Like millions of native Detroiters who remember the city’s glory years of Motown music, muscle cars, and the MC5, I was stung though hardly surprised by the recent news that my hometown has filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. After decades of relentless decline, the unthinkable has become undeniable: the Motor City is dead broke.
Fortunately, a tonic was close at hand. A few miles from my New York apartment, a jukebox musical has been playing to packed and enthusiastic houses at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. So I slipped into my blue silk suit and headed for Times Square, determined to relive my teenage years and, for a couple of hours, forget that my proud hometown has been brought to its knees.
Motown: The Musical did what it was supposed to do. It made the world go away for a little while by peppering the audience with non-stop fragments of more than 50 unforgettable Motown songs, performed by an energetic cast and crisp orchestra. The costumes and sets were lavish and ingenious. Many in the audience sang along to lyrics they’d memorized half a century ago and will never forget. When a pint-size Michael Jackson (played by Raymond Luke Jr.) came spinning onto the stage, the place erupted. Nostalgia doesn’t get much more slickly packaged than this.
But the cast – indeed, the musical itself – faces an impossible task. There is simply no way to recreate the magic that poured out of the cramped recording studio known as “the snakepit” in an unassuming house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, with a sign out front that shouted HITSVILLE U.S.A. That outpouring came to be known as “the Motown sound,” something everyone recognizes but no one can quite explain. The best a show like Motown: The Musical can hope for is to be is a passable imitation.
Which seemed good enough for most members of the audience, who left the theater wearing smiles. But as I stepped out into the round-the-clock blaze of Times Square, I felt like I had just gorged on cotton candy – stuffed but somehow still hungry. Musicals are not supposed to be history lessons, of course, but this one’s story was little more than a string that tied the song fragments together. I realized that anyone who wants to know what made Motown great and what killed Motown should not go to Broadway. They should turn to books, to the large and growing body of literature inspired by the Motown story – biographies, histories, autobiographies, memoirs, picture books, post-mortems. Together this body of Motown Lit lays out a tragedy every bit as fascinating, maddening, and depressing as the tragedy of Detroit itself.
1. To Be Loved
The “book” for Motown: The Musical – that is, the show’s narrative thread – was written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, based on his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. Gordy’s autobiography does a workmanlike job of laying out his life story. The grandson of a freed Georgia slave, he was born into middle-class respectability in Detroit in 1929, performed poorly in school, tried his hand as a boxer, an auto assembly line worker, and a salesman before turning to songwriting. After scoring some hits with Jackie Wilson, he borrowed $800 from his family’s trust fund to start his own recording and music publishing company in 1959, calling it Motown. Over the next three decades, Gordy and his phenomenal stable of talent rewrote the history of American pop music, thanks in no small part to the label’s uncanny ability to sell black music to white kids like me.
Gordy’s book is no better or worse than most celebrity autobiographies, which tend to be shameless exercises in image management. He dismisses the persistent rumor that Motown was controlled by the Mob. He claims he was fair to his employees while admitting he made some mistakes. To his credit he is able to laugh at himself, confessing that he couldn’t get it up the first time he went to bed with Diana Ross, who was the love of his life and the source of so many of the problems that would besiege the company.
The biggest of those problems was that Gordy and his family had a choke-hold on the company’s singers, musicians, songwriters, and producers. The company controlled everything. It had its own in-house management company, the artists were locked into parsimonious long-term contracts, they were forbidden from taking moonlighting gigs on the side, there was even a charm school to teach performers how to walk, sit, dress, conduct press interviews, and move onstage (no closing your eyes when singing, no finger snapping, no spreading your legs or sticking out your buttocks; such things might offend the vital white audience). Gordy owned the copyrights to all the songs, which was the real source of his long-term wealth. For these reasons Gordy has been accused, fairly, of being paternalistic. The man was either ruthless or shrewd, depending on your point of view, but there’s no arguing that he worshipped the bottom line above all else, which eventually led to a drumbeat of accusations that he was cheating his artists. In his book, Gordy flatly denies the charges:
The reason this accusation bothered me so much was I had made every effort to ensure that people would be paid everything due them. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was good business.
What was due them was clearly defined in our contracts. When our royalty rates were questioned, I checked it out and reconfirmed that (my sister) Esther had originally patterned our contracts after United Artists’…
The systems…made sure that every cent of an artist’s earnings was paid to them and that all expenses charged to them – like session costs – were authorized and correct.
This has a strong whiff of lawyerese and it is, as we’ll see, disingenuous at best. When Motown artists started getting wise, they demanded more money, sued to get out of their contracts, or simply jumped to more generous record companies. These defections inspired a jeremiad from Gordy that made him sound like the owner of a professional sports franchise who’d grown accustomed to owning athletes for life and woke up one morning to the cold reality of free agency:
In these changing times, the value of a proven artist was skyrocketing into the multimillions. And when a label decided to acquire someone else’s artist, one who was already under contract, something once frowned on as unethical, it was now tolerated. I had a problem with that. I had a problem anteing up more every time an artist we had developed got a better offer. To me it became values versus value. I began to realize there was a major conflict within me between my values and the artists’ value. Perhaps stubbornly, I would not always pay what it would take to get them to stay. That might have been a mistake.
