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DVD: Standing In The Shadow of Motown

Motown: "The Same Old Song"

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 17 December 200s - In Paul Justman's Grammy-winning documentary film "Standing In The Shadow of Motown now on theatrical release in Paris and on DVD in Britain, a veteran of the legendary Motown "Funk Brothers" studio band stands on a Detroit bridge in a snowstorm saying that he never understood why Berry Gordy decided to move Motown Records from Detroit to Los Angeles; and that there was neither prior notification nor termination pay.

And in his excellent book Boogaloo, The Quintessence of American Popular Music, recently published in the US (Pantheon), which relates the story of black popular music from the blues and gospel through Sam Cooke and Tupac Shakur, Arthur Kempton quotes Gordy as saying that he could never have married his mistress (and lead singer of the Supremes) Diana Ross, because, "she's as selfish as I am." If, however, it is true that all recording executives from the beginning of time were selfish, then there is no selfish. As the Motown hit had it: "It's The Same Old Song."

Along with Stax in Memphis, it was Motown in Detroit that first manufactured black music to appeal directly to a mass white audience. (Before that, a white man who sang like a black man - Elvis Presley, for instance - was required.) Kempton's book is harder - very hard indeed - on Gordy than Justman's film. Justman says it was never his intention to tell the story of anything other than the music itself. (Remember, though; he needed the Motown catalogue.) Filling in the subject, Kempton writes: "While keeping in hand every part of their livelihoods, Gordy kept his Motown 'family' believing the yoke he had on their necks was an instrument of mutual improvement."

What Kempton calls Motown's "casualties" included Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, who "went haywire" ("Motown treated me like a poor stepchild"), ex-Temptation Paul Williams, who "blew his brains out" and Florence Ballard, "the banished Supreme who died on welfare." Supreme Mary Wilson complained that she was being paid only $250 a week while the group was generating millions. The author compares Gordy's relationship to those who worked for him to "a pimp with his whores," explaining: "The heavy circulation of Iceberg Slim's putative memoir, Pimp, established the 'player' as an outlaw archetype in the popular consciousness of at least one black generation."

"In 1964," Kempton writes, "when Gordy's stable kicked into full stride, 42 of the 60 records Motown brought to market were hits." Some stars were paid Cadillacs and fur coats instead of a correct percentage. Marvin Gaye ("Motown was like the Gestapo") and Stevie Wonder hired their own lawyers to audit the books in order to get what they thought they deserved. On the bottom rung were the instrumentalists, who could not afford lawyers and in any case were having too much fun. It has been said that musicians get paid in inverse proportion to their enjoyment of their work.

The Funk Brothers studio band provided the essential groove and the licks without which the songs they worked on in Motown's Studio A, also known as the "Snake Pit," would not have been hits. Grooves and licks cannot be copyrighted. They were paid by the hour or the week and were often well paid but only by working class standards. They were given no points. The general public did not know anything about any of this and did not particularly care. Subcontracting is the manufacturer's problem not the consumer's. .

The underpaid instrumentalists were unusually creative and they deserve a lot more recognition than they have had. Listen to James Jamerson's bass lines on "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Inner City Blues," for example (Paul McCartney has acknowledged Jamerson's influence). Or to Ben Benjamin's drumming, Joe Messina's guitar and Jack Ashford's tambourine on such songs as "Dancing In The Streets," "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

Owning publishing rights, and Gordy insisted on it, is like owning real estate. In addition, controlling the means of production and distribution and having pieces of just about everything else, Gordy grew to be one of the richest black businessmen in America. There is nothing necessarily wrong with it. He did not invent the exploitation of musicians. Already in 1830 in France, Hector Berlioz could write: "In this free country the musicians are numbered among the slaves."

Anyway, as they usually do, one thing led to another and, with great irony, it came to pass that Gordy would try to make Marvin Gaye into Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross into Doris Day. Ethnic (a/k/a "race") music that had grown organically from its community was dumbed-down to the lowest possible interracial denominator, which is more or less where we are right now. Seeing Justman's documentary and reading Kempton's book, we are reminded of just how good black popular music used to be.

Arthur Kempton, Erroll McDonald (Editor): Boogaloo, The Quintessence of American Popular Music
Arthur Kempton, Erroll McDonald (Editor) : Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
Pantheon Books; Hardcover, 512pp (May 2003)
ISBN: 0375406123

DVD: Standing In The Shadows of Motown (2000)
Starring: Jack Ashford, Joe Hunter,
Director: Paul Justman
Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Widescreen, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound
Studio: Artisan Entertainment
DVD Release Date: 21 October 2003

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.

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