En español | How could they ever have imagined what astonishments lay ahead for them? It was all so very unlikely.
No, make that impossible.
On a cold October day in 1962, 45 Motown Records singers, musicians and chaperones stood shivering with excitement and nerves. They crowded together inside Studio A, the converted garage of a bungalow-style house that 32-year-old Motown founder Berry Gordy had bought, at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. His neighbors were respectable strivers: Sykes Hernia Control Service and Phelps Funeral Parlor. Gordy, the great-grandson of a Georgia slave, had started his label in early 1959, the same year that Mattel’s plastic dream girl Barbie minced onto the scene.
Gordy’s troupe had mustered for the kickoff of the Motortown Revue, the company’s first extensive tour. A snapshot of the moment still hangs in the house on West Grand, which now serves as the Motown Museum. They stand clutching bulging purses and boxy cameras, tucked into tight chicken slacks and mohair sweaters, freshly barbered, manicured and beehived. The Supremes — Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diane (later Diana) Ross — had just graduated from high school. The trio were thrilled to be going but worried that they hadn’t truly earned their seats on the bus. “Understand, we were favorites of Berry’s, little special girls,” recalls Wilson, now 74 and living in Los Angeles. “But unless you had a hit record, you were nobody at Motown. Nearly everyone else on the tour already had a hit.”
Also aboard, at 19, was Mary Wells, who had been crowned the Queen of Motown. She was regal with her Cleopatra eyeliner yet sweetly vulnerable on vinyl. Wells had been a working girl since age 12, when she had helped her single mother scrub frigid stairwells to support them both. “Until Motown, in Detroit, there were three big careers for a black girl,” Wells told me years later. “Babies, the factories or daywork. Period.” Gordy’s artists, all African American, were the sons and daughters of former sharecroppers, autoworkers, clerks, housekeepers and church deacons. At the time, Detroit had the fourth-largest black population in the nation, and it produced 50 percent of the world’s automobiles. The odds of escaping the factories or minimum wage work for any young person of color were dismal. But soon after Motown’s first hits blared from radios in the city’s schoolyards and housing projects, legions of young hopefuls besieged the hip, alluring enterprise on West Grand.
Those who made the cut were ambitious, pliant and eager to please. They’d do anything — sing background on demos at 3 a.m., hand clap, sweep floors, file session notes. Temptations lead singer David Ruffin helped Gordy’s father build the studio. In the Artists and Repertoire department, Martha Reeves was secretary and muse to 17 staff songwriters and producers. Gordy’s hit factory ran 24/7. Overall he paid poorly, but he plumped staff morale with bowling nights, picnics, poker and touch football games. A pot of chili bubbled in near perpetuity in the kitchen. The Hitsville troupe were a family of sorts — boisterous, competitive and tight.
Most of those dragging their luggage to the leased Motortown bus and five cars on that chilly day had never even left the state. In a phone interview from her home in Detroit, Martha Reeves, now 77, laughed at their utter naivete as they climbed aboard. “The bus was a broken-down Trailways with no toilet,” she remembers. “We had to lean on the window or on each other to try and sleep.” During the tour, which lasted from October through December, Reeves says the performers slept in hotels two nights per week, at most.
That grueling tour and the many that followed were part of Gordy’s audacious plan for integration — and domination — of the Top 100 pop chart. He announced his ambition on the building’s facade: Hitsville U.S.A. The lettering was painted in bold “Motown blue,” the same saturated hue on their now-iconic record labels.
But how could his crew break through the stubborn segregation of a music industry that confined black 45s to “rhythm and blues” charts? In 1960, only four singles by African American artists reached the higher altitudes of the pop (that is, white) Top 100. “Crossover at that time meant that white people would buy your records,” recalls Smokey Robinson, who was present at the label’s inception. “Berry’s concept in starting Motown was to make music with a funky beat and great stories that would cross over.” Gordy’s hybrid product was a mélange of pop, R&B and even a touch of Vegas, shot with gospel harmonies and rhythms — in short, polyglot American. He began releasing records on three company labels: Tamla, Gordy and Motown.
Some striking demographics helped underwrite his gamble. Teenagers — those impulsive, hormonal buyers of 99-cent singles — were fast becoming the largest population group in the U.S., and they controlled billions of dollars a year in disposable cash. Would white kids spend their money on records by black artists? Gordy got his answer in 1961, when the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” hit No. 1 on the pop chart. It appeared that kids didn’t care who was making the music if it was compelling and danceable enough. Given the almost limitless potential of the teen fan base, a tour introducing Motowners to live audiences on the East Coast and in the Deep South would be Berry Gordy’s moon shot.
And what a ride it has turned out to be. What colossal, long-playing reverb. It’s still hard to cruise a supermarket aisle or settle into brewpub trivia night without hearing the Motown sound pumping out of speakers.
