Standing in the Shadows of Dreamgirls

by Mark Reynolds

28 January 2007

Entrepreneurs of color owe an enormous debt to Berry Gordy, whose path from hit-chasing songwriter to world-renown business mogul is, as much as if not more than those beautiful ladies on the movie screen, the stuff of dreams.

Dreamgirls may turn out to be the most chatted-about film of 2006, with all due apologizes to the year’s breakout movie stars, Sasha Baron Cohen and Al Gore. 

At first, it was all about Beyonce and her stab at global pop dominion (music, film, fashion – what’s next, postmodern architecture?).  Then there was the news that Jennifer Holliday, whose outsized vocals put the stage musical on the map 25 years ago, was excluded from any aspect of the movie, even promotional interviews.  When the film finally came out, some blogger bitched that the promo posters depicted the heroines from behind, as if not showing the faces of the actresses and conjuring instead an image implying glamour and backstage intrigue somehow belittled or dehumanized black women en masse. 

The movie triumphed at the Golden Globes, winning best musical/comedy picture and acting statuettes for Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.  Then, seemingly the whole world howled, or at least scratched its collective head, over the Academy Awards non-nomination for best picture (why people think awards nominations, which don’t have one iota of effect over the artistic potency of a project and, as far as black folk are concerned, are dubious measures of racial progress at best, are such a big deal is and will always be a mystery to me).  With eight Oscar nominations anyway, the Dreamgirls juggernaut hasn’t exactly slowed down, and its legion of fans will be glued to their TVs on the big night, lip-synching their way through nominated songs “Listen”, “Patience”, and “Love You I Do”/

If you haven’t seen it yet (although between the project’s history and the Hollywood hype it may feel like you have), there are several ways to plug into the onscreen story. You can get caught up in the gowns and choreography, or pick sides between the limelight-loving Deena or the kicked-to-the-curb Effie, or realize how eerily the story line presages the Behind the Music franchise (or, if you’re in Chicago, you can momentarily set aside the Barack Obama-for-Saviour-oops-I-mean-President hype and cheer on homegirl Hudson).  Or you can dig a little deeper to discover the real fairy tale.

That would be the tale of the place that spawned Diana Ross and Florence Ballard (the real Deena and Effie, respectively) and their co-Supremes, not to mention Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and the Jackson Five.  That would be the tale of the place where road-tested acts Jr. Walker and the All Stars and Gladys Knight and the Pips crossed over to the big stage.  That would be the tale of the place where James Jamerson did for the electric bass what Coleman Hawkins had done for the saxophone and Charlie Christian for the electric guitar, by showing the world just how much music the right player could coax from it.  That would be the tale of the place where the house songwriters faced their toughest competition – each other – in weekly showdowns to see whose work would be recorded by a crackerjack team of studio musicians, and go on to be part of “The Sound of Young America”. 

That would be the tale of Motown itself.

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From its inception in 1959 in Detroit to the early ‘70s, Motown was the strongest, most consistent American presence in pop music.  Sure, there was Bob Dylan resurrecting and refashioning rural blues and folk into cryptic, poetic protest anthems.  And there was the friends-and-family act the Beach Boys, torn between the Boys’ being true to their school and Brian Wilson being true to the pet sounds in his head.  And there was Aretha Franklin’s evolution from gospel prodigy to mispackaged chanteuse to Queen of Soul.  And there would have been Sam Cooke and Otis Redding had death not claimed them.  And let’s not discount New York City studio pop, Southern soul, and San Francisco psychedelia in shaping the music of their respective times. 

But Motown is the musical constant that spans an era of incredible change and upheaval in American society.  Its glory years connect the winged-fin design of ‘50s automobiles to Ralph Nader’s screed Unsafe at Any Speed to the first wave of Japanese imports.  Its amazing run began when Queen for a Day was still on the air, and ended during the infancy of Ms. magazine.  President Eisenhower was warning people shortly after Motown started about the onset of something called the military-industrial complex; less than 10 years later we were stuck in Vietnam.  Motown began before the lunch counter sit-ins, and still mattered after ghetto riots had supplanted determined nonviolence.

