Berry Turns Back the Clock
So many great musicians have passed through the ranks of the Motown Family of labels since it was first launched with the signing of a group called “The Matadors” who would quickly change their name to “The Miracles”.
After Motown had secured a firm foothold as “The Sound of Young America”, the label’s founder often dipped back into the time capsule bringing artists, who for the most part, were well beyond their glory days. But more of that to follow…. (below)
The legendary Gordy Berry, Jr., located property in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 which would become to be known as “Hitsville U.S.A. an entirely appropriate moniker. “Hitsville” was not a single dwelling. Before long seven houses in the immediate area were secured by Berry for his up and coming operation.
Starting off slowly, accompanied by Miracles’ lead vocalist and composer extraordinaire – as VP – by 1966 the company would boast 450 employees!
Everyone can recite many of the names of the fabulous talent who passed through and cemented the Motown legend for all time:
Jackie & Marv
In the beginning at Motown, Berry Gordy, Jr., was up for just about anything – Many of his earliest efforts were pure rhythm and blues acts always drawing on the artistic talent in the Detroit area. Gordy had more or less got his start penning “Reet Petite” along with his sister for Jackie Wilson in 1957, followed by a handful of compositions for Wilson including his big “Lonely Teardrops”.
Berry provided many obscure groups and artists with an opportunity when he founded his new recording company – first on Tamla Records his first Motown stable label. Marv Johnson released the first Tamla single “Come to Me” b/w “Whisper” in January of 1959. In alliance with Berry Gordy – several of Marv’s songs would be released on United Artists including his first big hit “You’ve Got What It Takes” followed by “I Love the Way You Love”, “It Ain’t Gonna Be That Way”, “You’ve Got to Move Two Mountains”, and “Merry-Go-Round” all charting hits and all co-compositions of Berry Gordy – all occurring parallel to Gordy’s efforts to move his Tamla label ahead.
His first taste of national chart success came when Barrett Strong recorded another Berry co-composition “Money” which was initially released on Berry’s “Anna” label – and which would hit the charts in the summer of 1959. Then, in the Fall of 1960, everything would change with the release of “Shop Around” by Gordy’s first premier Motown act – The Miracles. Gordy teamed up with lead vocalist and Motown VP William “Smokey” Robinson to pen that song.
William and Mary
In May of 1959, Gordy started up his Motown label kicking that effort off with “Bad Girl”/”I Love Your Baby” two more Robinson/Gordy songs. The Satintones were Gordy’s first Motown label group and received much of his attention releasing six singles – none charting – and so in 1961, the group disbanded.
Mary Wells was Motown’s featured female vocalist but all of her initial releases gained little national recognition. The Supremes, who had been working in Motown’s offices, came on board in the Spring of 1962 with “Your Heart Belongs To Me” a “Smokey Robinson track.
Then Motown finally broke through in the Summer of 1962 with Mary Well’s “The One Who Really Loves You” followed in short order by “You Beat Me To The Punch”- both Smokey Robinson penned songs. They charted at numbers 8 and 9 respectively. Motown put it’s weight behind Wells – She scored 10 national hits up to her 1964 departure for 20th Century Records where she enjoyed only marginal chart success.
Holland – Dozier – Holland Find the Formula
Then the “formula” fell into place when the young Supremes released “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” was released. The song reached a respectable number 23 in late 1963 – but the magic had been created. The writers of this song would become one of the most formidable song writing teams for all-time – brothers Brian and Eddie Holland along with Lamont Dozier.
The Supremes would then roll into one of the most successful chart runs ever by anyone – scoring five number one singles in quick succession – with twelve number one’s between 1963 and 1969 (and none after that).
And so the Motown hit machine was born – Within another few months all the classic Motown family artists would be on board – and there was nowhere to go but up!
Turning Back the Clock at Motown
In time, Gordy would record a diverse range of recordings: Gospel – Comedy – Documentary – all for the most part not successful in terms of record sales. Some noted musicians passed through the Motown doors over the years.
Rev. Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King Jr., made an appearance on the Gordy Record Label recording one single in 1963. Berry Gordy released three memorial LP’s two in 1963 and one later on in the Summer of 1968 after Dr. King’s assassination.
(See history above)
Leslie Uggams was a Broadway actress and film actress of some notoriety who brought little recording success with her to her brief stint at Motown. She recorded for Columbia from 1959 into 1964 then moved on to Atlantic Records – Her only chart appearance was 1959’s “One More Sunrise (Morgen)” charted for a single week at number 98. Leslie released one single for Motown in 1976 and was gone – back to the stage and screen.
By the time Billy Eckstine arrived at Motown he was far past his days of recording success. Eckstine and his orchestra first hit the pop charts in 1945 right after World War II. He logged an impressive run of 18 hit recordings from 1945 with his last coming in 1952. His biggest hit was “My Foolish Heart” which reached number six in 1950.
