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One Nation Under a Groove

The brief, shining moment of Motown—and America.

Wikimedia Commons


My dream was to become Frank Sinatra. I loved his phrasing, especially when he was very young and pure…. Now this is going to surprise you, but I also dug Dean Martin and especially Perry Como. —Marvin Gaye

It is one of the peculiar and penetrating gestures of “crossover” in American culture that Marvin Gaye could fantasize, in the 1960s, about being an Italian pop ballad singer, making four ballads-and-standards albums for Motown between 1961 and 1965, while Felix Cavaliere, the Italian lead singer of the Rascals, could fantasize about being a black soul singer with songs for Atlantic such as “Good Lovin’” (1966) and “Groovin’” (1967), which topped the R and B charts. But this fantasy-swapping-cum-mutual-admiration is an old business, more than a century old really, with blacks and Italians in music. The legendary guitarist Eddie Lang was born Salvatore Massaro and often recorded under the name of Blind Willie Dunn, as if he were a black country musician, while the bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini had no bigger admirers than Coleman Hawkins and Harry Carney. Little Richard called himself “the Bronze Liberace.” Considering the blatantly sexual nature of most popular American dance music—“we’re selling sex,” Paul Williams reminded his fellow Temptations as they donned their form-fitting trousers—it is not unreasonable to suppose that Gaye and Cavaliere were confessing to a kind of sexual envy of the other’s ethnic identity. A strange affair for two ethnic groups that never liked one another very well. The Detroit race riot of 1943, for example, was largely, though not exclusively, a conflict between blacks and Italians.

Throughout most of the 1950s, Italian male crooners and melodramatic operatic tenors ruled popular music: Julius La Rosa, Al Martino, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Mario Lanza, Frankie Laine, Jerry Vale, Perry Como. The reigning prince, of course, was Frank Sinatra. The ‘50s witnessed two major shifts in popular music: a movement away from the Tin Pan Alleytype popular songs of the Berlin-Gershwin-Arlen ilk to a music that was more obviously and overtly influenced (and mimicked) by black rhythm and blues; and a shift away from middle-aged or mature-sounding Italian male singers as the trendsetters in popular music to white Southerners, adolescent Jews, and blacks. This major ethnic shift in popular music had a profound impact on the culture at large.

By the early ‘60s there were still several Italian male singers who figured prominently as teen idols in the new music called rock ‘n’ roll: Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, Fabian, Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons, Joey Dinicola of Joey Dee and the Starliters, and Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts. Their success notwithstanding, none of them was the major force in pop music that the Italian singers in the ‘50s had been. Herein lies our tale: the two most successful of the Italian rock ‘n’ rollers of the early ‘60s, Frankie Valli and Bobby Darin, were the alpha and the omega of the shift in popular music. The Four Seasons recorded their first 3 million-selling hits for Vee Jay Records, a Chicago-based, largely rhythm and blues company owned by blacks, and Darin made his last album in 1972 for Motown Records, the most successful independent record company and the most successful black-owned business in American history. What follows, then, is the story of a great displacement in American popular culture.

Because the election of John F. Kennedy, for whom Sinatra campaigned ardently, was touted as a new beginning, the force with which the Sinatra film Ocean’s 11 announced the end of an era in 1960 is all the more striking. The ‘50s had been a strange decade for Sinatra, the years of his most profound defeats and his most startling triumphs. His Capitol records are now considered perhaps his best work; they certainly re-established him as king of the pop hill. He sold more records in the ‘50s than any other artist. He also became, after the death of Humphrey Bogart in 1957, the head of the Rat Pack, or the Clan, an influential nonconformist group of the Hollywood hip that included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Peter Lawford, Lauren Bacall, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joey Bishop, Billy Wilder, and Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (virtually Sinatra’s personal songwriters). It was a family of famous Hollywood playboys and playgirls, and of ethnic outcasts: Italians (Sinatra, Martin), Jews (Cahn, Bishop), blacks (Davis). Their inclusive exclusivity (No Squares, Finks, Mice, or Losers Need Apply!) was an ironic commentary on the racial bigotry, the exclusive inclusivity, of the Ku Klux Klan, whose victims were Italians, blacks, and Jews.

Still, despite their success and their power in the ‘50s, Sinatra and his cronies were witnessing their own demise. They found themselves too old to be hip any longer. The very inchoate structure of the youth culture that made Sinatra a pop success in the 1940s was mostly, though not entirely, made up of adolescent white girls (Shirley Temple’s mediocre 1942 film Miss Annie Rooney, in which she played a working-class teenager in love with big bands, revealed that teenaged girls were already a force as a popular music audience), and they were to declare him irrelevant by 1960. In 1958 Life magazine wrote that Sinatra was the “angry middle-aged man.”

Ocean’s 11, a misogynistic hallucination featuring the extended Rat Pack, tells the tale of eleven ex-World War II paratroopers who band together to rob five Las Vegas casinos. The film is actually the old-style masculine hipness’s paean to itself, but lacking energy and sincerity. Sinatra and his friends seem engaged in a last gasp, in a final assault of old-fashioned swing against the hedonistic decadence and nihilism of the new rock ‘n’ roll. These slightly overaged libertines decide to turn back the clock and become adventurers again, as they were in the Army. (It is a telling fantasy: Sinatra himself, and most of the Clan’s major players, including Martin and Lawford, never served in the Army, and it would have been impossible for Sammy Davis Jr., who did serve, to have been in the same outfit.)

The men gather around a pool table to discuss their plans for robbing Vegas, and a strange note of confession is sounded when Martin’s character criticizes the whole enterprise:

I like to swing like the rest of you guys, but you haven’t got a plan here, you’ve got a pipeload. This ain’t a combat team, it’s an alumni meeting…. Any of you liars want to claim you’re half the man you were in ‘45? Can you run as fast, can you think as fast, can you mix it up as good as you used to? Well, I sure can’t. And Danny, if you want to try to catch lightning in a bottle, you go ahead. But don’t try to catch yesterday. Old times are only good when you’ve had ‘em.

It is the film’s sincerest moment. And the threat that looms over Ocean’s 11, that aged the white hipsters of the ‘50s, from Mailer to Sinatra, from the Beat to the Pack, into a kind of bewildered establishment, was rock ‘n’ roll.

