Motown The Musical is the American dream story of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s journey from featherweight boxer to record label owner and heavyweight music mogul.
By Harvey Kubernik
The stage play recently concluded its Broadway run as both a critical and audience favorite and a commercial hit, having recouped its $18 million investment at the end of 2014.
Most recently, the First National Tour recouped its $8.5 million dollar capitalization cost in less than ten months on the road. On the heels of a successful run at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood this past June of 2015, a U.K. production is slated for spring 2016 and a return to Broadway for summer 2016. In 2014, Universal Music Enterprises issued a cast album soundtrack to the play.
The relationship between Berry Gordy’s Motown label and The Ed Sullivan Show made music and television history. Soon after the Supremes’ debut on Sullivan on December 1964, it was clear that showcasing the latest Motown releases on CBS-TV on Sunday nights (35 million viewers was average) was a way to expose the record company’s newest hits and boost the show’s ratings. Sullivan introduced nearly all the Motown acts including the Supremes, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson 5.
I learned how to play different type of roots on certain chords.”
~Brian Wilson to Harvey Kubernik, Bel-Air, 2007
On September 13, 2011, Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) and SOFA Entertainment released Motown Gold from The Ed Sullivan Show (2 DVDs), and, in celebration of the Temptations and the Supremes 50th Anniversary, The Best of The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show (1 DVD) and The Best of The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show (1 DVD). All three packages are packed with classic Motown bookings from The Ed Sullivan Show, taped live between 1964 and 1971, and are fully restored with never before released footage.
Motown performances on Sullivan were followed by a Monday morning sales spike and it was a perfect formula for mutual and commercial success. Berry Gordy’s dynamic sound aimed to appeal to America’s teenagers and with the Sullivan stage as the entry point for his incredible roster of talent, this show business marriage remained rock solid until the program left the airwaves. Ed Sullivan and his producer, Bob Precht, were especially proud of the history these two iconic American institutions forged together.
Andrew and Josh Solt, whose company, SOFA Entertainment, owns The Ed Sullivan Show library made the following statement in 2011 about their Motown collection.
“We are so pleased that after working on this project for many years, the definitive Motown on Ed Sullivan collection is now available to millions of fans who love the Motown sound. The Sullivan show featured more Motown artists than any other television show and now these timeless live performances can finally be enjoyed by fans of what many believe is the greatest music of the 60’s. A considerable amount of work has gone into making sure the sound and picture quality on the discs is optimal. We hope people will be dancing in the streets and in their living rooms when they push play on the Motown on Ed Sullivan DVD collection.
Andrew Solt’s other credits range from the 1979 TV special Heroes Of Rock And Roll and 1988 feature documentary Imagine: John Lennon to the 1991 Warner Brothers theatrical feature film This is Elvis to the 1995 TV documentary series The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll and 2006 home video Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows. SOFA Entertainment has produced approximately 400 programs for television and home video.
“Sullivan knew how to give a show that was for every generation that might be watching,” explained Andrew during a September 2011 phone interview. “If you look back, the show was such a launching pad for such great important iconic moments. Whether it’s Elvis or Bo Diddley in 1955. There was a show in November ’55 from Harlem with the DJ Doctor Jive. An R&B show. He was doing stuff that no one else did. He also had W.C. Handy, the father of the blues on in 1948.”
With a total of sixteen appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Best Of The Supremes collects some of the group’s greatest performances. Included in this DVD is their debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in December 1964, showcasing their No. 1 hit “Come See About Me.” Also featured are “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “Baby Love,” “Stop! In The Name of Love” and “The Happening.” And, for the first time on DVD, this collection includes a full version of “Up the Ladder to the Roof” which is the only appearance by the “New Supremes” after singer Diana Ross went on to pursue a solo career.
The Temptations began their musical life in Detroit in the early sixties. With their flashy suits, distinctive harmonies and precise, split-second choreography, they popularized a refined style of performance that made them a household name. On the DVD, you get the best of their Ed Sullivan Show performances.
The collection incorporates the group’s very first appearance in May 1967, in which they performed a medley of hits including “My Girl” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” Other songs included are the group’s No. 1 hit “I Can’t Get Next to You,” a playful version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” the Top Ten hit “Psychedelic Shack,” and the 1969 hit single “Runaway Child, Running Wild” with Dennis Edwards replacing David Ruffin.
~Mick Vranich, Detroit, 2009
In February of 1976, I interviewed the immortal Temptation member David Ruffin in Hollywood one afternoon for a Melody Maker profile when he was back on the charts with the prophetic “Walk Away From Love.” I first saw the group in 1966 at a taping of the television program, 9th Street West, when the Temptations were in Hollywood booked at The Trip club.