Eckstine arrived at Motown in May of 1965 recording seven singles and three long plays with his final recordings coming in late 1968.
Another artist from the distance past – Tony Martin’s heyday was from 1940 until 1957 when he placed 33 songs on the pop charts with 13 entering the Top 10. Martin came to Motown in late 1964 and recorded three singles for Berry’s label. I have often wondered whether or not Martin was accompanied by the “Funk Brothers”. Probably not…
The lovely Barbara McNair was – much like Leslie Uggams – primarily a theater and film actress. She did record however for many labels but never once entered the pop charts. He recording career commenced in 1957 and continued into the 1970’s. She arrived at Motown in the Winter of 1965 and recorded five singles up through 1968 and two long plays her last coming in 1969.
Connie came out of the Big Band Era – a vocalist with Tommy Dorsey and also the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra. She scored three moderate hits in 1948 and 1949. She was the voice on more than 200 big band recordings and in 1966 was a surprise artist for the Motown label releasing one single. She passed away in 2998 at the age of 87.
Christine a blind teenager attending Wilson Jr. High in Detroit, was a very lucky young teenager in Detroit back in 1966 – when she learned she had won a contest sponsored by Detroit radio station WKNR – with the prize being a recording session with none other than the Supremes! She went on to become a teacher in Dearborn working with impaired students. She was 13 years old when she won the recording session with the Supremes – a dream come true!
Wilson Jr High
The Donna Reed Show’s star was a recording veteran of 5 years before coming to Motown in May of 1967 releasing two singles. Paul began his professional career as a Mouseketeer when he was just ten years old. He would become “Jeff Stone” on the Donna Reed Show and his sister was actress Shelley Fabares – another singing star.
Paul enjoyed six hit recordings on the Colpix label with his biggest hit being “My Dad” number 6 in 1962. Paul formed a support group for child actors after his friend and fellow actor Rusty Hamer committed suicide. Rusty had portrayed the character “Rusty Williams” son of Danny Williams on “Make Room for Daddy”.
Milton Supman was nick named “Soup Bone” and later “Soup Sales” by his older brothers. He recorded several novelty records to no avail and released just one on Motown in January of 1969 a parody of “McArthur Park” – He was also awarded one Motown long play opportunity in 1969.
Joe Harnell was the band leader behind a great song in my opinion, “Fly Me To the Moon” which peaked at number 14 in 1963. It would be one of only two chart appearances for Harnell. He came out of Vaudeville and worked with so many famous artists including Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, and Marlene Dietrich. He wrote commercial jingles and directed the music for the “Mike Douglas Show”
Joe recorded two singles and one long play for Motown in late 1969.
Gordon was a violinist and concert master heading up the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and so he was readily available to release this single in March of 1971 – his only Motown appearance – Not sure who the “Motown Strings” were. Obviously studio musicians not receiving any notations with Motown.
Darin’s Motown appearance on the flagship label occurred not long before his death in December of 1973. Prior to giving Motown a try he had spent a couple of unproductive years with the “Direction” label where he scored only one very minor hit “Long Line Rider” (number 79).
At Motown he recorded about a dozen tracks with several being released posthumously including two long plays – the second being a memorial LP.
During his very short life Bobby managed 41 hit singles – including his monster number 1 hit “Mack the Knife” which peaked at number 1 for nine incredible weeks!
The Jerry Ross Symposium
Jerry Ross was a composer who recorded with Motown in the early 1970’s releasing one LP and and one 45. Ross was the producer behind several acts including Bobby Hebb on “Sunny”, Spanky and Our Gang on “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” and “Lazy Day”, Jay & the Techniques’ “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” and “Keep the Ball Rollin'”, Jerry Butler’s “Mr. Dream Merchant”, The Supremes with the Temptations doing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, “Venus” by the Shocking Blue, “Ma Belle Amie” by The Tee Set, and “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection.
Ross and his Symposium released many singles on the Colossus record label in 1970 and 1971 often recording tracks by the Colossus artists he produced. Ross was the founder of Colossus Records.
His Motown recordings were produced in New York City.
Irene “Granny” Ryan
One of the more peculiar artists to appear on the Motown label was Irene Ryan – co-star of the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV show which started up in 1962. She portrayed “Daisy Granny Moses”. Ryan started off her career in Vaudeville working with husband Tim Ryan. Irene went on to appear often on Bob Hope’s radio program.
She released one single on the Motown label in 1973.
Michel aligned himself with Motown performing his “Love Theme from Lady Sings The Blues” a film which starred Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in 1972. His Motown catalog consisted of a single 45.
