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.
“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.
Gordy never understood the business he was in the same way his competitors did. They were in the music business; he was building a brand. Even when its output was issued simultaneously on five different labels, they all were “Motown records,” identifiable by its production elements and defined by its characteristic “sound,” yet distinguishable as the work of particular producers working with particular singers. Distinctive and identifiable as the “Motown Sound” was, its precise description eluded even those most intimately involved in its creation: “The sound is the bottom, you can hear the bass real good…,” Smokey Robinson suggested. “A lot of treble,” countered Brian Holland of the Motown writing and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Gordy, who liked to spin his story as folklore of urban uplift, called it “a combination of rats, roaches, love, and guts.”
Much as Motown would be known by its star performers, its producers were the company’s real stars. Gordy paired artists with producers on the basis of proven affinities; a hit record guaranteed a producer the next opportunity to work with the artist with whom he had been successful. These project assignments had the rhythms of a dice game; players stayed in as long as their hands stayed hot. As soon as they missed, another producer stepped up. The continuities that this system assured, in combination with the individual properties of the major Motown acts, established for each of them a particular identity, along with a common corporate identification that suggested a standard of quality and likeness of qualities—thus creating, in effect, a product line.
The model in Gordy’s head of the record company he wanted to run didn’t look like anything he’d seen in a car factory, as is commonly supposed, but rather more like an old-fashioned movie studio. He kept a stable of writers and producers on hand, churning out product. As early as 1965, Gordy was announcing, “We’re signing people with talent to do songs we’ve already got on hand.”3 He controlled every aspect of his artists’ working lives, from recording to performing to managing their careers and handling their money, and paid them all a straight salary. He created an Artist Development department to groom his young, unschooled performers for the stage, and hired Maxine Powell, doyenne of black Detroit’s bourgeois social club set, to teach them how to carry themselves, eat in public, and give innocuous interviews. Along with running her in-house “charm school,” Powell was sent along to chaperone girl groups on the road. Ten years before other record companies copied the idea and called it “tour support,” Gordy had packaged his acts as the Motortown Revue and made them a roadshow, sending them all over the country on grueling bus tours to build a following and sell their records.
The producer’s role in making records is like the director’s role in making movies. Gordy made making records a producer’s medium. As Carl Davis, a competitor from Chicago, described the process,
Motown used to put a picture frame together, paint in all the background, and…take the artist and put him in the picture. They would make a complete record, record it in a certain key…. Then the singer had to come in and sing the song in the key they had already determined, whether or not it was appropriate for the artist.4
Useful people kept turning up. One was Norman Whitfield, a pool-hustling sixteen-year-old who had hitchhiked from New York in 1961, impelled to set out for Detroit by the idea of a record company run by black people making black music that white people were buying. Whitfield was hired to work around the office and help babysit a kid Gordy had just signed and rechristened Little Stevie Wonder. Within ten years, Whitfield had become the most commercially successful black producer in the music business, and he was on hand to step in when, later, the departure of the company’s most reliable breadwinners, the writing and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, could have damaged Gordy beyond repair.
Gordy himself wrote and published more than four hundred songs, some well known but none as good as Holland, Dozier, and Holland’s or perhaps a hundred others made by the toilers on his factory floor. The talent there was stacked so deep that Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, popular songwriters of the highest rank, left Motown because they couldn’t get enough work. But for six of Motown’s sunniest years, 1963 to 1968, HDH were the company’s mainstays; they made the Supremes a lucrative franchise and the Four Tops a going concern. As songwriters, they were not conspicuously gifted at either words or music, but they were master builders of danceable rhythms, another pillar of Gordy’s faith. Dance music was Motown’s leading export.
Once HDH got rolling, they became production engineers of what came closest to the assembly line Motown was often said to be. They were able to keep pace with the company’s relentless release schedule by writing as many as two or three songs a day. Before they knew anything, they relied on the resourcefulness of the company’s gifted studio musicians. They learned to work fast—a complicated production like 1966’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” the Four Tops’ greatest hit, might take two hours to record—by assembling songs from warehoused parts: one of these from their inventory of verses, one of those from their stockpile of hooks, bringing to bear classical influences they picked up, like the pipes they smoked as part of the college-boy poses they adopted when they got successful, and the gimcrackeries of the earliest generation of electronic musical devices.
HDH were stewards of a shop that was innovative in ways that only the aggressively self-taught can be when they are working under the pressures of time, budget, equipment constraints, and fierce internal competition, and buoyed by serial successes:
After [the Supremes’ “Baby Love”] became a hit, somebody wrote about the genius of handclapping on the backbeat. Said it was a new sound, revolutionized pop music. Hell, it wasn’t even handclapping. Ain’t no way we gonna pay twelve people session fees to clap hands. It was two by fours, man, two by fours hooked together with springs and some guy stompin’ on them to make a backbeat. We knocked that song off in two takes.5
Continually present among the comings and goings of artists and producers were the musicians Gordy assembled in his house band, known around the company as the Funk Brothers, although they were never identified that way because Gordy didn’t regard “funk” as a word fit for polite company. He plucked many of them out of Detroit’s underemployed jazz players and suckered them into signing on for low wages with the unmet promise of being able to record the music they really loved on Motown’s jazz label. These musicians were instrumental in defining the sound that sold 250 million records, and Gordy kept them fully employed for fifteen years, transforming them in the process from the unknown and idle into the uncredited and underpaid. Some were shrewd enough negotiators to end up making more than many of the singers anyway, yet a pair who didn’t—bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin, who were among the most influential musicians of their time, were still the company’s most exploited employees. On tour, they took to calling their designated section at the back of the bus “Harlem,” and referred to the front, where the singing artists rode, as “Broadway.” Feeling left out of the strenuous social climbing going on around them, their disposition toward what they could see of Gordy’s ambitions turned gently ironic. For him, no place was warmer than the shadow of Ed Sullivan’s smile. And like others of their tribe’s unassimilable many, they would have known that when he got there they wouldn’t be anywhere around.
