Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit. From Berry Gordy and his remarkable vision to the Civil Rights movement, from the behind-the-scenes musicians, choreographers, and song writers to the most famous recording artists of the century, Andrea Davis Pinkney takes readers on a Rhythm Ride through the story of Motown.
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A Road Trip Through The Motown Sound
By Andrea Davis Pinkney
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2015 Andrea Davis Pinkney
All rights reserved.
A GREETING FROM THE GROOVE
YOU READY, CHILD? LET'S GO.
I've got my pulse on all the roads. And side streets. And avenues. And alleyways.
You see, I steer the beat. That's why they call me the Groove.
Because my uh-huh keeps us pumping on the way. So — uh-huh, I'm the one driving this Rhythm Ride. Make no mistake, kid. I'm not a man or a woman. I'm a guide. A tempo that keeps us on track.
Hey, put that road map away. We don't need it. I know this highway. I'm clear on where I'm going — and I sure know where I've been. When you've lasted as long as I have, you learn that yesterday sets the path to today. Our past shows us where we've come from and where we're heading. The truth of it is, the Groove has been at the wheel for the whole time. That's why nobody can run me off the road. I'm here to stay. And now, I'd like to take you on a drive.
Yeah, you. Sitting pretty. Taking in the whole view from your window.
Make sure you stay alert, 'cause this Rhythm Ride is a trip —and a story about cars and stars, and a sound. It's the journey of one man's dream. That man, Berry Gordy, Jr., was an unstoppable originator. This is the true tale of how he took kids from the street and turned them into celebrities. Our drive follows Berry's vision-come-to-life. Honey, you're about to see how Berry's company put pride on the flip side of prejudice, and came to be called the Sound of Young America.
As we get ready to roll, you need to know something about the Groove. I'm blacker than midnight. And proud of it.
I've been pumped, sung, shunned, loved, let loose, danced to, segregated, and celebrated. I've driven to the beat and through it.
I've been called some names, too. Some good names — "praise tempo" and "heart-and-soul harmony."
And other names that put some painful scratches on my shiny black vinyl — names like "race music" and "darkie sounds."
Yeah, I've seen good days and bad.
But I'm tough. I've got grit, deep down. I don't ever give up. I've stood the test of time.
Sweetie, before we get started, I need to warn you. There are happy places along this road and sad ones, too. Every time I take a kid on this ride, they come home changed. Different. Rhythm has a way of doing that. It stirs you up, then sets you down on higher ground.
You think you can handle it? Good.
Stick with the Groove.
Here we go.
On a Rhythm Ride.
To a place.
Called Motown.CHAPTER 2
THE MOTOR CITY
BUCKLE UP, BABY. SETTLE IN.
Our trip begins with Berry Gordy, Jr., a kid who always kept his motor running. Berry lived with his family in Detroit, Michigan. In the late 1920s, when he was born, Detroit was a boomtown for African Americans. "The Motor City" was what folks called the sidewalks and streets that wove together their community. Detroit's pulse got its beat from the Ford Motor Company, the automotive industry's biggest employer of black men and women, and the only company that had come to an agreement with the United Auto Workers that prohibited discrimination based on race or skin color.
When someone new came to town, they immediately went to Ford to get a job. If a child was born in Detroit, people joked that the baby bounced from Henry Ford Hospital to the Ford Motor Company assembly belt, where he or she would spend the rest of his or her days shaping fenders, tweaking headlights, or slapping car doors onto hot-off-the-line Model 59s.
Ford paid higher salaries than any other automotive company. At Ford, workers had the widest range of job opportunities. You could start as a welder and work your way up to foreman. There were many who took great pride in working at Ford and liked the camaraderie found on the assembly line.
But being employed by Ford wasn't all sparkling hubcaps and happy car horns. For some, making cars could be grueling. From morning to night, workers spent hours doing the same tasks again and again, with only two fifteen-minute breaks a day.
It went like this:
Stand ... snatch ... bend ... attach ...
Stand ... snatch ... bend ... attach ...
Also, the place was loud. It smelled like sweat and chrome polish. The bright lights made it hot. If you were lucky enough to be stationed near one of the small windows, there was no time to take even a quick look outside. For many folks, the paycheck made the long days and stale air bearable. But for others, it was tedious grunt work, not worth the money.
Berry's parents, Berry Gordy, Sr., and Bertha, owned a few successful businesses, which meant they didn't have to work for Ford. They were entrepreneurs who took pride in running their family establishments, and they taught their children the value of hard work.
Berry's father was a professional carpenter and plasterer. He also operated the Booker T. Washington General Store, his own grocery store named after the noted educator. And he was the owner of a local printing shop called Gordy Printing Shop.
Berry's mother cofounded the Friendship Mutual Life Insurance Company, a small business whose primary purpose was to provide affordable insurance policies to African American families.
As soon as the Gordy children were old enough to help their dad mix plaster or carry wood planks for his carpentry jobs, or stock shelves at their family grocery store, or hoist stacks of paper at the Gordy Printing Shop, or answer the phone at their mom's insurance company, they were put to work.
