The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
A Last Gasp of Innocence
As the first wave of rock'n'roll performers was devastated by accidents, racist arrests and other disasters, sales of singles seemed to be falling. Paul Ackerman, music editor of Billboard, said that at the end of 1959 only 20 per cent of the dollar volume of the record industry was in singles, and 80 per cent in albums. It must be remembered, too, that singles were not loss leaders for albums in those days; most album artists no longer expected to have hit singles. Presley was in the army and Chuck Berry almost absent from the top forty; when the likes of Fabian had seven hits in 1959, adults had probably stopped buying singles altogether.
But the pop revolution was only taking a breather. During this transitional period people emerged who were at least able to impose a personal stamp and in some cases even integrity on their work. The writing and production of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the hit factory at Motown in Detroit and the songs of the Brill Building era appealed to the first generation of rock'n'roll fans without excessively pandering to it.
Leiber and Stoller were both from the East Coast, but met in Los Angeles as teenagers. They were enchanted by black culture, including jazz and R&B, and began writing songs for R&B acts, having been helped into the industry by Johnny Otis. Their first hit was 'Hard Times', sung by Charles Brown in 1952, and the same year they wrote 'Kansas City' for Little Willie Littlefield. It was Stoller's idea to write a blues with a melody, rather than use the familiar blues changes. They were working with Ralph Bass, who had taken his Federal label to King in 1951. Bass had produced records by Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and others, but had most of his success in R&B; he was described by Peter Guralnick as a 'flamboyant, white jive-talking hepcat'. Bass had been responsible for 'Open the Door, Richard' (1947) and several of the biggest R&B hits of 1950 by Little Esther, among others, as well as 'Sixty-minute Man' by the Dominoes (1951) and 'Work With Me Annie' by the Midnighters (1954); later he discovered James Brown, and worked at Chess in Chicago. He changed the title of 'Kansas City' to 'K.C. Lovin' ', but revived with its original title for Wilbert Harrison on the tiny Fury label in 1959: it was a number one pop hit and became a rock'n'roll classic.
Big Mama Thornton's 'Hound Dog' was the first record Leiber and Stoller produced themselves. They took over the session because their work had sometimes been misrepresented, and on this one they knew how they wanted the drums to sound; Otis was supposed to produce it, but they wanted him on drums. They formed their own Spark label and worked with the Robins, who had had an R&B hit on Savoy as early as 1950. Produced by Leiber and Stoller, the Robins had success on the West Coast with 'Framed' and 'Riot in Cell Block Number Nine', helped by Lester Sill, said to be the world's greatest record salesman: in a record shop he would pull some sand out of his pocket, throw it on the floor and do a sand dance to the record. Sill was the promo man for Modern Records, and had introduced Leiber and Stoller to the Bihari brothers at Modern, to the Messners at Aladdin, to Gene Norman, who ran jazz and blues concerts, and to Bass.
Spark did not have national distribution, but 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' was picked up by Atlantic for their subsidiary Atco label, became an R&B hit in 1955 and crossed over to pop. The Robins' management were not satisfied with the new business arrangement, so Leiber and Stoller formed a hand-picked group called the Coasters, whom they later described as a bunch of comedians. They did what they did with no thought of making history, but above all because it was fun. And the original Coasters -- lead singer Carl Gardner and bass Bobby Nunn from the Robins, tenor Leon Hughes and baritone Billy Guy -- had as much fun as they did.
The first big hit in May 1957 was a two-sided one: 'Young Blood' reached the top ten, but the flip side rose even higher: 'Searchin' ' was an unusual Coasters hit, in that it was done quickly at the end of a recording session, just to make four sides. Most of their recordings should have sounded overproduced, but somehow did not -- they were meticulously spliced together from many takes to make a fast, aural cartoon strip. (Leiber and Stoller compared them to little radio plays.) They did as much as anything in the period to transcend race. The funniest and biggest hit was 'Yakety Yak' (1958), about nagging parents and a sassy kid. The father is played by Will 'Dub' Jones's deep voice:
Don't you give me no dirty looks!
In 'Charlie Brown' a high-school boy shoots craps in the boys' gym, smokes in the auditorium and complains 'Why is everybody always pickin' on me?' 'Along Came Jones' was about a cowboy movie hero coming to the rescue. Leiber and Stoller said to Ted Fox, 'What could be funnier than a bunch of black cats doing a send-up of a bunch of white cowboys? ... The most fun we ever had ... was with the Coasters. We'd be falling on the floor -- all of us -- staggering around the room holding our bellies because we were laughing so hard.'