The bold and extremely confident Ruffin explained to me just why the Temptations’ catalog and their remarkable live shows changed the direction of R&B and pop music.
“The Temptations were individuals who happened to sing together. I never regretted any of the songs we did and even the choreography on stage has been widely copied. I liked the dancin’ part of that group. Then you couldn’t just stand there and sing. The audience was moving and you just reflected what was goin’ on. If anything, I’d like my association with the Temptations to be remembered as that we gave something. We helped young artists get in a position.”
In 2008, I talked to soul music legend Bobby Womack, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, about his late fifties and sixties encounters with David Ruffin.
“See me and David Ruffin of the Temptations were very close. From years ago when we were singing Gospel as teenagers, and they had this big talent show in Detroit with the Staple Singers, the Womack Brothers, and David was singing with a group Ollie and the Nightingales out of Memphis. He was only 13. But he had so much charisma. When he walked on stage… 30 years later we talked about it, ‘Man, you took that trophy from me.’
“I would follow Ruffin around. To make a long story short, he became the Temptations and the Temptations became David Ruffin. He would always treat me the same way but he’d add, ‘These guys don’t understand our relationship. They don’t know how long we’ve known each other.’ Then I became friends with all of them. He blew my mind at The Trip. And, he was a guy I said, ‘I’m gonna learn something if I can. What is it?’”
If you really want to see and hear additional evidence of what David Ruffin was stating, and Bobby Womack reinforced, a few years ago, David Peck’s Reelin’ In The Years Productions assembled and produced a series of wonderful multi-platinum Motown anthology DVD’s spotlighting television and live concert footage of the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Producer Peck incorporated complete performances, and not the usual sound bite or brief excerpts of licensed library we often just see on TV and inserted into film documentaries.
The DVD’s also include lengthy, informative and revealing liner notes by Toronto, Canada-based author and music historian Rob Bowman who, personally conducted interviews with surviving group members for a package supplemental audio track.
“It started with Marvin Gaye. Next were the Temptations. Otis Williams, an original member was still alive,” said Bowman, a professor of ethnomusicology at York University. “I was then flown in [from Canada] to do the interview with Smokey Robinson. It might have been close to four and a half or five hours.
“I do remember Smokey saying it was the longest interview he had ever done in his life. Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers were there, too. But Smokey was pretty dominant. Smokey went into depth on so much stuff. His repertoire pre-Motown, dance hops they played. He’s so articulate and his memory is so sharp. He wasn’t spinning off the usual stories on auto-pilot.
“Guitarist Marv Tarplin was so key to their sound as well as on the road. Smokey detailed his vast contributions. Marv is such a big part of it and Smokey really discussed Marv. I am always into making sure session musicians, co-writers, engineers and producers involved in the full creative process gets unpacked, if you will. Both David [Peck] and I have received many emails from people thanking us about the depth of my text and production of his DVD’s.”
The Motown-themed products from both SOFA/Universal Music Enterprises and Reelin’ In The Years both contain priceless clips and historic taped performances that underscore the legacy of the label and Berry Gordy, Jr., the man.
Although many factors and many individuals came together at Motown and the family foundation framework, Gordy was the enterprising genius who put all of the elements together into place.
He was born November 28, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan. The former boxer and assembly line worker, and veteran of the Korean War, Gordy, in 1955, ran a jazz record store, his first foray into the music business. Although the shop failed, Berry didn’t quit. He wrote songs, and got his first break when Jackie Wilson cut some of his tunes, including “Reet Petite,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” and “Lonely Teardrops.”
Gordy’s sisters Anna and Gwen, along with Billy Davis, started the Anna label, which achieved hit chart success with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” in early 1959. Gordy, who was involved with the Anna label, then launched the Tamla label. Motown itself, with Berry Gordy at the helm, soon followed.
Around 1970, Gordy moved the Motown operation, now a true entertainment complex and the largest black-owned corporation in the country, to Los Angeles, California.
Gordy eventually withdrew from the day-to-day operations, and, in 1988, he sold his brainchild to a major corporation, MCA. More recently the ownership of Motown master recordings shifted to the PolyGram group of companies, now called Universal Music Enterprises. Gordy is still involved with Jobete Music, the publishing company.
Warner Books published Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994. The title is taken from a song Gordy penned for “Mr. Excitement,” Jackie Wilson. An e-book title is now available.
Berry Gordy Interview
During 1994, I first interviewed Berry Gordy inside his Bel-Air mansion for HITS Magazine.
