In 1965, the folks at one federal agency had an ambitious goal. They wanted to create something that was well ahead of its time: a music video.
The agency was the Office of Economic Opportunity, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The OEO helped co-produce a 90-minute TV special with CBS, urging American teenagers to find summer jobs and stay educated. But the video also showcased some of the era’s biggest stars, including Ray Charles, Tom Jones and the Supremes.
The video starts with Rosalind Ashford, Betty Kelly and Martha Reeves (“Martha and the Vandellas”) ducking under dangling car doors and playing around in unfinished vehicles as they sing “Nowhere to Run” in the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan.
The setting was appropriate. After all, the Vandellas performed under the Motown label, which came out of Detroit (The “Mo” in “Motown” refers to the Motor City). Plus, Motown founder and Detroit native Berry Gordy Jr. — the man who signed the band in 1962 — had spent the early part of his career as an assembly line worker at the Ford Motor Company. That time profoundly influenced the music he would later produce.
“The quality control element of Motown was something that [Gordy] picked up directly from working in a car factory,” says Adam White, author of "Motown: The Sound of Young America." “He understood how everything had to be at a level of quality and integrated it, which was unusual for a music company, in his business. So some records were thrown out because they weren't good enough, just like a car that would come through and a part wasn't fixed on well enough.”
Gordy wrote songs while on the assembly line, but didn’t fully make the leap into music until 1958, when he got an $800 loan from his family. He used the money to buy the small building in Detroit that would later become the first headquarters of Motown.
From there, Gordy’s success skyrocketed. Just a few years later, he and his songwriters produced Motown’s (then known as Tamla) U.S. No. 1 pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman.” And that was just the beginning.
Gordy went on to discover Diana Ross and the Supremes, launch the careers of groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops, and create international legends like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
The idea was simple: Take a group with raw talent, work with them, and churn out hits the way you would cars in a factory. But Adam White said Gordy had another thing going for him: timing.
“The first sort of explosion of rock and roll had not exactly petered out, but the spark had gone a little,” White says. “If you think about rock and roll's birthing the likes of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis... that was a remarkable explosion for the kids who bought the music and who adored and consumed the music.” He adds, “But then by 1960, teenagers were listening either to R&B stations or they were listening to pop stations that would play some of that R&B music. So Berry's timing was very good in that sense there was an opportunity for him.”
Gordy’s music didn’t catch the ears of only curious American teenagers. “Mr. Postman” and Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” also attracted the attention of some of the biggest influencers in the world. Namely, the Beatles, who went on to cover both songs.
“When the Beatles recorded those songs, that music began to influence others, and indeed the Beatles were essentially Motown’s biggest fans,” White says. “And because Berry had his own publishing company and published those songs, the money that came in when the Beatles album started to sell on the scale they did — not just in the U.S. or the U.K. but around the world — that money came into Motown and it gave it a cash injection, the likes of which helped it to build and helped it to grow.”
As the money and fans poured in, Motown’s influence and success charged on. And its legacy survived well beyond that of the generation that initially supported it.
“Motown stood for something beyond music,” says White. “It stood for excellence, it stood for determination, it stood for success. This young man from Detroit achieved something that is not likely to be forgotten, and I think it will endure past the baby boomer generation.”
Marc Filippino is an associate producer at Innovation Hub. Follow him on Twitter: @mfilippino