After writing hits for Presley, Leiber and Stoller were hired by Jerry Wexler at Atlantic as independent producers, the first such arrangement in the record business. The Drifters had had a string of top ten R&B hits with lead singer Clyde McPhatter, who began a solo career in 1955; the story is that the Drifters had gone cold, but after all those hits, maybe they just wanted more of the money. They had some success in 1956-7, then were re-formed by their manager George Treadwell, who owned the name and distributed the cash. New lead singers included Johnny Moore, Bobby Hendricks and bass-baritone Ben E. King (also a songwriter), who sang the lead on 'There Goes My Baby' in 1959.
Leiber and Stoller produced 'There Goes My Baby', which they wrote under the pseudonym Elmo Glick, along with King and Lover Patterson, and Treadwell took some credit as well. (That kind of payola was still not against the law, and never will be.) 'There Goes My Baby' was the first R&B record to have strings: Stoller invented a line on the piano that needed unison violins and cellos. The beat was a Brazilian baion, which Leiber and Stoller had been fond of since 'Anna' in 1953, and thereafter influenced pop music for several years; and timpani were played out of tune by an R&B drummer. It was an experimental date since the planned material had not worked out, and the group seemed to be singing in a different key from the backing; Leiber described the result as sounding like a radio bringing in two different stations at once. Wexler thought it was so bad that (it was said) he threw a tuna fish sandwich at the wall. But Tommy Dowd, Atlantic's brilliant engineer, tinkered with it, and it became the Drifters' first crossover top ten pop hit, and launched the new, better-known Drifters.
King had started with the Moonglows, and joined the Five Crowns in 1957, who became the new Drifters in 1958; he left the Drifters to pursue a solo career because he was being paid practically nothing. Leiber and Stoller helped him with his 'Stand By Me', a pop hit (and a hit again over twenty-five years later, when it was used in a film of the same title). It was during this period that Leiber and Stoller spent some time at RCA, gave Phil Spector work as a favour to Lester Sill and also helped the Brill Building songwriters with their hits. They would demand rewrites as necessary for the sake of the finished product: Doc Pomus rewrote part of 'Save the Last Dance for Me', the Drifters' first number one pop hit, and Carole King part of 'Up on the Roof', her Drifters hit of 1963.
Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic, had hits on United Artists and then decided to do it themselves, but records on their Daisy and Tiger labels disappeared without trace because they were released during the period of John F. Kennedy's assassination. They formed Red Bird Records in 1964 with George Goldner, and delegated much of the production to George 'Shadow' Morton (another legend of the period). They had hit after hit with girl groups, starting with a spectacular number one, 'Chapel of Love' by the Dixie Cups (written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector). The black female trio from New Orleans had five hits in two years, the most interesting being the last, 'Iko Iko', which had a simple call-and-response pattern and a percussive backing, like an African children's song. The Shangri-las, two sets of sisters from a high school in Queens, New York, had eleven hits in three years, including the death song 'Leader of the Pack'. This playlet about a biker boyfriend who gets killed (motorcycle noises and a crash are heard on the record) had an answer song, 'Leader of the Laundromat' by the Detergents (on Roulette, in which Goldner no doubt still had an interest).
Leiber and Stoller grew bored with Red Bird and sold it to Goldner for a dollar. They were already bored with Elvis Presley. They admired his voice and his knowledge of R&B and country music, but they had to shut themselves up in a room to write the songs for the film Jailhouse Rock in one afternoon, and after that the films got worse, so that it was no longer any fun. In 1962 they wrote 'I'm a Woman' for Peggy Lee, and later 'Is That All There Is?' (inspired by the Thomas Mann novella Disillusionment) which was arranged by Randy Newman, then unknown. Johnny Mercer said to Leiber, 'Kid, you finally wrote a good song.' They had started out with profound admiration for writers like Gershwin and Cole Porter, but thought all the standards had been written. While writing songs for Peggy Lee was not as much easy fun as writing jokes for the Coasters, it may have been more gratifying.
