Motown Crosses the Atlantic
Billboard helps to spread the word; beef and Yorkshire pudding in London
Berry Gordy’s first foreign trip took him to Asia, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight America’s enemies on the Korean peninsula, long before he made his mark in music.
A decade later, his second overseas assignment took him to Europe, where he also walked on ground held by America’s adversaries. This time, Gordy was shooting with a camera, covertly capturing the grim landscape of East Berlin while sightseeing with his sister, Esther Edwards, and Motown Records’ sales chief, Barney Ales.
It was March 1963, and back home in America, the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” was closing its run on the Billboard charts. If the East Berlin border guards had seen Gordy filming, the lyrics of that song might have presaged a different result.
“You weren’t supposed to take any pictures in East Berlin,” said Ales of their excursion by coach into the Soviet-held sector of the city, “and Berry was taking pictures down below, out of the window. He had one of those video cameras. The guards didn’t know. Otherwise, they would have confiscated it, at the very least.”
When Gordy himself recalled the incident for me years later, he acknowledged the risk of censure – or worse – by the soldiers, but said he always tried to have video souvenirs from overseas visits. “I was kind of crazy in those times, but I really wanted documentary stuff.”
Similar, but safer, footage was shot at other destinations on that itinerary. Gordy, Edwards and Ales were journeying abroad to talk up the success of their business. “Wherever there’s music, there’s Motown, Tamla, Gordy,” declared an advertisement in the March 2, 1963 edition of Billboard. It also noted that the executives were en route “to visit our affiliates and conclude arrangements with leading firms to represent us.”
There was more: a small booklet stitched into the centre of that same Billboard, to showcase why potential partners should meet the travelling trio. “Hits are our business,” it announced in eye-catching red, while devoting a page to each of the company’s best-known artists: “the Talented Stevie Wonder,” “the Marvelous Marvelettes,” “the Fabulous Miracles,” and so on.
West Grand Blog reader Keith Rylatt, author of the essential Hitsville! The Birth Of Tamla Motown, reminded me of the booklet recently, with its "chart parade” of past Motown achievements and a display of “smash hits and future hitmakers.” Another page was devoted to “our new baby,” the Workshop Jazz label. Music publishing was also represented – albeit misspelled as “Jobette Music,” presumably a Billboard typo – under the jurisdiction of Raynoma Gordy, vice president and general manager, and Stanley M. Ossman, assistant manager.
“It was Hal’s idea,” said Barney Ales of the booklet, referring to the Billboard publisher, Hal Cook, whom he first met when both men worked at Warner Bros. Records in the late 1950s. “We had to pay x amount of dollars, and we got extra copies to send to Europe. So everyone knew what we were when we got there.” Helping Ales to identify which companies Motown should see was another Warner friend, international director Bobby Weiss.
Gordy, Edwards and Ales left Detroit on March 1 for London, where they spent a week or so before flying to other European cities, including Hamburg, Amsterdam and Paris. In the British capital, they lodged at the posh Carlton Tower in Knightsbridge, advertised then as London’s tallest hotel. Their business appointments were with Sir Edward Lewis at Decca, L.G. Wood at EMI, and Morris Levy at Oriole, which was Motown’s U.K. licensee at the time.
Decca was Motown’s first such British partner, which put out records by Marv Johnson, Barrett Strong and the Miracles in 1960-61. “If a record was offered to us and it was in the Billboard or Cash Box charts, we would normally take it, providing there wasn’t any exorbitant financial deal,” Geoff Milne, manager of Decca’s London-American label, explained to me. (In Marv Johnson’s case, the U.K. firm had an existing license deal with United Artists Records, to which Gordy had signed the singer, and so Decca automatically held rights to those releases. Marv’s “You Got What It Takes” was a Top 10 British hit in April 1960.)
But the appointment with Sir Edward yielded nothing. “Decca turned us down completely,” recalled Barney Ales. Milne did not remember the occasion, but said that he did visit Detroit later. “They wanted a deal with their own label, and Sir Edward was not keen on that at all. He said, ‘I don’t want to give people labels. They’ll stay with us a while, then they’ll bugger off.’ ”
By contrast, the meeting with EMI managing director Len Wood went well, according to Ales, and agreement seemed likely on a deal – in sharp contrast to a year earlier, when one of the company’s executives had bemoaned the “excessive” royalty advance sought by Motown, and the lack of international sales prospects for American R&B in general. In 1963, some groundwork was also laid by New York-based Transglobal, an EMI affiliate which scouted for American repertoire suitable for the U.K. market.
Wood subsequently remembered dining with Gordy and colleagues at London’s Grosvenor House hotel. Ales recalled that, too, but thought the venue was Wood’s club, “where they come around and cut the meat for you. We had beef and Yorkshire pudding.” But before any concluding handshakes, the Detroit delegation spent time with Morris Levy (unrelated to the American music industry figure of the same name) and John Schroeder of Oriole Records. The small British independent had picked up the Motown license from September 1962, but this was only a 12-month arrangement. It did remarkable work with the line, issuing singles and albums on a specially-created Oriole-American label, but was unable to score any hits.
Gordy, Edwards and Ales also went for dinner with Schroeder at London’s Talk of the Town, an evening made memorable – at least for Ales – by the cabaret performance of sultry American songstress Dolores Gray. In his autobiography, Sex & Violins, Schroeder recalled that night, too, but more for the intense conversation with Gordy about songwriting. (Gray’s performance at the Talk of the Town was recorded for a live album; the founder of Motown may not have known that his applause was captured thus for posterity.)
After London, there was Paris. When they weren’t in meetings with French record companies and music publishers, the Americans were taking in the sights. “We stayed at the George V,” said Ales, and enjoyed the luxurious hotel – and “trying to figure out what the hell a bidet was.” Cine camera footage shows them walking by the Eiffel Tower, strolling along the banks of the Seine, and visiting a street market, where Edwards considered buying a painting.
Business imperatives soon took the Motown trio to elsewhere on the continent, including Hamburg, Berlin (West as well as East) and Amsterdam. They did not finalise deals, instead taking decisions when back in Detroit, considering all the options and calling on the legal expertise of attorney George Schiffer. For France, the record company eventually aligned with Pathe-Marconi, although there was a side deal with Barclay for Stevie Wonder. For Germany, a deal was done with CBS; for Holland, with Artone. For music publishing, contracts were set with Aberbach subsidiaries in the U.K., Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy.
The major outcome of Motown’s European adventure was the U.K. agreement with EMI Records, effective from September of ’63. Despite Oriole’s sterling efforts, the Americans wanted the market-leading scale offered by EMI. The latter, in turn, wanted the Hitsville U.S.A. output to better compete with Decca’s London-American imprint, and to take advantage of increasing local interest in rhythm & blues, stirred by the new wave of beat groups from Liverpool and elsewhere. The first Motown 45 through EMI was Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” released on the Stateside label, and by the spring of 1964, the British chart breakthrough came with Mary Wells’ “My Guy.” The following year, EMI launched the Tamla Motown label in Europe with much fanfare.
The promise of that Billboard booklet – “Wherever there’s music, there’s Motown, Tamla, Gordy” – was finally fulfilled overseas.