Motown in Montreal
A NATIONAL PROMOTION MEETING – BUT TROUBLE ON ‘GRADUATION’
This one is for the record industry nerds among us.
It involves a motley crew, including a grocer’s son who became one of music radio’s most influential characters, a country music singer who segued to record promotion, and a former Motown hit-maker – Berry Gordy’s first – who served behind the scenes when his star dimmed. There are also several radio programmers of note, and a Billboard journalist whose credentials included helping John Lennon and Yoko Ono to stage one of their “bed-in for peace” events.
The venue was Montreal, the year was 1971, and the occasion was the first time that Motown brought together its field promotion reps to meet and mix with the firm’s national team and each other, to be briefed about priority record releases for the months ahead, and to hear guest speakers. For several days and nights at the end of June, these 60 or so people gathered at the Canadian city’s posh Château Champlain Hotel for work and play.
There was also the unexpected: a post-event controversy over the racial composition of the gathering, as illustrated in a congratulatory Billboard advertisement.
The conference was under the jurisdiction of Gordy’s right-hand man, Barney Ales, executive VP and general manager of Motown; his on-site crew included national sales director Phil Jones, national singles sales director Gordon Prince, and national promotion director Al Valente. This was “Motown University – The Class of ’71,” a theme developed by the company’s director of advertising and creative concepts, Tom Schlesinger, a former promotion man himself, with a reputation for crazy stunts at Mercury Records in the ’50s.
Two decades after the birth of rock & roll, the record industry’s relationships with radio called for fewer stunts and more statistics, as articulated by one of the Montreal speakers, Kal Rudman. This former air personality and Billboard R&B columnist had developed an essential tipsheet for programmers, Friday Morning Quarterback, with detailed data about new releases and their progress at stations across the country. “I came up with this concept of pinpointing the key markets,” Rudman once told the Detroit Free Press, “and then creating a profile of each emerging record’s performance so you could really see how it was doing city by city.” By 1971, FMQB had approximately 800 subscribers who paid $100 (around $620 today) annually for such facts and its publisher’s flamboyant opinions.
At the “Motown University,” Rudman – the grocer’s offspring from Philadelphia – compared promoting records to radio to an attorney pleading his client’s case before a judge. “You all must be ready with the facts, logic, intelligence, research,” he said. “The [programme director] has all the answers before you arrive. You must be fully prepared.” Yet this probably wasn’t news to his audience, since most of them worked for independent distributors with years of experience pitching records on behalf of Motown and other labels. Among them: Perry Cooper from New York, Chappy Johnson from Philadelphia, Bill Leaner from Chicago, Jerry Morris from Seattle, Milt Oshins from Miami, Pat Bullock from Dallas, and Gaylen Adams from Atlanta.
CHEWING UP THE CHARTS
Adams was that singer-turned-plugger, who played rock & roll in a band at frat parties during the ’60s before recording country & western for Bullet Records. (A copy of his “Time Is Slipping Away” single was recently described at auction as “mod popcorn R&B Northern Soul,” and sold for $50.) On another occasion, after a station DJ said he would eat his hat if a particular record reached the Top 10, Adams’ judgement proved to be spot-on. “Start chewing, boy,” he told his radio buddy. “Do you want salt and pepper with that hat?”
Among the prospective hits spun in Montreal for Adams and his peers were Stoney & Meatloaf’s “It Takes All Kinds Of People” and the Sunday Funnies’ “Walk Down The Path Of Freedom” – no hats had to be eaten subsequently, for neither single charted – and Jr. Walker & the All Stars’ “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready,” which was a modest success. Also on the agenda were new Chisa releases by Hugh Masekela, the Crusaders and Monk Montgomery, as well as the debut album by the Undisputed Truth, and forthcoming LPs by Walker and Edwin Starr.
Three respected programmers taught class at the Château Champlain: Jerry Boulding from WWRL/New York, Bill Williams from the Detroit area’s WCHB/Inkster, and Jim Davenport from WFOM/Marietta, Georgia. Whereas Kal Rudman had chosen a courtroom metaphor, Boulding was more down to earth, comparing the connection between radio and records “to that of the farmer, who to be successful must continue to refresh the soil from where growing things thrive.”
Whatever the comparison, the late Ritchie Yorke was one student happy to be there. “I’d been Billboard’s Canadian editor since 1968,” he remembered, “and as a Motown devotee, I was thrilled when I heard that the label had chosen Montreal for their first annual promotion meeting, and delighted when asked to cover it for the magazine. I recall it being very precisely planned, down to the smallest details.” (Ritchie knew about planning: it was he who had helped Lennon and Ono with their Montreal escapade in 1969.)