Sinatra’s film was partly a tribute to Las Vegas, where he has been one of the major figures since the ‘50s; and it suggested that Vegas, the gambling capital of America and the supposed bastion of Mafia money, was the last best hope for good music and good taste. There Tin Pan Alley pop music performers still reigned supreme. By 1970, however, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the most successful black rock ‘n’ roll teen act in the history of American popular music, gave their final performance as a group in Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel. Martin, Davis, and Sinatra were still playing Vegas, but so were Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Supremes without Ross. So much for the gambling capital holding out in the name of good taste and good music. Or, put another way, Tin Pan Alley and rock ‘n’ roll learned to lie down side by side. (In the early 1970s Sinatra had a success with Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” which suddenly sounded a great deal like Tin Pan Alley.)

Drawing by Vint Lawrence

In November 1957 an article by Sinatra appeared in a magazine called Western World, in which he juxtaposed the cool of jazz and the heat of rock by discussing the State Department-sponsored trips of jazzmen like trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to the Middle East and Europe. That Armstrong and Gillespie should be yoked together, when they represented to many minds, in 1957, including Armstrong’s, such different approaches to the art of improvisation, is a striking example of how acceptable and even respectable jazz had become, despite the fact that Charlie Parker’s highly publicized death due to drugs had occurred just two years earlier. Like Sinatra himself, this music had grown from its saloon origins to become representative of America:

And good or bad, [jazz] causes millions of people outside the United States to believe that we are by no means as crude, mysterious, or childish as our foreign policy or its representatives have more often than not caused them to believe. And for that reason alone we should treat it and its makers with constant respect and admiration. That aspect of it to which I contribute is also a considerable force for good in that tasteful songs and musically competent orchestral backgrounds, whether the words are understood or not, help keep the door open.

Sinatra’s defense of jazz (which, in the 1910s and 1920s, was called by many critics “crude, mysterious, and childish”) came at the expense of rock ‘n’ roll, which he called

the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in fact plain dirty—lyrics it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.

That obvious reference to Elvis Presley, Sinatra’s main rival in popular music from 1956 to the coming or the Beatles (Presley had fifteen No. 1 pop hits between 1956 and 1960), is not only over wrought, it is generated by conflicting urges. On the one hand, Sinatra uses the rhetoric of stigma and ridicule that historically had been used against Italians (“cretinous goons,” “most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious,” were common descriptions of Italian gangsters; “imbecilic reiterations” is reminiscent of the ridicule of Italian gestures and Pidgin English; even the “side-burned delinquent” conjures up the “greaseball” with olive oil in his hair). On the other hand, his overheated critical language is nearly identical to that used to discredit ragtime at the turn of the century, jazz in its early days in the ‘10s and ‘20s, and swing music of the ‘30s—all musics that overturned prevailing traditions in American popular music, that changed American popular dance and were rooted in African-American musical expression.

This was the conservative’s cry for standards (literally, in this case, as the body of “timeless” pop songs is called just that). Sinatra, the rebel against the Hollywood establishment, was defending its virtues and its values. But when Hollywood began making youth films and Presley films in the mid-’50s—in Blackboard Jungle and Jailhouse Rock two of the most famous such films, jazz was portrayed as virtually the property of “intellectuals,” “teachers,” “authority figures,” almost a reactionary art—it seemed no longer like a bulwark against the mass infantilism and the bad taste that was, according to its many contemporary critics, rock ‘n’ roll.

And there were other clouds gathering over Sinatra’s universe of hipness. In 1959 the television series “The Untouchables” appeared, much to the chagrin of Sinatra and many other Italians, who felt that the show was defaming in its depiction of Prohibition-era Italian gangsters. Also in 1959 the federal government was investigating payola in radio air play, which resulted in the downfall of one popular rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey, Alan Freed, but also in more insinuations about Italian gangsters in the pop music business. The Italian, and the loyal Italian family, became the subject of public scorn, cultural parody, and legal recrimination.

Also in 1959, in the city of Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr., age 30, was forming a record company called Motown. It was built at this early stage primarily on the singing and the songwriting strength of William “Smokey” Robinson, age 19, a 1957 graduate of Northern High School, and on Robinson’s group, the Matadors, whom Gordy renamed the Miracles. (Robinson would always hold a privileged position at Motown: in the 1960s he was the only performer who was permitted to write songs and produce recordings, and he was the only performer in the company’s history to become a corporate executive.) The establishment of Motown was the beginning of a new myth in popular culture.


Virtually no major company in American history, and surely no black company, was ever so identified as Motown as a family business, and as a “family” for its employees. Certainly no independent record company ever manipulated so skillfully its humble, homemade origins as a mark of its distinction, its success, its power as a symbol in American culture. “By the time we returned in the winter of 1960, Motown was firmly established and running very much like family. Loyalty, honesty, and obedience were demanded and often gladly given,” writes Mary Wilson of the Supremes in her autobiography, Dreamgirl. “Joining Motown was more like being adopted by a big loving family than being hired by a company,” writes Otis Williams of the Temptations in his auto-biography, Temptations. And Gordy adds his bit to this “family” business in his foreword to Motown Album, a scrapbook about the history of the record company meant to suggest an album of family photos:

Our loyalty to one another and to our goals was so strong that the only reasonable description of that energy was something beyond business and beyond contracts—it was the sticking together that only happens in families…. Though we did not coin the term ourselves, the “Motown Family” was not a description any of us took lightly. It was how other people described us, because it was the impression we gave other people. It doesn’t matter what really accounted for our being perceived as a family, but I can tell you we all believed that we were. We certainly fought and loved like one.

For Motown, the family myth resonated in two ways: first, it was particularly pleasing to blacks, for whom “family” and “unity” are nearly fetishistic affections and affectations, fraught with meanings generated by the memory of oppression; and second, it meant that Gordy was not merely a CEO, a boss, a leader, or even a visionary, but that he was a father, an older brother, an uncle, a coach, a teacher, a guardian, an authority figure motivated by something other than making money. This intense paternalism (Gordy’s favorite phrase to his sometimes disgruntled artists was “I’ll take care of you”) probably helped the company survive in its early years. And the bitterness expressed in interviews and books by some former Motown artists and employees was exacerbated by what some felt was a familial mask for hypocrisy.

Clearly a part of the family myth was established by the inescapable fact that the company was family-run. “Fuller, Esther, Anna, Loucye, George, Gwen, and Robert all worked at Motown along with Mother and Pop. You could find a Gordy lurking in practically every department,” writes Berry Gordy. “My own family was and is close,” writes Smokey Robinson in his autobiography, Inside My Life, “but I’d never seen anything like the Gordys…. The Gordys took care of business, but mainly they took care of each other.”

