'Hitsville' Under the Microscope
MOTOWN AUTHORS MULL OVER THE DOCUMENTARY
Welcome to the latest edition of To Tell The Truth, and without further ado, let’s introduce the members of our panel. To my left are two doyens of the Detroit press, Susan Whitall and Peter Benjaminson, and to my right is a beacon of Billboard, Fred Bronson, and a serious academic, Andrew Flory. They all have written books about Motown or its artists, so they’re well-qualified to be here. You’ll learn more about them in a moment, but let’s get started with today’s topic, the brand new documentary, Hitsville: The Making of Motown.
Some of you have seen the film since it began playing on Showtime in America last month, while those of you further afield will have to wait a bit longer. We know that Hitsville will make its debut in U.K. cinemas at the end of this month, although nobody is quite sure when it’ll be seen in the rest of the world. Fingers crossed on that score.
To set this up, let me read from the press release, which describes Hitsville as “the story of the creation and incredible success of the legendary Motown Records, against the backdrop of the growing civil rights movement.” Also, it’s the first documentary about the company to be made with the participation of its founder, the equally legendary Berry Gordy, who’s one of its executive producers.
Peter, let’s begin with you, because you wrote the first American book on this subject, The Story of Motown, published 40 years ago. Before that, you were a reporter for the Detroit Free Press for six years, and more recently, you’ve been responsible for books about other Motown stars. Given your familiarity with the subject, what did you make of Hitsville: The Making of Motown?
“Adam, I’m glad you asked. I think it’s an enthralling documentary about everything good about Motown: Berry’s initiative, intelligence and drive, his ability to unite black and white musical styles, and the talent of his executives, arrangers, composers and performers.
“Having said that, it completely and utterly ignored everything bad about Motown, including the facts that the company convinced young or underage performers, or their mothers, to sign one-sided contracts giving the company almost all the money they’d ever earn. What’s more, these contracts were effective before the performers had a chance to seek legal advice. In most cases, they never saw those contracts again, never having been given copies in the first place, and were refused copies when they asked for them later.”
OK, Peter, don’t sugar-coat it! I’m assuming these are the kinds of facts you found while researching your books. Is there anything else you want to add before we go to Susan?
“Yes, there certainly is. Motown subtracted most of the expenses of touring and recording from the already low royalties it had earmarked for the performers. It also held onto many of the groups’ names after they’d left the firm, making it difficult, or impossible, for some of them to earn a living. And Gordy also refused to allow most Motown performers their own agents. The agents they did have were employed by Motown, so they naturally put the company’s needs ahead of the performers’ needs.”
Right, thank you for all that, Peter – I think. Maybe we’ll talk about how Berry Gordy gave many of those youngsters opportunities in the music business which they weren’t going to get anywhere else, even if he did pay them low royalty rates at the start – which was hardly unusual in the wider record industry at that time.
But moving along, Susan, what’s your take? You spent a lot of time in first-hand interviews with those artists for your book, Women of Motown, and, of course, you’ve also written much about Motown for the Detroit News.
“I thought it was charming. It seduces you as the best Motown music does, although I walked into the Emagine Theater in suburban Detroit ready to be disappointed. I was sceptical because I already knew that the Marvelettes and other early acts were skipped over, pretty much. What act was more important in 1961 than the Marvelettes with ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ for example? They put money into Motown’s coffers – once Barney Ales collected it, that is.
“But it’s hard not to smile seeing all those great vintage clips: Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Tempts and the Tops. And when the chairman and Smokey are taunting each other, bundled up against the Michigan cold, it’s as if it’s 1959 Detroit again, even though a lot of their byplay and stories are familiar – especially if you’ve seen Motown The Musical.”
And earlier, you told me that you liked the graphics?
“Yes, like the one showing the workflow sheet with the various factors that led to Motown’s success – the musicians, songwriters, producers et cetera – and the bit showing how ‘My Girl’ developed, from Smokey having the idea to Paul Riser putting the strings together in the studio. It’s a great lesson in how even creating Motown magic can be broken down into very human elements.”
OK, thanks, Susan. I want to come back to the musicians later, but next let’s hear from Fred. Many of our audience will recognise your name, Fred, from when you wrote the popular ‘Chart Beat’ column in Billboard. And, of course, you and I collaborated on The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits about 200 years ago. Plus, you worked with the Jacksons on that recent coffee-table tome of theirs, Legacy. So what did you think?
“Well, in a nutshell – the story is too big to be contained in a two-hour documentary. If I had my druthers, Hitsville would have been a TV series, with hour-long episodes for Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Martha & the Vandellas, the Temptations, Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, the Miracles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Then, another hour reserved for the secondary and tertiary stars, like Jimmy Ruffin, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Elgins, Tammi Terrell, the Originals, the Contours and more.
“That said, while the 113-minute Hitsville may not be enough for the most passionate Motown fans, the documentary paints a picture for general audiences that will leave them more informed about what Motown meant to our culture than they were before.”
TIME FOR THE BOXED SET?
Right, Fred, thank you. I suspect more than a few in the audience will agree regarding a Ken Burns-type series. In fact, I was in touch with a couple of other colleagues from my Billboard years the other day, and one of them, Sean Ross, made a similar point – that it takes two hours just to cover the basics. In his view, we deserve the boxed set, so to speak. And Paul Grein, the magazine’s awards editor, said there were times he wished that someone with a stronger journalistic hand was in charge of the documentary, and knew when to ask a follow-up question.
