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’s ‘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”