Motown wasn’t always on the vanguard of things. In fact, Motown was, on many counts, far from noble or even decent. Dreamgirls is a backstage musical with changed names and conflated events, but the damage done to Ballard was real, and not isolated.  Numerous artists got screwed by the machine; the savvier ones, like Knight and the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team (behind more hits than I can count), left as soon as they got the chance.  Motown was, for all its musical glory, artistically conservative almost to its early demise.  It had to get dragged kicking and screaming into the flower-power and early funk vibes of the late ‘60s, and refused to release Gaye’s groundbreaking single “What’s Going On?” (‘70) until he threatened not to sing another note.  Wonder managed his maturation from prepubescent phenom to grown-up performer better than perhaps any other child star ever, but he did it secretly, with no help asked from or offered by his surrogate father figures at Hitsville U.S.A. 

None of that lessens Motown’s ultimate impact on American culture.  It forged a new direction for black pop music: undeniably (but not all-the-way-down-in-the-gutbucket) black, strong musicianship, a compelling storyline, gussied up for mass (read: white) audiences, not watered down.  It was exciting without being threatening, innovative without extreme edginess. Three minutes at a time, Motown made dreams come true for its young stars, and inspired countless others.  Its hits have proven to be far more durable than most of their competition from the era, and equally inescapable, even if you never listen to the radio; they show up on commercials, movie soundtracks, and in-store muzak.  It has been dissected, rhapsodied about, ripped to shreds and put back together in scholarly tomes and trashy tell-alls alike.  Its legacy will never die, and that’s not just because of the skillion reissues of the music and tributes to it.

It’s also because Motown is as much an entrepreneurial triumph as an artistic success.

Motown wasn’t the first indie record label to change the shape and sound of American music; such efforts date back to the ‘20s.  So does the lineage of black-owned labels; previous endeavors had introduced to America the likes of Ethel Waters and Ray Charles by the time Berry Gordy set up shop with $US800 in startup capital.  But Gordy was the right person with the right vision in the right place at the right time.  As a songwriter with a couple of hits to his name, he knew how the music industry functioned.  Detroit auto assembly lines fed his ideas for efficient music production.  There was plenty of available talent, with musicians from the vibrant club scene and a public school system with strong music and English programs.  The black middle class entered the ‘60s eager to flex its growing economic muscle in the mainstream American marketplace, and to assert its worthiness to participate in that marketplace at every level.  And the burgeoning civil rights movement down South gave blacks everywhere a sense of hope and pride.

Gordy rode this perfect storm masterfully.  He produced music that hit the sweet spot between black pop sass and mainstream polish.  He set up publishing and distribution arms to maintain as much control over the product’s path to market as possible.  He steered clear from overt political sloganizing or anything else that smacked of social commentary, preferring instead to package his acts as perfectly proper and safe for mass consumption.  He expanded into new markets with the Motortown Revue tours of Great Britain, and spun off subsidiary labels (Gordy, Tamla, Soul) with their own brand identities.  Although his treatment of performers was not always honorable (the same can be said of most of his contemporaries in the business), it would be years before he took any public heat for it; any discussion of his business ethics in the early years centered around the fact that Motown had become a formidable player in American pop music, at a level no other black-owned enterprise to date could claim.  In fact, for many years Motown ranked as the most successful black-owned business in any field.

For all of Robinson’s songwriting genius and the Temptations’ representation of black male coolness – and the higher levels of pure, unadorned talent many Motown performers possessed – the Supremes might have been Motown’s most important creation.  It was their evolution from the Primettes, round-the-way girls copping their look from what they could afford in the ‘hood, to glamour icons suitable for The Ed Sullivan Show or primo nightclubs like New York City’s Copacabana (at a time when images of black female fashion and beauty were nowhere to be found in the mainstream) that most closely parallels Motown’s own arc.  While all the Motown acts went to charm school, took dance lessons, and were dutifully scrubbed and prepped for crossover success, Gordy took personal interest in the Supremes, and specifically Ross, as the glittering jewel atop the crown.  They got the best songs, the best outfits, the most promotion, and the most attention from the boss, to the lasting bitterness of many other acts.  It’s easy to fault Gordy on that count, but harder to argue with the results: from 1964 to 1967, only the Beatles were a more successful pop group.

