During this 50th-anniversary celebration of Motown, it is fitting that people reminisce, reflect, and remember all the great artists and music that Berry Gordy presented to us: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Edwin Starr, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, the Spinners, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, the Commodores and Lionel Richie, Rick James, Teena Marie, the incomparable Stevie Wonder, and more. The undisputed talent that came out of the studios at Hitsville U.S.A. in the Motor City was remarkable for its freshness and its creativity and equally remarkable because — without a man named Berry Gordy — we would not have one note of that music to cherish today. Nor would we have ever heard of these unique artists.
What’s critical to understand about Berry Gordy, however, is that he was operating from a vantage point that very few entrepreneurs had back then. As an American ofAfrican ancestry, he was building a recorded-music company in a business environment where the entire deck was stacked against him. We must remember several factors: the extreme racism that permeated America at that time, how it affected what was happening with music in general, how black music was being perceived by both the radio industry and the recorded-music retail industry, and the fact that many songs recorded by black artists did not receive any airplay until they were covered by white artists.
As African-American entrepreneurs, we could record our music, but there were few black radio stations across America where we could get it played. Generally speaking, retailers like Woolworth’s were not amenable to carrying the product in their stores, and, if they did, it was not up front — it was literally in a back room.
What was groundbreaking was that Berry Gordy created a style of music with black artists that was acceptable to the white pop stations of that era. He presented and positioned his talented artists differently in the marketplace. This made it easier for others in the business — like us at Stax Records — to get our records played on more stations. Because of what Berry did, there came a time when an artist like Otis Redding could be played on white stations in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles — something almost unheard of at that time.
As strange as it might sound today, having just elected our first American of African ancestry aspresident of the United States, it would not have been possible at that time for black artists to be accepted in mainstream radio had it not been for what Berry Gordy did. He developed these great artists to look and sound like they did on stage, on the radio, in television interviews. Berry Gordy broke those racial chains that bound us.
It is critical to remember during this 50th anniversary of Motown to not only celebrate the music of that great company, but to honor the genius of this American businessman. Berry Gordy was able to take what was considered a “penny business” and create master tapes that back then were valued in the millions, and a musical publishing company also valued in the millions.
Berry also set out to break through in the motion picture world and present actors in a different light. He did this by financing and presenting Lady Sings the Blues, and presenting Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. This was quite a feat in itself, something that is to be applauded, given the excellence of the film, the historical importance of the project, and the music that was featured throughout.
I find it interesting and even humorous that many people in the recording industry have cast Berry Gordyand myself as competitors, as it generally is with the heads of corporations who work in the same business. But this was not that case with Berry and me. Berry Gordy and I were, and still are, great friends, and whenever he and I have an opportunity to get together we kind of laugh about it. In fact, I never considered him a competitor; I considered him an inspiration. When he branded Motown as “Hitsville U.S.A.” up there in Detroit, I branded Stax Records down in Memphis as “Soulsville U.S.A.”
Everything Berry Gordy did during those years inspired me. And he was doing it with such unique talent, creativity, and excellence that he not only made it possible for others in the music industry to do what we loved, but he changed the face of music for all time.
Berry Gordy Truly Paved The Way For Airplay
During the 1960s Berry Gordy had begun to change the way black music was being accepted by the mainstream radio stations and retail stores. Generallyspeaking, there were 10 key markets where I placed priority attention on getting Stax records played. Back then, the radio stations would call around to see what was selling at retail, and if it was selling, they would play it on the air.
Because of what Berry Gordy was achieving at Motown, I knew that when he would release a Temptations record, people would go into the stores and ask for that record, and it would get airplay. I had some friends at Motown, so I knew in advance when Berry was going to release a Temptations record. When he did, I would go into these 10 markets and induce the clerks in these retail stores to play Stax records. I’d give them free records, so when someone came in and asked for the Temptations, they first would play my Sam and Dave record.
They would start singing and dancing to the record and get the customers to buy it — and then they’d play the Temptations. Then, when the radio stations called the store to find out what was selling, the clerks would say “Sam and Dave and the Temptations.”
Written By: Al Bell
Radio Ink Magazine
March 23, 2009