For more than forty years, those who joined the Nation of Islam, from the many thousands who were converted in prisons to the college-trained who briefly alighted during the height of its fashion in the late Sixties and early Seventies, were in some degree exposed to the extraordinary tale told by W.D. Fard—a detailed historical narrative appended to a creation myth. Billed as “Knowledge of Self and Others,” it was church doctrine and, however seriously it was taken, it proved resistant to the occasional incursions of the truly orthodox and the scathing attacks by the fallen-away. It was the stuff of children’s catechism and the entrance exam to the Nation that was the novitiate’s highest hurdle.
The underlying premise of Fardian theology that separates it from traditional Islam is its repudiation of divinity that is not flesh and blood—the so-called “spook God.” There were precedents on the disreputable fringes of African-American religious life; in repressive post-Reconstruction times self-declared prophets and messiahs started popping up all over the South and followed the migrations north into the bleak Depression years. Sooner or later, most began calling themselves God incarnate, from Father Jehovia to Father Divine to Father Hurley. Many preached a religio-political heterodoxy, and had their own strain of the black Christian nationalism that inhabited the cult-crowded urban landscape of the Twenties and Thirties. But none, even those who drew upon many of the same contemporaneous sources to tailor their own versions of holy writ, ever spun a story as elaborate as the one Fard set before his consignment of Detroit’s weary, worn, and sad.
It goes something like this: The original man created himself 76 trillion years ago from a single atom. He was black, and called himself Allah. Then he created others like him to assuage his loneliness. Allah and the other god-men created the universe, then concentrated on developing their homeland, Earth. They populated it with “Asiatic blackmen” who were united by skin, religion (Islam), and natural disposition (righteousness). Organized into thirteen tribes, they ruled the world from their base in Asia.
Allah was the head deity, and his knowledge and vision determined what was written. Every 25,000 years, another deity was selected from among the god-scientists to write the history of the future. In the current cycle it was foretold that a race of devils would have hegemony over the world for six thousand years.
The Tribe of Shabazz—“black-skinned,” “straight-haired,” with “delicate, fine” features—ruled magnanimously over the planet’s “golden age.” They established centers of civilization in Egypt and Mecca. An eccentric among them proposed that the tribe explore the rest of Africa. Rebuffed by the leadership, he led a renegade group into the bush. For the next several thousand years, these black men led a “jungle life”; they lost their cultural refinement and were altered genetically. Though they became more rugged physically, their hair kinked up and their features grew flatter and thicker.
Eighty-four hundred years into the current 25,000-year cycle of history, a new god was born whose destiny it would be to destroy his own people. His name was Yacub, and he is the Luciferian figure of the tale. He was born in a suburb of Mecca, fiercely intelligent, hungry for knowledge, with a precocious aptitude for scientific inquiry. When he was six, it occurred to him that if he could create a race completely different from the Original People, they could attract and dominate the Black Nation through “tricknology”—tricks, lies, and deception.
Yacub preached a distorted, materialistic brand of what was called Islam that appealed to the growing numbers of the disaffected. Yacub fomented so much trouble that the Meccan elite was forced to negotiate his resettlement, along with 59,999 of his followers, to the Aegean island of Pelan, where they set about creating their own civilization. There, by means of a vicious process of unnatural selection, the “big head scientist” began to eugenically engineer his “devil race.” He wouldn’t live to see his work completed—it took six hundred years—but artificial, blue-eyed people emerged who, while inferior to their prototype in intelligence and physical strength, were genetically programmed to oppose freedom, justice, and equality; in short, made to be natural enemies of the righteous Tribe of Shabazz. After an aborted assault on Mecca in 4000 BC, they were deported to the wilderness of West Asia (Europe), where they became so degraded over the next two thousand years that many regressed into apelike creatures with tails, and those who retained human characteristics lived like animals.
Allah was finally touched by their suffering, and sent the mulatto prophet Musa (Moses) to raise these wretched savages to a level of civilization that would enable them to rule as prophecy had ordained. Only one group among them, the Jews, were consistently faithful to Musa and his teachings, forsaking idolatry; they would be closer to the Original People in their manner of worship than any of the others, though still incapable of goodness. Under Musa’s heroic stewardship the light of civilization slowly filtered into Europe, until 400 BC, when Nimrod, “the evil demon of the white race,” rose up against him and plunged West Asia back into darkness and savagery.
