20 Motown Milestones, Part II
Splitting the stock, moving west, selling the jewels
Last week, there was the $800 loan application, followed by its outcome. Now it’s on to the second set of Motown milestones, from the ’70s and beyond. (As expected, the first ten were criticised, for being too few and too subjective.) Anyway, consider the following:
JANUARY 14, 1970 – when Diana Ross & the Supremes undertook what Motown mouthpiece Mike Roshkind called “a two-for-one stock split.” At the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, this was the farewell performance: goodbye to the group from Diana, and hello from Jean Terrell to Mary and Cindy. Separate careers and wonderful, uplifting music, from roofs to mountains, were to follow. (My personal votes go to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Stoned Love.”) Meanwhile, as might be expected in a company entering its twelfth year, another principal wanted his own two-for-one stock split – although it took until 1972 for Smokey Robinson to quit the Miracles, the delay partly due to the unexpected popularity of “The Tears Of A Clown.”
JANUARY 20, 1971 – when “What’s Going On” was released, despite the objections of the boss. The previous year, Motown had launched its provocative Black Forum label as “a permanent record of the sound of struggle and the sound of the new era.” But it was Marvin Gaye who proved to be the sound of the new era, convincingly capturing the social, cultural and political mood of the day. If you want to talk about “a permanent record,” this is it. Since so much has been written about the masterwork (the late Ben Edmonds’ book is arguably the best), you hardly need more exposition here. But I remain fond of the understatement of David Van DePitte, the album’s gifted arranger (namechecked on the front cover, no less). When we spoke in 1991, he praised Marvin’s courage. “People [then] didn’t get up and start screaming and hollering about dope and ghettos and things. But I did think that if it saw the light of day, the general public would probably at least give it a tumble. They’d have to say, ‘Gee, that’s different.’ ” It was different, and people have been giving it a tumble ever since. In fact, it’s still what’s going on.
JULY 1, 1971 – when 21-year-old Stevie Wonder re-signed to Motown, under terms more rewarding than those of any other artist on Berry Gordy’s roster. This was almost exactly ten years after “Little” Stevie’s first signature there – on July 15, 1961 – and less than three months after his arrival at adulthood allowed him to disavow contracts previously inked as a minor. As with Marvin, this moment in Stevie’s life has been thoroughly documented elsewhere. What’s notable, I think, is that by relocating to New York to work (initially with Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff), he largely avoided the fallout from Motown’s departure – or desertion, if you feel that way – from Detroit. Even so, Stevie’s geographic location was irrelevant to him: talent and imagination informed his centre of gravity. The music of his mind was the best of his generation, as we know from the albums which flowed after July 1971, and after another contract renewal (under even better terms) five years later.
JUNE 14, 1972 – when Motown officially announced that it was moving its headquarters to Los Angeles, confirming what had long been rumoured. Briefing the Detroit media about the single most contentious decision in the company’s history fell to Amos Wilder, newly appointed as general manager. He did so only days after news that the Four Tops had gone from the label (they’d actually been dropped) and just a month before Smokey Robinson’s final shows with the Miracles. Clearly, leaving was on everyone’s mind; some staff were already in California, while many in Detroit lost their jobs. “Motown’s obligation to its employees and their families call for it to maintain its competitive position in the industry,” said Wilder, corporately, about why the relocation was necessary. Nevertheless, his words were not the “Sound of Young America” that Detroit wanted to hear.
OCTOBER 18, 1972 – when Lady Sings The Blues was given its world premiere, in New York. This was the new Motown: a multi-media business striving to succeed at every tier of showbusiness, rebranded as Motown Industries. For Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and all involved (hail, Lando Calrissian to-be), the film’s opening was exciting, as were the five Academy Award nominations announced soon afterwards. When the Oscars ceremony took place on March 26, 1973, it must have been deeply disappointing: the nominations netted no statuettes for this Lady. Fortunately, record buyers soon dispelled the blues, sending the soundtrack to the summit of the Billboard pop charts and awarding Diana her first solo Number One album.
JUNE 12, 1973 – when Black Enterprise ranked Motown as the largest black-owned business in America (financial services aside). For the man who had borrowed from his family 14 years earlier, this new status was significant. The magazine noted that in 1972, Motown Industries’ gross revenue exceeded $40 million, the equivalent of $235 million today. The subsequent media coverage extended far and wide, and Gordy would have been pleased, not least because it validated his company’s diversification into television and film, and muted criticism of its move to Los Angeles. And when 1973 came to a close, Motown could also bathe in the glow of the full year’s chart results: five Number One singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
FEBRUARY 19, 1977 – when Stevie Wonder was honoured with four Grammy awards for Songs In The Key of Life, just as he had been for Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. In many respects, Stevie is the embodiment of what Motown did best, by betting on a talented youngster, schooling him in the studio and on the road, and providing the support and freedom for him to produce extraordinary music. It did the same for others, but Stevie stayed loyal for longer. “One day,” Berry Gordy said in 1985, “I had the shocking discovery, after working with these people…that they were more talented than I was. Now for a person with my ego, that didn’t sit too well, so I didn’t tell them for a long time. But sooner or later, they found out that the master was in them. Once you believe that and understand what it is that you do, it is very hard for you not to succeed.”
APRIL 7, 1981 – when Rick James’ Street Songs hit the, uh, street. The self-styled “king of punk-funk” was one of three singer/songwriters who sustained Motown Records financially and creatively through the 1980s, until Berry was obliged to sell the business. Street Songs moved than two million copies on first release, while the single “Super Freak” sold almost a million. Of course, Motown’s primary cash machine that decade was Lionel Richie. This was another two-for-one stock split, although Richie walked away with most of the shares if you compare his post-Commodores career that that of the group. His Can’t Slow Down and Stevie’s Songs In The Key of Life were Motown’s most successful albums under Gordy’s ownership, both certified for U.S. sales of ten million. That’s why their creators earned vertiginous royalty rates. In Lionel’s case, it was more than 30% of the album wholesale price. For domestic sales of Can’t Slow Down alone, his gross was in the region of $15 million.
MAY 16, 1983 – when Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was broadcast by NBC-TV, garnering critical kudos, the best audience ratings of the week, an Emmy award in September, and, still later, a curtain-raising role in Motown The Musical. The telecast was actually taped by Motown Productions two months earlier; tickets ranged from $25 to $500, and proceeds went to charity. As Rolling Stone declared afterwards, “Berry Gordy Jr. gave a party, and everybody came.” Well, nearly everybody. Some didn’t make it – or perhaps never received invitations. But the spirit of Hitsville was there, ancient and modern, and nearly 60 stars assembled onstage afterwards to pose for Life magazine photos. Oh, and Stevie was supposed to open the show, but he was late. Plus ça change…
JUNE 28, 1988 – when the $61 million sale of Motown Records to MCA and investment bankers Boston Ventures was announced. The deal, with all its attendant emotions, was detailed in Berry’s autobiography, including his last-minute “seller’s remorse” in December 1986. Several years later, he told me at Billboard that he was “very happy with the way I did it.” He was likely even happier by 2004, when he had finished selling Jobete Music to EMI for a grand total of $320 million. No one who sat around the dining table at the Gordy family home in Detroit on the evening of January 12, 1959, could possibly have imagined...