And the band played on – letter to the editor

My local newspaper printed my letter to the editor based on the theme of a recent post. Please feel free to adapt and use it, if you agree with the concept.

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I feel like citing the song lyric “and the band played on” in reference to elected leaders ignoring problems which will only get worse. On climate change, environmental degradation, increasing US debt, aging infrastructure, and insufficient gun governance, we have ticking time bombs. The kids get what is needed on climate change, environment and guns. But, debt and infrastructure must also be dealt with. And, not addressing the former makes the latter harder.

These are the questions we must be asking our politicians. If they are evasive or give poor answers, do not vote for them. We don’t need a wall. We need safe bridges and railways.

 

Competition and love

“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.

 

 

And the band played on

“And the band played on” comes from a powerful protest song called “Ball of Confusion” sung by The Temptations in the late 1960s and written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It was also the movie title for a 1993 movie about the slow action to address AIDs during the 1980s..

“And the band played on” is a metaphor pulled from the band continuing to play as the Titanic sank. It is used unflatteringly to address inaction by leadership to address major problems. The Temptations pleaded for action to address inequality, maltreatment of Blacks, the Vietnam War and so on. The movie noted how little the White House cared until they realized that heterosexual people could get AIDs as well.

As of this writing, a sixteen year old girl named Greta Thunberg is stepping onto our shores to address climate change. This young hero began her quest for action last year and became a catalyst for student strikes pleading for action. When her critics encouraged her to be a kid, she said she would love to, but the adults are not addressing this issue, so she said she had to do so, since, her generation will be left with the unsolved problems.

Yet, while she is here to address these issues to the United Nations and those in Washington, the US president is rolling back restrictions on methane and carbon release, which was announced yesterday. Further, the president blew off a G7 meeting to discuss climate change and the burning forests in the Amazon.

This type of action from the US president is what I feared most from his winning the 2016 election. I feared reversal of action on climate change from the federal level and the environment becoming second fiddle. Yet, I must confess the environmental degradation caused by this president and the EPA under the watch of fossil fuel lobbyists Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler has been worse than I expected.

Inaction by this White House would actually be an improvement. On top of announcing the US’ departure from the Paris Climate Change Accord, the rolling back of Obama’s climate plan requirements, deletion  of climate change data from the EPA websites and the forcing out or redeployment of climate change scientists is harmful to our planet and country. We are behind on acting because of similar actions when the second Bush White House was filled with fossil fuel people like Vice President Dick Cheney, including Cheney making sure fracking companies were not exposed to the requirements of the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Acts (please Google the 2005 Energy Act and Dick Cheney or the Halliburton Loophole).

Fortunately, there are some good things happening in America in spite of this president. Five automakers are ignoring the rollback of increasing MPG requirements under Trump and siding with California’s new requirements. Their thesis is we want younger people to buy our cars, so we better care about the environment because they do. It should be noted that it was announced today that 67% off Republicans between the ages of 18 – 34 believe we must act on climate change. Their leadership can no longer hide on this issue due to fossil fuel funding of their campaigns.

And, other states, cities and companies are addressing climate change with efforts to remove carbon from the air and put less of it there. Wind and solar energy have taken off as costs have declined and other measures like tidal energy, battery storage,  are under way. I wrote recently about these efforts based on the documentary “Ice on Fire.”

The younger generation gets this. And, to be frank, if the Republican Party does not change its paradigm, they may become obsolete. The band can no longer play on. The Titanic is sinking and we must act. I hear criticism about AOC and the Green New Deal. I recognize it is imperfect, but as I tell people, at least it is a plan. We must come together and figure it out. This is far more urgent than politicians are letting on. Please ask them what they plan to do and if they do not answer satisfactorily, do not vote for them. And, please join voices with the young Ms.Thunberg. She should be heeded.