Already famous, and having written perhaps fifty pop hits, in the following decades Leiber and Stoller applied their theatrical sense and expanded musical vocabulary to new genres. 'Is That All There Is?' and 'Longings for a Simpler Time' were intended for an experimental play in the 1960s; 'Humphrey Bogart', a send-up of cinema idolatry, and 'I Ain't Here', about a black domestic servant working in a white middle-class home, were both meant for another production in the 1970s. 'Tango', about a murder, was 'provoked' by an obituary for actor Ramon Navarro. 'I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues', they said, was 'as simple and straightforward a song of joy as Jerry Leiber is capable of writing'. These and others were recorded by pianist William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris for an album called Other Songs by Leiber and Stoller (1978). Bolcom and Morris have made albums of the works of Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Berlin and others, as well as collections of hit songs from Edwardian vaudeville and the golden age of Tin Pan Alley -- pretty good company for the men who wrote 'Hound Dog', but of course there was not as much money in it. Most of their erstwhile fans probably thought they had retired.
Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were all born between 1939 and 1942, mostly in New York, and all except Spector became songwriters in the neighbourhood of the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan, which had been part of the heart of Tin Pan Alley (Fats Waller once had an office there) and became the generic name of an era of pop. It began across the street, where Aldon Music was located. Aldon consisted of Al Nevins and Don Kirshner: Nevins was an experienced older man, originally one of the Three Suns, and Kirshner, not much older than the writers he hired, had the key to the youth market of the period. Most of these writers have also made records: Diamond had 36 hits in the Billboard pop chart (1966-83); Sedaka, who also plays piano, had 13 top 40 hits (1959-63); Carole King made albums of her own songs, her 1971 Tapestry remaining a landmark of pop.
The time when teenagers, especially girls, went to the record shop and bought the latest record by Perry Como, Frankie Laine or Eddie Fisher, whatever it was and whoever had written the song, was over. Record buyers in the early 1960s became aware of the songwriters and producers (though it was not until the 1970s that Billboard, always a few years behind, began to include this information on its charts). The Brill Building era was the beginning of a new singer-songwriter genre, in itself a good thing.
Sedaka (with Howard Greenfield, another successful writer) wrote 'Stupid Cupid' for Connie Francis, a 1958 hit whose irritation quotient was exceeded by 'Lipstick on Your Collar' the next year (by Edna Lewis and George Goehring). Francis has to be mentioned here somewhere, for she had over fifty Billboard Hot 100 entries in ten years and represented a transition from the period of early 1950s jingle-pop, with a foot in each camp: her hits were either junk like those named above, or revivals of chestnuts like 'Who's Sorry Now' (1923) and 'Among My Souvenirs' (1928). Her backing groups usually sounded like slick aspirants for a Las Vegas cabaret spot.
Sedaka himself was not much of an improvement. He wrote 'Oh! Carol' about King (who wrote 'Oh! Neil', which flopped), as well as 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do'. Neil Diamond was a notch above this, writing 'Sunday and Me' for Jay and the Americans, and later 'I'm a Believer' for the Monkees; he had a duet hit with Barbra Streisand in 1978 with 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers'. He wrote songs for a film of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973), one of the wettest cultural artefacts of the most self-indulgent period in American history, and for his own remake of The Jazz Singer (1980) which was widely panned, but both albums sold very well. Remarkably, Diamond is still selling albums to aging boomers; his Home Before Dark was a huge retail hit in 2008.
Kirshner was a personal friend of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, who increasingly appealed to the middle-aged audience both as a duo and separately, and who were hip enough to sing a good song no matter where it came from. Hence Barry Mann (with Hank Hunter) wrote 'Footsteps' for Lawrence, Mann and Weil wrote 'Blame It on the Bossa Nova' for Gormé; Goffin and King wrote 'Go Away, Little Girl', a hit for Lawrence which has been revived several times since, and 'I Want to Stay Here', a duet hit. The successes of the Brill Building era ranged from Jeff Barry's death song 'Tell Laura I Love Her' (for Ray Peterson in 1960) to Mann and Weil's 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' (for the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, the inventors of blue-eyed soul, in 1964) and Barry, Greenwich and Spector's 'River Deep -- Mountain High' (for Ike and Tina Turner, in 1966). Ray Peterson's second and last top ten single, 'Corinna, Corinna' (also 1960), was produced by Phil Spector, because Leiber and Stoller were busy, and the Hatfield and Turner tracks were Spector's as well. Those six years represent the rise and fall of Spector, who was the other producer, with Leiber and Stoller, of the girl groups, a genre all by itself.