The paternalism of the early years, and the implicit sense of racial uplift and “community” fostered by the company’s need in a racist society to have an identity of virtue and a racial “commitment,” were responsible for the popular impression that Motown was not merely a privately owned enterprise, but some sort of loftier communal venture. Motown hired a number of blacks from the community during its stay in Detroit, and the company was integrated nearly from the beginning with Mike McLean as chief engineer, Al Abrams and Barney Ales in sales and promotion. (More white executives came on later, which caused tension both within the company and between Motown and the black community of Detroit.) For a time Gordy was able to manipulate his black and white audiences brilliantly with a “race company” that satisfied the nationalistic yearnings of blacks and an “assimilationist success story” that edified whites.

When Berry Gordy Sr., one of the many Southern blacks who came north during the Great Migration of the 1920s, moved his business from a rented location to his own building on the east side of Detroit, he named it the Booker T. Washington Grocery Store. He was paying tribute not only to one of the most important black leaders of the twentieth century, but also to a set of values and beliefs expressed far earlier in African-American history by such disparate nineteenth-century black leaders and writers as Paul Cuffe, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker. If there has been a myth of white American energy and enterprise that was generated by a history of national expansion, there has been a corresponding impulse toward black American nationhood built on the notions of black energy and self-sufficiency, an urge for separation partly stimulated by blacks’ history of segregation and partly by an urge for achievement; and that urge to achieve was itself partly fueled by America’s own preoccupation with success and partly by blacks’ need to disprove their perceived and storied inferiority.

Booker T. Washington, Gordy Sr.’s hero and the institution-builder around whom this urge to black nationhood has received its most ironic articulation, was in a sense never really a Southerner. In Up From Slavery (1901), he informed his readers that his models were Mrs. Viola Ruffner and General S. C. Armstrong, both white Northerners; and his accounts of his labors in a West Virginia salt mine, his supervision of Native American students at Hampton, and his teaching school back in West Virginia give his early life more of a Midwestern than a Southern flavor. When “Pops” Gordy called his establishment the Booker T. Washington Grocery Store, he was honoring Western and Northern qualities, those signatures of bourgeois rectitude—thrift, Yankee ingenuity, hard work, business acumen, ambition, and a willingness to do humble, menial work.

Few families practiced more fervently or more successfully the Washingtonian ethic of success than the Gordys. Gordy Sr.’s father was a highly successful businessman and landowner, and a meticulous record keeper in post-Civil War Georgia. When he died tragically in a storm, “Pops” continued in his father’s footsteps: “I always had money; I had money all the time,” he recalled in his oral autobiography. His success, in farming and in a produce and meat business, led to his being forced from Georgia: he had too much money for a black man in the South in those days to avoid coming to a bad end at the hands of jealous whites. In Detroit he worked as a plasterer, a grocer, and eventually a printer. He employed his eight children in his enterprises and taught them the Washingtonian virtues of petit bourgeois accomplishment. And this set the precedent for the family business at Motown.

Surprisingly for a family with such bourgeois aspirations, Berry Gordy Jr. wanted to be a professional boxing champion, a pursuit one would associate with the scion of a more economically depressed household. There were probably two major reasons for his boxing ambitions. First, Gordy was born in Detroit in 1929 and grew up during the era of Joe Louis, whose family came from Alabama to Detroit at roughly the same time as the Gordys. Louis was more than a boxer, more than a champion athlete: he was the personification of black triumph, a symbol of black assertion and achievement in an age when blacks experienced rigid segregation and were beginning to become restive about their degradation and disfranchisement, and when the heavyweight championship was the most coveted title in all of sports. Louis had to have been Gordy’s first hero, a homeboy who made impossibly good. Second, Gordy grew up during the Depression, when a greater number of boys from working-class, petit bourgeois, and bluecollar backgrounds (such as Barney Ross, whose father was also a merchant) went into boxing because it offered more money for success than other professional sports. And it was the only sport in which a black man might cash in big.

Gordy was a decent boxer as an amateur and a professional, but he fought in too light a weight classification—first as a bantamweight, later as a featherweight—to make much money. His failed boxing career appears to have affected him in that he quit school in the eleventh grade to box and never learned to read or write very well, which meant that his was an intuitive intelligence, something that stood him in good stead in the game of predicting hit records. And he learned that in any career the risks must be balanced by the rewards. He decided to gamble on music because the risks seemed more reasonable and the rewards more fulfilling, and eventually he came to epitomize both the “realistic” virtues of industry and tenacity espoused by Booker T. Washington and the “idealistic” possibility of an extravagant impact on American popular culture held out by the example of Joe Louis. After all, despite the nationalistic renderings given them by many blacks, both Louis, who was cheered by whites for beating white opponents and was an idol of World War II, and Washington, who ate dinner at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and extolled white examples for blacks, were essentially crossover heroes.

After an uneventful and unsatisfying stint in the Army, Gordy went through a series of jobs during the ‘50s that prepared him for his apotheosis as the head of his own recording company. He worked in the family’s print shop and with the family’s plastering business, doing back-breaking work. In 1953 he married Thelma Louise Coleman, and with a loan from the collective family fund and his Army discharge pay he started the 3-D Record Mart, a retail store that specialized in jazz records. “I was always a jazz lover,” Gordy said later. By now something of a hipster, Gordy had been hanging out in the jazz scene in Detroit and thought he could turn his passion into money. But in two years the store closed. Few Detroit blacks wanted to buy records by Charlie Parker or Lester Young; they preferred the rhythm and blues of Louis Jordan, Johnny Ace, Ivory Joe Hunter, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, and Faye Adams. Gordy must have remarked upon this trend.

After the store’s failure, he worked at Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant. His marriage was falling apart. He began to hang around the fringes of the R and B world, passing himself off as a songwriter. With the help of his sisters Anna and Gwen, who had secured the photography and cigarette concessions at the renowned Flame Show Bar, Gordy met some musicians, including Maurice King and Thomas “Beans” Bowles, both of whom would eventually work for Motown (along with other black Detroit night-club musicians such as the pianist Earl Van Dyke, the bassist James Jamerson, and the drummer Benny Benjamin), as well as managers, hustlers, nightclub owners, and other types who populated the subterrestrial world of black American popular music during the age of segregation.

In 1957 Gordy began writing songs for Jackie Wilson, another Detroit ex-fighter, “Mr. Excitement” as he was called on the chitlin circuit, who along with Clyde McPhatter came out of Billy Ward and his Dominoes, the most storied R and B voices of their time. Several of Gordy’s songs for Wilson, written between 1957 and 1959 with Tyran Carlo, a.k.a. Billy Davis, became major hits: “Reet Petite” (Gordy’s parody of Presley), “Lonely Teardrops,” “To Be Loved,” “I’ll Be Satisfied,” and “That’s Why I Love You So.” Gordy realized little money from these hits, as royalties for songwriters took a long time to appear, and in the free and easy world of R and B they were not likely to be paid completely. Moreover, Gordy did not publish his own tunes, which meant that he was at the mercy of the music publisher and the record company that Wilson recorded for.

