Motown’s blueprint for pop excellence is still unbeaten
The sounds of Motown took over the White House as a part of the administration’s ongoing effort to celebrate Black History Month. But hours before President Obama introduced Natasha Bedingfield, Sheryl Crow, Jamie Foxx, Ledisi, Seal, Jordin Sparks, and the incomparable Stevie Wonder, for the Sounds of Motown concert in the East room of the White House there was a smaller gathering for a special group of students hosted by the first lady.
Nearly 100 students from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Los Angeles, were welcomed into the White House State Dining Room, not only for the opportunity to meet Michelle Obama , but a history lesson on the birth of a movement. The Motown movement, and the teachers during this lesson were none other than Motown’s founder Berry Gordy, legendary singer and songwriter Smokie Robinson, and John Legend.
“This is the people’s house,” the first lady said as she opened the program for the students. “We are so proud to share Motown’s story as we celebrate black history month.” What followed was nearly an hour long trip down memory lane lead by Bob Santelli, the Executive Director of the Grammy Museum. Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson traded stories back and forth as if they were in the living room of one of their homes reminiscing old times. Gordy recalled boxer Joe Louis’s historic defeat of Germany’s Max Shemelling as a light that went off in his world.
“He was a hero to the world and he looked black like me,” stated Gordy. He continued to tell the students that he then thought to himself, “What can I do to make this many people feel good?” While he initially went into boxing, Gordy went on and tried his hand at entertainment to in his words, “Make some music, make some money, and meet some girls.” Tons of number one songs, chart topping groups, and even several movies later — Motown’s legacy returned much more than the sum of $800 he borrowed to start the Detroit based venture.
Smokey Robinson showered Gordy with praise in his remarks. “I have to say that I was lucky to have a Berry Gordy,” he beamed as he provided context to the talent pool that was within a five block radius of his home. “I lived near the Temptations, the Supremes. “I remember the first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing in a home not far from mine,” Robinson recollected. He went on to tell the students in the room that he believed that there was talent similar to what was in his Detroit neighborhood in every township. “But every town didn’t have a Berry Gordy.”
This was a point that was lost on many of the high school students who asked honest questions about perseverance and getting discovered. In truth, it is a reality that is lost on most of the recording business today. Despite many of Gordy’s critics, who over the years challenged his business ethics and treatment of artists, he perfected an art that current label execs have long abandoned; the development of whole artists.During the White House event, there was a great deal of focus placed on the creation of the legendary “Motown sound”. However, there was a Motown “machine” that was critical to the success of that generations artists long after the reign of the Motown dynasty was over.
Gordy understood that the singing ability and stage presence of his artist was only one piece of the puzzle. He wanted to develop and polish amazing men and women that could, as Smokey stated during his presentation, “dine with kings and queens.”
Looking at the artist during that day was as easy on the eyes as the music was on the ears. Motown artists were not just trendy, they possessed an air of class. When they conducted interviews or were seen in the street, they spoke with poise and clarity, connecting with everyone from the hood to the uptown high-rises.
Gordy and Motown put all their artists through a rigorous etiquette training process that prepared them to take on a world that often thought all black artists could do was sign and dance. It was a commitment to what anyone who was black prior to integration knew was a mandate and not an option. That was simply excellence. Few can argue the work ethic of today’s artists, who manage grueling schedules of studio time, performances, appearances, and preparation. However, few artist in today’s industry make it in life because of investment from their label or management. It is all about the bottom line.
As we look at artist who continue to get locked up, exhibit honest and even constructed ignorance, fail to evolve personally, and in the midst of it all don’t seem to care, we have to ask why. Why should they, is the real question. Who is mandating excellence in this social or entertainment climate? More important, who is modeling and teaching excellence to young people in America’s communities? The same communities that these artist and entertainers come from. Fault can not be laid at the doorstep of any one group or individual, but the question remains why record labels in 2011 fail to recognize the need for artist development similar to that of the Motown days. Many in the industry view these artists as slaves. This is wrong for the industry and ultimately for all the communities that consume its products.
Motown was not perfect, but it dedicated itself to putting out not just the hottest product, but the best product. It is not time to recreate a sound or style that is classic, but dated. Today’s artists should create music that has a superior level of integrity and style. However, the moment that experience and style prevents you from becoming the best you can and evolving to the next level, is the moment it becomes slavery.
Labels should be challenged to make at least small investments in artist development. Communities should grow tired of seeing bright young people go broke or crazy after their stardom fades because they don’t know how to be men and women, only entertainers. This was the legacy that Motown left the world beyond its music. It created statesmen and women, that the community continues to honor and applaud without a new album. When Stevie, Gladys and Smokey show up, it puts a smile on your face. And it is It is more than the music, it is an acknowledgment that the woman or man that is signing singing makes you proud.
That is why the White House event celebrating Motown was so important. It celebrated not only a cultural expression, but a cultural value that all of us regardless of race or age need to remember and embrace. Excellence.