VIP: Motown Records
The legacy of the legendary legend-making record label lives on as we talk to the Motown Museum’s Robin Terry and The Temptations’ Otis Williams about the history of Motown, growing up Gordy, and keeping the spirit alive
Motown is a record label. Motown is a style. Motown is a touchstone. But, above all, Motown is a family.
When Berry Gordy Jr. first ventured to create his very own independent record label back in 1959, then-named Tamla Records, the musically inclined and entrepreneurially driven Gordy family stood behind him. What started as a passion project by one man and the support of his seven siblings became one of Detroit and America’s leading musical powerhouses, delivering hit after hit through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Starting with Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, then with the Supremes and Temptations, all the way to Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and Lionel Richie, what brought Motown together was the quality of unification. It helped break down racial barriers nationwide by creating a sound that spoke to everyone and made them feel seen and appreciated with stories of love and life through smooth stylings.
Despite being a cultural juggernaut mere years after its inception, with its artists essentially living in the top 10 of and over 450 employees at its peak, Motown never felt like anything less than a collaborative environment that encouraged the growth of those who were part of it. The magnetic appeal of the institution easily bled into its output, producing music, movies, even TV shows that embodied its universal, soulful, timeless appeal. Put on any mainstream record from that era and to this day, once you hear that familiar sound, you’ll feel like you’re home.
Otis Williams, the last surviving original member of Motown’s The Temptations takes a look back at how the hit-making factory came to be, the artists on the label’s roster, and how the legacy of Motown lives on.
Otis Williams: Berry Gordy first saw one of the earlier groups I was a part of, which was Otis Williams and The Distants, and at the time we had a very popular song called “Come On.” Mr. Gordy was impressed with the success of the record so much so that he said, “I’m starting my own label, come see me when you’re ready.” And as fate would have it, we ended up doing just that in 1961, and we signed with Motown as the Temptations.
V Magazine: As new artists, was it daunting to sign with a label in its infancy? Did you think Motown would become the phenomenon that it did?
OW: We didn’t know Motown was going to turn out to be such a noteworthy record label that it is. All we wanted to do back in the day, during the ‘60s, like any other artist, was to get a record deal and make good music. That was our mindset, and I look back on it and it was destiny. Like I’ve always said, it was God and his infinite wisdom who brought a group of talented people together, and led us to create the hit records that Motown is known for today. So much came from that little, two-story family [home] that Motown started in. It was during a pivotal time in American history, you know, the ‘60s was one of the most tumultuous decades. That two-story family [home] was the [breeding-ground] for all of the artists of Motown and we had such a profound impact on the world…I’m just happy to have been a part of that.
V: Motown not only had chart-topping artists but some of the strongest producers, I believe quite a few of the artists like Smokey Robinson, doubled as producers? What were those early days like recording songs in the two-story family home?
OW: One of the memories I always like going back to is when Smokey Robinson called us down to Motown because he had a song that he wanted to produce for us. The group and I went to Motown that evening, and it was a cold winter night. When we got there, Smokey passed out the lyrics to “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and the five of us were sitting there as Smokey sat at the piano playing the melody of the song. And I’m looking at the lyrics “You gotta smile so bright, you could have been a candle, I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle.” Immediately I thought this is some funny stuff here. (Laughs) I guess we trusted the process, because we went in and recorded it. Then we came out [of the booth], Smokey was there leaning against a console, cool as a cucumber—and we listened to the song. I have to say…I didn’t think it was funny anymore after hearing it. Smokey is so talented; he can take something that’s nonsensical and somehow make it make sense. That’s one of the early moments of our time at Motown, and the song was a hit, so I always think back to how the it came about. That was the Magic of Motown.
V also speaks to Robin Terry, Chairwoman and CEO for Motown Museum in Detroit, below.
V Magazine: Can you walk us through Mr. Gordy’s earlier years, growing up in Detroit. We’d love to just get a basic understanding of how his childhood led him to music and ultimately led him to creating Motown?
Robin Terry: The Berry Gordy story obviously starts with the Gordy family story. And that is led by his parents, my great-grandparents, Berry Gordy Sr. and Bertha Ida Gordy. They migrated to Detroit from the South, and Berry Gordy was one of eight children. And I can tell you that our family has always been two things: an enterprising family, and a music family. So music has been a part of our DNA for as long as I can remember, and in any history of any family member, music is always connected in some way. And what I mean by that literally is with the Gordys, when people are born or when they die, they write songs about it.
