Motown and America’s Cultural Revolution by Robert Anthony Peters
Though it may seem like only yesterday to some of our dear readers, it was 51 years ago today that Motown Records would release their first #1 hit, “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes. Yesterday’s article celebrating an event thirty years more recent may seem more significant, but I would argue that Motown and the cultural shift that it helped create has had a larger and more enduring impact than that event and anything else that will hog headline space today.
Motown came out of a line of independent record labels that began to pose a significant challenge to the dominant music distribution lines. It began when Berry Gordy, Jr. borrowed money from his family, combined it with some of his earnings from songwriting and opened the label in 1959 in a residential house in Detroit (given the extent of Detroit’s regulatory environment, a home-based business like this would be impossible today.) Under Gordy’s leadership, the label brought to the public ear such acts as The Supremes, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Temptations, as well as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. His success in picking and grooming talent continued to pay off, and in the early 1970’s, Motown records was labeled one of the top black owned businesses. For many years, Gordy and Motown had created opportunities for countless black musicians. Not only did he produce their music, he groomed his talent for greater success as well. Most of his talent came from more limited means in urban environments. He hired not only choreographers to give them the quintessential Motown musical production moves, but elocution instructors and others to help with interview and social skills, as well as dress and grooming. He knew that there were segments of the population that would accuse their label of producing music to denigrate Western society and he wanted to make that argument a tough one for his detractors.
This was at least partially a business decision. With blacks at less than one tenth of the population, there was a ceiling to his success if he could not appeal to whites in America. After all, he had not named his studio “Soulsville” like Stax records but the all-inclusive moniker of “Hitsville, USA.” Sidney Poitier said, “Berry Gordy . . . set out to make music for all people, whatever their color or place of origin.” Whatever his motives, the effects were amazing! Whites were embracing black music and turning Motown records into Billboard hit after hit. He put acts on the Ed Sullivan show and punctured segregation in the touring circuits. Meanwhile, politicians and other officials, sometimes at the urging of larger business interests, were doing what they could to prevent this voluntary association of music fans. Some locales banned concerts while other arrested rock and R&B musicians on trumped up charges. But the market and consumer demand won out in the end. Young people wanted good music they could relate to, not the tired music of their parents and they turned out in droves to musical acts across the country, regardless of the color of the musicians. So many market advances had contributed to this process as well. Electricity being the foremost among them allowed for amplification to play to larger, noisier venues, changed the quality and quantity of sounds that came from instruments, allowed the ability to record music onto records which allowed the ability to play music on record players, radios, and jukeboxes and so much more. All of these pushed competition amongst artists and producers and resulted in a higher quality of music, a greater quantity to cater to different tastes, and easier and more affordable access for all. It also helped advance a cultural revolution in America a lot farther than by any other means.
“We don’t have any more power, than our power to make a better product,” remarked Gordy. This is all the power you need to be successful in the marketplace. It is the only power you need if you value a voluntary, peaceful world.
Robert Anthony Peters is an actor, producer and speaker on liberty and art. Email him at: email@example.com
Libertopia Oct 11–14 2012, San Diego CA