Berry's sisters, Loucye, Esther, Anna, and Gwen, and his brothers, Fuller, George, and Robert, went along with their family's way of doing things. They were focused students who brought home good grades and worked in their parents' establishments with little complaint.
Berry, Jr., the next-to-youngest child, wasn't like his siblings. He hated manual labor. He worked in his parents' businesses, but he did it with an attitude.
Berry didn't like how plastering got his hands dirty. Working with wood gave him splinters. Stacking cans of peas and piles of paper was boring.
Schoolwork for Berry was the same — misery.
When it came time for the Gordy kids to show their parents their report cards, Berry wasn't so eager to share what looked like a tribute to the fourth and sixth letters of the alphabet. Berry's parents weren't happy about his grades, but the Ds and Fs didn't come as a surprise to them, either.
Berry was a cutup in school and at home and was known as a troublemaker. When the teacher sat down at her desk, then couldn't get up because someone had smeared a puddle of glue on her chair, all eyes looked at Berry.
Or when a plastic worm floated in some unsuspecting student's noodle soup, the hungry kid would shout, "Gordy did this!" Berry's childhood motto was "No gag too big, no laugh too small."
But not everybody thought Berry's jokes were funny. He soon got a reputation as "Berry the bother."
And oh, was Berry's head big. He was shorter than even some of the girls in his grade but was the cockiest kid in school, with enough confidence to fill a hot-air balloon.
Even as a student who flunked most of his classes and spent lots of time in the principal's office for bad behavior, Berry was as ambitious as the rest of his family. He knew what it meant to be your own boss, and he knew he had a certain kind of smarts that would make him successful someday.
As we roll on, take a good look at this city, kid. It's pretty, right? And while you're looking, listen too, 'cause Detroit is a place that pulsates with possibility.CHAPTER 3
GLAD OUR WINDSHIELD IS CLEAN, CHILD.
Because, like Berry Gordy, we have lots to view up ahead.
Berry had several passions. He liked jazz, dancing, and boxing. And he loved making money.
By the time he was a teenager, he had claimed his family's entrepreneurial tradition the way a quick-fingered kid grabs on to a carousel's brass ring, slips it past his fattest knuckle, and enjoys the rest of the ride in style. Young Berry was shrewd. He kept working for his parents, but instead of grumbling about what a pain in the neck it was, he started to pay close attention to how his mother and father ran their companies, kept track of their earnings, and brought in new customers. When he was still a kid, Berry started to build his own small businesses. He borrowed some of his dad's lumber and constructed his own shoeshine stand.
In a bold move, he sold the Michigan Chronicle, an African American-themed newspaper, in Detroit's all-white neighborhoods. He believed that since white people often hung out in black nightclubs, they'd be interested in reading about African American culture.
This was Berry's first glimpse into what would become the hallmark of his fortune — offering black culture to white consumers. Berry's newspaper sales were successful. The venture showed young Berry that he had good instincts about what customers wanted.
Drawing on his interest in music, Berry came up with an idea to launch his own door-to-door singing business. He decided on the songs, promoted the service, and scheduled the appointments. He hired a friend to sing the songs.
Right away, Berry started to experience what it was like to bring in cash from an idea that he'd generated. This was a great feeling.
Soon Berry could be seen around town at dance halls and jazz clubs, where the money he'd earned flew from his wallet as fast as a flock of eager pigeons escape a coop.
Berry always managed to hold on to some of his earnings, though, so that he could pursue another one of his interests — amateur boxing at Detroit's Brewster Center, a hangout for tough teens who dared to go into the ring. Berry had been inspired by Joe Louis, a famous African American boxer, who in 1937 became the heavyweight champion of the world. Joe, known as the Brown Bomber, had learned to fight in Detroit. Joe was a national hero whose boxing had earned him big bucks. Berry wanted to be like Joe. He had the skill and the drive to do it, too. In 1945, when Berry was sixteen, he dropped out of school to spend all his time training to become a boxing champion. This was a big ambition for a teenager who was small for his age.
Berry was good in the ring. Strategic. Strong. A focused fighter. But his family had its doubts about his ability to become a champ. So did the other athletes who trained at Brewster. This made Berry even more determined. When he put on his boxing gloves, he focused on Joe Louis's successes. Over a period of years, Berry won ten out of fifteen professional fights and showed all the doubters and nonbelievers that he wasn't playing around. He was there to win.
While training at Brewster, boxers often listened to the radio that spilled its music into the training hall. The music made Berry eager to pursue his desire to write songs. When he wasn't training for a fight, Berry had a pen and notepad in his hands and was making up song lyrics. During his boxing career, Berry fought a guy named Jackie Wilson, a singer who shared Berry's dream of someday making it big in the music business.