Allah next sent a black prophet, Jesus, who preached to the Jews and was killed for his trouble. He was deified by conspirators who wanted to obscure God’s true nature. They also promulgated a book, the Bible, that cleverly mixed truth and lies; this whole unholy conspiracy, called Christianity, was orchestrated by the pope of Rome, who is the dragon, or devil, disclosed in the Book of Revelation.
A third prophet, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, was sent to the white people in 600 AD, to reintroduce them to Islam and counter the rampant scourge of Christianity. He died in 632 at sixty-two of a broken heart, and cursed the unregenerate Christians with his last breath, forever denying them access to Arabic language and culture, a denial that set white civilization back a thousand years.
A period of protracted war between the two faiths followed. The Crusades, represented in this account as a triumph of Islam, forced the Europeans to look westward for new territories to defile. They sailed into the Western Hemisphere intent upon profiting by the toil of others, and once they had exhausted the local supply of conscript labor, they turned to East Asia to replenish it. Beginning in 1555, by “tricknology” and coercion, Europeans brought members of the Tribe of Shabazz to America as slaves, stripping away as much original culture as they could from subsequent generations and replacing it with Christianity to promote servility, renamed their chattel “Negroes,” which meant “something dead, lifeless, neutral (not that nor this),” and made them pray to a mystery God, a “spook,” who was too remote to be of any use at all. Four hundred years of this reduced the “so-called Negroes” in America to white people wearing darker skins. Uncivilized and lost in a western precinct of hell, the misplaced descendants of the Tribe of Shabazz needed a savior. Thus, the stage was ready for W.D. Fard Muhammad’s entrance on the eve of the Great War.
Elijah Muhammad is represented here not as a prophet in the biblical sense, but rather as a courier, the last in the line of men dispatched by Allah to bring Truth to the benighted. His commission is both particular and urgent, since it is to prepare the so-called Negro in America to survive the imminent destruction of the world around him. He is the appointed intermediary between God and the Black Nation; no man’s prayer can even reach Allah unless Elijah is mentioned in it by name.
Before the final destruction of the white world, Allah would send a warning in the usual ways—pestilence, natural disasters, climatological disturbances—to afford unsaved Negroes a last opportunity to clean up their lives and embrace Islam. In the time of the Judgment, it is said, anyone answering to a European name will be shunned by Allah. The instrument of divine retribution will be a wheel-shaped spaceship a half-mile in diameter called the Mother Plane, piloted by black scientists with psychic abilities, carrying fifteen hundred smaller ships, each equipped with three dynamite-tipped drill bombs. At the hour of reckoning, the Mother Plane will hover twenty miles above the earth, release its fleet of airships over England and America, and incinerate everything below. Two black scientists on every other street corner will direct the righteous to a safe haven, wherein they can survive the conflagration.
America will burn in a great lake of fire for 390 years. The saved of the Black Nation will emerge from the ashes of dead white civilization into a new Eden, where sickness, fear, and vice will not exist, where all memory of the oppressor will have been obliterated, where people will live for a thousand years and never look older than sixteen.
The narrative unfolds with the deliberateness and particularity of a textbook history and the sweep of epic fancy of a campfire tale. It was meant to be taken as literally as good Catholics take the Virgin Birth. While many thousands pledged their allegiance to it, this clearly required, at least for some, a suspension of no little disbelief. Yet allegiances could prove at times durable, as when Louis Farrakhan, present-day Templar of the diehard upholders of these articles of faith, invoked the Mother Plane in his speech at the Million Man March.
The doctrine’s ingenuity lies in the way it is packaged to alternately jar and then gentle its small audience of country-bred Christians into an acceptance of a religion they were raised to think of as heathen. This is accomplished by its judicious consonance with much that is in the Bible. For example, Fard relied on conditioned Afro-Christians’ ingrained association of four hundred years of slavery in America with the Jewish captivity to allow them to permit him, with a little elaboration, to appropriate for the so-called Negro the Old Testament “chosenness” of the Jews. Then, by demystifying Jesus altogether—as entirely human, black, illegitimately born, basely murdered, and unresurrected—he makes it easier for people for whom Jesus wasn’t working too well to put others in His place as their intermediary between God and men.
But cleverest of all, Clegg suggests, is Fard’s making the whole of creation and all subsequent history the responsibility of men, and then placing the ultimate disposition of mankind within a predetermined cycle of history, beyond the reach of men, and deliverance in the hands of “God, who would act in his own good time.” Thus it encourages active self-help in per-sonal life, but holds the political in abeyance.
The Nation had an entente with municipal governments, but it never “pressured” them about much beyond its own landholding and business interests. As a rule Muslims didn’t vote and their leadership didn’t take positions on candidates, for discouraging political activism well suited the purposes and disposition of the Messenger of Allah as he got older, sicker, and richer in the Sixties. By 1962, he was removing himself to Arizona’s more congenial climate for months at a time. Elijah was now an established member of the propertied class and, with more to lose than ever, chary of antagonizing the government that held his tax exemption hostage. He was also trying to steer his organization clear of a threatened investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was learning to live under what was becoming the relentless oversight of the FBI. As times grew darker and meaner in the middle of the decade, Elijah Muhammad accrued stature from being a government-certified subversive without having to do more to earn it than sit in the shade on his staked-out place in that era’s racial politics, chiding his people from time to time for trying to integrate into a sinking ship.
