“Way Over There” by the Miracles was one of the earliest records pressed at Hitsville, U.S.A. – so early, in fact, that Hitsville founder Berry Gordy cataloged it as Tamla 54028, an impressive and misleading number that would hide how young the label really was. Already a hit in the Midwest, “Way Over There” succeeded on the East Coast when Gordy brought the record to radio announcer Georgie Woods, who played the song on the air in Philadelphia after hearing only the first few seconds of it.
The results were discouraging. Sales for “Way Over There,” which were running a healthy pace, fell to a strained crawl. The conventional version came off as mere imitation – the modest magic of the original take was lost. “It was then I began to better appreciate the sound produced by our own little studio,” Gordy wrote.
That was during the early years of Gordy’s “little studio,” before he would produce the hits and stars we usually associate with the Motown Sound. A stubborn perfectionist, Gordy had an ear for what was danceable, vivacious and instantly infectious, and settled for nothing less. His various record labels, including Motown, Tamla and Gordy, were all branches on the thriving Hitsville tree. Motown fans have counted the rings – it turns 50 this year.
At a time when black artists were largely ignored by white radio, Gordy became a pioneer for crossing R&B over into mainstream pop. Determined to make a place for Hitsville on top 40 radio, Gordy had faith in the company’s motto, “The Sound of Young America.” Although its source remains unknown, the motto was an inspiring alternative to the standard philosophy: Black records for black radio.
Gordy was always attuned to the mainstream market. He originally wanted to name his first record label Tammy, after the Debbie Reynolds hit that reached number one on pop radio. After the name was denied registration in Washington, he renamed the label Tamla, under which he would record Hitsville’s solo acts. Gordy’s second label, Motown, released group recordings, and became just as successful as its sister label. As for the studio, Hitsville’s artists made the most of its bare-bones two-track recorder. (To give you an idea of the equipment they were using, remember that the cassette player in your stereo uses four tracks.)
Few artists were as important in developing the Motown Sound as lead Miracles vocalist William “Smokey” Robinson. Gordy and Robinson wrote a number of compositions together, including Hitsville’s first number-one smash on R&B radio, “Shop Around” by the Miracles. As with “Way Over There,” Gordy recorded a second take for “Shop Around” after being disappointed with the first. The retake – on which Gordy played piano – had a faster tempo, and a sound that was much more conventional for pop radio. This time, Gordy’s intuition paid off: “Shop Around” not only became a top 10 hit on pop radio, but the record itself would go on to sell over a million copies.
For most independent labels, releasing a mainstream hit would have been an inspired dream – for Hitsville, it was a good start. Mary Wells, the first artist signed to Gordy’s Motown label, became Hitsville’s original female star. Gordy met her during a Miracles concert at a Detroit nightclub, where she handed him the lyrics to “Bye Bye Baby.” Hoping her song would be approved and recorded by Jackie Wilson, Wells made an appointment to meet with Gordy the next day. “When I told her she was the only perfect person to sing it,” he wrote, “it seemed her wildest dream had come true.”
It would not take long for Mary Wells to become the leading lady of Motown – Wells was Hitsville’s most dependable talent in its formative years, during which she boasted three consecutive top 10 hits.
Wells collaborated with Smokey Robinson on a number of singles, including “The One Who Really Loves You” and “Two Lovers,” which have become standards. Her Robinson-penned signature tune, “My Guy,” became her only number-one pop hit – although Gordy didn’t much care for it, Robinson assured him it would make the top 10. When Gordy challenged him to a wager, however, Robinson refused. “He was sorry he hadn’t bet,” Gordy wrote.
Early on, Gordy’s concept of mainstream music was, indeed, a very broad one. When he met Marvin Gaye at Hitsville’s first annual Christmas party, Gordy was impressed by his impromptu rendition of “Mr. Sandman.” Inspired by its stylish warmth, Gordy imagined how Hitsville versions of pop standards would fare on the charts. Gordy approached Gaye about recording his own album of standards, which later became “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye.” Sales, unfortunately, were not as dynamic as Gordy had hoped.
If Gaye ever felt effected by the flop, he never let on. Gaye would, in fact, become one of the most intriguing, unique and successful talents in the Hitsville stable. Like Smokey Robinson, Gaye helped compose much of his own material, including “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike.” “Pride And Joy,” also co-written by Gaye, became the first of many top 10 hits he would record during his many years with Tamla Records.
After three years of huge hit singles, Hitsville conquered the album charts in 1963 with its first number one record, “Little Stevie Wonder/The 12 Year Old Genius.” His debut single, “Fingertips,” made history not only as the first live recording to top the charts, but also for making Wonder the first artist with both an album and a single simultaneously at number one. “One day in the studio, watching Stevie perform, I said, ‘Boy! That kid’s a wonder,’ and the name stuck,” Gordy wrote.
