West Grand Blog

A Bolt of Illumination

Motown's backroom believers come into the light – save for the Funk Brothers, of course

 

He decided to be a boxer.

      “Then I discovered girls. When I realised that lust was a meaningful alternative to pain, I walked away from boxing and all other forms of physical adversity.”

      The words are not those of Berry Gordy, although they could have been. The Motown founder certainly wanted to appeal to the opposite sex – hence, his oft-told anecdote about writing “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)” – and he, too, gave up boxing as a career. But the quote above actually belongs to Van Gordon Sauter in a 1983 interview with People magazine.

      Van who?

      He was the journalist who wrote one of the first major Detroit newspaper articles about Motown Records, and for a brief time, travelled with the company's first overseas touring revue.

      Still, all that is but backstory to today’s principal topic: the graphic illustration of Motown’s emergence as a “Golden Record Machine” during the 1960s. The illustrator was Susan Bolt, and it was her striking, intriguing work – shown here – which accompanied Sauter’s Detroit Free Press article of March 21, 1965. That four-page report was familiar to me, but it was West Grand Blog reader Bill Staiger who reminded me about Bolt’s masterpiece.

      “I had the opportunity in 1965,” the illustrator explained last year, “to spend a week at Motown talking to and meeting the many artists, producers, musicians, writers [and] engineers who made that wonderful, wonderful Motown sound. What a thrill to meet Berry Gordy Jr., his brother, Marvin Gaye (who, by the way, gave me a kiss), Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Holland, Smokey Robinson – just a few of the many people who made the Detroit sound.”

      Bolt’s drawing depicts the various departments of Hitsville, winding around different “reels” like recording tape. “You take artists and repertory…” declares the “tape,” naming producers Robinson, Mickey Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Norman Whitfield, plus arranger Henry Cosby, before wrapping itself around “Processing + Publishing.”

Bolt.jpg

      There, Fay Hale is shown as department director and Janie Finney (aka Bradford) as “publishing,” although Jobete Music is not named. Four songwriters are identified: Eddie Holland, Ron Miller, William O’Malley and Richard Jacques (misspelled as “Jaques”). The fourth of these was new to me until a visit to Don’t Forget The Motor City revealed some of the lyricist’s work: “Had You Been Around” and “My Way” (recorded by Billy Eckstine), “Countin’ On You, Babe” (Barbara McNair), and “It Rained Again Today” (Liz Lands).

      Naturally, the largest “tape reel” highlights the Motown artists. There are the names you would expect, and one or two which you might not. Absent are Jr. Walker & the All Stars – which is curious, considering that “Shotgun” was riding high on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time – and so are Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston and the Velvelettes. The surprise inclusions are pianist Earl Washington and drummer Roy Brooks, who were signed to the short-lived Workshop Jazz label. The name of this imprint appears elsewhere in the drawing, which suggests that someone still thought it important – the boss, perhaps – although there were no Workshop Jazz releases after 1964.

      Also at the top of the Golden Record Machine is Engineering & Sound, with the welcome identification of studio master Mike McLean (“Chief”) and Lawrence Horn (“recording”). Quality Control receives recognition under director Robert Gordy, but where on earth is the name of QC queen Billie Jean Brown?

      In charge of Talent is the most powerful woman at Motown: vice president Esther Edwards (“Mrs.,” no less), assisted by department head Taylor Cox. The company’s promotion and marketing maestro, vice president Barney Ales, is shown in charge of Sales, listed with his lieutenants Irv Biegel, Phil Jones and Mel DaKroob. Administration is represented by legal and personnel director Ralph Seltzer and artist co-ordinator Ron Wakefield, the sax-playing spouse of the late Loucye Wakefield, Berry Gordy’s sister. Motown’s satellite offices fall under Administration, too, assigned to Marc Gordon (California) and Harry Ascola (New York).

      Susan Bolt’s construct is clever, with an eye for detail (for those interested in acquiring a copy, try this contact). Motown’s resident designer, Bernie Yeszin, is namechecked, as is comptroller Edward Pollack. Album sleeves decorate the illustration’s right side, and there’s even a line of type for Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society.

      Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the absentees. Was Billie Jean Brown on vacation or unwell when Bolt spent the week at Hitsville? Or temporarily out of favour? Motown publicity man Al Abrams was central to this whole Detroit Free Press endeavour, so it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have Brown added to the mix. Also conspicuous by her absence is Berry Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma, but she was known to be persona non grata by 1965. Among the record producers, Hal Davis, Ivy Jo Hunter and Clarence Paul make no appearance, despite their accomplishments in the company’s evolution.

      As for the guts of Motown’s glory – Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Robert White, Earl Van Dyke and other studio musicians – their lack of public identification at this time is the stuff of legend, and of celluloid. That said, Hitsville’s bandleader on the road, Choker Campbell, is shown among the artists, perhaps because he was already “outed” by his 1964 album release, Hits Of The Sixties.

      There is another absentee: race. Because no people are pictured, the Bolt imagery stands gloriously free of skin colour, presumption and prejudice. As such, it was aligned with the aspirations of Gordy, his business and those who worked there. Motown had not yet devised (or deployed) “The Sound of Young America” as its corporate slogan, but the illustrator evidently caught that spirit. “I love Detroit,” she said, “and always will. It was a lifelong, thrilling experience for me to meet and spend time with these tremendously talented people.”

 

Next month in West Grand Blog: Van Gordon Sauter’s 1965 report and his Motown adventure abroad.

Adam WhiteComment