Celebrating Black History Month – Marvin Gaye and Motown
“A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!”
Ahem. Sorry for the Little Richard outburst. Rolling Stone has, however, called the opening line of Tutti Frutti “what has to be considered the most inspired rock lyric ever recorded,” so it isn’t the worst place to start a blog post.
But, considering we’re not really touching on Little Richard at all, from here on out, it’s probably not the best place to start one either.
Anyways. This edition of our Black History Month Celebration has a musical ring to it: We’re looking back both at a dude who knew what was going on in 1970, (and would most definitely still know what’s going on today, if he was still around to take it all in), Marvin Gaye, and the label that made him famous, Motown.
But in order to get to Gaye, author, composer and epic crooner on arguably the greatest soul album of all time, 1971’s “What’s Going On,” in any sort of meaningful capacity, it’s important to understand the institution that helped package his star power.
Motown Records was founded in 1959, in Detroit, by Berry Gordy, Jr.. It was (and still is today), a set of two houses — one red brick, one blue — on the 2600 block of West Grand Boulevard.
Now, a funeral home is next door, and the fraternal twin-houses are a pretty righteous museum, but a museum nonetheless. From 1959 to 1972, though, the nearly all-black label churned out 110 Top 10 hits.
(Again, to be clear, during one of the most racially divisive periods in American history, Motown, a black record label, owned the American radio waves.)
The reasons for this were many, but the majority of the success can be attributed to the dynamic combination of brilliant artists — like Diana Ross, the Temptations and the Four Tops — and Motown-founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s tried-and-true formulas.
Time and time again, Gordy would take on an artist, and time and time again, that artist would create a gold record. And in the process, he was doing his best to break down the racial barrier in popular culture by filling white radio waves with the beautiful voices of black Americans.
The list of careers launched by Motown reads like the possibly-real Brittanica Encyclopedia entry, “Best Soul and R&B Singers of All Time.”
Stevie Wonder. Diana Ross. The Jackson 5. Gladys Knight. The Miracles. The Marvalettes. Tammi Terrell. And Marvin Gaye.
Gaye inched onto the Motown scene in 1961, signing to their smaller Tamla label. He broke out in 1963 with the top-10 single “Pride and Joy,” and never looked back; his duets with Terrell (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” among them) became sensations.
But while in the midst of a successful pop-R&B career, Gaye was exchanging letters with his brother, who was stationed in Vietnam. The correspondence inspired Gaye to write the single “What’s Going On,” but there was a problem: Gordy hated it.
He refused to release the song, and the reasoning he gave was sound Motown reasoning: It didn’t satisfy Motown’s Pop Formula. And it most certainly didn’t. But Gaye was determined to bust up Motown’s pop-y image, and in the process address pressing social, civil and cultural issues. And so Gaye, in legendary rebel fashion, threatened to walk off Motown if they didn’t release “What’s Going On.”
Despite calling it, “the worst song he had ever heard,” Gordy relented after the single went Top Five. And the rest, as they would say, is sweetly, sweetly sung history.
Gaye went on to record more concept albums, and more incredible-yet-socially-aware music until his untimely death in 1984.
Motown would last a little longer — finally shuttering its independently corporate doors in 2005 — but the impact both made upon our society is undeniable.
So, in honor of easy listening, we’ll raise our wrist to Motown and Marvin Gaye.
Quote Out of Context
“Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you.” — Marvin Gaye
Quotes in Context
“War is not the answer, because only love can conquer hate.”
“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.”
“I sing about life.” — Marvin Gaye