Revisiting the tumultuous decade that almost saw the organization that had been the leading and most successful Black business in history almost go bankrupt as it struggled to find its voice. #motown #1970s #blackhistorymonth #BHM #marywilson #singlesawarenessday #valentines #valentinesday #podcasting
The British Invasion. The Wall of Sound. Surf Music. Motown. Acid Rock. Stax/Volt. Girl Groups. All of these words and phrases immediately conjure up music scenes that were all birthed from the 1960’s, and regardless of what these genres all have morphed into currently, they will forever be linked to that decade.
For individual acts, there is always a challenge your audience grew up and has to spend more time and money on other things, like rent and textbooks, even if you were to alter your sound to change with the times. Imagine attempting this when your are one of the biggest music labels in the world.
Last year’s program focused on the initial Motown period, from their beginnings in 1959 to when it left for Los Angeles from Detroit in 1972. This year, I am focusing solely on the 1970’s decade. As someone who used to live in the Motor City, I do remember hearing lifelong older residents talk about what killed Detroit in the 1960’s: the loss of union jobs to cheap overseas labor, the dismantling of the public transit system, the 1967 riots and Motown pulling up shop.
Of course, it isn’t fair to blame founder and label head Berry Gordy for the move. The industry had forced Motown to change dramatically from the several hundred dollars in a basement indie label to a powerhouse entertainment company that employed hundreds of primarily Black men and women. The entire music business was moving to California, and even labels that didn’t set up offices there.
As Motown expanded it’s reach into films and television, the music part of the business did take a significant hit and legal headaches. This wasn’t just due to the expansion: acts like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder fought for and won control of their careers. The production staff often didn’t know how to market these acts to new audiences: the artists all grew up and changed with times as well, sometimes in a very different directions. The most visible example of this was The Jackson 5. When they were the hot new young people’s act, it was like nothing had changed. Then, as they literally shot up like weeds and matured, Motown ignored repeated requests for better material and the group was pretty much waiting until their contract expired.
In what may have been the poorest idea in an effort to expand their business, the label went after acts and formed subsidiaries that had nothing to do with Black R&B, Soul and Pop, and to almost universal results, all of them failing, including a Country label, Mel-O-Dy, a Jazz label, Workshop, and a Rock Label, Rare Earth, the latter being the only one that produced a single hit act. Not only did the Motown A&R employees not know what to do with their established artists, these other signings, by and large, proved they were adrift at sea.
Regardless, the label did score some of its most important releases during this period, including strings of genre-defining critical and commercial smashes with Gaye and Wonder. Diana Ross also became a household name thanks to several film roles, including an Oscar-nominated performance in the Motown film Lady Sings The Blues. Regardless, Motown missed out on one of the decades most important and lucrative Black music forms, Disco, which Gordy hated. By the time the label got a clue, which was only after several acts started having major hits in the genre, it was, in essence, too late. They did release some Funk, but again, label promotion often failed.
By the early 1980’s, Gordy was forced to sell part of his company to avoid bankruptcy. It still lives on today, some over 60 years on, and has kept up with the times, including a recent #1 Billboard 200 LP with Migos, a major Hip Hop act. But the years we cover here literally find Motown in that awkward teenage stage, growing up quickly, having plans about what might happen but ultimately not knowing where it was headed.
It is also with a very heavy heart that I must remind you that one of the facets of the other side of love is loss.
On February third, less than two weeks ago, Country music songwriter Jim Weatherly passed away at the age of 77. You may not know his name, but if you lived through the 1970’s, you know his songs. Gladys Knight and The Pips recorded 13 of his tracks, resulting in some of their biggest classics, including “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”, “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”, the Grammy winner “Neither One of Us” and of course, “Midnight Train to Georgia”, one of the biggest songs of the decade.
Earlier this week, on February eighth, Mary Wilson died suddenly at the age of 76. She, along with the late Florence Ballard, started what would become The Supremes, Motown’s biggest ever act. She was also the only member of the group through every incarnation, from 1959 until 1977. Just last week, she told CNN that she would be open to a Supremes 60th Anniversary reunion.
- You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You, 1978, Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear
- Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow (mono single master), 1971, Valerie Simpson, Exposed
- Marionette (mono single master), 1970, The Marvelettes (Wanda Young with The Andantes), The Return of The Marvelettes
- Shakey Ground, 1974, The Temptations, A Song For You
- Nathan Jones, 1971, The Supremes, Touch
- Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye), 1972, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Neither One Of Us
- Get It Together, 1973, The Jackson 5, G.I.T.
- Walk On By, 1973, The Undisputed Truth, Law Of The Land
- Don’t Leave Me This Way, 1976, Thelma Houston, Any Way You Like It
- I Didn’t Realize The Show Was Over, 1973, The Miracles, Renaissance
- Easy, 1977, The Commodores, The Commodores
- I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking, 1976, The Supremes, High Energy
- Maria (You Were The Only One) (mono single master), 1970, Jimmy Ruffin, The Groove Governor
- You Can Walk Out The Door If You Wanna, 1975, Yvonne Fair, The Bitch Is Black
- No One Gets The Prize/The Boss, 1979, Dian Ross, The Boss
Love to you all.
Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr.
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Videographer and Writer
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