But young Berry Gordy, at a very early age combined the enterprise and love for music, he was going door-to-door with his friend Billy Davis as a young teenager and playing the piano and [Billy] singing for 10 cents. So he understood how to bring those two things together as a really young person. And I think that love just evolved over time into a really creative and talented young songwriter in his early twenties. And that young songwriter found a path to writing music for other labels. But it wasn’t profitable for him, which ultimately led to his creating his own independent label.
V: Who were some of the artists that inspired Berry in his early years?
RT: I think his personal transition into the songwriter space was really through Jackie Wilson. And Jackie was a friend of his that he had met while he was boxing. Berry Gordy was a featherweight boxer on a program that Joe Lewis, who was his idol, boxed on as the heavyweight fighter. So boxing was a big part of his life and at one point was equally as important to him as songwriting. And he had to make a decision of which path he was gonna take. But he met Jackie Wilson while boxing, and later Jackie becomes “Jackie Wilson,” this incredibly loved and swooned-after artist. Berry Gordy ends up writing three songs for Jackie, and they all became number one hits, and that was really his confirmation that he could be a successful songwriter.
V: That’s so interesting. I would never imagine something like boxing bringing them together in that way.
RT: Boxing was a big deal, it was a big motivator in his life. And it was the catalyst in a lot of ways for his wanting to create something in the world that made people happy. And he tells a story often of being a young boy, I think eight or nine years old, and watching Joe Lewis’ championship fight, and Joe defeats Max Schmeling, and all of the folks gathered around their televisions, watching this moment where Max goes down and then cheers erupted all over the United States. And he says to his dad, ‘what could I ever do to make that many people happy?’ Boxing has been this narrative in his life. And you see that in the way that Motown was modeled and put together, [with] a lot of love and fierce competition.
V: You touched a little bit upon this when mentioning that his songwriting work wasn’t very profitable, could you talk more about Berry Gordy’s time in that field and working with other artists?
RT: As a young songwriter, once he started writing for Jackie and saw that he could be successful with that, he started writing for other artists. But he was finding that he was only being paid like $3 a song. And it was actually Smokey Robinson, who had then become a friend of his, who said to him, ‘look, if that is all you’re gonna make, you might as well be in business for yourself’. And that was the moment that he said, you know what, you’re right, and went from having what was essentially a songwriting service for other labels to having his own independent label, which at the time was Tamla Records.
V: What were those initial years like as a new record label trying to establish itself? What battles did the company face and how did Berry navigate them?
RT: I think what’s interesting about the early days of Motown is that you had a young, aspiring songwriter in a family of other enterprising people and you had seven other siblings. It was one of those moments where you really had all of the siblings and the parents sort of abandoning their individual paths to come and support their little brother. So in the very, very early days, it was a lot of family filling in roles and bringing their talents to support their brother who had a vision to write music for the world. After that, you start to see some of the other personalities that get introduced to the Motown story and as a business, and the rest is history. But the foundation in its earliest years was really centered around the family support for him.
V: How do you think the family part of Motown has evolved over the years?
RT: I think the Gordy family and the concept of family is the foundation of Motown, but it also shaped Motown as a company and shaped the legacy that is Motown. When you hear people talk about Motown, for example, they talk about the Motown family. If you think about it, Motown at one point had over 450 employees and their average age was 23. They’re very formative years where folks are coming out of high school, you’re dating, you’re getting married, you’re creating families, they spent them together and that created bonds that exist for a lifetime.
V: It is beautiful to think about. Could you also touch on the significance of Berry being from Detroit and starting this black-owned label?
RT: Detroit is a real character in the Motown story. When you think about the talent that existed and still exists in this city, you had musical talent coming out of high schools and churches. And the musicians in Detroit, phenomenal musicians in nightclubs and even members of the symphony orchestra, moonlighted at Motown. The soil was ripe with opportunity. And then when you drop a visionary like Berry Gordy with a physical place like Hitsville in the center of that, suddenly you give all of that opportunity a place to prosper. That’s exactly what Hitsville did once it was there. And suddenly it became a very magnetic place for that young talent. And everyone’s drawn there.
V: How did he go about signing new artists? Did he have to do a lot of convincing for them to join his new label?
