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The Motown Story

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- I Af ter 1964 the h story of Motown becomes ncreasingly difficult ■ to write neatly: the record company had become an entertainment Corporation, and musical and commercial significahee don't always 'coincide. On the one hand, 1.964-7 was the period when Motown went international and gained respectable, matching success in the world music market with a breakthrough into the wealthy American world of cabaret and prime-time TV. On the other hand, these years meant the continuing success of Motown as a black, singles-oriented, independent record company- issuing an astonishing amount of fine soul music. The first development was reflected n England. At first Motown material carne out haphazardlv here, on a variety of different labels- London-American, Fontana, Oriole-and without any sales impact. In 1963 EMI acquired the rights to the label (through their Stateside subsidiary); in 1964 Motown had its first English hits Mary Wells' "My Guy" and the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go" and "Baby Love." In 1965 the deal with EMI was changed -Motown records were still pressed and distributed by EMI, but they appeared on their own Tamla-Motown label, and the Tamla-Motown Revue-the Supremes, Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, the Earl Van Dyke Sextet, Stevie Wonder- set out on a world tour. By 1966 the Motown Sound was a regular feature of the English charts-eieven hits that year-and this international success added to ■ Motown's ncreasing V solidarity in America. The Supremes (as had been W careully planned- all that grooming) were obvious guests for f peak-hour TV shows and the plusher night spots, and the Four Tops, just as carefully choreographed, put on as good a show. Berry Gordy was in show business and even Marvin Gaye put out an album of standards- On Broadway. All this reflected a key factor in Gordy's ambition- his pursuit of respectability. Motown success hasn't just been a matter of rnaking a fortune (James Brown's done that too)- it has also been having ts fortune legitimized, .e., acknowledged and honored by the world of (white) power. So in the days of the Supremes and Four Tops Motown was "The Sound of Young America"- patriotic and black- and Gordy has struggled ever since to win his acts not just fame and fortune, but white fame and fortune-culminating in Diana Ross's Oscar nomination, a white tribute not paid, for example, to Curtis Mayfield's music for Super f ïy. This s not a policy of selling-oul, giving whiiey what he wantsit is a drive to make whitey want what Motown has, to make Hubert Humphrey beg for the label's endorsement. From the beginning of its success Motown has been an ambiguous expression of black powe'r, never dishonouring black music but always wanting white honor-and in the mid-sixties the musical results of this policy defied criticism. (Continued next week.) From THE SOUL BOOK, edited by lan Hoare. Copyright O 1975 by Simon Frith. Reprinted by permission of Dell Pub. Co. Delta BooksSeymour Lawrence Books.