For all of his early ambition, it would be a number of years before Wonder recorded his next top 10 hit, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” By then, his adolescent tenor had evolved into one of the most recognizable voices in modern music. “That young, undeveloped high-pitched sound that I hadn’t loved when I first met him turned into a controlled, powerful, versatile instrument,” Gordy wrote.
Following the lead of Robinson and Gaye before him, Wonder took major songwriting credit for “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” as well as “I Was Made To Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – top 10 hits that helped make Wonder one of the most revered entertainers in the Hitsville canon.
While Tamla and Motown enjoyed explosive sales and airplay, Gordy Records slowly began to develop its own profitable talents. After four years with Gordy, the Temptations scored their first pop hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do” in 1964. Co-written by Smokey Robinson, the song thrived on the group’s five distinct voices. “There was so much love coming from Melvin and artistry from David, who was a superstar in his own right,” Gordy told Rolling Stone. “You had, like, five stars there, and each one could sing lead.”
The Temptations now boast over 40 R&B hits, including “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” and countless others. Smokey Robinson co-wrote much of their early material, including “My Girl,” one of the most essential, recognizable and successful pop ballads in Hitsville history.
While Smokey Robinson produced and wrote for the Temptations, songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland – or “HDH” – began to groom a struggling male group who called themselves the Four Tops. Although Gordy discovered them in 1962, it would be two years before they would eventually join Hitsville and become one of its most monumental acts.
Not all Hitsville icons were blessed with such immediate success. When a group of high school seniors who called themselves the Primettes auditioned for Motown, Gordy asked them to come back after finishing their education. When they returned a year later, the group underwent promising reconstruction. “When I told them I thought they needed a new name,” Gordy wrote, “they all came up with suggestions, but Florence had the name I liked best: The Supremes.”
Gordy was particularly impressed with lead vocalist Diane Ross: “I soon realized her name needed more sparkle,” he wrote. “‘Diane’ seemed a little passive for what I saw in her. Diana. That was a star’s name.”
After eight failed attempts at stardom, the Supremes claimed their first number-one hit, “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, and they would record no less than 12 more chart toppers for Motown well into the decade. Gordy would later issue an ambitious memo to Motown: “We will release nothing less than top 10 product on any artist. And because the Supremes’ world-wide acceptance is greater than the other artists, on them we will release only number one records.”
Following their 1969 chart topper “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Ross left the group to embark on an equally astonishing solo career. The Supremes weren’t able to keep the hits coming, but Gordy managed to find another group who could. “I remember the day Berry asked me to look at some kids from Gary, Indiana,” Dick Clark told Billboard. “‘You can’t believe how big they’re going to be,’ he said. He had always praised his artists in glowing terms and had never deceived me. And once again he was right: He was talking about the Jackson 5.”
Gordy discovered the group through their early independent efforts, including a local hit called “Big Boy.” The Jackson 5 were brought to Detroit, where they impressed Gordy with a jumping rendition of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” “One of the kids finally asked me, ‘Mr. Gordy, does this mean you’re going to sign us?’” he recalled in Billboard. “They were worried; Michael wasn’t. He knew he had me.”
The Jackson 5 would become the only name in history to debut with four consecutive number one hits: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There.” Gordy co-wrote many of their top 10 hits himself, including “Mama’s Pearl” and “Sugar Daddy.”
Gordy would, of course, reach for bigger and better things. He moved the studio to Los Angeles in 1971, and brought with him the seemingly unlimited talents who helped define an era of American music. Ahead would come the passionate funk of Marvin Gaye, the creative evolution of Stevie Wonder and the worldwide delirium of Michael Jackson. After turning an entire generation onto “The Sound of Young America,” Motown was ready for the audience of the future.
While Gordy’s achievements for spotting talent and matching hits with artists has yet to be matched, we must not forget the writing/singing duo Ashford and Simpson who helped establish Gordy’s Motown sound. After joining in Hitsville USA in 1966, this duo wrote several songs for a myriad of acts. They helped put Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell on the map with a string of hits. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “You’re Precious Love” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” were all top ten hits when Gaye and Terrell were a duo. Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and other Motown acts also had large record sales with the writing style of this duo appeared on their albums. They even reworked Ain’t No Mountain for Ross when she embarked on a solo career – to this day it has become synonymous with this artist.
There is no question that Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, etc. have all contributed to the Motown sound, but that does not diminish the contribution of Ashford & Simpson.