To get to the truth about how Motown treated its artists – and how that treatment helped destroy the company – you need to read on.
2. Where Did Our Love Go?
In 1985, two years after Motown celebrated its 25th birthday with a splashy television special, the seasoned music journalist Nelson George published one of the best books ever written about Gordy and his creation, Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound.
Among the book’s many virtues is the way it places Motown in the historical context of American pop music and black enterprise. It also makes a compelling case, through dogged reporting, that Gordy did indeed have many of his artists, especially the young ones, locked into onerous contracts. Nelson has a keen ear and he recaptures the many elements that contributed to the magic of a Motown recording session, not only the drums, electric guitars and bass, horns and strings, but also the hand claps, foot stomps, cowbells, tambourines, all of it in service to those sublime vocals. Perhaps best of all, the book gives long-overdue praise to the people who were the key to the Motown sound – the house band known as the Funk Brothers, who Gordy refused to credit on album covers until Marvin Gaye’s smash 1971 concept album, What’s Going On. “Nobody outside Detroit knew all the players by name,” George writes, “but they may have been the best band in America.” The band’s bassist, James Jamerson, was arguably the greatest musician to come out of Motown. (For an expanded treatment of the Funk Brothers’ story, check out the 2002 documentary Standing In the Shadows of Motown, which opens by stating the astonishing fact that this unknown band played on more #1 hits than the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis combined.)
Martha Reeves claims she was the first Motown artist to complain about miniscule royalties, and in time she had plenty of company. In 1964 Mary Wells successfully sued to get out of her original contract, which she had signed when she was 17. After the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” hit #1 that year, George writes, “Berry quickly had them sign a new contract, with visions of Mary Wells no doubt dancing in his head. In August, (the Supremes) signed a document Motown labeled the ‘Second Recording Agreement.’ One can’t say that they renegotiated their contract, since none of the three was represented by a lawyer. Motown had them sign the deal that Motown wanted, and what Motown wanted was total control with a minimum of risk – in fact, this contract would become a model for all future Motown contracts.”
In her memoir, Dreamgirl, Mary Wilson of the Supremes noted that the group received a 3 percent royalty on record sales, which was split evenly among the three members. If a record sold 1 million copies, Wilson wrote, each singer would receive a check for $5,000. Where did the other $485,000 in profits go?
It wasn’t that everyone was broke. People were living large, dressing well, getting high. Cadillacs were gridlocked in front of Hitsville, and David Ruffin of the Temptations went so far as to have his upholstered with mink. But there was a growing suspicion that the artists were generating a lot more money than any of them were seeing. No one felt more suspicious than the prolific songwriting and producing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, or H-D-H, who had penned “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack,” “Baby Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go?,” “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,” and many other timeless hits.
“H-D-H’s proficiency won them awards, respect, and money,” George writes. “They should have been happy. Yet bubbling under the surface was the uneasy feeling that, considering all the capital they were generating, all the acts they had helped make marketable live commodities…and the musical identity they had given Motown, maybe they should have been given a bigger piece.”
When that bigger piece wasn’t forthcoming, H-D-H mimicked a practice common to Detroit’s automobile assembly lines. They went into a production slowdown. Gordy, furious, sued them for $4 million for breach of contract in 1968. H-D-H counter-sued for $22 million. It was war. And to quote the #1 Edwin Starr song: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. It was, in fact, the beginning of the end of Motown.
3. Music, Money, Sex, Power, and Litigation
The paperwork from the drawn-out legal war between Motown and H-D-H now fills more than 20 file cabinets in the basement of the Wayne County Court in Detroit. Other litigation fills more file cabinets to bursting, both in Detroit and at the Los Angeles Superior Court. These staggering facts are among hundreds that enliven Gerald Posner’s superb 2002 book with an unfortunately generic title and subtitle, Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power.
Posner states that these archives of the company’s many legal battles were the single most important source of information for his book because “few relationships between the label and its artists, producers, songwriters, and executives did not eventually end up in court.” It wasn’t just H-D-H; it was also Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Teena Marie, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, and many others. But the H-D-H suit was the longest and costliest, in terms of both money and good will. Though Gordy largely prevailed in the settlement, Posner described the battle as a “major mistake.”
Posner’s research, even more rigorous than George’s, leaves little doubt about just how insidious Motown’s paternalism turned out to be. Posner illustrates, chapter and verse, that the boilerplate Motown contracts were, contrary to Gordy’s claims, onerous even by the standards of an industry long known for treating its creative artists like chattel. And it went much deeper than low royalty payments. As Posner writes:
Gordy insisted to anyone who would listen that his original contracts…were on par with standard deals in the industry… Gordy invariably ignored the fact that his contracts made his artists responsible for some costs that record companies themselves might otherwise pick up, including studio recording time, the musicians, the charm-school teachers, the chaperones, all touring costs, and even the costumes and makeup for live shows. Gordy prided himself on giving cash advances to acts that needed it, but of course they were guaranteed by future royalties and also came with a profitable interest rate…
Further, since (Motown) managed all the artists, there was an apparent conflict of interest of which few artists were aware… Motown’s management banked the money for its acts and even paid their taxes, with many of the artists never seeing their own tax returns.
