One of the world’s most distinguished music critics once wrote, “American rock music in the 1960s never really found its groove in the same way that the folks in Motown did.”
That was me!
Okay, so I’m not distinguished. But show me another music critic who looks as good as I do half-naked in thigh-high boots!
I will now proceed to make the case for my assertion, which is pretty much a no-brainer if you consider three pieces of data: the pop charts during the era, the historical background and the music itself.
In prepping for my review of The Supremes, I noticed something remarkable when scanning the Billboard charts. Once they broke through with their first #1, The Supremes never left the charts for the rest of the decade. They’d release one hit after another, and when one hit started its descent, up popped another one to take its place. The Temptations came close, perpetually on the charts for about four years with a few short gaps. In the meantime, there were dozens of Motown and other soul performers popping in and out of Billboard and Cashbox and peppering the Top 30. In the days before MTV, radio play was everything, so the soundtrack that accompanied the 1960’s in the United States was chock full of Motown music. If you listened to AM pop radio faithfully in the mid-sixties as my father did, it was guaranteed that during the day you would be listening to several Motown productions as they came up in the rotation. You couldn’t avoid it.
In large part, this was due to Berry Gordy applying Detroit mass production and quality control techniques to music—but mass production doesn’t lead to profits if your products are shoddy. Gordy had three other things working for him: talented songwriters like Holland-Dozier Holland and Smokey Robinson, a remarkable collection of talent and exquisite timing.
One thing you notice immediately when listening to Motown and other soul artists of the period is the difference in the energy level when compared to the pre-Beatles girl groups and R&B singers. The increase in energy roughly coincided with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated segregation in the United States. The passage of that bill fundamentally changed the significance of Motown and soul music in general—it wasn’t just about the music anymore, it was about the music in the context of history. Smokey Robinson spoke on this subject most clearly:
Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.
You can hear the energy in the music itself. Pre-1964 soul music often sounds restrained, as if the artists have been told to remember their place. In 1964, the confidence starts to come out, in performances like Martha Reeves in “Dancin’ in the Street” and Mary Wells’ cheeky vocal in “My Guy.” The Motowners and their companions at Atlantic and Stax soon proceeded to smash every last trace of the barrier that limited African-American presence on the Billboard Hot 100. This dramatic shift in the makeup of the pop music charts reflected another benefit of civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act meant more than symbolic freedom: it opened the doors for millions to the possibility of economic freedom. Having lived at the epicenter of the dot.com boom, I know how much energy is released when the money is flowing and Americans are feeling good about their prospects. The growth of Motown’s economic power must have been equally exciting to the participants and imbued them with status and confidence.
The first years of success in any endeavor are always exciting years, and the performers brought that excitement to their music, just like The Beatles did so vividly on A Hard Day’s Night. The energy of simultaneous liberation and success allowed African-American performers to be themselves, go back to their roots and use their experience to inform their music. As Smokey Robinson explained it, “Listen, the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It’s spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen.” While American rock groups were stuck trying to figure out how they could be The Beatles, Motown performers were delighted by the sudden realization that they could be themselves . . . and the audiences of the day, black or white, would cry out for more.
There was also another significant difference between the stateside rock groups and the Motowners: sexuality. While Berry Gordy did his best to direct his artists towards mainstream tastes, refusing to consider socially-charged material until 1968, he was also smart enough to accept that the inherent rhythms in African-American music gave his performers a huge advantage over the more intellectually oriented white artists of the era. Motown music is sexy, from the grooves to the grunts to the soft porn cooing of Diana Ross. Soul music makes you move, and the area near those grinding hips is where the sexual organs and the second chakra are located. Gordy wisely gave that sexuality a taste of class, dressing the girls in gowns like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and frequently clothing his male artists in suits and ties to make them seem more wholesome. It didn’t matter: you could have dressed up The Temptations in clown suits and their innate sexuality still would have come through.
I chose to focus on Motown’s peak years (prior to the move to L.A. in 1972) because of the era’s musical and historical significance. The artists pictured above may seem rather obvious choices, but there were others I could have selected, like Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight and the Pips. All of the artists above were major players during the peak period between 1964 and 1968; Gladys didn’t get going until 1967 and Marvin spent a good chunk of those years doing duets and would not hit his prime until the early 1970’s. I wavered back and forth about The Four Tops but decided that The Temptations were the stronger choice of the two. Leaving out The Supremes was unthinkable, and The Miracles even more so because of their collective talent and Smokey Robinson’s gift for songwriting. Martha and the Vandellas did not enjoy success at the level of the other three or even The Four Tops; this choice was driven by a desire to provide contrast to The Supremes and my everlasting love of the sound of Martha’s voice.
This should be a gas!
Reviews in this series:
- Diana Ross & The Supremes: The Definitive Collection
- Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: The Definitive Collection
- The Temptations: The Definitive Collection
- Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: The Definitive Collection
Photo Credits: The Miracles, ©Tamla Records via Wikimedia Commons. The Supremes, ©CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons. The Temptations, ©Multi-Media Management/Gordy Records via Wikimedia Commons. Martha and the Vandellas, ©Gordy Records via Wikimedia Commons.