R&B Legends Trace Motown Roots For 40th Anniversary Special

Aretha Franklin to industry insiders recall how label founder Berry Gordy changed music.

For British rocker Rod Stewart, the Motown influence was such that,
as a boy, he believed that all black people in America must have been from
Detroit.

“Growing up, I thought Detroit was where every black person in America must live,” the R&B-influenced Stewart said for the television special “Motown 40 — The Music Is Forever,” which aired Sunday night on ABC-TV.

And while the notion seems silly, it might be more understandable considering the expansive influence the label that boasted “the sound of young America” had on music and culture for the past 30-plus years. That’s how long it has been since Motown Records founder Berry Gordy left his job at a Detroit auto plant and began applying his knowledge of assembly-line work toward manufacturing hit records.

The years between Gordy quitting the auto plant and the present day (Gordy sold his label in the early ’90s) have seen Motown Records become synonymous with soul music in
America. The acts that came out of the label — including the show’s host and former Supreme, Diana Ross, and R&B legend Smokey Robinson — became internationally known for their lively music as well as their captivating stage presence.

“Motown groomed artists for the long-run,” said soul queen Aretha
Franklin of the Motown approach.

The television special offered viewers two hours’ worth of insight into Motown Records’ family-oriented approach to making music, as the company, now owned by Polygram, prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary with a compilation double-disc, Motown 40 Forever, featuring Sean “Puffy” Combs’ remix of the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back,” to be released Tuesday.

Also included on the compilation are the Jackson 5′s “ABC,” the Four Tops’
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr.
Postman,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” Diana Ross & the Supremes’
“Someday We’ll Be Together,” the Temptations’ “My Girl,” Stevie Wonder’s
“Superstition,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” the Commodores’ “Three
Times A Lady” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You.”

In the ’60s, Motown Records groomed artists ranging from the late Marvin Gaye to the Supremes and the Four Tops into international stars, along the way creating a sound highlighted by inventive arrangements and production — and loads of hooks. The special chronicled Gordy’s first meeting with a young Robinson and showed the fledgling label grow out of a house known as Hitsville U.S.A. and into an office building in downtown Detroit.

Interviews with Motown founder Gordy and Robinson, as well as commentary
from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and famed sociologist Cornel West, added
texture to the story of a label started, they said, by a man of modest means who just wanted to make music. “He knows what it’s like to be as broke as the Ten Commandments,” West said of Gordy.

In addition to Motown’s signature sound, Gordy created an artist development department designed to instruct young acts on the finer points of choreography, comportment and how to dress, going so far as to hire finishing-school teacher Maxine Powell to dispense her etiquette knowledge to budding artists.

Far from being a local, or even a national phenomenon, the record
company’s blue-labeled records boomed out across the globe garnering
listeners from as far away as Sydney, Australia, and Paris.

The second half of the anniversary special airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC-TV. [Mon., Feb. 16, 1998, 5 p.m. PST]