20 Motown Milestones
What $800 bought: “The Sound of Young America”
There’s nothing like controversy to keep the New Year interesting, right?
The weight of Hitsville history bears down on today’s date, January 12, when the Ber-Berry Co-Op voted in 1959 to lend $800 to Berry Gordy Jr. to finance the release of Marv Johnson’s “Come To Me” as Tamla 101. You can even see the paperwork reproduced in Berry’s autobiography, complete with reference to the 6% interest rate.
But what are the other significant dates of the company’s existence? Can we agree on those? Probably not, but let’s have some fun – or an argument – while trying. I’ve chosen 20, by the way (and yes, it’s an arbitrary number).
A couple of guidelines: obviously, there were earlier dates of importance, such as when Berry met Smokey in the summer of ’57, but this adventure is going to start with that second Monday of January in 1959. And it’s going to end when Berry sold Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988.
JANUARY 12, 1959 – When the family loan (the equivalent of $6,600 today) bankrolled Tamla 101, as noted above. Where did the money go? Probably towards the cost of manufacturing “Come To Me” by American Record Pressing in upstate Michigan, and of the musicians and studio time at United Sound, where the song was recorded in December. Berry was a known quantity in the local music business, but releasing a record – to say nothing of its distribution and promotion – demanded hard cash. Fortunately, a positive outcome soon followed: United Artists paid $3,000 upfront for the national rights to “Come To Me” and to sign Marv.
DECEMBER 11, 1961 – When “Please Mr. Postman” became the young firm’s first Number One on the Billboard pop charts. Sure, “Shop Around” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” were hits before then, but the Marvelettes’ success underlined Berry’s wisdom in hiring Barney Ales, formerly at Capitol and Warner Bros., just a few months earlier to handle sales and promotion. In 1961, Motown earned two major pop hits. In 1962, that number grew to five.
OCTOBER 26, 1962 – When the first Motortown Revue spent a week at the Howard Theatre in the nation’s capital, followed by shows up and down the east coast, from Connecticut to Florida, through November and December. The tour exploited the promise and popularity of the Marvelettes, the Miracles, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye, among others, but it also reinforced the “family” ethos, which was perhaps the single most important factor in Hitsville's early development. When everyone is under pressure together – from work, competition, racism, fatigue, and all away from home – the bonds become stronger, if not unbreakable.
FEBRUARY 20, 1964 – The date of the first West Grand session logged for Earl Van Dyke, the man who would lead the musicians of the snakepit to become America’s most elite fighting force, conqueror of worlds. “I believe,” wrote Joe Hunter, “that destiny would have Earl come to Motown’s Hitsville just as my interest had declined and was ready to throw in the towel.” Hunter had been the studio bandleader to that point, and the prose is from his rare autobiography, Musicians, Motown and Myself.
DECEMBER 27, 1964 – The first appearance by the Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Come See About Me." This was Berry Gordy’s best chart year yet, with three consecutive Number Ones for his HDH-fuelled superstars-to-be, but it was the seal of approval of Sullivan’s broadcast, watched weekly by millions, which made Motown a fixture in America’s living rooms through the ’60s.
MARCH 19, 1965 – When the Tamla Motown label was launched in Britain, and thereafter in other countries. The Detroit firm’s first significant foreign success was “My Guy” in 1964, but now the team had their own brand to build and sustain worldwide. Even the commercial failure of the ’65 U.K. tour did not deter Berry; besides, what could have been better than the Olympia show that April in Paris? (Although, judging by Motown The Musical, there was one other memorable moment of the trip.)
JUNE 23, 1965 – The release date of the Miracles’ “The Tracks Of My Tears.” By now, you know that this chronology is mostly about Motown’s business evolution. Others can write raptures about the music, and they do (Motown Junkies is one of the best). But “Tracks” is included here because, perhaps more than any other song, it is proof of the potential which Berry saw in a teenage Robinson eight years earlier. Hey, Smokey is preparing to perform this very night – January 12, 2018 – in California (hope he namechecks the Ber-Berry Co-Op), and the audience is certain to melt to the opening notes of “The Tracks Of My Tears.” The sad songs always connect, from one century to the next.
DECEMBER 4, 1967 – When Eddie Holland stepped down as A&R director, marking a formal end to the creative and dollar-wise dynamism of Holland/Dozier/Holland at Motown. Considering that Mickey Stevenson also quit during the preceding 12 months, here was a company in the throes of dramatic change. And in early 1968, it relocated its HQ from West Grand to an anonymous tower block in downtown Detroit. “I never knew why we moved,” one of Berry Gordy’s closest personal assistants, Jeana Jackson, told me. “It just wasn’t the same.”
DECEMBER 28, 1968 – Yet, one year later, here was Hitsville at the apex of sales success, arresting the entire Top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week – Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was Number One – and two other positions in the Top 10. Meanwhile, there were nine Motown titles in the Top 100 of the LP charts, and in the same issue, Billboard reported that the most successful music publisher on its pop and R&B charts for 1968 was…Jobete.
MARCH 11, 1969 – When the Jackson 5’s contract with Motown was finally signed, nine months after their audition. The brothers represented a new generation of music makers, attracting a new generation of music buyers. The company enjoyed huge commercial rewards as a result, and the J5 phenomenon empowered a new cadre of songwriters and producers, as well as backroom believers like Suzanne De Passe, who helped to reshape Motown in the 1970s. The future beckoned, brightly.
Now, you may choose to take issue with some of the above, and make a case for other dates. Or perhaps wait to reflect on the full list of milestones, when the final ten are corralled in the next West Grand Blog. You might even ask whether your correspondent needs therapy. (Others have, believe me.) Until the next time...