'What It All Has Meant'
CHARTS, REVIEWS AND A TENTH ANNIVERSARY
Before leaving the subject of Cash Box entirely…
Its rhythm & blues charts, during Motown’s early years, seemed more credible at times than those of Billboard.
It published more singles reviews than Billboard during the ’60s, and they were often more informative.
It was in Cash Box that Motown chose to run a special supplement to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.
Hey, don’t heed only my words. It was in an “old Cash Box magazine that I noticed that ‘Tammy’ by Debbie Reynolds had been the #1 Pop record in the country,” wrote Berry Gordy in To Be Loved. Reynolds ruled for seven weeks during the summer of ’57, her hit inspiring the Tamla name – albeit after Gordy discovered that there already was a Tammy Record Co. in existence.
Three summers later, when his team was promoting the Miracles’ “Way Over There,” Gordy turned again to the trade weekly. “I was so confident about this record that I decided to advertise in Cash Box magazine like the big boys seemed to do so successfully,” he recalled. Each line of the half-page ad copy “spread out wider and wider, forming a pyramid. It gave me feelings of action and excitement.” (To be fair, he booked the same ad in Billboard, one week earlier.)
Finally, Gordy referred in his autobiography to Cash Box owner George Albert as “helpful to Motown throughout the years, including making sure his people accurately charted our records.” In total, there were 70 singles on the Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul and Rare Earth labels which topped the Cash Box pop charts from 1959-1988. The comparable total in Billboard was 53.
As for the two trades’ rhythm & blues listings, Cash Box seemed more in tune with the market in the early ’60s – or at least was sourcing more relevant information for that sector.
At the end of November 1963, Billboard scrapped its “Hot R&B Singles” for 14 months. In the last chart before the shutdown, “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs was at No. 1, and records by Roy Orbison, Rick Nelson and Lesley Gore were in the Top 30. None of those acts placed in the Cash Box “Top 50 in R&B Locations” – and nor did Barry & the Tamerlanes and the Beach Boys, who also occupied the Billboard R&B rankings.
Instrumental records often defied genre categorisation – Ferrante & Teicher and Lawrence Welk reached the R&B charts in both magazines, for example – but Rick Nelson and the Beach Boys?
A CONVINCING ARGUMENT
Then, there were the record reviews. “The group has a success with ‘Memories’ and they indicate that it won’t be a one-shot with this sizzling side that features a shouting vocal and first-rate band backing.” That’s the Billboard verdict about “Heat Wave” in July 1963. Commercially correct, but dull.
Here’s the Cash Box judgement: “Martha & The Vandellas, still cashing in on their Top 20 chart run with ‘Come And Get These Memories,’ put up a convincing argument for an early return trip with the danceable rock-a-twister, ‘Heat Wave.’ ”
Who doesn’t love a danceable rock-a-twister?
Next, compare these evaluations of the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.” In Billboard first: “Group turns in a powerhouse vocal performance of a solid driving rocker with strong lyric content. Should quickly surpass the sales of their recent ‘Please Return Your Love to Me’.” Then, in Cash Box: “The world as it was in a hard-times childhood, as it is now, and as it may be in a ‘cloud nine’ dream make up the subject matter in this near-revolutionary side from the Temptations. Touches of progressive pop in the track, elevated lyric message and the solid performance by the Temps make this a black-underground effort which could spark a whole new thing in the r&b realm.”
Any argument about which is the sharper and more insightful?
Moreover, because Cash Box devoted greater space to singles reviews, more of the music coming out of 2648 West Grand earned ink. “The Motown-distributed V.I.P. label can have a real big winner in this engaging, steady driving thumper. Sock all-around vocal and instrumental performance on this potent chart contender.”
You can bet Norman Whitfield was happy to read such sockin’ prose about “Needle In A Haystack.” But in Billboard that September of ’64, there appeared no review of the Velvelettes’ V.I.P. debut.
OK, the music trade press is hardly Pulitzer Prize territory, as former Cash Box editor-in-chief Irv Lichtman recently told West Grand Blog. But whether for professional use or civilian entertainment, the magazine’s verdicts on records such as “Heat Wave,” “Cloud Nine” and “Needle In A Haystack” were simply more fun. In addition, it listed the songwriters of the singles under review, something which Billboard did not do until 1966.
Lichtman was among the journalists responsible. “I wrote pop singles and pop and classical album reviews,” he told me, “along with Ira Howard, who specialised in country and R&B reviews. I was told a few years after I joined Cash Box that we were once criticised by a New York gossip columnist for giving only a B or C+ rating for a singles recording of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ I hope the reviewer at least wrote it while standing up!”
MAY WE BOOK YOUR ADVERTISEMENT?
As for the Motown tenth anniversary supplement, it appeared in Cash Box just before Christmas 1970, somewhat stretching the timeline – especially as the first page displayed an image of the Ber-Berry Co-Op loan note of January 12, 1959.
The 48-page special section followed the accepted tradition of trade-paper supplements, featuring carefully-manicured editorial content and congratulatory advertisements from business partners. Most of the ad space was bought by Motown’s independent distributors; by pressing plants, tape manufacturers, album jacket printers and other such suppliers; and by its foreign licensees.
There were biographies of eight major Motown acts, with the customary narratives and confections: Diana Ross’ discovery of the Jackson 5, for example, including “nine-year-old lead vocalist” Michael Jackson (he was actually twelve when the supplement appeared). The company’s impressive roll-call of 300-plus hits on the Cash Box Top 100 was listed, while the magazine’s front cover that week sported a “family portrait” of Motown artists, drawn by Detroit illustrator Carl Owens.
There was an abundance of images throughout: artists, company executives and Gordy family members, including the boss, his parents, and sisters Anna, Esther, Gwen and the late Loucye. Some photos were taken during Motown’s 10/70 convention in San Francisco a few months earlier, while others came from its first national sales convention in Detroit in 1967. Subjects posed in 19th century garb if they wished, and a fair number of the distributors (and their wives) did just that. A portrait featuring Ernie and Bill Leaner of Chicago’s United Record Distributors – one of the few black-owned such companies in the country – wearing colonial-era military uniforms was an unexpected sight.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the Cash Box supplement was the introductory essay, “What It All Has Meant,” located under a large photo of Berry Gordy. “In the decade of its existence, Motown Records might be regarded as having blossomed on the wings of the black man’s often successful struggle for equality,” ran this declaration. “In truth, it has been the very exposure and acceptance of its sound – the vaunted Motown Sound – that has played a role in the black man’s achievements.
“A non-violent, common-denominator role of music, so capable of conveying a sense of goodwill and unique musical creativity that it has helped reduce the idea of a colour line to absolute absurdity. Fortunately, however, the social message of the Motown Sound must always give way to the sheer exuberance and enchantment of its music.”
Such optimism was the constant, resolute public face of Motown, regardless of whatever prejudice its people, black and white, encountered. The idea of a colour line reduced to absolute absurdity? That could hardly be further from the picture being painted in sound and song by Marvin Gaye at almost exactly the same moment. He had been crafting “What’s Going On” during the closing months of the record company’s tenth anniversary year, and the single was to be released only a few weeks into 1971.
“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/You know, we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today.”
In Marvin’s mind, at least, “what it all has meant” was rather different to the corporate cheer contained in the pages of Cash Box that December.
P.S. West Grand Blog is taking a short summer break. See you on the other side.