Motown turns 50 while Gordy revitalizes purpose

by Scott Thorn

Berry Gordy, Jr. created the record label that brought Detroit soul into the spotlight.

Divorced, unemployed and broke, Berry Gordy, Jr. borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label, Motown Records. 15 years later, it became the largest and most successful business owned by an African-American in the United States, despite the roadblocks of racism and pre-civil rights.

Now, 50 years later, Gordy and Universal Motown records will celebrate the iconic Deroit record label with a 50th anniversary party Monday at the Motown Historical Museum when it will be declared "Motown Day" by city and state officials.

When interviewed, surviving member of the Four Tops, Duke Fakir, had this to say about Hitsville U.S.A.

January 09, 2009: "When we would go out on the road, as soon as we'd come back, they had tracks cut by the wonderful Funk Brothers," said Fakir, 73. "We would always say, 'Wow - it's another carpet to ride on!'

"It was so easy to sing to those wonderful tracks. All you had to do was just get into the groove of that track and sail on."
Gordy "wasn't just selling records," Fakir said. "He was really creating stars.

Other surviving member of The Four Tops, Otis Williams, remembers Gordy's strict work ethic and meetings that started at 9 a.m. sharp; after that you were locked out the room, no matter who you were.
But Williams also remembers a socially progressive side of Berry Gordy as well.
January 09, 2009: other ways, business at Motown was anything but usual, particularly Gordy's equal-opportunity hiring practices.

"I would hear a lot of guys say, 'Hey, man, being a black guy, I would hire nothing but blacks, 'cause it's a black company,' " Williams said. "Berry didn't think that way. He would hire whomever was able to do the job. Berry had Hispanics working for him, whites, Jewish people.
According to Gordy, it was all about the music and a blind passion to put out the best artists and entertainment in the area. He was wholly unaware about the risky business venture he was undertaking.

January 9, 2009: The Detroit News: "I didn't know enough about economics to know," Gordy said. "I was involved in my stuff, and I took very little interest in anything other than my creative activities and the artists I worked with. I know the times were what they were, but I guess in those days I was more concerned about the whole social situation and the racial tensions. Now I'm a lot more aware of economics and how the whole thing works."

Although Gordy sold Motown in 1988 for $61 million, this septuagenarian is far from finished in the music business and industry.

January 9, 2009: The Detroit News: Along with launching Motown 50, he's overseeing a Broadway musical based on his life and a multi-part documentary film on what he did "and how I did it" at Motown, using extensive footage filmed during Motown's heyday. He's also emerging from retirement to manage a new singer, "one of the greatest I've ever met," whom he isn't ready to reveal just yet.

This is quite a statement from the person who brought us the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Martha & the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and countless others.

But perhaps one of the longer lasting and least focused upon aspect of his career was his influence on the civil rights movement in American, whether overtly or covertly, along with the courage of his artists.

January 9, 2009: The Detroit News: "Gordy also praises the courage of his artists who traveled by bus through the South with the Motortown Revue in the middle of the volatile Civil Rights era. "They were shot at; they were the unsung heroes," Gordy said. "All I'm doing now is what I've done for the past 50 years, protect the legacy because people were trying to rewrite Motown history."

It was Motown Records that released Dr. Martin Luther King's key Civil Rights speeches on records. It was Motown groups like the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and the Temptations who insisted that the rope dividing their Southern audiences into black and white be taken down.

This sentiment is also echoed by Duke Fakir, one of the last surviving Four Tops, who sees even greater reason and perspective in this 50th anniversary, and why it is important that it is happening at this moment in time.

January 8, 2009: USA Today: As America prepares to inaugurate its first black president, Fakir heralds Motown's role in the long process that brought the country there. Motown's crossover success, he says, prompted white Americans to "begin to look at black America a little differently."

"It's one of the steps that took us up that ladder," he says. "Motown music was an integral part of softening the blow, little by little. And that's the part I'm really proud of."

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Motown, a week's worth of festivities and experiences have been planned by the city and special artists. Among the events are:

January 09, 2009: "Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50," a new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, showcases Wonder's harmonica and glittering sunglasses, a chic red dress from Mary Wilson of the Supremes and an upright bass once played by James Jamerson of Motown's legendary in-house band, the Funk Brothers, among other artifacts; A new boxed set, "Motown: The Complete No. 1's," contains every chart-topping single issued by the company, lavishly packaged in a reproduction of the Hitsville facility.
The Detroit Free Press also has a listing of the week's scheduled events, including half price admission, reminiscing of the old days by Motown stars, and a two-hour documentary, produced by Berry Gordy Jr.


Post a Comment