RT: I don’t think he had to convince a lot of people. If you were in or wanted to be in the music-making space, you pressed your way to Motown. I would use maybe the Jackson 5 as an example, where someone within the Motown family sees talent and says, ‘ah, you need to be here’. You could take a group like the Miracles where you had cousins that were in the same group, and then they knew somebody, people sort of organically connected with one another and somebody said, ‘ah, you should come with me down to Hitsville’. Not only to be an artist there was cool, but it was also very prestigious to be an employee of Motown. The employees had their badges, and you could buy a car because they knew you had a sustainable job with a very prestigious company.
V: I think the one thing that people really can identify with Motown, beyond the familial aspect of it, is the sound, that you can hear a song and can immediately tell it’s from that era. How did Berry go about creating that sort of sound?
RT: I think the world will be asking itself that question for a long time. But I can tell you that within the formula, the assembly line formula that is Motown, the music was about collaboration, it was having that incredible pool of talented songwriters. And then music arrangers. And then for the artists themselves. It was this formula of collaboration that led to this sound that ultimately became the sound of young America. And it was the fact that Motown had continuity in product, they continued to crank out hit after hit with this assembly line approach. That’s what put ’em on the map, that was what made the sound distinct.
V: As someone who’s part of the family yourself, how would you describe the sound?
RT: I would describe the Motown sound as soulful and universal. It’s the richness, it’s the subject matter. This Motown sound was about real things and that also made it universal. It wasn’t black music, it wasn’t white music, it was America, it was music for all people all over this planet. Those would be the two words that would come to mind for me. I think if I added a third word, it would be timeless.
V: Let’s talk about the Motown Museum! How did your involvement with the museum come about?
RT: So my grandmother is Esther Gordy Edwards, she’s the founder of the Motown Museum in 1985. It became a state designated historic site in 1987. And I have been around the museum since its founding. I actually lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 15 and I went to live with my grandmother, so I’ve just been around it. But she founded the museum because she thought it was important for the world to know the history that was made on that land and in that little house on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. She devoted her time to telling the story of Motown. And then in 2002, my grandmother wasn’t able to continue to do the work, she had health challenges. So I took on a leadership role in helping to continue the work of the museum. Now, since about 2015, I am leading the charge to expand the museum and really create a campus that celebrates the legacy of Motown for fans around the world.
V: What does your daily life at the museum look like?
RT: The mission of the museum really is to celebrate the legacy of Motown in an authentic way and to create a platform for emerging talent and entrepreneurs. And so much of our time is spent in creating meaningful programs that help develop their talent similarly to the way that talent was developed at Motown in the sixties and seventies. The other part of my time is focused very much on the expansion itself and continuing to provide a vision for this magical space that we are creating in Detroit to not only pay homage to the history of Motown and to continue to tell that story, but to perpetuate it by inspiring and activating the next generation of Supremes, Temptations, and Berry Gordys in the world.
V: If the walls of the museum could talk, what do you think they would say
RT: There’s a song title from The Supremes that comes to mind and it’s “Come See About Me.” I think the walls and the building have a really powerful story and it’s just an invitation to the world to see it.
V: Such a good song!
RT: Yes, it is!
V: Could you talk a bit about the Marvin Gaye exhibition that’s running, and what was your role in bringing it all together?
RT: 2021 marked the 50 year anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, one of the most prolific albums of our time. So we celebrated that album with an exhibit called “Still Going On,” and it really illuminated those issues that Marvin spoke to so profoundly in that album, everything from police brutality to pollution, to hunger. And we just shed light on some of those issues that today the world is still grappling with as it was when he wrote it back in 1971. It was initially an installation that we set up outdoors in a one mile block. And visitors could walk from one station to the other and each one listening to a different track from the album and taking in a moment in history back in the seventies, and then a moment in history in current day. It was pretty profound to see just how much hadn’t changed.
V: What future plans are in store for the museum, beyond the expansion?
RT: For the museum, right now, we’re in a heavy construction period. Our museum is actually close to the public until the summer, when we’ll reopen and welcome all of our fans back to the museum, and we’ll be opening the first two phases of the Motown Museum expansion. And we’ll be continuing to do the programmatic work that we do in the community, for the artist and entrepreneur communities in particular. Everything from our singing competitions like Amplify and Motown Mic, and our camps, songwriting camps for youth and kids. And just the wide gamut of masterclasses that we do. We will continue to do those things and continue to deliver experiences and opportunities for those in the music making and entrepreneurial space.