A new sound was cropping up in Detroit in the late '50s, a sound quite unlike anything heard before.
The gospelly lead singing that Ray Charles, Johnny and Eugene Tanner of the “5” Royales, and Sam Cooke (who was still finding his way in the pop world while putting out hits for [Bob] Keen) had introduced was catching on, but it didn’t have a name just yet. More new talents were doing it, though; in 1958 a group from Chicago, the Impressions, had a smash with “For Your Precious Love” with lead singer Jerry Butler pouring out his plea with emotion and precision, and in 1959, Mercury introduced Brook Benton, a silky-voiced veteran of the Camden Jubilee Singers who followed Sam Cooke’s lead and went pop, scoring a #1 R&B hit and top-ten pop hit with “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” The word for this sort of music wouldn’t fully emerge before the end of the year, when the Cannonball Adderley Quintet recorded a live album in a San Francisco jazz club that included a twelve-minute workout called “That There.” Jazz was progressing nicely, and was popular, but some of its practitioners felt that it was becoming too abstract, including [Julian Edwin] Adderley, a rotund, extroverted alto saxophonist. “That There” not only showed off Adderley’s band, but it was also danceable, and, while adhering to blues changes, had a groove that helped propel sales of The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco higher than any of his previous efforts. When the jazz press asked what he called this new approach, he told them it was soul. And, in fact, Atlantic had already used the word in the titles of the 1958 Ray Charles-Milt Jackson albums Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting. It was a term that was beginning to circulate in black communities.
Another milestone in the coming of soul was a strange revival of an old act. Early in 1959, George Treadwell, manager of the Drifters, had fired everyone in the group and hired a new batch of Drifters, a vocal group formerly known as the Five Crowns. The old group hadn’t had a hit since Clyde McPhatter had left, but Treadwell figured the brand still had some miles left on it, so he informed Atlantic that the Drifters were ready to do a session. Atlantic put [Jerry] Leiber and Stoller on the case as producers, and Treadwell handed them a song that he had half credit on, "There Goes My Baby.” The arrangement was based on a Brazilian rhythm that was popular at the time called the baion, so it looked ready to go until they got to the studio. It just failed to gel. A tympani was out of tune. Mike Stoller had a framework for an arrangement, and a guy named Stan Applebaum was filling it in. As Leiber remembered later, “Stanley wrote something that sounded like some Caucasian takeoff and we had this Latin thing going on this out-of-tune tympani and the Drifters were singing something in another key, but the total effect, there was something magnetic about it ... We took the playbacks to Atlantic one afternoon to play them for Ahmet [Ertegun] and Jerry ... and we were saying ‘Oh, there’s nothing salvageable about this’ and then we played this one side and Mike said ‘There’s something fascinating about it. You know, it’s a fucking mess, but there’s something very magnetic about it.’” Wexler proclaimed his disdain, but Ertegun thought it should be released. He was right; although it sounded like nothing anybody had ever done, the lead singer, Ben E. King, sold the song with his passionate delivery, and then, in the middle, there was a weird instrumental break featuring strings! Nobody had ever used strings on a rhythm and blues record before, so no wonder Leiber was so afraid; they’d spent a lot of money on this track, and it came out sounding sideways, due to the odd modal framework Applebaum had cast the string interlude in. “I’d be listening to the radio sometimes and hear it,” he said, “and I was convinced it sounded like two stations playing one thing.” But the radio was playing it, wasn’t it?
