Motown….nothing but fun and music

Published 7:05 pm Friday, October 25, 2019

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If you follow this column, you know that I saluted Motown Records founder Berry Gordy a few weeks ago. The auto assembly line worker who became an entertainment mogul and later modeled his music business on an auto assembly line.

“Competition breeds champions.” That was one of Gordy’s mantras. Challenging his artists by creating a friendly competition and telling them to innovate or stagnate. Something he says he learned at the factory.

Gordy announced his retirement a month ago during Motown’s 60th anniversary celebration in Detroit.

Millions of us who grew up listening to the Supremes, Four Tops, Temptations, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles remember Motown for the best music we’d heard before or since.

Motown music helped heal a nation in the 1960s, from the heart of racial unrest in the Motor City to those marching in the South, something needed to change.

But through even those hectic and unstable times, kids of every color were ‘dancing in the streets’ to Motown hits like “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “It’s the Same Old Song.”

There’s something that makes you want to move and just not sit still when the Four Tops played “Reach Out.” It felt like my song. Gordy understood the appeal of his creation, saying “It’s not really black music. It’s just music by black stars.”

“I learned we all basically wanted and needed the same things,” he wrote in a memoir. “As a songwriter, that’s what I wanted to write about — what people needed —whether it was love, a reason to dance, or even a reason to cry.”

Gordy softened Americans’ hearts with dance music. At concerts, known as the Motown Revue, once the music started the ropes that divided black and white kids came down and everyone danced together.

Motown’s message music was bolstered by Gordy’s business acumen. He created a friendly competition among singing groups and, as one Motown artist later said, “It made you sharpen your tools … to come up with something that would stand apart.”

Gordy was certainly an innovator. Before starting Motown in the 1960’s, he’d worked on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line in Detroit. He then flipped that production method to the music business in a way no one had related it before.

In some ways, Gordy’s motivation was just like most people’s, and, as he once put it, “I can make a lot more money if I sell it beyond black people, but to white people, too.”

Gordy created so many great musicians, often from very poor districts in Detroit. Smokey Robinson reflected on this background and said that while every place on Earth has the same amount of talent, “they just don’t have a Berry Gordy.” Smokey was right when he said, “Motown is a great example of the American Dream.”

Gordy simply put it: “When I started, all I wanted to do was make some music, make some money, and meet some girls.”

He did all of that and then some, but he also did what Motown artist Marvin Gaye sang about in the 70’s standard, “What’s Going On.” Berry found a way “to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Believe it or not, I thought about Gordy and Motown when I overheard someone say, “Old Town Road ain’t country and it ain’t hip-hop, neither.”

Another great musician, Frank Sinatra, once said, “Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”

No matter what your musical tastes, take a little time out from all the ‘noise’ and listen to your favorite music a little deeper. You’ll find it’s more than a comfort – it’s better to let it be an inspiration.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.