Gordy met Raynoma Liles in 1958, a trained musician with perfect pitch who was to become his second wife. She pushed him into producing records—that is, into taking responsibility for a song’s arrangement, harmonies, mix, and the overall structure and presentation of a record. It was Gordy’s move to production that eventually led to a medium hit with Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” and a major hit with Barren Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the first song recorded at the Hitsville building on West Grand Boulevard and one of the first on his own label, Tamla. Gordy’s sister Anna had a label called Anna Records that died around 1960. In 1961, when Gwen, his other sister, married Harvey Fuqua, the former lead singer of the Moonglows and the man responsible for bringing Marvin Gaye to Detroit, he resurrected Anna’s company through his own, Harvey and Tri-Phi Records, forming Anna-Tri Phi. These companies were soon bought out by Berry Gordy. They provided him with the Spinners, Shorty Long, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and (probably most important) a singer named Lamont Anthony, who, under the name of Lamont Dozier, became part of the famous Holland, Dozier, and Holland songwriting team at Motown. Finally, the novice producer fastened on a teenage group, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, that could deliver his sound to a young audience. Motown was born.


Gordy had learned his lessons. At his job at the Ford plant, as Nelson George and others have pointed out, he was made aware of how production can be efficiently organized and automated for the highest quality. At Motown in the ‘60s, producers could write songs and songwriters could produce, but artists, both singers and session musicians, were not permitted to do either; and with this type of control Motown put out a highly consistent product. (It was in the 1970s, when the artist became both producer and writer, and the album became a “work,” that Motown faltered; and Gordy’s disagreements with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and the Jackson Five on this point were well known.)

Gordy probably also learned from the auto plant job that it was necessary to provide a series of attractive rewards and incentives for hard work, as well as an elaborate system of shaming for laziness, to keep his company going. A record company, like an auto company, requires an almost unbearable atmosphere of competition. Thus producers with hit records at Motown were given more studio time, and the others had to fight for what was left. The hottest songwriters were allowed to work with the hottest singers. This system produced an unprecedented ratio of hit records in relation to the number of records released.

Gordy was musically illiterate. He could neither play an instrument nor read music. Still, he possessed a remarkable sense of what constitutes a good pop-cum-R and B song, as both Raynoma Gordy Singleton and Smokey Robinson testify in their memoirs. Like many others who came into popular music at this time, he was, to use Alec Wilder’s pejorative term, an “amateur.” And what frightens the trained musician is the idea that an amateur can make music successfully by understanding music not as an art, or as a highly complex set of techniques, or as an elaboration of rules, but as a series of effects and gimmicks that can be manipulated by anyone with an ear and an imagination. For the traditionalists, the coining of people like Gordy represented a kind of deconstruction of popular music, its transformation into a contrivance and a strategy, a commodity assembled with no reverence for art or craft.

Gordy’s rules for songs were simple but effective: always use the present tense, never overdo the hook, make sure the song has a hummable melody (which means, make sure that it sounds like something the public has heard before). Like the young white songwriters and producers at the Brill Building—Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who churned out songs for groups and singers like the Drifters, the Coasters, the Shirelles, Ray Charles, and Ben E. King, and reorganized Tin Pan Alley through the overly orchestrated pop rhythm and blues of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, with what became known as the Brill Building Sound—Gordy did not write songs, he wrote records.

“Most Afro-Americans can’t sing pop,” said James Brown in his autobiography. “They may think they can, but they can’t.” While this may be true, it is almost equally true that if they cannot sing pop, they can be made to appear to sing it. Brown himself did this on early songs such as “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Try Me,” and “Prisoner of Love,” for he was surely no pop singer. If Brown’s songs make the pop charts, however, then what is pop? Is it merely a technique that can be mimicked by anyone, a set of conventions and gestures that can be adapted by anyone with a sense of what the market likes? Or does pop music have an aesthetic of its own? Among Motown’s singers, only Diana Ross had a truly “pop” voice, that is, a completely synthetic voice, but Gordy found ways to make many of his singers seem pop. He changed some singers, like Mary Wells, from R and B to pop by making their singing less strident and less rooted in the black gospel tradition. On Wells’s first record, “Bye Bye Baby,” which she wrote, her voice is hoarse and harsh (partly owing to the number of takes), with intense melismatic flourishes and shouts, the sort of vocal ornamentation that would please a black church audience. Once Smokey Robinson began to write for her, however, her style became softer, her voice relaxed and sweet, poignant and cute, and her lyrics adolescent.

Robinson’s songwriting was essential to Motown’s early success. He had a great ear for love lyrics that were familiar but not clichéd. But what made a great tune, say, out of the Temptations’ “My Girl” was the tension between its rather sentimental words and the late David Ruffin’s strong gospel-fueled voice, which threatens to break out of the song’s pop sensibility at any second. (Ruffin was, along with Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Motown’s most dramatic male voice.) Gordy, like the Brill composers, encouraged Robinson and his other songwriters to use this contrast. The idea was to give the pop audience a pop tune with a non-pop voice. Holland, Dozier, and Holland did this to great effect with their melodramatic, overwrought songs for the Four Tops.

Gordy also took advantage of his time: from the early ‘60s fascination with folk music, to the mid- and late-’60s quest to acknowledge the sources of popular music in urban electric blues and early forms of ‘50s doo-wop, R and B, and rockabilly, there was a search for authentication and authenticity in pop music despite (or perhaps because of) its contrivance and its falsity. This “authenticity” is a service that blacks have learned to provide for American popular culture, though what was really being authenticated was the separation of black music as “race records,” which was largely a political act to keep black music (and black artistic expression generally) popularly understood as a marginal phenomenon. Within a little more than a decade, however, the “authentic” music began, beneath the bourgeois and commercial pressures, to experience its own dilution and decadence, moving from a marginalized but artistically rigorous avant-gardism into an orthodoxy of mediocrity; and that, as much as anything, made Motown, and to a lesser degree its rivals Atlantic and Stax, a success.

In the 1960s the only other force in black American popular music that rivaled Motown as an authenticator was James Brown himself. As Bruce Tucker, co-author of Brown’s autobiography, points out, Brown was not a product of Stax, Atlantic, or Motown, but a sort of free-lance presence in black music in the ‘60s; and after 1965, when he became a pioneer in funk, or a kind of extremely rhythm-based, almost anti-song, riff like dance tune, he began to undermine Motown’s “crossover” influence through new groups like Sly and the Family Stone and through his influence on a wide variety of established black artists such as Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Herbie Hancock, and Motown’s own producer Norman Whitefield, who all began to formulate tunes in the studio based on musicians playing counterriffs on an improvised bass riff.

