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Radical Motown

The pioneering black music label, Tamla Motown, marks its 50th anniversary in 2009. Fiona Osler assesses its impact

February 5, 2009
4 min read

Apart from the motor vehicles that gave it its name, Motown was the single biggest product to come out of Detroit. Fifty years after they first rolled off the ‘Hitsville’ assembly line, Motown’s songs are so ingrained in our musical consciousness that we take them for granted. With artists including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five, Motown cranked out hits by the score. From 1961 to 1971, the label had 110 top 10 US hits, among them five consecutive US number ones for the Supremes alone. This was manufactured pop at its most blatant – but also its most inspired.

That the ‘Sound of Young America’ became the soundtrack for the civil rights movement and political change was something never envisaged by founder Berry Gordy, whose dream was to create the perfect crossover music when he set up the label with an $800-dollar loan in 1959. ‘We are not going to make black music. We are going to make music for everybody. We are going to make music that has great stories and great beats. We are going to write great songs.’ And it worked. Because of Motown, black music became the mainstream: in 1966, more than 75 per cent of its releases made the charts.

But the times were changing. Over the next year or two, the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, rising racial tensions and riots across US cities called for a different soundtrack, one that Motown’s sweet sounds of love couldn’t supply. Artists like James Brown with ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)’ pushed black consciousness higher up the charts. And at a Black Power rally in Detroit in July 1967, Black Panther H Rap Brown said that if Motown didn’t come around, ‘we are going to burn you down’.

Much to Berry Gordy’s horror, H Rap Brown was also to use the Vandellas’ hit ‘Dancing in the Streets’ as the backing track to many of his speeches. It became the sound of protest, riots and freedom, even if Martha Reeves was no militant. Nor was Marvin Gaye, at least not then. ‘Marvin Gaye wrote that song to quench riots, not to incite them. He didn’t mean to instill anything but love,’ says Reeves. But the times were changing for the complex, damaged Gaye too.

‘In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world,’ said Gaye of the reasons he wrote his classic protest song, ‘What’s Going On’.

At first Gordy refused to release it. ‘I said, Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?’ he later recounted in an interview. ‘Why do you want to put out a song about the Vietnam war, police brutality and all of these things? You’ve got all these great love songs. You’re the hottest artist, the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies …’

Gaye was not the only songwriter to have his songs rejected as too political by Gordy. Gordy also initially refused to release ‘War’, the blatantly anti-Vietnam song made famous by Edwin Starr, which had originally been written by Normal Whitfield for the Temptations. Despite Gordy’s fears of alienating a conservative audience, ‘War’ went to number one in 1970 and Whitfield’s songs began to take Motown in a darker direction, one that better represented the paranoid, dysfunctional and fearful world of crooked politicians, Vietnam and race riots. The Motown spin-off label Black Forum was also created in 1970, releasing spoken-word records by Martin Luther King Jr, Stokely Carmichael and black poets Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner.

If the earlier hits were to make Motown the embodiment of black economic entrepreneurship and a cultural force not just in the black community but across the world, then it was this tougher, angrier sound that made Motown not just the soundtrack but an active force in the politics of the time.

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