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The Fall of The Black Empires

To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography

by Berry Gordy
Warner Books, 432 pp., (out of print)

Berry, Me, and Motown

by Raynoma Gordy Singleton
Contemporary Books, 320 pp., (out of print)


By the time the “equal opportunity” generation of black Americans started going to college in the Sixties, Booker T. Washington’s reputation had washed up on the wrong side of history, beached and moldering like the carcass of a whale. For these newest “new Negroes” he was as old-fashioned as the country blues. He seemed compromised and unheroic at a time when compromise was disreputable. It isn’t surprising that his influence on twentieth-century black America is commonly given short shrift. Ironically, two men of high influence with the generation that scorned Washington, Elijah Muhammad and Berry Gordy Jr., were in many respects his followers in the institutions they built, and that is the reason they are among the most important black Americans of the last half-century.

When Berry Gordy’s father came of age in Georgia, and while Elijah Poole was growing up there, Booker T. Washington was the “Wizard of Tuskegee,” an authentic international celebrity, famous for the industrial training school he had set up in Alabama. Among other things, he was the most powerful black political boss America has ever known, serving as a dispenser of government jobs to blacks under several Republican administrations, and a broker of white philanthropy to Negro causes and institutions for more than thirty years. He accomplished this by exchanging his acquiescence in white authority over black American life for relative freedom of action for himself within its appointed boundaries. He used this dispensation as a charter to build and administer, often with his hand disguised and by purposeful indirection, an informal national organization disciplined enough to be called “the Tuskegee machine.”

Elijah Muhammad came to different conclusions about the white man’s intentions and the mutability of his basic nature, but in most respects the Wizard’s indirect methods were the Messenger’s model. Elijah felt morally superior to his oppressors and expressed it openly and contemptuously, but, like Washington, he never challenged their authority. On the several occasions in the early Sixties when police forcibly entered, even shot up, Muslim places of worship, the Nation’s response was uniformly restrained.

For all their jail- and street-hardened patina, the paramilitary huffing and puffing that always succeeded in making the Muslims seem a little dangerous, the tacit understanding they mostly had with local law enforcement was mutually reinforcing. Muslims were generally left alone because they were understood to be supportive of authority, perceived as a kind of auxiliary constabulary that helped to keep order in unruly neighborhoods. Though Elijah’s accommodation to white authority was superficially less congenial than Washington’s, he rendered unto Caesar every bit as much. He used the cover he was thereby afforded to tend his “nation of shopkeepers” with as much unfettered authority as Washington had to run his “machine.”

Forty years before Berry Gordy Jr. started to amass his fortune as a budding impresario of pop music, his father stole away from Georgia with the $2,600 he got from selling tree stumps. It seemed like a fortune to him. He was a practical man who understood that the white people he lived among were authorized to take whatever he had whenever they wanted it. The father’s son inherited his assumption of a theoretical limit on how high white people would allow him to rise and the tenuousness of his hold on wherever he perched once he got there. But he reckoned the distance between ground and ceiling altogether differently. Berry Gordy Jr. dared to imagine he could have what the rich and powerful white boys had. That dream was no less audacious in its time, nor was its achievement any less a breakthrough, for having found its most meaningful fulfillment in a standing invitation to Hugh Hefner’s parties and a credit line in Las Vegas as big as Sinatra’s.

Not disposed toward humility, Gordy made himself into discretion’s servant. Once he began beating his industry’s establishment at its own game, he comported himself while in its sightlines as delicately as if he were integrating the University of Alabama. He gave his white trading partners in the music business white faces to deal with, and receded into the shadow and safety of his company’s meeting rooms and shop floors to apply his monomaniacal focus and incalculable shrewdness to conquering by stealth. In this he was as much a Washingtonian as the real estate and insurance tycoons A.G. Gaston in Birmingham and Alonso F. Herndon in Atlanta, who both made and kept their money under the noses and out of the hands of hostile and capricious white overlords by working longer, being smarter, and knowing how to maneuver in the briar patch. And so, after his dream came true, on late Friday afternoons Gordy still prowled the offices of what had become the most successful organization in the history of the music business, admonishing any within it whose pace had slackened to keep working. “Haven’t you heard?” he would growl. “Money’s not on strike.”

Late in 1960 Berry Gordy Jr.’s first label, Tamla, released its first million seller, “Shop Around,” by the Miracles—a “gold record,” in the industry’s term of art. This gave him all the foothold he needed to begin imposing his will on a business that earlier had tried so hard to break it. The record was largely the work of Motown’s cornerstone asset, the singer, songwriter, and producer William “Smokey” Robinson, although the polishing Gordy gave it in the studio was critical to its success.

The two had found each other when Robinson was seventeen and Gordy was still bobbing along in the singer Jackie Wilson’s wake, writing songs and scouting talent. Smokey came to audition his group for Gordy and brought along a schoolboy’s spiral-bound notebook filled with the lyrics of songs he’d written.