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day ...
Ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low …
Within a year of that first tour, Gordy’s company, begun with an $800 loan from his family’s credit fund, would post $4.5 million in revenue and launch a galaxy of singles into the Top 100 pop chart. Motown’s appeal quickly spanned the Atlantic, as the Supremes and the Beatles traded spots at No. 1. During its most successful years, from 1962 to 1971, Motown and its subsidiary labels racked up a stunning 180 No. 1 hits worldwide. Gordy liked to boast that 70 percent of his record sales were to white buyers.
Motown’s impact on popular culture is not so simply calculated. The Supremes did ads for those American staples, Coke and white bread; the cuddly Jackson 5 became a Saturday cartoon. Spotify still lists the Temptations’ “My Girl” as a top wedding song. Motown has lit up TV and movie screens, from the ominous chords of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” opening The Big Chill to Broadway-musical and movie productions of Dreamgirls, the hit retooling of a Supremes-like saga. Over a third of Americans tuned in to the 1983 TV anniversary special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever. Yearly, 80,000 visitors pass through the museum on West Grand. And the museum is planning to expand. Ford Motor Co. and its union, UAW-Ford, have donated $6 million for a proposed $50 million expansion on adjacent land donated by Berry Gordy.
As for the label itself, Gordy sold it to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988 for $61 million. He fretted that he had set his price too low, and that proved true. Polygram bought it for nearly five times that, $301 million, in 1993. Today the label is modest in size, part of the giant Universal Music Group. Reimagined as “The New Definition of Soul,” its artists include the protean Grammy-winning Erykah Badu and a rowdy posse of hip-hop acts: Lil Yachty, Lil Baby and social media star turned rapper Cuban Doll.
How did Gordy achieve his audacious crossover dream? He declined to be interviewed for this story, but he has often credited his business model to his short tenure as an $86.40-a-week worker on a Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. He hated the work, but the plant’s precision and efficiency left a lasting impression. “Every day I’d watch how a bare metal frame rolling down the line would become a spanking brand-new car,” he has said. “What a great idea! Maybe I could do the same with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown, go through a process and come out a star.”
At Motown he built himself a Ford-tough quality control process that scrutinized every release. The music was heavy on studio-stamped style and far lighter in spirit than the unvarnished soul of Aretha Franklin (who recorded her biggest hits on Atlantic) and the Memphis vamps of Otis Redding and other Stax/Volt stars. Motown’s repetitive hooks burrowed into teen brains, and its thumping backbeat was something even the most rhythm-challenged kids could dance to. A stable of staff songwriters kept the hits coming.
Motown’s equipment and facilities were basic and often improvised. Studio A — also known as the Snakepit — had walls so flimsy that a sentinel was stationed outside the nearby bathroom, lest the roar of a flush ruin a take. Gordy confessed, “We would try anything to get a unique percussion sound: two blocks of wood slapped together ... anything. I might see a producer dragging in bike chains or getting a whole group of people stomping on the floor.”
That make-it-do attitude extended to the performers. Gordy did sign a few polished, established groups, including Gladys Knight & the Pips, but mostly he mined and refined a lot of raw talent. Many of his singers were gospel-trained in Detroit’s African American churches. The masterful studio musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, were assembled by Artists and Repertoire director Mickey Stevenson, who combed the seediest bars and clubs in town for the best session men. Just as essential to the Motown sound were the Andantes, a sublime trio of backup singers.
Motown’s public face — its artists — got dance and voice training, as well as mandatory style and comportment lessons, in Motown’s fabled Artist Development department, run by Miss Maxine Powell. Wardrobe, grooming, diction — Miss Powell had it covered. Her coaching did help prepare the Supremes, who grew up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglas projects, to meet England’s “queen mum” and navigate the formal etiquette of Japan.
On tour in America, the Motown artists faced a different sort of culture clash. One hot day in New Orleans, Mary Wells drew stares as she leaned into a drinking fountain and giddily assumed she had been recognized — until she looked up and saw the “Whites Only” sign. “In Detroit, we didn’t encounter a lot of segregation,” Mary Wilson says. “As we started touring we started understanding what our parents had been telling us about the South. We found out that there were places we couldn’t go.” She recalled the day when their bus pulled into the Heart of the South Motel in South Carolina. It had a pool! Hot, dusty and weary, the travelers dove in. “And all these other people started jumping out,” Wilson says. “All of them white.” Local deejays had been spinning Motown records all week, and at that tense moment, one of the songs was playing on a poolside radio. When the white hotel guests realized that the black swimmers were the ones they’d been listening to, “they came back in the pool,” Wilson says. “The rest of the day we partied.”
