Detroit — Until recently, this motor town’s chief contributions to the American culture might be rated as dual headlights, the tailfin and the throb and rumble of hot V-8s.
But for the last year or so, the hot, hard-driving rhythms of Motown, a record company, have put Detroit on the music map.
The Supremes, three Negro girls who are Motown’s star performers, recently picked up a cool $100,000 in royalties — each — from record sales in the previous six months.
The Supremes dash around the country making personal appearances and taping TV shows, as well as recording. This summer they will play for one month at New York’s Copacabana.
In April, they and other Motown artists made a three-week tour of England, France and Germany.
The Liverpool Daily Post, The Beatles’ hometown paper, called the show “electric.” The paper said, “so far as rhythm and blues is concerned, these Detroit people most certainly have a superb stage act. By comparison, Britain’s pop singers look like garden party amateurs.”
In Hamburg, Germany, there the Supremes appeared on television, a newspaper gushed that they are “America’s sweetest girls” with “voices clear as bells” and who are “slim and supple like pussy willows.”
Diana Ross, lead singer, said “We almost got thrown in jail in Paris. We were taping a show for French television where we were supposed to sort of dance down the Champs Elysee, weaving in and out of traffic while we were lip-synching,” (synchronizing the movement of their lips to one of their recordings). “They wanted to arrest us for obstructing traffic,” she said.
The European reviewers loved Motown’s brand of bluesy pop singing with its faint gospel overtones, but the concert halls were only half-filled part of the time.
“When I’m traveling with my girls, I lose a lot of money,” boss Berry Gordy, Jr. told a Hamburger Abendblatt reporter.
But Gordy, 36-year-old former assembly line worker who is now one of America’s top pop record producers, was publicizing the fact that Motown is starting to distribute records in Europe.
A recent week in which company artists occupied eight of the top 55 spots in the best-selling 100 was described by a company spokesman as typical.
Motown Records one of the largest single producers
Motown Record Corp is currently the second largest producer of singles. It ranks right behind Capitol Records — which holds the US distribution rights for The Beatles.
Last year, Motown grossed about $10 million. In addition to its seven record labels — Tamla, Motown, Gordy, VIP, Soul, Melody and Jazz Workshop, it includes a talent management office, a sales corporation and a music publishing firm.
Motown owner Gordy, who once was a Golden Gloves boxer, built his company in a little over five years.
After borrowing some $700 from his family, he quit his $85-a-week job installing upholstery trim at the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Co and produced his first master recording, “Come To Me,” sung by Marvin Johnson.
A few hits later, singer Smokey Robinson, now at 25, the firm’s youngest vice president, urged Gordy to go it nationally on his own.
Unlike most companies which record on three-track tape, Motown uses custom-built machinery that records eight separate tracks at each session.
Producers and sound engineers can mix the eight in any proportion they want, creating special effects, overdubbing, distorting, emphasizing, for example, the insistent thump of the rhythm section, or suppressing the background strings, usually hired from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Practically all of Motown’s some 100 performers were born and reared in and around Detroit. Exceptions are singer Tony Martin, who joined Motown last fall, and Billy Eckstine, who after years of occasional recordings with different firms, recently signed an exclusive three-year contract.
Gordy commented that while he likes “to build talent,” it would be “uneconomical to turn down top talent that could benefit the company.”
Motown is still largely a Gordy family enterprise. Members of the family hold most of the stock and two of Gordy’s sisters are vice presidents. The administrative staff is about half white and half Negro. Almost all the artists are Negro.