During the last twelve years of his life, when Elijah had to deflect internal challenges to his leadership, perhaps the clearest evidence of the power the Fardian gospel held for many within the organization was their willingness on those occasions to kill or die to uphold the absolute authority of Elijah Muhammad. Even after he was gone, the schemers around Elijah who had jockeyed so hard to succeed him could never bring themselves to subvert the Messenger’s implicit will.
Of the 535 singles issued by Motown between 1960 and 1970, 357—two thirds of them—were hits, while the industrial average of hits to misses was less than 20 percent. By 1967, whites were buying about 70 percent of all the records Motown was selling. Gordy wasn’t losing his core black audience; one of his groups, the Temptations, was in the middle then of a three-year unbroken sequence of fifteen records that were all among the five most popular in the country among blacks when they were released, according to Billboard magazine’s index of black audience appeal. What Gordy was doing was providing the industry’s first measure of the relationship between the two markets when a black product line had equivalent appeal and equal access to them both. The prospect of selling more than twice as many of the same record to whites as they could to blacks is why “crossing over” has always been the Holy Grail for makers and sellers of black popular music. By the late Seventies, when sales of black music would account for about two thirds of the industry’s $3.5 billion annual take, nearly all the profits were back in the hands of six conglomerates.6
But in the middle Sixties Motown still had plenty of what the pop culture business these days calls “street credibility.” It suggested the possibility of blacks being acceptable to whites without compromising anything essential of themselves, which was what the street felt it ought to aspire to. The Temptations were as definitively the establishers of young urban black male style as rap stars are today. When they began wearing single silver bangles on their wrists in 1965, they started a fashion trend among African-American males that lasted twenty years. A year later, a dance called the “Temptation Walk,” adapted from the group’s stage choreography, had its season among black teenagers coast to coast. It wasn’t until Gordy grew obsessed with remaking Diane Ross from Brewster Homes as “the black Barbra Streisand” that he let his finger slip off his people’s pulse.
The Christmas 1968 edition of Billboard’s pop charts listed five Motown releases among its Top Ten singles. Gordy assembled his staff and announced, as if he were the CEO of some regular business routinely setting a target for next quarter’s earnings, that henceforth the company would release nothing it could not confidently predict would become a Top Ten record, and none would issue under color of its flagship, the Supremes, that wasn’t a prospective Number One. Of course, nothing like that would ever be possible in any business that depends upon anticipating the fashion cycles of the mercurial young, but then no other man who was ever in such a business would be more entitled to so arrogant a presumption. Anyone who felt indicted for most of thirty years by the implications of his family’s “if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich” brand of bootstrap Calvinism might have been as susceptible as Gordy was to the warping effect a rapid transformation from factory hand into a ten-million-dollar-a-year tycoon had on his self-esteem. Later, “I earned $387 million in sixteen years” would become his one-size-fits-all rejoinder to almost any challenge.
Gordy’s older sister made him a present that year of an oil-painted portrait which superimposed his face on Napo-leon’s torso against the backdrop of an enlarged section of a Detroit street map. It was intended to warm the splendid house that had cost a million dollars to build and appoint fifty years before Gordy bought it, and it hung over the cavernous fireplace beneath the frescoed ceilings in the gold-leafed living room. For Esther Gordy Edwards, a local politician’s wife, the portrait would also have represented what her brother and his company had come to mean to black Detroit. The automobile industry’s steady growth had produced a sizable, homeowning, black, and blue-collared middle class. Motown, the term of convenience for all of Gordy’s Motown enterprises, now served as the quasi-official trademark for the city, and nothing could have better expressed the sense of Detroit’s emergent black establishment that it was settling into influence, even permanence.
What a week of riotous burning and bloodletting in the summer of 1967 undid psychologically in Detroit, the contraction of the American car industry over the next decade and a half made irreparable. White people bailed out, leaving behind a monument to their abdication, the Renaissance Center, a colonial fortress pied-à-terre for people who lived somewhere else and occasionally needed to use the city at night. African-Americans inherited Detroit when it was already assured of becoming what it is now—the poorest, blackest big city in the country.
The fancy house on Boston Boulevard would be Gordy’s last hometown investment. After the riots, he moved the company’s headquarters away from the scarred west side into a sold-off municipal office building downtown. He never intended it to be more than a way station. By late 1967, he was spending most of his time in Los Angeles, where the highest forms of low white culture were easier to engage. He was already moving his acts out of black show business onto television and into Las Vegas. Although it would take four years, he was planning to move Motown out of Detroit.
“Pops” Gordy’s son had to have known that it was unwise for any black man to be too noticeably rich, too visibly powerful, or too openly associated with white women. So, for most of his public life, Gordy kept himself from public view. He refused awards and magazine covers, managed the press by staying out of its way, and, as Marvin Gaye put it, “married blacks and fooled around with whites.” He held his company closely and privately. He refused to allow industry regulators to audit his sales figures. He spurned any of the tax-abating strategies that were standard in the music business, because these would have come between him and direct control of his money. Besides, he would rather give the government too much than endure its scrutiny.