Without certain historical and technological changes Motown would never have been possible. The technological changes are easier to list: the transistor, the long-playing album (33 1/3; rpm), and the single (45 rpm), all of which were born in the late 1940s, and the emergence of television as a contraption of mass culture, which occurred in the 1950s. And Gordy had an uncanny feeling for the tinny-sounding car radio; he grasped that it was where most young people were first to hear new records. Motown records were always mixed to play well on car radios.

It is difficult to say whether these changes were the cause or the effect of the explosion of interest among the general public in music at that time, when it became ubiquitous through sound movies, radio, hi-fi, television, and the like, that is, once it became divorced from a live performance or occasion and could exist as a representation of itself. As Jacques Barzun has observed, music became “a passionate avocation” by 1950, a change in attitude that “amounts to a cultural revolution.” The effect of the invention of the transistor was similar to the later invention of the microchip: it made electronic appliances smaller and cheaper, particularly radios. And the growth of portable radios had an enormous impact on where music was heard, and on the courting habits of people who used radio music for those purposes.

The LP became the “adult” record of the market (in 1955 Columbia Records started its record club, geared to adults with LPS of pop, easy listening, jazz, and classical) and the industry’s best-selling format. But it was the 45 single that became the format for rock ‘n’ roll. It was not until the late 1950s, the time of the emergence of Motown, that the 78 rpm was phased out of the R and B market. This was an important event: black popular music and white popular music were now available in the same format, making crossover easier. (It was not until well into the ‘60s that these forms began to exploit the album format as an artistic concept and not simply as a repository of a few hit singles and a bunch of B sides.) And, again, there was television. It began the dissemination of the new youth and black popular musics, largely through shows such as Dick dark’s “American Bandstand,” which later spawned “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo,” shows that were essential to Motown’s success, as well as through such older variety shows as the “Ed Sullivan Show,” which gave an aura of respectability to the music and made it appear more mainstream. Television, moreover, was the kiss of death for jazz as a popular music. Because jazz was widely used as background music for TV shows in the 1950s, it became lodged in the public’s mind as incidental or programmatic music, or, worse, as mood music, with hardly a personality of its own. There were exceptions, of course, such as the cool jazz of Miles Davis and the Third Stream of Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and, for blacks particularly, the organ-sax-guitar soul jazz combos such as Jimmy Smith’s, Brother Jack McDuff’s, and Jimmy McGriff’s, or the hard, gospel-tinged bop of Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, But for the youth of America, and for many blacks, jazz became a staid establishment music.

The historical forces that made Motown possible are more complex. But the significance of one particular event seems clear. Just as Sinatra saw the election of John F, Kennedy in 1960 as something portentous, as a signification of a new era, because, as many have said, he felt that he was delivering a president to his friend Sam Giancana, who produced 200,000 votes for Kennedy in Chicago, so too, for vastly different reasons, did Gordy. As Raynoma Gordy writes in Berry, Me, & Motown: “It was an awe-inspiring time. JFK was new and fresh, young and exciting. So was his wife. And we [Berry and I] were all those things. I’d look at their picture in the paper and think how romantic they were. Like us.” At no time in their history did blacks feel more optimistic about the future than in 1960, when a young president’s rhetoric promised so much so richly, when a young black Southern preacher spoke so eloquently for a brave new humankind, when it was quite possible, at last, to think of entering the world of whites without going through the back door of the culture.


One of the best black swing bands—one of the best swing bands, period—was based at Detroit’s Greystone Ballroom from 1926 through 1941, although the glory years of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (Jean Goldkette’s booking agency gave the band its condescending name) were roughly from 1928 to 1934. The Greystone was probably “owned” by the Jewish-dominated Purple Gang, which controlled graft and bootleg booze in Prohibition-era Detroit, a key city in smuggling foreign liquor because of its proximity to the Canadian border. And the new hot black music called jazz, as the early careers of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Earl Mines can attest, became the central feature of the ambience of gangster-controlled nightclubs, to keep the patrons entertained and drinking. Led by circus drummer William McKinney and star trumpeter and arranger John Nesbitt, the Cotton Pickers became a particularly redoubtable band when Don Redman became musical director in 1927. And they built their reputation almost entirely in the Midwest.

It is one of the least recognized facts of American popular culture that the Midwest is responsible for most black popular music in America. From Scott Joplin to Roland Kirk, from Charlie Parker to Jimmy Rushing, from Curtis Mayfield to Sam Cooke, from Jimmy Blanton to Donny Hathaway, from the Isley Brothers to Brother Joe May, the Midwest is where jazz came in the 1920s when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong migrated to Chicago, where blues became a formalized twelve-bar musical pattern at the turn of the century in places like St. Louis and Evanston, where jazz redeveloped and redefined itself as swing in Kansas City in the 1930s, where Charlie Parker emerged from the Jay McShann band la reshape jazz in the ‘40s. Miles Davis of Illinois made jazz cool in the ‘50s, and Chuck Berry of Missouri reinvented rhythm and blues as a youth music. From Coleman Hawkins to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, from Joe Turner to Tina Turner, from Milt Jackson to Michael Jackson the Midwest has been an almost mythical (but little remarked upon) location for popular music. And its three principal musical cities have been Detroit, Chicago, and Kansas City.

From Detroit alone, after World War II, came Yusef Lateef, Thad, Hank, and Elvin Jones, Delia Reese, Little Willie John, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell Jackie Wilson, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Aretha Franklin, and Charles McPherson, as well as all of Motown Why did Detroit become such a postwar hothouse of musical talent? The answer is hard to pin down, but a part of it lies in the intense emphasis on musical education among Detroit’s blacks. It is commonly believed that blacks learn about music in their churches, and there is a considerable amount of truth to such a view; yet secular music education provides as much, if not more, training for blacks who seek a musical career as churches do. From the turn of the century, when E. Azalia Hackley, a black woman from Detroit trained as a soprano, adopted the musical education of black youth as her mission, to the instructorship of such storied black Detroit public school music teachers as Ernest Rodgers, Orville Lawrence, and James Tatum, Detroit’s black youth have been reared in a vibrani musical atmosphere in their public schools. The annual E. Azalia Hackley Program, featuring black composers and black classical performers, started in 1943 and has featured such noted black Detroit performers as Rogie Clark, Robert A. Harris, and Charles Coleman.