The legendary Ewart Abner, Gordy’s right hand man, a former President of Vee-Jay and Motown labels, greeted me and instructed me to set up my tape recorder. We were going to be videotaped as well for The Motown Museum in Detroit and Gordy’s own archives.
Harvey Kubernik: A lot people might not be aware that you had a life from age 18-29 before Motown even began. You talk about it in
the book. Auto plant, the 3D Record Mart, writing songs. A ten year period where being in the real world probably paid advantages later.
Berry Gordy: The real world. I learned a lot. If I hadn’t worked in the factory at Lincoln-Mercury I wouldn’t have had the assembly line idea. I wouldn’t have written a lot of songs. I wouldn’t have been locked into a place where I had to write a lot of thoughts I had. I saw what the real world was like and I saw what I wanted and what I didn’t want.
HK: Motown started with 45 RPM records. Then the album format, eventually 8-track tapes, cassettes and now compact discs. Were you personally impacted by the growth of the LP market?
BG: Now very much. We were about producing songs that were great. And so a lot of the producers who would be coming to our Friday morning meetings, they would say when the song wasn’t that great. “Oh, that’s an album tune. That’s just going on the album.” I’d say, “No. No. There are no album tunes. Every tune has to stand on its own.” We didn’t look at album tunes as such. We would pick tunes that were hits and that’s why they would go on albums and pull out a hit here, a hit there, you know? So it didn’t impact us that there were albums and we had departments and all that stuff. But as far as recording, unless there was a concept album and things like that, we would say there are no album tunes. We’d say that all the time.
HK: What about compact discs?
BG: They were cleaner. When we were first told about them we couldn’t get them. I mean, no one was manufacturing them, you’d have to wait, and it was a problem. And the cost was just incredible and you had to order so many before you even got them. We were just a small company and the CD manufacturers, and all these new things, were things that confused us more than anything else. Because we were about hit records and one record at a time and different producers were doing different things, so I don’t know a lot about how they affected me emotionally or stuff like that.
Actually, we made money on every new format that came out because it was a new configuration. So they’d buy all over again, whatever it was. Then you have software, that’s what it is now. That’s why Jobete is so important to us, because of the songs and its software. Whatever it is, a great song is a great song. That’s all it is. And whatever configuration comes, we don’t worry about the configuration. We worry about if we have the product. And that’s what we’re doing going into Jobete saying, ‘Hey, before we do anything else, let’s make sure we have great songs. Make sure these songs are still great. Let’s look at all the other 95 per cent of our songs.’
‘Cause there’s great songs that were great but they were produced wrong, or maybe the wrong singer, or maybe this or maybe that. But the quality is still there. So let’s look at all that. So that’s what we’re doing now and that’s fun. Because I started as a songwriter. I love songs, so you know, that’s a hobby.
HK: My current Motown and Jobete song and constant Northern Soul dance floor disc is the Supremes’ “Up The Ladder to the Roof” Diana Ross didn’t even sing on it.
BG: That was Jean Terrell. Frank Wilson was the producer! That’s one of those 95 per cent.
And so it wasn’t me that was the genius. If I was a genius of anything, it was bringing out the genius of others, because if they reach their potential then I had felt that maybe I could reach mine. So in bringing out the genius in others and finding it, sure, it was hard and tough, but your clues will tell you. And then, stopping them from focusing on other things other than what they’re doing.
HK: Berry. What was your first impression of Smokey Robinson?
BG: Well, Smokey Robinson, my first impression was he was great, a great poet, but he didn’t know how to really write songs, or put songs together. When he learned how to put stuff together and he really understood, Smokey was incredible. When I turned down his first 100 songs, he got more excited with every song. I said, “This guy has to be either crazy or one of the most special people I’ll ever meet.” He was incredible. He turned out to be one of the most special people I ever met.
HK: And with an angelic voice
BG: Oh, yes. Pure. And then, he got it and understood it. So now Smokey has succeeded at the cycle of success. It takes a lot of character, because you are tempted along the way. The cycle of success is a vicious cycle. It takes you into places. People offer you things never offered before. To succeed and be successful is tough so it takes a lot of character. You got to keep your same values. So Smokey has done that. The Four Tops have done that. And most of the Motown artists have it drilled into them and they were all very tight.
HK: Tell me about Marvin Gaye.
BG: The truest artist I’ve ever known. Whatever he was going through in his life he put on records. So if you want to know Marvin just listen to one of his records.
HK: Stevie Wonder?
BG: Innovative. The most innovative person that I’ve ever known. But also unique with his tones and his voice quality and all that. He was as close to genius, and I don’t like to use the word genius, you know. Marvin could have been a genius. I don’t like to throw it around, but Stevie is one of those kind of special, special, special people that had a sound, and he’s quick. He’s creative and he can make up something very quick.