While he invented much of what is modern in the record business, and many of his methods resembled those that Americans thought they had learned from the Japanese twenty years later, Gordy never outgrew certain of his received cultural assumptions. “Negroes just don’t understand the kind of general market business I’m trying to run,” he groused. Gordy figured he needed Italians to promote his records and collect his money and Jews to keep his books, manage his finances, and do his lawyering. Although white people never made up more than 10 percent of all Motown employees, by 1967 four of eight vice presidents were white, and in 1977 four fifths of all the senior positions in the organization were held by white executives. This inevitably changed the sense of being family that had been so much a part of the company’s self-consciousness in its early days, and the basis of its morale.
There was still plenty of family around—Gordys comprised a third of the company’s phone directory—but as layers of strangers and corporate policy were interposed between Gordy and the creative talent, Motown’s artists and producers began to defend themselves against the sudden chill in the air by stiffening their attitudes about business. Once that happened, many got outside lawyers, asked to see the books, took another look at the substandard deals they’d signed, and left as soon as they could. Holland-Dozier-Holland, convinced that Gordy had reneged on a promise to give them stock or its cash equivalent, stopped working in 1968 and sued Gordy for millions.
With the future of the Supremes thus threatened, Gordy responded by pulling together a new team of writers and personally supervising the production of a couple of hit records that restored their luster long enough for him to launch Diana Ross. When Norman Whitfield took over, he integrated into the company’s output the wilder strains that had entered black music from Memphis and California, and with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder the company rode easily into the middle Seventies. Both Gaye and Wonder had to hardball Gordy into giving them the creative freedom they exercised ingeniously enough to make him so much richer that he had enough left over to make movies.
Nowadays Motown ceaselessly repackages the same old songs and spins off theme restaurants and Super Bowl half-time shows. A dozen or so memoirs have appeared in the past several years from Gordy’s ex-stars and ex-wives, even former valets and publicists.7 In each of these accounts a moment comes when Gordy is asked to rise to some occasion of crisis in the narrator’s life. “Don’t worry,” he says to them all. “I will always take care of you.” These words haunt many stories and they are akin to the Godfather’s kiss, because the many who heard them ended up more or less like former Temptations David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks before they died, grinding away in failing voice in some forlorn oldies roadshow, sitting in a hotel room at dawn in a place like Tulsa, and drunkenly excoriating Gordy for having ruined their lives.
To Gordy, sentiment had its uses but the money mattered most, and the only kind of bargains he made were hard on somebody else. He divorced Raynoma Gordy almost as soon as she helped him start the company, and not long after that she was banished to New York to open an office and look after his publishing interests there. As soon as she was set up, he cut off the money and, in desperation, she sold five thousand copies of a Motown hit to a local distributor. Gordy had her arrested for bootlegging and hauled back to Detroit, where she had to sign away her interest in the business and any future claims upon it.
When Mary Wells turned twenty-one in 1964, the contract she had signed with Motown when she was seventeen became invalid and needed to be renewed. On the strength of a record called “My Guy,” that year she was the biggest-selling pop female vocalist in the world. Wells was the first to make the company open its books to her, and whatever she saw she liked so little she immediately signed with another label. Although it could never be proven, it was widely reported that thereafter Gordy paid disc jockeys all over the country not to play her records. Her career was permanently blighted. A variation of the same story happened to Florence Ballard of the Supremes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, as well as David Ruffin of the Temptations. But as rancorous as many of these partings were, none of the aggrieved who are still around can bring themselves to speak of Gordy without awe and grudging affection. He gave them all when they were young the identities that became their lifelong addictions.
One of the hoariest truisms in the black music business is that a white girl who sounds black, in the right hands, can make millions. Gordy never found one of those, so he took a black girl and made her into a white girl who sounded black, and made more millions. If Smokey Robinson was his greatest achievement, Diana Ross was his crowning triumph. Once his Galatea was up and running, Gordy lost interest in making records or running a record company. She was his excuse to start making movies. For one thing, he was a premature synergist who recognized the cross-marketing potential of a movie and its soundtrack. For another, movies were the major leagues of white show business, as well as the stuff of Gordy’s daydreams. He was a sucker for the detritus of white popular culture: he had, after all, once been entranced by Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds. He put up the money for Lady Sings the Blues, doctored the script, whispered in Ross’s ear before she played every scene, and commandeered the editing room. The movie was hugely successful financially, if not critically; it cost $3.5 million to make in 1973 and grossed nearly five times as much. Diana Ross was nominated for an Academy Award.
This so emboldened him that two years later, during the making of her next movie, Gordy harried the distinguished British director Tony Richardson off the set and took over the picture himself. Mahogany made money but was an artistic disaster. Gordy filled half his entry in the 1977 Who’s Who with his movie-making accomplishments, and never directed again. Ross’s next movie with Gordy, The Wiz, a black Wizard of Oz, lost all the money the first two made, and she hasn’t worked in films since.
Motown’s assault on movie, television, and theatrical production petered out, and Gordy retreated to life as a Bel Air squire in a house Red Skelton had built. By 1979, the company’s chief operating officer was someone named Michael Roshkind, and Motown was just another middle-sized record company in a marketplace becoming the property of giants.
