Berry Gordy is turning 80


Back in 1998, when I went to Detroit, I visited 2648 West Grand Boulevard. No, “visited” is not the right word; I made a pilgrimage to Hitsville USA, the house that served as the recording studio for a great number of artists recording for Motown Records. It is a physically unimpressive building, even dowdy, but it was the launching pad for a great amount of music that I own, tunes by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Temptations), Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5ive, and the Supremes, among many others. The visionary for all of this was Berry Gordy, Jr.

Gordy, whose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio you can read here, developed songwriters, artists, and underappreciated backup musicians to create music that was not marginalized as “race music” or “soul music”, but in fact became “The Sound of Young America.” This is astonishing: “In 1966, the company‚Äôs ‘hit ratio’ – the percentage of records released that made the national charts – was 75%.”

If you bought Motown ALBUMS, as opposed to singles in the 1960s, as I tended to do, you’ll note that not occasionally, the same songs would make it onto more than one artist’s LP. Famously, Gladys Knight & the Pips had a #2 single in 1967 (#1 on the R&B charts) with I Heard It Through the Grapevine; about a year later, Marvin Gaye had a massive #1 hit on both charts with the same song, albeit arranged quite differently, written by Barrett Strong and the late Norman Whitfield. It was the stable of songwriters, including Holland-Dozier-Holland, some of the singer-songwriters such as Robinson, Wonder and Gaye, and less well-known folks who may be the unsung heroes in the saga.

Another writer was Berry Gordy himself. Songs written or co-written by him include:
Do You Love Me by the Contours, covered by Temptations
Try It Baby by Marvin Gaye, covered by the Supremes and the Temptations
I’ll Be There by the Four Tops
You’ve Made Me So Very Happy by Brenda Holloway, covered by Blood, Sweat & Tears
Money by Barrett Strong, covered by the Beatles and many others
You’ve Got What It Takes by Marv Johnson
I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, Mama’s Pearl, Maybe Tomorrow – all Jackson 5ive; songwriters billed as The Corporation (Gordy/Mizell/Richards/Perren)
Even pre-Motown, Gordy had written hits for the late Jackie Wilson, including Reet Petite and Lonely Teardrops

I refer you to this episode of the podcast Coverville, featuring the music of Motown and Berry Gordy; yes, the thank you in the notes (and the fulfilled request of Remove This Doubt by Elvis Costello, the cover of a song from The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland album) is in reference to me.

Also check out this article celebrating not only 50 years of Motown records but also another milestone; Berry Gordy turns 80 on November 28, 2009. ROG

Picture from Life.com, “for personal non-commercial use only”

M is for Money

Happy U.S. Income Tax Day!

Every year in the United States, the Social Security Administration sends out Your Social Security Statement to help me plan for my “financial future”. It provides estimates of your Social Security benefits under current law.” But for me, it’s a personal history lesson.

The first year I worked, 1969, I made $529 at the Binghamton (NY) Public Library. I worked six months at IBM in 1971 and made the most I would make until 1978. $50 in 1976 – really? I can always tell when I went to college, or when I was unemployed or underemployed.

I also received my 401(k) statement this week. I started putting money in this account because we were all warned that Social Security wouldn’t be there. My employer and I each contributed about $1000 each this past quarter. I managed to lose that plus an additional $5800. So much for retiring.

Let’s talk about music instead. There are two great songs called Money that I own and that come to mind. The first was written Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, when challenged by someone who complained that all he wrote about was romance. “What else do you care about, Berry?” Well, there was money.

The original version of Money was recorded by future Songwriters’ Hall of Famer Barrett Strong, who later teamed with the late Norman Whitfield to write I Heard It Through the Grapevine (a hit for both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye), War (Edwin Star’s hit), and a bunch of late 1960s/early 1970s classics for the Temptations, such as Too Busy Thinking About My Baby, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Just My Imagination and Ball of Confusion.

Barrett Strong’s version of Money went to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts for six weeks, and to #23 on the pop charts early in 1960. It’s #288 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of greatest songs, and was covered by a Liverpudlian band of some note, the Beatles.

The other Money song is by the British band Pink Floyd, by that point consisting of David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason. It appeared on the 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, and though it spent but one week at #1 in the U.S., it spent a total of 741 weeks on the U.S. album charts, selling more than 15 million copies.

For those unfamiliar, it has one potentially ‘naughty’ word.

I’m still collecting the state quarters. Right now, all I need is a Missouri quarter from the Denver mint; I even have both District of Columbia coins. But I haven’t seen the Puerto Rico quarter yet from either the Philadelphia or Denver mints and other territories will be released this year. (And yes, I know DC and Puerto Rico are not states, but their coins are a continuation of the same series.) Meanwhile, I’m still looking for Denver mint coins for two of my co-workers.


Certainly it was the juxtaposition of Marilyn Chambers as wholesome Ivory Snow mom with Marilyn Chambers as, er, an actress that helped fuel whatever commercial success she had. No, though my name is Green, I’ve never seen Behind the Green Door or any of her other work. She died this week.
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And speaking of advertising, does Burger King REALLY think it’ll make money mixing SpongeBob Squarepants, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and “the TRUE (non-pirate) meaning of the word ‘booty'”, as my friend Fred put it in his April 13 post? And if the BK King is creepy in 30-second increments, he’s REALLY bizarre in the 2:30 segment Fred found.
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OK, so what other song about money am I thinking of? The clues are in this post.

ROG

Norman Whitfield


Surely, my initial appreciation for songwriter Norman Whitfield came at that juncture in the career of Motown’s Temptations in 1968 when David Ruffin, the lead vocalist on “My Girl” and most of the hits up to that point, left the group and was replaced by Dennis Edwards. At the same time, Whitfield became the exclusive producer for the group, and implemented what he freely admitted that he stole from Sly Stone: the multi-lead singer motif, best exemplified by the hit “I Can’t Get Next To You”, number 31 on this list. At the same time, he, along with Barrett Strong (who, incidentally sang the first Motown semi-hit, Money) wrote virtually all of their hits: “Cloud Nine”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion”, “Just My Imagination”, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” to name just a few of the “psychedelic soul” tunes.

But in fact, Norman ended up writing or co-writing tunes for the early Temps (“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep”) and many others:

Bright Lights, Big City

I Heard It Through the Grapevine. This is the Pips version, which went to #2 in 1967. Rumor has it that it was covered later to even greater effect.

He Was Really Saying Something

(I Know) I’m Losing You

Too many fish in the sea

Needle in a Haystack

Not to mention:

Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)

Too Busy Thinking About My Baby

Smiling Faces Sometimes

War

Really Saying Something

Car Wash

Norman Whitfield died Tuesday, September 16 at the age of 67. He suffered from complications of diabetes and had recently emerged from a coma, The Detroit Free Press reported.

Whitfield, with Barrett Strong, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. Whitfield and Strong won the Grammy in 1972 for best R&B song for the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Whitfield won another Grammy in 1976 for best original TV or motion picture score for the hit, “Car Wash.”

Motown great Smokey Robinson called Whitfield “one of the most prolific songwriters and record producers of our time. He will live forever through his great music.”
ROG