There were other incremental victories. Police stopped trying to enforce the rope lines that divided black and white audience members, and everyone danced together. But after their tour bus was shot at in Birmingham, Alabama, Martha Reeves understood the fear and fury caused by a busload of African American youths: “We were mistaken a lot for Freedom Riders trying to make a movement.” In July 1967, Reeves was onstage in Detroit, singing the smash “Dancing in the Street,” when she was called to the wings and asked to send the audience home to check on their families. The Motor City was burning. A police raid had triggered one of the bloodiest race riots in American history. It killed 43 and damaged over 2,000 buildings. Hitsville escaped the flames, but almost immediately, Reeves said, Motowners felt some misplaced blame. During a subsequent British tour, a reporter accused Reeves of being a militant leader. “They said that my song ‘Dancing in the Street’ was a call to riot. My Lord, it was a party song.”
More and more, old racial tensions and the churn of the growing civil rights movement were impossible to dance past. Motown artists who had sung their share of lovestruck pop tunes would turn their attention to real, biting commentary on social justice, with releases like Edwin Starr’s “War,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”
Meanwhile, as Detroit was trying to recover, Gordy moved his main operation to a larger, safer building downtown. His artists hated it. Worse, some were close to hitless without the magic of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, who had departed the label in 1968 amid a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits over royalties. “From 1970 on, Berry wasn’t really interested in the record business,” observed his longtime marketing man and consigliere, Barney Ales.
In 1972, Gordy moved the company to Hollywood, setting up shop on Sunset Boulevard. He moved some of his blended family (he’s been married and divorced three times and has eight children) into a home in the Hollywood Hills. Down the street, there was a smaller rental home for Diana Ross. Their long affair — the stuff of Dreamgirls — was an open secret. Gordy was also candid about his desire to become a TV and movie mogul, with his protégé draped in furs and acclaim. Miss Ross would star in Lady Sings the Blues and the regrettable, Gordy-directed melodrama, Mahogany.
Back in Detroit, between 200 and 300 Motown employees had lost their jobs. Some, like the Contours’ Joe Billingslea, went back to the factory floors. Others, like the Four Tops, found new recording deals. But something precious had been lost. Duke Fakir, now 82 and the sole surviving original member of the Tops, says those still in Detroit were bereft. “Motown was more than brick and mortar. It was a huge part of our social life. We spent as much time there as we did at home.”
In Los Angeles, those adorable Jacksons helped carry the torch and the bottom line. In 1970, “I’ll Be There” sold over 3 million copies. As disco, funk and “adult contemporary” took hold, Motown signed that platform-booted superfreak Rick James as well as the Commodores, a former student band fronted by Lionel Richie. But there was a steady stream of artist defections — even Diana Ross left the label in 1981.
“I always knew I’d have to leave,” Michael Jackson told me in 1982, as he was about to release his monster hit, Thriller, his second solo album on the Epic label. He explained that even as a child, he knew that the Motown studio system was too confining for his singular vision. Nonetheless, MJ said he was grateful for the homeschooling in Studio A. He studied the producers with a silent obsession. “I was like a hawk preying in the night,” he said. “I’d watch everything.”
Like many showbiz dynasties, Motown has also seen its share of tragic deaths. Temptation Paul Williams fatally shot himself two blocks from Hitsville. The Supremes’ Florence Ballard endured a heartrending spiral into depression and alcoholism and died of a heart attack at 32. Mary Wells lost her voice and her life to throat cancer at 49. A grieving Marvin Gaye could not perform live for four years after his duet partner, the stunning Tammi Terrell, collapsed in his arms onstage and died following brain surgery in 1970. Beset with drug problems, Gaye was shot to death by his father in 1984. Complications from substance abuse killed Temptation David Ruffin and Michael Jackson. They were all mourned like family by their labelmates.
Among the survivors of Motown’s first generation, the road still beckons for some. Martha Reeves performs with two of her sisters acting as latter-day Vandellas. Duke Fakir and his Tops tour 35 weeks a year. Otis Williams, the last original Temptation, is still on the road with “my guys.” There have been 22 replacements — so far. Yes, audiences still insist on the Tempts’ razor-sharp choreography — but sorry, folks, no more spins and splits. Williams is 77 and admits that some nights he’s bone-tired. “Yet here I stay. All we ever wanted to do was just sing and make the girls happy.”
It did start out simply — as did Mr. Ford’s basic Model T. In America, the product Gordy and his artists delivered was revolutionary in terms of black entrepreneurship and crossover clout. That loud, insistent backbeat was also heard worldwide. It prefigured today’s “global music” while delivering lifelong memories to millions. Gordy’s star-making machinery was primitive compared with today’s algorithm-driven merchandising. But in Motown’s frenzied boom years, Hitsville stamped out some remarkably durable goods. Solid state, still danceable and alluring, those blue-labeled 45s can claim the same honorific conferred on those other Detroit dream machines of yore: American classics.