Anyway, let’s keep moving, and – last but not least – let’s hear from Andrew Flory, who’s assistant professor of music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Andy, as a Motown historian, you’ve taken an in-depth, analytical view of the company’s music and business in your book, I Hear A Symphony. By contrast, Hitsville is like a sprint through the subject. How do you rate it?
“Thank you, Adam. It was exactly what I expected – nothing more or less. For those of us who are even remotely knowledgeable about the story, there was nothing new. While watching, I kept thinking about the function of a documentary like this. Motown has, obviously, gone through the motions of remembering its own past pretty continually for the last 35 years. The actual information – the stories, anecdotes, names – are no different than they were in the 1980s when the company made Motown 25. Why do we continue to make commemorative works like this? To educate a new generation, remember the past, rewrite the past? I’m not sure the documentary does any of this.
“For me, the value of a new project like this lies in the manner in which it continues the chairman’s strategy. The man is almost 90! And he is still laughing and carrying on with Smokey. For those who want something in depth and critical, they will need to wait until he is no longer at the helm. This documentary is not about Motown as much as it’s a continuation of Motown.”
Thanks, Andy. Not everyone will agree with you, but I want to come back to a couple of other points. Susan, you mentioned the musicians, and the “human elements” of Motown’s production line?
“Yes, I was glad Stevie Wonder named off several Funk Brother heroes, including Joe Messina, but I would have preferred to see an important Motown musician like Joe talking a bit, in place of one of the millennial, non-Motown musicians talking about music from the distance of generations, perhaps. I think it underestimates young people to think they need to see ‘their’ music stars talking about something, rather than the people who were there.”
MISSING IN ACTION?
And Peter, you also objected to the omission of certain people, including two you’ve written about?
“Yes. Although Florence Ballard founded the Supremes and was one of this superstar trio for most of its hits – and numerous photos of her were shown – her name was never mentioned during the documentary, probably because of her disputes with Gordy. And Mary Wells, the company’s first female solo superstar, who left the company after filing suit against it for the privilege of leaving, was barely mentioned. Her name wasn’t mentioned until the voiceover said how great it was that she’d left the company, because that gave the Temptations a chance to become more popular.”
Andy, you’ve said there’s nothing new in the documentary, but Hitsville really is a piece of entertainment as much as it’s a piece of history, isn’t it? After all, it was commissioned by Universal Music to celebrate Motown’s 60th anniversary.
“Documentaries like this are evidence that the Motown philosophy of carefully controlling public perception of the company’s history – the Motown brand – are still alive and well. Like Berry and Smokey are still working, still using their best face-forward approach to the company and its history. Who can blame them? It certainly was a ‘dream come true’ for both of them, and the fact that anyone is still interested means that they are still doing something right.”
OK, that’s the point well made. There have been some examples of work which has departed from that careful “script” – Raynoma Singleton’s book, for example, which contained material that you imagine the chairman would have preferred kept private. Testimony given in lawsuits, too, has shaded the story differently. And among the many anecdotes in other Motown books, I was struck by what happened to the late “Beans” Bowles, an important figure during Motown’s early years.
According to his son Dennis, Bowles was fired because of his involvement in local Michigan politics, which appeared to put Gordy’s entire operation at risk. And I quote: “Berry called him in the office one day and sat him down to talk. Berry informed my father that the mob had threatened to blow up Motown if Berry didn’t get rid of him. He said, ‘I love you, Beans, but I can’t risk everybody in the company for you. I’ve got to let you go.’ ”
Stories like that, assuming their truth, are never going to be part of a two-hour documentary, but they’re a necessary reminder that success always has a dark side.
Anyway, that’s all we have time for, so it’s thanks to our panelists – Andy Flory, Fred Bronson, Susan Whitall and Peter Benjaminson – for taking part and for their candour. There’s much about Hitsville to enjoy, whether familiar or not, and who knows? Perhaps that multi-part, in-depth TV series is not beyond the realm of possibility, one day. In the meantime, thanks for tuning in, and goodbye.
Book notes: collectively, our four authors have written hundreds of thousands of words – if not more – about Motown, and popular music, over the past 40 years. Here are specifics. Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown: An Oral History was first published by Avon Books in 1998 and republished in 2017 by Devault-Graves. Peter Benjaminson’s The Story Of Motown was first published by Grove Press in 1979, with a new, revised edition from Rare Bird Books in 2018. Benjaminson’s other Motown titles are The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008), Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press, 2012), and Super Freak: The Life of Rick James (Chicago Review Press, 2017). The Jacksons Legacy with Fred Bronson was published by Thames & Hudson in 2017. Andrew Flory’s I Hear A Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B was published by University of Michigan Press in 2017. Still more work by these authors includes What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History by Andrew Flory and John Covach, first published in 2006 and republished by W.W. Norton in 2012; Joni On Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell (Chicago Review Press, 2019) as edited by Susan Whitall; and her Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul (Titan Books, 2011). Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number One Hits and Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits have been published and updated in a number of editions by, yes, Billboard Books. Peter Benjaminson’s work includes Investigative Reporting with David Anderson, originally published in 1976 and republished by Iowa State Press in 1990, and Crazy Man, Crazy: The Bill Haley Story (Backbeat Books, 2019) with Bill Haley Jr. Also mentioned above: Dr. Beans Bowles: Fingertips – The Untold Story by Dennis Bowles (Sho-nuff Productions, 2005). Happy reading!