I can remember being captivated by the music as earlier as seven or eight. It started with me being intrigued by the record’s blue logo with the map of Detroit or the yellow and brown Tamla imprint. The 45s and albums were always in the house. I wasn’t allowed to touch them and rightfully so. As kids we trashed my mother’s extensive record collection that went back to fifties. We didn’t know better. As a music lover looking back, I deserved to kicked out the house or beat within an inch of my life.
By the time I really got into music, the Motown classic hits were nearly fifteen or twenty years old. The music and songwriting qualit always resonated with me. I remained fascinated by their contemporary staying power.
Motown survived many industry highs and lows, specifically skewed perceptions of its key figures. As a kid, I witnessed Black America’s stiff-armed ambivalence of Diana Ross. In the 70s she was our Beyonce. In the Eighties she cast as the backstabbing diva addicted to the spotlight while Berry Gordy allegedly ruined Motown’s family-like vibe with a rigid corporate structure and poor compensation practices. Through books, documentaries and first-hand accounts we slowly discovered that those indictments were flawed. As we experienced the evolution of Black entertainment in real time. we looked at the Motown story with fresh eyes. There may have been mistakes made but there was no blueprint for a trail-blazing roads less traveled. Sacrifice and intense focus were required to navigate the rugged terrain of a music industry from an earlier time. As the label’s fortunes were dwindling in the late Eighties, Berry was funding the labels operation from his own pocket. He finally sold Motown in ’88 for just over 60 million dollars.
God is great and thankfully, Ms. Ross and Mr. Gordy’s legacies are rightfully restored. Today,we salute them as musical trailblazers and pioneers, forerunners of the Jay-Zs and Diddys.
The Motown Sound has long been an advocate for equality and social change. The label broke down barriers under the umbrella of diversity. But when it rains, Black America always gets wet. The current political and social climate has tainted that elusive road of Mr. Gordy prided himself on paving. Young culture vultures disrespect Michael Jackson and Prince. Others try our flavor on for size and leave the store without paying—offering no compensation for those who they copied it from. After they repackage it for the masses and monetize it, they toss it away for the next hot thing. Like an NBA of generations past, well-intentioned imitators get in the game and their talented colleagues are banished to the bench.Black music’s landscape has been reduced to a small patch of real estate where banished R&B artists reside. They scratch out a living along a musical trail of tears deep enough to swim in, littered with the bones of countless jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop artists who’ve been exploited and written out of history.
On 2001’s Izzo, when Jay-Z said, “I’m over charging n*****/for what they did to the Cold Crush,” he was speaking directly to this climate of exploitation.
It’s the reason Smokey and Lionel and Stevie are revered. Gladys and Patti are Miss Gladys and Miss Patti. Charlie is Uncle Charlie. These singers grew up in a time when those words condenscing ways to offer Black people a grudgingly tight-lipped courtesy.
Their music is in our DNA that survived the middle passage of albums, CDs, mp3s and streaming formats, they’ve become family members. And just like we’ve done with a certain other word, we transferred to those titles back to where they belong. As terms of endearment and respect. When they take that maiden voyage to the afterlife, we send them off with positive affirmations via social media.
For the first time, people of all ages took to social media in defense of the Motown legacy. Given various age differences and musical tastes, it was a watershed moment. The outcry wasn’t some knee-jerk response. During a certain R&B group’s nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they were not pleased that a certain male pop star was chosen to induct them. They preferred it to be Smokey Robinson or a certain young R&B artist they felt was more connected to them instead of what they called “flavor of the month.”Jennifer Lopez was caught in the crossfire of a 21-gun social media salute of Black music’s past and the heat was intense. Her performance was signature J-Lo. Elaborate. Grand. Entertaining. Ambitious and not for the faint of heart. Her tribute was genuine but alas, just like the response to Faith Hill’s well-intentioned Aretha Frankin tribute, The televison audience took it uptown and the Bronx-born singer was the target of an unexpected Apollo Theater moment. If you’re listening Jennifer, don’t take it as a diss. Chalk it up to the spirit of Debbie Allen.
Smokey said those Grammy comments placed us 100 years back. With all due respect, we’re already there. The ghosts of Pat Boone, the McGuire Sisters, Georgia Gibbs, Elvis and others continue to hover over an industry that doesn’t seem to understand that imitation isn’t always the best form of flattery. To quote the hook from one of Smokey’s classic songs written for labelmate Mary Wells, Motown’s the benefactor of two lovers. Black America bopped to the Motown soundtrack as we watched Cooley High. Little Stevie’s Fingertips gave us joy. As we cried when Cochise died, G.C. Cameron’s It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye soothed our pain as an onscreen tragic moment transformed boys to men. As Preach headed out to Hollywood in the closing credits, the Four Tops’ Reach Out (I’ll Be There) were the wings beneath his wings. In a few short years, we’d never see a soulful marriage of Black cinema and music like this again.
A decade after Cooley High, the movie industry fully recovered from an industry recession, thanks to box office receipts from blaxploitation movies. Our soulful fingerprints were wiped away as Hollywood moved on. Motown’s simple backbeat now powered films like The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing during the era of R&B (Reagan and Bush). Chuck D summed the transition up precisely: “beat is for Sonny Bono/beat is for Yoko Ono.” It was a tale of two metaphoric cities. One part Saturday morning soundtrack and one part baby boomer throwback. And in the words of writer/poet Rudyard Kipling: “oh east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”
Detroit bard Berry Gordy accomplished a plan with nothing but sweat inside his hand. Erect a soundtrack that was built to last. He did just that. Screw Irving Berlin and Tin Pan Alley. Motown is the real Great American Songbook. Before the whole conservative up-by-your-bootstrap song-and-dance act, Berry did it and put his whole family on. He reached back to the hood for children of the Great Migration living in the bungalows and project high-rises and made them stars. He jacked the Rust Belt assembly-line concept and mastered it. At the vibrant age of 89, he’s still wealthy, healthy and wise—still the face of the sound that steadied the turbulence we’ve experienced over twelve presidential administrations. Answering the call to make this country great again includes rendering appropriate respect to the Sound of Young America along with our rich cultural tapestry that helps bind the fabric of this country. In bondage, we were the first form of currency. Our talent was the engine that jumped-started the record industry. Our publishing sent other people’s kids to college and build generational wealth that wasn’t our own.
When the sturdy frame of the music business was off the wall, it was a Motown alum who pulled it back from the brink of recession with the biggest album of all-time. When the Grand Old Party looked down their noses at the possibility of an MLK holiday (you too, John McCain—we didn’t forget) a Motown singer with a powerful vision that transcended his own physical limitations let knowledge be born and spoke truth to power.
As our musical greats join our departed ancestors on the higher plane, our replacements don’t need to be stand-ins just passing through. They need to be more. Like Marvin and Tammi said, Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.