'Motown The Musical': How Berry Gordy turned a slogan into The Supremes

Berry Gordy Jr. changed the landscape of American music when he founded Motown Records in 1959. And Motown Records changed the landscape of the world.

On Jan. 12, 1959, the 28-year-old obtained a loan of $800 from his family to start Motown. He set up his Detroit headquarters in a modest house emblazoned with an immodest sign: “Hitsville U.S.A.” The slogan was premature, but prophetic. The company had its first hit record in 1960, and between 1961 and 1971 landed 163 singles in Billboard magazine’s Top 20, including 28 songs that reached No. 1.
Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy in 'Motown the Musical.' Photo by Joan MarcusGordy, now 87, discovered, developed, and launched the careers of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye – to name just a few – and Motown became the most successful business owned and operated by an African-American in the United States.

“The love we felt for each other when we were playing is the most undisputed truth about our music,” Gordy said. “I sometimes referred to our sound as a combination of rats, roaches, soul, guts and love.” 

Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul is told in Motown the Musical, which will be performed in Denver from March 31 through April 19 at the Buell Theatre.

Although Motown was home mostly to black artists, Gordy envisioned the music as “the sound of young America” – and by that he meant Americans of all colors and ethnicities. He started Motown just before the civil rights movement was in full flower, when neighborhoods throughout the country remained segregated, and music by black artists was mostly relegated to black radio stations and the chitin’ circuit.

But Gordy and his team of writers, producers, in-house musicians and vocalists created fresh sound, an amalgam of gospel, blues and mainstream pop. Gordy endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people, and barriers began to tumble. Motown’s artists became a staple on mainstream white radio stations and at top venues around the world. Blacks and whites were seen dancing together at concerts. 

The following is part of Gordy’s story, in his own words:

Motown The Musical 2017

Photo gallery: To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Joan Marcus.

On Motown’s unlikely rise to the top: How did you do it?
Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, I sometimes encouraged mistakes. Everything starts as an idea, and as far as I was concerned, there were no stupid ones. “Stupid” ideas are what created the light bulb, airplanes and the like. … It was an atmosphere that made you feel no matter how high your goals, they were reachable, no matter who you were. I had always figured that less than 1 percent of all the people in the world reach their full potential. I realized that by helping others reach theirs, maybe I could reach mine.

Obstacles faced by black artists prior to Motown:
The biggest obstacle faced by talented black artists was having a place to go – a record company where they would be accepted, where the records would be distributed, get played, and where they would get paid. Another obstacle was an artist having access to great material and great production in order to get a hit record.

How Motown changed the culture at white radio stations:
Most black artists, I feel, were ignored because of segregation and the music industry’s blatant pigeonholing of artists as “Rhythm and Blues,” “Rock’ n Roll” or “Pop.” When I started out, I wanted music for all people: the cops and robbers, the rich and poor, the black and white, the Jews and the Gentiles. When I went to the white radio stations to get my records played, they would laugh at me. They thought I was trying to bring black music to white people, to “cross over,” and I said, “Wait a minute; it’s not really black music. It’s music by black stars.” I refused to be categorized. They called my music all kinds of stuff: Rhythm and Blues, Soul. And I said, “Look, my music is Pop. Pop means popular. If you sell a million records, you’re popular.” And that’s what we did.

What made your music popular?
I believed it’s what’s in the grooves that counts. Our music con­veyed basic feelings, cutting through cultural and language barriers. Every project I do – records, movies, TV or Broadway play – that’s what I have in mind. It’s all the same. I felt that people were all the same, that people have so much in common, and that our similarities were so much more powerful than our differences. So we just put out our music. We worked hard to deliver to people things like joy, love, and desire, the emotions that people felt but couldn’t always express.

Motown the Musical

On reaching white audiences:
We released some of our early albums without showing the artists’ faces on them. The Marvelettes’ album Please Mr. Postman had a picture of a mailbox on it; Bye Bye Baby by Mary Wells, a love letter. We put a cartoon of an ape on the cover of the Miracles’ Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey; and an Isley Brothers album had two white lovers at the beach on its cover. This practice became less necessary as our music’s popularity started overcoming the prejudices.

The committee approach to choosing records:
In many ways, Hitsville was like growing up in the Gordy family— fierce closeness and fierce competition and constant collaboration.  I believed competition breeds champions.  I knew that competition could be a very effective tool in getting results, so I set up Quality Control, a system I had heard about at Lincoln-Mercury. The Friday morning product evaluation meetings were the lifeblood of our operation. That was when we picked the records we would release. Careers depended on the choices made those Friday mornings. Some of the employees who came to the meetings weren’t creative people, but I felt their reactions to the songs would be like those of the average record buyer. A noncreative person’s vote counted just as much as a creative person’s. I took the democratic approach because although I was in charge at Motown, I made logic the boss: no egos or politics allowed. Not even mine. And I did it because of truth. “The truth is a hit,” was what we used to say in our Quality Control meetings at Motown.

Touring the South
Things were very bad when we went to the South. I remembered in 1955 how terrified I was when I’d heard about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old kid from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Dragged from his grandfather’s home, he was beaten unmercifully, lynched and his body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that his crime was “thinking” under a white woman’s dress. Thinking! The two white men who had killed him were freed. Our first Motortown Revue started off in Washington, D.C., but as the bus approached Birmingham and other cities in the South, we were greeted with signs of  “Whites Only,” “No Coloreds Allowed.” Then our tour bus was shot at. We were aware of how tough the racial conditions could be – but my artists being shot at? All of a sudden the real world had shown its ugly face. Despite the hostility and racism we faced, we knew we were bringing joy to people. The audiences were segregated. The venues had a rope down the middle of the audience separating blacks from whites, but soon the rope was gone and black kids and white kids were dancing together to the same music. It created a bond that echoed throughout the world.

Many of the quotes above are taken with permission from Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved.”

Motown the Musical 2017: Ticket information
Through Feb. 19
The Buell Theatre
ASL, Open Caption and Audio Described performance: 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
800-641-1222 | TTY: 303-893-9582
Groups (10+): 303-446-4829

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