Motown In The Sixties: The Dream Within The Dream

Don’t know about you, but we think it’s time we heard from our special guest blogger  Mr. John Walker Ross! As many of you know John is a great writer as well as the creator and host of our favorite music blog:

John joins us here each month to share his insightful / informed thoughts and experiences about music and the world from the 60’s and beyond. Pease join us in welcoming John and enjoy his latest installment!

 “Here’s Johnny”

The most important promise of Rock and Roll America’s revolution in the 1950s and 60s was that the races might live together in something approximating harmony. The promise has often been hailed in retrospect as something inevitable, even irreversible, won by the blood of martyrs whose sacrifice was bound to be upheld by history. Some might argue otherwise. However, if the promises of the 60s haven’t been reversed, they seem to have at least stalled short of fulfilling Martin Luther King’s Dream.

But it looked promising there for a while, and if you can find an oldies station with a heavy-on-the-60s rotation these days, you can almost hear a hint of that promised racial harmony, which was realized more in the fantasy of one’s own car, than in mundane reality, where civil rights still had a long ways to go.

That’s in large part because heavy-on-the-sixties means heavy on Motown.

It’s interesting to speculate on what the post-Beatles 60s would have sounded like if Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. had taken up, oh, boxing promotion. What if he had decided to compete with Don King instead of Phil Spector? Someone once asked Smokey Robinson why Detroit was so special. Why so much talent had come out of there? His answer was simple:

“Berry Gordy was in Detroit.”

The implication was clear. If Berry Gordy had been in Cleveland, or Chicago, or Atlanta, or Winnemucca, then one of those places would have been Hitsville, and the big talents of those cities would have names as recognizable as the Motown stable. When he relocated to Los Angeles, success (and the Jackson 5, who began as the opening act for The Supremes) followed him there, too.

Smokey has been Gordy’s best friend for decades, one of his top artists, a vice-president of the Corporation. He might be prejudiced. But I tend to believe him. Despite what one hears about the old Stax vs Motown debate (a debate that pretty much exists only among the white hipster intelligentsia) in the 60s and every decade since, Black America has made its preference for Motown clear a hundred times over. Check the R&B charts some time, there is no other city where the local talent was exploited as fully as Detroit. Like Smokey said. That’s where Berry Gordy was.

As important as Motown was throughout the 60s and 70s, there was one period where the company—Berry Gordy’s vision and no other’s—was crucial to the survival of Rock and Roll America, which in turn was, by Dr. King’s own admission, crucial to the survival of Civil Rights America. That was the aftermath of the British Invasion.

Through no fault of the Beatles or the other great English acts, their arrival threatened to crystallize America’s first great suburban backlash against the steadily encroaching pop culture infiltration of not just Black America, but Folk America (represented by artists like Dylan who appealed to college kids, and who would later introduce the Beatles to marijuana), and, more lately, Teenybopper America (who first learned to scream and swooned over Elvis to their parent’s disapproval). All of which sought musical dominance in the wake of the mid-50s revolution which Berry Gordy had, almost alone, recognized as an opportunity for something greater than making his fortune. It wasn’t that the fortune didn’t matter. It most assuredly did. But for Gordy, the fortune and the Dream were the same thing.

The result was that he outworked everybody else, out-visioned them, out-geniused them, and finally made a sound that could stand up to anything – even the Beatles. It was a good thing he did.

It’s lovely to think that what most of mainstream America responded to was the Beatles’ undeniable genius. And no doubt genius was a prerequisite. But it wasn’t everything. Even at this distance in time, one can catch the sigh of relief whispering down the corridors of respectability. People like Leonard Bernstein, who had somehow managed to remain aloof from Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Shirelles, the Four Seasons, even Smokey Robinson, were right on hand to swoon over the Fab Four. Once it was white enough, polished enough, English enough, why Rock and Roll really could go anywhere. Heck, once the Rolling Stones showed up, it could even encompass Bohemian chic.

Not that the Beatles themselves ever wanted anything to do with this particular response to their music. When the Beatles first encountered the reality of racial segregation in the South, during the 1964 tour, they refused to play unless the audience was integrated. John Lennon told them, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now … I’d sooner lose our appearance money.” Famously, the city official agreed to integrate the show.


Between the arrival of the Beatles in Februrary 1964 and the end of 1967 the only black artists not with Motown who topped the charts were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups (both 1964), Percy Sledge (1966), and Aretha Franklin (1967). In a world where Motown existed, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Respect” were not far reaches. In a world where the last two chart toppers by black artists were “Hello, Dolly” and “Going to the Chapel” they might have been more unimaginable than the Fab Four were on this side of the pond in 1963.

I wrote about this as related to The Supremes on my blog, but as an example, here are some brief statistics are in order (taken from Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Charts via Joel Whitburn):

1950—1955 (Black Artists had 2 Billboard #1s, Motown did not exist)

1956—1959 (Black Artists had 12 Billboard #1s, Motown did not exist until 1959)

1960—1963 (Black Artists had 20 Billboard #1s, Motown had 2 of those)

1964—1967 (Black Artists had 18 Billboard #1s, Motown had 14 of those)

You can never deal in absolutes in alternative universes, but there’s a better than even chance that if Motown had not existed—if Berry Gordy had not existed—Black America’s presence at the top of the charts in the halcyon mid-60s would have been reduced to pre-Rock and Roll Era numbers. And if that had happened, it’s a pretty good bet the labels who flourished alongside Motown would have found much harder going in its absence—something like the fate of many British acts if the Beatles had never existed. I wonder how different the cultural landscape of the 60s would look then?

It almost certainly wouldn’t have given rise to a phenomena like Jacksonmania, which kicked off in 1970 and represented more than anything else, Motown’s answer to Beatlemania, by serving up an act, in the form of the Jackson 5, that remains one of the greatest examples of the immense mainstream success that black artists have found in American pop culture.

A while back on my blog I posted a strictly-for-fun piece naming who I thought were the ten most important people in the history of rock and roll. Like most strictly-for-fun pieces, I took the task very seriously. The trick was you had to matter for yourself. There were no Beatles or Stones listed because I thought of them as group entities. Even the importance of John Lennon or Mick Jagger could not be separated from their bands. I listed Jimi Hendrix for obvious reasons (he could certainly be separated from his bands). I listed John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) and Kurt Cobain as one entry because they were two sides of the same coin and could have been backed by any two or three somebodies and had the same destructive impact. As someone once said, it’s easier to kill than create.

The others were all solo artists except one. I thought there should be one non-performer in there to stand for all those who contributed something indelible and irreplaceable behind the scenes. For me, there was only one possible name. Not Phil Spector. Not Alan Freed or Dick Clark. Not Jerry Lieber or Mike Stoller. Not Jerry Wexler or Ahmet Ertegun. Not even Sam Phillips.

Without Berry Gordy Jr., Rock and Roll America would have been reduced to a house re-divided against itself long before its promise was fulfilled, and at the very moment when the ink was drying on the latest raft of laws that would have ensured that promise a hundred years earlier if laws alone could do the trick.

To be something that, per the Showmen, truly sunk “deep in the heart of man,” Rock and Roll America had to be the center of who we were for at least a generation. Elvis took us half the way. The man who made Detroit the place where all that talent came from made the rest of the journey possible.

You might even say he insisted on it.

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