The sound of the 1960s is indelibly linked with the sounds of Motown Records. The energy and joy in the music kept Motown singles high on the charts, but they also addressed racial and political issues in their irresistible melodies. And those hundreds of hits that are still classics to this day are in part thanks to one man: Berry Gordy. When he created the Motown sound, he defined the youth culture in America. When he started his own record label to control the distribution of that sound, he created the largest black-owned business ever seen. But in his success, the FBI saw only one possibility: that Berry was connected to the Mafia. On this episode of Disgraceland, host Jake Brennan digs into the rumors that Motown was a mob front, telling us the exciting story of Motown’s rise; the infuriating and terrifying racism the stars faced, even as they were thrilling the nation with their music; and why the Feds wanted to bring Berry down.
In the 1950s, Berry was a small-time amateur boxer, but he realized that if he stayed in that game, he would always be dancing to someone else’s tune. He knew that most boxers were owned by Mafia members, instructed to throw matches to ensure a payday. “He made up his mind on the spot. He would work for no man; he would be his own boss.” But he also knew that songwriters and musicians didn’t actually make much money; the record label pulled in the real profits. So he borrowed $800 from his family to start his own. “Just enough for one pressing of one record to prove his pen, his ear, and his theories about the music industry,” Jake says. “Motown as Berry Gordy saw it wasn't black music and it wasn't white music. It was just music. Made by blacks, sure, but made for all of America.” It sounds idealistic, but it was good business, too; by serving both markets, he could expand his business more than twice over. “It was an audacious strategy and it only worked because of the vision, drive, discipline and talent of Berry Gordy.”
And boy, did it work: Berry’s recording studio, Hitsville USA, churned out chart-toppers as if from an assembly line. “In that first year alone, the label released 15 singles. Two years later, in 1961, they released 51. In 1963, they released 77. And this was not volume for the sake of volume. These were radio dominating hits, eventual classics,” from Smokey and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Little Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and the Temptations. “The sound of young America was born...achieved during a time of intense racial division in this country. And on a hunch that America, despite its divisions at the time, was ready for a different vision of itself.” It was an empire. But unbeknownst to Berry, he was under surveillance by the FBI. “This guy was dirty, had to be. How else could you explain his success?”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the FBI saw it this way; even as they were topping the charts with their irresistible hits, Martha Reeves was still held at gunpoint by a white cop in the South for going to the wrong bathroom. The Four Tops and the Temptations would patrol around venues with pistols, ready to defend themselves and each other against any racists who might want to run them out of town. Even at the very top, Berry was dealing with America’s race problem: “A black man fronting a black-owned business, a business he started with a loan from his black family...it can’t be the truth for some,” Jake says. “Just as Berry Gordy projected his post-racial vision of American through Motown’s music, much of America to this day still projects a regressive vision...a vision that a black man couldn’t possibly make it in America without the help of a white man.” Berry’s no angel, certainly, but the true disgrace, Jake says, lies with us. Find out the whole story of Motown, Berry Gordy, the one white man on Motown’s payroll, and more on this episode of Disgraceland.
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