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Berry Gordy’s Motown Records still flying high (1971)

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Motown without parallel

by Robert Hilburn

Berry Gordy, the man behind Motown Records, placed the first pressing of the new Diana Ross recording on the turntable in his dimly lit office here and settled back in his chair to let his musical instincts, which have been spectacularly correct over the years, work for him yet another time.

Gordy, his eyes closed, concentrated on the sounds of the orchestra and, most importantly, Miss Ross’ voice — the voice that as lead singer for the Supremes helped turn Gordy from a promising young record man in Detroit into one of the titans of the record industry.

It’s been a dozen years now since Gordy, who had already written a few hits (including “Money” and “Lonely Teardrops”) and produced some records for other companies, borrowed $800 from his family to start his own label. Frustrated in previous dealings with record executives, Gordy had some special ideas about artist-management relationships that he wanted to pursue with his new company.

Success since Smokey

Since his first million-seller (Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around”), Motown has established a track record that is without parallel in the music business. No one has turned out as high a percentage of hits (nearly 80 percent in 1970) as Motown and no one has been able to weave so successful a publishing-recording-management complex as Motown.

In building Motown, Gordy found and developed such artists as Diana Ross, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Edwin Starr, Junior Walker — and youngest but far from least, The Jackson Five.

A key to Motown’s success has been the personal supervision Gordy has given to the artists on the label and the Motown product. The company’s growth has been rapid but it has not been so fast that Gordy has lost personal control. He has resisted the temptations to sell Motown for a huge profit or to turn over the reigns of leadership to someone else while he merely enjoyed the luxury of his early profits.

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The Temptations - 1960s 1970s

Thus, in 1971, Gordy is still making records. The instincts are still working.

Two Motown products — the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — have been No 1 and 2 on the national sales charts.

But Gordy and Motown also have some new targets. It is because of those targets — motion pictures and television — that Gordy has brought Motown to Los Angeles.

As the Diana Ross record spins, a couple of associates sit near Gordy, waiting like court secretaries for the judge’s verdict.

“I think Diana is oversinging,” Gordy says as the record ends. “When you have a talented performer like Diana, she can almost be too good. I think we’ll have to do the vocal again. She always puts her heart into her work. She won’t like it when I tell her about the record, but she’s always open-minded. She’ll go back into the studio and really work hard. This is one of the things about Diana that makes her a superstar.”

Berry Gordy Jr and the Supremes studio portrait, 1965, USA. Clockwise from top Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard.

Berry Gordy and Diana Ross

The close Gordy-Ross relationship has, of course, been an important part of the Motown story. With Miss Ross’ continuing success, it is only natural, perhaps, that Gordy, still following those instincts, is sticking close to her as he moves slowly but surely into new areas of entertainment.

1971-michael-jackson-motownMiss Ross is the star of Motown’s first self-produced television show, which aired Sunday, April 18, and will star in Motown’s first major motion picture, a $5 million budget production of blues singer Billie Holiday’s life.

The point of the television special and other Motown production ventures is not merely to build Motown artists and songs, Motown Vice President Michael Roshkind points out. Motown is out to establish itself in these new areas, thus the quality of the show is of chief concern.

“There is no area in the whole broad spectrum of the entertainment business that we are not at least prepared to probe,” says Roshkind. “We probed into television a little by co-producing a couple of shows, now we’re into television whole hog. We probed in motion pictures and now we’re moving into that area.”

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Top photo: Berry Gordy and The Supremes – Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard in 1965, by Gilles Petard; Photo 4: Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5 in 1971

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