In Detroit, the new sound was cropping up in the clubs, and Berry Gordy was tired of writing hits and misses for other people. He’d assembled a bunch of like-minded souls around him -- mostly would-be performers, but also his sister Anna, his wife, Raynoma, and songwriters Bill “Smokey” Robinson of the Miracles and Roquel “Billy” Davis. He still needed money, and after the flop of his 3-D Record Mart his family’s Ber-Berry Co-op Savings Fund was reluctant to loan him any more money. He needed $800, he figured, and, after refining his plans and running the numbers, he finally presented them with a framework they’d accept. He began by setting up a music publishing company, Jobete Music, to administer the songs that he’d release on the label he envisioned heading eventually, and in December 1958, he went into United Sound, the best studio in Detroit, with a twenty-year-old singer named Marv Johnson, and a band consisting of Thomas “Beans” Bowles on flute and saxophone, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina on guitars, James Jamerson on bass, and Benny Benjamin on drums and cut “Come to Me” b/w “Whisper.” He then pressed it up and released it on his new label, Tamla, as Tamla 101, in late January 1959. The record took off so fast locally that Gordy realized he couldn’t yet keep up with the potential demand, so he leased it to United Artists, which got it to #5 on the R&B charts and #30 on the pop charts. (Johnson stayed on United Artists, and Gordy produced most of his records, including his bestselling one, “You Got What It Takes,” in 1960.) Gordy took the money and put it back in the company, going back into the studio with a kid he’d used to demo songs he and Tyran Carlo had written for Jackie Wilson, Eddie Holland. Again, he had to lease Tamla 102 to United Artists, but it wasn’t a hit. Gordy soldiered on; driving down West Grand Boulevard with his friend Mable John (older sister of Little Willie John, and a member of the Raelettes), he saw a house for sale. Since Gordy had no license, she was driving, and suddenly Gordy said, “Stop!”
“We stop and get out,” she wrote later. “He walks up the stairs, peers in the window. ‘That’s it.’ ‘What’s “it?”’ I ask. ‘Headquarters.’ ‘For what?’ ‘The operation. The music publishing company. The label. The studio. It’s all going to happen here. Can you see it?’” Gordy seemed to be able to see things others couldn’t, so she assured him that if he could see it, that was good enough. He bought it and put up a sign: “Hitsville U.S.A.”
It only took him a few more months and a few more records to begin to make that sign make sense. The third Tamla release was by a guy from Mississippi named Barrett Strong, a friend of Jackie Wilson’s who was singing in a gospel group with his three sisters when Wilson came over one day and heard him playing the piano and singing and noted that a friend of his had just started a label and had written hits for him in the past. Soon afterward, he brought Gordy to meet Strong, and in April, Strong had a single out on Tamla, “Let’s Rock” b/w “Do the Very Best You Can,” recorded in somebody’s basement. It flopped, but Strong was impressed with Gordy’s level of organization; he’d even run an ad on a local radio station saying that his new company was looking for songwriters, musicians, and performers. The same month “Let’s Rock” came out, Tamla released “Solid Sender” by Chico Leverett, another local singer, but restricted distribution to Detroit. In June came “It,” a novelty by “Ron & Bill,” who were Miracles Ronnie White and Bill “Smokey” Robinson, which didn’t do much even when Gordy leased it to Chess [Records]’ Argo subsidiary. Next up was “Going to the Hop,” by the Satintones, a vocal group that included Chico Leverett. The flip side was “Motor City,” and Leverett remembers Gordy offering $100 to anyone who could come up with a name for a new label he envisioned. He suggested Motor City Records, but Gordy held on to his money.
Gordy probably didn’t like the name, but it’s also possible he didn’t have the hundred bucks; he’d paid to press and distribute a lot of records in a short time, and the only money anybody’d seen was for “Come to Me,” and that money went to United Artists, who understandably took a cut. Gordy was sitting at a piano at Hitsville one day, and the receptionist, Janie Bradford, a high school student who worked there after school, noted that “he had this riff going. We stood there and kept writing and throwing out lyrics and improving on the melody and the whole thing came together.” “We” included Barrett Strong, and a couple of white high school students who heard the racket coming out of the house walked into the situation toting a bass and a guitar. “Just walked up and asked if they could be on the session,” Strong remembered later. “Never saw them again in my life.” Nor have they ever been identified. They sat down with Benny Benjamin on drums, Brian Holland on tambourine, and Strong on piano in the brand-new Hitsville studio, and when they were done, Tamla’s first smash had been born. Write what you know, they say, and Gordy and Bradford (he gave her co-writing credit) sure did; “Money (That’s What I Want)” was an instant smash in August, so much so that in order to make the jump to national success, Gordy had to license the record to his sister’s Chess-distributed label, Anna, in early 1960. But it sold and sold and sold, and money: that’s what they got.