“Competition and love.” This was noted as a key set of ingredients in the success portrayed in the Showtime documentary “Hitsville: The Making of Motown.” The story is largely told by the people who made up Motown, but the two most prominent narrators and contributors are best friends Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.
The story is fascinating and a must-see documentary which will provide a memory lane for those old enough and fans of the music of any age. The story is told by several behind the scenes players, along with the talent we heard and those who created the words and music. A few admiring stars like John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Young, Little Richard and others add context.
Motown was birthed the same year I was in 1958. Robinson told Gordy that if they were going to be taken advantage by the music industry (after an insulting $3.19 royalty on a popular song), Gordy needed to start his own company. With an $800 loan from his aunt and other money he pooled, he bought a house that would serve as the studio, headquarters and Gordy’s living quarters.
So, blend in ingredients like a business model that borrowed from Ford’s assembly line, that was fed by a city that had public, faith-based, and street music pool of talent, that mixed talented songwriters, that drafted local jazz musicians to form a talented in-house session band called “The Funk Brothers,” that groomed people to present themselves so the music could be heard, that mentored talent allowing them to grow and you end up with an organization built to create sustainable great music.
But, “competition and love,” made it sing. The songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Eddie, Lamont and Brian) competed with the duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy himself. Plus, the artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder et al were writing songs. The singers like Robinson, Gaye, Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells and some young group called the Jackson Five, all competed for songs and studio space. But, it was the mutual love for the music, what they built, and each other allowed them to compete without damaging each other’s psyches.
This was evident in the weekly quality control meetings to confirm what was ready for release or where some improvements might be needed. Gordy was only one voice in the meeting and he told of stories where his idea was outvoted. That is telling.
A few takeaways worth noting:
– Motown had a blend of genders, ethnicities and races in its leadership and ranks. Gordy took some flak, but he spoke of this being a natural blend and supportive of what they wanted – a universal following of their music.
– The Motown sound is influenced by Gordy who wanted the song to catch your attention in the first ten seconds or “two bars” as Robinson noted.
– The Supremes were initially called “The No-hit Supremes” after a slow start. But, they became the stars of Motown, once the first hit landed. “Baby, baby, where did I love go….”
– At age 11, little Stevie Wonder wrote a song on stage called “Fingertips” as he was listening to the applause.“Clap your hands just a little bit louder,” he sang. It is incredible to watch, especially as the band behind him realized what was happening.
– It is shown how Marvin Gaye wrote and recorded “What’s going on?” adding the building blocks of conga drums, his second lead vocals, his first lead vocals, a bass by James Jamerson (one of The Funk Brothers), his own chorus, another chorus and so on. It is fascinating.
– We see how Robinson penned “My girl” for The Temptations where he wanted to feature David Ruffin’s voice rather than Eddie Kendricks as there was so much talent in the band and Kendricks should not be the only lead.
– Finally, to see a young Michael Jackson with his four brothers was stunning. As their Motown manager said, there is varying degrees of talent and then there is “genius.” The remaining four Jacksons noted how much pressure they felt to play artists’ songs in front of the artists who made them famous.
Please take a look at this documentary. It is worth the effort as fans of the music and performers. I would add that business people need to see this as well. Building a sustainable, successful organization takes nurturing and equal parts competition and love. These ingredients allow another motto of Gordy’s to flourish – innovate or stagnate. Well said.