“There was a bunch of workshop sessions,” added Ritchie, “and much talk about getting chart placement, and a Billboard chart editor [Ira Trachter] who explained processes. And since it took place at a time when the FM vs. AM battle was in full swing, there was a fair bit of talk about getting Motown acts onto FM airwaves, and how that might be accomplished.”
Talk of pitching to FM stations may have amused Marv Johnson, since this was very different to the AM era when he enjoyed his first hit in 1959 for Gordy’s then-new company. Twelve years on, the singer was absent from the charts, but still affiliated with Motown, and present in Montreal. “I did use him more or less in public relations when dealing with some R&B radio stations,” said Gordon Prince. “I was asked to find things for him to do. He would go to some Motown artist openings more or less as a goodwill ambassador.” The two men were well-acquainted: Prince had taken Johnson to record hops to promote “Come To Me” in ’59, and grew to respect his work ethic.
When time came to wrap up the Canada conference, Tom Schlesinger organised a photo shoot with attendees garbed in gowns and graduation caps – and gifted with college rings. “Tommy never went to college,” said his cousin, Margo Bloomberg. “All of the guys he worked with did, and had college rings to show. Because he didn’t, he contacted one of the companies producing class rings and had one made with Motown University on it, which he proudly wore.”
Everyone entered into the spirit of the “graduation,” and it was echoed in a full-page Billboard advertisement celebrating “Motown U’s Music Majors” three weeks later. “Motown has always been first class,” declared the ad copy. “First class with product and first class with promotion. Pictured here are the faculty and student body of Motown U. First class.”
It looked impressive, but the accompanying photo showed only eight African-Americans among the 45 men pictured, and so a firestorm of protest followed. Here was Motown Records, one of America’s premier black-owned businesses and the single most successful black-owned business in the record industry – but only 18% of its front-line employees were black, if the Billboard portrait was any indication.
Berry Gordy took most of the heat, from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others. Few were satisfied with the explanation: that most of the 45 were not actually Motown employees, but worked instead for the company’s various U.S. distributors. “There was no way I could tell them who they could and couldn’t hire,” said Barney Ales, recalling the incident. Nor could he complain about the results achieved by whoever the distributors did choose to hire: Motown had scored seven No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 – more than in any previous year – and cumulatively, those records sold more than ten million copies.
But the advertisement did not identify who worked for which distributor; the inference was that everyone in the photo toiled for Motown – which, in one way, they did. Only 14 of those pictured were actually on the Detroit firm’s staff payroll, and four of them were black: Marv Johnson, Weldon McDougal, Ed Gilreath and Chuck Young. Not everyone who attended the conference was photographed; WCHB’s Bill Williams was missing, as was Ales, who had to be back in Detroit on the final day.
RACIAL RATIO UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
It was hardly the first time that Motown had been criticised for the racial ratio of its employees. A number of Gordy’s key lieutenants were white, including Ales and attorney Ralph Seltzer (who later became head of A&R), as well as outside advisor Harold Noveck, Motown’s tax attorney, and his accountant brother, Sidney. Success put the company under the microscope – and sometimes Gordy responded, such as when in 1969 he instructed Ales to recruit blacks for the company’s sales team. Even so, finding qualified, music-experienced staff was a challenge: Motown’s first African-American salesman, Miller London, actually came from selling automobiles in Detroit.
“I would be fighting a lot of black organisations,” Gordy said, “and the white people, they didn’t want me over there, either, with black music. But it wasn’t black music, it was music for people, so they could never get that. Barney and I, we just constantly dealt with the selling of the records.”
Gene Silverman of Merit Music, Motown’s Detroit distributor, attended the Montreal meeting; he was one of the 37 whites photographed that summer of ’71. “To Berry’s credit,” he told me, “he was never afraid to surround himself with the right people for the job, whether that person was black or white. He didn’t say, ‘Well, I’m a black businessman, so I have to have black lawyers. I have lawyers.’ If they were good lawyers, they were black or white, or any colour. The same permeated right through the whole [of Motown], so you found a truly blended company.”
Music notes: those Stoney & Meatloaf and Sunday Funnies tracks appear to be available digitally, just as they were ten years ago on The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 11B: 1971. The Chisa albums are harder to locate; not so, the cited material by the Undisputed Truth, Edwin Starr and Jr. Walker. Gaylen Adams' "Time Is Slipping Away," meanwhile, can be found on YouTube here.