Gordy, ever self-serious—Robinson at first thought him “pompous”—and, comparatively, the seasoned professional, offered criticism that became advice that turned into ongoing instruction. Thus began a relationship that was unique among all the others in Gordy’s life. Robinson was the only person not named Gordy to whom Berry Gordy Jr. was unwaveringly loyal, the only Motown employee spared the sting of the back of its chairman’s hand. Early on he made Robinson a vice president, and they were bonded in their shared enterprise for thirty years. Smokey named his first child, the son his wife delivered after enduring eight miscarriages, Berry, and the daughter that followed, Tamla.

Gordy already had convictions about songwriting before he was entitled to have anything more than ideas. His ideas weren’t notions but seemed to spring from his head fully and finally formed. His teachers were the radio and the record player, and the musicians he had befriended years before at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit. What Gordy knew about music was as circumscribed as his gift was particular: the two-minute-forty-five-second popular song. The pattern was “a verse, another verse, a bridge, a chorus, back to the verse, one more chorus and out….” Perhaps because he was a musical subliterate, he attached less value to melodic inventiveness than he did to song structure—“layout”—and lyrical content—“concept.”

The key,” he told Raynoma Gordy, his second wife, “is in creating tension with the hook. You introduce it in the chorus, bring everything back to the verse, distract on the bridge—that’s the tension—and then send the tune out with the hook.” The hook is an element of pop music trade craft borrowed from the advertising copywriter’s tool kit, a line or phrase ingratiating enough to catch the ear and clinch the sale. Smokey Robinson, whose manic cleverness and gift for ironic wordplay—“sort of like holding words to a mirror and checking out reverse images”1—made writing hooks the strongest part of his package, while Gordy worked on other things.

He’d take a tune of Smokey’s,” Raynoma observed,

and literally turn it around. “No, man, you should come from this point of view. Start here in the first person, get rid of that third- person voice.” Then, when a strong theme was evident, Berry would guide Smokey further. “Yeah, that’s good, very visual…. This line here, make it more of a picture….” Smokey would incorporate the input, and the line would be, “I will build you a castle with a tower so high it reaches the moon….”

Here is Gordy in 1960, an editor before he’d ever finished reading a book, way before it was clear to his contemporaries that cinema would supplant music as the cultural touchstone of the young audience he was after, shaping the text of a song as if it were a screenplay, making sure it was both literary and visual.

Every week Gordy convened the company’s producers and salespeople to decide what to bring to market of what they had lately made. These meetings were Gordy’s means of quality control, an idea he had met on the Ford assembly line. In Motown’s early days, he sometimes brought kids in off the street to participate—the modern focus group before its time. Robinson tells us:

[Gordy] built the meeting around the artists; anyone with a song for the Supremes, for example, would play it. Then came the critiques. Sometimes we’d all agree on what seemed an obvious hit. But mostly revisions would be suggested, and mostly they’d be heeded.

When we got to [Robinson’s group] the Miracles that morning, I proudly played my tape of “The Tracks of My Tears.”

You crazy?” Berry asked when I was through.

No. Why?”

You got a hit, but you buried your hook. Bring it up at the end, man. Repeat that shit—that ‘it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears’ refrain—until you wear it out.”2

Smokey, already by then as popular a songwriter as any, applied the finishing touches Gordy prescribed. He repeated his hook—

So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place,
If you look closer it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

—four times in two minutes and fifty-three seconds—“wore it out”—planting it so deep in the consciousness of one generation of American youth that it is rooted there still in our middle age. When the film director Oliver Stone needed an aural artifact of the middle Sixties to evoke a hands-across-the-racial-divide-in-doomed-brotherhood feeling for the foxhole bacchanal scene in his movie Platoon, he used “Tracks of My Tears” to produce the effect.

Robinson was the embodiment of Gordy’s highest aspirations as a songwriter, an alter ego who was the artist Gordy would have been if he could have been more than a technician and a teacher. Gordy himself prospered by his prophetic sense of where his audience was headed, even before he could know it would one day consist of “young America” itself. He began engineering his records to sound good in cars and on transistor radios. His methods turned making commercially successful records from something his peers thought of as alchemy into an industrial science; in 1964, for example, forty-two of the sixty records Motown released were hits.

  1. 1

    These attributes, refined, by then, into a definitive style, are evident in this quintessential Robinson lyric from 1967’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”:

    …Secretly I’ve been trailing you

    Like a fox that preys on a rabbit

    I had to get you and so I knew

    I had to learn your ways and habits,

    You were the catch that I was after

    But I looked up and you were in my arms

    And I knew I had been captured,

    What’s this old world coming to

    Things just ain’t the same

    Any time the hunter gets captured by the game.

  2. 2

    Smokey Robinson, Inside My Life (Jove Books, 1990), p. 125.

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