How Berry Gordy Revolutionized Rhythm & Blues

The Motown Sound reflected African American life, culture, and struggle through the Civil Rights Movement

From 1954 through to the emergence of soul as the major black popular music in the mid-1960s, rhythm & blues not only registered the hardships and frustrations of urban African American life and its core views and values, but it also expressed African America’s most cherished post-war achievements and ongoing aspirations. Black popular culture, as with the more mainstream aspects of U.S. popular culture that African Americans embrace, serves a socio-political function when and where it offers an arena where African Americans can create and critique alternative views and values, as well as an arena where they can explore and express traditional African American views and values.

In this sense, classic rhythm & blues reflected and increasingly articulated an idealized vision of not only loving and ultra-romantic African American relationships but also a united and harmonious African America which, truth be told, was more a figment of classic rhythm & blues singer-songwriters’ imaginations than a reality in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, the classic rhythm & blues singer-songwriters were not alone in imagining a united and harmonious African America, they were merely translating and transmitting, indeed transfiguring, the post-war optimism, spirit of determination, and political pulse of the people then running rampant throughout African America into black popular music.

In fact, for the first time since jazz simultaneously served as the soundtrack for both the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, black popular music unambiguously and unapologetically served as the soundtrack for a black socio-political movement.

Beginning with gospel, rhythm & blues, and the Civil Rights Movement and continuing through to rap, neo-soul, and the hip-hop movement, since the middle of the twentieth century every major form of black popular music has reflected and articulated, however incongruously, the core views and values of the major African American social and political movement of its era. And, even though it has been regularly ridiculed, rap continues to reflect and articulate the cultural maneuvers, micropolitics, and mini-movements of post-Civil Rights Movement and post-Black Power Movement African America.


Atthis point it might be safe to say that in terms of rhythm & blues serving as one of the major soundtracks for the Civil Rights Movement nothing drives this point home better than the triangular relationships between the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Motown Records, and the inroads they both made in integrating black America into white America.

Berry Gordy, 1958 [Getty]

Foreshadowing countless rap and neo-soul artists’ biographies, the iconic founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, dropped out of a Detroit high school in the eleventh grade with dreams of becoming a professional boxer. His boxing career was short-lived, as he was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War in 1950. It was in the army that Gordy obtained his General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Out of the army by 1953, Gordy gravitated toward music, especially jazz, regularly frequenting clubs and eventually opening up a record store, the 3-D Record Mart. In the 1950s jazz was becoming more and more an acquired taste, being eclipsed first by jump blues and then ultimately by rhythm & blues. Needless to say, Gordy’s “old hat” jazz-centered record store did not last long. However, it did pique his interest in songwriting, music production, and music promotion. Financially devastated by the failure of his record store Gordy was forced to work in the Lincoln-Mercury plant, making cars on the assembly line. It was a pivotal experience for him, and later he would model his record company on Detroit’s auto industry, attempting to achieve the same level of ingenuity, productivity and efficiency.

After writing a string of hits for Jackie Wilson (e.g., “Reet Petite,” “That Is Why [I Love You So], “I’ll Be Satisfied,” and “Lonely Teardrops”), Gordy created Anna Records in 1959 along with two of his sisters, Anna and Gwen Gordy, and his friend Billy Davis. In quick succession after Anna Records he established Tamla Records and later Jobete Music Publishing (named after his daughters: Joy, Betty, and Terry). On April 14, 1960, he incorporated his many music business ventures under the name the Motown Record Corporation (“Motown,” being a portmanteau of motor and town, is a well-known African American colloquialism for Detroit).

Beginning with an artist roster that boasted classic rhythm & blues luminaries such as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marv Johnson, Barrett Strong, Mable John, Eddie Holland, Mary Wells, and the Marvelettes, Gordy created what has been repeatedly referred to as “clean” or, rather, “polished” rhythm & blues records that increasingly owed as much to white pop as they did black pop. Even though he greatly respected the raunchier and more mature aspects of 1950s rhythm & blues, Motown Records’ rhythm & blues would emphasize anodyne youthful singers and songs, in effect deconstructing and reconstructing rhythm & blues to make it more palatable to a wider, whiter, and younger audience.

