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”

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