Consider this fact about Motown: the three major early groups of the company, the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Miracles, were put together and rehearsed at their high schools. They were not church groups. In fact, their members did not attend the same church, and in the various Molown memoirs there is little talk about the influence of the black church on the music. (Smokey Robinson prefers to note the influence of Sarah Vaughn. and Mary Wilson singles out the McGuire Sisters, Doris Day, and Patli Page.) Martha Reeves sang in her father’s church, but she also sang classical music in high school. Motown could not have happened without a strong public school music education program in Detroit, even if many of its performers were musically illiterate. Its session musicians, its arrangers, and often its producers were musically literate, and nearly all of them were trained in the public schools. The music of Motown, like black music in America more generally, has been equally a product of the sacred and the secular.

And there was, finally, another cultural circumstance without which Motown would not have been possible: a remarkable crossover rise in the interest in black music, particularly in postwar rhythm and blues. After the war, big bands were passé because they were no longer economically feasible; and the invention and growing popularity of the electric bass changed entirely how popular music was conceived, as contemporary popular dance music came to be built around the sonic phenomenon of this instrument. The decline of big bands and of the power of the Hollywood film in the face of television led to the breakup of the music entertainment industry. Tin Pan Alley composers and publishers in New York were no longer the powers behind the popular song. The major record labels (Columbia, RCA Victor, and Decca, soon to be MCA) were being challenged by small independent labels, or “indies.” Most R and B, as well as a good deal of early rock V roll and bebop and soul jazz, was recorded for indies. As Arnold Shaw has pointed out, in 1939 the top ten pop discs were made by only three companies, all of them in New York, whereas in 1959 thirty-nine companies, located in ten states, produced top ten records.

Gordy could think that his own R and B indie could become a pop force because of the success of black-owned Vee Jay Records in Chicago. Started in Gary, Indiana, in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, along with Vivian’s brother Clarence, who became the company’s top A and R (artist and repertoire) man or producer, Vee Jay became one of the most successful indies, and one of the most successful black businesses in American history. Among the artists in Vee Jay’s stable by 1961 were Jimmy Reed (“Ain’t That Loving You, Baby,’” “Honest I Do,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do”), Dec Clark (“Raindrops,” “Hey, Little Girl”), Jerry Butler and the Impressions (“For Your Precious Love”), the Dells (“Oh, What a Nite”), the Spaniels (“Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight”), and the El Dorados (“At My Front Door”); and it was to have the Four Seasons (“Sherry,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”), Betty Everett (“It’s in His Kiss”), the Beatles (“Do You Want To Know A Secret?,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You,” “Love Me Do,” “Twist and Shout,”), and Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl,” “Rainbow”).

Vee Jay also had a number of successful jazz and gospel acts, including several of the sidemen from Miles Davis’s mid-1950s quintet. Indeed, the company was generally more successful at pushing white acts and non-R and B and non-pop material than Motown. (Virtually every Motown excursion into things non-R and B or non-pup—the Melody label [country and western], Black Forum [spoken word, politically activist], Rare Earth [white rock], and Workshop Jazz—were aborted after small success.) But by 1966, when Motown was attaining the height of its glory, Vee Jay Records was going bankrupt: Ewarl Abner, its top executive, whose departure badly hurl the company, was, like Berry Gordy (for whom he would wind up working), an inveterate gambler, and notorious for keeping accounts in his head. From Vee Jay. however, Gordy learned that it was possible to run a black-owned record company that could have crossover appeal, that could get its records played on while radio stations. This desire not to restrict himself to a black market was the really revolutionary thing about Gordy’s Motown.

For the popularity of white covers (or imitations) of black rhythm and blues in the 1950s had conferred a mystique on the original black versions, which led many curious white teenagers to seek out the real thing. White teenagers were investigating black music. The cultural and economic consequences were large. These teens, with more expendable money than their parents had when they were teenagers, became a real presence in the mass market-place by the 1950s. And in the ‘60s, when the Beades, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and other British groups covered black tunes, including some Motown hits, the homage to the culture of another race was plain.

The music that was most likely to attract adventuresome kids, the music that the majors had white artists covering, was the work of the small independent label. By the time Gordy started Motown in 1959, he was not thinking, as many indie owners were, that having a white cover of their own R and B tunes was the ultimate mark of success. His idea was not only that Jobete—the Motown publishing catalog whose name was derived from the first two letters of the first names of his first three children—would be covered (which it was, to Gordy’s fabulous enrichment), but that Motown recordings would stand up as pop hits on their own. Gordy insisted that his performers themselves recommend the company’s songs to whites, and that they play at the better-paying white venues.

In this regard, the most remarkable album that the Supremes made was the The Supremes Sing Holland, Dozier, Holland, which appeared in 1967, on which the group sang the songs of their producers, who happened to be, at that time, the hottest songwriting team in America. A black pop group was legitimating the music of a black pop writing team, and HDH’S songs were legitimating the Supremes. Nothing quite like this had ever happened in American popular culture. To drive home the point, Motown released the next Supremes album four months later, The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart, on which the Supremes certified themselves as interpreters of the great songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the American musical theater, and tacitly certified their own songwriters as the equal of the American classics.

Gordy intended to cross over with the recordings of Mary Wells. He reasoned that a black woman would be less threatening to the white audience than a black man, especially in light of the intense sexuality of the “new” R and B and rock ‘n’ roll, Women were essential to the success of Motown: Raynoma Gordy as musician, singer, publicist, and song arranger; Maxine Powell, who gave up her own successful charm school and modeling business to tour with Motown acts between 1964 and 1970, and taught the singers how to walk, talk, and hold a microphone, and generally provided the acts with the groomed and polite presence that made it possible for them to cross over; Loucye Gordy, whose extraordinary bookkeeping and bill-collecting abilities kept Motown fiscally sound in the early years when record distributors were slow in paying and tours were not very profitable; Sylvia Moy, who resurrected Stevie Wonder; and Diana Ross, upon whose back Motown’s cross-over movement was built once Mary Wells flew the coop on her 21st birthday, after several No. 1 records, and was never heard from again. (Motown itself was a man’s world, however, and no women were ever given credit for producing records. Although the company has a woman president, it has not been the most hospitable place for women, as was cruelly demonstrated by the messy ouster and pathetic downfall of Florence Ballard, the founder of the Supremes and their lead singer until Gordy decreed that Ross had a more commercial voice.)