Motown artists in the 1960s were in many ways the antithesis of 1950s rhythm & blues artists. For instance, the contrasts between Smokey Robinson and Howlin’ Wolf, or Mary Wells and Big Maybelle, or Marv Johnson and Muddy Waters are obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. But, Motown’s music was more than chocolate-covered pop fluff.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, circa 1960 [Getty]

By synthesizing black and white pop music, by coloring Motown songs with gospel beats and subdued church choir background singing, throbbing jazz-influenced bass lines, and blues-soaked guitar licks, Berry Gordy revolutionized rhythm & blues’ sonic palette. Whatever he lacked in terms of technical proficiency at singing or playing a musical instrument, there simply is no denying Gordy’s gargantuan sonic vision. In the 1960s Motown produced a wide range of music, all of which seemed to appeal to a broad audience and several different demographics. Ultimately, Motown created an extremely fluid and flexible sound — the much vaunted “Motown sound” — which, in the most unprecedented manner imaginable, allowed its music to have special meaning for, and appeal to mainstream pop music lovers and discerning black music lovers across the contentious regional, racial, cultural, social, political, and generational chasms afflicting America in the 1960s.

From Gordy’s point of view, black popular music, much like black people in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, represented the recording industry’s “bastard child and mother lode, an aesthetic and economic contradiction that was institutionalized by white record executives.”

Hence, Motown’s music became a metaphor for urban African American life, culture, and struggle in the 1960s. Gordy demonstrated to the American music industry, and eventually to the world, that African American youths were just like the “clean-cut” boy or girl next door, which was one of the major motifs of Motown’s music, and especially the classic recordings by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Stevie Wonder, Kim Weston, the Marvelettes, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.

The Supremes, 1965 [Getty]

As critic Nelson George observed, Motown made it clear that beneath “the glistening strings, Broadway show tunes, and relaxed vocal styles was a music of intense feeling.” Rhythm & blues, even the most “pop soul” Rhythm & Blues and the Civil Rights Movement sounding (à la Dionne Warwick, Walter Jackson, Barbara Lewis, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, and Freddie Scott), was more than mere background music. It was a tool that could be used to break down barriers: musical, cultural, social, political, and economic barriers. Paralleling the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Motown sent a clear message to the white-dominated music industry: African Americans would no longer tolerate any form of segregation, neither social nor musical segregation.

The message Motown sent to black America was equally provocative. Here was a company owned and operated by an African American armed only with a GED who challenged white corporate interests and white America’s perception of African Americans, especially African American youths.

There is a certain kind of sick and twisted irony at play when one seriously ponders the parallels between the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of classic rhythm & blues, specifically Motown. In a nutshell, both the Civil Rights Movement and classic rhythm & blues, for all intents and purposes, were African American youth issues-centered and African American youth activism-centered.

In terms of the Civil Rights Movement: the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education victory obviously focused on African American youth, as it desegregated public schools; the March 1955 arrest of fifteen year-old Claudette Colvin, who was the first person on record to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, alerted many African American adults to the adverse impact that segregation was having on African American youth and made many commit to the then inchoate Civil Rights Movement; the August 1955 lynching of fourteen year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, enraged even the most moderate African American adults, providing yet another reason to rise up against American apartheid; the September 1957 display of courage on the part of the “Little Rock Nine” as they integrated the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, flanked by gun-toting National Guardsmen clearly made even more freedom-loving folk commit to the principles and practices of the Civil Rights Movement; the August 1958 sit-ins spearheaded by Clara Luper and the NAACP Youth Council accented the brimming youth activism in the Civil Rights Movement, as did the 1960 emergence of a full-blown Sit-In Movement led by African American college students; the May 1961 initiation of the Freedom Riders Movement, primarily led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), ratcheted up youth radicalism during the movement years; the May 1963 Children’s Crusade, led by James Bevel, in Birmingham, Alabama, accented even more youth issues and youth activism in the Civil Rights Movement; and certainly the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of the schoolgirls Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson two weeks after the March on Washington sent shock waves through African America and helped to kick the Civil Rights Movement into an even higher gear. Again, African American youth — their lives and struggles — were squarely at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.

During the same turbulent years that witnessed the backlash against African American youth and their valiant struggle for human, civil, and voting rights, Motown was tapping the teenage talent pool of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects. The Brewster-Douglass housing projects were “low-rent yet well-kept public housing that served as home for the children of Detroit’s post-World War II migration. For all intents and purposes, it was a ghetto, but for Detroit’s blacks it was one with hope.” Berry Gordy’s first great discovery from Detroit’s public housing projects was Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and soon thereafter a group of guys called the Primes and their companion girl group called the Primettes. The Motown machine quickly polished and rechristened the guy group as “The Temptations” and their sister group as “The Supremes.”