It could be said that Elijah Muhammad’s troubles began again when the evidence of his serial dalliances with young secretaries couldn’t any longer be obscured. But their root causes had more to do with the young people Malcolm X had drawn into the Nation. The young are activists by disposition, and these were living in agitated times; Elijah was increasingly isolated and so, it followed, was the curia in Chicago. These antagonisms within the organization produced two pockets of turbulence ten years apart. The first involved the falling away of Malcolm, the surrogate son.
Elijah’s women and their children were a serious inconvenience to the archbishops of a church wherein adultery was a banishing offense. But they were disinclined even to snarl at the feeding hand. Instead, they went scurrying to find suitable scripture to support and explain the Messenger’s behavior. They found it in a Koranic reference to honoring the concubines of a prophet, advised that in any case messengers of God were not to be judged but obeyed, and stashed the young mothers out of sight. Malcolm came upon this badly kept secret after a number of old-line members of Temple #2 had already left in disapproval. Malcolm, a moralist, feeling betrayed and left out besides, was noisy in his disillusionment. This gave his enemies in Elijah’s court leverage to wedge themselves between Malcolm and the Messenger.
As the Nation’s representative frequently called upon in those days to speak for it before thickets of cameras and microphones, Malcolm was almost always asked for comment on the news of the day. When he was interviewed after the Kennedy assassination, he tried to make the point, not unreasonably, that the violence endemic in American society had produced another violent result. But he stumbled over a metaphor about chickens coming home to roost that plainly suggested an indecent relish in the occasion, and landed in outraged headlines. Elijah, who well remembered when the newspapers in Detroit hounded Fard out of town, recoiled in instant alarm. This was the opportunity to distance the organization from Malcolm by issuing an immediate, stinging repudiation of its minister’s impolitic remarks, then by suspending and silencing him for an indefinite time. Thus were established the positions from which they played their relationship’s mortal endgame.
Once Elijah became convinced Malcolm was both disloyal to him and threatening to the Nation, he moved remorselessly to cut him away. He replaced his star on the New York stage with the understudy Malcolm himself had chosen and lovingly groomed, Louis X of Boston, who soon enough would seize as well the vacated national platform. Elijah brought his in-again-out-again apostate son Wallace, Malcolm’s only ally in the royal family, snivelingly to heel. When it became clear that the break with Malcolm was unmendable, Elijah invoked his organization’s command-and-control discipline against him, first to isolate, then to demonize him. As the campaign quickened and grew harsher, he allowed others to say in public what he expressed privately, that Malcolm was guilty of capital crimes. Eventually, some aroused vigilantes from the thuggish Newark mosque ended Malcolm’s life. Elijah said he was surprised and deeply saddened to hear the news.
Ironically, Malcolm had invented the most effective weapon used against him, the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, which was as well a source of instruction in the Muslim way of commerce. For years, clean-cut men hawking newspapers in suits and bow ties were a regular feature of urban American life. Every male Muslim in the ranks was required to sell a consignment of papers, which they paid for in advance. This burden eventually weighed as heavily on each member as $88 a month. Obviously, this flimsily veiled form of taxation yielded substantial revenue in steady, predictable increments.
Although its publishers claimed a biweekly circulation of 600,000 copies, no one could say how many of these ended up in closets or the trunks of cars. Still, the paper was read in black America, and it was skillfully used to make the Nation’s enterprises seem grander than they were and its voice in tribal affairs respectable and courageous. As the civil rights movement ripened into Black Power in the late Sixties, the African traditionalists and militant renouncers of white American society who were so much the seasonal fashion began to think of Elijah Muhammad and his program as a tribal totem. But Elijah was no cultural nationalist. He amplified the muted anti-African strand in Fardian doctrine by dismissing non-Islamic Africa as insufficiently “civilized.” He never wavered much in the assumptions about Africa he had inherited from the missionary church culture of his youth. He disparaged Afros, beards, and traditional African clothing as a reversion to “jungle styles.” While no one maintains that the Nation of Islam ever enforced a color caste, it remains true that none of its succession of public faces was ever dark-skinned. Muhammad Ali came closest, but Elijah never chose him and, much as he recognized the value of having the world’s most famous athlete near the top of his marquee, never thoroughly approved of him either.
Elijah was as conservative temperamentally as any deep-country grandfather. He denounced the Black Panthers as “dangerous” and ill conceived; they drew government attention too near his places of business. Elijah had lived too long with the inconvenience of being considered by white people a dangerous man to tolerate his tribe’s unruly young, who were disturbing his quiet empire-building by trying to be thought of as dangerous. His instincts formed in a place and time when a black man who had anything had to pretend he didn’t if he wanted to hold on to it. So he kept a purposeful distance from this newest generation of black subversives. Nevertheless, the era’s nationalist rhetoricians carried Elijah through the streets of black America like a plaster saint on a pole. As Jesse Jackson put it, “During our colored and Negro days, he was black.” And by then, in Professor Clegg’s estimation, he was presiding over “the richest black organization in American history.” Elijah seemed well on his way to building the permanent black institutions others were just starting to talk about.
