Motown at 50: Building an empire

 By  Peter Lindblad
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (Universal Motown)
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (Universal Motown)
The world was on fire when Motown Records was born. It was Berry Gordy, the label’s founder and a one-time boxer and auto worker, who helped get the blaze under control.

On Jan. 12, 1959, Gordy, a burgeoning songwriter who penned the hit “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, established Tamla Records, which, a year later, on April 14, 1960, would be incorporated as Motown.

As the Detroit-based company sought to establish itself in the early 1960s, the Vietnam War raged on and racial tensions reached the boiling point.

All the while, at Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters, Gordy and his cadre of songwriters and producers were perfecting what would become known as “The Motown Sound.” Adding more of a pop-oriented approach to soul and R&B, Motown would eventually dominate the charts, selling tons of records, and they did so not only by making music the people wanted, but also with a highly organized business model that operated much like the auto industry.

An empire was built from the ground up, but Motown was more than just an ultra-successful corporation. It was a social phenomenon. Motown was instrumental in changing not only music, but the world, as well.

“It was Berry Gordy and Dick Clark that integrated America,” says G.C. Cameron, ex-lead singer of The Spinners. “Yeah, it didn’t have nothing to do with a group of people coming together in a political arena saying this and that. It was a spiritual movement, and it took Mr. Clark and Mr. Gordy to hook it up, because music is what calms the savage beast and God knows, America is full of beasts.”

Before Motown could tame them, it had to grow up. And in this celebration of Motown’s 50th anniversary, we will look at the humble beginnings of the label and how some of its biggest stars broke out.

Like any other start-up company, Motown didn’t arrive fully formed and functioning at peak efficiency.

In fact, when The Marvelettes scored the label’s first #1 hit with “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961, one of that group’s members recalls that the label, understandably, was taken aback by its success. 

“They wanted a million-selling record, but then I don’t think they were prepared for a million-selling record,” says The Marvelettes’ Katherine Anderson. “Well, they did get a million-seller from these five little black girls from Inkster, Mich., and when they got it, I don’t think they really knew what to do with it because I’m thinking they may not have thought that they would have a million-selling record until years from then.”

Of course, Motown wasn’t the model of military-like efficiency it would later become. As Anderson says, “Berry was charting new waters. And so I don’t think it was thought of as being a big record company, ’cause it wasn’t big. It was small … And I don’t think that they thought or we thought it would ever have the longevity that it’s had and produce the star quality of the artists and stuff like that. I don’t think that was in Berry’s dreams, as fast as it happened. It may have been in his dreams for a long-term plan, but then us having ‘Please Mr. Postman’ opened the door for us to travel a lot faster than he had planned.”

There is some debate over what record became Motown’s first million-seller. Many believe The Miracles’ “Shop Around,” a #2 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1960, beat “Please Mr. Postman” to it. Anderson believes otherwise.

Whatever the case, when “Please Mr. Postman” arrived, Motown was only two years old, and it was still learning the art of promotion, of distribution and all the other things that go into establishing a record company. Gordy and his company, though, were fast learners.

Just a gleam in Gordy’s eye, Motown was still a ways off when he grew disenchanted with the pocket change he was earning as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson and others, like The Matadors, the group that would become The Miracles. Producing and gaining ownership of the publishing rights was where the money was at, and Gordy knew it.

Billy Davis and Gordy’s sisters, Gwen and Anna, started Anna’s Records in 1959, and they wanted Gordy to be the label’s president. But Gordy had designs on starting his own company, and with an $800 loan from his family, he established Tamla Records in January of that year.

At first, Gordy wanted to name it “Tammy” Records after the Debbie Reynolds’ song. That name was taken, however, so Tamla was born.

The next step was growing a stable of acts that would take Motown to the top. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, originally The Matadors, were the first aboard. Robinson, whose songwriting and producing would generate a flood of hits, would eventually become vice president of the company.

Among the artists who first scored hits for Motown/Tamla were Barrett Strong with “Money (That’s What I Want),” which shot to #2 on Billboard’s R&B charts. “Shop Around” was the company’s first #1 R&B smash.

Needing property and a building, Gordy bought the place that would be turned into Tamla’s Hitsville U.S.A studio. The Gordys lived on the second floor. Motown grew beyond the one house, buying up others in the neighborhood and repurposing them for administrative offices or as studios for mixing, mastering and rehearsal.

But it was songwriters and producers like Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson who would churn out the hit songs that built Motown into a monolith. And artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Supremes and the Jackson 5 became the stars who would, indeed, take Motown higher.

Subsidiary labels under the Motown umbrella sprung up, like V.I.P., Soul and one Gordy named after himself. They would launch the careers of acts like The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Jr. Walker & the All Stars and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

From afar, Weldon McDougal III watched Motown’s rise. McDougal started as a record producer in Philadelphia and he had his own doo-wop group, The Larks, which had a hit with 1961’s “It’s Unbelievable.” Plus, he was a partner in the Philly record label Harthon Productions.