Gordy could think of the possibility of not restricting himself to just the black market because the period in which he shaped his vision was generally the age of cultural crossover for the American Negro. Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for Annie Allen, and Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award in 1952 for Invisible Man. James Baldwin established himself in the 1950s as the most popular black American writer of his day, his essays appearing in the highbrow magazines and his books on the best-seller lists. Sidney Pokier became a major film star, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun appeared in 1959. Jackie Robinson was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949, one year after the Supreme Court outlawed racially restrictive housing covenants and five years before it made “separate but equal” public schools illegal.

In the 1950s, in short, the Negro crossing over to the cultural mainstream had become a national phenomenon, replete with policies and icons. But for many blacks, crossing over also meant a new kind of activism, a keen sense of nationalistic community that expressed itself in the idea of integration not through noble endurance, but through a persistent acknowledgment of claims. In this respect the 1950s also marked the coming of age of the black urge to challenge white racist hegemony, to “purify” the American democratic vision. In 1954 the “colored” nations of Asia and Africa met in Bandung, Indonesia, to consider their role in a world in which European colonialism was being challenged, and the conference of so-called non-aligned or Third World nations became the model for the African-American nationalism that Malcolm X, former street hustler turned Muslim, used in one of his most famous speeches, the “Message to the Grassroots,” given in Detroit along-side one of Detroit’s most popular bourgeois black Christian preachers, Albert Cleague, in November 1963. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, just a few months after Emmet Till, a Chicago boy, was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman or asking her for a date.

Those were the years, then, in which America recognized, and cringed before, the social reality that would not hide itself anymore, before the reality of a miscegenated culture in which, beneath the mask of an inhuman racial etiquette where everyone supposedly was as separated as the twin beds in the bedroom of nearly every 1950s TV sitcom, there lurked an unquenchable thirst for mixing. And the “new” popular music helped to expose the false separation of America from itself, by revealing the culture’s essential fusion all the more inescapably.

In October 1962 the first Motown Revue left Detroit on a ten-week tour, with the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Contours, and others. The bus tour took them through the South and the Midwest during the height of the civil disobedience phase of the civil rights movement. In May 1961 the first Freedom Riders had left Washington D.C. on Trailways and Greyhound buses en route to New Orleans in an attempt to desegregate terminal rest rooms and eating facilities. The Freedom Riders were beaten, nearly killed, and jailed. The Motown Revue, with so many young blacks on board that it must have resembled a Freedom Tour to some while Southerners, was not greeted quite so harshly; but the Motown bus was shot at, and segregated facilities and uncivil treatment were common. In 1964, when Motown released Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” urban riots were becoming the sine qua non of black frustration. Few blacks accepted the song on its face, insisting that it was a metaphorical theme song for black unity and black revolu don. To Motown and Martha Reeves, of course, it was just another dance song. But the music and the history could not fail to conjoin.


The names Hitsville and Motown conjure up both the small town and the big city (Mo’ Town, a friend of mine suggests), and in some way they encapsulate the range of black experience and fantasy in the American metropolis; for blacks came to the major cities, to Midwestern cities like Detroit, with great hope, a little like the way that European immigrants came to America. Entering Hitsville, or the Motown Museum, located in the same two buildings on West Grand Boulevard where it all started, one is struck by how small the place is, nothing more than a boxlike residential home set oddly on a thoroughfare only a few blocks away from the Fisher Building, the General Motors Building, and the Henry Ford Hospital. But the smallness of Hitsville brings to mind the myth of the black family: we are reminded by the intimate residential nature of the building that Motown was a “family,” and we are reminded by its smallness of the cramped quarters in which blacks lived when they first came to cities like Detroit.

Within Hitsville, one comes upon the original recording equipment that was used to make all those hits, and one reflects that the machine was always a sign of hope, of liberation, for blacks, from the automobile and the machines that produced it, which, because of labor shortages, beckoned for black hands to operate them, to the camera, the television, and the radio, which, however waywardly, spread the image of blackness across the land and made the civil rights movement possible. It may be true, as the sociologists Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen have written, that “consumption is a social relationship, the dominant relationship in our society—one that makes it harder and harder for people to hold together, to create community.” Still, as a mode of both consumption and production, indeed as a stylization of both, Molown probably held blacks together better than virtually anything else in the black national community other than the demand for equal rights. That is what the words “Hitsville” and “Motown” signify, finally: a modern black urban community of hierarchically arranged talents, a community built on technology but not controlled by it, on the American bourgeois principles of consumption and production, and on the Washingtonian principles of casting down one’s buckets where one is. Motown was, for a time, the fulfillment of a philosophical and communal ideal.

Within the walls of Hitsville, through the photos and the clippings, the plaques and the album covers, one may piece together the history of the place. One is surprised to discover, for example, the number of people who have recorded something under contract to Motown: Ahmad Jamal, Sammy Davis Jr., Barbara McNair, Tony Martin, Pat Boone, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Langsion Hughes, Clarence Major, the Last Poets, Rick James, Willie Hutch, the Isley Brothers, José Feliciano, Albert Finney, Lynda Carter, Grover Washington Jr., Teena Marie, and Bonnie Pointer. George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic fame was once a staff song-writer for Motown, and Wallace Terry recorded portions of his book Bloods, about black soldiers in Vietnam, for Motown. One is equally surprised to recall that the company continued to be a major force in the 1970s, with artists such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye coming into their own and with new acts such as the Commodores (from which Lionel Richie sprang), the Jackson Five, and Thelma Houston. But it was nothing like the force it was in the 1960s.

Gordy relocated Motown to California in 1970 (it became official in 1972), a move necessitated by the company’s overwhelming success in the ‘60s and its desire to expand into the same lucrative areas of mass entertainment—original Broadway cast albums, Hollywood films and sound track albums, television production—as the major labels, all of whom are tied to larger mass entertainment conglomerates. That there is bitterness in the black community of Detroit because of Gordy’s departure, that there is a sense of abandonment, cannot be gainsaid even today, twenty years later. The sense of abandonment was exacerbated when Gordy sold Motown in 1988 to MCA for $61 million. (He still retains control over Jobete, the music publishing wing of Motown, the estimated worth of which is between $150 to $200 million.)

What Gordy left in Detroit was Hitsville. The building became a museum in 1987, and the state of Michigan made it a historical landmark in 1988. It is a combination tourist trap and institution of memory, a little like Graceland; and it operates upon the nostalgia that the merchants of popular culture strive to stimulate in nearly everyone about his or her (or somebody else’s) youth.