By the early Seventies, the Nation of Islam held enough legitimate property to share the class interests of the American establishment. In 1973, the Illinois state legislature, which in scratchier times had nearly decertified the Muslim schools, recognized “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his organization” for a “distinct, positive community program.” A year later, Mayor Richard Daley declared an “Honorable Elijah Muhammad Day” in Chicago. When, in 1974, after all the years of surveillance, infiltration, and dirty tricks, the FBI sent a couple of its agents to talk to him directly, they came away impressed and reassured, reporting that Elijah said “he believed in law and order…and loved America very much.”
Well into his seventies, infirm but not feeble, Elijah stuck close to Chicago, where he occasionally pruned his inner circle and made sure that the business of his Nation stayed business, and in those days business was better than ever. He was addicted to real estate, probably because of a landless youth spent absorbing his elders’ abiding country faith in land as the only unassailable currency. This was a manic period of acquiring progressively richer properties in Chicago and conceiving grandiose construction projects. He put up an office building. He made plans for a hospital and a huge, Mormonesque tower to house an Islamic Center. High-living Chicago supporters bought Elijah a private jet. They festooned his head with a jewel-encrusted fez said to have cost $150,000. A two-million-dollar royal family compound of five houses was built in Chicago during the early Seventies.
Elijah seemed incapable of staying anywhere without buying a house; he bought his last in a Mexican resort town just weeks before he died. He was quiet about living well but unapologetic; he advised his rank and file to hold on to his unchanging hand and “wait until I pull them up.” But all that seemed to trickle down was the taste for conspicuous consumption. Some of the local ministry had taken to dressing like pimps.
An attempt by an outlaw faction to assassinate Elijah’s son-in-law, Supreme Captain Raymond Sharrieff, in 1971 provoked two years of a tit-for-tat internecine shooting war that left bodies stacked up on both sides. It was a lawless time, when some of the unreconstructed within a few renegade mosques robbed banks, dealt drugs, and murdered in Elijah’s name. But it subsided as quickly as it took the Nation’s permanent government to reassert its control. Through all of this, there was never enough damage to the organization’s reputation as a solid enterprise to prevent it from being able to attract managers. But the recruits were too few and arrived too late to keep the greedy and the incompetent from mismanaging the best business the Nation ever had.
The Muslim farms never did well, but their existence required the directors of the enterprise to buy a fleet of trucks and create a national distribution network. It was in place in the inflationary time late in the first Nixon administration, when Elijah Muhammad saw an opportunity to bring a basic commodity to market in black neighborhoods more cheaply than the established food industry could. To do it, he had to maneuver into international commerce. Elijah’s agents arranged to buy boatloads of frozen whiting from Peru. When the banks he dealt with refused to provide the letters of credit he needed, Elijah bought control of a small bank on Chicago’s South Side.
The Muslims chartered ships and brought their fish into ports all over the United States. They did their own stevedoring and dared unions and port authorities to intercede. They succeeded in profitably selling fish in African-American communities for between a quarter and fifty cents a pound at a time when meat cost three times as much. Clegg asserts profits of the fish business exceeded a million dollars in 1975. Yet, within months of Elijah’s death early that year, the Nation of Islam was nearly five million dollars in debt.
Elijah Muhammad died without leaving a will or publicly designating a successor. He did leave 3.2 million unspent dollars in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad Poor Fund. Before his silver-lined coffin had been lowered into its bronze and copper electronically sealed vault, a peaceable transfer of absolute power had already happened. The choice of Elijah’s seventh son, Wallace Muhammad, was as improbable in one way as it was inevitable in another. After all, according to church lore, Master Fard had both named and ordained Wallace in utero, by inscribing the letter “W” on the back of a door in his father’s house. But Wallace had been a prodigal ever since his conversion to orthodox Islam in the early Sixties. Only his inability to make an independent living made bearable his father’s harsh and painfully public chastisements whenever Wallace openly expressed his disdain for the sectarian cult of man-worship. Wallace’s history suggested that he was a man accustomed to compromising an inconvenient principle. But it may have been that the presence of his father made him weak, because in the aftermath of Elijah’s death he displayed boldness and courage in measures much larger than anyone but himself could have predicted.
Even before his father died, Wallace had beaten back the pretenders to his presumptive throne, including the wily Farrakhan. Upon ascending, he immediately purged the venal church bureaucrats in Chicago and many of their local franchise holders, dismantled the paramilitary Fruit of Islam, disclosed the Nation’s indebtedness, and began selling off all the businesses except for the farms, the fish, and the newspaper. He officially renounced the doctrine of Fard’s divinity, discounted the rest of his father’s theologizing, summarily converted the organization to orthodoxy of the Sunni variety, opened it to people of all races, and renamed it the World Community of Islam in the West.
A man of priestly inclinations, Wallace lacked the wherewithal to keep the enterprise together. Farrakhan bided his time for three years, then departed with as many of the unreformed—probably numbering in the hundreds—as shared his desire to repossess the original Nation of Islam. The Nation he left behind had fed so long on itself that its business organization was thin enough to collapse as suddenly as a tissue-paper tent in a stiff wind. In the end, it is impossible to know how much money was lost or stolen, since for most of his stewardship Elijah, constitutionally unwilling to think of himself as a taxpayer, avoided leaving any audit trails. But what he built over three decades was, within three years of his passing, an empire of empty shells.
