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The Motown Story

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The Motown Story

"You can Make It If You Try"

By Simon Frith


Seymour Lawrence/Delta Books



Meanwhile Berry Gordy was involved in other kinds of innovation. 1963 was his best year .-- yet - the Motown group of labels finished third in the year's single records sales in the States after RCA and CBS - Gordy had good cause to declare himself boss of the biggest independent record label in the world. The dollars were flowing in, but 80 % of this income was still from singles sales.. It was time to diversify.


Gordy established the Motown Revue, a travelling road show which brought Motown acts, established and new, into the big pop stadiums and out of the black R & B clubs.

The live LPs made of the Revue were Motown's first successful foray into the album market and Gordy was, by now, also the head of a flourishing publishing company, Jobete, which was to be the money -making backbone of Motown's success.


He opened an office in Los Angeles- partly as another base from which to recruit and record new talent, but mostly for the sake of his company's expanding business activities. Detroit might have been Motown's home, but t was no place to build a multi-million dollar entertainment Corporation.


Come 1964, then, and the Motown Record Corporation was an organization capable of handling all aspects of the music business, not just singles. Holland, Dozier and Holland were working on a new, distinctive pop sound that would set and not follow trends. The only thing lacking for the achievement of the Gordy Plan was a star. Enter the Supremes.


The Supremes had been groomed for their role for quite some time. They started as a Detroit high school group, the Primettes, sister group to the Primes, who included future Temptations, Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks.


Diana Ross lived a few doors away from Smokey Robinson, and she and the Primettes began to hang around the newly opened Motown office, pestering for jobs or an audition. Gordy was finally persuaded; he changed their name to the Supremes, dropped one girl from the line-up and began to groom the remaining three for stardom.


Those early years are now discreetly veiled. The Supremes seem to have been signed as early as 1962- they did some session work, even made some records in a coyer, Marvelettes sort of style. "When The Love Light Starts Shining," for example, was a minor American hit in 1963, and there was a whole album called Meet the Supremes. But mostly they were learning to dance and to dress and to project and to present themselves as stars. It took time.


Glamour- that peculiar combination of availability and distance, of submission and arrogance, of sex and soul- is not a natural quality and it took them till 1964 to acquire it. By then Holland, Dozier and Holland were ready. Out came "Where Did Our Love Go" and, in Diana Ross's words: "Everybody liked it so much 'cos it was a very sexy young sound, and it was melodic and it just repeated 'baby, baby, baby'."


What Holland, Dozier and Holland had done was take the overwhelming beat from their work with Martha & the Vandellas and front it with a voice that was younger, lighter, keener to please. Diana Ross wasn't exactly sexier than Martha Reeves but she was less intense, more the stuff of teenage fantasies, and the combination of the hypnotic beat and her demanding pleas made perfect dance music.


"Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In The Name Of Love," and the rest of what became a long series of successes for the Supremes and Holland-Dozier-Holland are not stunning as songs by traditional criteria: lyrically they celebrate or mourn love but vaguely, with none of Smokey Robinson's wit or invention; melodically they are simply made- quirky catchy phrases used repetitiously but with just enough odd chords to maintain interest.


In sheet music form Holland, Dozier and Hoiland's work is not impressive. Its effect depends on its expression through a 45 rpm record, via Brian Hoiland's and Lamont Dozier's production.


Supremes records were sounds: the rhythmic sound of a beat, a compulsion which depended not on one instrument but emerged from the blend of many-bass, drums, voices, jabs of horn and strings and organ; the gospel-derived sound of a beseeching lead singer and her answering chorus- the sounds of soul music.


(continued next week)

From THE SOUL 8OOK edited by lan Hoare. Copyright (c) 1975 by Simon Frith. Reprlnted by permlsslon of Dell Pub., Co. Delta Books/Seymour Lawrence Books.