As Otis Williams of the Temptations put it, “The tack Berry took with his artists when it came to money was an extension of his attitude toward them in general: he believed he knew what was best for us.”
But it went beyond paternalism and dubious business practices. Gordy never made a secret of his infatuation with Diana Ross or his desire, long before they became lovers, to make her the biggest pop star on the planet. The preferential treatment he gave her – and the resentment it fostered among other Motown acts – proved to be a major drag on morale. His decision to move the company from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, a rebuke that many Detroiters of a certain age will never forgive, can be tied directly to Gordy’s desire to break into the movies, that is, to make Diana Ross a movie star. These misguided moves finished what the H-D-H legal war had begun.
4. Ready For a Brand New Beat
The newest addition to Motown Lit is Mark Kurlanksky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America. As its subtitle suggests, Kurlanksy sets out to make a case that the 1964 dance hit by Martha and the Vandellas became the battle cry for the various movements that began to convulse American society in the mid-1960s, the pushes for civil rights, women’s rights, black power, environmentalism, an end to the Vietnam War.
I’m sorry. Much as I love the song “Dancing in the Streets,” I’m afraid I can’t buy Kurlansky’s grandiose claim about its impact. To make matters worse, this book is mostly canned third-hand history, and it has more padding than the back seat of a Buick Roadmaster.
As Kurlansky and others have pointed out, Gordy and his company were only marginally involved in various political movements of the ’60s. While Detroit was burning – the 1967 riot that left 43 dead was centered a few blocks from Hitsville – the factory kept cranking out boy-meets-girl songs like “You’re My Everything” and “I Was Made to Love Her.” Martha Reeves was hardly a social activist. When she and the Vandellas recorded “Dancing in the Street,” she was a cloistered Detroit woman in her early twenties who had recently been working as a secretary at Motown. Even Kurlansky admits she was “genuinely apolitical.” When it came to politics, Reeves said, “I wasn’t involved.” Mary Wells coined an expression for the cocoon that Hitsville became: she called it “the Motown bubble.”
I’m innately suspicious of writers who claim that a particular year, or decade, or song, or event was emblematic of a change in the course of human history – unless it’s something as momentous as the dropping of the atom bomb or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Kurlanksky obviously doesn’t share my suspicions. In addition to Ready for a Brand New Beat, he wrote a book called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. (A writer of catholic interests, he has also written books about Hank Greenberg, cod, salt, oysters and Clarence Birdseye.)
You can hear Kurlansky straining for effect when he tries to make the case that a light-hearted party song became, despite its innocent intentions, the anthem for urban rioters and other malcontents at a pivotal moment in American history:
By the end of the summer of 1964, the entire tone of the 1960s had changed: America was almost a different country, and “Dancing in the Street,” born on the cusp, one of the few Motown songs that was not about love and heart-ache, was going to make the transition to the new and much more harsh America.
This is specious, to say the least, but Kurlansky outdoes himself with this:
The spark that set off the Detroit riots was on Twelfth Street, an almost entirely black neighborhood where the Funk Brothers often worked out passages for the next day’s tracks at the Chit Chat Lounge. Though no survivors can recall, it would be a great irony if the celebrated track for “Dancing in the Street” had been worked out at the Chit Chat, where the Detroit riot that tied itself to the song began. The club was beloved in the neighborhood, and when Twelfth Street was leveled by violence, the Chit Chat was untouched.
I’ve read those sentences half a dozen times and I still can’t fathom why this would be a great irony. Or how a riot ties itself to a song.
The “Motown bubble” didn’t burst until the late ’60s and early ’70s, after Gordy had begun the shift to Los Angeles and the company released such songs as “War,” “What’s Going On,” “Cloud Nine,” “Love Child,” “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Ball of Confusion.” These songs exhibited a timeliness and relevance to larger social issues that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. As great as the songs were, they were too little, too late. Gordy was focusing on movies – that is, on turning Diana Ross into a movie star – and Motown was sliding toward a reduced status as “just another record company,” as Nelson George put it. By 1988 Gordy was forced by mounting debts to sell the company. He got $61 million – and retained control of the cash cow publishing company. Not bad for an original investment of $800. But it could have been so much sweeter.
This little nostalgia trip I went on, triggered by Detroit’s bankruptcy, then the Broadway musical, a second viewing of Standing In the Shadows of Motown, and these various books – it’s been a strange journey. I played all my scratchy old Motown LPs as I read through these books, and the music brought back an avalanche of memories. At first the memories made me want to dance, the way I used to dance at Motown Revues in Detroit’s Fox Theatre and at raucous throwdowns at the Grande Ballroom. Then, as the memories grew darker, they made me want to holler. In the end, the twinned tragedies of Motown and Detroit make me want to cry.