Spector began in high school in Los Angeles with the Teddy Bears, writing and singing in a trio. 'To Know Him, Is To Love Him', an extremely slow, mournful song suggested by the inscription on his father's tombstone, became a huge pop hit in 1958. He worked with Lester Sill and Lee Hazlewood in Phoenix. Hazlewood was another successful producer of the period who, with session guitarist Al Casey, began experimenting with studio techniques; they were the ones who recorded Sanford Clark's 'The Fool', leasing it to Dot. They formed the Jamie label and developed minimalist guitarist Duane Eddy, who obligingly played melodies (such as they were) on the bass strings while the sound was drenched in echo; the biggest of twenty Eddy hits was 'Rebel Rouser'. The production gimmicks that Hazlewood was developing were useful to Spector when he went east to work with Leiber and Stoller. Among other things, he wrote Ben E. King's hit 'Spanish Harlem' with Leiber, but he walked out on his contract with them, using as an excuse the fact that he had been a minor when he signed it.
Spector then formed the Philles label with Sill, for which Johnny Mathis's manager Helen Noga put up the money. The first release was 'There's No Other (Like My Baby)' by the Crystals, a female vocal quintet from Brooklyn, which reached the top 20. At the same time Spector had taken an A&R job at Liberty; after learning that Liberty was going to record Gene Pitney's 'He's a Rebel' with Vikki Carr, he beat them into the shops with the Crystals, and the sixth release on Philles reached number one. Of the first twenty Philles numbers, at least fifteen were hits, which would have been an astonishing achievement in any decade; Spector bought out his partners and was a millionaire at the age of 21.
Part of his success was due to his instinct that the day of the girl groups had arrived, and part to his production style. Some of the Crystals' recordings ('He's a Rebel' among them) were not by the Crystals at all; Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans had Darlene Love singing lead, who was also a solo artist and lead singer on some of the Crystals' recordings. The Ronettes were a trio who had worked professionally since junior high school, and sang back-up for Spector. He fell in love with Veronica Bennett, the lead singer, and did his best to make a star out of her. Eight of the Ronettes' records made the Hot 100, but only 'Be My Baby' the top twenty. (He was married to Ronnie from 1966 to 1975.)
Spector overproduced on purpose. 'Uptown', written by Mann and Weil, had an interesting theme: a boy who might be black works downtown in a menial job, but he is nothing there; when he goes uptown, where the real people live, to visit his girlfriend, she makes him feel important. Kirshner didn't like it, but the Crystals took it into the top fifteen; the backing consisted of strings, a strummed mandolin, castanets, flamenco guitar, a feisty bass part and sandpaper blocks. Few noticed that it had no drums. But it was with Barry, Greenwich and Spector's songs 'Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)' followed by 'Then He Kissed Me' that Spector's 'wall of sound' was perfected. He jammed a studio so full of instruments and musicians that there was nowhere to move; he wanted to record everything in one take, reserving overdubs for repeating sounds, just to make them bigger. He did plenty of that; in those days overdubs created a good deal of tape hiss, but that could be covered up with echo. The result, combined with the songs, made a complete melodrama in less than three minutes. The sound grabbed the listener; it was compelling as it came out of the era's tiny transistor radios, but it was not a good model and has dated badly. The engineer and the producer traditionally tried to make the best recording they could, so that a great many records made over sixty years ago can still sound good today, but Spector's records still sound like they are trying to come out of a tiny, tinny speaker. You feel instant nostalgia for the period if you are the right age, but the music does not breathe, and becomes claustrophobic.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin's 'The Loco-motion' was a hit for Little Eva (Boyd), their babysitter; they were amused by a dance she did while they were playing the piano at home. It hit the charts the day after Eva's seventeenth birthday. Goffin and King were probably the most talented of the Brill Building crowd. Aldon's house label was Dimension, and 'Loco-motion' appeared on that label, as did King and Goffin's 'Chains' by the Cookies (which was soon covered by the Beatles).