McDougal got into the promotions game when a local disc jockey complained to a distributor that “ … the people who are promoting Motown records don’t know who’s on Motown,” says McDougal. “Like he had a new Marvin Gaye record and nobody knew who it was.”

The DJ recommended McDougal to the distributor, and he started working for Chips Record Distributors, which was owned by Cameo Parkway — a label that was home to Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, The Orlons and others.

With Chips, McDougal began pushing Motown product in the mid-1960s.

“They didn’t have as many hits as you’d think they would,” says McDougal. “They had maybe three or four hits when I got with them.”

But McDougal arrived at just the right time. Motown was starting to happen. “Every record they came out with was sounding good and was getting on the radio,” relates McDougal.

With McDougal’s help, Motown began selling a lot of records in Philadelphia. His close relationships with the local DJs resulted in Motown getting lots of airplay.

From there, McDougal was then asked to go to Boston to work with the R&B stations there. Again, Motown records started taking off in Boston, and so, Motown asked McDougal to work for the label directly. He accepted.

While working with Chips, McDougal admired how Motown worked.

“They were very organized,” he says. “They had a sales department who called me every week. They weren’t pushy, like, ‘You’ve got to get this played, or ‘You gotta get that played.’ They would just ask me how things were going, or what can they do to make things better, you know.”

Furthermore, according to McDougal, Motown didn’t have to resort to shady tactics to get its records played.

“I’m going to say this on record: Motown, as far as I was concerned, never dealt in payola,” says McDougal. “They never gave me no money to give anybody or I had to take money from somebody … never, never. Everything was about the records. If you didn’t like it, don’t play it. And I couldn’t force nobody to play nothing. So you had to have a personality and an understanding of music to get it played. That’s what it was all about, really.”

Not only did Motown run a ship-shape operation, but, as McDougal remembers, it was an “all for one, one for all” proposition.

Thinking back, McDougal tells how everyone would work to meet deadlines for an album cover. “Well, everybody just got on the phone and did everything they could do to get it done before time,” he says. “That’s the way it was.”

And nobody was left out when the big-name artists came to Detroit to do a show.

“All of the secretaries were invited to the shows, and they would come and bring their husbands, their families …” says McDougal.

When a luncheon was held welcoming the Jackson 5, as McDougal remembers, “ … all the families were there.”

What about behind the scenes? So many stories have surfaced about Barney Ales, not all of them portraying him in a positive light. Talking about Motown’s sales department, which he remembers as being “95 percent white,” McDougal moved on to discuss Ales. “I thought he was fair with me. He was a great guy to me. Everybody worked together, believe me. Motown wouldn’t have been the company it was if they did not work together.”

Perhaps that’s Gordy’s real genius, how he hired the right people for each and every job and got them all to push forward together as one.

For his part, former Spinners lead vocalist G.C. Cameron, who joined Motown in 1967 after serving in the Vietnam War with the Marines, compared the company to the Service organizations. 

“That was the first business, other than the Marine Corps, that I had known,” says Cameron, all of 20 years old at the time.

“Comparing it to the machine I had just left, the USMC, Semper Fi, that was an organization. And so Motown was run basically the same way … It had the same rudiment of organization and stick-to-it-iveness of getting the job done from start to finish, like any good assembly line. I’m sure Berry had put it like the Ford assembly line. You can make a machine or a product, or merchandise that will function from zero to 100 and once you get there, make sure it’s a quality product and that’s what Motown was.”

That assembly line of Motown’s sought perfection every step of the way, “ … from prepping the artists to artist development to recording to mastering and mixing or mixing and mastering, and then distribution and supply and warehouses and promotion,” says Cameron. “It had the same concept as the auto company or the aeronautical design people who sell McDonnell-Douglas, etc.”

But there were hurdles to overcome at the start, particularly the race issue. As an African-American label putting out records by African-American artists, Motown had to overcome the prejudices of white audiences to break out of its racial pigeonhole.

Going back to “Please Mr. Postman,” Anderson thought back to how slowly it gained steam up the charts, and part of the reason why was, “ … white kids weren’t allowed to listen to our music, unless they snuck and listened to it. And after they began to listen to it, it mushroomed. Because if two or three of them listened to it, and they liked it, then they would turn their friends on to it. And they liked it, so it mushroomed.”

It’s only with hindsight that Anderson realized how hard Motown had to work to overcome racial blockades. But the label did, and in the process, it helped unite people of different backgrounds.

“We didn’t realize it, and none of the other artists that came along after us realized it until you got older,” says Anderson. “I didn’t realize it until I got to be 40 or 50. Because as you think about it, you broke the racial barrier for a lot of stuff that wouldn’t have been broken because of you and your music.”

And so, Motown became not just a giant of industry, but a force for social change. Eventually, the label moved out of Detroit, heading to Los Angeles in the 1970s before landing where it is now, New York City, operating now as Universal Motown as part of the Universal Music Group.

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