The prolific composer scored dozens of motion pictures including “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, “The Thomas Crown Affair”, and “The Summer of 42”. Legrand secured many Academy Award nominations winning three.
Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons are one of the few acts signed by Motown – apparently well past their prime – who did go on to some additional impressive success. They recorded a handful of singles first for “Mowest” and then Motown from 1972 to 1974. A year after their final Motown tracks, they hit it big with “Who Loves You” – at number 3. Then followed up with a number one record (their fifth) “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”.
Stephen Cohn was a Los Angeles based composer who composed for a group called “The Pleasure Fair” who also recorded as “The Rainy Day People”. Cohn was primarily a composer of symphony music with his works recorded by symphonies around the world – He recorded one Motown LP in 1973 and released one single.
The Pat Boone Family
Pat Boone took a short sabbatical in September of 1974, releasing one single with his wife and daughters including Debbie Boone who a few years later would make her mark with her 10-week number one smash “You Light Up My Life” in 1977. Red Foley was Pat’s father-in-law and grandfather to the kids.
Pat Boone logged in 60 hit records during his career including six number 1’s and 26 Top 20 hits! He would be sign with Berry Gordy’s “Melodyland” label – which took on the name “Hitsville” after a lawsuit – Boone released at least three singles on Melodyland.
Perhaps predicting a victory over Muhammad Ali in the “Thrilla in Manila” which was only a couple of weeks distant when this Motown single was released – Motown provided the usually reserved Joe Frazier with the opportunity. Of course we no how that one turned out – and about a year later “Smokin’ Joe” hung up his gloves.
His Motown recording date was not his first. Prior to appearing on the label he released singles on the Capitol, Cloverlay, Knockout and Jobo record labels – all sporting fighting themes.
The “Ice Man” came to Motown after a very long and prosperous recording career first with the Impressions and then going solo with Vee Jay Records and more prominently on the Mercury record label.
As a solo act Jerry’s top three chart hits were “He Will Break Your Heart” in 1960 (number 7), “Moon River” in 1961 (number 11), and a number 4 hit with “Only the Strong Survive” in 1969. My personal Butler song was his pairing with Betty Everett in 1964 with their number 5 Hot 100 hit “Let It Be Me” – surpassing the Everly Brothers’ 1960 version which peaked at number 7.
Jerry released four singles with Motown his final being a duet with Thelma Houston in July of 1977. Only his second release “I Wanna Do It To You” managed to reach the Hot 100 at number 51. Jerry released three Motown LP’s – two solo and one with Houston.
Albert Finney came from England known for his roles in Shakespearean productions. How Albert came to Motown in the summer of 1977 is anyone’s guess – He recorded a full long play and a couple of 45’s were released – providing Finney with the opportunity to record jazz of which he was so fond.
Motown’s PR department were absolutely certain that the album would be a big hit and so invested in a first class promotional tour in the United States. It has been speculated that Motown had taken notice of fellow Brit Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” and its success and thought they could replicate the feat. It was not to be. Although Finney was not a musician – he did compose all of the tracks on the album.
After Billy Preston had migrated from the Beatles’ Apple Records in late 1970 and journeyed through A&M Records with nine charting singles and four charting long plays – he suddenly arrived at Motown in the late 1970’s. Unlike many of the others who took a shot with Hitsville, Preston would land three chart singles with Motown (and Tamla) with his biggest being a the very impressive “With You I’m Born Again” going all the way to number 4 (the song only reached number 86 on the R&B charts.
He also recorded two long plays with Motown – one teamed with Syreeta – and both managed to chart.
The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers (there were six of them performing with the family act over time). The Brothers placed 46 singles on the Hot 100 starting with 1959’s “Shout Part 1” (the song charted again in 1962 and was their second charting record). Their hits spanned over four decades. They departed Wand Records and experienced a four-year dry spell before coming on board with Motown – and being assigned to the Tamla label.
Their first effort “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” was their best effort reaching number 12 – and very identifiable as a “Holland, Dozier, Holland” composition and sparked by the “Funk Brothers” on instruments (love that song). They departed Motown in 1967 and about two years later elected to start up their own record label “T-Neck”. They would enjoy a long and productive run with their label and landing three big-time Top 10 singles “It’s Your Thing” – number 2 1969, “That Lady” – number 6, 1973 and “Fight The Power” – number 4 in 1975.
A Tamla LP with the same name as their hit charted nationally at only number 140.
Kiki Dee was born in Great Britain Pauline Matthews taking the name “Kiki Dee”. He brief appearance at Motown resulted in two singles – one which charted on the Motown subsidiary label “Rare Earth” – “Love Makes the World Go Round” (number 87). Kiki would soon depart for Rocket Records where she would enjoy three charting singles.
Early in her career Kiki provided backup vocals as a session singer and backed Dusty Springfield.