By Mike Zwerin
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.
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
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
"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."
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
Books; Hardcover, 512pp (May 2003)
DVD: Standing In The Shadows of Motown (2000)
Ashford, Joe Hunter,
Director: Paul Justman
Closed-captioned, Widescreen, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound
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.