Elijah’s decision to die intestate snarled a probate court for more than a decade. Besides his eight children with Clara, thirteen others stepped forward to claim a share. Maybe he left no will to confound the IRS, which he knew to be circling overhead in a slow, descending spiral. The taxman landed, but by the time he could feed there were only bones left to pick. Elijah’s reticence had the effect of assuring that his estate would eventually be handed over to Wallace and the family to settle once the appetite for public scandal had passed.
To the very end, Elijah loudly denied having any interest in who would succeed him. “There is no need for a successor when a man has got the divine truth and has brought you face-to-face with God,” he had growled to reporters of his last public conversation. He had to have known what Wallace would do. For thirty years the Nation was a totalitarian state because its governor would let no other objective supercede holding it firmly together. Then he turned it over to a man he was sure meant to pull it all apart. We are left to conclude that Elijah Muhammad intended that the world he had created would end with him.
There are still reminders of the permanent effects of Berry Gordy on at least one generation of Americans in a period that barely lasted twenty years and ended twenty years ago. Last November, on successive nights, NBC broadcast a two-part made-for-television movie about the Temptations. About forty-nine million of us watched each segment. The Motown Gordy knew is no less a historical artifact for seeming to be still alive in a culture that preserves everything it can sell for as long as it can be sold. Several years ago Motown’s corporate foster parent, MCA, hoped to re-create Gordy in André Harrell, the young rap music mogul it hired to bring the company back to life. That he couldn’t, and went without leaving a trace, assures that what Gordy built will never again have a modern form.
Gordy came early into knowing what our spent century has lately disclosed: black America’s most valuable natural resource is its popular culture. There has been a struggle going on for a hundred years over who would own the exploitation rights. Gordy was an industrial pioneer in turning black culture into a commodity—both its first, and arguably its best, mass producer and mass marketer. That he happened to be black made him, in a limited sense, revolutionary, even though he never served directly any cause but his own. His imprint is unmistakably upon the youngish men who currently comprise the music business’s largest and richest black proprietary class ever. Nearly all these rap music tycoons—who, like Gordy, sell 70 percent of their goods to white people—have, at one time or another, said they aspired to be “the next Berry Gordy.”
It is easier these days to make as much money in the music business as Gordy did thirty years ago, but it will be harder for this newest breed of his emulators to hold on to as much of it as Gordy has. The rap music sector of the industry, with its relatively low capitalization requirements and its huge windfalls, has more than a little in common with the drug trade. Because they are legitimate, rap music’s captains are even more susceptible to contemporary America’s drugs of choice—celebrity and easy money. What once assured the transmission of the essentially conservative social traditions of African-American life, and produced a man as implacably disciplined as Gordy, broke under the surge of a culture that teaches its young that the value of a human being is estimated by what he or she can consume. This idea has always been the beat that gives street commerce its regulating pulse, “cop and blow,” which is at the core of black street culture, whose values have never been more consonant with those of the mainstream.
Given the music these quick-risen rap millionaires sell—all self-advertisement, sexual swagger, and emblematic rage, with brand names like “hardcore” and “gangster”—it seems unlikely that any of them will ever own an evergreen song catalog like Gordy’s, which for two decades made him about $20 million a year. The summer before last he sold a half-interest in his publishing companies to EMI, a British conglomerate, for $132 million; he has the right to sell the other half in 2002 for another $250 million. Gordy is a rare phenomenon in American life; he was labor who became capital and ripened into idle rich in half a lifetime.
Elijah Muhammad’s legacy belongs less to Louis Farrakhan—the man who publicly claims it now—than to the more than a million African-Americans who converted to Islam in the last thirty years, most ushered into their faith by teachers who had first heard Fard’s narrow catechism and then moved into a broader orthodoxy. The popularity of Islam among African-Americans bespeaks one response to the requirement that any who would feel intact in this society must learn to live constructively with the ineffaceable brand of Otherness it imposes on them all. The stories of black Americans converge around the points in each of their lives when they all face their own decisions about what kind of citizens they will choose to become of a country most can’t help but love and can’t help but know will break their hearts.
—This is the second of two articles.
June 10, 1999
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”: ↩
Smokey Robinson, Inside My Life (Jove Books, 1990), p. 125. ↩
Quoted in Peter Benjamin, The Story of Motown (Grove, 1979), p. 90. ↩
Quoted in Robert Pruter, Chicago Soul (University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 77. ↩
Earl Van Dyke, quoted by Gerri Hirshey in her book Nowhere to Run (Times Books, 1984), p. 189. ↩
In 1978 these were: EMI, Warner Communications, CBS, RCA, Polygram, and MCA. ↩
These include books by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson (of the Supremes), Otis Wilson (of the Temptations), Tony Tucker (ex-valet of the Temptations and the Supremes), Michael Jackson, William “Smokey” Robinson, Raynoma Gordy, Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Mable John, Kim Weston, and Marvin Gaye (the best of all these books, a posthumous “as told to” by the estimable David Ritz, called Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (Da Capo, 1991). ↩