One of their best was 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' (1960) for the Shirelles. A daring song for the time, it addressed a real problem, as opposed to puppy love: the girl wants to give her boyfriend what he wants, but will he still be around after she has lost her 'reputation'? The Shirelles were a black quartet, and almost the only girl group of the era not created by either Leiber and Stoller or Phil Spector (although Leiber and Stoller produced some of their records). Their manager, Florence Greenberg, issued 'I Met Him On a Sunday', which they had written themselves, on her tiny Tiara label; having been picked up by Decca, it was a minor hit in 1958, the beginning of the girl group genre. Greenberg formed the Scepter label and the group had twenty-five more hits, including 'Dedicated to the One I Love' (which was written by Lowman Pauling of the '5' Royales -- though Ralph Bass was also credited -- and revived a few years later by the Mamas and the Papas) and 'Baby It's You', by Mack David and Burt Bacharach (also covered by the Beatles).
Bacharach soon teamed with Mack's brother, Hal David. They wrote a great many songs for Dionne Warwick, who was also a Scepter artist and had 38 hits on that label, beginning in 1962 with Bacharach and David's 'Don't Make Me Over'. Bacharach and David are often included in the Brill Building set, but they outlived it; some of their songs became cabaret classics and used a wider musical vocabulary than that to which pop was already restricting itself. Many of the records of the era, in fact, written by and aimed exclusively at young people (Goffin and King had married at nineteen and were writing from personal experience), have a sameness and a lack of adventure about them -- they often suggest the shuffle beat that seemed to be the arranger's favourite in those years, and in any case the cluttered production tends to preclude any chance of swing. In Spector's production of Darlene Love's '(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry', written by Ellie Greenwich and Tony Powers, and a top 40 hit in 1963, a glockenspiel delicately accompanies the vocal; Spector, who had begun his career as a teenager himself (and perhaps remained one), understood the lies that kids allowed themselves to believe. But the songs are sometimes better than the records. Goffin and King went on to write '(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman' for Aretha Franklin, one of the classics of the soul era, which was already under way.
Mann and Weil's 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ' (1964), recorded by the Righteous Brothers, presaged the soul era. Although Hatfield and Medley were white boys, they had the right feeling; the record was number one for two weeks, and almost reached the top of the black chart as well. Their versions of 'Just Once in My Life', 'Unchained Melody' and 'Ebb Tide', full of soul even in Spector's production, also did well in both charts. They left Spector, saying that they wanted more control over their own work, and never did as well again.
Meanwhile, the experienced Ike Turner had met Annie Mae Bullock, married her in 1958 and developed the Ike and Tina Turner Revue around her. Their black hits began to cross over, and Spector produced them on 'River Deep -- Mountain High', which he co-wrote with Barry and Greenwich. Perhaps the song and its title were too obscure for the pop market; perhaps Spector had made many enemies. It was claimed that the record was too black for white radio and too white for black radio. It stalled at number eighty-eight in the pop chart, and Spector, resentful and increasingly reclusive, effectively retired, and has since been only intermittently active.
In the spring of 1963, after sweeping the BMI awards, Nevins and Kirshner sold Aldon Music to Columbia Pictures--Screen Gems, and Kirshner took over Colpix Records. Mini-eras in pop were ending almost as soon as they began, while Kirshner began his descent into complete banality. If it was not true in the late 1950s that the people who were buying rock'n'roll records had zero per cent of the nation's buying power, it was true by the late 1960s that Kirshner and others were selling comic-strip records to pre-teen children by groups that did not even exist. Jeff Barry thought of the songs they were all writing in the early 1960s as 'ear candy'; he took his craftsmanship to Kirshner's Hollywood bubble-gum empire, and wrote 'Sugar, Sugar' for the Archies, who were cartoon characters. In 1969 it was the fastest-selling single in RCA's history.
Barry Mann was disappointed by the fate of 'Only in America', which he had written for the Drifters: 'Only in America, land of opportunity, do they save the seat in the back of the bus just for me.' Jerry Wexler made him rewrite it to the effect that only in America can anybody become president. The Drifters recorded it, but R&B DJs would not play it. It was finally a hit for Jay and the Americans, a white group.
