When most people might consider themselves to be lucky to still be alive, Berry Gordy Junior, founder of the Motown empire, has just retired, in his 90th year. His final project for Motown, in part to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the label’s founding, was the documentary film, ‘Hitsville: The Making Of Motown’. The film will be screened internationally for one night only, next Monday, 30 September.
Speaking last night at the European premiere, current Motown President, Ethiopia Habtemariam, commented on Gordy’s foresight, to record every single company meeting, and retain all notes pertaining to the company. The result is an extraordinary archive from which they were able to put together the incredible history of what isn’t just a record label, or a mere part of modern music, but in fact, a pivotal player in race relations in the US and around the world.
A casual viewer would likely think the film is just a trip down memory lane for Gordy and best friend Smokey Robinson, as they reminisce about the days gone by, and the artists who have passed through the doors of Motown. But like most of what Gordy does, as if by magic we learn so much more about the company: Gordy was one of the first US employers – certainly in the recording industry – to put women in positions of power. He didn’t view Motown as simply a label to promote the music of black artists either – as he says in the film, he employed women, men, whites, blacks, Jews – the only colour that interested them was green. Gordy said,
“White people want to be loved too. White people want money. I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles, the cops and the robbers. I wanted everybody to enjoy my music.”
It’s testament to the power of Motown and how integral they were to bringing together everyone through the power of music that Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s spoken word LPs, ‘The Great March on Washington’ and ‘The Great March to Freedom’ were released through the label. In the early days of the label, on tour in the deep south, audiences were made up of black folks and white folks, but separated by a rope. At one point Smokey Robinson refused to let the show go on until the rope was removed. Later tours to the same venues in the South showed how far things had progressed, with young people of all stripes and colours dancing together.
Gordy’s entrepreneurial spirit started back in his childhood when he was selling newspapers. The paper he was selling was the local black paper, and he figured he could increase the readership if he sold in a white neighbourhood, which he did, and was proven right. Unfortunately when he brought his brother in to help sell, the numbers didn’t improve even further, but he figured if he’d not had to struggle in his earliest days then he’d probably not have been able to make Motown a success.
Coming from a musical family, Gordy opened a jazz record store, and realised that the customer is always right – people were asking him for the latest blues records, and eventually, his store went bust. A job at the local Ford factory (this was Detroit, the Motor City after all, and the reason for Motown’s name) taught him the principles of mass production – all these ideas went into what eventually became Motown. His sisters, all of whom worked at Motown at one point, gave him the idea of teaching the artists deportment; all artists also had to go through rigorous dance training as well. This was recounted humorously in the film by Neil Young, who when signed to Motown with the band The Mynah Birds, had to go through the same conditioning as everyone else – without much success. It’s due to the hard work behind the scenes that when we think of Motown artists we think of the smooth, suave, sophisticated stars such as The Supremes: “but you should have seen those girls when they first started here!”
At 110 minutes long, ‘Hitsville: The Making Of Motown’ is probably slightly longer than most people would expect of a documentary. When you consider however that there’s 60 years of history to work through, it’s well worth it. See your local cinema for film times.