The Temptations [Getty]

Hence, similar to several contemporary rap stars (e.g., Jay-Z, Nas, Kool G Rap, Lil’ Wayne, Juvenile, among countless others), the ghetto, and public housing projects in particular, provided classic rhythm & blues with the raw talent, tall tales, and innovative subaltern aesthetic that fueled much of its success. But, unlike rap, the ghetto origins, or the otherwise humble beginnings, of many classic rhythm & blues stars was masked to make them more appealing to middle-class and mainstream America, especially middle-class and mainstream white America.

As is well known, a lot of rap is unapologetically ghetto-centered and often celebrates ghetto life and culture. For the most part, classic rhythm & blues production and promotion teams, especially those at Motown in the 1960s, downplayed the humble beginnings of the bulk their stars, preferring to present them decked out in the glitz and glam fashions of the era. Needless to say, rap music and hip-hop culture’s hyper-materialism and bold bourgeois-isms did not develop in a vacuum, and Motown and Motown-sound derived music and branding has long served as a major point of departure for contemporary black popular music, especially rap and neo-soul.

Even though it was obviously an oppositional operation within the music industry of the 1960s, Motown was nonetheless deeply committed to the modus operandi and mechanisms of the U.S. mass market and, it should be strongly stressed, on the U.S. mass market’s mostly anti-African American terms. This, of course, resembles most Civil Rights Movement members’ open embrace of the “American Dream” without Rhythm & Blues and the Civil Rights Movement critically calling into question whether “American democracy” — as articulated by the wealthy, white, slaveholding men who are recognized as the “Founding Fathers” — was a viable goal for African Americans (and other non-whites) in the second half of the twentieth century. Consider for a moment, if you will, Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, with its scattered references to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

King undeniably critiqued “the architects of our republic” (i.e., the wealthy, white, slaveholding men who are recognized as America’s “Founding Fathers”), but he also passionately embraced their American dream. As a matter of fact, King’s dream — to use his own words — was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” For several of the unsung soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Ella Baker, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Robert F. Williams, King’s articulation of the American dream did not sufficiently differentiate between white America and non-white America’s conflicting conceptions of the American dream. As Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson’s brilliant Dreams and Nightmares: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Struggle for Black Equality in America (2012) emphasized, the militants of the Civil Rights Movement were not as interested in the American dream as much as they were concerned with ending the “American nightmare” — to employ Malcolm X’s infamous phrase — in which black America continued to be ensnared in the 1960s.

Berry Gordy, circa 1970s [Getty]

In this sense, Berry Gordy’s efforts to upset the white male-dominated music industry of the 1960s by drawing from the successful business models of white America was not out of the ordinary and perfectly mirrored the integrationist and middle-class mindset of most of the black bourgeoisie during the Civil Rights Movement years. In the 1960s most African Americans were, as they remain today, largely working-class and working-poor. What Gordy and Motown provided the black masses with were sonic slices of African American life and culture, not necessarily as they actually were at the time but as the black bourgeoisie and the black masses wished them to be, and it was these, literally, phantasmagoria or surreal songs that both black and white America danced, romanced, partied and politicked to during the Civil Rights Movement years.

Working-class and working-poor black folk — those humble human beings frequently treated like second-class citizens in segregated 1960s America — knew that Motown’s music grew out of their loves, lives, and struggles. In short, they could genuinely relate to Motown music’s timeless, clever, often tongue-in-cheek, and passionate stories of love, loss, loneliness, heartbreak, happiness, and community because in no uncertain terms these stories were their stories (as in the often heard refrain at African American dances, clubs, and house parties: “That’s my song!”).

It really did not matter to them how Gordy managed to create one of the most successful businesses in African American history. Simply said, they did not care about the backstory with all of its tales of trials and tribulations. What was new, exciting, and inspiring about Motown in the 1960s was that it consistently presented African Americans in general, and African American youth in specific, in dignified and sophisticated ways that the white male-dominated music industry — indeed, white America in general — had never dreamed of.

Excerpted from Civil Rights Music: The Soundtracks of the Civil Rights Movement by Reiland Rabaka. Available now via Lexington Books at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.

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