Gerry Goffin thought that 'Go Away Little Girl', originally written for Bobby Vee, 'should have died in the closet ... I was never happy with the song, but I am happy with the money I received on it.' Early on he asked himself, 'Am I going to have to write this shit until I'm thirty-two?' But by the time he was thirty-two the era was over, and they had all moved on to other things. As with Leiber and Stoller, Goffin's later work included biting lyrics and adult emotions; if America had had anything like the thriving Broadway stage it had once had, some of these people might have continued to be the voices of their generation, as both they and their contemporaries matured. Carole King's style as pianist and vocalist was an acquired taste, but there was no denying the wide popularity of her songs, and the singer-songwriter genre remained important for a decade. In the meantime, other things were happening, in England, in Newport, once again in Memphis and, most immediately, in Detroit.
No one could have predicted that an unskilled car-factory worker one generation removed from the cotton fields would be one of the most successful black businessmen in American history; nor that black music would invent its own brand of pop, immeasurably popular with the white audience, and still loved by it decades later. Berry Gordy left school at the age of sixteen to become a professional boxer, after working out with a Golden Gloves winner named Jackie Wilson, but his light weight kept him from being a contender. He later worked in his father's printing and plastering businesses, and frequented Detroit clubs at night. He had a jazz record shop in 1953 but went broke because Detroiters did not want jazz, but rhythm and blues; so in 1955 Gordy joined a Ford assembly line for $86.40 a week. And he began writing songs.
When Clyde McPhatter left Billy Ward's Dominoes to join the Drifters in 1953, he was replaced by Jackie Wilson. Gordy's old sparring partner became a soloist in 1957 and had hits with three Gordy songs: 'Reet Petite', 'That Is Why (I Love You So)' and 'I'll Be Satisfied'. Gordy was still an inexperienced writer, but Wilson's genuinely warm personality, his crowd-pleasing act and, above all, his big, beautiful and supple voice made him a star. 'Reet Petite' is not much of a song, and the big-band backing on the record has dated, but the joy in Wilson's glorious voice is unforgettable.
Wilson was a hard worker, and after suffering a massive heart attack on stage he remained in a coma for eight years before he died; 'Reet Petite' was reissued for a number one hit in Britain in 1986. As Nelson George points out in his history of the Motown sound, Where Did Our Love Go? (1985), the records included elements both lyrical and musical which would later become part of the hallmark Motown sound, for example, the use of the tambourine on the drum beat. George notes that 'the lyric of "That Is Why" is full of specifics about relationships, something Gordy would later preach'.
But as any writer will tell you, having a few hits does not bring in vast amounts of money. With the help of his second wife, Raynoma Liles, who had been a musical child prodigy, Gordy went into production; their Rayber Voices were available for backing. Detroit vocalist Mary Johnson's 'Come to Me' was Berry Gordy's first release, on Tamla 101. It was picked up by the United Artists label in early 1959, and reached the top 30 of the pop chart, and the top ten of the R&B chart; among other Gordy and Johnson records were 'You Got What It Takes' and 'I Love the Way You Love' (1959-60). According to George, however, Gordy's income was $27.70 a week in 1959, taking into account $1,000 for 'Lonely Teardrops', one of Wilson's biggest hits.
Gordy's big hit songs were earning him a fraction of what he earned on a Ford assembly line; that is what the music business is still like, the business that Gene Lees scolds and Joe Smith defends. Billy Davis and Berry's sister Gwen Gordy had started the Anna label, named for another sister, which was distributed by Chess in Chicago; 'Money (That's What I Want)', by Barrett Strong, became their biggest hit, and they kept more of the profits, because the song was co-written by Gordy and the record produced by him as well. The next step was clear: forming Motown.
The first release from Tamla-Motown in mid-1959 was 'Way Over There', by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; Amos Milburn, Mabel John (sister of R&B Star Little Willie John) and Singing Sammy Ward generated cash with regional hits; in 1960 the Miracles' 'Shop Around' was number one in the R&B chart and two in the pop chart, and the company never looked back, becoming the success story of the new decade: it had 110 singles in the pop top ten between 1961 and 1971. Gordy's accomplishment was to become more successful than Mitch Miller in the previous decade, and there are more areas of comparison than just record sales. Gordy's hand was as firm on the tiller as Miller's had ever been, and on the till; he had learned from his father the importance of hard work and attention to the bottom line. Berry Gordy, Sr, had come from a family of rural entrepreneurs who were too good for Georgia, where clever blacks often came to a violent end. When he first arrived in Detroit in the 1920s, he bought a house which soon had to be condemned, but that was the last time anybody ever cheated him. Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder had a hit in 1979 with 'Pops, We Love You (a Tribute to Father)', on Gordy Sr's ninetieth birthday.