HK: And he is involved in technological developments.
BG: That’s what I’m saying. Contraptions. He would take technology. He was the first in technology. He’s an innovator.
HK: Michael Jackson?
BG: Greatest entertainer in the world and one of the smartest people and businessmen in the world. He conducted his own career, basically. He knew what he wanted. And from nine years old he was a thinker. And I called him “Little Spongy,” because he was like a sponge and he learned from everybody.
He not only studied me, but he studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Marcel Marceau, Fred Astaire…Walt Disney. And he bought the Beatles’ catalog. Michael is nobody’s fool. Very bright. Very smart.
HK: The Holland, Dozier and Holland production and songwriting team?
BG: H-D-H was phenomenal. They came up with hit after hit. They started a thing. They had a lock on the Supremes and they took them, and did stuff on Marvin. H-D-H was absolutely brilliant. The three of them were different and they all complemented each other.
Eddie [Holland] did mostly vocals, Brian [Holland], I thought was the most talented, creative person. He was my protégé for many years. I thought Lamont [Dozier] was also a good writer, and he was good on backgrounds and this and that and so forth. But Brian would do something like he would play and sing and create something and all he would give ‘em was, like, ‘sugar pie honey bunch,’ and pass it on.
So they had their own assembly line. And they were tremendous.
HK: The producer and songwriter, Norman Whitfield?
BG: Norman to me was probably the most underrated of all the producers, because he was producing by himself. And he would deal with different sounds, different beats, change with the times and write his stuff, and also Barrett Strong would work with him as a writer on many of his things. Norman was innovative and he had fire. And he had a different kind of style. His beat was different and could go from “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” to “Just My Imagination.” He was sensitive and I think he could do so many different types of things. Then he’d come right back with “War” and then “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
He could take one chord, like on ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone,’ and play the same chord and do all these different beautiful melodies and things that many people could not really imagine this guy doin’. And I would watch him and he did it all by himself as a producer. He would work with five guys in the Temps and he would change leads on each one. He would pick the right lead for the right song, ya know, and he’d utilize all five of those leads in a song that was just incredible.
When I listen to ‘em today, now that I have time to listen to ‘em, I’m saying, ‘Wow! This guy was probably the most underrated producer we had.’
Shortly after my original interview with Gordy was published, Ewart Abner called, and thanked me for the coverage and gave me his phone number as well.
My dad Marshall telephoned me literally on the same day and asked, “Do you know a music guy named Ewart Abner? Works with Stevie Wonder and a lot of the people you must know about. I just had lunch with him at the Rangoon Racquet Club in Beverly Hills.” “Yes!” The stock broker then replied, “I guess you must be doing something right.”
I later interviewed radio and television personality Dick Clark and asked him about Ewart Abner, who recently died.
“Ewart’s contributions were overlooked… Abner was one of the unsung heroes of music. He was one of the most extraordinarily imaginative, colorful, pacifistic men. He was there during the days of integration, helping to bring that about. He could bring people together. That was his great role. He could spot talent. [Abner started Chance Records with Art Sheridan, which had hits with the Moonglows and the Flamingos. Ewart later oversaw the first American release of the Beatles on Vee-Jay.]
“I mean, as late as a couple of weeks ago, before he passed, I was irate about something. We were working on a project together with Berry and some other people. And Abner was my point man for Berry. I was ready to throw in the towel. ‘I can’t put up with this anymore…’ He said, ‘Let me call you back.’ 20 minutes later he calls me back, ‘Let’s talk about this now that you’re over this.’ Isn’t this really the logical way? He got me around to where I knew I’d get eventually. He was able to take me like a big brother and say, ‘Come on, let’s get on with it.’ And he did that with everybody.”
During April 2014, Harvey Kubernik’s book, Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 was published by Santa Monica Press.
Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik wrote the text for photographer Guy Webster’s debut book for Insight Editions published in November 2014. Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the Lens of Guy Webster. Introduction by Brian Wilson). In April 2015, Big Shots won the Benjamin Franklin Award Gold Medal award in Art & Photography from the Independent Book Publishing Association. In May 2015, the book garnered the Independent Publisher Award Bronze Medal in the category of Photography.
In February 2014, Harvey Kubernik’s book It Was Fifty Years Ago Today The Beatles Invade American and Hollywood, was published by Other World Cottage Industries.
During 2014, BackBeat Books in the U.S. and Omnibus in the U.K. published Harvey Kubernik’s book on Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows.
In November 2015, BackBeat Books (U.S.) and Omnibus (U.K.) will be publishing Harvey’s book on Neil Young, Heart of Gold.