I visited the Motown Museum at the time of the Second Annual Tribute to Marvin Gave, called “What’s Going On?” It seemed to be the museum’s annual fund-raiser. The tribute was held at Clubland on April 2, Gaye’s birthday, but as Gaye was murdered by his father in 1984 on April 1, it was difficult to tell exactly what was being commemorated. Smokey Robinson flew in to host a fairly inept affair. First the winners of an essay contest were announced, a contest apparently open only to the senior class of Cass Technical High School (which Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C., did not attend). The topic was “What’s Going On … How Do We Make A Better Community, A Better World?” Just the sort of grandiose topic that provokes a gesture toward social relevance and political awareness even as it blunts the possibility of good writing or coherent thought.

The winners were all girls, which inclined some in the audience, I expect, to worry again Where Have All The Young Black Men Gone? Then the show staggered through the musical performances of acts that ranged from amateurish to boring. The Contours, the main act and an old-time Motown group, were the intriguing finale. The group performed their two major hits, “First I Look at The Purse” and “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)?” And they also performed a truncated history of ‘60s soul: “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “Soul Man.” There was something disheartening about this compression of cultural history into a parodie medley by tired, middle-aged men.

The most focused-on work by Gaye, that night as always, was What’s Going On, the 1971 album that Berry Gordy did not wish to release, thinking it to be, in the words of a true pop music mogul, “insufficiently commercial.” What’s Going On was probably the greatest, certainly the most storied, album that Motown ever issued. It was a series of striking and dramatic arias that constantly evoked the family, particularly the father. Through occasionally trite lyrics (conveniently printed on the gatelike album cover, as was the custom of the day, so that song-writers might appear to be poets), Gaye provided a black Christian vision of despair in a world of war, drug addiction, environmental abuse, and racism.

The album is a jeremiad. Gaye made no record like it before and none like it after, with the exception of some suggestion of pop political consciousness on his sound track LP Trouble Man and the very flawed In Our Lifetime. His music was otherwise consumed by sex, a direction that both distressed and delighted the singer throughout his career. (“Baby please don’t hesitate or I may have to masturbate” are the fade-out lyrics on “Sexual Healing,” his last hit single.) Yet What’s Going On is a perfectly realized piece, in which Gaye convincingly plays the role of the seer, even if his vision was partly drug-induced; there are reports that Gaye consumed “mountains of cocaine” in order to complete the album, and he was an admitted and longtime user of the drug.

On the cover of What’s Going On we see a well-dressed, bearded Gaye—the first time he was shown with a beard, a cogent dismissal of his hope to become a mainstream crooner—standing in the rain, apparently on the grounds of his home. There is a swing set in the background. He has a concerned, even troubled look, the look of a prophet. On the inner part of the album cover, the family is celebrated with a montage of scrapbook-like photos, in which the Christian vision and the vision of black unity seem to meld. The photos are all the more strange because Gaye’s home life, as a child in his father’s house and later as a married man, was generally miserable.

“Funny,” Gaye once said, “but of all the acts back then [the ‘60s], I thought Martha and the Vandellas came closest to really saying something. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but when they sang numbers like ‘Quicksand’ or ‘Wild One’ or ‘Nowhere to Run’ or “Dancing in the Street’ they captured a spirit that felt political to me. I liked that. I wondered to myself, With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” But when Gaye sang about politics, he was still singing about love. His Christian faith was always inflected by his hedonistic inclinations, by the sexual desire that seemed forever to overwhelm him. And David Ritz, Gaye’s biographer, is right to locate Gaye’s torment also in his hatred of a father (a minister who was a transvestite, a wife beater, and a child abuser, according to Ritz) whose love he desired, and in his unsuccessful or unfulfilling quest to find another. Harvey Fuqua was one father, and so was “Pops” Gordy (he once stopped Gaye from committing suicide), and so was Berry Gordy Jr. Gaye was never reconciled with his real father. There remained only the intense hatred of a father who wanted his drug-addicted son dead and a son who wanted his drunken, cruel father dead: another instance of the expense of black males through their own self-hatred.

That night in Hitsville the Gaye tribute thrived—to the extent that it did thrive—on the past, on a tiresome and increasingly stale evocation of it. It is hard to tell whether a record like What’s Going On lives today only as a consequence of our memory of its vitality. But the sentimentality about Motown is otherwise impossible to avoid. In Robert Townsend’s recent film The Five Heartbeats—about a group that seems to conflate ‘50s groups like Lee Andrews and the Hearts, the Marcels (a homage to black processed hair?), the Flamingoes, and the Ravens with ‘60s groups like the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Stylistics—the sentimentality is clumsy and almost unbearable. (The Dells, a group popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, were Townsend’s technical advisers.)

The film opens with the Townsend character fondly recalling the history of the group. Perhaps the need for memory is more acute now, when many blacks feel embattled and diminished. But this film is more an unconvincing tribute to black male bonding than a film about the music and tradition in the community. In the conflict between fathers and sons that drives the plot of the film, the fathers or authority figures are killed or forgotten in the end. The guys in the group never talk about other groups they admire or wish to emulate. And without an articulated bridge of artistic tradition in the black community, without this liaison between fathers and sons being stated explicitly, the film’s family reunion ending is worse than dishonest; it is utter and cruel deceit. Townsend’s film never locates real memory for blacks. It captures only the barest echo of the vitality of pop cultural memory or art. The only authenticity of this fictive family called the Five Heartbeats lies, alas, in its commercial power.

Perhaps Americans, black and white, are discomfited by our popular music because it seems to serve no great ends except to make money and to provide momentary diversion. Perhaps whites are discomfited because our popular music, from ragtime to New Jack Swing, has been called by slang terms derived from its rhythm (ragtime, swing, rhythm and blues, disco) or by slang terms for copulation (jazz and rock ‘n’ roll). Perhaps blacks are discomfited because they cannot find in the African-American origins of American music a high and lofty object, an aspiration to artistic greatness. American popular music thumbs its nose at the respectability of art while yearning for nothing but that respectability. This contradiction is the source of its strengths, and of its imbecility, its cheapness, its nonsense, its incivility, its disregard of taste.

But music has many objects, serves many ends. And the story of American popular music is the story of American democracy at its best and its worst, a full revelation (in Ralph Ellison’s words) of America’s “rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom” as well as its “inequalities and brutalities.” We have had nearly thirty-five years of integrated national experience in this country, and in that period the success of Motown stands as the most shining hour of the American black in popular culture. Visiting the Motown Museum, attending the Marvin Gaye Tribute, watching the Town send film, listening again to the records, one is struck by the extent to which the memory of Motown, and more generally of its era, may be holding American blacks together, as we are torn apart by centrifugal social and political forces that frighten us even as they may, in the long run, bless us. In the dangerous business of judging American popular art, certainly, it is difficult to tell what was Armageddon and what was just a passing fancy.