” and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” giving it back-to-back chart-toppers. This not only gave Gordy a platform from which to launch the careers of some of the most important musical artists of the latter half of the 20th century, it helped Motown break down barriers that kept “race records” (aka black music) off pop radio.
As the civil rights era brought African-American concerns to the nightly newscasts, Motown music introduced white audiences to the brilliance and beauty of black culture. Gordy discovered, nurtured, managed and produced an astonishing array of artists: Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, the Jackson 5 and the Commodores.
“Nothing was done generically,” recalled Abdul “Duke” Fakir, one of the original Four Tops. “I’ve been to a lot of sessions outside of Motown where the session is very generic, very laid-back … very professional, and there’s no guts and blood. But here, everything was done with passion.”
The results are clear.
“I don’t know if anybody ever sat down and looked at the percentages of acts that Berry actually signed, recorded and released, and the percentages of hits versus failures,” said Don Felder, once an Eagles guitarist, “but his track record has just been astronomical. … He has just, in my opinion, the ears of a genius.”
By the time Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records for $61 million in 1988, he had written or co-written 240 tunes in its 15,000-song catalog. A few years later, Polygram paid more than $330 million for ownership rights, firmly establishing Motown as one of the most successful independent record labels in music history.
FOR A NEW GENERATION
Even now, 25 years later, the Motown sound remains a ubiquitous pop culture presence, from the perennial covers of Motown classics on “American Idol,” to the thinly veiled Supremes biography called Dreamgirls. The Gordy-penned Motown: The Musical is based on his 1994 memoir, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. The show ultimately received five Tony Award nominations.
Though it will likely never again enjoy the chart-topping dominance of its heyday, the Motown label was relaunched by the Island Def Jam Music Group in 2011. With iconic R&B star Ne-Yo joining the roster last year both as an artist and senior vice president of A&R, the legendary Detroit label may just find a way to influence music for the next 50 years.