The new record company became a family operation; Pops gave good advice, selected close friends were allowed in the door, and the boss made the rules. None of the Motown hits of the 1960s was certified gold, because not even the Record Industry Association of America was allowed to see the books. No talent manager would have accepted the contractual conditions that Motown artists did; it is true that the staff and the artists were paid salaries even when they were not working, but some of the artists continued being paid a salary when their records were selling in the millions.
Harvey Fuqua had formed the Moonglows in Cleveland in 1951; as vocalist, writer and producer he had been responsible for many a hit when he came to Detroit, bringing young Marvin Gaye with him. Like all small labels, Fuqua's faced the problem of how to pay for more pressings of a hit when the money came in so slowly from the distributors. Fuqua married Gwen Gordy and Gaye married Anna; they all joined the family firm, while another sister worked in the billing department.
A&R director was William 'Mickey' Stevenson, who had earlier failed to get the local black bourgeoisie to invest in a black Motor-town record company. He knew that the product had to be polished to be successful, and that jazz musicians were more skilful than bluesmen. Local musicians became Motown staff members and worked for less than scale on the promise (hardly kept) that they would be able to make jazz records as well. Barney Ales, vice-president in charge of distribution, was the only white person on the staff. He knew distributors all over the Midwest and how to deal with them; he and Gordy were close friends, and if some of the distributors thought at first that the company was run by whites, that was good for business.
Gordy had met 17-year-old Smokey Robinson in 1957 and changed the name of his group from the Matadors to the Miracles. The first recording by Smokey and the Miracles was 'Got a Job' (an answer to the Silhouettes' 1958 hit 'Get a Job'), which Gordy had placed on the End label. Smokey, a bookish boy, had been writing poems and songs for years, and his love songs made him the favourite poet of a whole generation of Americans; the Miracles had nearly 50 Hot 100 pop hits in fifteen years. The Temptations, originally called the Primes, with such sensational co-lead singers as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin (whose brother Jimmy also had soul hits), remain perhaps the best-loved male vocal group of their generation, and had over 50 hits between 1964 and 1986. The Supremes, first called the Primettes, came from a Detroit housing project to become the most famous girl group of all: both with and without Diana Ross, they had forty-five hits from 1962 to 1976 (including those with the Four Tops or the Temptations); of seventeen top ten hits between 1964 and 1969, eleven reached number one. The Four Tops were formed in Detroit in 1954 as the Four Aims. Levi Stubbs, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, Lawrence Payton and Abdul 'Duke' Fakir refused to be typecast, leaving Motown and later returning. Basically a first-class cabaret act, they had 44 pop hits before 1983 and were still performing in the 1990s in their original lineup.
Martha Reeves was a secretary at Motown; already an experienced singer, she sang in the backing group on Marvin Gaye's records, then formed a trio, Martha and the Vandellas, which had 23 hits on the Gordy label in eight years. Their 'Dancing in the Street' was number two in 1964, the year of the riots in America's ghettos; nothing more or less than a joyous pop anthem, it was suspected by American puritans of being an incitement to insurrection. The favourite Motown star of all may be Mary Wells, said to be the first to record on Motown, whose 13 hits in four years included 'My Guy', written and produced by Smokey Robinson. Unable to take Gordy's patronizing attitude, she left in 1964 and had hits on several other labels. Gladys Knight and the Pips, a family group from Atlanta, first recorded for Brunswick when Gladys was 14; by the mid-1980s they had had over forty hits, mostly on Gordy's Soul label, among them their majestic 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' (1967).
The Jackson Five were a male quintet managed by their father, and began in Gary, Indiana, in 1967, when the youngest, Michael, was only nine. It may have been Gladys Knight who recommended them to Motown, but Gordy gave the credit to Diana Ross. They were one of the biggest acts in show business during the 1970s, and their first four singles in 1969-70 all reached number one. After leaving Motown for Epic in 1976, they had to call themselves the Jacksons, because Gordy had tied up the name. Little Stevie Wonder, born blind in Detroit, signed with Tamla-Motown when he was ten; he played harmonica, sang back-up and was the office prankster, but he was learning all the time. His hits began in 1963 and had totalled over 90 by 1993; he is still with the firm. And there were hits by Junior Walker and the All Stars, the Marvelettes, the Velvelettes, the Contours, the Isley Brothers, Brenda Holloway and others.