One day at the boxing gym, Berry was tired, bruised, achy. It was August and hotter than the hinges on the devil's front door. Berry noticed two posters stuck on a pillar at the gym. One poster was an ad for an upcoming contest between musical bands. The other poster advertised a boxing match that was happening at the same time.
Berry stared at both posters. The fighters in the photo that advertised the boxing match looked worn out. They weren't much older than Berry, but they had old age written all over their faces.
The band leaders on the other poster were handsome and smiling, ready to impress their listeners.
For Berry, staring at the two posters was like gazing into a crystal ball that predicted what his future might hold. He didn't want to turn into a haggard, hiney-whipped fighter. He saw himself as a handsome dazzler, not a washed-up boxer. Even with his track record in the ring, it didn't take Berry long to decide to hang up his boxing gloves to pursue songwriting full time.
Berry figured that one way to attract more customers to his family's print shop would be through music. He wrote a one-minute commercial jingle for the Gordy Print Shop and recorded the song in the basement studio of a local disc jockey. The song worked. With just sixty seconds of catchy music and lyrics that stayed locked in people's minds, more folks in the neighborhood came into the Gordy Print Shop singing Berry's song.
They browsed the shelves of the store singing Berry's song.
They purchased their merchandise and left the shop singing Berry's song.
This encouraged Berry to write his first full-length song, "You Are Loved," a ballad that was inspired by the film actress Doris Day. He spent twenty-five dollars to get the song published so that he could send a copy of the sheet music to the film star with a letter. (Doris Day didn't write back to Berry, but forty-three years after he'd written the song, Doris was happy to accept an invitation to meet with Berry Gordy so that he could present her with a framed copy of "You Are Loved.")
In 1951, Berry left Detroit to serve as a soldier in the Korean War, a conflict between North and South Korea. The war began in June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. A few days later, President Harry S. Truman convinced the United Nations to send American military troops to the aid of South Korea.
Berry didn't want to go, but by law, he had to. He even tried to get out of serving by purposely flunking the IQ test they handed out at the military induction center. But too many of Berry's answers were correct, and he was forced to enlist.
After serving time in Korea, Berry returned to Detroit in 1953. Berry's father and his brother George loaned him money to open a record shop called 3-D Record Mart, which sat on the same block of buildings where the Booker T. Washington General Store and the Gordy Print Shop stood. Each of these buildings was owned by the Gordy family. Some people called the street they occupied "Gordy Strip."
Berry stocked the 3-D Record Mart shelves with mostly jazz recordings. He had come to love jazz during his days of hanging out in Detroit nightspots. But times had changed since then. Jazz wasn't as popular as rhythm and blues, a new form of music folks called R&B. On nights after closing up his record store, Berry sometimes passed groups of kids gathered on corners singing R&B under streetlights. This music's urban doo-wop spread its harmonies into the city streets, inviting neighbors to throw open their windows to let the doo-wops and croons fly into their living rooms.
It wasn't just the night owl neighbors who sang along with those kids. It seems every moth, lightning bug, and cricket joined the rhythm. They were no longer jamming to jazz. Their wings wanted to doo-wop.
Berry was forced to close his record store just two years after it opened. He learned that in business, it wasn't all about what Berry wanted. Success came with giving people what they wanted. By 1953, people grooved to rhythm and blues.
R&B was a soulful sound that put its arms around listeners and rocked them, sometimes gently, other times with a sure sway. It was popular in cities across America. But like many aspects of life in the United States, R&B wasn't free to roam where it pleased. This was a time in America when segregation laws prevented black students and white students from attending the same public schools. When drinking fountains and restaurants wore signs that said "Colored" and "Whites Only." When movie theaters and hotels didn't let black customers past the front door.
The same was true for R&B. Prejudice tried to keep it out. Hold it back. Limit its soul-rousing power. Rhythm and blues was called "race music" — songs meant only for black singers and black listeners.
As R&B's popularity started to spread, it was kids who first realized that the concept behind race music made no sense. Rhythm doesn't have a color — it just has a beat. And the blues, well, everybody gets the blues.
Berry understood the appeal of R&B. He started to like it as much as he enjoyed jazz, especially when he saw its potential to break free of the race music fence that was keeping rhythm and blues from reaching the largest possible audience.
Seems like our road just got wider somehow, doesn't it, child? That always happens in these parts of the Rhythm Ride. Maybe that's because right around now Berry decided that his route to making big money was through music.
Though he'd closed his record store, Berry's desire to succeed as a business owner in some aspect of music was as wide open as ever.
Excerpted from Rhythm Ride by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Copyright © 2015 Andrea Davis Pinkney. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Greeting from the Groove,
The Motor City,
Got a Job,
Dreaming Big for Eight Hundred Dollars,
The Motown Family,
My Mama Told Me,
The C Circuit,
Dancing in the Street,
The Funk Brothers,
Sunshine on a Cloudy Day,
The Sound of Young America,
What's Going On,
TCB, ABC, 1-2-3-4-5,
The Groove Goes On,
For Further Enjoyment,
About the Author,