The Supremes, and Motown’s entire mainstream-focused philosophy, suffered as late ‘60s politics and culture turned pop music towards a harder edge; by then they were officially known as Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Gordy had turned his attention towards Hollywood and making Ross a movie star (which worked well at first, with 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues).  He used them to introduce the Jackson 5 to the world, even though B-list Motown acts Knight and Bobby Taylor were the ones who actually championed the band.  Effie-oops-I-mean-Ballard was forced out in 1967 (and died destitute in 1976); the reconstituted group continued its hit streak until Ross was launched as a solo act in ‘70.  By that time, only the Temptations (who also had a makeover circa ’67, with new producer Norman Whitfield and new lead singer Dennis Edwards) seemed to be in step with the times – but even that was largely a reaction to the marketplace from Gordy, always more businessman than artist.

After Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles from Detroit in 1972 to pursue the movie business, the heart of the music operation faltered and never recovered.  The Funk Brothers, the legendary engine behind a decade’s worth of great music, continued to work in Detroit, and didn’t receive their full props until the Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) concert documentary and CD.  Gaye and Wonder made legendary albums, Ross extended her iconic diva status into the disco era and beyond (while the remaining Supremes soldiered on for a bit), Smokey had hits every few years or so, and the other major acts from the ‘60s settled into a middle age of oldies tours and memoir writing.  But there was no new assembly line of hits – that model was now passé, as artists sought to exercise the creative freedom Gordy was loath to relinquish (such reluctance helped drive the Jacksons from the plantation at the height of their popularity). While there have been some big-time acts on the label since its glory years (the Commodores, Rick James, Boyz II Men), the Motown brand doesn’t carry the same panache for today’s pop audience that it did for their parents and grandparents. 

And it hasn’t for a pretty long time, at that. By the time of the retrospective TV special Motown 25 in 1983 (remembered in part for Ross’ arm-waving usurping of the spotlight from her bandmates and Michael Jackson’s moonwalking usurping of the spotlight from everyone), Motown was already more of a vehicle for nostalgia than a real-time player.  The soundtrack to The Big Chill (1983), with boomer college pals reconnecting with their youth while Motown hits churned away at virtually every key moment in the story, opened up a huge door for Motown to cash in on its prodigious back catalog (that the rush to reissue old product in the burgeoning compact disc format happened around the same time didn’t hurt).  Motown has written the textbook on congratulating itself for its previous success, and finding new ways to squeeze new cash from it; expect the nostalgia machine to rev up again for the inevitable celebrations two years from now when the brand turns 50.  Hip-O Select is currently in the middle of reissuing every single Motown track recorded from ’59 to ’71, if you’ve got the bucks.  If not, there’s a reissue package at any price point you’d care to spend.

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Gordy sold Motown to an investment group in 1988, for $61 million – not a bad ROI from $800.  At the time, many bemoaned the fact that a major black business was no longer black-owned.  But as would be the case with the sales of Black Entertainment Televison to Viacom in 2000 and Essence magazine to Time Inc. in 2005, there weren’t other blacks able to pony up a suitable figure for the Motown brand.  Say whatever you will about the implications of these sales to the black community at-large, it’s a testament to the entrepreneurial success of Gordy, Robert Johnson at BET, and Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith at Essence that they built their babies so large, only the largest corporations in the land could afford to buy them.

And it’s not like black music entrepreneurship died when Gordy cashed out.  In the years since Motown’s first release, there have been numerous models of black ownership of record labels: artists seeking control of their artistry (starting with Sam Cooke, and including among others Curtis Mayfield and even Ike Turner for a hot minute); artists hustling their way into the limelight (Too Short selling product out of his car); artists-turned-businesspersons (Gamble & Huff, Sylvia Robinson); industry insiders tired of working for someone else (Clarence Avant); and folks looking in from outside the game who saw a chance to make a buck and went for it (Russell Simmons).  In their own ways, they and all their fellow entrepreneurs of color owe an enormous debt to Gordy, whose path from hit-chasing songwriter to world-renown business mogul is, as much as if not more than those beautiful ladies on the movie screen, the stuff of dreams.

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Mark is currently researching black-owned record labels for a book project.


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