April 16, 2021

The 60 years of Motown | Culture

The 60 years of Motown | Culture


A miracle. On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy founded a record company with a loan of $ 800 (the equivalent of seven thousand dollars today). Their chances were minimal: even if they had successes, most of the stamps were strangled by the gap between expenses (paid to tocateja) and income (which, at best, came 90 days later). But Gordy endured and laid the foundations of what would be a musical empire: the Motown Records Corporation.


Diana Ross joking in front of the Motown stars.enlarge photo
Diana Ross joking in front of the Motown stars. Universal / Motown

The only label that has baptized a universally recognizable style, the Motown sound. It was also the biggest success factory of the sixties, with amazing percentages of hits (at its best, up to 70% of its launches went into lists). And it worked like a factory, synchronizing different teams: composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, producers, singers, choreographers and the all-powerful quality control department, where Gordy decided the albums that had priority (it was usual in Motown recording a promising theme in different versions). Everything in the northern city of Detroit, until in 1972 he moved to Los Angeles and, we now know, the magic was diluted; the successes would continue to arrive but no longer a common identity.

In the nineties, I had the opportunity to treat Elmore Leonard, the great creator of Detroit noir Man very sensitive to popular music, I asked him how it is that none of his novels located in the Motor City approached the ecosystem of Motown. He sighed and lowered his voice: "It's a story too bitter, even for a black novel." True. As in so many cases of massive success, there is behind a plot of exploitation. Within an industry as ruthless as the label, Motown was a downright cruel enterprise. And it did not help that their owners were black: they dominated a spirit similar to that of the old southern plantations. In fact, many of his foremen (top executives) were white, so that no one would have too many illusions.

The company paid the royalties more or less on a whim, discounting the expenses of recordings (whether or not they were edited) and the training of the artists, who had to undergo courses of good manners: Gordy's goal was that, although they recorded essentially for the public youth, their groups and soloists will end up touring casinos and nightclubs.

Motown worked as a family, in modest buildings on the Grand Boulevard. A pressure cooker where everything was known. Gordy's love affairs explained, it was said, the rise of Diana Ross to the company's main objective; For the record, these clandestine relationships did not help launch Chris Clark, one of Motown's first white vocalists, who also fascinated Gordy. Besides, Motown had more artists-about a hundred in 1965-than it could handle, so there was always a chorus of disgruntled and frustrated.

In 1967, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the main composer-producers, broke with Gordy, dissatisfied with the distribution of money, the beginning of what would be an avalanche of demands. They were replaced by another member of the staff, Norman Whitfield, a laconic guy who developed the so-called psychedelic soul, gummy songs, abundant in sound effects and generally crowned by political and social lyrics. Staged by the Temptations, The Undisputed Truth or Edwin Starr, they placed Motown at the leading edge of the black counterculture, a position reinforced by the subsequent creative emancipation of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

But nevertheless, Motown was losing leadership among the African-American community. An anecdote that is revealing: no one from Motown attended the funeral of Otis Redding, who died in dramatic circumstances at the end of 1967; yes it did another neighbor of Detroit, Aretha Franklin. His lack was noted: Otis recorded for the competition but came from rural Georgia, just like the Gordy family. It was understood this way: the Gordy, new rich, were too snobby to show solidarity with their rustic southern colleagues.

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