Eddie Holland looked like becoming another Sam Cooke; his 'Jamie' was a top ten R&B hit and reached the top 30 in the pop chart in 1962. But he hated performing, and started writing and producing with his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier. The legend 'Holland-Dozier-Holland' appeared under the title on scores of Motown records, including seventeen hits in a row for the Supremes. They fought with Gordy for royalties and left on bad terms; the husband and wife team of (Nickolas) Ashford and (Valerie) Simpson took up some of the slack, writing duet hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and for Diana Ross when she began her solo career.
The Motown show had soon gone on the road, promoting the records but also generating income which helped make up for late payments from distributors. Strict conditions of behaviour were laid down and an eye was kept on expenses; the acts were taught manners, deportment and stagecraft by Maxine Powell, who ran a Detroit finishing school, and Cholly Atkins, a legendary Broadway choreographer who was teaching nearly every act that appeared at the Apollo: he knew that Motown was a black-owned company and wanted to see it grow.
There were tragedies along the way. Drummer Benny Benjamin and especially bass player James 'Jamie' Jamerson created some of the most influential pop sounds of the decade, but both had fatal weaknesses for alcohol. Florence Ballard, co-founder and original lead singer of the Supremes, was squeezed out when she resented Gordy's grooming of Diana Ross for greater stardom; her solo career failed and she died of drug abuse. But the greatest tragedy was that of Marvin Gaye.
Stevie Wonder and Gaye were the only Motown artists to get their own way in the Gordy empire. When Wonder turned twenty-one the company owed him a lot of money, and it became apparent how much he had learned over the years: he was the master of increasingly sophisticated studio techniques. (Whether this is a good thing is debatable: in 1988 one of Wonder's concerts had to be postponed when somebody swiped his Synclavier discs containing backing tracks.) He soon dictated his terms to Berry Gordy, who would have been a fool not to accept them.
Gaye had duet hits with Tammi Terrell, among others; a beautiful girl with a wonderful voice, she died of a brain tumour in 1970 in her early twenties. After this shattering blow Gaye wanted to make concept albums, both brooding and personal and also containing social statements: What's Going On (1971) reached number six in the Billboard album chart, and was said to have been influenced by letters from Gaye's older brother in Vietnam; three of its singles were hits. Let's Get It On (1973) was number two. But Gaye lacked self-confidence; he was dominated by his father, a fundamentalist clergyman and a transvestite. One of Gaye's wives was Janis Hunter, Slim Gaillard's daughter; Slim recalled Marvin's father coming downstairs in the middle of the night 'wearing a dress, with lipstick on, and carrying one of those little dogs. It was a real strange house to be in.' Marvin's life ended when his father shot him in 1984.
The production on the classic Motown hits is very tight and busy, designed like Phil Spector's to sound good on a car radio or a teenager's radio; yet they are not as claustrophobic. In the days of eight-track rather than twenty-four-track recording, Motown pioneered then difficult recording techniques which were soon widely used, such as 'punching', whereby a vocal or a saxophone solo could be brought up or down or covered by a new take. In the early days the easiest way to do this was to cut the tape, so two tapes were made of everything, for safety. The resulting hits are a goldmine -- good songs, good singing and slick production that never loses that R&B feeling in the beat. The connection with Detroit clubs and Detroit housing projects is always evident; the people who made these records could never forget where they came from. It is often hard to tell how good the hits sound when they are remastered; a CD compilation of 17 tracks distributed in the UK in 1987 called Motown's Greatest Artists: The Most-played Oldies on America's Jukeboxes has the virtue of beginning with Gladys Knight and the Pips' 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' (written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong) and ending with Marvin Gaye's even bigger hit on the same tune (later used to sell raisins). But some of the tracks sound better in the mono mode, which in turn sounds like an entirely different mix. Some fans say nothing is as good as the original 45 singles.
Gordy moved his empire to Los Angeles in 1971, and his dabbling in films was less than successful. The company grossed $40 million in 1973, but by then the glory years were over. Gordy signed a distribution deal with MCA in 1988, effectively giving up control; but nothing lasts for ever. Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, among the biggest stars in show business, all started out in the Motown stable, and the empire of the one-time Ford worker was the only American pop enterprise that probably did not even notice the British Invasion.